The first systematic and comprehensive attempt to identify and analyze the role of Isaianic language and imagery in literature, art, and music Using reception history as its basis for study, Isaiah Through the Centuries is an unprecedented exploration of the afterlife of the Book of Isaiah, specifically in art, literature, and music. This is a commentary that guides the reader through the Book of Isaiah, examining the differing interpretations of each phrase or passage from a variety of cultural and religious perspectives, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. Clearly structured and accessible, and richly illustrated, the book functions as a complete and comprehensive educational reference work. Isaiah Through the Centuries encourages readers to learn with an open mind and to understand how different interpretations have helped in the teaching and comprehension of the Bible and Isaiah s place in it. As part of the Wiley-Blackwell Bible Commentaries series, which is primarily concerned with reception history, the book emphasizes that how people interpret the prophet and how they ve been influenced by him is often just as important as the sacred text s original meaning. Uses reception history to study the renowned prophet Provides a historical context for every use or interpretation discussed Offers essential background information on authors, artists, musicians, etc. in its glossary and biographies Minimizes historical details in order to focus as much as possible on exegetical matters Presents the role of Isaiah and the Bible in the creative arts Will be useful to multiple disciplines including theology and religion, English literature, art history and the history of music, not just Biblical Studies Comprehensive in scope, Isaiah Through the Centuries is a much-needed resource for all those interested in the influence of the Bible on Western culture, and presents unique perspectives for anyone interested in the Bible to discuss and debate for many years to come.
A text has more than one meaning, depending as much on who is reading it as on what the original author intended. This is not a new idea - already the rabbis and the Church Fathers distinguished between literal and allegorical or mystical meanings - and it was particularly true of ancient texts where, before the revolution in eighteenth-century scholarship, we knew next to nothing about the original author. But over the last 250 years, archaeological discoveries, comparative philology, palaeography, textual criticism and the like, have made it possible to draw ever nearer to the original author's intention, and historical-critical commentaries were designed to present one meaning for every text, the correct meaning, the one nearest to the original author's intention. The many other meanings the text has had down the centuries in the church and the synagogue, in sermons, hymns, liturgy, literature, art and music, were simply ignored by biblical scholars. Later meanings were considered irrelevant because 'that is not what the original Hebrew meant.' In a modern critical commentary on Isaiah it was inappropriate to mention the sacrament of Baptism (Isa 1:16) or the Trinity (6:3) or Lucifer (14:12) or Muhammad (21:7) or the Lamedvavniks (30:18) or China (49:12) or the Holocaust (56:5) because such material usually has little or nothing to do with the 'original meaning.'
The Wiley Blackwell Bible Commentary series was created to redress the balance and enable us to hear some of the voices of readers from the beginning down to the present. It is increasingly being realized that, whether you are trying to get back to the original meaning or whether you are interested in how medieval and modern readers have interpreted it in literature or music or worship or politics, the story of how it has been understood down the centuries can be a source of scholarly interest and inspiration. What Jerome or Rashi or Luther or Milton or William Blake or Charles Wesley or Martin Buber or Benjamin Britten or Bob Dylan made of a text can be exegetically interesting. The Bible is a text sacred to many people and institutions, and what people believe it means may often be more important, historically and theologically, than what it originally meant. What is equally important, is that this way we learn how to listen to other people's interpretations, however odd they may appear at first, however different from our own, and, when deciding which meaning or interpretation is best, we can try to avoid generalizations and dogmatism. It may be less a matter of what it originally meant or which interpretation is more beautiful or more convincing: what matters 'at the other end of the hermeneutical process is how many spirits are impoverished and how many filled' (Boyarin 2000: 246).
The Reception of Isaiah
The book of Isaiah has always had a particularly high profile in both Jewish and Christian tradition, while in medieval Islam, Isaiah takes pride of place among the biblical prophets in foretelling the coming of Muhammad and the spread of Islam (Adang 1996: 146). Already in the Kings narrative, Isaiah is far more prominent than any of the other Writing Prophets (2 Kgs 19-20), and, apart from Psalms and Deuteronomy, there are more quotations from the Book of Isaiah in Second Temple Jewish literature, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, than from any other book in the Bible (Lange and Weigold 2011). At Qumran, evidence of at least twenty manuscripts of Isaiah was found, as well the famous 7.3-metre long Isaiah Scroll.
In the New Testament, not only is Isaiah more often quoted than any other part of scripture, again apart from Psalms, but New Testament writers often give his name when they quote him, and Paul introduces quotations with phrases like 'Isaiah cried out .' (Rom 9:27) or 'Isaiah is so bold as to say .' (Rom 10:20), a further indication that Isaiah held a special position in Paul's heart as he clearly did in the hearts of other first-century Jews as well. He is far more often quoted in the Mishnah than any other prophet, as he is in at least one large anthology of rabbinic literature (Montefiore and Loewe 1963), and in Jewish lectionaries more haftarot (readings from the Prophets) come from Isaiah than from any other prophet. He is also the subject of a popular martyrdom tradition according to which he was 'sawn asunder' (Heb 11:37), recorded in a first- or second-century BCE Jewish text and an elaborately developed Christian version known as the Ascension of Isaiah (Knibb 1985: 143-176) (Isa 1:10).
Cited already by Clement of Rome to provide scriptural authority for bishops (Isa 60:17) and by Justin Martyr in his attacks on the blindness of the Jews (Isa 6:9-10), Isaiah soon became a mainstay of patristic exegesis. Origen wrote a huge commentary on the first thirty chapters, now lost, while commentaries that have survived include those of Eusebius of Caesarea, Cyril of Alexandria and John Chrysostom in Greek, and Ephrem the Syrian in Syriac. Jerome introduces his massive eighteen-volume commentary in Latin by explaining that Isaiah is more an evangelist than a prophet since he often uses past tenses: 'For to us a child is born (9:6) . he was wounded for our transgressions (53:5)'. This is how Isaiah has been interpreted by Christian writers and artists right down to the present. 'Behold a virgin shall conceive .' (Isa 7:14 LXX; cf. Matt 1:23), in Greek, Latin and other languages rapidly became the text most frequently associated with him. Matthew stands on Isaiah's shoulders (Cowan 1979: 14-15), but all four Gospels begin with 'the voice of one crying in the wilderness' (Isa 40:3; cf. Matt 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23). Isidore of Seville in his polemical work De Fide Catholica found in Isaiah an allusion to almost every detail in the gospel narrative, from the mystery of the birth of Christ (Isa 53:8; cf. 66:7-9) to his resurrection (Isa 33:10), Ascension (Isa 52:13) and Second Coming (Isa 49:14). Images of the Good Shepherd (Isa 40:11) and Alpha and Omega (Isa 44:6; cf. Rev 1:8; 21:6) were common in early Christian iconography, as were the ox and the ass (Isa 1:3) and the camels (Isa 60:6) from the nativity story. The wolf and the lamb (Isa 11:6) appear too but more rarely.
The patristic exegetical tradition continued into the medieval period in works like the Glossa Ordinaria, the Bible Moralisée and the Biblia Pauperum. A new interest in the Passion is evident in Christian iconography, so that Isa 7:14 is sometimes replaced as Isaiah's motto by 'truly (he bore) our weaknesses' (Isa 53:4) or 'like a lamb before its shearers' (Isa 53:7). The wine press imagery in Isaiah 63, interpreted as a reference to the crucifixion, becomes common, and the wood of the Jesse Tree (Isa 11:1, 10) is occasionally transformed into the wood of the cross. Thomas Aquinas and Nicholas of Lyra for the most part follow patristic exegetical tradition, with occasional historical, theological or other insights of their own.
In Judaism down the centuries, Isaiah is first and foremost the prophet of consolation. Already in Ben Sira he is remembered as the one who 'comforted those who mourned in Zion' (Sir 48:24), and, according to the Talmud, Ezekiel's consolation is like the speech of a villager, Isaiah's like that of a courtier (b?agigah 14a). In Jewish lectionaries seven passages, beginning with chapter 40, are known as the 'consolation readings' read on the seven Sabbaths after the Fast of 9th Ab commemorating the Destruction of the Temple, and in the orthodox Jewish prayer book, the prayer to be recited in a house of mourning ends with three verses from Isaiah (Isa 66:13; 60:19; 25:8).
There is also a legend that Isaiah was rebuked by God for calling his people 'unclean' (Isa 6:5), and chapter 1 contains some of the strongest language used by any prophet to criticize his people. The passage was used by Jews to explain why the Temple had been destroyed, but Christians used such passages as scriptural authority for anti-Jewish polemic, which was a persistent feature of Christian interpretations of Isaiah right down to modern times (e.g. Isa 1:15; 65:2-3). The great medieval Jewish commentators Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Kim?i occasionally refer to such hostile gentile attitudes towards them (Isa 53:3-4), and Isaiah provided the poet Ephraim of Bonn with the image of angels weeping (Isa 33:7) when they saw the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Crusaders. The Book of Isaiah was a battleground for Jewish-Christian debate, notably in the great Disputation in Barcelona in 1263 (Isa 2:4; 41:8-9).
In the sixteenth century, Renaissance scholarship, the Reformation and vernacular translations of the Bible led to a break with medieval tradition evident in Luther's Lectures on Isaiah and Calvin's commentary on Isaiah. Anti-Judaism is joined by anti-papism in a fresh quest for the true, literal or historical meaning of scripture, aided by philology and largely unencumbered by ecclesiastical tradition. Vitringa, Lowth, Matthew Henry and others followed this new direction, but the medieval tradition continued in the poetry of John Donne, George Herbert, Milton, Byron and Tennyson, motets by William Byrd, cantatas by Bach, Handel's Messiah and Brahms' German Requiem, and in paintings by...