Pet Hates: Deutero-Isaiah

by James Dowden

I hate Deutero-Isaiah! There, I said it!

How, one may well wonder, could someone hate the beautiful Book of Comfort? Well, it’s not so much the content of the book, but the name by which it is known.

In the blogosphere, it is far too often that one comes across a post making the stunning observation that the name “Isaiah” disappears after chapter 39, and that it’s only chapters 1-39 that contain the oracles of the 8th-century Isaiah of Jerusalem. Often, it ends up being phrased much less precisely than that, and Isaianic authorship of chapters 1-39 in their entirety gets affirmed, either through carelessness, or through a strange sort of view that the inerrancy of the Bible is somehow upheld by making maximalist claims.

Occasionally, one will get the concession that chapters 36-39 are an historical narrative placed to ease the transition from Isaiah 1-35 across the sharp stylistic change to 40-66 — they lead up to Isaiah’s prophecy in 39.7 that the descendants of Hezekiah will be eunuchs in Babylon, transitioning from the Assyrian crisis to the Babylonian one. This actually generates a few new problems, but first let’s look at what sort of historical narrative Isaiah 36-39 is.

1. Isaiah 36-39


Isaiah 36-39 is essentially an excerpt from 2 Kings 18.13-20.19, with two major differences: first, Hezekiah’s tribute to Sennacherib (2 Kings 18.14-16) is omitted; and second, a mikhtam attributed to Hezekiah is inserted (Isaiah 38.9-20). The nature of these differences are usually treated as an argument for directionality: it is easier to envisage a redactor wanting to remove an embarrassing story about Hezekiah and to insert a psalm than it is to envisage one removing the psalm and inserting the tribute story. The other argument for directionality is a contention that 2 Kings 18.13-19.36 is a composite (first advanced by Bernhard Stade back in 1882 in his article on 2 Kings 15-20 in the 4th volume of ZAW, and taken up by Brevard Childs in his Isaiah commentary, and therefore often called the Stade-Childs Hypothesis), and therefore had no existence before the creation of the Deuteronomic History.

Various attempts have been made to avoid the obvious conclusion that the redactor who added chapters 36-39 to Isaiah knew 2 Kings, the implication of which is that this redaction was no earlier than the Exile, and therefore that the prophecy ascribed to Isaiah in 39.7 is an example of vaticinium ex eventu. These tend to fall into two categories: first, a claim that the tribute story is an interpolation; secondly, retrojecting the creation of 2 Kings 18.13-20.19 as a unit from the Deuteronomic Historian to the Deuteronomic Historian’s source.

Even if those attempts did not have a certain strained nature to them, they do not detract from the most basic of observations that can be made about Isaiah 36-39. Firstly, they are distinguished in genre from what goes before and afterwards in terms of genre (history vs oracles) and narration (3rd person vs 1st person). The very best case that apologists can claim is that at some point after the time of Isaiah and Hezekiah, a narrative account was written about their interaction and was appended to the oracles that end at Isaiah 35.

2. The Name of Isaiah’s Disappearance

Now that we have established Isaiah 36-39 as a secondary unit, we can return to the claim that the name of Isaiah disappears after chapter 39. We have seen that Isaiah is a character in the account presented in those chapters — indeed, ten of the sixteen instances of his name are in that four-chapter section — but that is not the point that people are attempting to advance; rather, it is that the oracles in chapters 40 onwards are internally anonymous.

So where does the name of Isaiah occur in chapters 1-35? These are the six instances:

  • 1.1 The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
  • 2.1 This is what Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
  • 7.3 Then YHWH said to Isaiah, “Go out now to meet Ahaz, you, and Shearjashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, on the highway of the fuller’s field.”
  • 13.1 The burden of Babylon, which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw:
  • 20.2 at that time YHWH spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loosen the sackcloth from off your waist, and take your shoes from off your feet.” He did so, walking naked and barefoot.
  • 20.3 YHWH said, “As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot three years for a sign and a wonder concerning Egypt and concerning Ethiopia,

These fall into two categories: headings of oracles (1.1; 2.1; 13.1) and mentions in third-person narration (7.3; 20.2; 20.3). Now, the story of the prophetic sign narrated in Isaiah 20 is a rather curious one, tied in to an historical event that is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible (indeed, this is the only occasion on which the Assyrian king Sargon II, whom the Deuteronomic Historian conflates with his son and successor Sennacherib, gets a mention in the Bible), but suffice it to say that once again we have a seam in genre either side of this chapter. The implication should be clear: Isaiah 21-35 consists of anonymous oracles.

3. A Cursory Glance at the Parts of Isaiah 21-35 (and 13-19!)

Before we all get excited and say, “Aha! So Isaiah 21-35 should be called Deutero-, 40-55 Trito, and 56-66 Tetarto-Isaiah,” let’s have a look at whether or not this section is a unit.

The most distinctive part is chapters 24-27, an apocalypse. Its genre alone is usually taken as being highly suggestive of a late date. This splits off chapters 21-23, a set of oracles against foreign nations, with rather cryptic titles. These seem to have been patterned after the oracles against the nations in chapters 13-19, each set grouped under five headings describing the oracles as burdens, and in both cases the second burden being by far the shortest of the five:


  • 13.1 The burden of Babylon, which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw:
  • 14.27 This burden was in the year that king Ahaz died. [against Philistia]
  • 15.1 The burden of Moab:
  • 17.1 The burden of Damascus:
  • 19.1 The burden of Egypt:


  • 21.1 The burden of the wilderness of the sea.
  • 21.11 The burden of Dumah.
  • 21.13 The burden on Arabia.
  • 22.1 The burden of the valley of vision.
  • 23.1 The burden of Tyre.

Now, whilst the mention of Babylon alone doesn’t necessitate a post-Isaianic date, the historical situation assumed (e.g. at 13.17; 14.1) is much more consistent with a late point in the Exile. So generally the first set of oracles against the nations are regarded as pseudepigraphic.

The second set follows the first:

  1. The “wilderness of the sea” is a reference to Exodus 13.18 (“but God led the people around by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt”), drawing the parallel between the Exodus and the return from the Babylonian captivity.
  2. Dumah can be read as “silence” and has implications of death (cf Psalms 94.17; 115.17). This and the word for “burden” (Massa) also recall the names of the sons of Ishmael at Genesis 25.17.
  3. Arabia and Moab both refer to lands east (and south) of Israel. It has been suggested on the basis of Nehemiah 4.7 that Moabites became regarded as Arabians around the time of the Exile.
  4. This is particularly obscure, but it should be noted that Kir (22.6) was the destination of the Damascene exiles in 2 Kings 16.9.
  5. The Egypt-Tyre parallel is explicitly drawn at 23.5.

I am not even going to attempt to provide any analysis of the structure of chapters 28-35 at the present time. I have seen several proposals, all of which seem to lack something by way of coherence.

4. Rounding it all off

So to bring everything together, it looks very much like the “original” book of Isaiah consisted of just the first twelve chapters. This isn’t to say that these are a single coherent work, but rather that that section looks old and resists easy splits.

But let’s return to my dislike of the term Deutero-Isaiah.

At the end of the day, this is a problem of nomenclature. It’s much easier to observe that chapters 56-66 are distinct from 40-55 and call them Trito-Isaiah than to observe equally strong divisions in chapters 1-39 and try to get people to call what they’re calling Deutero- as Tetarto-, Pempto-, Ecto- or something (or worse still, try to coin Quasqui- and Sesqui-Isaiahs).

So, please world, can we retire the term “Deutero-Isaiah”?