Stained glass image of Prophet Isaiah composing a text

How Can We Possibly Read Isaiah?

Modern historical critical scholarship reads Isaiah 9:1 as an explicit reference to Israelite provinces annexed by Assyria in 732 BCE, and Isaiah 9:2-7 as a “royal song of thanksgiving” that gives hope to those who wait for YHWH “to act to restore righteous Davidic rule in Israel” (NOAB, note on Isaiah 9:2-7); the “child” “born for us” in v6 is “probably Hezekiah.” All well and good.

Taking Isaiah as the author of the text, we might want to acknowledge that historical meaning as his “original authorial intent.” This is assuming that, even today, we generally think that texts have authors, and authors have intentions – that is, authors understand their writing to have a meaning, which they themselves understand, and which they themselves intend to convey. I don’t think I’m suggesting that the original authorial intent exhausts the meaning of the text or governs its only possible or true interpretation by saying that.

Taking First Isaiah’s first readers as the “intended audience,” we might suppose the historical reading would have been their most likely reading. Once again, this is assuming that, even today, we generally think that authors write texts for readers, generally readers they have in mind and share something with. We generally think that authors know their audience, and shape their text on purpose to address that audience. So we wouldn’t be way out of line to think that Isaiah the human author had that first audience in mind as he composed his text. Once again, I don’t think I’m suggesting that the original audience’s presumable reception of the text, or understanding of its meaning, prescribes how we have to read the text if we want to read it properly.

Matthew the evangelist, on the other hand, seems pretty clearly to read Isaiah 9:1-2 as a prophecy about Jesus, the Messiah. A prophecy fulfilled in the incarnation. A couple of millennia of Christian readers have followed him down that road.

It wouldn’t be fair to say Christians followed him down that road “without any problems.” According to Brevard Childs, in The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, Christians have “struggled” throughout all those millennia with what they are actually doing when they read Isaiah as Christian Scripture. They have come up with various explanations, various answers to the hermeneutical problems their reading practice raises. While their answers have shared what he identifies as a “family resemblance,” they have not been identical. Nevertheless, Childs concludes that Christians have developed over those millennia a rough consensus that ancient Hebrew Scripture concerns the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church; that the “rule of faith” that helps Christians determine what readings are out of bounds has also guided and bounded the discernment of the spiritual sense of that Hebrew Scripture as it applies to Christians, and that it has heard in the voice of that Scripture the voice of the one living Triune God addressed to the People of God.

So in these postmodern times, when we seem to have embraced “perspectival readings” of Scripture, is there a good reason to exclude the perspectival reading of a couple of millennia of Christian reader reception, which has read Isaiah 9:1-7 as having something to do with Jesus? At least as one of the perspectives that we pay attention to?

There may be a good reason.

The good reason may be that, historically, the Christian practice of reading Isaiah as “really” being about Christ, as “really” being about Jesus the Messiah, has gone hand in hand with rejecting competing or alternative Jewish readings, with labeling those readings as “blind” and “rebellious,” and with doing violence to the Jewish community that reads Hebrew Scripture Jewishly.

That history is summarized by John F.A. Sawyer in The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the history of Christianity. It is grim reading. It includes the development of a Christological and theological reading of Scripture in general and Isaiah in particular according to which God had rejected the Jews, made Christians the “real” or “true” covenanted people of God – unless the Christians had always been the “real” or “true” people – and in which all of Hebrew Scripture became a kind of preparation for the “real,” “true” understanding of what God was doing in human history. The Passover and the Exodus, for instance, can still be mighty acts of God, but their “real,” “true” spiritual significance is what they mean in the light of Jesus the Paschal Lamb “our Passover” and the Exodus of the Baptized from bondage to Sin and Death.

It would be nice if we could neatly separate that exegetical – and homiletical – history of Christian interpretation from its practical, cultural, social and political concomitants: the inquisitions and pogroms; the abductions-and-baptisms of Jewish infants; the expulsions of Jews from one medieval European country after another; the development of anti-Jewish iconography and folklore; the cultivation and authorization of Christian inhumanity to Jews.

Theoretically, presumably, it’s possible for priests and pastors to get up in church Sunday after Sunday and preach that “the synagogue is blind” to the spiritual meaning of its own Scriptures and that “God has rejected” the “hard-hearted” Jews who murdered the Christ, without conveying the message that it’s OK for Christians to dislike, or hate, or attack, or even just feel indifferent to the human fate of, their actual Jewish neighbors.

“Theology doesn’t kill people, people kill people.”

But should we believe that?

We don’t act like we believe that. We act like it matters what intellectual food we feed ourselves, what talk we listen to and what logic we accept. Why else is there homeschooling, Facebook content monitoring, MPAA ratings, the imprimatur?

Indeed, most of us believe that ideas matter. Most of us believe, most of the time, that what people believe may not cause their behavior, but can at least make them more reluctant to do a thing, or can make them more amenable.

I believe it is a bad idea to feed people ideas that make them more amenable to murder.

Brevard Childs says he thinks John F.A. Sawyer pays too much attention to the anti-Semitic consequences associated with the two millennia of Christian history of interpretation of Isaiah. I think Brevard Childs is brilliant, and his book is a marvel. But I think that he does not pay enough attention to those same consequences. Because of that, his marvelous book does not address the intractable hermeneutical problem that faces Christian readers of Isaiah in the late twentieth century and beyond.

That problem is: Can we read Isaiah as “Christian Scripture” without making the same fatal errors made by our predecessors? If so, how?

Spinning out the metaphor of ideas as food – that is, as ingestible substances – a little further: Some substances can be medicinal in the appropriate dose, under the appropriate circumstances, but can be toxic under other circumstances, in other doses. We treat substances like that differently from other substances. We package them differently; we put warnings on them; we take steps to keep them out of the hands of children.

We may even have to buy them from pharmacists. What we know of the promise and of the danger of such substances is embedded in the word “pharmacy” itself. It comes from the Greek pharmakon, which means “poison,” and “medicine,” and “[magic] potion.”

Context is everything.

In that light, maybe we can find, or develop, a context that gives us medicinal access to the substance of “Christian reading” of Isaiah. Maybe we can find a third way, neither supercessionist substance abuse nor teetotaling abstinence. Maybe there is still a way to read Isaiah responsibly and Christianly at the same time.

The need feels real. Especially in the context of reading Matthew, where the evangelist author is reading Isaiah Christianly, and is reading it as ancient prophecy being fulfilled, it seems churlish to say “but Matthew was using that scripture wrong.” That is, he was using his own scripture wrong.

The need feels real, especially when the hermeneutical desire is precisely to find a way to stop saying “those people are using their own scripture wrong.”

Those people. Whoever they are.

I don’t claim to have an answer to this problem.

Still, it seems to me that the more responsible approach likely lies in the direction of acknowledging that people can and do legitimately see different meanings in scripture, relevant to their experiences and concerns. Part of what makes scripture feel like “the Word of God for the people of God” is precisely that experience of recognition, connection, and relevance.

This probably requires us to acknowledge that different people or communities can and do legitimately have different histories with the same God. Different Heilsgeschichten, even. That’s a big theological issue for another day, but it looks to me like that’s where a hermeneutical approach like that would go.

Some people might not want to head off in that direction. But if we did head down that path, we might be able to say something like this along the way:

Christians have had a long, long history of recognizing Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David, in that royal song of thanksgiving in Isaiah 9. To which we say: “Hezekiah … Jesus … the Parousia still to come … why can’t we see all that?”

We can see all that, I think, without being required to discern the shape of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in the text.

And if we could see Hezekiah and Jesus and the Messiah yet to come all at once, maybe then it would be possible to say “this is what the text means for us, and we take that meaning seriously” without having to add “and furthermore, it is the one and only thing that text can truly mean.”


Childs, Brevard S. The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004.

Sawyer, John F.A. The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the history of Christianity. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. 4th edition. Michael D. Coogan, Editor. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Stained glass image of Prophet Isaiah composing a text

One response to “How Can We Possibly Read Isaiah?”

  1. […] How Can We Possibly Read Isaiah?: Modern historical critical scholarship reads Isaiah 9:1 as an explicit reference to Israelite provinces annexed by Assyria in 732 BCE, and Isaiah 9:2-7 as a “royal song of thanksgiving” that gives hope to those who wait for YHWH “to act to restore righteous Davidic rule in Israel” (NOAB, note on Isaiah 9:2-7); the “child” “born for us” in v6 is “probably Hezekiah. […]


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