Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Joseph Blenkinsopp, Opening the Sealed Book: Interpretations of the Book of Isaiah in Late Antiquity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).  Pp. xx + 315.   Paper, US$25.00.  ISBN 0-8028-4021-3.

While it has long been recognized that Isaiah along with the Psalms were the most frequently quoted books of the Hebrew Bible in the Qumran sectarian library as well as in the New Testament, no one has provided conclusive reasons for their heightened profile in both collections of literature. Joseph Blenkinsopp’s book on the early reception of Isaiah argues unequivocally that “the book of Isaiah is an essential and irreplaceable factor in the legitimizing, grounding, and shaping of dissident movements in late Second Temple Judaism” (p. xv). The book is in some ways itself a “remnant” of unfinished business after Blenkinsopp finished his excellent three-volume commentary on Isaiah for the Anchor Bible series, yet a remnant ripened with mature reflection on the significance of Isaiah’s compositional history and its Nachleben for understanding the social realities of late antique Palestine. He treats Isaiah from the formation of the book to its reception in the Qumran literature and in the writings of the early Jesus movement during the Greco-Roman era.  He isolates three aspects of Isaiah that served to make the Isaianic persona a particularly powerful one. The first is Isaiah’s concern with justice and righteousness, the prophet as a spokesman for the marginalized in society. The second prism of Isaiah is as apocalyptic seer whose vision extends far beyond eighth century Jerusalem. The third is the prophet as “man of God” that is, as a prophetic figure working in society who heals, counsels, chides, performs sign acts, and the like.

Chapter 1 treats the formation of the book of Isaiah. Blenkinsopp understands Isa 29:11-12 as a key to the book, regarding those verses as referring to Isa 8:16, read and interpreted from an apocalyptic perspective. He also regards the reinterpretation of Isaiah 29 as marking the shift from oral to written prophecy and from prophetic to apocalyptic eschatology.  In Chapter 2, Blenkinsopp argues that a heightened interest in the persona of the prophet as distinct from the prophet’s oracular sayings developed in the exilic period.  Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History redefine prophecy in the exile in light of a theological interpretation of that experience away from (failed) prophetic oracles and toward a construction of the prophetic persona, a trajectory that would ultimately result in hagiographical treatments of the prophets in such works as Ben Sira, The Lives of the Prophets, and The Martyrdom of Isaiah. Isaiah 1-39 lies at the beginning of this trajectory by offering two distinct profiles of Isaiah, the first in the earlier oracular material and in the supplemental exilic and post-exilic biographical material.

Chapter 3 lies at the heart of the book in arguing that Jewish sectarianism emerged in Palestine during the Persian period immediately following the Babylonian exile. He sees  the separatist, sect-like perspective of the golah group of Ezra-Nehemiah (exemplified in Ezra 9-10) in some way connected with the disenfranchised perspective of the group associated with Isaiah 56-66. He suggests, less cogently from this reader’s perspective, that these share sociological features of later sectarian developments at Qumran and in Christianity. Left unexplained, other than through the happenstance of fortuitous archaeological discoveries such as Qumran, are the absence of similar separatist movements in the diaspora.

Chapter 4 provides an examination of the use of Isaiah at Qumran, considering in particular the Isaiah pesharim, the Damascus Document, and 4Q Melchizedek.  The fifth chapter explores Isaiah in the New Testament, with a focus on Matthew.  Chapters 6 and 7 are more thematic in approach.  Chapter 6 examines Isaianic titles that are used in Qumran and early Christianity: “ the many,” “the way,” “servants of the Lord,” “the penitents,” “the righteous,” “the elect,” and “the devout.” Chapter 7 explores the symbolic power of the Exile for these early Jewish groups.  The final chapter of the book reviews resonances of Isaianic Servant language and imagery in early Jewish literature.

One feature of Isaiah that has a surprisingly low profile in his book is the unconditional Zion covenant theology of the Davidic kingship and the Jerusalem temple that Isaiah affirms, if in transformed shape, through all its sixty-six chapters. More might have been said for example, about the use of Isaianic discourse, particularly Isaiah’s prophetic call, in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice for the way in which liturgy shaped the self-understanding of the community’s prophetic leadership. While Blenkinsopp treats these issues briefly noting the use of Isaiah in the anthological pesher 4Q175 Florilegium, it seems that reinterpretation of the community as temple was itself a way of extending the promise of the Davidic covenant.

Blenkinsopp’s work is rich with historical and exegetical insights yielding a ripe harvest from a gifted scholar who has long cultivated and pruned the vineyard. Not all the chapters cohere with the larger argument of the book as tightly as they might, a result, no doubt, of including some material that was published elsewhere.  That stated, this brief review can only hint at the wealth of erudite observations and insights contained in this book which will prove informative to a wide range of scholars of early Judaism and Christianity.  

Judith H. Newman,
Toronto School of Theology/University of Toronto