The Bible in and as History: Isaiah

Isaiah, first and greatest of the later prophets.  A book full of theological and literary reference.  After a couple of books that were relatively short there is this behemoth, which turned out to be hard to form opinions about for me, though I seem the exception if my readings are corrects.

The text itself is rather long.  Ultimately it is a text of prophecy; the Prophet speaking to the people of Israel about the future.  The text has a central theme of Salvation after tribulation.  The land of Israel has been conquered and subjugated, and soon enough it will suffer further conquests and subjugation.  These are a consequence of Gods displeasure with the people, and it is through these trials that the nation will be purged of the wicked and the unrighteous.  After these tribulations, the enemies of the Hebrews will be brought low and, from a Center of Jerusalem, the Messiah will herald in an era of peace based on the rule of God.

There is a lot I could talk about in regards to this, but I’ll start with authorship and intent.  The Authorship of this, like many of the biblical works, is highly contested.  One view is that the Prophet is the Author of the earlier sections of the book, with the later sections being additions.  Another view splits the book into three sections, attributing the different sections to different authors or authorial groups.  The earliest portions of the text appear to occur surrounding the Assyrian Crisis.  In 701 BCE an Assyrian King laid siege to Jerusalem.  The ultimate outcome of this conflict varies due to conflicting evidence.  Jewish sources say he was defeated by strange mass-deaths of his soldiers, while Assyrian sources claim victory and tribute paid by Judah.  It’s hard to suss out which of these sources in the most accurate, as both exist in traditions not exactly steeped in historical accuracy.  The sources we have from the Jewish side are suspect as being quasi-religious justifications after the fact.  The Assyrian sources come in a tradition that ignores losses or defeats and is a near constant lauding of Assyrian victory.  Regardless the earliest part was written in a period where Israel had fallen and Judah was under constant threat from the Assyrians.

The Later portion has moved the focus from the Assyrians to the Babylonians, likely putting it’s authorship later, in the Babylonian captivity.  The theme remains the same however.  God as the author of a calamity, utilizing ‘Pagan’ peoples as his weapons, with the intent of purifying the realm.  This followed by a glorious rise and the humbling of ones enemies.

It works wonderfully as a political and transformative text. In essence extolling the reader to be one of those who will survive by virtue.  Reprimanding those who are not following the true and strait path.  Promising vengeance upon those who heap humiliations on you.

Beyond it’s initial authorship we have a long and powerful history of Isaiah as central to both Judaism and Christianity.  For the former, We have the establishment of an apocalyptic tradition.  While other, earlier works do speak of transformation, rebirth or renewal in terms of the Jewish state, this informs the idea of a series of god-mandated catastrophe’s, mitigated by the acts of the people, and than resulting in a new, improved, purged Jewish State.

It’s not hard to see how these themes, which seem to have been important within Judaism throughout the Roman occupation period, deeply influenced Christianity as well.  A History Jesus would almost certainly be familiar with these texts and his followers definitely were and definitely pulled from this text for their own theology.  My reading on the subject repeats that Isaiah is one of the books most quoted later on in the New Testament.  That Paul, and other authors, directly quote Isaiah extensively in their own works and also pull from the imagery of the text in building their own apocalyptic visions.  For a book whose theme to me reads as “Bad Stuff is coming, we deserve, be good and you’ll get out of it” it’s easy to see the resonance with Christian theology.  And this remains current throughout the development of various branches of Christian theology.

The Long breaks that are coming between these posts will hopefully shorten if I can discipline myself to them.  So hopefully within a week we have what comes next; More Prophets with Jeremiah.


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