How Many Isaiahs Were There? by H. G. M. Williamson

Readers of the Bible used to think that because the events in the second half of the book of Isaiah were predictions, they were all written down by the prophet Isaiah many years in advance. However, closer examination of the texts suggests that the authorship of Isaiah is not so simple.

The book of Isaiah refers to historical events that are at least 200 years apart. In Isa 7, for instance, there is material about an invasion of Judah that we know took place in the 730s B.C.E., well before the Babylonian exile. Isa 45:1 refers to the Persian king Cyrus, looking forward to his capture of Babylon in 539 B.C.E., and the closing chapters of the book, such as Isa 60, contain descriptions of what look most like the situation of the return from the Babylonian exile during the period of Persian rule from 538 B.C.E. onwards. Many other passages can be closely related to these events even though they may not refer to them directly.

To begin to understand the authorship of Isaiah, it is helpful to ask not only what the author is predicting but also what the standpoint of the writer is. Beginning in Isa 40, it is clear that the writer is not talking about things 150 years into the future. He speaks as though he is right there with his readers or listeners. They give voice to their sense of spiritual depression and he looks forward to the imminent arrival of Cyrus as the one who will let them go back home to Jerusalem, where the temple will be rebuilt (see Isa 44:24-28, for instance).

Once we start to read the book along those lines—seeing that these things are happening in the present, not the future—it becomes clear that the same principle applies in many other places as well. Certainly it becomes difficult to think that the prophet Isaiah himself could have written all of Isa 1-39. We may assume that Isaiah wrote the passages where he refers to himself as “I” (for example in Isa 6 and Isa 8) and some of the prophetic poems (oracles) as well, but Isa 7, Isa 20, and Isa 36-39 are stories about him, much more like what we get in the books of Kings, indicating they were probably written by somebody else.

Beyond that, scholars’ opinions differ. The line of thought represented by Isa 24-27 seems to be typical of the way people thought and wrote much later on; for example, its presentation of the end of the present world order and its reference to the bodily resurrection of the dead (Isa 26:19) are two ideas that do not seem to have entered the thought world of the biblical writers until the postexilic period at the earliest. Isa 35, however, sounds just like the poems in Isa 40-55 (see especially Isa 35:10 and Isa 51:11), suggesting that these chapters come from the same period and perhaps even the same author.

The result of these differences of opinion means that it is difficult to give a precise answer to our question, “How many Isaiahs were there?” Some think that the easy answer is “three” (Isa 1-39, Isa 40-55, and Isa 56-66, these often being referred to as Proto-Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and Trito-Isaiah), but it is not as simple as that. There seem to be many more contributors to this great book, and of course we must not forget the work of the ancient editors who compiled it. Isaiah is therefore like a tapestry, with many hands contributing to a greater unity.

 

H. G. M. Williamson, "How Many Isaiahs Were There?", n.p. [cited 28 Mar 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/related-articles/how-many-isaiahs-were-there

Contributors

H. G. M. Williamson

H. G. M. Williamson
Professor, University of Oxford

H. G. M. Williamson is Regius Professor of Hebrew in the University of Oxford, a student of Christ Church, and a fellow of the British Academy. He has written several books on Isaiah, including Variations on a Theme: King, Messiah and Servant in the Book of Isaiah (Paternoster, 1998), The Book Called Isaiah: Deutero-Isaiah’s Role in Composition and Redaction (Clarendon, 1994), and A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Isaiah 1-27, 1: Isaiah 1-5 (T & T Clark, 2006).

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

The period between 586 and 539 B.C.E., when the leaders and elite of Judea were exiled to Babylon. The exile ended when Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed the Judeans to return home.

Isaiah 40-66, or "Second Isaiah," so called because the author is different from and later than the author of Isaiah 1-39; sometimes also subdivided into Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55) and Trito-Isaiah ("Third Isaiah," chapters 56-66).

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

Relating to the period in Judean history following the Babylonian exile (587–539 B.C.E.), also known as the Persian period, during which the exiles were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

Isa 7

Isaiah Reassures King Ahaz
1In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up ... View more

Isa 45:1

Cyrus, God's Instrument
1Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their rob ... View more

Isa 60

The Ingathering of the Dispersed
1Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.2For darkness shall cover the earth,
and t ... View more

Isa 40

God's People Are Comforted
1Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her pena ... View more

Isa 44:24-28

24Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
who formed you in the womb:
I am the Lord, who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who by myself spread o ... View more

Isa 1-39

1The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.The Wickedness ... View more

Isa 6

A Vision of God in the Temple
1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. ... View more

Isa 8

Isaiah's Son a Sign of the Assyrian Invasion
1Then the Lord said to me, Take a large tablet and write on it in common characters, “Belonging to Maher-shalal-has ... View more

Isa 7

Isaiah Reassures King Ahaz
1In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up ... View more

Isa 20

Isaiah Dramatizes the Conquest of Egypt and Ethiopia
1In the year that the commander-in-chief, who was sent by King Sargon of Assyria, came to Ashdod and fought ... View more

Isa 36-39

Sennacherib Threatens Jerusalem
1In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and capt ... View more

Isa 24-27

Impending Judgment on the Earth
1Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate,
and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants.2A ... View more

Isa 26:19

19Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise.
O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a radiant dew,
and the earth will give birth t ... View more

Isa 35

The Return of the Redeemed to Zion
1The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus2it shall blossom abunda ... View more

Isa 40-55

God's People Are Comforted
1Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her pena ... View more

Isa 35:10

10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and s ... View more

Isa 51:11

11So the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and so ... View more

Isa 1-39

1The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.The Wickedness ... View more

Isa 40-55

God's People Are Comforted
1Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her pena ... View more

Isa 56-66

The Covenant Extended to All Who Obey
1Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be reveal ... View more

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