Saturday Series: Isaiah 1:1 and Overview

After a brief hiatus these past two months, the Saturday Series feature on this site is picking up again. In the upcoming weeks, this series will focus on the Old Testament Book of Isaiah. Due to its size, complexity, and diversity of content, the Book of Isaiah provides a rich ground for demonstrating and applying the techniques and methods of Biblical Criticism—which is the primary purpose of this running series. My goal in these studies is to help readers understand what is involved in an objective, critical analysis of Scripture, and to illustrate how this can be done, using specific portions of the Scriptures—from the Old and New Testament alike. The most recent studies dealt with the Letters of John (New Testament Criticism); now we shall turn to Old Testament Criticism, working from the Prophetic book of Isaiah.

In each passage that we examine, we will be considering it through the lens of the different areas of Biblical Criticism; in the case of the book of Isaiah, there are four main areas: (1) textual criticism, (2) historical criticism, (3) source criticism, and (4) literary criticism.

Textual Criticism

This involves a careful examination of the Hebrew text, as it has come down to us. A primary objective (though not the only one) is to establish, as far as possible, the most likely form of the original text. How the text was shaped and developed over time is also an important consideration, though this can touch upon other areas of criticism related to the composition of the text.

One problem in text-critical study of the Old Testament is that there are so few surviving manuscripts, especially of manuscripts produced prior to the middle Ages (i.e. before the 9th/10th century A.D.). The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been a great boost to Old Testament textual criticism, but even with these documents, the number of extant manuscripts is scant indeed. Fortunately, for the book of Isaiah, the Dead Sea material is especially rich, including two extensive manuscripts (1QIsaa and 1QIsab). The first of these is the great Isaiah Scroll, an essentially complete manuscript (and thus unique among the Scripture MSS at Qumran), likely dating from the mid-2nd century B.C. (c. 150-120). Its text confirms the general reliability of the Masoretic tradition, however there are also a number of significant variants; the text of the second MS (1QIsab) is even closer to the Masoretic Text (MT). In addition, there are the remains of eighteen other fragmentary manuscripts from Qumran, as well a fragment from the Dead Sea site of Wadi Murabba’at. Thus, we are able to do a reasonably thorough textual comparison between the MT (and the Greek LXX) and the Dead Sea Scrolls, much more so than for other books of the Old Testament.

Historical Criticism

The term historical criticism covers two areas:

    1. The historical background of the text—where, when and how it came to be written, the circumstances of its composition, and
    2. The historicity of the text, which includes both (a) the historical reliability of the text, and (b) the history that is contained and preserved in it.

A Prophetic book as large and diverse as Isaiah poses considerable challenges for a sound and objective application of historical criticism. Much of the difficulty (and controversy) has surrounded the ascription of the book to the prophet Isaiah (cf. below on 1:1), and thus involves the question of authorship. Scholars had long noted that many of the oracles in the book seem to relate to the situation of Israelites and Jews living long after the prophet Isaiah’s own time—i.e. in the Exile and post-exilic periods. This especially seemed to be true in chapters 40-66, but similar passages can be found within chaps. 1-39 as well. Various theories have been developed to explain these apparent differences, ranging from the traditional-conservative to the skeptical-critical. I would outline four general approaches to the book as we have it:

    • It was largely, if not entirely, written by the prophet Isaiah himself
    • It substantially contains authentic Isaian oracles throughout, but was actually composed—written and edited—by later scribes (possibly including Isaiah’s own disciples)
    • It contains an authentic core of Isaian oracles (and historical tradition), around which a range of material was added, over a considerable period of time, and, most likely, by a number of different authors
    • While containing some authentic historical tradition (both of Isaiah and others), the various portions of the book were largely composed by later authors (and prophets), down into the exilic and post-exilic periods; the unifying theme of all this prophetic material was the fate of Judah and Jerusalem.

The first two approaches may be characterized as traditional-conservative, while the last two generally reflect the view of most critical scholars. I would tend to rule out the first option, as being rather difficult to maintain objectively, but strong arguments can be made in support of the last three views, and we will be considering these different approaches (or some variation of them) throughout our studies on Isaiah.

Source Criticism

Again, this can be understood two ways: (1) sources used in the composition of the text, and (2) sources used in the editing and redaction of the final book. These “sources” can range considerably, in size and complexity, from snippets of oral tradition to full-fledged written documents. Typically, within the context of Biblical Criticism, such sources must remain hypothetical, since only rarely will external evidence exist, or survive, in support of them. The evidence cited by scholars is almost entirely internal—that is, based on a study of factors within the text itself. These factors include things like differences in style and language, historical-critical details (see above), the specific form or genre of a passage, and so forth.

Critical scholars have tended to divide the canonical book of Isaiah into two portions (chaps. 1-39 and 40-66), often thought to reflect two distinct books which were combined together (as sources) at some point in the process of editing and redaction. The first ‘book’ (1-39) was generally thought to relate more directly to the prophet Isaiah himself (his life and times, and actual sayings), while the second (40-66, typically called Deutero-Isaiah), was from a much later time, reflecting the concerns of Israelites and Jews in the exile and post-exilic periods. Some would isolate a third ‘book’ (Trito-Isaiah, covering chapters 56-66 [or 55-66]). Most critical commentators today hold to some form of this basic approach, though realizing that the situation is much more complex, in terms of how the material developed—that is, at the level of composition. Here the idea of sources carries a slightly different meaning. As an example, we might consider the “source” of an individual oracle or historical tradition—where did it come from, how and when was it composed, and how did it come to be included in the text?

All of these questions and issues will be considered in these studies, without prejudice or presupposition regarding theories of authorship.

Literary Criticism

Literary criticism is a wide-ranging term that covers a number of more specialized sub-categories of criticism. It generally refers to an analysis of the literary features and characteristics of a passage (or book)—its language, style, structure, symbolism, use of literary/figurative devices, etc. These, in turn, touch upon how a text was composed (composition criticism), and relate to matters of historical and source criticism (see above). Two key areas of literary criticism are form and genre criticism. In some ways genre criticism is an expansion of form criticism—an analysis of the structure of a passage, in terms of identifying it as a distinctive textual and literary unit, such as, for example, a proverb-collection, parable, or poem (oracle). Determining the genre of a passage involves more attention being paid to questions of style, content, and function. As an example, for a prophetic Scripture such as the book of Isaiah, many of the poetic forms relate to the genre of oracle, for which certain types or categories can be discerned (nation-, judgment-, woe-, etc). These will be discussed frequently in our studies.

Also under the banner of literary criticism is the area of rhetorical criticism—a study of the message of the passage, according to the author’s purpose, and the means and methods by which it is communicated to the audience. The term ‘rhetorical criticism’ is often understood in terms of classical (Greco-Roman) rhetoric, and, as such, is more applicable to the New Testament writings (especially the letters); however, viewed more broadly, it very much applies to the Old Testament Prophets as well, the writings of which are certainly intended to convince and exhort, etc, their audience.

Isaiah 1:1

To launch this series of studies on the book of Isaiah, I include here a brief examination of the opening verse of the book:

“The vision of Yesha’yahu son of Amos which he saw (as a vision), upon [i.e. regarding] Yehudah and Yerushalaim, in the days of ‘Uzziyyahu, Yotam, ‘Ahaz, (and) Yehizqiyyahu, kings of Yehudah.”

The name of the prophet, typically given in anglicized transliteration as “Isaiah”, is actually a YHWH (Yahweh) sentence- or phrase-name, meaning something like “Yah(weh) will save” or “May Yah(weh) save!”, in Hebrew Why`u=v^y+ (Y®ša±y¹hû). The four Judean kings mentioned are similarly Yah-names—three certainly, but ‘Ahaz (zj*a*, °A~µ¹z) is probably a shortened form of a Yah-name (Y®hô°¹µ¹z, zj*a*ohy+) as well. This alone tells something significant about the religious culture in Judah in the 8th century B.C., with the well-established worship of God (the one true God) under the name YHWH (hwhy, on this divine name, see my earlier article).

This statement, which reflects the span of Isaiah’s career as a prophet (see the historical references in 2 Kings 19:2-7, 20; 20:1-19; 2 Chron 26:22; 32:20, and the traditions within the book itself), establishes the historical setting for the book as a whole. In all likelihood, verse 1 stems from an editorial layer, as do the notices in 2:1 and 13:1; these contextual statements are separate from the oracles that follow, in which Isaiah’s name does not appear. His name is otherwise mentioned only within historical narrative portions (7:3; 20:2-3, and in chaps. 37-39). Technically, the oracles themselves are anonymous, and their Isaian authorship must be determined from other factors, including the traditional/editorial superscriptions in 2:1; 13:1. Those notices function like the superscriptions in the Psalms, attributing the (anonymous) poems to specific figures (David, etc).

Thus, even a simple statement like that of 1:1 can be considered in terms of the different areas of criticism:

    • Historical—questions of authorship: where, when, and by whom, the book (or portions of it) was composed; but also related to the composition, editing and redaction of the book as a whole
    • Source—the origin and attribution of specific oracles, as well as more substantial portions of the book
    • Literary (Form/Genre)—the role of superscriptions in introducing, and thus demarcating the start of, a particular poetic/prophetic form; from a rhetorical standpoint, the ascription establishes the prophetic authority for the oracle (and the book as a whole).

According to the view of many commentators, the first chapter was prefixed to the opening oracle of chapter 2, which has its own notable superscription, itself fitting as an introduction to the book. At the time that all of the material had been brought together, the chapter 1 oracle was included, as a summary introduction for the many themes that would be found (and developed) in the book. The superscription in verse 1 was then added, effectively as a title for the book. This is a reasonable theory, though it says nothing definitive about the overall authorship of the book. However, even as a traditional ascription, the association with Isaiah must be quite ancient, and thus objectively reliable to some degree. The notice in 2 Chronicles 32:32 suggests that the book of Isaiah was in existence (some form of it, at least) by that time; the author there refers to it as a “vision” (/ozj*), just as in Isa 1:1, even though there are few visions, as such, recorded in the book. It is possible the Chronicler’s statement corresponds generally to the time that the book of Isaiah reached something like its final form.

In next week’s study, we will focus on the introductory poem in chapter 1, focusing in detail on several representative passages.

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