Why is multiple authorship of Isaiah still an issue?
I received my MA in Biblical Studies from Asbury Theological Seminary last spring (2010). Anyone who knows anything about Asbury would describe it in one word – conservative. That said, I feel that I got a lot out of my education there, and learned a lot from people who’s theological and biblical perspectives differ greatly from mine.
One issue that I had there was the idea that the biblical canon should be studied as is, and that source and form criticism were really pushed aside. I know that these types of criticisms are outdated in that there are so many more ideas on the table now, but in order to understand new ideas, I wish that I had a deeper background in the criticisms that they were birthed from. Instead we engaged almost entirely in studying the canon as a whole.
One example of this is what was taught in a class on Isaiah. It was taught by Dr. John Oswalt, who might be the only remaining scholar alive who argues for single authorship of Isaiah. Dr. Oswalt basically referred to “multiple-source people” throughout the class as if their ideas were hardly worth talking about, but he never argued for his own idea or gave any reason why single-authorship makes sense at all (with the exception of saying that he has trouble believing in a bible where an argument is made on God foretelling the future after the fact). Another professor at Asbury told me that to study how a biblical book was formed and put together misses the point; that we need to only study the final form of the book.
In response to these experiences, I want to offer a quote from Joseph Blenkinsopp’s commentary on Isaiah in the Anchor Bible series:
“It is obviously possible, though not easy, to read the book of Isaiah as a rhetorical and structural unity and appreciate it aesthetically as well as theologically while disregarding the process by which it reached its present shape. Readers have been doing just that for centuries.”
The idea that we do not start with a critical approach to the text is what has been embraced by the layperson for centuries. I encourage my fellow students and teachers of biblical studies to always approach the text critically in order to get the most out of it! If our basic premise is to assume that the final form of the text is what speaks the most to the reader, then we have assumed way to much about how simplistic the mind of the reader is! By reading the text critically and trying to understand how the text was formed and composed, we can understand more about the socio-historical setting in which the composition and redaction took place. This sets us up to understand how the people acted and reacted to their environment through their relationship with Yahweh.
The idea of multiple authorship of Isaiah should not be shunned, even by conservatives. Instead, let us study broadly and sift through the good ideas as well as the “bad” ideas. I read many books and heard many opinions that I did not agree with during my time at Asbury. I do wish that some of the more mainstream ideas would have been included in the curriculum.