Now that we’ve looked over the text and found a set of transitions in it, we can start looking at how critical methologies will apply to this material. Will they help us interpret and apply the passage?
This is a moment to look at some of the reasons I’ve been writing this series. Frequently, Bible students are confronted with the results of critical scholarship, but with very little support, documentation, and reasonsing provided to help them determine whether they should accept a particular critical position or not. On the other hand, they will often see denials of the results of criticism with equally little background provided. One can’t avoid the types of questions that Biblical criticism asks, even though one can have widely varying positions on the answers. Whatever commentary or study Bible you choose, there will be statements about the date of writing, the authorship, and the historical and cultural circumstances of the book.
What do you do when one set of notes tells you that the gospel of Mark was written around 45 CE, while another says it was written between 70 and 80 CE? In relation to our particular exercise, what do you do when one source tells you that Isaiah was written by a single author in the 7th century BCE, while another says it has at least three authors dating from the 7th century to the 4th century BCE? Again narrowing in on Isaiah 24-27, how do you respond when one source says this is a scattered collection of unrelated sayings that has obviously suffered in editing and transmission, while another tells you that this passage is a coherent whole with a single theme carefully presented?
You can, as some people do, take the word of the scholar who is most similar to your theological viewpoint, you could throw up your hands and say, “Nobody knows!” or you can dig in and ask a simple question: How do each of these scholars know what they claim to know? That is the purpose of delving into critical methology. How does someone come to any of these conclusions?
Let’s think briefly about the gospel of Mark. There are two major areas of disagreement that alter the way scholars date Mark. The first is their solution to the synoptic problem. If someone believes that Mark is one of the sources for Matthew and Luke, he will clearly have to date it before Matthew and Luke. The second major issue is found in the relationship of the text to the destruction of Jerusalem. This is not only an issue of whether predictive prophecy is possible, but also whether the text of Mark reflects a situation in which the temple has been destroyed or not. Based on these criteria, you’ll find that more conservative scholars who believe that Mark was written first tend to date Mark very early. More liberal scholars tend to date Mark a bit later, even if they believe Mark was written first. Conservative scholars who believe Matthew wrote first tend to date Mark a bit later, though often still before the destruction of Jerusalem. (This can get tricky depending on how one dates Matthew.) Some scholars who are moderate or liberal believe Matthew was written first, and this results in a very late date for Mark, since in general the same scholars would date Matthew shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem. If you look carefully in each introduction to Mark, you will probably find the reasons even though they may not be clearly set out for you.
In the case of Isaiah, we don’t have an issue of copying, except in a small number of cases. We have two categories of issues: 1) That some portions of Isaiah are written presuming Assyria to be the main enemy, 2) that some portions are written assuming Babylon to be the main enemy, 3) that Cyrus is specifically named as a deliverer (which even some who like a 7th century date in general find a little hard to accept), and 4) that there are also passages that appear to apply to a time of rebuilding. This is not the time to evaluate all those issues in detail, but you should be aware of them. The deutero- and trito-Isaiah theories are based on an analysis of the text itself, along with a small number of external references. You need to consider the details about the text in order to express a valid and convincing opinion on the topic.
As we start on Isaiah 24-27, I want to call your attention to a couple of my own experiences in studying other books. I did a full quarter independent study in college on Ezekiel’s call vision (Ezekiel 1). One commentary guts the call vision of repetitions and things that seem not to fit into a coherent description of the vision. As I read this commentary (see the paper for more details), I began to ask myself whether the original report of the call vision would, in fact, have had the characteristics of brevity, organization, and clarity that this commentator supposed it would have? I decided that this was unlikely. A vision, after all, is not an ordinary experience. One might be slightly incoherent in describing the vision. By making the chapter more organized, that commentator was, in fact, losing the feeling of excitement and awe, along with the difficulty of describing a vision of this nature. I encountered the same thing using R. H. Charles’s commentary on Revelation in the ICC series. Charles rearranges the last chapters of Revelation because he thinks they are so horribly disarranged. He even suggests the following:
. . . John died either as a martyr or by a natural death, when he had completed i.-xx. 3 of his work, and that the materials for its completion, which were for the most part ready in a series of independent documents, were put together by a faithful but unintelligent disciple in the order which he thought right. (Charles, Revelation Vol II, p. 147)
Again we have to ask whether the order that the modern student thought right is the order that would have appeared right to the original author.
The assumption behind the interpretation of the passages I cited (Ezekiel 1, Rev. 20:4-22) is simply that a description of an end time vision should be clear, orderly, and in perfect sequence. The problem I have with this assumption is that there don’t seem to be any examples in scripture of such a clean, orderly work that would allow us to conclude that this was the “normal” form for such a vision report. The apocalyptic speeches of Jesus are more orderly, though not much more forthcoming with the data, than these, but it isn’t the report of a vision. A similar assumption has been made about Isaiah 24-27.
If you did your own outline of these four chapters, showing transition points, take a look at it again. If not, use the one I did earlier in this series, and then read the passage again. What kind of feeling do these chapters give you? Is it necessarily true that in a time of crisis, however resolved, we would feel a clean sequence of events, or would we have a slower transition?
Each of the “forms” we identified (though I used ad hoc names, rather than those you will find in many commentaries) contributes to the feeling of these chapters. We can use form criticism, identifying a passage as a hymn or a prayer, for example, to help us understand the pieces, but they form a portion of the word picture that the author is painting. They come from different places and situations, but they are combined into one theme.
In my next entry I’ll look a bit more at the theme and how it is brought together, and we’ll use a little bit of methodology from redaction criticism. While some scholars do try some source criticism on this passage, generally theories that combine some of the elements into sources prior to the final composition generally rely on extremely thin evidence, and I am unconvinced that such sources can be identified. The best picture of authorship, in my view, is that a single author takes elements from worship, devotional life, existing literature, and his own visions and compositions, and combines them into a passage heralding God’s final victory. The elements may look scattered to us, but that is largely because we come with the wrong questions, asking what historical events are in view, what is the sequence of age-ending events pictured, and so forth, when the author is answering the question of what it will be like when YHWH makes his final intervention in human history.