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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

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Isaiah

Richard J. Clifford

In the Jewish Bible (Tanakh), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and “the Twelve” (the Minor Prophets) are in the second section, which is called “The Latter Prophets.” Together with “The Former Prophets” (Joshua to Kings), they come after the Pentateuch (Torah), and before the Writings. Jews regard the Latter Prophets primarily as expositors of the instructions and laws contained in the Torah. The Christian Bible, in contrast, places the Prophets in the third and concluding section of the Old Testament (after the historical and wisdom books), a position that links the prophetic books directly to the New Testament and emphasizes the prophets as heralds of the last days, the time of Jesus Christ. Both Jewish and Christian understandings of prophecy prize the book of Isaiah, for it insists equally on exclusive faith in God (e.g., 7, 1–9; 28, 14–22 ) and social justice (e.g., 5, 1–24 ), and it instills hope for a renewed Zion and Davidic king ( 8, 23–9, 6; 11, 1–9 ).

The book of Isaiah contains a wide variety of styles and material. Chapters 1 through 39 blend denunciations of Zion and Judah, promises of blessings, announcements of interventions (“judgments”) of God, oracles about foreign nations, and narratives about the prophet. The dominant foreign nation threatening Israel is Assyria. Chapters 40 through 55 are quite different. They contain no narratives, denunciations, or prophetic biography, but they have carefully crafted speeches announcing forgiveness of sins to the exiles in Babylonia and inviting them to return to Zion. The dominant foreign nations in these chapters are Babylon and Persia (Cyrus in 44, 28; 45, 1.13 is the king of Persia). Chapters 56 through 66 are also distinctive. They presume an audience that is back in Zion and intent on rebuilding itself; criticisms and promises center on Zion, and some sections (e.g., 56, 1–6; 60–62; 65–66 ) deliberately refer back to Chapters 1 through 39 . This section contains no prophetic biography nor does it mention any dominant foreign power. Like 40 through 55 , no author is mentioned. From these and other data, biblical scholarship from the late eighteenth century forward has come to agree there are “three Isaiahs” in the sense of three distinct sections: 1 through 39 preserve the preaching and deeds of Isaiah of Jerusalem of the late eighth century (though the editing of these chapters is later); 40 through 55 interpret the Isaian legacy for exiles in the mid‐sixth century; and chapters 56 through 66 interpret the same legacy for the rebuilding of Zion. Scholars conventionally refer to the three sections as First, Second, and Third Isaiah, though it is possible there were actually only two prophets. It is possible that “Second Isaiah” was the author of chapters 56 through 66 as well as of chapters 56 through chapters 40 through chapters 56 through 55 . Over the last four decades, study of the book of Isaiah has taken a new turn. Without abandoning the views sketched above, scholars have turned their interest to the book of Isaiah as a unified literary work and are concerned with the way that its three sections relate to each other.

The following pages will discuss the historical background, literary structure, and message of the three sections, and then will give an overall view of the book.

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