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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 55, 2007

J. BLENKINSOPP, Opening the Sealed Book: Interpretations of the Book of Isaiah in Late Antiquity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). Pp. 312. $US25.00.

Opening the Sealed Book: Interpretations of the Book of Isaiah in Late Antiquity is a by-product of Joseph Blenkinsopp’s research for his three volume Anchor Bible Commentary on Isaiah. It is one of the most interesting works to appear in recent years and will undoubtedly become a classic for any study of the emergence of Jewish Sectarianism in the Second Temple period. It is primarily a study of texts, particularly the way in which texts later than Isaiah appropriated elements of Isaiah and used them to support or explain their own movements—movements which emerged from sectarian Judaism.

The first chapter, entitled “Isaiah: the Book,” points out that much of the prophetic message would have originally been oral, although it would have been in the form of a scroll when it was used by sects in Judaism. The question of the identity of the “sealed book” (Isa 29:10–11) is discussed and thought to refer to the prophet’s written message to his disciples. The notion of the sealed book was picked up by Daniel, as were other aspects of Isaianic thought. However, in Daniel and later works the motif of the sealed book refers to secret knowledge of the future which God has planned.

In his second chapter, “Isaiah: Author, Prophet, Man of God,” Blenkinsopp shows that three different prophetic personas are present in Isaiah. One who is an arbiter of life in the public domain, supporting the downtrodden and challenging existing political and religious authorities where necessary (a theme which he says is not taken up in later texts), another who, like an apocalyptic seer announces the coming judgement with salvation for only a few and a third whom Blenkinsopp calls the “man of God”: the healer; the counselor; the intercessor. Blenkinsopp points out that the Deuteronomist ignored or down-played all but the latter aspect of the prophets and so it should not surprise us that it is Isaiah as the “man of God” who is referred to in some later works such as Ben Sira, Josephus, The Lives of the Prophets and The Martyrdom of Isaiah.

The third chapter, Isaiah at the Beginnings of Jewish Sectarianism,” suggests that sectarianism had its foundations soon after the return from Exile. Blenkinsopp here discusses the views of scholars as well as looking at the evidence of Ezra and Isaiah 66. The possibility advanced by Odil Steck (Studien zu Tritojesaja, BZAW 203; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1991) that Isaiah 56–66 was composed in stages with Isaiah 65–66 coming from the third century is entertained as is the notion that some psalms which mention Hasidim were from the Maccabean period or not long before it. In this way, a continuous historical thread is provided up to the Maccabean Crisis which was the final impetus for the formation of sects. Blenkinsopp’s fourth chapter is entitled, “Reading Isaiah at Qumran,” and he considers the Qumran Pesharim in general and the Isaiah Pesharim in particular, as well as text and dream interpretation.

The fifth chapter, “Reading Isaiah in Early Christianity, with Special Reference to Matthew's Gospel,” posits that the interpretation of Isaiah shaped “the identity, religious orientation, and agenda of early Christianity” (129). While discussing the influence of Isaiah on all the Gospels to some extent and on the thought of Paul, there is an extended discussion on the Jesus Sect and the Sect of John the Baptist and on Matthew’s Gospel.

The sixth chapter looks at the way that Isaianic titles, such as “"The Many,” “The Way,” “The Poor,” “The Servants,” among others, are used in the texts from Qumran and in Early Christianity. Exile is the subject of the seventh chapter. The Prophetic idea of the “Remnant of Israel” is considered first and then the Exile and Return in Sectarian writings from the Graeco-Roman period and lastly how the Exile and Return feature in the Isaianic interpretative tradition of texts from the same period.

The eighth chapter, the final one, has as its title, “"The Many Faces of the Servant of the Lord.” It examines the function of the Servant in Isaiah, its development as martyr and eschatological figure, its appearance in the Qumran texts and then considers the anonymous Teacher at Qumran and Jesus as servant figures.

Opening the Sealed Book is “a must” for anyone interested in the Post-Exilic period, Hellenistic Judaism and of course Christianity. My only criticism is that the first persona of Isaiah that Blenkinsopp thinks is not referred to again until the modern period (xviii) is incorrect. Both Christian and Qumran texts present figures who criticise and attempt to reform society.

Review by
Anne E. Gardner
History Program
La Trobe University
Bundoora VIC 3086