Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 15 (2015) - Review

Paul, S.M., Isaiah 40–66: Translation and Commentary (Eerdmans Critical Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012). Pp. 728. Paperback. US$68.00. ISBN 978-0-8028-2603-9.

This commentary is a translation of a Hebrew manuscript (subsequently revised [p. ix]) that bears a close relation to Paul's two-volume Hebrew commentary on the same chapters in the Mikra LeYisrael series. Reviews of his Hebrew commentary have appeared elsewhere. The commentary published by Eerdmans begins with a series of introductory essays. These are followed by a translation of chapters 40–66, after which is the commentary proper.

All of the introductory essays are helpful starting points on their respective topics. There are 21 essays in all (72 pages), concerning the themes, language, composition, historical background, influences, style, structure, text, translation, and postbiblical Jewish reception of Isa 40–66. Coordinated with these essays, topical bibliographies appear at the end of the commentary. The essays themselves rarely cite the works mentioned in the bibliographies, no doubt for the sake of concision.

Paul introduces each passage with observations on structure, style, and theme. He then concentrates his interpretation on those elements to be found at the level of the word and phrase. While one occasionally encounters an observation whose exegetical significance must be inferred by the reader (e.g., the note on קום in 57:14, p. 474), Paul usually offers a straightforward interpretation of the passage under consideration. Typically, the interpretation is concise, a sentence or two, followed by a string of biblical parallels (often cited in full) to illustrate idiom, word usage, theology, and the like. For each biblical parallel, the commentary usually provides the relevant Hebrew portion within the English translation, making clear for the reader which aspect of the citation is relevant to the Isaiah verse in view. This sustained attention to the wording of the Hebrew text is where Paul has devoted most of his energy; and it is, in my opinion, the most valuable feature of his commentary.

Naturally, the interpretation does not limit itself to the minutiae of the Hebrew line. Paul frequently includes relevant parallels to ancient Near Eastern sources, although at times he leaves the interpretive payoff of such parallels unexplored (compare, e.g., the comment on p. 134: “The motif of a deity's word as unalterable and everlasting is also found in other ancient Near Eastern texts.”). Here the reader will find a host of important Akkadian parallels to the Isaiah text, some of which are pressed into the service of illuminating a problematic Hebrew word, although parallels with other Semitic languages are also occasionally mentioned (e.g., in 57:16 a Ugaritic cognate helps adjudicate between Hebrew homonyms). Sometimes the comparative evidence is not discussed (e.g., in 40:4 Paul simply notes that רכסים is a hapax legomenon).

While Paul takes the MT as his starting point, he is not afraid occasionally to adopt a different reading. Sometimes a conjectural emendation is preferred to the MT (e.g., the revocalization of ואכהו in 57:17 to give it a past reference). At other times a variant reading is adopted that is supported by textual evidence. So, for instance, in 40:6 וָאֺמַר is preferred against MT's וְאָמַר on the basis of the LXX, comparing this to 1QIsaa ואומרה. However, not every significant textual variant receives attention in the commentary. Notably absent, for instance, is any discussion of Isa 40:7–8, part of which is missing in the LXX, with an overlapping section being written secondarily into 1QIsaa—a striking coincidence that invites comment.[1] All in all, however, Paul offers the reader a solid textual commentary.

An author clearly after the historical meaning of Isa 40–66, Paul understandably begins his commentary with a brief discussion of the formation of the book as a whole (addressed in essays one and two [pp. 1–12]), naturally placing special emphasis on the chapters which his work seeks to interpret. Accordingly, Paul recognizes the weight such compositional questions carry for that mode of interpretation which seeks to answer the most basic historical question: Why was the book made at all? There is simply no getting around the point that any historically oriented analysis of the text's meaning will do no better than the diachronic model upon which it is necessarily based. Given the weighty interpretive implications of such analysis, readers of this review will perhaps understand my attention to Paul's account of the book's formation.

Here Paul adopts a decidedly conservative position. Remarkably, he attributes the authorship of all of chapters 1–39 to Isaiah ben Amoz of Jerusalem “with the possible exceptions of chaps. 34 and 35” (p. 1)—though elsewhere he conveys the impression that there were other secondary insertions into this prophet's 39-chapter work (e.g., “scholars acknowledge the prophecy against Babylon in chap. 13 to be a late addition,” p. 2). Tacitly rejecting some recent work on chapters 34 and 35, Paul regards these two chapters, especially the latter, as possibly stemming from Deutero-Isaiah (p. 5), the author responsible, in his view, for all of chapters 40–66. In Paul's account, then, the book of Isaiah is a work “composed of two distinct sections written by two different authors at different times” (p. 1). The two halves of the book were joined in part because of “their linguistic affinity, which was due to the influence of First Isaiah” on Deutero-Isaiah, and in part because of a desire to “append prophecies of consolation and comfort to the impending exile prophesied in chap. 39” (p. 3).

Paul does not discuss who was responsible for this, or when it took place, though it obviously follows from his discussion that this was a postexilic development. Also unexplored, in this respect, are the parallels Paul acknowledges between the first and last two chapters of the book, which are judged to create “a literary frame for the book as a whole” (pp. 590–91, 609–610). In a model which takes everything in chapters 1–39 as stemming from one author (with the exceptions noted above), and which regards all of chapters 40–66 as likewise written by a single author, these parallels between the first and last two chapters would suggest that the latter author wrote his piece to complete and conclude what the former author had begun, the later chapters of the book never having had a separate existence from the earlier ones, though this conclusion is not drawn by Paul. Thus, readers familiar with current discussions of Isaiah's formation will likely find themselves wishing that Paul had developed his observations in the framework of a more thoroughgoing model of composition. For example, to regard 48:22 as a secondary comment “copied word for word from Isa 57:21” (p. 320), invites exploration of the compositional ramifications this observation has for the formation of chapters 40–66.

Paul acknowledges the question of a “Trito-Isaiah” as especially important to the interpretation of chapters 40–66, implicitly rejecting the position in the first sentence of his commentary, and explicitly doing so in the second essay of the introduction (pp. 5–12). The number of scholarly positions considered here is somewhat limited, being reduced to a single alternative: Are chapters 40–66 the product of one author, Deutero-Isaiah, or two authors, giving us also a Trito-Isaiah? Paul does not consider the position, much discussed, that regards chapters 56–66 as a composite work;[2] nor does he reflect on the many monographs that see chapters 40–55 as multi-layered.[3] This is not necessarily to claim that one or the other of these two positions is correct, but neglecting these discussions will likely imperil Paul's case for those readers familiar with that literature.

Consider, for instance, his response to those passages within chapters 56–66 that, according to advocates for a Trito-Isaiah hypothesis, presume the existence of the Second Temple and rebuilt walls of Jerusalem. Paul responds, first, by citing 64:10, which clearly assumes the temple remains in ruins. And, noting that this verse falls within chapters 56–66, he argues that it gives us evidence against a “Trito-Isaiah.” Although he does observe that this verse contributes to the prayer of 63:7–64:11, which the divine response in chapter 65 answers critically (see the helpful chart of parallels on pp. 589–90), he does not mention the widely held view that this prayer once existed independently of chapters 65–66, having been incorporated as part of the process that governed the composition of these chapters, a hypothesis in my opinion able to explain those aspects of the divine answer highly critical of the prayer. For example, in 65:8–9, God clearly rejects the corporate notion of salvation presumed in 63:17, and in 66:1–2, which many would include in the divine response, God undeniably repudiates efforts (whatever they were) at rebuilding the temple, the very topic with which the prayer ends.

The point is not that one must accept such a depth dimension in chapters 56–66, but that Paul does not protect his argument from certain alternative explanations that are widely held. In this context, Isa 64:10 says little about the date of chapters 56–66 as a whole, allowing passages like 66:2—whose rhetoric is clearly aimed at a different situation—to speak as evidence independent of the verse cited against the Trito-Isaiah hypothesis. And it is worth adding that, even within Paul's own model, the value of 64:10 as evidence for dating chapters 56–66 seems to be eliminated by his admission that scholars usually date the prayer (63:7–64:11) to the period “immediately following the destruction of the Temple”—a position to which he does not object (p. 568). This would place the prayer substantially earlier than not only his date for chapters 56–66 (“the beginning of the return of the exiles to Jerusalem”), but also his date for chapters 40–55 (from “the final years of the Babylonian exile,” pp. 2, 8), raising in its own way questions about a depth dimension in these chapters.

To those who find evidence favoring Jerusalem's rebuilt walls in chapters 56–66, he responds that “there is no indication whatsoever in the verses referred to above of the actual completion of the walls” (p. 6). This may be true, but because one of those verses cited—62:6—seems to contradict this statement, the reader reasonably expects further elaboration, which, however, is not to be found. And, more to the point here, those familiar with composite views of Isa 56–66 will hardly find themselves contented with Paul's citation of 60:10 where the rebuilding of the walls lies on the horizon of the future. In a composite model, Isa 60:10 may help date part of the collection, but not the whole, since chapters 60–62 are usually, in part or in whole, ascribed to an earlier layer.

There is a question, moreover, as to whether or not Paul presents the reader with arguments for Trito-Isaiah in as robust a form as they are to be found elsewhere. Paul does accept that chapters 56–66 presume an historical situation later than that reflected in chapters 40–55, so that there is development from the earlier chapters to the later. There is no reason why development—be it historical or theological—should not in and of itself find perfect accommodation in a single-author model for chapters 40–66. A prophet can travel, and a prophet's thinking can change. The question, however, is whether the development present in these later chapters lends itself to such an explanation more easily than to the alternative. Here readers familiar with the wider debate might find themselves wishing for more engagement.

For instance, Paul notes that, in contrast to chapters 40–55, chapters 56–66 are characterized by “socioreligious schism”—a development conveniently traceable by a corresponding shift from the singular “servant” in the former chapters to the plural “servants” in the latter (p. 8). Paul objects to dating this schism “to the days of Ezra and Nehemiah,” instead finding evidence for it much earlier (though with this compare his analysis on pp. 447–49). When such a schism began is of course a different question than when it acquired the form it now has in chapters 56–66. And on this latter point, Paul's argument would be more persuasive had he taken account of the much discussed phrase in 66:2, “those who tremble at my word,” which is only otherwise found in Ezra 9, a chapter much debated for what it says about the history of conflict in the postexilic community.[4]

Seeking to counter an argument for Trito-Isaiah of a different sort, he notes that chapters 56–66 “include numerous terms and ideas that originate” in chapters 40–55 (pp. 8–9, with a very useful chart of parallels, a unique feature found throughout the commentary). He quickly adds, however, that these parallels “do not imply plural authorship, since the prophet may very well cite his own words” (p. 9). One can hardly object to the possibility of self-citation, although separate authorship is the reigning assumption underlying the many parallels Paul helpfully charts out between Isaiah and other biblical books (pp. 44–61). In further response to Trito-Isaiah advocates, he adds that “these citations were often adapted and expanded to fit the changing situation and integrated into their new context” (p. 10). This point does not sound like an objection, but rather an observation. It is precisely here that readers familiar with the ever-growing mountain of literature on biblical citation in early Judaism are likely to feel that Paul has not given sufficient weight to the evidence of his observation regarding the transformative nature of these “citations.” I note a few examples of this phenomenon. Isaiah 57:14ff alludes to 40:3, transforming the earlier call to “prepare the way” into a moral imperative, an element found nowhere in the source. In Isa 60:9, one finds an interpretive citation of 55:5 which understands the earlier passage as a reference to the temple (compare פאר in 60:9 with 60:7, 13)—despite the fact that there is no mention of a temple in chapter 55, only a reference to “the sure mercies of David.” Even more striking is Isa 65:16–18, which promises the creation of a new heavens and earth in which the former things will be forgotten, thereby reconfiguring the promises of chapters 40–48, to which it deliberately alludes. No longer is Cyrus the agent of salvation, and salvation has become the creation (ברא) of a new world. This verb is never employed for such a future promise in chapters 40–48. Examples like these abound in the secondary literature on chapters 56–66. This sort of theological adaptation of antecedent material through textual allusion and citation has a clear parallel in works whose separate authorship is not disputed (e.g., “rewritten bible”).

Against another argument for a Trito-Isaiah, Paul contends that the separation between chapters 55 and 56 is not so strong, since there are linguistic and thematic links between the two chapters. But it was just noted that such links between 40–55 and 56–66 can be explained by positing a later author who has consciously developed an earlier work. Among the linguistic affinities noted between these two chapters is the reference to the “name” that will not be “cut off” (p. 450). In 55:13 this refers to the divine name, whereas in 56:5 it speaks of the eunuch's name, a difference which has suggested to many the reapplication of the one passage by the other, and hence, in light of the above discussion, evidence for a separate author.

Another link noted by Paul is worth mentioning here because it does not look like any sort of adaptation, and so potentially offers support to his argument by avoiding this line of counter-argument. He notes “the theme of the ingathering of nations” provides a link between 55:12–13 and 56:8, each concluding its respective passage (p. 450). While an argument for single authorship from this example is not vulnerable to the alternative explanation appealing to adaptation, it is likely to be seen as falling prey to another argument—an argument from style. Isaiah 55:12 employs the verb יצא in speaking of the people's return, which is perfectly consistent with chapters 40–55 (e.g., 48:20; 49:9; 52:11–12). This is not, however, consistent with chapters 56–66, which never use יצא for the return, but instead employ קבץ for this purpose. Indeed, Isa 56:1–8 concludes with a threefold use of קבץ in verse 8. Such an observation is more amenable to older authorial arguments from style that were seen to support a Trito-Isaiah. It is difficult to see why the same author suddenly adopts a different term for this idea, and does so in a way consistent with broader usage in chapters 56–66 over and against that in chapters 40–55. The link only seems to confirm that the adaptation present in the other connection involving the “name” (55:13; 56:5) stems from a separate author.

Those familiar with the compositional debate concerning chapters 56–66 have typically seen the distinction between chapters 55 and 56 in the light of one or both of the following observations on the shape of the material, neither of which finds voice in Paul's commentary. First, many who support the separate authorship of these chapters have observed that chapters 56 and 65–66 form a frame around the whole of chapters 56–66, so that chapters 56–66 appear to constitute a literary unit deliberately distinguished from the previous chapters.[5] This impression is reinforced by the second observation, noted in Rendtorff's insightful analysis of the first verse of chapters 56–66. Isaiah 56:1 borrows a collocation present within chs. 1–39, but not in 40–55: ישׁע ,תשׁועה) ישׁועה // צדקה) and combines it with a different collocation present within Isa 40–55, but not in chapters 1–39: משׁפט // צדקה.T[6] With a clever play on two separate meanings of צדקה, Isa 56:1 combines these two collocations for the first time in the book: “Thus says the Lord, keep justice (משׁפט) and do righteousness (צדקה), for soon my salvation (ישׁועה) will come, and my deliverance (צדקה) be revealed.” Rendtorff concludes that, in this way, the first verse of what has traditionally been called “Trito-Isaiah” looks very much like it wants to be understood as signaling the beginning of something new vis-à-vis the rest of the book in whatever form it had at the time. For those convinced of Rendtorff's analysis, this observation will add considerable weight to the first point, that chapter 56 works together with chapters 65–66 to form a literary frame around the whole of chapters 56–66, giving the last 11 chapters of the book a distinct structure.

Neither of these two observations is necessarily evidence that chapters 56–66 were written by a separate author; only that these chapters present themselves as a new unit of text vis-à-vis the earlier chapters, which, of course, include chapters 40–55. But, when this self-presentation of chapters 56–66 as something new and discrete within the book is taken as part of a larger case that includes arguments from historical background and theological adaptation through textual citation, a cumulative argument emerges for separate authorship which many have found to be a more probable model of composition than that championed by Paul.

In my opinion, one will not find in Paul's commentary a careful critical review of recent work on the composition of the book; and it follows from what was said above that this threatens to detract from any work setting its sights on an exegesis of the historical sort Paul practices. As soon as multiple authorship becomes in any way part of one's interpretive approach to the book, proper interpretation depends on accurate critical analysis. Err in the latter, and risk skewing the entire interpretive context of the book. This point can be pressed too far, however, and in the case of Paul's commentary there is great value in those areas to which, it seems to me, he has devoted the bulk of his efforts.

Jacob Stromberg, Duke Divinity School

[1] E. Ulrich, “The Developmental Composition of the Book of Isaiah: Light from 1QIsaa on Additions in the MT,” DSD 8 (2001), 299–301. reference

[2] See, with much further literature, P. A. Smith, Rhetoric and Redaction in Trito-Isaiah (VTSup, 62; Leiden: Brill, 1995). reference

[3] See those listed in R. Albertz, Israel in Exile: The History and Literature of the Sixth Century b.c.e. (SBLSBL, 3; Leiden: Brill, 2004), 376–434. reference

[4] For one reconstruction relevant to this point, see Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56–66 (AB, 19B; New York: Doubleday, 2003), 53–54. reference

[5] See those listed in Jacob Stromberg, Isaiah After Exile: The Author of Third Isaiah as Reader and Redactor of the Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 13–30. reference

[6] Rolf Rendtorff, “Isaiah 56:1 as a Key to the Formation of the Book of Isaiah,” in Canon and Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 181–89. reference