Did More Than One Man Write Isaiah?

From the Church’s perspective, the key thing is that the entire book of Isaiah is the word of God

Prophet Isaiah, 18th century, Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi Monastery, Karelia, Russia
Prophet Isaiah, 18th century, Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi Monastery, Karelia, Russia (photo: Register Files)

For most of Church history, the standard view was that the entire book of Isaiah—all 66 chapters of it—was written by one man: the original prophet Isaiah, who lived in the 700s B.C.

However, most modern scholars propose that it is the work of more than one man, with the original Isaiah writing chapters 1-39 and one or more later prophets writing chapters 40-66.

Recently, my Register co-blogger Stephen Beale wrote an interesting piece exploring the question. He summarized arguments for and against both positions, and—though he didn’t pronounce definitively—he favored the traditional view.

Personally, I don’t have strong views on the subject. Although I’ve been aware of the arguments for a long time, I haven’t yet worked through them in detail, and I don’t like to draw firm conclusions where I haven’t studied the arguments.

However, I have studied the issue enough that I’d like to interact with a few of the points Beale made.


1) Predictive Prophecy

In arguing why the authorship of Isaiah matters, Beale states:

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.

Beale is correct that, if some parts of Isaiah were written later than originally thought, then the book would contain fewer passages of predictive prophecy. That, in turn, would mean that there would be fewer examples of miraculous foreknowledge that apologists and others could appeal to in building a case for faith.

However, we need to be careful. Beale only cites this as a reason why the authorship issue is important, but there can be a temptation to treat this as if it helped us answer the question. Specifically, there can be a temptation to reason like this:

  • If Isaiah wasn’t all written in the 700s B.C. then it contains fewer predictions.
  • Fewer predictions means less evidence to make the case for faith.
  • I want as much evidence as I can get to make the case for faith.
  • Therefore, I should argue that all of Isaiah must have been written in the 700s B.C.

This kind of reasoning is particularly tempting in light of the human tendency known as loss aversion. That is, we perceive losing things as a threat, even when it isn’t rational to do so.

The temptation here is to view the loss of potential predictions as a threat, pushing us in the direction of preserving the single-author view regardless of what the evidence may say.

The problem is that, while more predictions might be useful apologetically, the question of what is useful and what is true are two separate issues. The latter needs to be settled based on evidence, not usefulness.

The desire to adopt positions based on how useful they are is a classic temptation for apologists, and they need to be on their guard against it. Not only can the temptation pull us away from the truth in particular cases, if allowed free reign, it can pull us away from what the evidence points to in case after case, and that results in weaker apologetics overall.

The better attitude in the long term is to face what the evidence points to squarely and trust that God’s truth will prove its superiority in the end.


2) Biblical Inerrancy

Continuing his argument for why the authorship issue is important, Beale writes:

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.

Beale points out the logical response to this claim: The New Testament authors were simply using the conventional language of their day.

In the first century, the book of Isaiah—all 66 chapters—was in circulation as a single work and called “Isaiah.” Thus, when they wanted to quote from this book, they said things like, “As Isaiah prophecies,” etc.

In using this language, they weren’t trying to settle the question of how Isaiah was composed or how many people had a hand in it. Indeed, the question likely didn’t even occur to them. They were simply using a conventional mode of speech.

They may have even been assuming that there was only a single author, just like at one stage in his career Paul seems to have assumed that he would be alive at the time of the Second Coming (cf. 1 Thess. 4:17).

But, as Vatican II taught, the Holy Spirit guarantees the assertions of the biblical authors (see Dei Verbum 11), not their assumptions.

Unless the New Testament authors were intending to assert that only one man wrote Isaiah, the inerrancy of Scripture would not be challenged by the discovery that there was more than one.


3) The Inspiration of Scripture

Beale argues:

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.

I don’t know how much rethinking is necessary. We’ve always been aware that inspiration is a process that can include more than one person:

  • Even people who wish to attribute the vast bulk of the Pentateuch directly to Moses acknowledge that, after his death, someone (Joshua?) added Deuteronomy 34:1-12, which contains the account of his death.
  • Paul regularly included one or more co-authors in composing his epistles (1 Cor. 1:1, 2 Cor. 1:1, Phil. 1:1, Col. 1:1, 1 Thess. 1:1, 2 Thess. 1:1).
  • Scribes like Baruch and Tertius (cf. Jer. 36:4, Rom. 16:22) would have performed their normal scribal functions, including minor editorial duties.
  • Depending on your view of the Synoptic Problem, Luke used Mark or Matthew or both in composing his Gospel, in which he re-edits and supplements previously inspired material. Luke’s Gospel represents a much more complex situation than just adding two new sections to the end of Isaiah.

There is no problem with God inspiring one man to write and then later inspiring another to supplement or edit the first work and produce a new edition.

Ultimately, everyone involved in the production of a piece of canonical Scripture was used by the Holy Spirit as his instrument and thus participated in the process of that work being “God-breathed” or inspired (2 Tim. 3:16).


4) Devotion to Scripture

Beale also writes that:

All of the above [i.e., the proposed impact multiple contributors to Isaiah would have regarding prophecy, inerrancy and inspiration] 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.

It’s certainly true that scholars can frame their proposals in a way that disturbs the faith of ordinary people, and this is something that very much needs to be avoided.

When a scholar proposes a view that differs from the traditional one, he needs to go out of his way to show how it is compatible with Christian belief and why it should not threaten or disturb anyone’s faith.

Beale and I are very much in agreement on this.

There is also a flipside to the principle, which is that those who advocate traditional views should not portray newer proposals as automatically faith-threatening.

They also should reassure people that, just because a new proposal has been made, that doesn’t mean it contradicts Christian belief or that it should disturb the faithful.

This means that everybody—both those proposing new ideas and those proposing traditional views—need to discuss matters in a way that does not unnecessarily disturb the faith of others.


The Role of the Magisterium

The ultimate arbiter of whether a view is compatible with Christian belief is the Church’s Magisterium—i.e., the bishops teaching in union with the pope.

In this regard, Beale writes:

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.

Beale’s statement is accurate as far as it goes, but he does not go on to point out that recent popes have favored the multi-author view (though they have not mandated that the faithful hold this view).

It seems to me that this is a point that needs to be made to accurately represent where the Magisterium is on the subject (i.e., that it has no problem with the multi-author view) and to reassure the faithful that the multi-author view need not be faith-threatening.

Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI regularly referred to Deutero-Isaiah (aka Second Isaiah), the proposed author of chapters 40-55, and Trito-Isaiah (aka Third Isaiah), the proposed author of chapters 56-66. Here are just two brief examples:

[John Paul II:] In the book that bears the Prophet Isaiah's name, scholars have identified various voices all of which are placed under the patronage of this great prophet who lived in the eighth century B.C. This is the case with the vigorous hymn of joy and victory that has just been proclaimed as part of the Liturgy of Lauds of the Fourth Week. Exegetes refer to it as the so-called "Second Isaiah," a prophet who lived in the sixth century B.C., at the time of the return of the Hebrews from the Babylonian Exile (General Audience, Nov. 20, 2002).

[Benedict XVI:] Today's First Reading, from "Third Isaiah," gives us the precise perspective for understanding the reality of the Church as a mystery of reflected light: "Arise, shine" the Prophet says, addressing Jerusalem, "for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you" (Is 60: 1) (Angelus, Dec. 7, 2008). 

Particularly noteworthy is a passage in which Benedict XVI discussed the disturbance that was initially caused when the multi-author view was first proposed and how it was later realized that the initial concern turned out not to be a problem:

One should read everything, but always mindful of the totality of Sacred Scripture, where one part explains the other, one passage on the journey explains the other. On this point, modern exegesis can also be of great help to us.

Let us take, for example, the Book of Isaiah. When the exegetes discovered that from Chapter 40 on the author was someone else—Deutero-Isaiah, as he was then called—there was a moment of great panic for Catholic theologians.

Some thought that in this way Isaiah would be destroyed and that at the end, in Chapter 53, the vision of the Servant of God was no longer that of Isaiah who lived almost 800 years before Christ. "What shall we do?," people wondered.

We now realize that the whole book is a process of constantly new interpretations where one enters ever more deeply into the mystery proposed at the beginning, and that what was initially present but still closed, unfolds increasingly. In one book, we can understand the whole journey of Sacred Scripture, which is an ongoing reinterpretation, or rather, a new and better understanding of all that had been said previously (Benedict XVI, Lenten Meeting with the Clergy of Rome, Feb. 22, 2007).

From the Church’s perspective, the key thing is that the entire book of Isaiah was written under divine inspiration and is the word of God written. Who wrote individual parts of it is regarded as a matter of history rather than a matter of faith.