I’m grading exams from last semester for a course on the major prophets. Students had to do an exegesis on either Isaiah 6 or Ezekiel 37. Almost every one of the answers on Isaiah start with some variation of, “The book of Isaiah is believed to be written by Isaiah son of Amoz.” The passive tells a lot here because at no time did I or any of the scholars that I put in front of the students believe that Isaiah was written by Isaiah son of Amoz. I’m not sure where it is but there is some collective out there claiming Isaiah son of Amoz wrote all of Isaiah. I recognize that there can be a scholarly debate about the composition of Isaiah. I know that some scholars do claim singular authorship. I don’t buy their arguments and have pretty strongly supported at least three authors for Isaiah.
My honest question is, “Why bother teaching about authorship?” After all, students will just assume that scholars all agree that Isaiah was written by Isaiah, Jeremiah by Jeremiah etc. All that I said and wrote and graded made absolutely zero difference to their understanding of authorship. They have no interest in anything but the final presentation of the text as a coherent whole authored by one individual identified in the text. I could look at this as an abject failure but then I ask myself, what kind of moral or spiritual imperative do I have to disabuse them of this tendency? Why not dwell on the canonical form and what it might mean?
After all, I only care about the authors of Isaiah to the extent that there are at least three distinct sections, and that each section contributes to the overall meaning of the text. Do I need to teach three authors or can I teach that there are three sections of Isaiah without needing to ascribe different authors to them. Isn’t the end result the same in their interpretation?
I’m shaping the syllabus for the Minor Prophets right now and wonder why I would bother with assuming anything but single authorship for all of them. Even if Amos 9:11-15 poses an issue for the book, can’t I frame it as an interpretive challenge (How to reconcile this message of hope with the rest of the message of the book) rather than as an authorship challenge (who wrote and when such a different passage)? I would be very, very, very surprised if any of my students did further academic work but the majority of them will be preaching and teaching in their churches. Shouldn’t I spend what little time I have with them and these texts focusing on how to interpret them and not on academic questions?
And to be clear, this question is not anti-intellectual. Sure, it might be against the Biblical studies guild and its particular interests but that does not mean that the students won’t be engaged in rigorous study of the text. What do I have invested in the guild if my students will never read the Bible in that context? Nor does it mean that I have to resort to some kind of fundamentalism which flattens all interpretation and focuses on defending the Bible from its cultured despisers. These students, here in Malawi, are not engaged in a culture war. They defend their interpretation against modern day “prophets”, often of the prosperity gospel type, but not some kind of MSM/liberal/postmodern enemy concocted in the fevered imaginations of Trump’s supporters. They have learned how to have a much deeper interpretation despite the fact that they continue to disregard all redaction scholarship. Is this really a problem?