January/ February, 1984
Volume 19, Number 1
The Sunday School lessons in the International Lesson Series for December, 1983 and January-February, 1984 are based on passages from the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament. Many people don’t care who wrote the book of Isaiah (and think the matter is insignificant, as expressed by T.T. Myers in a Gospel Messenger article way back in 1910), but those who have studied theological issues know that the question ["Who wrote the book of Isaiah?"] is an important one.
For centuries, the church believed that the various books of the Bible were for the most part written by the authors whose names they bear, usually persons who were contemporary with the events they narrate. But in the 19th Century, a discipline called “higher criticism” grew by such large proportions that scholars in Europe were captured by it, and today the findings of the higher critics are taught as assured fact in most mainline seminaries across the United States. This includes the instruction given at Bethany Seminary, the views of most curriculum writers for church school materials, and the assumptions behind most books recommended for reading in the Three Year Reading Course prescribed for licensed ministers. The critics believe that the Pentateuch is a patchwork of information supplied by at least four writers, that Isaiah must be partitioned into two or three parts (written by several men who used the name “Isaiah”), and they believe in a late date for the writing of the book of Daniel (after many of the events described in the book had already occurred).
It is our belief that multitudes of Brethren do not know what the historical-critical method of Bible study is. When the issue of “Biblical Inspiration and Authority” was being studied by an Annual Conference Committee in the late 1970s, a survey of Brethren views about the Bible was made. One of the questions on the survey was:
The use of the historical or critical method in studying the Bible:
a) Tends to exclude the supernatural from scripture;
b) Helps us understand the Bible more clearly;
c) Is the one and only legitimate way to study the Bible;
d) Is valuable for scholars, but not for lay persons.
The responses indicated a concern about the use of a critical method that seeks to exclude the supernatural from Scripture, but a sizeable majority of the Brethren who completed the survey, believe the historical-critical method of Bible study improves understanding (see page 561, Minutes of the 1979 Annual Conference). However, it is likely that many who responded thought that the critical method was the older and more historic way of studying the Bible. But indeed the historical-critical method of Bible study is only a recent invention. And furthermore, it is doubtful that the 1978 survey reached an accurate cross-section of Brethren people in our congregations. Thus it seems wise to take a closer look at the historical-critical method.
Wilbur Stover (pioneer Church of the Brethren missionary to India), in his book, The Great First Work of the Church: Missions, says: “We have a good church; we have a good body of doctrine; we are not much worried with the evil influence … of higher criticism.” That statement printed in 1922 is of course no longer true. Brethren today have embraced “the evil influence of higher criticism.” And thus we believe it is appropriate during these months when many are studying the book of Isaiah in Sunday School classes, to look more carefully at the concept of higher criticism, and more specifically at the question, “The Book of Isaiah – Who Wrote It?” The real issue in our churches today centers around the matter of whether or not the message of the Bible is an accurately recorded supernatural revelation from God.
The Fallacy of Higher Criticism
by Harold S. Martin
The theological disarray in the church today has not come upon us suddenly. It is the result of forces which have been at work for several generations. The fruit of these forces is only becoming more and more evident in our present generation.
The chief culprit behind the departures from the faith that are being witnessed in most mainline denominations today is a discipline known as the historical-critical method of Bible study. The historical-critical approach is supposed to improve one’s understanding of Scripture, but it has actually been employed to bring the Bible into disrepute. Those who advocate the historical-critical method say:
1) The Pentateuch is composed of four basic documents (labeled J,E,D,P) the last of which was compiled only after the Exile in Jeremiah’s day.
2) The accounts in Genesis 1-11 are “myths” (that is, stories that communicate universal truths, but are not themselves historical and geographical realities).
3) The book of Isaiah was written by two or three different writers, each widely separated in time.
4) The recorded experience of Jonah is intended to be an allegory, not a reality. The important thing is to get the religious truth behind the story.
5) The Gospels are the recollections of early church leaders, and the words attributed to Jesus may never have been uttered the way they are recorded.
The word “criticism” and related words (like “critic” and “criticize”) are usually understood as referring to something negative or unpleasant. Thus to the average person, to “criticize” is to “find fault,” and “criticism” is to “pass unfavorable judgment on the qualities of some person or thing.” However, the root word from which the words “critic” and “criticism” and “criticize” are derived is the Greek word “krites” which speaks of a “judge.” And a true judge is one who is fair and impartial and who will sway neither to the right nor to the left. His decision will as much as possible be guided purely by the facts of the case.
In theology, “criticism” may be defined as a serious and scholarly study of the books of the Bible especially with regard to the date when the text was written, who the writer was, under what circumstances each book was written, and what the writings meant to the persons who first read them. When we speak of the historical-critical method of Bible study, we are speaking theoretically of a careful and objective study of the books that comprise the Bible. Those who use the historical-critical method are called “higher critics.” They use various methods known as “form criticism,” “redaction criticism,” and “literary criticism.” We do not have space in this brief essay to describe the characteristics of each method.
The discipline of higher criticism could be a valuable tool in Bible study, but the higher critics for the most part start with the assumption that the Bible is a record of human encounter with God through long centuries, and not with the belief that the Bible is an infallible book written under the careful supervision of the Holy Spirit. Thus the Bible (to the critics) bears the scars of human error. Nevertheless, they believe it is a record which testifies to the message of God’s love for all people.
Higher criticism over the years has tended to explain the Scriptures and their origin in terms that can be “reasoned” out. The exclusion of the supernatural seems to be one of the main postulates of the higher critics. The modern biblical critic works on the basis of one or more of the following assumptions:
a) Miracles and genuine prophecies do not occur. Thus, for example, portions of Isaiah are attributed to a “second” or “third” Isaiah who wrote the words of certain specific (supposedly) prophetic passages after the events had occurred.
b) Biblical material involves internal contradictions. Thus, the discovery of occasional (seeming) contradictions in the text become the prime reason why the critics assign a multiple authorship to the Pentateuch. The text is sometimes confusing and hard to decipher because some of the Pentateuch was written by a “priestly” writer and some by a “deuteronomist” writer, etc.
c) Bible editors often came long after the events described. The writers of Scripture were mere editors (“redactors”) of the materials which they picked up from various sources. Oral tradition, as it passed from generation to generation, took various forms (proverbs, miracle stories, exhortations, etc.) The writers compiled their books from these various oral traditions.
To use the methods of the higher critics is to subject the Bible to human reason and to common sense. The absolute accuracy of the Bible was generally held by all Christians for the first 1800 years of church history. Only during the past two centuries, with the rise of higher criticism, has the infallibility of the Bible been seriously called into question by leading spokesmen within the church. Pastors and Bible teachers are taught the methods of higher critics in seminary, and this is the major reason for the great gulf between institutional church leaders and the average church member in the pew.
There are some very serious consequences that result from embracing the views of the higher critics. Such “scholars” say that the Bible is not historically accurate, but it is filled with beautiful religious lessons. For example, a writer in a Sunday School quarterly dealing with Moses and the burning bush, says:
“It really doesn’t make any difference what the ‘flame’ on the mountainside was. Moses saw something bright that day. Whether it was a ray of sunlight or a volcanic flame, or a bush in blossom is not Important. What matters is that Moses heard a voice.”
The modern scholars hold the Bible to be historically false, but religiously true. The jewels of the Christian faith, they say, are found in a book that is marred and imperfect. They say that it doesn’t matter if the Bible is accurate or not, as long as we get the intended religious lesson. But our response is this: If the Bible is not entirely accurate about Jonah (and his being swallowed by a big fish), then it may not be entirely accurate about Jesus (and His vicarious shedding of blood on the Cross). How can anyone trained on a steady diet of historical-critical theories – walk into the pulpits of our churches with a clear “Thus saith the Lord”?
The historical-critical method of Bible study indirectly implies that until 200 years ago no one really understood the Bible, but now in these modern times, with the skills of the historical scholars, we are getting behind the inaccurate shells of the Bible “stories” and finding the truth which has been concealed from past generations. We will illustrate the dangerous results of embracing the views of the higher critics by looking at the issue of who wrote the book of Isaiah.
The Book of Isaiah — Who Wrote It?
by Harold S. Martin
Isaiah was perhaps the greatest of the writing prophets. He carried on his ministry in Judah during the reigns of several kings. The Israelites, we remember, were ruled as a united kingdom under Saul, David, and Solomon. But at the time of Solomon’s death, the kingdom was divided and usually designated “Israel” (northern tribes), and “Judah” (southern tribes). Some of the kings in Judah were loyal servants of God, and thus the southern kingdom survived for more than a ‘century after the northern kingdom had been overrun by the Assyrians
Isaiah received his prophetic call about 740 B.C., the year King Uzziah died. Isaiah was born during days of prosperity in the southern kingdom. Judah was regaining economic strength under the competent leadership of Uzziah. The previous foolish policies of Amaziah had made Judah subject to invasion and oppression by Israel from the North. And the moral looseness of the people (Isaiah 1:4-6) was going to lead to punishment for Judah later on. The Assyrians were already making threats against Judah. Even during Isaiah’s ministry, the Assyrians had taken the northern kingdom of Israel (722 B.C.). Isaiah the prophet spoke of Judah’s future captivity also. We know from subsequent historical events that Judah was later taken captive by the Babylonian armies.
1. THE BACKGROUND AND MESSAGE OF ISAIAH
The book of Isaiah can easily be divided into two parts. In chapters 1-39, Isaiah writes about his own time. This was the period when Assyria was a threat to Judah. In chapters 4066, the Prophet sees beyond his own time to the period of the Babylonian Captivity. Isaiah seeks through his messages to bring comfort and hope to a crushed nation. (We should note also that Isaiah not only saw 100 to 150 years beyond his own time [to the Babylonian Captivity]. He also looked forward 700 years, prophesying the virgin birth of Christ [Isaiah 7:14], and describing the suffering and death of the Messiah [Isaiah 53:1-12; Acts 8:32-35]).
The basic theme of Isaiah’s message is that salvation is bestowed only by grace (by the power of God the Redeemer), rather than by human strength or by the good works of the flesh. Isaiah sets forth the doctrine of Christ the Redeemer in such full detail that he is sometimes called “the evangelical prophet.” The holy God will not permit continuing uncleanness in His covenant people, and therefore will chasten them to make them fit to participate in His program of redemption. The great lesson emphasized in Isaiah is the basic principle that any nation or any individual exalting himself above God will sooner or later be dethroned by the Lord of hosts.
The last 27 chapters of Isaiah predict the fall of Jerusalem and the 70 Years of Captivity. Isaiah foresaw the coming invasion by the Babylonian armies, and so the final 27 chapters of Isaiah contain words of comfort for the exiled people of Judah. And furthermore, Isaiah foresaw the rise of Cyrus the Great (who captured Babylon in 539 B.C.) and then gave permission to the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland. But not only was the work of Cyrus foreseen. Cyrus is actually referred to by name in Isaiah 44:28 and in Isaiah 45:1.
If the Bible is primarily of human origin, then the only way to explain these apparently successful predictions of Isaiah – is to say that they were written after the fulfillment had taken place, or at least when it was about to occur. Scholars who have anti-supernatural convictions do not believe that the Isaiah of B.C. 700 exhibited a foreknowledge of events that were to happen more than a hundred years after his death and so they flatly declare that another Isaiah (who lived much later than Isaiah the son of Amoz) must have written the last part of the book of Isaiah.
2. THE CRITICS AND ISAIAH’S AUTHORSHIP
For nearly twenty-five centuries, no one dreamed of doubting that Isaiah the son of Amoz (who lived in the 8th Century B.C.) was the author of the whole book that goes under his name. The literary unity of Isaiah was not doubted until comparatively recent times. There is no evidence that the ancients who lived a few hundred years after Isaiah’s time knew of any problems In connection with Isaiah’s writings. Even the translators or the Septuagint translation (approx. B. C. 200) showed no signs of believing that the 66 chapters of Isaiah are not Isaiah’s work. Nor do the copyists of the text of Isaiah seem to know any other author except Isaiah the son of Amoz.
Among the first to doubt the unity of Isaiah was Ibn Ezra, who lived in the 12th Century A. D. Not much was said about it again until the 18th Century, when the ,higher critics began delving into their work. One scholar says this chapter could not have been Isaiah’s writing, and another says this verse could not have come from Isaiah’s pen, and so forth. And so they say there must have been two (or perhaps three) Isaiahs (a Deutero-Isaiah). Since the late 1800s the negative critics have become more vocal than ever.
The primary reason why the critics declare that the work of Isaiah is the work of at least two writers is because they believe a prophet could not see beyond the horizon of his own time. It would be impossible for Isaiah (living about B. C. 700) to speak of Cyrus who lived about B. C. 540. Consequently, Isaiah 44:28 and Isaiah 45:1 are dated much later than B. C. 700, and are said to have been written after the time of Cyrus by a writer who used the name “Isaiah” as a pen-name. The “scholarly” critics proceed from the assumption that prediction of the distant future is impossible. They do not believe it was possible for Isaiah to speak of a distant Babylonian Captivity and of Cyrus as the deliverer from the Captivity. Therefore the higher critics say these sections of the book of Isaiah must have been written after the events actually occurred, and then they were made to appear as if they were predictive prophecies.
The International Journal of Religious Education, February, 1963, published by the NCC, says: “Isaiah of Jerusalem, who lived in the eighth century B. C., did not write all of the book that bears his name. Many chapters (chapters 40-66) were written by an unknown Jewish exile in Babylon during the sixth century B. C. The references to King Uzziah (6:1) and Ahaz (7:1) help to date Isaiah of Jerusalem, and the name of King Cyrus of Persia (45:1) helps to date the writer of the Exile.”
The Church of the Brethren A Guide for Biblical Studies, December, 1983, January, February, 1984, says: “The book of Isaiah is very complex, a whole library of prophetic work spanning centuries of time. Chapters 1-39 are attributed to Isaiah, son of Amoz who lived in Jerusalem during the second half of the eighth century BCE. Chapters 40-55 are set in the Babylonian exile after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Chapters 56-66 reflect a later time when attempts were being made to re-establish the life of a Jewish community in Jerusalem. We know next to nothing about the different writers of the book of Isaiah. We do know that they could deliver God’s message to the people as each successive crisis demanded” (page 65).
The paragraphs cited above are only a few of the multitudes of similar statements which are made time and time again in our literature. They indicate that the theories of the higher critics have become very deeply entrenched in the minds of most pastors and writers trained in the more liberal schools of theology.
3. THE RETORT AND EVANGELICAL RESPONSE
The advocates of the Second Isaiah theory stoutly affirm that at least two different persons wrote the book of Isaiah. Yet the New Testament writers clearly regard the author of the entire book of Isaiah to be one and the same person. It is true that some of the New Testament quotations can be interpreted as referring to the book merely according to its traditional title (that is, simply from Isaiah, regardless of who the author was) – but there are other New Testament references which clearly imply the personality of the historic Isaiah himself. Notice Matthew 12:17-18, Matthew 3:3, and Luke 3:4.
But the most conclusive New Testament citation is John 12:38-41. Verse 40 quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 (from the first section of the book of Isaiah). Verse 38 quotes Isaiah 53:1 (from the last section of the book of Isaiah). And then the inspired Apostle John comments in verse 41: “These things said Isaiah, when he saw his glory, and spoke of him.” Obviously it was the same Isaiah who personally beheld the glory of Christ in the temple-vision of Isaiah 6, as the Isaiah who also spoke of Christ in Isaiah 53:1. If it was not the same writer who composed both chapter 6 and chapter 53 (of the book of Isaiah), then the New Testament writer must have been in error! It therefore follows that those who advocate “the two Isaiah theory” must by implication concede the existence of errors in the New Testament, and this is a very serious matter. The historical-critical view undermines belief in the full-orbed truth of the Bible.
As we have just seen, Jesus quoted from both parts of the book and attributed His quotations to Isaiah. Other New Testament writers quoted from both parts of Isaiah without any kind of distinction. The phrase “the Holy One of Israel” is found an almost equal number of times in both sections (12 times in chapters 1-39 and 13 times in chapters 40-66). The oldest known manuscript of Isaiah (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls which springs from the 2nd Century B. C.) links the two sections as one unit.
And so the answer to the question, “What difference does it make who wrote the book of Isaiah?” –is of tremendous importance. Either Jesus told a deliberate lie, or He was ignorant of the fact that Isaiah did not write what He quoted, or He accommodated himself to those who accept the Isaianic tradition even though He knew better. We believe that the affirmation of Jesus concerning the authorship of Isaiah is to be accepted, and that the theories of the scholars who deny it are to be rejected. The issues at stake are considerable. They will not vanish away. The historical-critical method of viewing the Bible is the great enemy of the evangelical faith. How one looks at the Scriptures will make a difference in his lifestyle now and will affect his eternal destiny.