2011-07-08

The (Literary) Servant in Isaiah and (the Literary) Jesus in the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

Some thoughts that occurred to me after reading Ulrich Berges’ article that I outlined in the previous post – – –

One sees in Isaiah an overlap between the Servant as Israel and the Servant who is the personal prophet, or more strictly the personification representing a prophetic community.

Such a literary technique — constructing or attributing to a literary persona the issues and experiences being grappled with by the authorial community — is not unique to Isaiah. It is found in relation to David, Jeremiah, Judith, Daniel, Ezra, the mourner in Lamentations.

One sees an overlap between Jesus as an epitome of Israel at the opening of the Gospel of Mark (going along with the majority view of this Gospel being the first written of the canonical Gospels) and Jesus as a unique person, too. Observe his emergence from the waters of the Jordan and his going out into the wilderness for 40 days and compare Israel crossing the Red Sea to enter the wilderness for 40 years; but also his uniqueness as a person by being designated the Son of God. Observe both his own submission to persecution and his call for his followers to identify with him by taking up their own crosses.

So Jesus in this first of the canonical gospels can be understood as a personification of the community he has been portrayed to represent.

Jesus in the gospels performs many miracles of curing blindness and deafness, which are known to be the physical symbols of the spiritual condition of Israel in Isaiah. Other passages in Isaiah (e.g. chapter 35) describe the healing of paralysis and muteness. Isaiah has also been identified by some scholars (e.g. Ricki Watts) as a source of the theme of a second exodus in the Gospel of Mark. I would also suggest it was the source of the setting — Galilee (see Isa. 9) — of the Gospel narratives. We also know of the Gospels’ theme of the parables (hardened hearts hearing and seeing but not hearing or seeing) and the branch of Jesse and the virgin birth all being sourced from Isaiah. The Gospels and Isaiah seem to fit like a hand and glove.

(The exorcisms are also prominent in the Gospels but do not feature in Isaiah. The exorcisms, however, relate more to the “messianic” Son of David, Solomon, who was renowned as an exorcist.)

Is this an appropriate juncture to wonder about the place of Isaiah in less than orthodox Second Temple communities that we find represented in the Enochian literature as well as the Ascension of Isaiah? These are, like the Gospels and early Christian literature, closer in their interest in heavenly ascents, function of angels, minority elect and mysterious or hidden truths, etc, than mainstream Judaism.

Now obviously the Servant in Isaiah is by no means as developed as a personality as Jesus in the Gospels. The oracular poems in the second half of Isaiah are not a narrative like the Gospels; they are theological pronouncements, hopes and confessions. Similarly the David of the Psalms is not the David of 2 Samuel figure of David is embraced as a literary (generic) representation of suffering servants of God by Psalmist editors.

But we do see communal concerns put into the mouths of Jeremiah and Daniel, for example. The Gospel narratives about Jesus came much later, and do we have a right to expect a more biographically detailed narrative (of the Jesus personification of a community) to have emerged by this time?

I liked in particular Berges’ citation of the scholar who said, in effect, that we cannot just make up a character supposedly existing outside the texts and expect this imaginary figment to be found in our literary texts. Yet is not that exactly what “historical Jesus” scholars are doing in relation to the Gospels? Thomas L. Thompson is far more on the ball when he points out that by simple definition the Jesus in the Gospels is a literary Jesus.

I admit I have been influenced too much by “minimalists” to accept without question Ulrich Berges’ foundational assumption that Deutero-Isaiah originated in the Babylonian exile as the fruit of a group claiming descent from Jerusalem temple singers. I am more inclined at this moment to see (though of course I am an amateur and still have much to learn) the literature of Isaiah being produced squarely within the Persian province of Yehud. I am even open to the view that the entire book was composed by a single author (or communal author(?) whatever that might mean). But I say all this with humble reservations, since I know such questions must inevitably involve a serious knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek texts that I lack.

Is it feasible to imagine that the narrative characterization and plot of the Gospels were constructed with some knowledge (however indirect) of how the characters in Isaiah, Daniel, etc were constructed, that is as personifications of communities who served to solidify their group identity?

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  • beallen0417
    2011-07-10 00:18:27 UTC - 00:18 | Permalink

    Neil, what category would you place the righteous one of the Wisdom of Solomon in? Is he also a personification of a community?

  • 2011-07-11 09:33:55 UTC - 09:33 | Permalink

    I would like to take a question like that on notice and take time to refresh my knowledge of the Wisdom of Solomon and what we know of its origins, and also take time to follow through in more depth what we know of the literary fashion raised by Ulrich Berges.

    Meanwhile I’m open to your and others’ views, of course.

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