The ACU Commentary and the Unity of the Book of Isaiah

By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

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Abilene Christian University Press (Abilene, Texas) has just released its new commentary, The Transforming Word One Volume Bible Commentary. Among the many liberal positions advocated, this volume argues for the multiple authorship of the book of Isaiah. John Willis contends: “The authors of the book of Isaiah in its present form were addressing a small Jewish community in and near Jerusalem in the mid- to late-fifth century BCE.” In view of this theory, that contradicts the New Testament, we offer the following brief article on the unity of Isaiah.

In relatively recent times the book of Isaiah has been embroiled in controversy concerning its authorship. Because of an infidelic bias against the concept of predictive prophecy, the so-called “higher critics” have doubted that Isaiah penned much of the narrative that bears his name in the Old Testament canon of Scripture.

T. K. Cheyne contended, for example, that scarcely any lengthy passage anywhere in the book could be the sole work of Isaiah. He alleged that the prophet’s words would have been modified by editors in subsequent centuries. In fact, Cheyne and others of similar persuasion have suggested that some eighty percent of the book cannot be credited to Isaiah (1901, 2193).

Modern critics have generally supposed that the book of Isaiah falls into three parts. First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) contains the nucleus of Isaiah’s ethical teaching, together with added supplements. Second Isaiah (40-54) allegedly was written by some unknown scribe in Babylon about 549-538 B.C. Finally, Third Isaiah (55-66), likewise anonymous, was penned in the fifth century B.C.

The denial of Isaiah’s authorship of chapters 40-66 is based largely upon three assumptive premises. It is claimed: (a) The historical background indicates that this section was written during and after the Babylonian captivity. (b) The major divisions supposedly reflect varying styles. (c) The theological emphases of the various sections differ. These claims are highly subjective and speculative, and will not stand in the light of honest investigation. There is much evidence to support the unity of the entire book of Isaiah.

Internal Evidence

The internal evidence for the unity of the book of Isaiah may be summarized as follows:

There are historical indications within the book which place chapters 40-66 before the Babylonian captivity (see 40:9; 62:2, where Jerusalem and other cities are still standing). It should be noted, though, that, in harmony with his intended purpose, Isaiah sometimes thrusts himself forward in spirit to the time of the captivity to give emphasis to his message. The critics, of course, ignore his prophetic stance.

Moreover, in 6:11-13, a section admitted by all to be from Isaiah, there is a prophetic description of the captivity and return. The prophet even named his first son Shear-Jashub, which meant “a remnant shall return” (7:3). If the prophet’s revelatory ability can be recognized in this early portion of the book, there should be no objection to the same gift being evidenced later in the document.

The argument based upon alleged stylistic differences is highly subjective. The fact is, language similarities are found throughout the narrative. The “highway” terminology is employed in the different sections (cf. 11:16; 19:23; 35:8; 40:3; 62:10). The expression “the Holy One of Israel,” a title for God, is found only thirty-two times in the Bible. Twelve of these are in Isaiah 1-39, and fourteen are in chapters 40-66. Arguments of a similar nature could be multiplied many times over (Martin 1985, 1030).

Analogous prophetic admonitions in the various portions of the book indicate that the same social and moral problems are being addressed. For example, the Jews’ hands were “full of blood” (1:15), indeed, “defiled with blood” (59:3). Compare also 10:1-2 with 59:4-7.

In the latter sections of the book, allegedly written in the Babylonian and post-Babylonian era, there are numerous references to Judah’s idolatry (cf. 41:19; 44:14; 57:4ff; 65:2-4). Yet it is well-known that the Hebrews did not practice idol worship after the fall of Jerusalem. This is demonstrated by the fact that though the post-exilic prophets, e.g., Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi, addressed a variety of other sins, they never mentioned idolatry. Such is a clear indication that the latter portions of this book were not written during the Babylonian era.

Language symbolism in the latter segments of the book is drawn from geographical features that relate to Palestine, not Babylon. Note, for instance, that these idol-worshippers were slaying their children “in the valleys, under the clefts of the rocks” and “among the smooth stones of the valley” (57:5-6), which is descriptive of the torrent streams in Canaan, but not of the lazy canals in the flat alluvial soil of Babylon.

Gleason Archer Jr. was correct when he declared: “There is not a shred of internal evidence to support the theory of a Second Isaiah, apart from a philosophical prejudice against the possibility of predictive prophecy” (1962, 607).

External Evidence

In addition to the above, there are external evidences for the unity of the book of Isaiah.

For ages the unity of the book was accepted by Jews and Christians alike. The critical theories are only a couple of hundred years old. Even liberal writer A. B. Davidson admitted: “For nearly twenty-five centuries no one dreamt of doubting that Isaiah, the son of Amoz, was the author of every part of the book that goes under his name” (in Robinson 1954, 59).

There is no indication in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the third century B.C.) that the book had a multiple authorship.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, that contain an Isaiah manuscript, argues against the Deutero-Isaiah theories. For example, chapter 40 (allegedly the commencement of Second Isaiah), begins on the very last line of a column which contains chapter 38, verse 9, through chapter 39, verse 8. Noted scholar Oswald T. Allis observed: “Obviously the scribe was not conscious of the alleged fact that an important change of situation, involving an entire change of authorship, begins with chapter 40” (1950, 40).

The New Testament quotes more from the book of Isaiah than all other prophecies combined. There are 308 quotations from, or references to, Isaiah in the New Testament, and these involve forty-seven of the sixty-six chapters. The prophet is cited by name twenty-one times, and all three of the so-called divisions are credited to him.

For example, in John 12:37-41, the apostle quotes from both Isaiah chapter 53 and chapter 6 in the same breath, citing Isaiah as the author of both passages, even joining the two quotations together by saying, “Isaiah said again . . .” (12:39). It is impossible to deny the unity of Isaiah without reflecting upon the integrity of the New Testament record.

Finally, we might ask if Isaiah did not author the material in chapters 40-66 of that ancient work, just who did? It is incredible that the Hebrews would not have preserved the authors’ names, in view of the Jews’ careful handling of the Scriptures. In some of the ancient Scripture collections, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were bound together, yet the authorship of these two books was never confused. That such a gross tragedy should mysteriously occur in the instance of the book of Isaiah is inexplicable. The case for the unity of the document is overwhelming!

  • Allis, Oswald T. 1950. The Unity of Isaiah – A Study in Prophecy. Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian & Reformed.
  • Archer, Gleason, Jr. 1962. Isaiah. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Chicago, IL: Moody.
  • Cheyne, T. K. 1901. Encyclopedia Biblica. Vol. 2. T. K. Cheyne and J. Sutherland Black, eds. London, England: Adam & Charles Black.
  • Martin, John A. 1985. Isaiah. The Bible Knowledge Commentary – Old Testament. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, eds. Wheaton, IL: Victor.
  • Robinson, George L. 1954. The Book of Isaiah. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.