Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Preface to 'Passion for the City'

Here is a first draft of the Preface to my projected book on Isaiah.
Jerome, the fourth century biblical scholar who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin, described Isaiah as “not so much a prophet as an evangelist”. He pointed out how that book contains “all the mysteries of the faith”: the promise of Immanuel, the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, his suffering, his death and his resurrection. He was probably using the word “evangelist” in the sense of a Gospel writer. A modern scholar, J F A Sawyer, wrote an account of the history of Christian interpretation of Isaiah with the title The Fifth Gospel (CUP 1986). This is quite an apt description. For most of us today it is impossible to read some parts of Isaiah without hearing the music of Handel’s Messiah in the back of our minds. Christmas and Easter services are replete with quotations from Isaiah, from “Unto us a child is born” to “He was despised and rejected of men”. Most people with a Christian background find it easy to assume that the Book of Isaiah is all about Jesus.

Isaiah gives us other favourite quotations too. The vision of universal peace, when “they shall turn their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” comes from Isaiah 2. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid … and a little child shall lead them” is from chapter 12, and “the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose” is from chapter 35. Even the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth”, familiar from the Book of Revelation, is actually a quotation from Isaiah 65:17. The hymn “Holy, holy, holy” is inspired by Isaiah’s vision of God in chapter 6. When we call someone “a voice crying in the wilderness” we are using a phrase from Mark's Gospel (1:3) that is first found in Isaiah 40:3. In fact,  it has been calculated that the New Testament either quotes or alludes to the Book of Isaiah about four hundred times.

Christians down through the ages have seen the Book of Isaiah as a rich storehouse of predictions of Jesus Christ. To us today, some of their interpretations seem a bit far-fetched. Not only that, but today we are not so convinced that we can “prove” that Jesus was the promised Messiah and the Son of God by pointing out how he fulfilled prophecies in the Old Testament. Many modern scholars are more inclined to believe the opposite: that some of the stories of Jesus in the New Testament were made up on the basis of these “prophecies”. There is certainly one glaring example of this in the way Nativity plays always show kings bringing gifts to the new-born Jesus, while the story in Matthew’s Gospel calls them “wise men”. This is most probably inspired by the saying “the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” in Isaiah 60:3.

Our modern sense of history makes us look at the Bible in a different way. The idea that the Old Testament exists simply for the purpose of pointing forward to Jesus seems to treat the original writings and their authors unfairly. Apart from anything else it is rather insulting to the Jewish tradition that produced these books in the first place. Many generations of Jews have found inspiration in these writing without ever associating them with Jesus. It is also rather slighting to the original writers and preachers who had their own immediate concerns. Isaiah was not sitting down to write predictions of someone who would come into the world seven hundred years after his time. He was reacting to the situation of his own time, and the poetic richness of his words meant that people down through the generations could see new and deeper meaning in them, culminating (for Christians) in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

My aim in this book is to introduce readers who may not know the Bible very well, or may not have read it in this kind of way before, to the world that produced the Book of Isaiah: to see behind the words to the passions and dreams of the people who first spoke them and to understand them in terms of their own time. I want also to show the way in which many of those words have a sometimes startling relevance for our world today. Whatever different Christians may think of whether, or how, the Bible is “inspired”, my experience is that beyond any doubt it is able to inspire, and it would be a great pity for us to lose this because we are unable to identify with the traditional ways in which it has been interpreted.