Stephen Beale has been a freelance writer and journalist for over 10 years, reporting on presidential politics, government corruption, and other public affairs. He also writes frequently about Church history, spirituality, and theology. He holds an undergraduate from Brown University in classics and history. He currently resides in Providence, Rhode Island.
The recent discovery of potential archaeological evidence for the prophet Isaiah comes at a time when there is a still a lively debate over whether Isaiah wrote the whole book that bears his name.
What seems undisputed is that there are indeed significant differences across the book. Isaiah easily divides into two sections, chapters 1 to 39, describing the Assyrian conflict and 40 to 66, corresponding to the period of Babylonian prophecy. Over the last century or so, many modern biblical scholars have attributed different authors to these sections. In fact, many further subdivide the last section, breaking off chapters 56 to 66 and assigning it yet another author. (As this writer puts it, modern scholars have ‘sawn’ Isaiah into pieces all over again.)
In many places, people will tell you this is now the consensus view. That’s overstating it a bit. It might be the majority view but there is a significant minority of conservative scholars who adhere to the traditional viewpoint and actively publish articles and books defending it.
Why the debate matters
One proponent of the three-author view says it’s a ‘needless debate.’ I disagree. Here is why it matters:
1. The reality of predictive prophecy. If in fact the latter parts of Isaiah were written by a different author it would mean those accounts are contemporary descriptions not prophetic predictions. This would potentially diminish the power of Scripture as a witness to the role of God in history and, in particular, to his direct intervention through Christ. Even if scholars came to an authentic consensus that there was a Second Isaiah this consensus would need to be articulated in such a way that it did not undermine the book’s prophetic vision of Christ as the Messiah.
2. The inerrancy of the Bible. The Church teaches that in matters of faith and morals, at least, Scripture is without error. So, the problem with the Second and Third Isaiah theory is that the New Testament quotes from the later portions of Isaiah and simply refers to them as being from Isaiah. (See here for a table of citations.)
One could argue that the divinely inspired authors were simply using the terminology that was accessible to their audience. But this argument isn’t as compelling as it might at first seem. First, it relatives truth (as my father, G.K. Beale, a biblical scholar, argues in his book, The Erosion of Inerrancy). Second, the New Testament authors were the greatest Scripture scholars ever to live. No one knew the Old Testament better than they did—and they simply did not make such mistakes. For example, in 1 Corinthians 10:4, when St. Paul alludes to a Jewish tradition that the rock followed the Israelites in the desert, he does not misidentify this as being from Book of Exodus.
3. The inspiration of Scripture. Postulating multiple authors for Isaiah isn’t necessarily at odds with the doctrine of inspiration. Just as the real Isaiah was inspired so could have been Second and Third Isaiah. But it does seem to muddy the waters a bit, especially when some scholars are keen in proposing yet more authors to Isaiah. We would need to rethink what we meant by inspiration if it a book was the product of a community of scribes and not a single author or two.
4. Devotion to Scripture. All of the above threaten to undermine the power of Scripture for the layman. Perhaps one should not devote so much time to the prayerful contemplation of Isaiah if he did not really write the book and if it does not say what we thought it did. Theologians, especially Catholic theologians, need to consider the implications of their scholarship, as their ultimate duty is to serve the Church. That doesn’t mean they don’t investigate the historical truth about the composition of Isaiah. But they ought to frame their conclusions in such a way that it does not undermine confidence in Scripture as a source of the faith.
5. Sola Scriptura. Thus far, the argument in favor of a single Isaiah seems to have been made mostly by conservative evangelical scholars. Clearly, the importance of Sola Scriptura is driving these efforts. But Catholics should be no less interested in this debate. We too hold to the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture. We do not hold to Scripture as exclusively authoritative but I see no reason why that should diminish our solicitude for its integrity.
What are the arguments for and against multiple Isaiahs?
Space permits only a brief glance at some of the arguments here:
Arguments for many authors:
- The description of Babylonian captivity reads not as a prophecy but as a contemporary account. (See here and here.)
- There is a change in historical subject matter Isaiah 39 to 40, which addresses the Babylonian captivity. (See here.)
- The tone and theme shift from one of judgment to one of consolation. (See here.)
- In Second Isaiah, God is depicted as a universal rather than a national God, as in First Isaiah. (See here.)
Arguments for a single author:
- A statistical analysis of the words used in Isaiah supports single authorship. (See here.)
- While some scholars say the context for Second Isaiah is Babylonian exile—not merely a prophecy of it—there is also evidence from references to plants and animals that the author of Second Isaiah was actually living in Palestine. (See here.)
- Isaiah uses the same unique name for God—‘the holy one’—in both the first and second halves. (See here.)
- Moreover, archaeologists have never been able to find any manuscripts of First, Second or Third Isaiah. They are always found together as one book. That includes the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 20th century. (See here and here.)
One big problem with the multiple author theory
There is not enough space here to adjudicate debate point by point, but it’s worth noting that is one fundamental flaw to the multiple-authors theory that it needs to overcome in order to win over more conservative-minded Christians.
The flaw rests in assuming that a change in theme, tone, style, and structure necessarily entails a difference in authorship. There are plenty of examples of where we see such changes from a single author, both inside and outside the Bible. One thinks especially of Genesis, which shifts from historical poetry in the beginning to more of a historical narrative. The gospels, which blend historical narrative, poetry and a proverbial style, also come into mind. Of course, modern scholars do not believe that Genesis or the individual gospels had single authors either.
So we have to look outside the gospels and there are still some examples—even in the ancient world. One is Herodotus, the father of history, who weaves anthropology and mythology in with actual history. Herodotus lived and wrote during the 400s BC, about 400 years after the historical Isaiah. Another example from later in antiquity is the Aeneid, which has a decided shift in tone and political philosophy between its first and second half.
Of course there are even more examples from later writers. Compare the hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas to the Summa. Or the poetry of St. John of the Cross to his commentary on his own poems. Or the Chronicles of Narnia to the Abolition of Man.
What should Catholics believe?
The Church does not require the faithful to hold to any particular view of the authorship of Isaiah. And, in second half of the 20th century, especially after Vatican II, the Church has given theologians the freedom to critically examine such issues of authorship.
But the Church has also been clear about both the limits and uses of the historical-critical method—the approach to biblical scholarship that came up with the multiple author theory. As Pope Benedict XVI has said, Christianity needs to be open to historical investigation since its truth claims are based on history. At the same time, Benedict XVI, then as Cardinal Ratzinger, has argued for greater deference to the tradition of the Fathers in biblical scholarship. In other words, we should not rely solely on modern scholars to explain the Bible to us.
The important thing about the Church’s openness to modern scholarship is that it works both ways: just as scholars are free to explore the possibility of multiple Isaiahs, so also we are not compelled to accept their conclusions—especially given that the debate is far from settled.