Authorship of Isaiah

By James M. Rochford

While the book of Isaiah claims to be written in the 8th century B.C. (739-681 B.C.) by “Isaiah son of Amoz” (Isa. 1:1; 2:1; c.f. Is. 7:3), higher critics of the OT claim that it was written in multiple parts by multiple people. Because of the fulfilled supernatural predictions of Isaiah, critics believe that the second half of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) must have been written by a later author. They refer to the first author as “First” Isaiah, and they refer to the second author as “Second” Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah). Sometimes, critical scholars even add a “Third” Isaiah (or Trito-Isaiah), because of the break from chapters 56-66 (which is allegedly a post-exilic author). To summarize:

“First” Isaiah supposedly wrote chapters 1-39.

“Second” Isaiah supposedly wrote chapters 40-66.

“Third” Isaiah supposedly wrote chapter 56-66.

Did Isaiah write this book, or did two or three different authors write this book?

Before we consider a defense of the unity of authorship in Isaiah, let’s consider a very important question: Does this issue matter? If a later author wrote Isaiah 40-66, should this even make a difference to us? I would argue: Absolutely yes! Let’s consider a number of reasons why:

First, this original author of “Second” Isaiah would be lying. If the author of “Second” Isaiah is claiming to be writing as an eighth century author in Judea and Jerusalem, then he would be lying. Since God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18; Titus 1:2), this would create a massive theological problem.

Second, the best evidence for splitting the authorship of Isaiah is fulfilled predictive prophecy. In Isaiah 44:28 to 45:1, Isaiah accurately predicts a Pagan king (“Cyrus”) over 200 years in advance. Since naturalists deny supernatural predictive prophecy like this, they are forced to deny eighth century authorship. However, if as Christians, we begin gutting the Bible of predictive prophecy, then we will have to deny roughly one quarter of the Bible! Hebrew scholar Walter Kaiser states that roughly 27% of the Bible was predictive at the point it was written.[1] Of course, this would also include much of the words of Jesus (Mt. 16:21; Mk. 8:31; Lk. 9:22; Jn. 2:18-22).

Third, “Second” Isaiah would fail the test of a true prophet. Deuteronomy 18 gives the criterion for a true prophet of God: If a prophet cannot make accurate short-term prediction, then he is a false prophet. In Deuteronomy, we read: “When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him” (Deut. 18:22).

Fourth, the NT authors believed in single authorship. John 12:38-41 quotes from both “First” Isaiah (Isa. 53:1) and “Second” Isaiah (Isa. 6:9-10), considering them both to be one author. Matthew 12:17-18 quotes Isaiah 42:1. Matthew 3:3 quotes Isaiah 40:3. Luke 3:4 quotes Isaiah 40:3-5. Acts 8:28 quotes Isaiah 53:7-8. Romans 10:16 quotes Isaiah 53:1. Romans 10:20 quotes Isaiah 65:1. Consider this chart regarding NT citations of Isaiah.

 

NT Citations of Isaiah

Isaiah

NT Citation

1:9

Romans 9:29 “as Isaiah predicted.”

6:9-13

Matthew 13:14-15 “the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled.”

John 12:39-41 “again Isaiah said” and “Isaiah said these things.”

Acts 28:25-27 “the Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet”

9:1-2

Matthew 4:14-16 “spoken by the prophet Isaiah.”

10:22

Matthew 4:14-16 “spoken by the prophet Isaiah.”
11:10

Romans 15:12 “and again Isaiah says.”

29:13

Matthew 15:7-9 “well did Isaiah prophesy to you.”
40:3-5

Matthew 3:3 “spoken of by the prophet Isaiah.”

Mark 1:2-3 “written in Isaiah the prophet.”

Luke 3:4-6 “written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet”

John 1:23 “as the prophet Isaiah said.”

42:1-4

Matthew 12:17-21 “spoken by the prophet Isaiah.”
53:1

John 12:38 “the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah.”

Romans 10:16 “For Isaiah says.”

53:4

Matthew 8:17 “spoken by the prophet Isaiah.”
53:7-8

Acts 8:28-33 “he was reading the prophet Isaiah.”

61:1-2

Luke 4:18-19 “[in] the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.”
65:1-2

Romans 10:20-21 “Isaiah is so bold as to say.”

 

Of course, the NT authors (Jesus included) believed in single authorship in Isaiah. If we deny single authorship, we are claiming that we know better than Jesus. Obviously, this would create loads of problems. Because of these reasons (and surely many more that are not articulated here), Bible believing Christians certainly need to reject this view.

Reasons for Affirming Single Authorship

Is there good reason for affirming Isaiah’s authorship? Let’s consider a number of reasons for affirming single authorship of Isaiah:

First, early Jewish writers believed in single authorship. Ecclesiasticus—a second century BC document—holds to single authorship. Here, we read: “By the spirit of might he [Isaiah] saw the last things,/ and comforted those who mourned in Zion” (Ecclus 48:24). This is a clear reference to Isaiah 61:3.[2] Moreover, Josephus claimed that Cyrus read the prophecies from Isaiah and desired to fulfill them.[3]

Second, there is no manuscript evidence for this theory. In fact, the Isaiah scroll was found in its entirety—a 24 foot long manuscript with all 66 chapters.[4] Motyer writes,

There is, however, no external, manuscriptal authority for the separate existence at any time of any of the three supposed divisions of Isaiah. In the case of the first Isaiah manuscript from the Dead Sea Scrolls (Qa), for example, 40:1 begins on the last line of the column which contains 38:9–39:8.[5]

Therefore, it isn’t as though anyone has ever found the book of Isaiah broken into two or three parts. It is always found in its completed unity.

Third, so-called “First” Isaiah contains fulfilled predictions. Critics split authorship (or late-date the book) in order to avoid the supernatural content of “Second” Isaiah. However, “First” Isaiah also contains fulfilled predictions. For instance, “First” Isaiah predicted that Jerusalem would be supernaturally delivered by Sennacherib (Isa. 37:33-35). He predicted the defeat of Damascus (Isa. 8:4-7). He predicted the destruction of Samaria (Isa. 7:16). He predicted the fall of Babylon to the Medes, and he predicted that this would make it an accursed wasteland forever (Isa. 13:17-20). He predicted that the Babylonians would sack Hezekiah’s treasury and make his descendants slaves (Isa. 39:5-7).

Fourth, Babylon is mentioned more in the first portion, than in the second. Critics claim that “First” Isaiah was written in Palestine, but “Second” Isaiah was written from Babylon (in the Exile). However, “First” Isaiah mentions Babylon nine times (when they were not in exile), and “Second” Isaiah mentions Babylon only four times (Isa. 43:14; 47:1; 48:14; 48:20). If the author of “Second” Isaiah was really in exile in Babylon, we would expect him to mention Babylon more. Motyer writes, “There is little that is exclusively or typically Babylonian about the chapters.”[6] In addition, there are no eyewitness details of Babylon in “Second” Isaiah. Again Motyer writes, “The sort of detail by which an eyewitness would betray himself is simply not there—observations about the city, the way its life is ordered, the structures of its society, the feel and smell of the place.”[7] If there really was a second author writing in Babylonian exile, wouldn’t we expect him to write something about Babylonian culture? By contrast, Ezekiel and Malachi make many references to the exile and post-exile.

Fifth, geography, flora, and fauna of Palestine are mentioned in “Second” Isaiah. Critics claim that “Second” Isaiah was written in exile in Babylon. However, the author mentions geography, flora, and fauna of Palestine in these chapters—not Babylon. Isaiah refers to cedar, cypress, and oak trees (Isa. 41:19; 44:14). These are native to Palestine—not Babylon. Isaiah writes as though the cities have not yet been destroyed (Isa. 40:9; 62:6), and he excoriates unjust judges in Israel, implying that the government is still in operation (Isa. 58:6). Gleason Archer writes,

The geographical setting which it presupposes, the kind of plants and animals which it mentions, the climatic conditions which it implies as prevailing in the author’s own environment—all these are important data for determining the place and time for the composition of any document whether ancient or modern. A careful examination of such allusions in Isaiah 40-66 points unmistakably to the conclusion that it was composed in Palestine rather than in Babylon. We have already seen that Bernhard Duhm, on a rationalistic basis, came to the same con­clusion in 1892.[8]

Sixth, there is a unity of theology and language throughout the book. The same issues occur in both the first half (1-39) and the second half (40-66) of Isaiah. For instance, Isaiah denounces bloodshed and violence (Isa. 1:15; 59:3, 7), injustice (Isa. 10:1-2; 59:4-9), hypocrisy (Isa. 29:13; 58:2-4), and sexual orgies (Isa. 1:29; 57:5). Both “First” Isaiah and “Second” Isaiah refer to God as “the Holy One of Israel.” This title is only used five times outside of Isaiah.[9] Thus Archer writes, “Conservative scholars have pointed out at least forty or fifty sentences or phrases which appear in both parts of Isaiah, and indicate its common authorship.”[10]

Seventh, there are references to idolatry in so-called “Second” Isaiah. Critics believe that “Second” Isaiah was either written in Babylon or late-dated in Israel after the return from exile. If “Second” Isaiah was written after the exile, then we wouldn’t expect him to denounce idolatry so much in his writing (Isa. 44:9-20; 57:4-5, 7; 65:2-4). The post-exilic prophets never mention idolatry as a sin after the exile (e.g. Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Ezra, and Nehemiah). This means that his denunciation of idolatry would make no sense after exile, but it would make perfect sense before it.

Eighth, there is no continuity in the “science” of form criticism. John Oswalt writes, “Although biblical studies are far from being an exact science, it is still true that if a methodology is correct, it ought to yield substantially similar results in the hands of different researchers. In fact, that is not the case with the study of Isaiah. Two commentators who both share a commitment to form criticism and to multiple authorship of Isaiah may vary by as much as three hundred years as to when a particular unity was written.”[11]

ARGUMENT #1: Cyrus is mentioned by name (Isa. 44:28; 45:1).

Isaiah predicts Cyrus—a Pagan bloodthirsty king—over two hundred years in advance. Critics argue that predictive prophecy like this is impossible, and a much simpler explanation is that Isaiah lived after the time of Cyrus.

Yet in Isaiah 40-44, we see that God taunts the other gods that can’t know the future. This repeated taunt climaxes in the prediction of Cyrus by name. If Isaiah didn’t predict this, then Yahweh should be considered just as impotent as the other idols! Oswalt elaborates,

The chief argument for the uniqueness of God over the gods in chapters 41-48 is his ability to specifically foretell the future, something the idols could not and did not do. But if the writers knew at the same time they were making this argument that Isaiah ben Amoz had never foretold what they were saying he had, what does this do to their theological credibility? In fact, they were fabricating false evidence, since Yahweh could no more tell the future than the idols could. The towering theology of the prince of the prophets is in fact built on a foundation of falsehoods, if we accept this hypothesis.[12]

This argument reveals the anti-supernatural bias of the critics. Notice, this objection does not offer evidence against the theistic worldview (i.e. a God existing who can predict the future); instead, it just assumes an atheistic or naturalistic worldview. When you read the critics on this subject, ask yourself: Where are their arguments that there is no God that can predict the future? Of course, they don’t offer any. Instead, they simply assume that this isn’t possible. Therefore, this argument is not for a historian or commentator; it is an argument for a philosopher of religion.

Moreover, Isaiah claims that God knows “the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10), and Isaiah even predicts the person and work of Jesus Christ, which is several hundred years in advance—even if we assume that the critical dating of Isaiah is correct (Isa. 42, 49, 50, 53). Therefore, this argument on the basis of denying predictive prophecy doesn’t hold water.

ARGUMENT #2: Isaiah speaks to future generations

Critics argue that Isaiah directly speaks to future generations in the second half of this book (Isa. 40-66). John Oswalt explains the critical view:

No other book of the Bible does this. Several speak about future times, but no other speak to future times as Isaiah does. This is one of the chief reasons why it has become common in scholarly circles to consider that the book is the result of several different authors, with those involved in writing the second two divisions having lived in those times.[13]

In chapter 40:1, we read that God begins to “comfort” his people after the exile. Critics ask, “Why would Isaiah comfort an eighth century audience, if they had not even been exiled yet?” A number of responses can be made:

First, Moses speaks to a future audience. Moses exhorts the people: “There you will serve gods, the work of man’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. 29 But from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul. 30 When you are in distress and all these things have come upon you, in the latter days you will return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice” (Deut. 4:28-30). This passage wasn’t fulfilled for centuries after Moses spoke this. He wrote it so the people would be ready when the exile occurred.

Second, while OT authors might never speak directly to future audiences, NT authors certainly do. In other words, speaking directly to a future historical audience might be unorthodox for an OT author, but not a NT author, who regularly address future generations.

Third, Isaiah also speaks to foreign nations that never hear him. Repeatedly, throughout his book, Isaiah speaks judgment to the neighboring nations (e.g. Edom, Moab, etc.). Of course, these nations did not read his book and understand their judgment from God. Instead, this was a rhetorical device that he used to instruct the original eighth century audience about the judgment of God.

Fourth, in certain portions of the text, Isaiah clearly uses the future tense to describe this comfort. Isaiah writes, “Those who war with you will be as nothing and non-existent” (Isa. 41:12). Here, he speaks about a future war that hasn’t occurred yet. Later, he writes, “So I will pollute the princes of the sanctuary, and I will consign Jacob to the ban and Israel to revilement” (Isa. 43:28). According to these passages, Isaiah is well aware that this exile hasn’t occurred yet.

Fifth, Isaiah’s point about the exile is ultimately spiritual—not physical. Isaiah’s historical and predictive description about the exile ultimately points to the spiritual exodus. Throughout this section, Isaiah introduces the Suffering Servant (chs. 40, 42, 50, 53), who is set against this historical backdrop.

ARGUMENT #3: There is no mention of Isaiah or any Judean King from Isaiah 40-66.

Critics notice that chapters 40 through 66 never mention the name of Isaiah or any Judean king. From this, they infer that this author (“Second” Isaiah) was not living in Judea, and he wasn’t actually the same “Isaiah” mentioned earlier in the book (Isa. 1:1; 2:1).

Yet arguments from silence are not persuasive, unless they are conspicuous silences. That is, arguments from silence only work, if we should expect something to break the silence. In this case, we shouldn’t expect Isaiah to mention himself or mention Judean kings.

Isaiah doesn’t mention himself. Since Isaiah already identified himself from the first line of the book (1:1), we shouldn’t expect him to keep repeating his name in the second half of the book. Similarly, Hosea, Joel, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, and Malachi only mention their names in the open verses of their books—not throughout (Hos. 1:1-2; Joel 1:1; Obad. 1:1; Mic. 1:1; Nah. 1:1; Mal. 1:1). This would be like expecting someone to shake your hand and introduce themselves multiple times in the same conversation. This would be a rather odd and bizarre expectation to hold.

Isaiah doesn’t mention Judean kings. Isaiah was prophesying about a later period of history, so we shouldn’t expect him to mention Judean kings. Moreover, Isaiah doesn’t mention either of these subjects in chapters 20-36, either. However, critics don’t split these chapters from “First” Isaiah on this basis.

ARGUMENT #4: Isaiah tells his disciples to finish his work (Isa. 8:16).

Isaiah 8:16 states, “Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples.” Critics argue that Isaiah believed that his disciples would finish his work. Is this the case?

This view terribly misinterprets this passage. Isaiah did not write that his book would be finished by his disciples (hundreds of years in the future). Instead, he wrote that the testimony would be sealed among his disciples (c.f. Isa. 29:11; Jer. 32:14). Motyer writes,

‘Bind’ means to ‘wrap up’, to safeguard from tampering and ‘seal’ means to attest as final and therefore guard from addition. The imperatives suggest a definite act, a precise (even legal) securing of Isaiah’s message against any accusation that he did not say this or that and against subsequent tampering or addition by others.[14]

Thus when we appeal to a close reading of the Hebrew text, we see that this verse actually speaks against the notion that later disciples would add to the book of Isaiah.

ARGUMENT #5: There are differences in theme and language between “First” and “Second” Isaiah.

Critics—such as Yehuda Radday[15]—argue by statistical analysis that the language of “First” Isaiah is different than “Second.” Moreover, the language of the first half is mostly judgment, while the second half is comfort.

While some language is different, this shouldn’t lead us to believe that this is written by a different author. Other circumstances could account for the change in language, as well. For instance, Isaiah most likely wrote these chapters toward the end of his life: a young Isaiah will write differently than an old Isaiah. Also, Isaiah is writing about different circumstances, which also requires different language.

In addition, some of the language is carried throughout both “First” Isaiah and “Second” Isaiah. The expression “the Holy One of Israel” is used 25 times in Isaiah, and there is an equal distribution of these uses from both “First” and “Second” Isaiah. “First” Isaiah uses this language twelve times, and “Second” Isaiah uses it thirteen times. Moreover, if you include “the Holy One of Jacob” from Isaiah 29:23, it makes it an even 13 and 13.[16]

 

Similarity of Language in “First” and “Second” Isaiah

“First” Isaiah

“Second” Isaiah

(1:15) “Your hands are covered with blood”

(59:3) “Your hands are defiled with blood”
(1:20) “But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword”

(58:14) Then you will take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken”

(11:9) “They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea”

(65:25) “The wolf and the lamb will graze together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox; and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain”
(11:12) “And He will lift up a standard for the nations and assemble the banished ones of Israel, and will gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth”

(56:8) “Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered”

(14:27) “For the Lord of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back?”

(43:13) “Even from eternity I am He, and there is none who can deliver out of My hand; I act and who can reverse it?”
(28:5) “The Lord of hosts will become a beautiful crown”

(62:3) “You will also be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord”

(35:6) “For waters will break forth in the wilderness and streams in the Arabah”

(41:18) “I will open rivers on the bare heights and springs in the midst of the valleys”
(35:10) “And the ransomed of the Lord will return and come with joyful shouting to Zion, with everlasting joy upon their heads. They will find gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away”

(51:11) “So the ransomed of the Lord will return and come with joyful shouting to Zion, and everlasting joy will be on their heads. They will obtain gladness and joy,

And sorrow and sighing will flee away”

 

Conclusion

These arguments for language should work both ways. If different language implies a different author, then similar language should imply the same author. To this, critics reply that “Second” Isaiah simply lifted this title (“the Holy One of Israel”) to sound like “First” Isaiah. But consider the old maxim: If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck. Here, the critics are arguing: If it sounds like an eighth century author and fits with the language of an eighth century author, then it must be a fifth century author trying to fool us!

These arguments are ludicrous; the Bible shouldn’t be guilty until proven innocent.

Exercise for small groups

Split up into groups of two and have them role play the various arguments back and forth to show comprehension.

[1] Kaiser writes, “So important is prediction to the very nature of the Bible that it is estimated that it involves approximately 27 percent of the Bible. God certainly is the Lord of the future.” Kaiser, Walter C. The Messiah in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1995. 235.

[2] Grogan, G. W. Isaiah. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1986. 9.

[3] Josephus Antiquities of the Jews. 11.12.

[4] Hoffmeier, James Karl. The Archaeology of the Bible. Oxford: Lion, 2008. 24.

[5] Motyer, J. A. The prophecy of Isaiah: An introduction & commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1996. “2. Isaiah as Author.”

[6] Motyer, J. A. The prophecy of Isaiah: An introduction & commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1996. “2. Isaiah as Author.”

[7] Motyer, J. A. The prophecy of Isaiah: An introduction & commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1996. “2. Isaiah as Author.”

[8] Archer, Gleason. A Survey of the Old Testament Introduction: Third Edition. Chicago: Moody Press. 1998. 375.

[9] Archer, Gleason. A Survey of the Old Testament Introduction: Third Edition. Chicago: Moody Press. 1998. 382.

[10] Archer, Gleason. A Survey of the Old Testament Introduction: Third Edition. Chicago: Moody Press. 1998. 382.

[11] Oswalt, John N. Isaiah: The New Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003. 35-36.

[12] Oswalt, John N. Isaiah: The New Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003. 36.

[13] Oswalt, John N. Isaiah: The New Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003. 18.

[14] Motyer, J. A. The prophecy of Isaiah: An introduction & commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1996. Isaiah 8:16.

[15] Y. Radday, The Unity of Isaiah in the Light of Statistical Linguistics (Hildensheim: Gerstenberg, 1973). Cited in Oswalt, John N. Isaiah: The New Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003. 38.

[16] Oswalt, John N. Isaiah: The New Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003. 39.