Holladay offers a study of Isaiah whose forebears are his very accessible earlier work on the prophet (Isaiah, Scroll of a Prophetic Heritage, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) and his complex ad scholarly work on the "life of the psalms" in Jewish and Christian use (The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook for a Cloud of Witnesses, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993). Combining valuable aspects of both of those studies, though at a simpler level, this work aims to assist those who meet Isaiah in the liturgy and lectionary to understand how best (or at least how well) to engage the Isaiah texts. Holladay maintains and demonstrates with clarity how the prophetic words are both timebound but also unbound from their original contexts by virtue of being canonical. Clearly stated and thoroughly credible is Holladay's confidence that contemporary believers can readily and fruitfully cope with both aspects of prophetic speech.
The work unfolds in an introduction and eight chapters. As part of his preliminary discussion, Holladay offers practical and perhaps little-known information about how "the" lectionary works (he guides us through the various denominational books and their relationships) and how Isaiah is featured, providing as well a short but useful discussion of what "fulfillment" means and implies. He also clarifies that he will be discussing what are commonly called First and Second Isaiah and suggests that though they are readily distinguishable, some revision of the eighth-century work by the sixth-century prophet is plausible. Holladay also presents directly, simply, and compellingly, I think, the reasons why contemporary Christians encountering the lectionary cannot excuse themselves from some historical- critical study and in fact, why they will welcome it should it be available to them.
The second and third chapters sort usefully various issues of the eighth-century circumstances which Isaiah can be understood to address: holy God and disobedient Israel, powerful and punishing Assyria. These are not new issues for scholars, but what is fresh and welcome is Holladay's skill in raising and discussing these questions from the viewpoint of "ordinary readers." In fact, his greatest contribution is to focus his extensive erudition through the lenses of "naive" but alert readers. He provides anecdotes from his own years of experience in working with groups, vignettes which illumine in a moment the sort of apt questions that provide teaching moments (e.g., Was Isaiah a Jew? How are we to understand false prophets?). He stays focused on the lectionary readings, unpacking their language and imagery for readers, explaining the pertinent geo-political circumstances in adequate detail, pointing out the impact on the Hebrew Bible texts of being taken occasionally into the New Testament texts and/or being paired with them in liturgy.
At chapters 4 through 6, he shifts to the prophet of the exile, highlighting both the similarities and differences with the earlier material. Again, referring primarily to lectionary passages (while pointing out what the lectionary omits as well) and in fact printing the texts for readers, Holladay continues to unpack their terminology (e.g., "redeem," "messiah") in clear ways. It is here that he makes his case (following Hugh Williamson) that "Second Isaiah" has redacted certain places in "First Isaiah," notably 2:1-5. The point does not seem confusing or otiose, simply helpful and clarifying. Appreciative though I was feeling of this work, I also longed for new insight from it, and Holladay began to pitch to readers like me as he offered leading questions and plausible suggestions about the identities of the servant (suggesting we think of the servant in terms of Moses). In this chapter he also states that the last eleven chapters of the prophet are, in his opinion, the later utterances of "Second" Isaiah, a contention which works adequately for what Holladay does in discussing these liturgical readings.
The last two chapters shift gears once again to raise the topic of how Isaiah has been received (read, translated, paraphrased, annotated, commented upon, reflected upon prayerfully) in Judaism (ch. 7) and in Christianity (ch. 8). These chapters are truly packed with information which is presented almost too summarily, though endnotes expand as well and offer readers many ways to follow up. Though this book's intended Christian audience will be more familiar with our own tradition, Holladay urges that we need to know what the Jewish community has done with Isaiah (e.g., how the servant becomes both the community and the messiah), samplings which are awesome and suggestive even in summary form. And H. sets forth how various New Testament complexities--the distinctive and persistent focus upon Jesus, Jesus' own likely use of Isaiah, that of the evangelists and other biblical writers, and the interpretive assumptions about how God uses prophetic language to testify to Jesus--offer a wonderful agenda of how to approach Scripture. After a quick sampling from the contributions of post-biblical readers (e.g., Luther, Handel, the Pontifical Biblical Commission) Holladay concludes with a page on Isaiah and Islam (the prophet is not in Qur'an but known in the tradition).
This volume promises rich fare for Christian groups trying to understand better virtually any facet of how to read biblical and liturgical texts well, and I set it down hoping that it will, in time, re-emerge in a full length study similar to Holladay's work on the psalms. The Isaian text can sustain such study, Holladay is clearly able to produce it, and many readers would be eager to engage it.