Sunday, July 22, 2018

Deals and Deal-Breakers

Modern critics divide the book of Isaiah into three sections: (1) chapters 1-39, (2) chapters 40-55, and (3) chapters 56-66.

The claim is made that the latter two sections, which contain very specific prophecies concerning events that took place hundreds of years after Isaiah died, were actually written by disciples of Isaiah living during those later periods of Judah’s history and carrying on his mission under his name.

Naturally, conservative scholars disagree.

The Problem of Authorship

Isaiah prophesied for what may have been as long as sixty years during the reigns of four kings of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. These have been dated from 767 B.C. through 687 B.C. The historical books of the Bible (2 Kings, 2 Chronicles) record the prophet’s interaction with King Hezekiah, as well as the fact that he documented the history of Uzziah’s reign. Thus our Bible data about him is not limited only to claims and statements made in his eponymous book. This comparative wealth of information makes it difficult to argue that the man himself lived much past 700 B.C., so most of the “higher” critics don’t bother, opting instead to theorize that others wrote under Isaiah’s name.

The problem of authorship (and therefore the date of writing) is particularly at issue when we come to chapter 45, which references Cyrus, God’s anointed, the Persian king who allowed the Jews to return home from the Babylonian captivity as prophesied in greater detail by Jeremiah, who actually did live during the Babylonian captivity. Cyrus the Great, as history knows him, reigned over Persia between 539-530 B.C., almost 150 years after Isaiah died.

So either (i) among other accurate predictions, Isaiah correctly identified a Persian king by name 150 years before he ascended to the throne (and well before the Medo-Persians were the dominant world empire), or (ii) the modern critics are on to something.

Throwing a Bone to the Critics

Some Christians are inclined to concede at least a little something to the modernists. The writers of the Asbury Bible Commentary, for instance, are willing to travel down the road of higher criticism a ways to see where it leads:
“When one reads the material carefully, one has the feeling that the author was there among his people, that he sensed their fears and their doubts about God and about Cyrus, and that he was enraged at their propensity toward idolatry. Is it not possible that a subsequent author could have built on the theology of Isaiah, particularly the ideas of God’s sovereignty and holiness, the idea of the remnant and the Messiah, and brought them to bear on a later situation. We must remember that the prophetic word was expansive, that is, spoken to a particular situation but having a life of its own, making it applicable to situations in the future.”
Now THAT is a deal we should not be prepared to make. Not only are the concessions and rationalizations unnecessary, but accommodating the modernists has a hidden cost attached that is way more than I’m prepared to pay.

Isaiah in the New Testament

There are numerous difficulties with the multi-Isaiah theory, but the one that to me appears dispositive arises out of the use of Isaiah’s prophecies in the New Testament, where they are cited by the Lord Jesus and his apostles no less than 19 times. More than half these citations (11, to be precise) are from the sections of Isaiah for which his authorship is disputed.

Consider, for instance:
  • Isaiah 40:3-5 (allegedly the work of Deutero-Isaiah), which is said by Matthew to have been “spoken of by the prophet Isaiah”, by Mark to have been “written in Isaiah the prophet”, by Luke to have been “written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet”, and by John to have been “as the prophet Isaiah said”. We may argue over the middle two, but the first and last explicitly attribute authorship of a disputed passage to Isaiah personally. Were Matthew and John lying or just ignorant?
  • Isaiah 42:1-4 (also allegedly from Deutero-Isaiah), which is said by Matthew to have been “spoken by the prophet Isaiah”. Same problem.
  • Isaiah 53:1 (Deutero-Isaiah), which John refers to as “the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah” and about which Paul begins, “For Isaiah says ...” This one is especially interesting, because John combines it with a quote from Isaiah 6 (indisputably-real Isaiah), and adds, “Isaiah said these things because he [that is to say, the one man who wrote both passages the moderns attribute to different authors] saw his glory and spoke of him.” If there’s a way to more clearly establish that the author of Isaiah 53 was ... er ... Isaiah, I can’t think of it.
  • Isaiah 61:1-2 (allegedly the work of Tertiary Isaiah) was read by the Lord Jesus as authoritative in the synagogue in Nazareth. To suggest that the Lord Jesus was unaware of fraud (pious or otherwise) in the latter chapters of Isaiah is blasphemous. To suggest that the Lord Jesus cited a fraud as authoritative is ... well, also blasphemous. The higher critics really cannot win with that one.
Sorry, No Deal ...

The problem here is obvious. If the New Testament language were something like “In the book of Isaiah it is written ...”, well, that’s one thing. But plain, repeated statements about what the prophet personally “said” or “spoke” are on another level entirely. They leave the reader no possible way to reconcile the doctrine of inspiration with the notion of a second or third writer of Isaiah.

So, sure, you can have your multiple Isaiahs if you wish. The problem is, in the bargain you lose inspiration, and even more crucially, the character of the Lord Jesus. For me, that’s a deal-breaker.

That said, if you feel you might benefit from further exploration of the subject, James Rochford of EvidenceUnseen does a conclusive demolition job on the higher critics of Isaiah here. It’s an entertaining read.

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