The Book of Isaiah – One Isaiah or Several? The Thorny Problem of Authorship

The book of Isaiah opens with this verse;

The vision of Isaiah, son of Amos concerning Judah and Jerusalem, which he saw in the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. 

This gives us a good way to anchor Isaiah in time. The dates of the reigns of these kings were as follows;

Uzziah 781-740 BC

Jotham 740-736 BC

Ahaz 736-716 BC

Hezekiah 716 – 687 BC

Tradition has it that Isaiah was born about 765 BC and was martyred under the next King, Manasseh, who reigned from 687-642 BC, by being put inside a log and sawn in half.  This is alluded to in Hebrews 11:37;  Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. 

The scope of the prophesy, however, covers a much longer period, from the year of King Uzziah’s death of 740 BC, when Isaiah received his call (Isaiah ch 6), through the decline of the Assyrian empire and the loss of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the rise of the Babylonian empire, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 598 BC and 587 BC and the exile of the inhabitants of Judah and so the loss of the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  Then to the return of the Jews from exile to Jerusalem after the decree of king Cyrus in 538 BC, who is named in Isaiah ch 44 vs 28.  This gives the book  an overall span of 202 years.  The book of Isaiah also has two distinct parts one from chapter 1 to 39 and the other from chapter 40 to the end.  There are differences of perspective; pre or post-exile, apocalyptic.  There are differences in style; poetic, lyrical, historical narrative.  All these things have led to speculation that the book of Isaiah is the work of more than one hand and you may come across mention of first or proto-Isaiah, second or deutero-Isaiah, third or trito-Isaiah and even a fourth editorial hand, knocking it all into shape, which I might call editorial Isaiah.  This is a theory rather than a fact and was rather slow to be embraced by the Catholic Church.  It has held sway till fairly recently when problems with it have been acknowledged and support for single authorship has re-emerged.  Which view you hold rather depends on your view of what a prophet is and whether or not they can function in the future prophetic.

I, myself, am of the view that there is only one author, Isaiah, acting under the influence of the Holy Spirit and, after all, this is the claim of the book as it says in the opening verse.

It also makes it much easier when, as a reader, I go to the lecturn and say “A reading from the Prophet Isaiah”.  It would be very awkward to have to add, “only it’s not really.”

I would add that the Jews were good at naming their prophets.

Also; when Isaiah is quoted in the New Testament, by Jesus and the Apostles, there is no suggestion that there is more than one.

So I am making a nod to the scholars, because you will come across this multiple authorship theory,  but my own position is single authorship.  I think it gives reading the book far more immediacy.

For a time it was even wondered if any parts had been added after Jesus because the passage Isaiah ch 52 vs 13 to ch 53 vs 12 is such a good fit to Jesus and we didn’t have a BC copy of Isaiah till the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.  Among these was what is called the Great Isaiah Scroll  which confirms the accuracy of the book of Isaiah as we have it.  This was dated to about 200 BC and so confirms that the passage(s) relating to Jesus have not been added at a later AD date.

What then makes the book of Isaiah such a good and important  read?

It is like the bible in miniature.

You can find Christmas in it.

Isaiah 7:14 – Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Isaiah 1:3 – The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”

Isaiah 60:6 -Vast caravans of camels will converge on you, the camels of Midian and Ephah. The people of Sheba will bring gold and frankincense and will come worshiping the LORD.

You can find Easter in it.

Isaiah 53: 5 – But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.

You can find John the Baptist in it.

Isaiah 40:3 – A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

You can find God as Father in it.

Isaiah  63: 16 – But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.

You can find the foundation of ecology in it.

Isaiah 40: 6 – All flesh is grass.

You can find verses which speak to you on a personal level.

Isaiah 58: 7 – ..and not turn from your own kin.  (Think on that when you are glowering at each other over the Christmas turkey.)

Overall then, give it a read.  Parts of it will wash over you, but parts of it will leap out at you.  That’s what makes reading it fun.  You will also find parts that are very moving and parts which lend themselves to prayer very easily.  Enjoy!!