The Nature and Composition of the Prophetic books
The prophetic books are unusual and complex compositions. With the exception of Jonah, which is a story about a prophet, these books all contain extended sayings and speeches that purport to come from the prophet whose name the book bears. While the books undoubtedly do preserve authentic words of the prophets in question, one should not think of the prophetic books simply as transcriptions of the words of prophets. Although much remains unknown about the composition of the prophetic books, it is possible to reconstruct a general picture. Scholars generally agree that the poetic materials in the prophetic books originated as oral pronouncements by the prophet to a public audience. These oracles were subsequently written down, perhaps by the prophet or an associate. The circumstances that led to these original written collections were undoubtedly different. A reference in the book of Isaiah suggests that oracles might be written down as a form of authentication (Isa 30.8 ). The book of Jeremiah describes how Jeremiah, having been banned from speaking publicly in the Temple, had his assistant Baruch write down a selection of his prophetic words so that they could be taken into the Temple and read to the people (Jer 36.5–6 ). When King Jehoiakim destroyed the scroll, Jeremiah had Baruch write out another copy, to which they added additional material (Jer 36.27–32 ). This collection may have formed the nucleus of the book of Jeremiah. On the other hand, unlike most of the other prophetic books, Ezekiel may have been composed as a written document from the beginning. Elsewhere in the Bible there is further evidence of prophetic collections; see 1 Chr 29.29; 2 Chr 9.29.
Once small collections of prophetic oracles and pronouncements were made, they were subject to further editing, rearranging, annotating, and expansion. In some cases narratives about the prophet were added; these are both autobiographical (e.g., Isa 6; 8; Jer 1.4–19; 13.1–11; Hos 1–2; Am 7.1–7 ) and biographical (e.g., Isa 7; 36–39; Jer 26; 36–44; Hos 3; Am 7.10–17 ). The occasions for such editorial activity would have differed, but national crises may have prompted some of this process. Most likely, written collections of the oracles of the prophets Amos and Hosea, which were originally addressed to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, were brought to Judah after the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE, and edited and circulated there. Isaiah of Jerusalem seems to have knowledge of Amos's oracles, and Jeremiah is unquestionably influenced by Hosea. Many of the prophetic books originating before the fall of Judah to the Babylonians and the exile of most Judeans to Babylon in 586 BCE show evidence of editorial additions and reorganizations that reflect the circumstances of exilic and postexilic times, that is, from later in the sixth century BCE and beyond. The book of Amos, for example, now includes material that presupposes the fall of Judah ( 9.11–15 ). The most dramatic example of the expansion and reworking of prophetic materials is the book of Isaiah. Although it contains extensive material from the eighth‐century prophet, chs 40–55 clearly reflect the situation of the Babylonian exile, and chs 56–66 the period of the restoration of the Judean community in the late sixth century BCE. Yet even though the book contains materials dating from several centuries, it is unified by a number of motifs, themes, and topics that recur throughout the work.
The complex activity of preserving and developing the prophetic oracle collections reflects a conviction that the prophet's words were not only significant for the circumstance in which they were originally pronounced but potentially relevant for later ones as well. At the same time, the freedom with which later generations could rework the prophetic oracles indicates that the prophets’ words did not at first possess the kind of fixed authority that is later associated with the concept of “scripture.” Although the processes by which the prophetic books came to assume a relatively final form and canonical status are difficult to trace, this probably occurred during the Persian and early Hellenistic periods (the fifth through the third centuries BCE). Most likely, during this time scribal editors added the superscriptions that introduce most of the books, indicating the identity of the prophet (name, father's name, and occasionally other information) and often the kings of Israel or Judah during whose reigns the prophets were active (e.g., Isa 1.1; Jer 1.1–3; Hos 1.1 ). In addition to editorial additions to the individual prophetic books, the smaller prophetic books (Hosea‐Malachi) were arranged and edited to form a group known as “the Book of the Twelve,” which was copied on a single scroll. By the beginning of the second century BCE Ben Sira refers to these prophets as “the twelve” (Sir 49.10 ). The number twelve is symbolic of the twelve sons of Jacob and the twelve tribes of Israel, and considerable editorial work was required to organize these prophetic materials into a grouping of twelve. In fact, the book of Zechariah consists of three separate collections (chs 1–8, 9–11, 12–14 ) grouped together editorially. Only the first of these comes from the prophet Zechariah, whereas the other two are anonymous. The final book in the collection, Malachi, is also an anonymous piece, since “Malachi” is not a personal name but a phrase meaning “my messenger,” picked up from 3.1 to serve as the name of the prophet in the superscription.