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David Lyle Jeffrey

The Gospel According to Isaiah

In 1941, a Philadelphia Presbyterian minister named C. E. Macartney conducted a poll to see whom his local fellow Christians thought to be "the ten greatest men in the Bible." Isaiah came eighth on this list—not, presumably, on account of any record of his life (there is none), but on the strength alone of the book that bears his name. The opinion of prewar Philadelphia Presbyterians, it turns out, was remarkably consonant with the opinion of earlier ages. Moreover, it tallies with that of the postwar generation in every Christian denomination from Catholics to the Salvation Army. But the Isaiah who loomed in the imagination of the Presbyterians, suggests John F. A. Sawyer, may bear surprisingly little relationship to the Isaiah cherished by either medieval or postmodern theologians. The "fifth Gospel," it appears, has been an unusually protean text, warm wax in the hands of many a maker of images.

Though Sawyer does not stress it, there is nonetheless a strong thread that binds most of the diversity together: messianism. Divergence among interpreters through the centuries is usually about what messianic deliverance might mean.

A quick overview helps establish the point. For Saint Jerome (A.D.. 342-420), Isaiah "should be called an evangelist rather than a prophet because he describes all the mysteries of Christ and the Church so clearly that you would think he is composing a history of what has already happened rather than prophesying about what is to come." Saint Ambrose and his star pupil, Saint Augustine (a.d. 354-430), echo this view, emphasizing additionally Isaiah's role in "the calling of the Gentiles." The Wycliffe Bible Prologue follows suit ("not only a profete but more, a Gospellere"), and so, with varying emphasis, do the Reformation writers Luther and Calvin, for whom, above all, "the word of God abides forever."

Jewish traditions also feature Isaiah centrally, not only in lectionaries—in which, at least, since the Middle Ages, about half of all ...

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