Faithlife Corporation

Do We Still Need Deutero-Isaiah? by Richard Coggins

Illustration  •  Submitted
0 ratings
· 1 view
Notes & Transcripts

Coggins, Richard J. "Do We Still Need Deutero-Isaiah?" Journal for the Study of the Old Testament no. 81 (December 1998): 77-92.

Do We Still Need Deutero-Isaiah?

1. An Obsolescent Term?

To speak of 'Deutero-Isaiah' has become one of the 'assured results of scholarship'. Should we continue to do so? Any 'assured result of scholarship' is liable to induce its own hermeneutic of suspicion, and it can be argued that a great deal of recent study of Isaiah renders the use of the term 'Deutero-Isaiah' questionable. That is certainly so if one is prepared to deal only with the final form of the book of Isaiah. In addition to that, however, doubts about 'Deutero-Isaiah' seem to be implicit in many readings of the book based on its transmission history. Yet the term continues to be widely employed, even though many may feel that it has passed its 'use-by' date.

The expression 'Deutero-Isaiah' has come to have two meanings, and it is open to question whether we continue to need either of them. First, the term is used of a collection of oracles, that is to say, the material found in Isaiah 40-55. Occasionally chs. 56-66 are intended as well, but for the most part those chapters are treated separately, and that is the usage which will be followed here. Secondly, it is a way of speaking of an anonymous prophet, supposedly the author of those oracles, who was active in the 540s BCE, among a group of Judahites in Babylon, exiled from their homeland.

2. The Designation of a Body of Oracles

It seems to have become a normal usage in much German scholarship to speak of 'the book of Deutero-Isaiah', a mode of reference which seems very curious. For example, the contribution of Rainer Albertz to the Rendtorff Festschrift[1] was entitled 'Das Deuterojesaja-Buch als Fortschreibung der Jesaja-Prophetie'. The contents of the essay were most illuminating; it was the title which seemed so curious. There is no 'book of Deutero-Isaiah', and when one is doing what Albertz is concerned to achieve, that is to draw out the distinctive way in which these chapters develop the Isaiah tradition, it is surely positively misleading to refer to them as if they were a separate book. Yet this usage is very widespread in the German tradition of scholarship.

It would seem that to describe a clearly-defined body of oracles as 'Deutero-Isaiah' made good sense when it was widely supposed that there was a substantial 'Proto-Isaiah' to which these later oracles could appropriately be added. Elementary text books (and indeed some translations of the Bible) still speak in that way; thus for example the notes to the Good News Bible, or Today's English Version, state that the book of Isaiah is to be divided into three sections, each of which can be dated. The obvious implication is that there was a collection embodied in chs. 1-39, going back substantially to an eighth-century original, to which should be added chs. 40-55, as a later and separate collection, datable in the sixth century, with chs. 56-66 as a third block, about whose date there is less unanimity.

But we have been taught by a variety of commentators that this will not do. For a long time the so-called 'Isaiah apocalypse', chs. 24-27, was regarded as exceptional, a very late addition to the body of oracles. Nowadays, however, this section can no longer be regarded as an 'exception'. Thus, in one recent Introduction, that by Dillard and Longman,[2] the suggestion is made that 'In its most extreme form, critical dissection of the book left between 20% and 40% of Isaiah 1-39 as genuinely from the hand of Isaiah'. The authors seem not to have reckoned with Otto Kaiser, though he is mentioned in their bibliography. He ascribes only a few fragments in chs. 28-31 to Isaiah ben-Amoz. Not all will be as sceptical as he, but large parts of the material are now widely taken to be later than the eighth century; later, indeed, than the usual date offered for the supposed 'Deutero-Isaiah' chapters. If, for example, one concurs, in principle if not in detail, with the complicated redactional process outlined by Vermeylen one would be confronted with a whole series of elaborations within chs. 1-39 going right down to the Hellenistic period.[3] His sub-title speaks of 500 years of religious experience in Israel. This point need not be further elaborated. Many scholars working from very different standpoints have recognized an extremely complex redactional process underlying chs. 1-39 of the present book.

This is one reason for dissatisfaction with the usage which describes the block of material, chs. 40-55, as 'Deutero-Isaiah'. But there are other problems. There is, for example, the approach of a number of scholars which rejects the unity of these chapters. O.H. Steck has written widely on this topic[4] and R.G. Kratz is another of those who speak of the 'book' of Deutero-Isaiah; his title is Kyros im deuterojesaja-Buch,[5] though one might almost think that here it was used ironically, since much of the thrust of his argument is aimed to establish that there is no such thing as a book of Deutero-Isaiah, or at least only in a drastically modified sense. He claimed to be able to distinguish five strata within these chapters, ranging over roughly a century from 540 BCE onwards. Many will be doubtful whether it is possible to construct such elaborate super-structures on so insecure a foundation. We shall however return to Kratz's main point in the latter part of this paper.

It is not appropriate here to engage in any detailed discussion of the various redaction-critical attempts to discern different layers within chs. 40-55. A balanced treatment of that issue is offered by Her-misson,[6] in which he examines in rigorous detail the criteria for discerning redactional work, a thorough-going examination of this issue, which seems barely to have affected the English-speaking world of Hebrew Bible scholarship.

It is, of course, more widely recognized that chs. 40-48 and 49-55 stand to some extent as distinct units, though both are commonly joined as 'Deutero-Isaiah'. Also, in the past it has been customary to detach four 'servant songs' from the main body of the oracles in these chapters, but that practice is much less widespread than it was and need not here concern us. But these points are, in any case, marginal to the main concern in this part of this paper, which is simply to reject the common idea that the whole, or even a substantial part, of chs. 1-39 forms a foundation upon which chs. 40-55 are built as the next storey: the Troto' to which the 'Deutero' was added.

Relevant to these issues is H.G.M. Williamson's study, The Book called Isaiah.[7] If one were to be guided by his publisher's blurb, one would suppose that, like the Bible translation quoted earlier, he would speak of 'Isaiah of Jerusalem [Isaiah 1-39]' as 'the work of the earlier writer' which 'strongly influenced the author of Isaiah 40-55'. He was probably not responsible for the blurb, and of course the language of the book itself is much more nuanced, and he uses expressions such as 'a nucleus' of earlier writings.

It is not appropriate here to engage in detailed discussion of Williamson's work, because the particular issues with which he is there engaged are not really our present concern. All that need be said is that in a number of examples it was not clear whether the base oracle which he thought played a part in shaping the structure of the later part of the book was in fact already in existence to do so. In other words, as is so often the case in studies of this kind, we may well detect links between two passages, but the direction of influence is by no means always clear.

One other point which is one of Williamson's primary concerns must be mentioned before we conclude this part of our survey. There are a number of places in Isaiah 1-39 where the link with some part of chs. 40-55 is very clear. The most obvious example comes in ch. 35, which has long been recognized as problematic. All sorts of solutions have been proposed; J.L. McKenzie in his volume entitled Second Isaiah,[8] deals with chs. 34 and 35 under the disingenuous heading 'Scattered Poems' before going on to its main concern. Other scholars have taken ch. 35 as a very late reflection inspired by chs. 40-55, which, on this view, it 'quotes' in a number of places. Ronald Clements similarly regards it as setting out 'a hopeful summary of the message of Isaiah 40-55'.[9]

Another complication, which we may note without further elaboration, relates to chs. 13-14. Williamson's understanding of these chapters

is that they have not merely influenced 'Deutero-Isaiah', but that 'Deutero-Isaiah' had an important part in the present setting of those chapters within the complete collection. An understanding of this kind makes it clear how difficult it is to take chs. 40-55 simply as a self-contained unitary block of material.

This brings us to the last point which should be made in our consideration

of 'Deutero-Isaiah' as a designation of chs. 40-55. Much recent study of the whole book of Isaiah has drawn attention to different ways of dividing it. A pioneer in this regard was J.F.A. Sawyer whose two-volume Daily Study Bible[10] was deliberately divided after ch. 32 rather than between chs. 39 and 40 in the conventional fashion. Another who has broken away from the conventional 1-39, 40-66 division is J.D.W. Watts, who in his Word Bible Commentary has taken the view that the book as a whole should be seen in bifid fashion with the division at ch. 33.[11]

It is of course well-known that there are indications within the book itself that 40-55 are not to be regarded as a separate self-contained unit. The substantial identity between 48.22 and 57.21 is perhaps the most obvious such linkage.

Others have argued that it is more natural to take chs. 54-55 with what follows rather than with what precedes, thus making the great affirmations of ch. 53 the climax of a distinct section. It is not the purpose of the present paper to comment in detail on proposals of this kind, but simply to observe that in terms of the structure of the book as we have it, scholars from widely different standpoints have called into question the claim that chs. 40-55 form a distinct unit.

When we speak of 'Deutero-Isaiah', however, the reference is often not to a body of oracles but to an alleged sixth-century prophet active among the Judahite exiles in Babylon. It is to that question that we must now turn.

3. The Historical Situation

For the most part the studies of the book to which allusion has been made (and there are many others which might be mentioned) have simply taken for granted a particular series of historical developments which provided the context for the prophet 'Deutero-Isaiah'. We must now look again at the situation in which that alleged individual is supposed to have lived. The outline picture is familiar enough, but it is appropriate to rehearse it briefly before focusing on particular aspects of it.

Basically, the standard account runs that Judah surrendered to Nebuchadrezzar in 597 BCE, following the siege of Jerusalem, and king Jehoiachin and a number of others were taken off to Babylon. Unwisely those left in control of affairs in Jerusalem rebelled against Nebuchadrezzar in circumstances about whose precise details we can only speculate, and this led to the destruction of Jerusalem, in 587 or 586 BCE, and the removal of a further group to Babylon. There may have been yet another deportation in or around 582 BCE (thus Jer. 52.30). Of events in Jerusalem for the next fifty years we know virtually nothing.

On the other hand, it is claimed that what we can know is that there came to exist in Babylon a Jewish community from which, it is held, a great deal of creative thinking emerged. How should the community properly react to the miseries of living in a foreign land after the destruction of much of its homeland? Pre-eminent in bringing about this creative thinking, it is argued, were two prophets: Ezekiel, who first warned the community of the inevitability of the disaster, and then preached a more hopeful message of restoration; and then 'Deutero-Isaiah', who was active 30 or 40 years later, and encouraged the group of exiles to look forward to a restoration which was both imminent and wonderful.

It is a well-known and familiar picture. And its reliability has been accepted even by some of those who have been most sceptical about some earlier parts of the people's history. Over the years many different views have been put forward concerning the time and the locale of Ezekiel, but they seem to have died away, and most recent presentations of Ezekiel take it for granted that he was a sixth-century figure, part at least of whose ministry was among the exiles in Babylon. Whether all the difficulties about such a presentation raised by some earlier studies of Ezekiel have actually been resolved seems doubtful, but Ezekiel is not our present concern.

Mention has just been made of the scepticism expressed by many scholars concerning the historicity of the biblical accounts of Israel's early history. One of the reasons for such doubts has been that insufficient attention has been paid to the ideological element in the presentation of those accounts. Fair enough. But when it comes to ideological reconstruction it is important to remember that the reality of the exile as an experience in which the whole true community had participated was of basic significance as another important piece of ideology. All of 'true' Israel must have passed through the experience of exile. I have tried to illustrate that theme briefly elsewhere,12 and will not elaborate further on it now. What it means in practice is that we should be warned to approach the picture of exile, specific and implied, in the same spirit of cautious scepticism with regard to its underlying historicity that we have been warned to adopt when looking at the Exodus or the reign of David.

But let us return to our main theme and try to be more specific. Nearly forty years ago two histories of Israel were published, which differed very radically in their understanding of the early period, but also took different views of the consequences of the end of the state of Judah. John Bright insisted that the centre of gravity of the community had, as it were, moved; that it was the exiles in Babylon who were the spiritual (and political and economic) centre. Martin Noth, by contrast, was emphatic that that centre remained in Palestine, despite our lack of detailed knowledge of events there.

Since they wrote that divergence has continued. With regard to the locus of the Deuteronomists, for example, there are those who insist that they were among the exiles in Babylon, and equally strong voices confident that only in Palestine itself can their activities properly be understood. This divergence assumes greater importance on account of the fact that the importance of the exilic period in the bringing into literary form of earlier traditions has assumed ever increasing importance. One of the first to give adequate weight to this fact was P.R. Ackroyd. In his study, Exile and Restoration, he began his consideration of the situation in Babylonia by describing it as 'difficult to describe with precision'.13 He does, however, warn against the assumption that the exiled Jews were able to continue to operate as a well-knit and organized group, busily introducing various religious practices which would become the great stand-bys of later Judaism: synagogues, Sabbath-observance and circumcision. But, though he recognized the force of the arguments of C.C. Torrey and others who questioned the sixth-century dating of Isaiah 40-66, he is content in general terms to accept the Babylonian setting and the conventional dating of at least chs. 40-55.

We need now to consider first the social setting, then the geographical setting, and then, most importantly, the alleged historical context of these chapters.

First, the social setting. This must be dealt with very briefly, for two good reasons; first, that almost everything that is said about it must be purely speculative; secondly, that its applicability to the present argument is heavily dependent on the geographical and historical concerns to which we shall next address ourselves. But it is right to remind ourselves of some of the improbabilities implicit in the supposed social setting which underlies the conventional view. The exile to Babylon has first of all to be presented as unmitigated disaster (Ps. 137 is the locus classicus, but various other examples can be put forward); but then we are invited to suppose that the group of exiles was allowed to remain together as a coherent group, plotting against the government, engaged in the most seditious propaganda. It is scarcely surprising that the servant song in ch. 53 has been understood by some scholars as a threnody following the death of its author. Such a view is not now seriously maintained to the best of my knowledge.

It is surely wise to see ideological considerations at work here. The claim is made, that whereas the exiles of the former Northern Kingdom had been scattered in different parts of the Assyrian Empire (so 2 Kgs 17-18), the exiles of Judah had been providentially allowed to remain together as a coherent group, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to return. We know rather little of Babylonian policy with regard to the various groups which they exiled from their homeland, but such benevolence seems at best unlikely.

Secondly, the geographical context. The assumption that these chapters

have a Babylonian background is, for the most part, just that, an assumption. B. Duhm, in many ways the father of modern Isaiah studies,

thought a Phoenician background to be the most likely. The very beginning of the section, 40.2, poses a problem for those who posit a Babylonian setting, for someone is to 'speak tenderly to Jerusalem', and it is not easy to see how that can be done in Babylon. Solutions to the problem have of course been proposed: that 'Jerusalem' was in some sense a collective name for the group of exiles; or that 'al-lêb yerûMlayim should be translated as 'concerning Jerusalem' or the like. Neither solution seems wholly convincing; as in the rest of the book of Isaiah, a Jerusalem setting seems more appropriate. One may note such incidental pointers as the use of 'from there' (miSMm) in 52.11, clearly referring to Babylon, which is an odd expression to use if the material was composed in Babylon.

We do not assume, when confronted with a collection of foreign nations oracles in the various prophetic books, that the prophet delivered

them while on some kind of package tour; nor, it seems, do these chapters demand a Babylonian setting—though, as we shall see, when the ideology of exile came to be established, such a setting became an important part of that ideology.

The specific arguments used in favour of a Babylonian background for these chapters are remarkably few. Perhaps the most extreme treatment was that of S. Smith, who in his 1940 Seh weich Lectures devoted a whole lecture to 'Some Unrecognised Historical Material in Isaiah Chapters XL-LV'.14 It seems not unfair to say that the material he thought was unrecognized has remained unrecognized nearly sixty years later. His attempts to trace allusions to the developments of Cyrus's career in those chapters are widely regarded as misplaced.

A more moderate view of a supposed Babylonian background to these chapters is, however, widespread. Norman Whybray, for example,

speaks of the 'familiarity with the Babylonian scene' shown in these chapters.15 In fact, however, the only specific example of this familiarity which he offers is the reference to Cyrus Elsewhere, of course, he and others have noted references to the Babylonian gods But I can find no greater 'familiarity with the Babylonian scene' in these chapters than that displayed by Amos speaking of Damascus and other neighbouring states (Amos 1 3-2 3) Indeed, if we want a closer parallel we could turn to Jeremiah 50-51, a very extended oracle, or series of oracles, concerning Babylon.

That material begins with the summons (it is not obvious who is summoned) to 'set up a banner1, and thereon to announce that "Babylon is taken, Bel is put to shame, Merodach is dismayed Her images are put to shame her idols are dismayed" (Jer 50 2). This seems at least to equal the references to 'Bel' and 'Nebo\ for example in Isaiah 46, which are put forward as clear indications that Isaiah 40-55 have a Babylonian background Yet the book of Jeremiah seems emphatic that the prophet was never in Babylon We have been taught to treat with a proper scepticism the apparent historical evidence offered by the book of Jeremiah, but there seems no reason for doubting it on this occasion.

As to geographical setting, then, the alleged Babylonian context seems to be far from established We are brought back to our general uncertainty concerning events in Jerusalem during the sixth century, and the difficulty of knowing where the true 'centre of gravity' of the community was to be found 16 It was important for the later community to stress the reality of the 'Babylonian experience'.

These geographical uncertainties, though they would be a dent in the established presentation of Deutero-Isaiah as a prophet among the sixth-century exiles, would not totally ruin such a picture The historical uncertainties deserve rather more detailed scrutiny.

There is a certain sameness about the various treatments of this problem, which makes one realize once again how heavily historical reconstructions depend on the context within which one is arguing That context, in many presentations of Isaiah, has been an argument about the unity of the book Scholars have been concerned to show that it cannot come from one author There are, of course, literary and theological features which differentiate these chapters from most of what has preceded, but to establish the weight of such features in this argument is more difficult. It requires a kind of petitio principii. If one says, for example, that ch. 40 onwards must be different in origin from the earlier chapters because those earlier chapters made little reference to the exodus, while that now becomes a prominent theme, it is a reasonable response to say that no author introduces every topic at once; it is part of a conscious literary style to develop new themes as the work goes on.

With historical issues, on the other hand, critical scholars have felt themselves to be on much more secure ground. There were those in the past who regarded a reference to the sixth-century ruler Cyrus in an eighth-century author as a testimony to the prophetic skill of that author. But post-Enlightenment people in the cold light of day can only suppose that a reference to Cyrus must be from the sixth century or later.

Here there is a curiosity. It is as if, having reached a date which can be defended on legitimate historical grounds, the feeling arises that they need go no further. If Cyrus is mentioned, then the author of the oracles referring to him must be his contemporary. The logic of this is puzzling. It may be part of that long-standing and rather curious syndrome that to date any part of the Bible relatively early is somehow more orthodox, more respectable, than to date it late. Perhaps to give this part of Isaiah the earliest plausible date would somehow bolster its authority? That, I readily admit, is pure speculation.

It may, however, be helpful to make two points with regard to the references to Cyrus. The first would be to note the parallel with Sennacherib. Sennacherib is described in chs. 36-37 of the book as a model of the wicked foreign ruler, confident that he can show himself more powerful than the Lord and those who are faithful to him, and meeting the fate that he deserves for such arrogant behaviour: his army is destroyed, he himself is betrayed and killed by his own sons. Instead of gaining access to the temple of the true God he goes to his own false temple and receives the destiny that was waiting for him.

In contrast, Cyrus is a model of what a foreign ruler should be like. It is difficult to know how widely or seriously the idea that Cyrus himself became a worshipper of Israel's God came to be taken. It is certainly almost explicit in Ezra 1.2, and makes good sense in Isa. 44.28 and 45.1. These later chapters of Isaiah seem to have little hope of, or concern for, the emergence of a native ruler. In 55.3, as is well-known, it appears as if the covenant once made with David is to be k democratized', made applicable to the whole people. In other words, by the time that these chapters reached their final form, some time during the Persian period, the community had come to terms with living under foreign rule. And the question would naturally be asked what should properly be expected of such a ruler?

In reply to such a question, Cyrus came to be held up as a model. We have been warned by, for example, Amélie Kuhrt,17 not to assess the historical Cyrus either by the biblical view or by his own propaganda efforts, but that need not be our present concern. In the biblical account Cyrus could be regarded as God's shepherd (44.28). 'Shepherd' was of course a standard metaphor for kings; and the particular kingly concern on which the tradition focused was that there should be a temple, a royal chapel, no doubt, but also a place which would be the central point of the people's devotion to its god. And so it is to Cyrus that is ascribed the joyful instructions: who says of Jerusalem, 'It shall be rebuilt', and of the temple, 'Your foundations shall be laid'" (44.28). This raises the second point to be made about Cyrus. He has gone down into the historical record, not only as the one who gave permission for the Jerusalem temple to be rebuilt, but also as the one who permitted, indeed encouraged, the return of the exiles. Here once again we are very much in the realm of ideology.

The standard historical outline of events affecting Judah in the sixth century, the earlier part of which was sketched above, goes on to affirm that Cyrus of Anshan, once a tributary of Babylon, rose against Babylonian power, overthrew the city, and then allowed the exiled Judahites to return. 'Deutero-Isaiah' on this view was looking forward to that happy development, confident that it was about to take place and urging the community in Babylon to be prepared for it.

But here there are problems. First of all, there is the geographical uncertainty already mentioned. Then, more seriously, what do we mean by talking about a 'return from exile'? The only clear account of such an alleged event is found in the early chapters of Ezra, where we read that, at the first opportunity, 42,360 people, together of course with their servants and other hangers-on, made the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem.

The problem here is the whole issue of the historical reliability of Ezra's account. If we accept the very strong arguments put forward by Williamson, we can regard Ezra 1-6 as a late piece, composed as a prelude to the combined story of Ezra and Nehemiah, composed, that is, at a time when it had become axiomatic that there had been a major return from exile.18 All we can know with any confidence is that there does seem to have been greater freedom of movement during the early years of the Persian Empire. Zechariah 1-8, for example, seems to know of conditions in Babylon. Even though one must be careful not to make too much of that, as already argued with regard to Isaiah 40-55, it certainly seems as if the picture in Zech. 6.9 of a group who are described as 'exiles who have arrived from Babylon' could reasonably be taken as implying the possibility of freer movement between different

parts of the Persian Empire.

One may briefly refer to the individuals Ezra and Nehemiah here. They are an embarrassment to the view of a mass return of all the committed ones from Babylon to Jerusalem at the earliest opportunity, for there they were, still in the East, nearly a century after the permission to return had allegedly been given. They do, however, give us appropriate evidence of such greater freedom of movement, which is attested on other grounds as one of the characteristic features of the Persian Empire, with its excellent system of communication.

To return to Cyrus. The two forms of the 'Cyrus decree' in Ezra differ in a variety of ways. In particular the form in ch. 6 refers only to the rebuilding of the temple, whereas that in ch. 1 speaks also of a return of exiles. It seems to be consonant with the suggested late dating of Ezra 1-6 to regard the form in ch. 1 as a later idealization of what must or should have happened, and to limit Cyrus's beneficence to the Judahite community to the matter of the temple. The temple is what they were given permission to reconstruct; the movement of communities around his empire was not the kind of thing for which decrees would be issued.

All of this is no doubt familiar enough. The reason for rehearsing it here is simply to observe how rarely the implications of such a reconstruction have been applied to the consideration of Isaiah 40-55. Either we retain what has become the traditional dating and placing of the 'author' of these chapters and say that he was wrong; or we acknowledge that we have fewer clues than we thought as to the context of this material.

Reference was made earlier on to the work of R.G. Kratz, whose precise

delineation of the material in Isaiah 40-55 into five definable blocks was not accepted. Nevertheless, he has made an important point. A good deal of the material in these chapters is looking back on Cyrus and what he was understood as having promised to the people; looking back, that is, from a significantly later perspective. It is an important part of Kratz's thesis that other texts in these chapters have come to be applied to the developing picture of Cyrus, "Who has roused a victor from the east, summoned him to his service?"(41 2) would be an excellent example. (I am aware of the difficulties in translating the first line, mi hëlr mimmïzrâh sedeq, but they are not relevant to our present concerns.) It would be dangerous to treat this poem as originally intended to 'refer' to Cyrus, but the possibility of understanding

it in such a way is an obvious and attractive one. Gwilym Jones has argued persuasively that neither the traditional view seeing here a reference to Abraham, nor the more usual modern application to Cyrus, was in itself satisfactory.19 Jones took the standard understanding of 'Deutero-Isaiah' for granted, but his argument does not depend on that understanding. I would want to maintain that the ideology which insisted that all Israel had passed through an experience of exile was part of the developing understanding which shaped the final form ol these chapters. One need not go along with Kratz in his detailed reconstruction of the literary growth of the Cyrus theme to see that the general principle he is annunciating is a sound one. As A. Gelston stressed in his review of the book, there is 'a consistent heightening of the role of Cyrus as conqueror in the plan of world history'.

At this point we need to remember that, though the existence of a prophet conventionally identified as 'Deutero-Isaiah' among a group of Judahite exiles in Babylon in the 540s BCE has come to be taken for granted, the onus of proof still remains with those who have argued in that sense. There is no external evidence to support the proposal. And it does appear that the readings of the evidence here briefly outlined render our knowledge of the historical situation of that period much less certain than we have supposed.

There is, however, one further element of ideological consideration which needs to be borne in mind. One of the characteristic features of critical study of the prophets in the last century and early in this century was the identifying and for all practical purposes discarding of material designated as 'secondary'. But to do that with Isaiah meant the dismissal of some of the material which had played a most powerful part in the Christian tradition. The 'Servant' poems and other highlights of Isaiah 40-55 could not be dismissed in the same cavalier way as, say, the last few verses of Amos. They could not be pictured as simply 'emerging' from later, secondary, anonymous redactors. And so there was, as it were, a built-in need to 'invent' a prophet to provide the appropriate context for these powerful poems. It is difficult to quantify the importance of that kind of thinking; it should certainly be borne in mind.

4. Synchronic and Diachronie Readings

This paper has said nothing of those attempts—increasingly fashionable though they are—to read the book of Isaiah as a constructed whole. Here I have to confess to finding myself in a considerable difficulty. There is a real sense in which I continue to find the book unreadable. J.F.A. Sawyer has offered a vivid presentation of Isaiah as The Fifth Gospel,21 but there Isaiah is not so much a book as an enormous bran-tub, containing the most wonderful variety of goodies. There are commentaries which see the book as a whole, stressing its literary form and claiming to detect an overall pattern or structure, but it may be more appropriate to view it as an anthology, and it is not characteristic of anthologies that we should read them and make sense of them from beginning to end.

At the last, however, it seems that some awareness of the historical element, the process of transmission history, is an essential ingredient in our proper understanding of Isaiah. If it could satisfactorily be established that an important and identifiable stage in that transmission history took place among a group of exiles in Babylon that would be a valuable gain. I have to say that I do not think that particular feature m the process can be identified. If chs. 40-55 do form one coherent block in the corpus as a whole—and that is a question which has deliberately been left open—they should be placed firmly within the Persian period, rather than at its very beginning, as convention has decreed. But our ignorance of the details of that period probably precludes any more detailed identification of historical circumstances.

There is a sense at this point that one may be pushing at an open door. Thus, for example, R.E. Clements in the new introduction to the collection of his studies of prophecy, which is subtitled The Interpretation of Old Testament Prophecy 1965-95'22 says that 'to consider the words of Isaiah 40-55 as forming a quite separate and independent work, as has frequently been assumed among scholars, would appear to have been a major misdirection of critical acumen'.2^ So much for the 'book of Deutero-Isaiah' ! It is probable that Clements's concerns there are not quite identical with those which have been expressed here, but they point in substantially the same direction. Much greater caution than has been usual should characterize our use of the expression 'Deutero-Isaiah', whether to speak of a collection of oracles or of a (possibly non-existent) individual.


To speak of 'Deutero-Isaiah' has become standard practice in Hebrew Bible scholarship, to refer both to a body of oracles (Isa 40-55), and to an anonymous prophet active among the Babylonian exiles in the 540s BCE Neither of these references is as secure as is commonly supposed Much of the material commonly identified as 4 Proto-Isaiah' may actually be later than this period, and the unity of chs 40-55 is also doubtful In addition there are sociological, geographical and historical reasons for questioning the existence of a group of exiles in Babylon to whom the supposed 'Deutero-Isaiah' may have witnessed To understand these chapters as having a Babylonian, exilic, background owes more to ideological considerations than has commonly been recognized.

See the rest →
Get this media plus thousands more when you start a free trial.
Get started for FREE
See the rest →