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The Book of Isaiah (Hebrew: ספר ישעיה) is the first of the Latter Prophets in the Hebrew Bible and the first of the Major Prophets in English Bibles. The oldest surviving manuscripts of Isaiah are two scrolls found among the Dead Sea Scrolls; dating from about a century before the time of Jesus, they are substantially identical with the Masoretic version which forms the basis of most modern English-language versions of the book.
Isaiah identifies itself as the words of the 8th century BCE prophet Isaiah ben Amoz, but there is ample evidence that much of it was composed during the Babylonian captivity and later. The scholarly consensus which held sway through most of the 20th century saw three separate collections of oracles: Proto-Isaiah (chapters 1–39), containing the words of Isaiah; Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40–55), the work of an anonymous 6th-century author writing during the Exile; and Trito-Isaiah (chapters 56–66), composed after the return from exile. While one part of the consensus still holds – virtually no one maintains that the entire book, or even most of it, was written by one person – this perception of Isaiah as made up of three rather distinct sections underwent a radical challenge in the last quarter of the 20th century. A great deal of current research concentrates on the book's essential unity, with Isaiah 1–33 projecting judgement and restoration for Judah, Jerusalem and the nations, and chapters 34–66 presupposing that judgement has already taken place and restoration is at hand. It can thus be read as an extended meditation on the destiny of Jerusalem into and after the Exile.
The scholarly consensus which held sway through most of the 20th century saw three separate collections of oracles in the book of Isaiah. A typical outline based on this understanding of the book sees its underlying structure in terms of the identification of historical figures who might have been their authors:
While one part of the consensus still holds – virtually no one maintains that the entire book, or even most of it, was written by one person – this perception of Isaiah as made up of three rather distinct sections underwent a radical challenge in the last quarter of the 20th century. The newer approach looks at the book in terms of its literary and formal characteristics, rather than authors, and sees in it a two-part structure divided between chapters 33 and 34:
Seeing Isaiah as a two-part book (chapters 1–33 and 34–66) with an overarching theme leads to a summary of its contents like the following:
The older understanding the book as three fairly discrete sections attributable to identifiable authors leads to a more atomised picture of its contents, as in this example:
While it is widely accepted that the book of Isaiah is rooted in a historic prophet called Isaiah, who lived in the Kingdom of Judah during the 8th century BCE, it is also widely accepted that this prophet did not write the entire book of Isaiah. The observations which have led to this are as follows:
Disputes over the authorship of Isaiah date back to Medieval times, when Jewish scholars and commentators expressed belief that certain sections of the book were not written by Isaiah. Most notably, Abraham ibn Ezra, a distinguished Jewish scholar in 12th-century Spain, questioned the authorship of certain sections of Isaiah in an 1167 commentary.
These observations led scholars to the conclusion that the book can be conveniently divided into three sections, labelled Proto-Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and Trito-Isaiah. Early modern-period scholars treated Isaiah as independent collections of sayings by three individual prophets, brought together at a much later period, about 70 BCE, to form the present book. The second half of the 20th century saw a marked change in approach, and scholars have begun to detect a deliberate arrangement of materials to give the book an overarching theological message.
The composition history of Isaiah reflects a major difference in the way authorship was regarded in ancient Israel and in modern societies: the ancients did not regard it as inappropriate to supplement an existing work while remaining anonymous. While the authors, apart from the historic Isaiah behind parts of chapters 1–39, are anonymous, it is plausible that all of them were priests, and the book may thus reflect Priestly concerns, in opposition to the increasingly successful reform movement of the Deuteronomists.
While it is widely accepted that Isaiah the prophet did not write the book, there are good reasons to see parts of chapters 1–39 as stemming from the historic Isaiah ben Amoz, who lived in the Kingdom of Judah during the reigns of four kings from the mid to late 8th century BCE. During this period Assyria was expanding westward from its origins in modern-day northern Iraq towards the Mediterranean, destroying first Aram (modern Syria) in 734–732 BCE, then the Kingdom of Israel in 722-721, and finally subjugating Judah in 701. Proto-Isaiah is divided between verse and prose passages, and a currently popular theory is that the verse passages represent the prophecies of the original 8th century Isaiah, while the prose sections are "sermons" on his texts composed at the court of Josiah a hundred years later, at the end of the 7th century.
The conquest of Jerusalem by Babylon and the exile of its elite in 586 BCE ushered in the next stage in the formation of the book. Deutero-Isaiah addresses himself to the Jews in exile, offering them the hope of return. This was the period of the meteoric rise of Persia under its king Cyrus the Great – in 559 BCE he succeeded his father as ruler of a small vassal kingdom in modern eastern Iran, by 540 he ruled an empire stretching from the Mediterranean to Central Asia, and in 539 he conquered Babylon. Deutero-Isaiah's predictions of the imminent fall of Babylon and his glorification of Cyrus as the deliverer of Israel date his prophecies to 550–539 BCE, and probably towards the end of this period.
The Persians ended the Jewish exile, and by 515 BCE the exiles, or at least some of them, had returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple. The return, however, was not without problems: the returnees found themselves in conflict with those who had remained in the country and who now owned the land, and there were further conflicts over the form of government that should be set up. This background forms the context of Trito-Isaiah.
Isaiah is focused on the main role of Jerusalem in God's plan for the world, seeing centuries of history as though it were all the single vision of the 8th century prophet Isaiah. Proto-Isaiah speaks of Israel's desertion of God and what will follow: Israel will be destroyed by foreign enemies, but after the people, the country and Jerusalem are punished and purified, a holy remnant will live in God's place in Zion, governed by God's chosen king (the messiah), under the presence and protection of God; Deutero-Isaiah has as its subject the liberation of Israel from captivity in Babylon in another Exodus, which the God of Israel will arrange using Cyrus, the Persian conqueror, as his agent; Trito-Isaiah concerns Jerusalem, the Temple, the Sabbath,and Israel's salvation. (More explicitly, it concerns questions current among Jews living in Jerusalem and Palestine in the post-Exilic period about who is a God-loving Jew and who is not). Walter Brueggemann has described this overarching narrative as "a continued meditation upon the destiny of Jerusalem."
God's plan for the world is based on his choice of Jerusalem as the place where he will manifest himself, and of the line of David as his earthly representative – a theme that may possibly have been created through Jerusalem's reprieve from Assyrian attack in 701 BCE.  God is "the holy one of Israel"; justice and righteousness are the qualities that mark the essence of God, and Israel has offended God through unrighteousness. Isaiah speaks out for the poor and the oppressed and against corrupt princes and judges, but unlike the prophets Amos and Micah he roots righteousness not in Israel's covenant with God but in God's holiness.
Isaiah 44:6 contains the first clear statement of monotheism: "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god". In Isaiah 44:09–20 this is developed into a satire on the making and worship of idols, mocking the foolishness of the carpenter who worships the idol that he himself has carved. While Yahweh had shown his superiority to other gods before, in Second Isaiah he becomes the sole God of the world. This model of monotheism became the defining characteristic of post-Exilic Judaism, and became the basis for Christianity and Islam.
A central theme in Second Isaiah is that of a new Exodus – the return of the exiled people Israel from Babylon to Jerusalem. The author imagines a ritualistic return to Zion (Judah) led by Yahweh. The importance of this theme is indicated by its placement at the beginning and end of Second Isaiah (40:3–5, 55:12–13). This new Exodus is repeatedly linked with Israel's Exodus from Egypt to Canaan under divine guidance, but with new elements. These links include the following:
Isaiah was one of the most popular works in the period between the foundation of the Second Temple c. 515 BCE and its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. Isaiah 10:33–11:10 ("A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse...") is alluded to or cited in Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah, and later in works ranging from the Qumran sect (the sect responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls) to the Psalms of Solomon, and various apocalyptic works including the Similitudes of Enoch, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, and the third of the Sibylline oracles. All of these, with the exception of Deutero-Isaiah, understood it to refer to a/the messiah and the messianic age. Isaiah 6 (in which Isaiah describes his vision of God enthroned in the Temple) influenced the visions of God in works such as the Book of the Watchers section of the Book of Enoch, the Book of Daniel and others, often combined with the similar vision from the Book of Ezekiel. The final influential portion of Isaiah was the four so-called Songs of the Suffering Servant from Isaiah 42, 49, 50 and 52, in which God calls an unidentified servant to lead the nations (the servant is horribly abused, sacrifices himself in accepting the punishment due others, and is finally rewarded).
The Book of Isaiah has been immensely influential in the formation of Christianity, from the devotion to the Virgin Mary to anti-Jewish polemic, medieval passion iconography, and modern Christian feminism and liberation theology. The regard in which Isaiah was held was so high that the book was frequently called "the Fifth Gospel", the prophet who spoke more clearly of Christ and the Church than any others. Its influence extends beyond the Church and Christianity to English literature and to Western culture in general, from the libretto of Handel's Messiah to a host of such everyday phrases as "swords into ploughshares" and "voice in the wilderness".
Isaiah makes up 27 of the 37 quotations from the prophets in the Pauline epistles, and takes pride of place in the Gospels and Acts. Isaiah 7:14, where the prophet is assuring king Ahaz that God will save Judah from the invading armies of Israel and Syria, forms the basis for Matthew 1:23's doctrine of the virgin birth, while Isaiah 40:3–5's image of the exiled Israel led by God and proceeding home to Jerusalem on a newly constructed road through the wilderness was taken up by all four Gospels and applied to John the Baptist and Jesus. Isaiah 52:13–53:12, the fourth of the "Suffering Servant" songs, was interpreted by the earliest Christians as a prophecy of the death and exaltation of Jesus, a role which Jesus himself seems to have accepted, according to Luke 4:17–21.
Isaiah seems always to have had a prominent place in Jewish Bible use, and it is probable that Jesus himself was deeply influenced by Isaiah, and that he took it as his destiny to fulfil Isaiah 53 ("a man of suffering, and familiar with pain... he bore the sin of many"). Thus many of the Isaiah passages that are familiar to Christians gained their popularity not directly from Isaiah but from the use of them by Jesus and the early Christian authors – this is especially true of the Book of Revelation, which depends heavily on Isaiah for its language and imagery.
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Book of Isaiah
|Hebrew Bible||Succeeded by|
Song of Songs
|R. Catholic & Eastern|