BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Who Was Isaiah?

Find out what the greatest scholars know of the prophet and the writers who followed in his wake

raphael-isaiah-painting

Raphael’s Isaiah. Photo: Scala/Art Resource, New York, NY.

He is one of the most fascinating men in the Hebrew Bible—and also one of the most mysterious. His writings are cited more than any other Hebrew text in the New Testament and continue to be among the most influential to Christians everywhere, even in modern society.

He is represented more numerously among the Dead Sea Scrolls than all the other prophetic texts combined.

But who was Isaiah? Modern scholars have deduced what early Christians could not: That there was more than one, probably three, writers under the single name. And each one of them could be completely different people.

As with all Biblical mysteries, there is debate among scholars on the identity of the different Isaiahs, or even on the number of writers using that name. A student can use Renaissance paintings of Isaiah to delve into the spiritual soul of two great artists.

Others pore over Isaiah’s poetry for literary inspiration. But to get to know Isaiah in a unique way, one must turn to the clues we have in the Bible itself that reveal the many faces of Isaiah.

Isaiah the prophet, royal advisor and exile

Isaiah, as noted above, is the most influential of all the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. But he was also, as Professor Yehoshua Gitay writes, an impractical prophet: Scolding the king and citizens of Judah for their errors and proud, profligate behavior, which led in the end to King Ahaz, perhaps annoyed as many kings are by tactless advisors, to ignore his advice and lead Judah into financial slavery to Assyria instead of relying on God.

Isaiah was an equal-opportunity morality nag: He badgered the men of Judah for their political misadventures and the women for their wicked behavior. His words were harsh and went so far as to challenge the religious order of the day.


 

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Then there was Isaiah as recorder of daily life: His famous Song of the Vineyard was a parable intended to teach a lesson to his listeners; it was a sustained metaphor for God’s care for his people that portrays the deity as a meticulous, attentive vintner and his people as disappointing, fetid fruit.

Besides fueling the power of his prophecy, Isaiah’s detailed imagery also offers a historically reliable glimpse of a vital agricultural practice in eighth-century B.C.E. Jerusalem.

The song is the most detailed description of vineyard maintenance in the Bible, whose accuracy is confirmed by archaeological evidence. Understanding through Isaiah and archaeology how the ancient Israelites provided for their needs allows us to appreciate the complexities of ancient life and gives us insights into the Biblical text.

And again, there is the Isaiah—the second one—who is a satirist and religious arbiter, mocking Babylonian worship of idols without fully understanding Babylon’s religious practices.

Then, of course, there is the question: Who was the Second Isaiah? This man lived centuries after First Isaiah, and there’s no reason to believe his name really was Isaiah. Instead, we have Isaiah the opportunist, someone who may have slyly submerged his identity into that of the legendary prophet in order to give his own preaching greater legitimacy.

Indeed, we may even have a name for this false Isaiah: Could he be a man named Meshullam, son of Zerubbabel, heir to the house of David?


 

Explore the world’s most intriguing Biblical scholarship

Dig into more than 7,000 articles in the Biblical Archaeology Society’s vast archive with a Library Explorer pass.
library-explorer-pass-button


Such are the mysteries, many faces and surprising theories of Isaiah. No doubt he intrigues you as much as he does so many other students of the Bible. And there’s much more insight where all of this came from!

‘Meet’ Isaiah and his contemporaries now

Fortunately, there is a resource that delivers insight on all of this scholarly investigative work. The Biblical Archaeology Society Library shines a light on Isaiah, the two kingdoms of the Israelites, and much more.

Discover the scholarship and archaeology that opens all these doors of knowledge. The BAS Library Special Collection, Isaiah, will fascinate and delight you. Enjoy every one of the articles in this collection:

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