Saturday, April 4, 2009

Reaching for Unity in Isaiah

I was re-reading David Carr's 1993 article "Reaching for Unity in Isaiah" today. It's useful at least for the footnotes that reference many of the most important studies on the composition of Isaiah up until the early 1990s. The main point of the article is that the book of Isaiah is far too diverse to find any overarching literary structure. The last few paragraphs of his study are well worth the read, so I've reproduced them here.
[T]he above arguments for the weakness of the case for literary unity in Isaiah raise some questions about our contemporary compulsion to find literary unity in Isaiah and throughout the rest of the Bible. This tendency has emerged at just the time when attempts to recover the original words of the prophets have proven a less and less reliable guide for interpretation. Faced with such a crisis, the search for literary coherence of the 'final form' of the biblical text has seemed a godsend. Thus, for example, after describing how historical criticism 'divided' the biblical text and thus 'conquered' it, Seitz introduces his essay on 'Isaiah 1-66: Making Sense of the Whole' in the following way:
What I offer, then, is not a complex new literary theory. I hope that by demonstrating something of the Book of Isaiah's own efforts at unity and coherence, I might make our point of standing, as preacher, readers, and hearers of the Word of God in Isaiah, more stable and coherent. (p.107)
Thus Seitz presents his efforts at demonstrating unity in Isaiah as an attempt to reconstruct its authority over against us after the dissolution of the text effected by historical criticism.

Here is an important way in which our hermeneutical presuppositions have exegetical consequences. For if we believe that we must begin our interpretation with understanding of the unitary literary shape of the text's final form, we will be impelled to find such shape in texts whether or not it is there. Having surveyed in this article the limited success of previous attempts to find unity in Isaiah, this is the point to ask, to what extent is the search for unity in Isaiah truly a reflection of the semiotic potentialities in the text itself?

Perhaps texts like the book of Isaiah can teach us the limits of so generally emphasizing a search for structural or literary coherence in biblical texts. As indicated in the above survey, such a search can have great heuristic value, leading us beyond a focus on individual pericopes to see how texts like Isa. 1, 35:1-40:8 and 65-66 'reach for unity', synthesizing the varied materials surrounding them, if only partially. Yet excessive confidence in the existence of a more complete unity in biblical texts--and our need to find it --can blind us to the unresolved, rich plurality built into texts like Isaiah. Just as in its parallel process within the formation of the book, such scholarly 'reaching for unity' can achieve only limited success. At best such study can productively, yet only partially, construe and reconstrue the significance of varied materials not amenable to final closure. (pp. 79-80)
I've added the emphasis to highlight the parts that jumped out at me as particularly worthy of consideration. The rest is provided for context. I've been thinking over the issues surrounding what Carr calls "hermeneutical presuppositions." In some cases, those presuppositions manifest themselves as theological commitments which must be defended at all costs. In the process of defending those commitments, the work of historical criticism on the Bible is often disparaged, caricatured, and accused of having its own anti-faith agenda. Do faith-based seminaries and colleges engage in fair critical evaluation of the work of historical criticism or do they specialize in apologetic refutations of arguments they don't really understand? That's a rhetorical question.

Reference: David Carr, "Reaching for Unity in Isaiah," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 57 (1993) 61-80.


  1. An interesting read, and a little different than I would expect from Carr given his Reading the Fractures of Genesis, which seeks to utilize diachronic and synchronic methodologies as mutually illuminating. Of course, I would argue that at bottom that volume is still largely doing genetic work and is far more 'diachronic' than 'synchronic,' if I may use those labels.

    I am curious, does Carr interact at all with Edgar Conrad's important volume Reading Isaiah published by Fortress in 1991? Conrad, and it seems to me many others since, have read Isaiah as a unity--with varying degrees of success, of course.

  2. John,

    I didn't see Conrad in Carr's notes, but it looks like his bibliography is current only through 1990 (probably up through the 1990 SBL consultation that the work is indebted to). He does point out in the article how these approaches to seeing unity in Isaiah have enriched our exegesis of the book by drawing out inter-connections and related themes. Carr's Writing on the Tablet of the Heart is on my list to read soon because he deals with some of the issues of composition of biblical books therein. I only recently became aware of Reading the Fractures of Genesis but I want to take a look at it.

    I think his point is valid though that we can't force our reading of any biblical text to conform with an a priori assumption that the book is a unity - either that it was the composition of one man in the 8th-7th centuries or that it's a literary unity. That lets the desired answer drive the investigation of the question.

  3. I agree one should not force the assumption that the text is a unity just because one feels it to be so. I do, however, think it is a wholly valuable endeavor to read books--even obviously "fractured" texts (to use Carr's language) such as Isaiah or Genesis in a wholistic manner. This is not done, I would say, to the denigration of the diachronic questions, but is simply an attempt to make sense of the text that was ultimately deemed authoritative for one reason or another. These questions are far more interesting to me. For instance, why is Jacob--the namesake of the nation Israel--depicted as such a wile, tricky, duplicitous character. Obviously ancient Israel drew some meaning from this characterization.

    To return to the topic at hand, Conrad's Reading Isaiah chooses to read the book from a plausible historical context in which the book was a unity--postexilic/Persian era. Chris Setiz's Isaiah in the "Readings" series also takes this approach. Whether the text was the composition of one person or not can be asked another way, with a twist . . . when did the text become a unity, and what does this form of the text mean?

  4. John,
    I fully agree that it can be valuable to approach these texts wholistically with an eye to how they were received as authoritative texts. Carr does talk about that in his article - how the writers responsible for Isa 56-66 didn't feel authorized to fully edit and re-work the earlier strata of the book.

    It sounds like Conrad's book would be worthwhile. My thinking at present is focused more on the logic of those who want to read Isaiah as a unified single-authored whole from the perspective of the 8th century BC. I don't think the canonical approach goes there. At the moment, I'm not sure who still does (at least in print), but the question came up recently.