I Took a Look at the Isaiah Problem

I was asked what seemed to be a simple question, “Who do you think wrote the Book of Isaiah?” I immediately responded, “Isaiah,” without overthinking any challenge to my response. But I found out quickly that many would challenge my response! So I decided to look deeper into the controversies surrounding the authorship of the Book of Isaiah. To fully appreciate the authorship views on the Book of Isaiah, I needed to understand the Book’s historical and cultural context. I began my research into the Isaiah authorship controversy with the belief, as stated in 2 Timothy 3:16, that the Bible is divinely inspired and God-breathed. The Bible and the Book of Isaiah are God’s word to us. Yes, the books in the Bible are truthful in their teachings and divinely inspired, but actual people also wrote them. Some people are known authors, and some are only identified through history. There are also writings in the Bible whose authors remain anonymous today. Nearly all of the books of “the prophets” take their names from their writer, and the Book of Isaiah is no different.

Before I share with you what I found out about the authorship of the Book of Isaiah, let’s take a look at who Isaiah was. The Hebrew meaning of Isaiah’s name is “Yahweh is salvation.” Isaiah was a prophet who ministered in Judah in the last third of the eighth century BC (approximately 734-700 BC). He is one of the four major prophets in the Old Testament. Major prophet books of the Old Testament include Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Through Isaiah 7:3 and the scripture in Isaiah 8:3, we know that Isaiah was married and had at least two sons. Isaiah is said to be one of the most quoted prophets. As stated in the LDS version of the King James Bible, Isaiah is recurrently quoted by Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John. According to W. Norman Pittenger, the prophet Isaiah is traditionally regarded as that one of the Jewish prophetic succession who most clearly articulated the belief in a coming deliverer who would lead the nation from evil and oppression into a new service of God which would establish it as the light of the whole world.

The Book of Isaiah was written during disaffiliation and the abandonment of religion by many people. The Book’s authorship reflected both current and future events. There is no doubt that one of the central pieces of the Book of Isaiah is through his testimony that Christ and the promised Messiah is Jesus. Some people might ask if the Bible is divinely inspired and the primary author is God, what does it matter who the human authors were? We should think about the relevance of human authors. We should consider that God spoke to us by using humans. Humans passed God’s word along to us. The importance of human authors is supported in 2 Peter 1:20-21 NLT, which reads, “(20) Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding,  (21) or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.”

I found many scholarly arguments about the authorship of the various books of the Bible. One of the most disputed authorships is the Book of Isaiah. Some biblical scholars account the book to multiple authors and those that view Isaiah as the sole author. The difference in these biblical accounts is often referred to as the “Isaiah Problem.” The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies noted, “Doubts as to the literary unity of the book of Isaiah are fairly recent. The late nineteenth century saw a division of Isaiah into three parts by critics, who categorized only 262 of the 1292 verses as the genuine product of Isaiah.” The critics of sole authorship reject the component of prediction and prophecy and claim distinct literary forms and theological ideas.

The Isaiah problem is nothing new. This biblical authorship problem dates back to 1100 AD. It was then that a Jewish grammarian and bible exegete, Moses ibn Gikatilla, rejected Isaiah as the author of the entire Book of Isaiah. Following Gekatilla’s challenge to the authorship to parts of the Book of Isaiah, one of the most distinguished Jewish biblical commentators and philosophers of his time, Abraham ibn Ezra, also questioned aspects of the book’s authorship. Ibn Ezra challenged chapters 40-66 of the book. The Journal of Biblical Literature states, “For both 65 and 66 the evidence is again unfavorable to the theory that it was from the same pen as 40-64.” Another person to advance the argument supporting multiple authorship included J. C. Doederlein. His full name was Johann Christoph Döderlein. Döderlein was a German Protestant theologian. He said it explicitly that since Isaiah could not have foreseen the fall of Jerusalem, the 70-year captivity, the return, or Cyrus, Isaiah could not have written those chapters making such claims (e.g., chapters 40-66).

For the Christian church, it has traditionally been unquestioned that the Book of Isaiah was written by the prophet Isaiah himself in its entirety. This tradition was inherited from the earlier Jewish custom. It took centuries for the authorship of the Book of Isaiah to become problematic, stemming from the critics of the Old Testament and Jewish sages. Those who viewed the Book of Isaiah as divided into several authorships were divisionists. Those who regarded the prophet Isaiah as the sole author were conservatives. The divisionists view the authorship in two parts, Isaiah and Deutero-Isaiah. Although some critics believe there are more than two divisions and the book has various authors, the divisionists view the division as Isaiah – chapters 1-39 and Deutero-Isaiah – chapters 40-66.

The fundamental views of Isaiah’s authorship can be looked at from three perspectives. Those three perspectives are historical, theoretical, and literary.

Those with the historical perspective and who make the historical argument are those critics who support multiple authorship. These divisionists claim that prophets are sent to prophesize those who exist during their lifetime. Divisionists claim that a prophet’s predictions cannot go beyond their particular day and time. Norman K. Gottwald is quoted by claiming:

When [the prophetic writings are] studied in their context, apart from dogmatic preconviction, [it is clear that] no prophet leaped across the centuries and foresaw the specific person Jesus of Nazareth. It is a plain violation of historical context to think that they did so and in practice those that interpret the prophets as predictors of Jesus obscure the setting in which the prophets functioned.”

The Book of Isaiah’s chapters 44 and 45 speak to the prophecy concerning King Cyrus of Persia. Given that the King is mentioned by name, this is probably one of the diversionist’s most cited problems. They claim that he could not have written this prophecy since the prophet lived during the eighth century BC. The prophecy about Cyrus was that Cyrus would make it possible for the Jews to return home after their exile in Babylon. In Isaiah 44:28, Isaiah not only predicts this, but he calls out Cyrus by name. The problem often cited is this was 150 years before Cyrus’ time. Conservatives acknowledge and accept that this would have meant that Isaiah projected more than two centuries into the future.

Authorship style is the most frequently debated literary piece of the Book of Isaiah. Conservatives have countered the divisionist’s theory that there are various authorship styles in the Book of Isaiah. Perhaps the professor of biblical interpretation, Dr. James D. Smart, said it best when he compared the divisionist theory to assumptions when he wrote:

“An honest recognition of the meagerness of the evidence demands of us a suspension of judgment. Yet one commentator after another has proceeded to base his interpretations upon assumptions that have rested on the flimsiest of foundations.”

The debate on the authorship of Isaiah continues to this day. Some have a firm belief that the first verse of Isaiah sets the authorship for the remainder of the book. Isaiah 1:1 reads, “These are the visions that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. He saw these visions during the years when Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah were kings of Judah” (NLT). So the questions remain, Does Isaiah 1:1 show authorship of all 66 chapters of the book? Did Isaiah author only the first 39 chapters of the book? If Isaiah only penned the first 39 chapters, who wrote chapters 40 – 66? Then there is the ultimate question: If we believe God can prove His godly authority through His power to foresee the future, is it irrational to reason that Isaiah pondered prophetic messages as words from God and shared these messages with future generations?

As I mentioned earlier, the divisionists believe there is no accurate predictive prophecy. Divisionists claim that if a prediction is written and occurred, it was written after the prediction. Let me take a shot below at deconstructing that perspective.

Some scholars account Isaiah chapters 1- 39 to be authored by Isaiah sometime around 730 BC. During this time, authorship can be connected with the ministry of Isaiah of Jerusalem (740 – 700 BC). This time would also place authorship during the Assyrian period. However, the time of occurrence may not confirm that all the writings in those chapters occurred during those dates. Nevertheless, knowledge of this time should create the originator of the Isaiah traditions as the Isaiah of Jerusalem.

The Book of Isaiah chapters 40 – 55 is considered the second section of the book. This section can be placed during the late exilic period. The exilic period was a time of exile of Jews in Babylonia and the emergence of a new ruler of the Middle East being the Persian Empire. Knowing that Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Persian Empire, the edict of Cyrus places the second section of the book between 540 – 539 BC.

The third section of the Book of Isaiah is chapters 56 – 66. Between 520 and 450 BC, it is known from Haggi, Zechariah, and Malachi that these chapters echo the predicament of faith triggered by unfulfilled prophecy. Based on this knowledge, we could place this third section of the Book of Isaiah around 515 – 500 BC and possibly to 450 BC. This period uses Haggai as our benchmark around 520 BC.

After taking a deeper dive into the above three sections of Isaiah, it does warrant the question of were their multiple authors of the Book of Isaiah. But! Let us look at an earlier part of the Book of Isaiah that Isaiah himself authored and no one debates. Isaiah 6:11-12 reads, “(11) Then I said, “Lord, how long will this go on?” And he replied, “Until their towns are empty, their houses are deserted, and the whole country is a wasteland; (12) until the Lord has sent everyone away, and the entire land of Israel lies deserted” (NLT). These scriptures chronicle a revelation made by God to Isaiah and the early stages of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry. The early stages of his prophetic ministry would have been around 739 BC. The order was that Isaiah heard God’s call to preach. The people whom Isaiah would preach to would reject the truth. The scriptures in Isaiah 6:11-12 record Isaiah’s question to God. These scriptures predict devastation. These scriptures forewarn the grasp of Nebuchadnezzar and the depopulation of Judah in 587 BC. This came to fruition more than 150 years after Isaiah authored his prediction!

Even though the aforementioned chronological timeline of events does not abolish the possibilities of the multiple authors of the Book of Isaiah, it should strengthen our faith in the prophetic and supernatural potentials of an omniscient and omnipotent God. The timeline mentioned above should loosen the roots that some believe an eighth-century prophet could not foretell beyond their time. After I took that deeper dive into the authorship of the Book of Isaiah, I found it helpful to understand that Isaiah was not a Godless, faithless, or disobedient prophet, so foreknowing was very much a possibility received from God.

As shared on a website I visited, creation.com, we can turn to the authors of the New Testament and Christ himself for an even better perspective of Isaiah being the single author of the Book of Isaiah. To trust in the prophet Isaiah’s authenticity of God’s word, we can receive:

  • Matthew 12:17–18 “that which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet.”
  • Matthew 3:3 “spoken by the prophet Isaiah.”
  • Luke 3:4 “in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet.”
  • Acts 8:28 communicates that the Ethiopian eunuch was “reading Isaiah the prophet,” specifically Isaiah 53:7–8. He then questioned Philip, “Of whom is the prophet speaking, of himself or of some other man?”
  • In John 12:38–41, “These things Isaiah said when he saw His glory and spoke of Him.” These scriptures speak to the inspiration that Isaiah 6 and Isaiah 53 were written in on unified voice by the prophet Isaiah.

I found that biblical scholars remain in disagreement about the authorship of the Old Testament’s Book of Isaiah. Scholarly debate in authorship should not take away from the inspiration and trustworthiness in recognizing the attractiveness and determinations of our God. We should continue to understand the importance of seeing the Book of Isaiah as a theological unity. Any presuppositions that repudiate God’s faithful revelation through the prophet Isaiah should be rejected. – #ToddCPittman

Published by #ToddCPittman

I am a member of the Channel of Grace Worship Center (CoG) in Edgewood, MD, under Lead Pastor Kenneth Harper. Previous to joining the CoG family, I enjoyed the fellowship of Covenant Living Fellowship in Randallstown, MD, under the direction of Pastors Donald & Danielle Lewis and Christ the King Church in Dacula, GA under Pastor Marion Sailor. I am a proud father of four and husband to Dr. Yolonda Sales-Pittman. Following undergrad at Syracuse University, I am currently pursuing my Master of Divinity (M.Div) at Luther Rice College & Seminary. VISIT | https://linktr.ee/ToddCPittman

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