Authorship of Isaiah

Authorship of Isaiah March 24, 2013

My course on the Bible focuses a lot of attention on the identification and use of reliable sources. When students try to tackle an assignment on the authorship of the Book of Isaiah, they consistently find LaMar Adams’ online article, produced at Brigham Young University, which uses computer-generated statistics for the occurrence of certain prefixes to argue for unity of authorship.

If they read this, without also finding either Radday’s statistical study which draws the opposite conclusion, or another source that mentions it, then they are prone to get a skewed impression of where the evidence points and what scholars conclude.

To their credit, most students, even if they draw heavily on Adams’ article, realize from what is written in it that the consensus is the view he is arguing against.

Nevertheless, I wish there were more works of scholarship that got high Google rankings which presented the mainstream view.

If one searches Google Books, the results are much more even. Works like Whybray’s The Second Isaiah and the commentaries by Claus WestermannJohn Goldingay and David Payne, and Jan Koole can be read there, as can scholarly introductions to the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, and other studies on the second part of Isaiah.

The biggest issue I have with the Adams article is that it gives the impression (as conservative defenders of single authorship are prone to do) that the question is primarily about the possibility of predictive prophecy. But that is not the key issue when it comes to authorship. The key issue, in my view, is the fact that the author of chapters 40ff talks about the Babylonian exile as a present reality, soon to end. It is the description of the present, and not those things which are said to be predictions, which are the crucial evidence.

What good online sources have you come across that present the case for the scholarly consensus about multiple authorship of the Book of Isaiah?

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  • Just Sayin’

    And anyone who knows of good, reliable introductions/surveys for the general, intelligent reader please mention those too!

  • Michael Wilson

    So how do you feel about using computers to test for multiple authors? Was Adams fudging data to get the result he was looking for?

    • I don’t honestly know. It may just be that the kinds of prefixes he focused on are simply not a reliable indicator of authorship. Being more familiar with statistical analysis applied to questions of authorship in the New Testament, my sense is that statistical data of any one sort can be inconclusive. In the case of the Book of Isaiah, the fact that the same hand may have edited the entire collection, and contributed some parts of chapters 1-39, makes it possible that some features could indeed cross the boundaries between the traditional divisions, and yet multiple authorship still be the case.

    • Ian

      Some thoughts on the study, statistically speaking.

      1. The author mentions several feature comparison, but says that prefixes was the one chosen (the “salient” one). So did the other features not show correlation (there were “over 70 different types of stylistic elements” in the study. That’s a *huge* set, to only pick one set of data from. Was this the only correlation that was so strong? (I don’t doubt the others showed a correlation, as the conclusion suggests, but a correlation isn’t interesting, what is interesting is a correlation characteristic of single-author works). If so, we’d expect at least one of the 70 to be really strong at random, surely.

      2. The data in the report only covers 11 other hand-chosen chunks of Hebrew text (prophetic texts). Why those 11, were they chosen so these correlations where clearer? How were these 11 chosen, it says “random samples from the following OT books”, but is that just a chunk within each book was chosen at random? Why only select samples from each book?

      3. The raw data shows the increased correlation only when the whole set (and only the whole set) of identified prefixes are considered. Why only these prefixes? Why not a bigger or smaller set. The latter is easy to answer: several smaller sets of prefixes give worse correlations between Is-A and Is-B than between either and other texts.

      4. Comparisons are made between Is-A and Is-B and the other 11 texts, but no statistics are given for comparisons within those texts. If we’re interested in finding out whether Isaiah had the distinctive characteristics of a single author text, why were no other intra-text comparisons done. The results don’t tell us anything about the stylistic signature of a single author.

      5. The conclusion is that every one of the controls scored worse on this test than Isaiah. Which by 4 isn’t too surprising. But even so, this makes Isaiah an outlier. This seems odd to me. If Isaiah is an outlier, then this is suspicious. It is not a reason to conclude it is every more certain that Isaiah is the work of a single author.

      None of this is a fatal flaw in the paper, of course. The results could be genuine. But they provide good reasons why this analysis may disagree with other analyses, and why the authors aren’t necessarily showing what they think they are showing. It isn’t a terrible paper, but it is a rather weak data point on its own, I think.

  • An interesting aspect of Isaiah is that it was not always the first of the later prophets. In some lists, (b.B. Bat 14b-15a cited in MacDonald and Sanders, p 61, The Canon Debate) it is third, being more like the 12 (a collection) than Jeremiah or Ezekiel. It may well have had a final redactor and there are strong connections among the parts – that doesn’t make for a single author though – any more than does the poetry of the psalms. Better to read the book closely than to trust the arguments of others.

  • Mike B.

    I remember an old seminary professor of mine arguing for single authorship by claiming that the linguistic profile of the book was even throughout (in other words, that it contained few of the standard features of late biblical Hebrew). A full-fledged linguistic analysis of the entire book of Isaiah seems like something you would publish if you went to all the trouble, so I assume he was relying on someone else’s work (though he was quite competent in in Biblical Hebrew himself, I should clarify). I never was able to find much scholarship on the subject though, and since virtually every other possible line of evidence pointed to multiple authorship, this comment didn’t weigh very heavily in my final analysis.

    You’re right, of course, that conservative defenders of single authorship do put way too much emphasis on the issue of predictive prophecy, but there is hope. Believe it or not, I started to change my mind on the issue of Isaiah (which was a first step towards changing my mind on a lot of things about the Bible) in response to reading the introduction to John Oswalt’s commentary on Isaiah. The funny thing about this is that Oswalt believes in single authorship, but he presented the argument for multiple authorship (incredibly briefly) in such a way that it was actually more persuasive than his own counterarguments. I suppose this is to his credit, in a way.

  • I tried to comment on this the other day. It doesn’t seem to have worked, so here goes try two:

    I really dislike the term “Deutero-Isaiah”. Not because I think Isaiah 1-66 is a unity, but because it allows people to go on to accept the distinctness of Trito-Isaiah as well whilst naïvely retaining a false sense of unity of Isaiah 1-39.

    For instance, one often sees the statement that use of the name Isaiah stops at chapter 39; this, whilst trivially true, is more than a little unsatisfactory, as once one accepts the inclusion of the 2 Kings material and Song of Hezekiah that form chapters 36-39 as a redactional unit, the anonymity starts with the obscurely-titled halfway-to-apocalyptic second set of oracles against the nations (chapters 21-23).

    So my immediate criticism of LaMar Adams is to question the validity of comparing one group of multiple authorship with another group of multiple authorship. One only needs a feature to be present in, say, chapters 13-35 and 56-66, but absent in the rest, to get a false impression of consistency across a single split between chapters 39 and 40.

    But enough of my pet hates about pop critical understandings of Isaiah. I think the most interesting argument we have for multiple authorship of Isaiah (and some of the other prophetic books) is when a later book of the Bible cites an internally-anonymous section as belonging to the wrong prophet (e.g. 2 Chronicles 36.22 ([Is]→”Jer”); Mark 1.2 ([XII]→”Is”); Matthew 27.9 ([XII]→”Jer”)). I like to envision these authors as knowing manuscript traditions where the various accretions got appended in different ways. To a very small extent, we have evidence of that sort of stuff, namely the second half of OG Jeremiah’s radically different order from MT Jeremiah.

    So I would like to flip Bob MacDonald’s point on its head: the onymous and anonymous accretions (whether intentionally redacted or accidentally attached through a tradition developing of writing them on the same scroll) to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Twelve provide a fairly consistent picture; Ezekiel is very strange in that it seems to be a very very long unity.

  • noel

    Years ago I studied some Hebrew with F I Anderson at the University of Queensland. He was really involved in this authorship issue. I asked him about the LaMar Adams research and his response was “very inadequate”