The Historicity of the Major Prophets (Isaiah and Jeremiah)

The Historicity of Isaiah

During the past two centuries, the book of Isaiah has been subject to endless scrutiny and criticism. In particular, the books nature and structure have engendered an array of views, ranging from the traditional view that Isaiah is one unitary book to a popular theory that it is a collection of three books (chapters 1-39; 40—55; 56—66) that were written at three distinct time periods.

However, in the discussions and debates concerning the supposed threefold division of the book, there appears no evidence from the text of Isaiah itself. Moreover, evidence from the Isaiah Scroll found at Qumran confirms the view of a single book. The book was found as a single unit, not stitched together, and

The prophet Isaiah rebukes a man named "Shebna" for building a tomb for himself in a very conspicuous place near the Temple (22:15-17). In 1870, Charles Clermont-Ganneau discovered this eighth-century BC Hebrew lintel inscription over a rock-cut tomb in the village of Silwan (Jerusalem). Later it was deciphered by Nahman Avigad and shown to belong to the royal steward of the king. Though only a partial name inscription remains, many believe this was the tomb of Shebna, the royal steward "who is over the house" (NKJV) of King Hezekiah. (Photo by Zev Radovan.)

not separated into three scrolls. In this complete scroll, one can see the text at 33:34, where the scribe intentionally left a blank space that was equal to about three lines, designating a break at the end of the column in order to begin a new column at chapter 34. Chapter 34 is very close to the midpoint of the book, and it would seem that there was reason to divide the book between chapters 33 and 34 as opposed to dividing it into three books between chapters 39 and 40, and 55 and 56 respectively. One theory addresses this twofold division from the standpoint of chronological significance, with chapters 1 through 33 dealing with the time period from Uzziah to Ahaz and chapters 34 through 66 with the time of Hezekiah and later. One can also see that each half corresponds well to the other in terms of the topics covered in seven parts.36

One view that favors a three-part structure attempts to offer traces of evidence that reveal its composition occurred at different time-periods and different locations. There is little doubt that chapters 1 through 39 belong to the eighth century B C; that section contains geographical and cultural references to that era. Evidence that chapters 40 through 55 are based in Babylon (which this theory proposes) is not strong since these chapters do not convey knowledge of the metropolis of Babylon, but more appropriately belong to Israel and the Levant. For it was in that historical-geographical context that it seemed most appropriate for Isaiah to warn Hezekiah about the dangers of trifling with Babylon. Furthermore, chapters 56 through 66 do not pose any descriptive inconsistencies with composition in seventh-to-sixth-century BC pre-exilic Judah.

What is more, the Gospel of John, chapter 12:38-41 supports the unity of Isaiah. John the Apostle attributes quotations from both the first half and second half of the book to one and the same Isaiah. John writes, ".. .that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke" (verse 38 NKJV), which is followed by a quote of Isaiah 53:1. John continues in the very next verse (verse 39) and says, "Isaiah said again," followed by a quote of Isaiah 6:9-10. The context, quotes, and the presence of the word again confirms that there is only one Isaiah responsible for both parts of the book, and therefore the book should be considered a unity. The evidence supports a unitary view of the book of Isaiah, while alternative views of the book are inconsistent with normative prophetic composition, recording, and usage in the biblical world.

The Historicity of Jeremiah

Jeremiah wrote the longest and most complexly formatted book in the Old Testament. The narrative sections contain many allusions to contemporary history as well as to various people who lived during Jeremiah's lifetime* Any attempt to date parts of Jeremiah

This late seventh-century BC stamp seal impression is written in the Hebrew script and reads, "Belonging to Baruch, son of Neriah, the scribe." Baruch was the scribe of the prophet. Jeremiah; he wrote down the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 36:1-32). (Photo by Zev Radovan.)

* See chapter 20 of this book, which identifies individuals such as Jehucal the son of Shelemiah (Jeremiah 37:3); [Pashhur] the son of Immer (20:1); Sarsekim, who was Nebuchadnezzar's chief officer during the invasion of Jerusalem (39:3); and Baruch, son of Neriah, the scribe of Jeremiah (36:4).

to a later period, such as the fifth to third century BC, appeals for support to the lack of extra-biblical knowledge of pre-exilic history. This however, is an argument from silence. The absence of pre-exilic history does not justify positing a later date for Jeremiah, nor does it undermine its reliability. The absence of historical references by no means indicates a latter or contradictory narrative.

Although the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Old Testament display many differences between each other, they nonetheless possess common characteristics. First of all, every prophetic book explicitly declares the author who wrote it and puts forth the contents as a message given to them by God Himself. What is more, nearly all the books contain a series of messages, oracles, or narratives of varying lengths that support the message. The only books excluded from this pattern are Nahum, Obadiah, and Habakkuk. With the exception of these books and the book of Jonah, the prophetic books were written down on separate occasions. Specific oracles and messages were given to prophets and written down by a scribe or amanuensis and were kept in a scroll as a series, although there are many instances where the prophet did write down his own words. There is a great amount of consistency and unity found within the text itself, which attests to the reliability of the Old Testament writings.


The historicity of the Old Testament is widely supported by archaeological findings (see part 6). Every major aspect from Genesis to the post-captivity period is confirmed as history, not only by the New Testament writers, but by extra-biblical sources as well. The once critical scholar Dr. William F. Albright gradually grew to accept a more conservative view as a result of a lifetime study of the archaeological facts. He wrote:

Thanks to modern research we now recognize its [the Bible's] substantial historicity. The narratives of the patriarchs, of Moses and the Exodus, of the conquest of Canaan, of the judges, the monarchy, exile and restoration, have all been confirmed and illustrated to an extent that I should have thought impossible forty years ago.37

More recently, a magazine not known for conservative leanings concluded an article titled "Is the Bible True?" with these words:

In extraordinary ways, modern archaeology has affirrned the historical core of the Old Testament—corroborating key portions of the stories of Israel's patriarchs, the Exodus, the Davidic monarchy, and the life and times of Jesus. 38



Keith Hunt