Is the Book of Isaiah Historical Fiction? Controversial Issues in Isaiah

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The contest of ideas regarding Isaiah as a prophet, seer or historian has plagued the Book of Isaiah’s unity and prompted a multiple author theory for well over a hundred years. Few reputable scholars outside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would even bother to consider this Old Testament book as something written from a single author. Most, in fact, take for granted that the later portions of the book were written during Israel’s Babylonian captivity and in the period just after that when the Jews had begun returning to Jerusalem to build the temple. This, of course, allows those writers to treat history as prophesy, making it fiction.

But for us in the church, the multiple-Isaiah theory, as it is known, presents a problem with parts of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon as discussed in other posts, but it also opens a big crack in the definition of a prophet as a seer, at least in the area of seeing the future. The LDS Bible Dictionary explains:

“A seer is a revelator and a prophet also” (Mosiah 8:15–16), …There have been many seers in the history of God’s people on this earth but not so many as there have been prophets.

“A seer is greater than a prophet … and a gift which is greater can no man have …” (Mosiah 8:15–18).”

So while many of our readers accept the seership of prophets, this is a prime example of the discomfort scholars feel who question the Bible as the word of God. These scholars cannot believe in Biblical prophetic inspiration, so they must make what is written into religious history, or worse, historical fiction.

To accommodate their views, they try, after the fact, to ascribe authorship of any prophecy in the distant future to someone closer to the event or other re-dating efforts. For example, the specific mention of “Cyrus, King of Persia” by name in Isaiah 44:2845:1 would require predictive prophecy by Isaiah at least 150 years before the king came to power. This is something they cannot accept,

Instead, they propose a student or disciple of Isaiah, was the author of the last twenty-six chapters of the prophet’s book. If one of his later students wrote it, say sometime after the Babylonian captivity (after 586 BC), that would explain its accuracy; the idea of a second Isaiah would negate the need for an accurate prediction. That is how prophecy is made into history in many portions of the Bible.

This proposed student or disciple of Isaiah has no name, but according to the multiple author theorists, “his work has been preserved in the collection of writings that include the prophecies of the earlier Isaiah, he is usually designated as Deutero-Isaiah — the second Isaiah. The chapters attributed to this prophet of the exile include some of the noblest religious ideals found in the entire Old Testament.

“The prophet was a pure monotheist. Rejecting the idea of Yahweh as a God who belonged only to the Hebrews, Deutero-Isaiah boldly proclaimed Yahweh as the only true God of the entire universe. He maintained that the so-called gods of foreign nations were but figments of the imagination. His conception of the people of Israel was also unique in that he regarded them as Yahweh’s servants, whose primary function in the world is to carry religion to the ends of the earth. He made explicit an interpretation of history that, although it had been implied in the teachings of the earlier prophets, had never been stated as clearly by any of them. Finally, he introduced a new concept to account for the sufferings of people that could not, in all fairness, be explained as punishment for sins.”1

Marc Zvi Brettler of Duke University wrote: “Exactly how and why someone attached these oracles [40-66] to those of an earlier prophet is unknown, scholars are certain, however, that 40-66 does not reflect the work of the eighth century Isaiah son of Amoz”2

Others dismissive of seership among Israel’s prophets reject the idea of predictive prophecy by any ancient Jewish prophet. For example, in his Dictionary of the BibleJohn McKenzie claimed:

Most of the book of Isaiah does not come from the Prophet Isaiah, and even those discourses which are his come in the reports of those who wrote them down from auditions or from memory. The book is a compendium of many types of prophecy from diverse periods.3

 

There are some conservative scholars outside the church who accept the unity of the book of Isaiah. For example,

Most Bible scholars these days, in fact, treat the Old Testament books as compendiums, written and added to by scribes and followers of the prophets which bear their names. Timothy H. Lim, professor of Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism at the University of Edinburgh, says the Old Testament is “was not written by one man, nor did it drop down from heaven as assumed by fundamentalists. It is …a collection of authoritative texts of apparently divine origin that went through a human process of writing and editing.”

Emanuel Tov, Ph.D., a professor at Bible Hebrew University in Jerusalem writes, “scribal additions in ancient sources as well as of individual glosses” are part of the Hebrew Bible. Glosses are any kind of explanatory information added to the Bible text by a scribe and may include, “textual growth inserted in the text base, whether intentionally or unintentionally. …The discussion of the categories of scribal additions in ancient sources as well as of individual glosses and interpolations in the manuscripts of the various biblical books has led to negative conclusions with regard to the existence of these phenomena in the manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible.”

, Ph.D., professor in Bible and Jewish Studies at Utah State University, is among church scholars that accept the multiple authorship of Isaiah. He reconciles his position by asking, “So what is a believing Latter-day Saint to do? Is there an effective apologetic approach given the weight of this evidence? I believe that there is (maybe are).  I believe that an effective apologetic argument would state, ‘I do not know why there is postexilic material in the Book of Mormon, but I do know that I feel connected with God through the book. I, therefore, believe, even though I do not have an answer.’

“Another way of approaching this topic would be for Latter-day Saints to recognize that the Book of Mormon is a revelatory work that comes to us through Joseph Smith. The prophet didn’t sit down and work his way through ancient script line upon line. Shouldn’t Latter-day Saints, therefore, expect that the work would contain inspired prophetic, Midrashic use of material known to Joseph Smith, including the material in Isaiah 40-66?” 6

However, there are a few reputable Bible scholars in and out of the Church who still the unity of Isaiah with a single author. “Their conclusions include the similarity of writing styles in both sections, the consistent use of the same words throughout, and the familiarity of the author with Israel, but not Babylon. Furthermore, Jewish tradition uniformly ascribes the entire book to Isaiah.”7

One of these is  L. LaMar Adams, who wrote this explanation of the seership problem, “It was claimed by divisionists [those that divide the Book of Isaiah into two or more parts] that a prophet is sent to prophesy to the people of his own time and that his predictions do not extend beyond the horizon of his own day.”8 Then he cited Norman Gottwald who claimed:

When [the prophetic writings are] studied in their context, apart from dogmatic preconviction, [it is clear that] no prophet leaped across the centuries and foresaw the specific person Jesus of Nazareth. It is a plain violation of historical context to think that they did so, and in practice those that interpret the prophets as predictors of Jesus obscure the setting in which the prophets functioned.9 

Kent Jackson, Ph.D., professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, penned an essay several years ago taking on the authorship of Isaiah as a unified book. He wrote, “From the outset, it must be made clear that multiple-authorship theories for the book of Isaiah have no support from any ancient manuscripts or traditions. The earliest known translation of Isaiah (the Greek Septuagint) is from the third century BC, and it includes all the material now found in the book of Isaiah. The same is true of the earliest existing manuscript of Isaiah, from the second century BC, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. No ancient document—including the New Testament and the rabbinic literature—shows any hint that readers in antiquity questioned Isaiah’s authorship of the entire book. Some modern scholars, however, see features within the text of the book that cause them to conclude that in its present state, it is not the product of one author but of two, three, or perhaps more.”10

He explains that most scholars who hold to the multiple authorship theory, do so for four reasons:

  1. Proto Isaiah mentions Isaiah as the son of Amoz and providing biographical material about him and others of his time in chapters 1–40. He wrote: “These chapters clearly fit within the period of time in which they purport to have been written, in the late eighth century BC.” However, in chapters 41–66, there is no mention of Isaiah’s name or other clues that would link thos chapters to him.
  2. It seems the historical setting of “Second” and “Third” Isaiah differ from “First” Isaiah.
    (a) Cyrus, the Persian king who lived more than 100 years after Isaiah, is named
    (b) In Isaiah’s time the Assyrian’s were the biggest threat, but in the last third of the book, Isaiah moves emphasis to the Babylonians, who were no threat in his time
    (c) Isaiah moves the narrative from future tense to past tense listing the destruction of the Kingdom Judah and the temple more than a century before it happened
    (d) Judah and its people are “described as already being punished and exiled, which took place after 586 BC.”
  3. Isaiah’s theological perspective switches from judgment in the early chapter to forgiveness and reconciliation in later chapters.
  4. His literary style also shifts from that of the earlier chapters.11

Jackson states that Church “scholars agree that the observations presented above, for the most part, represent accurately the change in tone that begins in Isaiah 40. Scholars who believe in the essential unity of the book acknowledge the changes, but they do not see them as grounds for denying the material in chapters 40–66 to Isaiah son of Amoz. If the Book of Mormon did not quote from ‘Second’ Isaiah, the discussion of authorship would have little meaning for Latter-day Saints; it would not matter to us either way. But because there is material after chapter 39 in the Book of Mormon, the issue is important.”12Then he tackled each of these issues.

First, he pointed out that nearly “all of the sixteen prophetic books in the Old Testament identify the author by name at the beginning of the book,” which true of Isaiah too. And, “While it is true that Isaiah’s name is never mentioned after chapter 39, neither do the later chapters ascribe authorship to anyone else. The lack of biographical inferences does not argue either for or against Isaiah as the author.”13

Next, Jackson explained that Isaiah, like Book of Mormon writers, wrote both for their times and for the future generations. He continues, “As the Nephite writers saw and understood our time, they also wrote to meet our needs, not exclusively those of their contemporaries, who would never see the Book of Mormon as we have it. In the book of Isaiah is a striking parallel: Isaiah saw and understood the circumstances of his countrymen beyond his own lifetime, and through the inspiration of heaven he wrote in their behalf, as he also did for his contemporaries.”14

In regard to the switch in tone or theme in the last 26 chapters of Isaiah, Jackson believes the shift is deliberate. He wrote, “In the prophetic books of the Old Testament, as a general rule, prophecies of judgment and punishment precede those of blessing and restoration. …This is true within individual prophecies and chapters as it is in the organization of entire books. … God’s judgment would be the inevitable consequence of Israel’s rebellion, but in the latter days, Israel would be gathered and restored and would enjoy full reconciliation with God.”15

And finally, he addressed literary continuity in the chapters of Isaiah, calling attention to literary variation in all the chapters. “Hebrew poetry has sufficient flexibility to allow an author a wide range of literary options,” he said.  “Even critical scholars who argue for multiple authorship see a great deal of Isaiah son of Amoz throughout the entire collection, pointing to language and themes that were carried on in the later chapters.…Thus arguments defending multiple authorship based on different literary styles are inconclusive, especially since we do not know the history of Isaiah’s words once they left his mouth or his pen.”16

Then in his conclusion, Jackson comes to the point of this post which is centered on this basic question: “Can a prophet see beyond his own time? One’s answer to the question necessarily determines whether one can accept the book being in place when Nephi acquired it or whether one must date parts of it to a later time. Those who begin with the assumption that people cannot see beyond their own day must logically conclude that Isaiah could not have written those sections of the book that speak to a different historical setting than his own.

“In contrast, those who understand the true nature of revelation and prophetic foresight have no trouble with prophecies of future events. Latter-day Saints are blessed with abundant revealed evidence that God can indeed inspire his servants with views of future days. The Book of Mormon provides us with ample proof of that.

“…Latter-day Saints who accept the evidence from the Book of Mormon and believe that prophets can see beyond their own time should have no difficulty accepting the idea that the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon were compiled before 600 BC. But this does not mean that all our questions have been answered.” But, “the answers to these questions are not critical for our understanding of Isaiah’s message.”17


Footnotes

1 Charles H Patterson, Cliff Notes on The Old Testament, pp 29-30
Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible, p. 201
 John McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible
 Timothy H. Lim., The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005,  p. 41.
 Emanuel Tov, Glosses, Interpolations, and Other Types of Scribal Additions in the Text of the Hebrew Bible.
6 The Truthfulness of Deutero-Isaiah: A Response to Kent Jackson, Rational Faiths.
7  What is the Deutero-Isaiah theory? Was the Book of Isaiah written by multiple Isaiahs? at Got Questions. 
8 L. La Mar Adams in A Scientific Analysis of Isaiah Authorship and Stylometry and the Multiple Isaiah Theory
9 Norman K. Gottwald, A Light to the Nations: An Introduction to the Old Testament (New York: Harper, 1959), 275.
10 Kent Jackson, Isaiah in the Book of Mormon,” A Reason for Faith, Deseret Book.
11-17 Ibid.

 

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I am a retiree from Scouting. There I blogged for VoiceOfScouting.org, a site with more than 250,000 readers. During 42 years in the workplace, I've had many years senior level management with the BSA, professional associations, and high tech user groups. My background includes capital fundraising; outdoor adventure program development; property and construction management; event/conference planning; risk management and safety; lobbying federal, state and local government agencies; public relations; strategic planning; member advocacy and staff/volunteer training. Along the way, I have also taught Gospel Doctrine Classes and been both the ward and stake Sunday School President. In these settings, I have seen teachers and class members minimize Isaiah, a book Christ has commanded us to "search diligently." (3 Ne 23:1) With that in mind, I will do my best to explore and post my discoveries about the book of Isaiah. I am not a Bible scholar; like you, I read Isaiah in the Old Testament cycle of study in LDS Gospel Doctrine Classes and again in the Book of Mormon Cycle, so this is a whole new scripture adventure for me.

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