- How are we to read such a long and complex book?
- Is it really one book, written by one writer?
- Is it a compilation of lectures, sermons, oracles, and chronicles?
- Understanding that the chapters and verses were added somewhere in the Medieval times (two thousand years after Isaiah was written), is it still possible there are divisions, or sections, to this book, considering its size?
Well, first, there was a group of students who were taught by Isaiah, and were a part of the process of Isaiah’s material being recorded on scrolls.
School of Isaiah
Isaiah makes several references to students—sometimes referred to as “sons of the prophet”—who formed what scholars call the School of Isaiah. An example of Isaiah instructing his students is found here,
Go now, write it before them on a tablet,Isaiah 30:8 (NRSV)
and inscribe it in a book,
so that it may be for the time to come
as a witness forever.
Students were to write down Isaiah’s teaching so that it would be preserved for future generations. Another example is found in Isaiah’s instruction to
Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples.Isaiah 8:16 (NRSV)
Because the historical span of the Book of Isaiah covers a full two centuries, scholars hold that it must have been students in the School of Isaiah, or perhaps Isaiah’s sons and grandchildren, who carried on the prophetic call and work of their founding prophet.
This is completely in keeping with the standard of that ancient day, where the style and viewpoint of the founder would be continued in the disciples.
Book of Isaiah
Proto, Deutero, and Trito
Many modern-day scholars divide this book into three distinctive sections.
First Isaiah (also called Proto-Isaiah), Chapters 1-39, dated to the late eighth to early seventh century B.C. with Isaiah in Jerusalem. Isaiah’s contemporaries were Micah in Judah and Jonah in Israel. Here, the prophet warns of judgment and places hope on a godly Davidic king.
Second Isaiah (also called Deutero-Isaiah), Chapters 40-55, refers to events that occur in the sixth century B.C. Nahum was prophesying in Israel, then Daniel began to prophesy during the Babylonian exile, and Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were all prophesying right before Judah went into exile. Here, the prophet offers comfort, and places hope in the Lord’s suffering servant.
Third Isaiah (also called Trito-Isaiah), Chapters 56-66, refers to events that occur in the fifth century B.C., or possibly even later. During and after the Judahite exile, contemporaries included Jeremiah, then Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi to those who were returning from exile. Here, the prophet writes from within the context of captivity, with a rebuilt Jerusalem, and the empires of Assyria and Babylon are no longer a threat.
But what about the prophesies recorded in Isaiah? Does this division of the book seem to say these were not prophesies, but rather written after the events took place?
One Cohesive Book
For help in answering this question, I turned to the eminent Walt Kaiser, PhD. in The Archeological Study Bible, published by Zondervan. Dr. Kaiser agrees Isaiah can be seen as having three sections, or at least two sections. However, spreading their dating over two hundred years, rather than sixty, is not a defensible position, in his estimation.
Here is overview of the points he makes in defending the Book of Isaiah as having been written by the prophet himself.
- Stylistic factors do not necessarily indicate a change in writers. If Isaiah had a sixty-year tenure as prophet, then it stands to reason his style would mature, and his approach would vary from letter, to oracle, to prophetic utterances to kings, to sermons delivered on the steps of the temple.
- There is phraseology and word choice that ties all sixty-six chapters together.
- Though themes change, Isaiah’s theology remains consistent and cohesive throughout.
- The whole book is concerned with Canaanite idolatry, even though post-exilic prophets did not see this as a significant issue.
- The prophetic parts of Isaiah consistently promised that the Gentiles would one day submit to the God of Israel.
- Even in the early chapters of his book, Isaiah wrote as though exile had already happened. So prophecy in the past tense was part of Isaiah’s approach.
- The specificity of Isaiah’s predictions—for example, Cyrus’ name—do have precedent among the prophets. It is rare, but it happens.
- Ezekiel, who lived in Babylon, wrote from that perspective. But Isaiah’s work that represents that time period shows no knowledge of what it actually was like when it happened, indicating prophetic vision, not actual experience.
- The oldest copy of Isaiah, found among the Dead Sea scrolls, indicates this view that Isaiah was one book written by one author, the Prophet Isaiah.
- Both ancient Jewish literature and Christian Testament writers treat Isaiah as written by the one prophet.
Whew! That is a lot of evidence!
Salvation does not rest upon which view is taken.
That said, in the spirit of full disclosure, I find Dr. Kaiser’s arguments compelling enough to keep the view that Isaiah was written from one metaphorical pen, as I am perfectly comfortable with the divine supernatural revelation of prophesying the future.
Parallel with the Bible
The book of Isaiah is found exactly in the middle of the Bible and has often been called a mini Bible. The core canon of the Bible itself has sixty-six books, and Isaiah has sixty-six chapters. The thinnest Christian canon (which would be the Protestant) contains the Hebrew Testament at thirty-nine books and the Christian Testament at twenty-seven books. That is the core for a variety of canons that spread across the three main branches of the Christian faith—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant.
The Hebrew Testament Parallel with First and Second Isaiah
Incredibly, Isaiah can divide in the same way. The first section (Proto-Isaiah) goes from Chapter One to Chapter Thirty-Nine, and contains warnings of God’s condemnation, judgment and wrath.
The second section (combining Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah) goes from Chapter Forty to Chapter Sixty-Six and conveys God’s message of consolation and hope.
The Christian Testament Parallel with Second and Third Isaiah
The Christian Testament begins with a history of John the Baptist, the last Hebrew Testament prophet and the forerunner of Messiah. He came to announce the coming of the Lord and Lamb of God. The Christian Testament ends with the Book Revelation, in a depiction of the New Heavens and the New Earth.
Now look at the beginning of the second section of Isaiah.
A voice cries out:Isaiah 40:3 (NRSV)
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
This is the prophecy of John the Baptist, which John himself said that he had fulfilled.
And Isaiah Chapter Sixty-Six speaks of the New Heavens and the New Earth!
So you and I find here in Isaiah a remarkably close parallel in miniature of the entire Bible.
Chapters Thirty-Five to Thirty-Nine represent an historical interlude concerning Isaiah’s friend King Hezekiah’s attack by Assyria, and later, the delegation that came from Babylon. It is possible these are a collection of sermons that Isaiah delivered on different occasions, maybe even to different groups of people, and marks the transition into the next era.
 For help, I turned to Michael D. Coogan’s A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in its Context