Category Archives: Isaiah


2017-03-06

Well I never knew that was in the Bible

by Neil Godfrey

Circle of Juan de la Corte (1580 – 1663)
Title: The Burning of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s Army

Despite having been familiar with the Bible for many years I have had to confess that much of my understanding has been at a layman’s level and only sporadically informed by more thorough scholarly insights. One assumption that most lay readers are likely to bring to the Bible is that it speaks with a uniform voice about a future time when a Messiah figure descended from King David will once again restore Israel to a power exceeding the comparable status she held in the days of King Solomon.

So I was taken aback when I read that one of the contributors to the book of Isaiah had no such vision about a future Davidic messiah, but on the contrary accepted that David’s dynasty had finished, been terminated. But don’t we read in 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89 that God promised an everlasting dynasty for David? Did our Isaiah writer not know of this prophecy? How could that passage be included in the canon if it contradicted other “sacred scriptures”?

Part of the answer emerged when I recollected my earlier post, How Bible Contradictions Began. Notice what our author does to God’s eternal promises.

That second Isaiah was keen to reinterpret what he could of Isaiah’s oracles can be seen in his handling of the Davidic convenantal tradition. Though political realities would not allow him to simply repeat Isaiah’s promises to the Davidic monarchy, he skillfully actualizes this tradition by “democratizing” it, and applying the Davidic promises to the entire nation (55:1—5). (David Meade, Pseudonymity and Canon, 1986. p. 34)

Again 5 pages later,

We already saw how the Davidic promises were applied by second Isaiah to all Israel (55:1— 5).

If you’re confused by the above reference to “second Isaiah” then understand that scholars have long believed that the 66 chapters of our book of Isaiah are a composite of different writings: “first Isaiah” wrote chapters 1-39 during the time of the Assyrian empire; “second Isaiah” wrote the rest at the time of the Babylonian empire. Some even add a “third Isaiah” responsible for chapters 55-66.

The New Living Translation of the key passage: Isaiah 55:1-5 read more »


2017-03-03

How God “Spoke” to the Prophets

by Neil Godfrey

I post here an interesting snippet from my recent reading where I learn at least one way God spoke and revealed messages to the prophets of old, or at least those who wrote in the names of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. When they wrote they could declare that their revelation was the word of God as God himself spoke to them, or even as God himself speaking. Yet scratch the surface and we find that what the author has done has in fact studied Scripture, thought about it, and reapplied it to his own or a future day, and then presented it as a new direct revelation from God.

In fact, not all of the prophetic revelation was derived from an oracular source. Not only did the prophets interpret their own encounter with the divine, they also demonstrate a mark of “inspired” reflection on the traditions they had received. C. Buchanan has demonstrated that even some oracles described as “visions” or the “coming of the word” are in fact the result of an “inspired” midrashic examination of earlier traditions. (Meade, David G. 1986. Pseudonymity and Canon: An Investigation into the Relationship of Authorship and Authority in Jewish and Earliest Christian Tradition. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.)

Sadly I don’t have access to Buchanan’s article but fortunately David Meade tells us what passages Buchanan cites as evidence:

He cites 2 Isaiah’s midrash on Exodus 15:1-16 (cf. Isa 42:10-13; 43:14-17; 51:9-10) and Jeremiah’s midrash on Deut 28:26 (cf. Jer 7:32-33), Deut 28:64 (cf. Jer 9: 16), Deut 27:26; 4:20; 7:12 (cf. Jer 11.3-5), Deut 30:15 (cf. Jer 21:8), and Deut 4:9 (cf. Jer 29:13-14).

I set out those passages below to make it easier to see how this process of revelation works:

read more »


2015-11-12

How Did Daniel Understand Isaiah’s Suffering Servant?

by Neil Godfrey
Martin Hengel

Martin Hengel (1926-2009)

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant has been co-opted by Christians as a prophecy of Jesus Christ but how did pre-Christian Jews understand this figure? My last post in a series examining Martin Hengel’s scholarly work on this question was From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel). Here is the long overdue follow up post. So far we have

  • surveyed the evidence Hengel finds for how the authors of the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira interpreted the Suffering Servant we read about in Isaiah 53;
  • noted related developments in the period of the Maccabean martyrs (around 165/164 BCE) when the book of Daniel appears to have been written.

Though we sometimes read dogmatic assertions by scholars who don’t keep themselves up to date across their field of research to the effect that no pre-Christian era Jew could ever have thought that the Messiah was destined to suffer and be killed, Martin Hengel has no qualms arguing on the basis of early Jewish writings that pre-Christian Jews really do appear to have done just that. And why not? How better to make sense of a persecuted and often martyred community? We must keep in mind that there was no fixed idea of any other kind of Messiah (“anointed one”, “Christ”) in this period.

Yet we must remember that in the second century B.C.E., we do not yet possess any fixed Jewish doctrine of the Messiah – there basically never was one – but must rather deal with various ideas of anointing and the Anointed One. In Qumran, not only the Davidic Messiah but also the eschatological high priest and the prophets are considered “anointed ones.”

— Hengel, Martin, ‘The Effective History of lsaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period’, in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p103. (Bailey is responsible for translating Hengel’s essay into English and updating it in consultation with the author.)

Hengel warns us not to expect an author to introduce the new ideas or interpretations emerging in the Maccabean period with an unambiguous supporting citation to an earlier text.

Because the ideas introduced are new, they are at first only cautiously hinted at. Isaiah 53, as a unique text in the Old Testament, may have helped this development along, though at first the collective understanding [i.e. that the Suffering Servant represented Israel] stood in the foreground, and only certain aspects of the whole text exerted an influence. It also needs to be remembered, as already said, that the pre-Christian Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha contain almost no literal scriptural citations. We can therefore conduct only a very cautious search for traces. (p. 96)

So the argument is suggestive rather than conclusive. We might further consider the interpretative power of the argument: Does it explain the emergence of earliest Christian interpretations more directly than a radical revision of Jewish thought being sparked by a belief in a crucified leader’s resurrection from the dead?

Let’s get started. read more »


2015-11-10

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

by Neil Godfrey

A bibliography of a few Vridar posts taking an in-depth look at the Suffering Servant figure in Isaiah and how it was understood before Christianity. . . .

The Influence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant is a major text for Christianity (in the New Testament it is used to interpret Christ’s death) but what did it mean to adherents of Judaism before Christianity?

Did any Jewish interpretations anticipate the meaning it held for later Christians?

To what extent were the authors of the gospels innovative in their use of Isaiah 53 (and Isaiah as a whole)? To what extent were they simply employing ideas they absorbed from their surroundings?

Is it possible that Christianity itself evolved in part from earlier sectarian understandings of Isaiah 53?

This post looks at some work by Martin Hengel and demonstrates the way other pre-Christian texts — Sirach and Zechariah  — interpreted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant figure.

From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel)

The previous post showed the apparent influence of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 upon the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira. This post pauses to look at some background before resuming with the way the Book of Daniel adapted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant idea in the light of contemporary events — around 165/164 BCE.

A chapter by Martin Hengel is the basis for the posts.

It appears that at the end of this post I anticipated writing one more to conclude the series. I must complete that as soon.

Other posts: read more »


2014-11-23

The Influence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

by Neil Godfrey

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

The Suffering Servant

13 Behold, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
14 As many were astonished at him—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the sons of men—
15 so shall he startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which has not been told them they shall see,
and that which they have not heard they shall understand.

53 Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him;
he has put him to grief;
when he makes himself an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand;
11 he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous;
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant is a major text for Christianity (in the New Testament it is used to interpret Christ’s death) but what did it mean to adherents of Judaism before Christianity?

Did any Jewish interpretations anticipate the meaning it held for later Christians?

To what extent were the authors of the gospels innovative in their use of Isaiah 53 (and Isaiah as a whole)? To what extent were they simply employing ideas they absorbed from their surroundings?

Is it possible that Christianity itself evolved in part from earlier sectarian understandings of Isaiah 53?

Martin Hengel brings us a little closer to answering these questions when he offers insights into the influence this text had on various ideas in Second Temple Judaism:

Hengel, Martin, ‘The Effective History of lsaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period’, in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 75-146.

Scholarship is used to thinking of the book of Isaiah as a collation of works originally by a number of authors (e.g. chapters 1-39 labelled Proto-Isaiah; 40-55 Deutero-Isaian; 56-66 Trito-Isaiah) but in the context Hengel is addressing the book was understood to be the unity we know today. Not only a unity but of prophetic significance as a whole. Hengel establishes early in his essay the point that from the Hellenistic period on the book of Isaiah (as a whole) was often treated in Judaism as work prophetic of the last days. So in Sirach (composed around 200 BCE — prior to the Maccabean era) we read of Isaiah the prophet:

24 He comforted the mourners in Jerusalem. His powerful spirit looked into the future, 25 and he predicted what was to happen before the end of time, hidden things that had not yet occurred. (Sirach 48:24-25 GNT)

Ben Sirach interprets Isaiah’s Servant — and prepares for the Gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark opens with a blend of prophetic passages from Isaiah and Malachi and allusions to the Exodus that lead directly into an Elijah scene. Two centuries earlier Ben Sirach similarly linked Isaiah, Malachi and Elijah in a pivotal prophetic time. Hengel does not draw the comparison with the Gospel of Mark (a comparison enriched by Elijah’s own association with Exodus and wilderness motifs) but I’m sure someone has:

Mark 1:2-4

Even as it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, Who shall prepare thy wayThe voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight;

John came . . . clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist . . . [i.e., in role of Elijah]

Malachi 3:1
Isaiah 40:3
Exodus 23:20

Sirach 48:1, 7, 10

Then the prophet Elijah arose like a fire . . . who heard rebuke at Sinai and judgments of vengeance at Horeb . . .

You [=Elijah] who are ready at the appointed time, it is written,

to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury, to turn the heart of the father to the son, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

Malachi 4:5-6
Isaiah 49:6

Hengel cautiously expresses some doubt as to whether Sirach “wished to identify the Servant [of Isaiah] directly with Elijah redivivus.” He does, however, along with other scholars he cites recognize that Sirach has given Isaiah 49:6 “a messianic or at least an individual interpretation”. (The significance of an “individual” interpretation lies in the various interpretations of the Servant passages: some reading the Servant as an individual but others at the time viewing the Servant as a literary figure representing Israel. Compare how the “son of man” in Daniel 7 was originally composed as a representative of the nation of Israel — in contrast to gentile nations represented by wild beasts — yet came to be interpreted by some as a literal, heavenly individual.)

Was the author of the Gospel of Mark writing in the context of a long-known intellectual tradition that played with piecing Isaiah’s Servant, Malachi’s Messenger, Exodus liberation and adoption tropes, and Elijah into scenarios of messianic end times?

The Book of Zechariah interprets Isaiah 53?

Martin Hengel takes us further back than the Book of Sirach and to the period of the immediate successors of Alexander the Great, the Diadochi. read more »


2013-07-29

The Gospel of Mark As a Fulfilment of Isaiah’s New Exodus

by Neil Godfrey

new-exodusRikki Watts presents a very thorough argument in Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (1997) that the major themes, structure, and narrative details in the Gospel of Mark were drawn directly from the Book of Isaiah, and in particular from the last chapters of Isaiah that speak of a New Exodus for Israel from captivity to various nations and back to Jerusalem.

Watts would surely disapprove of my saying so, but I do believe his argument so cogently explains the life and teachings of Jesus in this gospel that one must surely question whether introducing hypothetical sources pointing to an historical Jesus would only create difficulties and add nothing to the gospel. But that is a secondary question. Let’s stick with the outline of Watt’s argument. (It is too detailed to consider anything other than a broad outline in a single post.)

Isaiah Part 2

The second half of Isaiah opens with “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” calling upon God’s people to prepare the way for their coming Lord, God himself. The coming of the Lord will be through a tearing apart of the heavens; he will come as an overpowering warrior to destroy the rulers and idols of the nation; and he will also come as a Shepherd who heals his people, cares for them, and leads them back to a land of rest and true worship. Within these chapters we also read of a mysterious “Suffering Servant” whose suffering is somehow related to the salvation of all Israel. Many Jews have interpreted this figure as an ideal Israel.

When God comes he overthrows the nations who held his people in captivity. This is the beginning of Israel’s second Exodus. He then leads his people — even though they are blind — into the place where he will rule them from Jerusalem. read more »


2012-01-29

Pre-Christian Foundations of Christianity (Couchoud)

by Neil Godfrey

Having traced Couchoud’s argument for the development of the New Testament it’s time I returned to the beginning of his two volume work, The Creation of Christ, and outline his views on the development of Christianity itself. (The entire series is archived here.)

I once posted links to pdf version of Couchoud’s opening chapters:

Foreword (approx 2.2 MB pdf)

Apocalypses (168 b.c. – a.d. 40)

I. Preliminary (approx 1.8 MB pdf)

II. Profaned Temple (approx 2.2 MB pdf)

III. The Dream of Daniel (approx 3.3 MB pdf)

IV. Revelations of Enoch (approx 6.7 MB pdf)

V. Revelations of Moses (approx 2.8 MB pdf)

I will comment on only a few aspects of some of these chapters. Read them — they are not long — to understand Couchoud’s argument for the background to Christianity and the references to much of what is below. I will only address a few points here.

These chapters are an overview of the pre-Christian development of the Jewish concept of the heavenly Son of Man figure. Daniel begins the process with a clearly symbolic figure, but later apocalypses turned that symbol into a more literal Heavenly Man. read more »


2011-07-08

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

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. read more »


The Servant in Isaiah 40-55, scholarly interpretations — individual and/or collective identities

by Neil Godfrey
Prophet Isaiah, Russian icon from first quarte...

Image via Wikipedia

Ulrich Berges has conveniently outlined a history of scholarly interpretation of the Servant Songs in Isaiah 40 – 55, concluding with his own reasons for understanding the Servant who suffers yet saves as a literary personification of a prophetic community in the restored Jewish province under the Persian empire (SJOT, Vol.24, No.1, 28-38, 2010). The following is an outline of Ulrich Berges’ article. I have questions about some of the premises upon which Berges relies, and have additional questions about the possible relevance of the literary developments in evidence here for later Gospel narrative traditions, but I try not to let any of these personal thoughts interfere with my outline of Berges’ article here. The Isaiah Servant songs have always been of special interest to me, and I assume some someone else without access to academic online journals will find some interest in these notes also.

Developments in the exegesis of the so-called Deutero-Isaiah corpus

The first to challenge the idea that Isaiah wrote the entire book bearing his name was Ibn Ezra in the 12th century.

But the first to challenge the idea in the age of historical critical research was Johann Christoph Döderlein in his 3rd edition of his commentary on Isaiah in 1789. Döderlein believed that chapters 40 onwards were the work of a different author. read more »