THE “HIGHER CRITICISM” OF ISAIAH
Were There Two or Three Different Isaiahs As Some Have Claimed?
Was the Book of Isaiah Really Written by Three Different Authors at Three Different Times as so-called “Biblical Criticism” States?
C.S. Lewis once famously observed that literary critics had come to many unfounded and incorrect conclusions about the works that he himself had written, and that therefore the judgments of literary critics concerning the New Testament simply could not be taken seriously. Lewis's critics lived in the same age as himself and it quite stunned the great man that their 'literary criticism' of his writings was so often really wide of the mark. Yet if such literary critics are discussing the Old Testament – rather than the New Testament – how much greater is the probability that such critics are going to be out of sympathy and out of any sort of 'time sync' understanding with the documents under discussion?
Now, regarding the biblical book of Isaiah, for twenty five centuries no one dreamed of doubting that Isaiah the son of Amoz (who lived in the 8th Century B.C.) was the author of the entire book that goes under his name. The literary unity of Isaiah was not doubted until comparatively recent times. There is no evidence that the ancients who lived a few hundred years after Isaiah's time knew of any problems concerning Isaiah's writings. Even the translators of the Septuagint translation (approx. 200 BC) showed no indications of disbelieving that the 66 chapters of Isaiah are not Isaiah's work. Nor did the copyists of the text of Isaiah seem to know any other author except Isaiah the son of Amoz.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 went even further in corroborating this book. Why? Because The Isaiah Scroll, found relatively intact, is 1000 years older than any previously known copy of Isaiah. In fact, the scrolls are the oldest group of Old Testament manuscripts ever found anywhere – and yet Isaiah is presented in exactly the same shape as in our current Old Testaments! There is no doubt that this discovery marked the beginning of the end for anti-supernaturalist criticism of Isaiah yet they did not give up their fight and even now the arguments of these people have great influence in certain circles.
Okay, so what have the older school of German Bible critics proposed about the Book of Isaiah?
Basically, they have imposed three divisions on the book:
First Isaiah. Chapters
Possibly actually written by somebody called 'Isaiah' although "higher critics" were far from convinced on this point.
Deutero-Isaiah. Chapters 40-55.
Supposedly written by an unknown Jewish exile in Babylon during the sixth century B. C.
Supposedly written by a post-exilic Palestinian because of 'considerations of structure and background ideas.'
Isaiah as depicted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo. Some atheistic German rationalist Bible critics have insisted on dividing the prophet into 2 or 3 persons. When carefully examined, their evidence is flimsy and their argument is now beginning to lose authority.
The reasons for imposing these divisions are somewhat related to the reasons that the now largely discredited Wellhausen Documentary Source Hypothesis imposed divisions upon the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), that is, an assumption was made that the Bible could not possibly be 'divinely inspired' and that various redactors (editors) had, at various times, been involved who wanted to make a strong case for their claim that a supernatural, all-powerful God had called Israel to be His special people. These people (according to this theory) were quite prepared to steal religious myths and legends from anywhere in the ancient world as well as to lie about dating in order to make their case. So the rationalist Bible critics looked upon the Old Testament in a purely mechanical way, looking for clues within the text as to real authorship/time frame/motivation. They accepted the Hegelian 'history of religions' school of thought (again, largely discredited in this early 21st century) which believed that the oldest human religions were naïve and animistic and that monotheism (belief in one all-powerful God) was a late arrival and that the concept of a supernatural God was preposterous. Therefore it is entirely accurate to say that these people had largely already made their mind up on many of the main points and subjects of their “research” before they had even commenced it! Yet their obviously biased approach plainly - and quite outrageously! - breaks the rules of objective critical research, discussion and analysis.
'O.T. Allis is correct when he observes that the fragmentation of the Isaianic literature among multiple authors and along an extended time-line is historically the product of the ninteenth-century rationalism which refused to countenance predictive prophecy. Sadly, in addition to this, the prevailing spirit of scholarship was disposed to fragmentation rather than to holism, and in the case of Isaiah this meant that a literature bursting with internal evidence of its unity was rather made to burst into disparate pieces. The subsequent course of study has concentrated on the fragments until it is now widely assumed that the case for multiple authorship need no longer be argued but can be assumed. This is by no means so. The evidences of unity...require explanation and we must now explore the simplest explanation – that the whole literature is the product of Isaiah of Jerusalam.'
(The Prophecy of Isaiah, Alec Motyer, Inter-Varsity, 1993, page 25).
So probably the main reason why the critics declare that the work of Isaiah is the work of at least two, if not three, writers is because they believed a prophet could not see beyond the horizon of his own time. It would be impossible for Isaiah (living around 700 BC) to speak of Cyrus who lived about 540 BC if divinely-inspired prophecy is impossible. Consequently, Isaiah 44:28 and Isaiah 45:1 are dated much later than 700 BC, and are said to have been written after the time of Cyrus by a writer who used the name “Isaiah” as a pen-name. So the critics proceed from the assumption that prediction of the distant future is impossible. They did not believe it was possible for Isaiah to speak of a distant Babylonian Captivity and of Cyrus as the deliverer from the Captivity long before Cyrus was even born! Therefore the higher critics state that these sections of the book of Isaiah must have been written after the events actually occurred, and then they were made to appear as if they were predictive prophecies - in other words, if we should believe these people, at least certain sections of this book are a fraud! Of course, the same genre of Bible critics did exactly the same thing with Daniel; finding fulfilled prophecies within that book they insisted that the book was written several hundred years later in order to explain away fulfilled prophecy. See The Amazing Prophecy of Daniel and how it Defies Sceptics.
But the positing of a second and third Isaiah by Bible critics is despite the complete lack of textual or historical evidence of any kind which they are able to produce and it is based purely upon perceived differences in theme and subject matter, language, style and theological ideas. However, there are at least forty phrases common to all sections of Isaiah many of which are the idiosyncratic sort of phrases tending to be used by specific writers. The phrase 'The Holy One of Israel', for example, is found an almost equal number of times in (so-called) First and Deutero-Isaiah (12 times in chapters 1-39 and 13 times in chapters 40-66). There are also many similarities of theme, style, subject matter, and theology which these Bible critics apparently just ignored because it did not fit in with their already-decided fragmentary view of this book. Isaiah 40-66 shows little knowledge of Babylonian geography, but great familiarity with that of Palestine, and the author of (so-called) “Deutero-Isaiah” appears to assume that the cities of Judah are still standing, which would surely not have been the case if the author were writing during or just after the Babylonian captivity.
A Christian View
For our part, Christians are bound to reject these entirely artificial and imposed divisions upon this great book. The New Bible Commentary sums up much of what is essential for us to appreciate,
'In favour of the unity of Isaiah all evidence that can be adduced from outside sources is unanimous. External evidence is all in favour of the unity of the book. It is only within the last hundred and fifty years that any question at all has been raised. Until then the unhesistating belief of the Jewish community and the Christian Church had regarded the whole work as proceeding from the pen of Isaiah the son of Amoz. The LXX (the Septuagint) gives no hint of any kind of dual (or triple) authorship. In no better way has the old belief been recounted than by the son of Sirach who tells of the record of of the days of Hezekiah and says that Isaiah the prophet.....
Saw by an excellent spirit what would come to pass at the last; And he comforted them that mourned in Sion. He shewed the things that should be to the end of time. And the hidden things or ever they came.” (Ecclus. xlviii. 24-25, RV).
Side by side with this are to be set the many passages from the New Testament where reference is made to Isaiah and his words are quoted. 'Isaiah the prophet' is spoken of irrespective of the part of the book from which the words are taken. The actual references are divided almost equally between the sections of the book...this in itself is a confirmation of the view of the external evidence and that of the tradition of the Fathers.' (New Bible Commentary, Inter-Varsity, 1954, pages 558-559).
But the most conclusive New Testament Isaiah citation is
probably John 12:38-41. Verse 40 quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 (from the
first section of the book of Isaiah). Verse 38 quotes Isaiah 53:1
(from the second section of the book of Isaiah). And then the
inspired Apostle John comments in verse 41: 'These things said
Isaiah, when he saw his glory, and spoke of him.' Obviously,
as far as John was concerned, it was the same Isaiah who
personally beheld the glory of Christ in the temple-vision of
Isaiah 6, as the Isaiah who also spoke of Christ in Isaiah 53:1.
If it was not the same writer who composed both chapter 6 and
chapter 53 (of the book of Isaiah), then the New Testament writer
must have been in error! So those who follow the theory of 2 or 3
different Isaiahs must concede the existence of errors in the New
Testament and, if so, this would be a very serious matter.
To conclude, due to the influence of certain scholars of the German critical school of around a hundred and twenty years ago numerous biblically critical works have come to assume the existence of 'three Isaiahs' yet there remains quite powerful and persuasive evidence that the testimony of Scripture is actually accurate once the anti-supernaturalist bias of a whole school of atheistic Bible critics is swept away. As in the case of the 'documentary theory,' no evidence has ever been discovered from any source to corroborate a theory which is rejected by the growing number of evangelical Bible scholars and is now generally losing ground everywhere.
Robin A. Brace, 2006.
The reader may also wish to read Does Anybody Still Believe the "Documentary Hypothesis"?
Allis, O.T. The Unity of Isaiah. Tyndale Press:
Archer, Gleason. Isaiah, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary.
Calvin, John. Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Translated by William Pringle.
Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1850-1954.
Clements, Ronald Ernest. Isaiah and the Deliverance of Jerusalem:
A Study of the Interpretation of Prophecy in the Old Testament. Sheffield, England: J.S.O.T. Press, 1980.
Delitzsch, Franz. Isaiah. In vol. 7: Isaiah. Two volumes in one. Translated by James Martin.
Commentary on the Old Testament.10 vols. N.p.: Reprinted ed., Grand Rapids: Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973.
Gordon, Cyrus H. Higher Critics and Forbidden Fruit, Christianity Today, November 23, 1959, in Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., A Christianity Today Reader Westwood, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1968.
Lewis, C.S. Miracles.New York: Macmillan, 1960.
Motyer, Alec. The Prophecy of Isaiah. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1993.
New Bible Commentary. London: Inter-Varsity, 1954.