Unbound by Time: Isaiah Still Speaks
Heskett, Randall, Anglican Theological Review
Unbound by Time: Isaiah Still Speaks. By William Lee Holladay. Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 2002. 188 pp. $12.95 (paper).
William L. Holladay paints a refreshing portrait of the book of Isaiah in a way that shows how biblical interpretation for the communities of faith is "unbound by time." Clearly claiming to be a Christian who has journeyed on a pilgrimage from mainline Protestantism into Roman Catholicism, he aims to show how the book of Isaiah has functioned differently for Jews than for Christians. Special attention is given to the role of interpretation within the lectionary.
Holladay begins within the limits of historical-critical methodologies by asserting that the original Isaianic traditions often do not have the same import that later Christian interpretation has brought to the various texts which Christians read during Advent. On these grounds, Holladay differentiates between "what a text meant and what it was taken to mean" but grants that the text can elicit "multiple real meanings" (p. 13). Maintaining that Christians are "eavesdroppers of old tapes," Holladay cites P. Trible, explaining that "scripture is a pilgrim, wandering through history, engaging in new settings, and ever refusing to be locked in the box of the past" (p. 15).
Holladay establishes the thrust of his argument in his first two chapters with a treatment of the original traditions of Isaiah of Jerusalem and his audit-nee. In chapters 3 to 5, he focuses on traditions that move; beyond the original Syro-Ephraimite context to the Assyrian crisis (701 B.C.E.), Babylonian exile (587 B.C.E.), and beyond. Chapter 6 discusses the interpretive differences of the fourth servant song (Isa. 52:13-53:12) between Judaism and Christianity. Chapter 7 offers an insightful, but not thorough, precis of Jewish interpretation of the scroll of Isaiah. Chapter 8 ends the book trying to show how Christians interpret various passages in light of Jesus Christ as their Messiah.
Holladay claims that Christians have "finked out" (pp. 2, 12) and have "appeared to make Isaiah an honorary Christian" (p. 2) by interpreting various Advent passages messianically. An example is Isaiah 9:2-7, which originally referred to the birth or crowning of Hezekiah (pp. 56-59). Holladay thinks that this tendency provides a key to understanding the differences between Jewish and Christian interpretation of Isaiah. Likewise, Holladay shows that the Jewish understanding of Scripture refers to the books of Joshua through Kings (inclusive) as prophetic, in the same way as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve. Holladay shows the relevance of this argument to Isaiah 36-39. Moreover, Holladay explains that the Talmud, Mishnah, and some midrashim interpret Isaiah 9:1-6 in light of Hezekiah. This is helpful since some individuals, like Jews for Jesus, argue that Jewish interpretation has categorically understood this passage messianically.
Although his book offers much insight to the layperson regarding origins, various levels of tradition history, and differences between Christian and Jewish interpretation, I believe that Holladay has reduced Christian interpretation to some sort of reader response criticism which is contrary to the "real meaning. …