Is The Authorship of Isaiah Really in Question? Expert Insights

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Traditionally, the book of Isaiah has been ascribed to a prophet serving Israel between 740 and 700 B.C. However, in the past couple of centuries—with the development of schools of biblical criticism—this traditional belief has been questioned and denied. Biblical criticism essentially consists in the application of certain evaluation techniques to biblical writings. The Bible and other ancient writings are often examined in order to establish, as far as possible, the wording of the original texts, the manner, and date of their composition, their sources, their authorship, and so forth.

To Latter-day Saints, an examination of this kind does not usually present any immediate problems, since we believe that the Bible has not necessarily come down to us in its original form. (A of F 8.) For some Christians and Jews, however, the idea that the Bible is anything besides “the unchanged word of God” presents a major theological problem because of the orthodox belief that the Hebrew and Greek portions of the Biblical text, as we have them today, appear exactly as originally written. Recently, other Christians and Jews, especially those with more liberal religious backgrounds, have questioned the historical origins and prophetic values of the Bible.

As early as the twelfth century A.D., a Jewish commentator on the Old Testament, Ibn Ezra, challenged some biblical teachings and ideas, particularly the authorship of Isaiah, saying that the latter section of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) was not the work of Isaiah, but of some other man living a century and a half later during the Babylonian captivity.

This idea remained relatively undeveloped until the late 1700s when new critical attitudes surfaced as a product of the “Age of Reason.” In about 1780, J. G. Eichhorn held that chapters 40-66 were the work of persons other than Isaiah, thus creating the idea of a “Second Isaiah” or “Deutero-Isaiah.” By 1888 some scholars asserted that the last eleven chapters (56-66) were written by an individual or school of writers known as “Third Isaiah” or “Trito-Isaiah.”

During the past two centuries, so many scholars have questioned the Bible’s validity, and particularly Isaiah’s work, that now there are a wide variety of different theories regarding the date and authorship of Isaiah, with many scholars disagreeing vigorously among themselves.

As stated above, Latter-day Saint theology teaches that, in fact, the Biblical text is not absolutely correct, and therefore the work of the critics to discover the nature of the original texts has only served to demonstrate scholastically what we know by revelation—the Bible is not perfect. Unfortunately, however, this is not all that Bible critics have done.

As various schools of criticism developed, many theories also developed that deny the Bible’s inspired authorship. Therefore, while Latter-day Saints may find certain aspects and findings of biblical criticism valuable, they must reject others in order to maintain that the Bible, though imperfect, is still the word of God as revealed to his prophets and other inspired writers such as the psalmists, poets, and scribes.

Critical Views of Isaiah and Modern Comparisons

In order to appreciate how scholars most often evaluate Isaiah’s book, a brief overview of their major arguments about the authorship of Isaiah will be helpful. Also, a brief evaluation of modern prophets and their writings will provide a helpful point of reference for comparison in relation to Isaiah and his book.

Bible critics who advocate the composite authorship theory usually mention one of four reasons for their theory:

  1. Varied historical perspectives,
  2. Changing theological emphasis,
  3. Contrasting literary style, and
  4. Shifting vocabulary and grammar patterns as supported by computer analysis.

Each of these arguments for composite authorship will be discussed in turn.

Varied Historical Perspectives

While Isaiah 1-39 is addressed to the Israelites and other nations of the Middle East during Isaiah’s time, chapters 40-66 deal with later periods. These later chapters mention specific events and people (for example, King Cyrus of Persia [Isa. 44-45]) that did not exist until centuries after Isaiah.

Since the historical critics hold that no individual can foretell the future, they believe that these chapters must have been written by someone contemporary with or later than the persons and events described. For them, a prophet is always a “man of his own time” who does not speak to later generations; the pronouncements he gives can be applied only to people in his own day. The historical critics usually employ one of four methods to discount prophecy:

  1. They reject the situation (time, place, etc.) recorded in the Bible and place the prophecy in a situation close enough to the time of the event that the predictive element need not exist;
  2. They interpret the prophecy so that the prediction disappears or becomes so vague as to be useless;
  3. They treat the prophecy as a literary device used by a contemporary or successor of the described events to speak with the authority of a prophetic voice as if from the distant past; or
  4. They insist that later editors of Isaiah’s works must have brought them into their present form and have in the process added the information that now appears to be prophetic. (Allis, The Unity of Isaiah, pp. 4, 20.)

This argument strikes at the foundation of God’s relationship with people on this earth, his revelation, and prophecy. God’s revelations to prophets can include prophecies that no mortal power could produce. (See MD, p. 547.) As seers, prophets can reveal the truth and knowledge of things as they were, are, and will be. (D&C 93:24.) The Book of Mormon provides numerous examples of prophecies that were delivered centuries before they were fulfilled. (2 Ne. 26:63 Ne. 1:4Morm. 1:19Ether 3:25-26; TG “Prophecy.”)

When Christ appeared in America, he quoted from Isaiah and stressed Isaiah’s prophetic insights. He quoted most of Isaiah 52 and all of Isaiah 54, ascribing them to Isaiah. (3 Ne. 16, 20-22.) Some critics argue that Jesus of Nazareth may have been unaware that someone else wrote the last part of Isaiah when he quoted from his writings. (See Luke 4:18-19.) But certainly, the resurrected Lord, who had by this time received a fulness of knowledge, would not be deceived. (D&C 93:12-173 Ne. 12:48.) He knew who wrote Isaiah 52 and 54 and called the author by name. He also realized the large scope of Isaiah’s writings: “For surely he spake as touching all things concerning my people which are of the house of Israel; therefore, it must needs be that he must speak also to the Gentiles.” (3 Ne. 23:2.)

It is true that in the last twenty-seven of his chapters, Isaiah does speak more on future events and persons, especially those associated with the first and second comings of Christ. It is, however, one man prophesying about the future, not later writers who recorded prophecies after the fact.

Anyone who accepts the historical-critical argument that Isaiah could not have foretold future events lacks faith in a God who can reveal future events to his prophets. Just as man can now record past events and provide “instant replays” on television of earlier occurrences, so can God, with his infinitely superior system of spiritual communication, instruct a person through “forevision” of future events.

Changing Theological Emphasis

Since the messages of chapters 40-66 are more positive and hopeful, some Bible scholars feel that the last chapters must have been written by someone other than the eighth-century Isaiah. Instead of dreadful warnings and rebukes, this “Deutero-Isaiah” speaks of comfort, pardon, deliverance, restoration, grace, and hope. He seems to be speaking words of comfort and encouragement to a despairing people, such as to the Jews in the Babylonian captivity.

However, as already noted earlier in the evaluation of chapters 1-35, many hopeful promises are given in the first section of Isaiah. Interestingly, some scholars have removed the most positive of those chapters, especially 24-27 and 33-35, from those attributed to Isaiah ben Amoz and have credited them to Deutero-Isaiah. Careful study, though, will show that many serious warnings and punishments continue to be found in the last chapters of Isaiah, including dire pronouncements to foreign nations. (Isa. 47; 63:1-6.)

The changing theological message in the latter chapters of Isaiah need not be explained through composite authorship. Why should not Isaiah’s message change when the rebellious Ten Tribes are gone, the people of Jerusalem have finally been humbled by the Assyrians, and Isaiah in his old age speaks to new and even future generations of Israelites?

In addition, Isaiah’s teachings could certainly be enriched if he received new insights and revelations concerning far-distant events. He might also be speaking more to future audiences than to contemporary Israelites, thus needing to change the emphasis in his message. (Compare this with the fact that many Book of Mormon writers spoke more often to future peoples than to their own contemporaries.)

Readers of Isaiah should also recognize that as an individual grows and matures, or as his Church callings change, his perspectives vary. Latter-day Saints can identify with modern prophets who have grown in wisdom and insight as they have served the Lord. For example, discourses delivered by Joseph Fielding Smith for sixty years as an apostle were generally rather stern. He usually emphasized such topics as repentance and scripture study. However, during the two years, he was President of the Church, his messages were primarily of universal love and peace. The same man speaks, but since his role has changed, his message changes. Perhaps Isaiah felt a need to make similar changes in his messages since in the latter part of his work he speaks on some new themes to an audience that is ready for more profound teachings.

Contrasting Literary Style

Although literary style is often difficult to evaluate, literary critics of Isaiah sense that the more positive, optimistic tone in Isaiah 40-66 is matched with a language of greater beauty and power. They also recognize that there is more use of the first person singular “I” (meaning “God”) in the later chapters of Isaiah, indicating a different style of communicating God’s message to the people.

However, if Isaiah were addressing new themes and a new audience in a new role, would not his style need to change somewhat? For example, any Latter-day Saint today would use completely different oratory styles, even when speaking on the same subject, if he was to address such differing audiences as a Primary class of six-year-olds, a home evening group of college students, a ward sacrament meeting, or a special meeting of the General Authorities of the Church.

Since Isaiah records very little about his method of receiving and recording his writings, it is difficult to know the answers to some questions that could explain differences in style:

  1. Did Isaiah compose all the material himself?
  2. Did the Lord inspire certain portions, even word for word, so that they contrast with Isaiah’s own words?
  3. When was the material written and by whom, and was it later edited?

I know from my own limited experiences as a missionary, father, home teacher, and bishop that when I am giving talks, prayers, or priesthood blessings I usually receive subtle impressions through the Spirit and am left to express them through my own vocabulary. However, there are times when the message is revealed so strongly that the words flow through me as I speak not in my own style but precisely as the Spirit directs me. Then I am not only delivering a message from someone else but also more of the style of the divine being who speaks through Isaiah.

Computer Analysis

Since computers allow scholars to quickly evaluate and compare vocabulary word frequencies, grammar patterns, and other writing characteristics, some early computer studies demonstrated differences between the two halves of Isaiah. However, vocabulary and speech patterns are likely to change if an author uses different approaches or delivers contrasting messages to different audiences, as Isaiah did.

More recently, other more sophisticated computer studies have not compared all or even any major vocabulary words, but have concentrated instead on items of stylometry, the subtle, minor choices of non-contextual words (prepositions, prefixes, suffixes, conjunctions, etc.). The choice of non-contextual words that form speech patterns is not greatly affected by the passage of time, change of subject matter, or differing literary forms.

Computer studies that compare these “word print” patterns demonstrate that the different halves of Isaiah are much more like each other than they are like any other Old Testament book. (See L. L. Adams and A. C. Rencher, “A Computer Analysis of the Isaiah Authorship Problem,” BYU Studies, Autumn 1974, p. 102; Wayne A. Larsen et al., “Who Wrote the Book of Mormon? An Analysis of Wordprints,” BYU Studies, Spring 1980, pp. 225-51.) Since computers are only instruments in men’s hands, they analyze as directed by their programmers, so there is a fairly large range of computer studies of Isaiah’s writings. As further studies demonstrate more consistent and objective means to compare Hebrew writing styles, more precise conclusions can be made about Isaiah’s work.

Additional witnesses for the single authorship of Isaiah.

A variety of additional facts support Isaiah as the author of the book of Isaiah:

  1. Jesus Christ named him as the author and quoted him specifically in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. (Matt. 13:14-15; 15:8-9; Luke 4:18-193 Ne. 16, 20-22.)
  2. Many New Testament writers quoted from the second half of Isaiah, naming him in their quotations. (Matt. 8:17; 12:18-21; John 1:23; 12:38; Acts 8:30-33Rom. 10:16, 20-21.)
  3. The earliest Bible manuscripts, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, have all recorded Isaiah as one book.
  4. Writers and historians as early as 185 B.C. attribute authorship of Isaiah only and specifically to the eighth-century prophet and record that he prophesied concerning the future and Cyrus. (Ben Sira in Ecclesiasticus 49:17-25 and Josephus in Antiquities, XI, 1-2.)
  5. The Jewish and Christian tradition from the earliest times to the last couple of centuries has supported the single authorship of Isaiah. For example, the Septuagint and other ancient versions give no hint of multiple authorship.
  6. Book of Mormon writers quoted from both halves of Isaiah (especially Isa. 48-55, in the second half) and attributed the material to Isaiah. Since Lehi left Jerusalem decades before Cyrus ruled and the “Deutero-Isaiah” lived in Babylon, many major portions of the last half of Isaiah had to have been written by 600 B.C. (Whether a prophet prophesies 60 or 160 years before the time of Cyrus, he would still have to receive revelation from God to see into the future.)
  7. The critical attitudes and anti-dogmatic beliefs in the 1800s encouraged the higher criticism of the Bible beyond its natural bounds. These attitudes even called into question the authorship of Shakespeare’s works and other famous writings. This “vogue” attitude of the scholars manifested itself in radical criticism, which has since moderated somewhat, especially as further evidences for the creative genius of ancient writers come forth.
  8. Internal evidences in the book of Isaiah provide striking characteristics common to the whole book and support its unity. Isaiah uniquely uses some techniques and phrases uncommon in other works, such as imagery, parallelism, psalms, repetition, paronomasia, and expressions such as “the Holy One of Israel.” Also, there is no record of anyone besides Isaiah writing the last half of his book. If the “Deutero-Isaiah” is one of the greatest prophets in the Old Testament, why is no mention made of him? All other prophetic writings at least mention their source, even the small, comparatively insignificant Obadiah. As one Jewish scholar records:

    If the author of the latter part [of Isaiah] were another prophet, who was contemporary and lived among the people whom he consoled, how can it possibly be believed that his name would be entirely forgotten? Isaiah ben Amoz who lived centuries before the Exile was well remembered and details of his life recorded. Furthermore it is indeed strange that Isaiah ben Amoz who denounced the people and whose message was certainly not welcome at the time should be remembered and his writings preserved but the name of this supposed Second Isaiah who preached a message of consolation whose message must have been quite welcome should be forgotten and, indeed, so completely forgotten that we do not even know his name. (Freehof, Isaiah, pp. 199-200.)

  9. Contemporary apostles, who are prophets, seers, and revelators, have witnessed concerning Isaiah’s authoring his whole book. (James E. Talmage, CR, April 1929, pp. 45-47; Bruce R. McConkie, Ensign, Oct. 1973, pp. 78-83.)
  10. A personal testimony about Isaiah’s book and his efforts in its composition is available to everyone who seeks for a witness through the Holy Ghost.

In summary, some questions about Isaiah’s reception and recording of his prophecies remain unanswered. It is also unknown how much of his writings were later changed and edited. From the evidence available, however, it appears obvious that Isaiah authored the sixty-six chapters in his book. The truth is that Isaiah received prophetic visions centuries into the future, many of his teachings and prophecies are recorded in his book, and eventually, all of his prophecies will be fulfilled. (3 Ne. 23:1-3.)

In studying Isaiah’s work in the light of contemporary scholarship, we should follow the Lord’s admonition given in modern scripture and seek “out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118, italics added.)

As we combine the study of the scholars’ critical evaluations with the faith of the scriptural writers, we will come to a greater understanding of Isaiah. As we build upon the best of man’s knowledge about the scriptures and also follow the promptings of the Spirit, we emulate Joseph Smith, who, though endowed with the spirit of revelation, also studied Hebrew and German to better understand the Bible and Isaiah.

The positive, constructive elements of biblical criticism can enrich the process of study and meditation that prepares us for the spirit of revelation, which can then tell us in our minds and hearts what we need to learn from the scriptures. (Compare D&C 8:2 and Moro. 10:3-5.)

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Dr. Victor L. Ludlow is a scholar of Isaiah and Judaism. He graduated with high honors from BYU and was a Danforth Fellow at Harvard and Brandeis Universities, where he received a Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. Professor Ludlow's scholarship explores the areas of Bible studies, the Middle East, Jewish history and theology, and comparative Latter-day Saint theology. He has authored numerous articles and the books: Unlocking the Old Testament; Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet; Principles and Practices of the Restored Gospel; and Unlocking Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. His most recent audio lecture is “Latter-day Insights: The Middle East.” Courses Taught: Writings of Isaiah, Judaism and the Gospel, Book of Mormon, Old Testament Areas of Expertise: Professor Ludlow's scholarship explores the areas of Bible studies, the Middle East, Jewish history and theology, and comparative Latter-day Saint theology, with a special emphasis upon covenants. Areas of Research: Isaiah, Covenants, Judaism, History of the House of Israel, Agency, Gospel Principles Languages: German (fluent), Hebrew (reading), some Arabic, French, and Latin

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