Historical-critical study of the Bible during the twentieth century made significant progress in understanding what the book of Isaiah is and how it developed. There is general agreement that an early layer of material from the eighth century, associated with the Judean prophet for whom the book is named, was revised and expanded over about three centuries to address an audience in the Persian province of Yehud that was struggling through a period of political and religious conflict. There is a lot of room in such a framework for disagreement about the meaning of individual texts at various stages, from their own individual origins through the multiple versions of the book that may have circulated at various times.
The four poems in 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-9, and 52:13-53:12, commonly called the “Servant Poems” or “Servant Songs,” have provided one of the most difficult challenges for modern biblical scholarship. The significant use of these poems by New Testament writers to talk about Jesus created the first hurdle for understanding them in the context of Israelite history and the book of Isaiah. The pre-critical assumption that Isaiah, son of Amoz, a prophet living in Jerusalem in the late eighth century, wrote the entire book in its current form was a separate problem, but one that often became entangled with Christian insistence that the book of Isaiah was making specific predictions about Jesus, rather than addressing issues and events of its own day. During the twentieth century, biblical scholarship managed to free the book of Isaiah from these rigid assumptions and produce a reliable general description of the book’s development over three centuries. The portion of the book containing the Servant Songs addresses the period at the end of the Babylonian Exile and beginning of the Judean Restoration. The primary concern of Isaiah 40-55 still seems to be looking back on the experience of the past several decades and understanding the suffering that characterized it, even as possibilities were opening for new beginnings. So, how might the Servant Songs participate in that task?
Historical-critical approaches make that last question possible, but may not be well equipped to answer it. Scholarship on Isaiah 40-55 during the middle of the 20th century often became preoccupied with the task of finding a single historical identity for the servant, one which may not exist at all, but understanding what the book of Isaiah is doing as a literary work may provide a more productive path. Because it wants to present the entire 300 year scope of the book within the “vision of Isaiah, son of Amoz” framework, the introduction of a new, historically identifiable figure in the sixth century is not possible. Instead, the servant is an ambiguous character who is a literary extension of the Isaiah character, a representative of all of Israel (49:3), and an ideal model for the plural “servants” who emerge beginning at 54:17. A proposal like this for the identity of the servant that is primarily literary in its formulation and grounded in the final form of the whole book may take us back, better equipped, to important questions concerning composition, such as did the Servant Songs as a collection exist prior to their incorporation into the larger 40-55 collection, and did 40-55 circulate independently before it became attached to earlier Isaiah materials?