The “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 (1)

Isaiah 53 in the “Great Isaiah Scroll” from Qumran (Dead Sea scrolls)

Isaiah 53, also called Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song, is one of the best known chapters in the Book of Isaiah. It describes God’s suffering servant. For Jews it is a metaphor for the nation of Israel which has been frequently and repeatedly persecuted and oppressed. For Christians it is a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus. In this post I want to take another look at how the New Testament makes use of the Hebrew Bible (‘Old Testament’), with specific reference to this chapter in Isaiah. In my next post I will look at Isaiah 53 in the context of the book of Isaiah, and will ask the questions “who wrote it?” and “why?” Finally I will look at various interpretations of the “suffering servant”.

Isaiah 53 is frequently quoted by Christians to show how the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind was predicted by the prophet. The New Testament quotes various parts of this chapter in the following ways:

  1. According to Luke 22:37, Jesus himself quoted from Isaiah 53:12 to say that he would be “counted among the lawless”: 

    35 He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” 36 He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” 38 They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.” 

    Some argue that the positioning of this saying in Luke, at the beginning of the events in the garden of Gethsemane leading to Jesus’ arrest the night before his crucifixion, reveals that Jesus saw himself as the one destined to fulfill the whole of Isaiah 53, and therefore identifying himself as the suffering servant. However, in its immediate context it is part of Jesus’ explanation about the need for his disciples to buy swords, which is picked up again just a few verses later (v.49) when they literally draw swords. In other words, it appears that Jesus was telling his disciples that he – and they, because of their solidarity with him – should henceforth expect to be regarded by the authorities as “lawless” or as criminals. If the intention is to identify Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering servant, it seems to be an odd place to cite these words as being fulfilled when a more logical place would have been in 23:33 where he was literally “counted with the lawless”: “And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” Some manuscripts, no doubt made by some scribe or scribes coming to the same conclusion, insert this quote from Isaiah 53 at Mark 15:27-28 “They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘He was counted with the lawless ones’.” Various scholars have suggested this and several other places during the passion narrative as the point when this Isaiah 53 prophecy was more properly fulfilled, which highlights the problem that we cannot be certain what Jesus (or Luke) meant by citing Isaiah 53 here.
  2. Matthew 8:16-17 cites Isaiah 53:4 in the context of Jesus’ healing ministry: “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases’.” These verses are applied to Jesus in two ways in the NT. First, Matthew cites them with reference to Jesus’ work as a healer. The Hebrew word (מַכְאוֹב) translated “diseases” (sometimes also translated as “sorrows”) means physical pain and suffering, while “infirmities” translates חֳלִי which means “diseases”. Matthew’s “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” is an accurate translation of the Hebrew. The Septuagint Greek (LXX) translation, however, used the word ἁμαρτίας sin instead of “diseases”. The second citation of these words in the NT is by Peter (1 Peter 2:21-24) who quoted Isaiah 53 to encourage his readers to follow in Jesus’ steps: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth’ [from Isa 53:9]. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.” After undoubtedly quoting Isaiah 53:9 – “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” – he may have gone on to allude to another part of the same Isaiah passage: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.” This may be an allusion to the words in the LXX that the suffering servant “bears our sins and suffers pain for us” although he does not specifically make this connection (although there was no real need to do so – having already quoted Isaiah the similarity in phrasing suggests quite strongly that he is further alluding to the same chapter). Peter may have been following the Septuagint Greek (LXX) translation which used the word ἁμαρτίας sin rather than the Hebrew. In any case, the Hebrew and the Greek translation have quite different meanings, and Matthew follows the Hebrew while Peter seems to follow the Greek. Matthew applies them to Jesus’ work as a healer, while Peter gives them a different meaning and applies them to Jesus carrying sins on the cross.
  3. The Acts of the Apostles has a pericope where an Ethiopian official was reading from Isaiah, and came to a verse in chapter 53 which said: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” (Acts 8:32-33, quoting Isaiah 53:7-8). The Ethiopian asked Philip: “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Philip’s answer does not provide any explanation of the specifics, but says simply “starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (v35).

These quotations, or allusions, in the NT to Isaiah 53 tell us several things about how the NT writers used the Hebrew Bible (or its Greek translation).

  • First, different writers could use the same text in the Hebrew Bible in different ways, and give them different meanings. One writer could use the Hebrew, with one meaning, while another writer used the Greek translation, with an entirely different meaning. Or they could use the same text in the HB and apply them to different events, saying both events fulfilled the same prophecy.
  • Second, although Isaiah 53 seems to be the ideal prophecy to quote with respect to Jesus’ sufferings during the crucifixion the NT writers, and Jesus himself, quote it primarily with reference to Jesus and his disciples being regarded as lawless criminals, and to Jesus’ non-retaliation. The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion would have been the ideal place to quote Isaiah 53, yet the Gospel writers don’t take this opportunity and are silent. In fact, later generations of Christians have made more of Isaiah 53 than the writers of the NT, and found applications to Jesus which weren’t made by the NT writers.
  • Third, it seems that the first Christians did not think of Isaiah 53 in quite the same way later Christians did – as a prophecy of Jesus suffering as an atonement for the sins of the world – or at least Peter is the only NT writer who gives it this meaning, and even then his emphasis was on Christians following Jesus’ example of non-retaliation.

Going back to the first of those three points, we should note that when NT writers used HB/OT texts they often re-appropriated them or re-interpreted them for a new situation, and in doing so they weren’t necessarily implying that the whole passage applied in every detail to the ’new’ situation. A good illustration of this is the way Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”) is used in Matthew 2:15 (This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”) This reads (in Matthew) as though the Hosea text was primarily about Jesus. However, if we continue reading in Hosea the very next verse says “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.” The writer’s shift from the singular “my son” to the plural “they sacrificed to the Baals” makes it clear that God’s “son” there is the nation of Israel and the words cannot primarily refer to Jesus or to his taking refuge in Egypt. The Hosea text has been wrenched from its context and appropriated by Matthew because the words in just one verse fit the situation with Jesus. However, the Hosea text in its context cannot by any reasonable stretch of the imagination apply primarily to Jesus. We should therefore be careful in thinking that because a NT writer refers to a text in the HB that the passage must therefore refer primarily to the ‘new’ situation. With respect to the Isaiah 53 text, even though the NT quotes it and applies it to Jesus this is not its primary meaning.

In my next post I will look at Isaiah 53 in its context to determine its primary meaning.

Continue reading … part 2

Titles of Psalms (4)

Septuagint (LXX) and Qumran superscriptions

There are several instances where the LXX deviates significantly from the Masoretic Text in the titles and these should be noted. Five Psalms are attributed to David in the LXX but not in the MT (27, 71, 97, 143, 144), perhaps going some way to repairing the deficiency of the twenty four “orphan psalms”.[1] Several Psalms in English translations have the title “Of David” translating the Hebrew prefix (the letter ל lamed) as “of” or “by”. The attribution לדוד (le-David) is much discussed in the literature and is beyond the scope of this post, except to note Nahum Sarna’s useful observation:

If le-David indeed originally indicated authorship, then it is of interest that the form is unique to the psalms’ literature (cf. Hab. 3:1) for the ascription of no other biblical book to a historic personality ever involves the use of the lamed formula (cf. Song, Proverbs). Yet the Psalter is internally consistent in its employment of the same construction with other names such as the Korahites (Ps. 42, et al.), Asaph (Ps. 50, et al.), Solomon (Ps. 72), Heman (Ps. 88), Ethan (Ps. 89), and Moses (Ps 90).[2]

He asserts that “in Psalm 72 lamed must mean ‘about’ or ‘dedicated to’, and in Psalm 102 le-‘ani can only mean, ‘for [recitation by] the afflicted man’.”[3] If commentators expect to see consistency by the redactors of the Psalter in their use of lamed (not that this should be necessary) then לדוד could just as readily mean about David, or of a Davidic style or genre, as denoting authorship. The question is certainly not settled, and Childs asserts that, “whatever the expression לדוד may once have meant, the claim of authorship now seems most probable. This point is confirmed by the final clause in those titles which specify a particular historical incident in David’s life as providing the occasion for composition.”[4]

Adrian Curtis argues that the superscriptions provide evidence of the beginnings of a process of ongoing interpretation of the psalms, and that the presence of more such titles in the psalms from Qumran and in the Septuagint show that this process continued after the formation of the Psalter as a single collection.[5] Childs argues from the Hebrew version of Psalm 151 from Qumran (11QPsa) and the further expansion of titles in the Syriac Apocryphal Psalms, in the Targum and in the Peshitta, that this process continued for some time.[6] The difference in historical titles in the various sources (MT, Qumran, the Syriac and LXX) “suggests that titles were not fixed and that there was some fluidity”.[7]

Gerstenberger argues that most superscriptions betray later theological and liturgical interests, without heeding the original intentions of the psalm. For him, technical musical terms such as למנצח “to the choirmaster” or what he regards as obscure references to tunes (understanding על as being an indicator of a tune) would have been of interest only to the ritual expert or the leader of community worship. The frequent indications of authorship (David, Korah, Asaph, Solomon, and Moses), and the linkage with incidents in the life of David, made the psalms authoritative and edifying so that the people might expect that their prayers and songs in both private and communal worship would have the same powerful and beneficent effects as of old.[8] Norman Whybray finds confirmation in the historical headings that the editors intended the readers or worshippers to find encouragement and models for their own behavior in the life of David.[9] There is a hint here that these “historical” psalms may have been intended for personal use by the pious rather than for cultic purposes.

References in the titles to historical events provide some of the most convincing evidence that titles may not have been part of the original work but were added by later editors in a style similar to rabbinic midrash.[10] In the MT all the historical titles are in Books I and II (with one exception in Book V). The LXX has a further fourteen historical titles, mostly in Book V.

The evidence from Qumran

Psalms scroll from Qumran. Tehillim 11QPs

Thirty nine Psalms manuscripts have been found among the Dead Sea scrolls. The largest extant, and best preserved, Psalms scroll found at Qumran is 11QPsa . It contains forty nine (or fifty) compositions, or parts thereof, including thirty nine psalms found in Books IV and V of the Masoretic Psalter, and ten (or eleven) additional compositions including four which were previously unknown. It “diverges radically from the Masoretic Psalter, both in arrangement and by the inclusion of additional compositions.”[11] Differences in the order of psalms are also evident in seven manuscripts from cave 4 and a second Psalms scroll from cave 11.[12] Flint summarises the evidence and the opinions of several scholars and concludes that Psalms 1 to 89 (Books I to III) show a high degree of stabilisation during the Qumran period with no major deviation in content from the MT, and with only minor deviations with respect to the ordering of the psalms.[13] However, he finds abundant evidence of major deviations from the MT in Psalms 90 to 150 (Books IV and V), both in content and ordering. This supports the proposal that the compilers of 11QPsa may have regarded this collection as a “work in progress” and Flint concludes that the Book of Psalms was probably finalised in two stages: the first part (Psalms 1-89) was stabilised before the beginning of the Qumran period (which he puts at about 150 BCE); the second part (Psalms 90-150) remained fluid into the first century CE.[14]

This is important to note for an investigation of the superscripts and postscripts, as Thirtle’s theory relies on the ordering of the Masoretic Psalter. Interestingly, almost all the psalms containing the למנצח to the chief musician rubric in the superscript (or postscript, according to Thirtle), and therefore important for Thirtle’s thesis, are in Psalms 1 to 89 (fifty two psalms, with only three in Book V[15]). Thirtle argued that the “key” to the interpretation of the musical and liturgical notes in the superscripts was “lost early”. The concentration of these terms in Psalms 1 to 89 while almost completely absent in the remainder of the Psalter, together with the evidence from Qumran, supports his thesis and suggests that the understanding of these terms was lost before the compilation or stabilisation of Books IV and V.

To be continued …


[1] A Talmudic term for psalms without a superscription (Av. Zar. 24b)

[2] Sarna, “Psalms, Book of,” 669.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” 138.

[5] Adrian H.W. Curtis, “”A Psalm of David, when …”: Reflections on Some Psalm Titles in the Hebrew Bible,” in Interested Readers: Essays on the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David J.A. Clines (eds. Aitken, et al.; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), 59.

[6] Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” 143.

[7] Curtis, “Reflections on Some Psalm Titles,” 55.

[8] Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Psalms, Part 1, With an Introduction to Cultic Poetry (ed. Rolf P. Knierim; Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1988), 30.

[9] Roger Norman Whybray, Reading the Psalms as a book (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 21.

[10] See Elieser Slomovic, “Toward an Understanding of the Formation of Historical Titles in the Book of Psalms,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 91, no. 3 (1979); Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis.”

[11] Peter W. Flint, The Dead Sea Psalms Scrolls and the Book of Psalms (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 39-40.

[12] Ibid., 49.

[13] Ibid., 141. The manuscripts for Psalms 1-89 are much more fragmentary than for Psalms 90-150, so caution must be exercised in drawing conclusions about these sections of the Psalter.

[14] Ibid., 146.

[15] In the MT appearing as superscripts to Psalms 109, 139 and 140.

How the Dead Sea Scrolls help with New Testament studies


“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (6)

Pesher HabakkukSeveral scrolls found at Qumran (‘Dead Sea Scrolls’) are commentaries on earlier biblical texts and are called pesharim because of their characteristic use of the Hebrew word פשר pesher which translates as ‘this means’, or ‘the interpretation is’, or similar. These commentaries typically quote a biblical text and then add a commentary beginning with פשר pesher ‘this means …’. There are some characteristics of the Qumran pesharim which are replicated in some New Testament quotations. However, while pesharim tend to be sustained verse-by-verse commentaries (although individual pesher-style interpretations are found embedded in other works) the New Testament writers interpret only small selections from the prophetic writings; there are no sustained verse-by-verse commenatraies in the New Testament. Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Joseph Fitzmyer argues that a pesher is a unique type of midrash and has no exact counterpart in the New Testament.[1] He concluded from his analysis, however, that “the exegetical practice of the New Testament writers is quite similar to that of their Jewish contemporaries, which is best illustrated by the Qumran literature.”[2]

Timothy Lim[3] has identified characteristics of the Qumran pesharim which enable us to recognise some of the quotations in the New Testament in that style. Identifying a specific fulfilment of prophetic oracles is one characteristic of a pesher. So when Matthew introduces a quotation with the formulaic “that it might be fulfilled” he is effectively interpreting the biblical text in much the same way as the writer of Pesher Habakkuk who could quote the prophet and then apply his words to a contemporary person or event. So when the author of Pesher Habakkuk wrote  פשרו על מורה הצדק  “this refers to the teacher of righteousness”[4] he was using a similar formula to Matthew’s “this is fulfilled [by Jesus]”.  While God instructed Habakkuk to write down what is going to happen, according to Pesher Habakkuk he hid from him how the prophecy would be fulfilled, but revealed it later to the Teacher of Righteousness (1QpHab col vii lines1-5). In this way, argues Maurya Horgan, the pesharim function as companions to the biblical text, “unravelling section by section the mysteries that were believed to be contained in the biblical text”.[5] The initial mysteries revealed to the prophet and the interpretation through the Teacher of Righteousness were both revelations by God. The New Testament quotations function in the same way. The initial texts are reinterpreted according to new circumstances in ways that, by modern standards, might seem to be misquoting or using texts without any regard for their primary meaning and setting, yet finding meaning in the words themselves that would not have been understood in their first context. Not only did the interpretation give new meaning to the words, it claimed to be the true hidden meaning.

[1] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Use of Explicit Old Testament Quotations in Qumran Literature and in the New Testament”, New Testament Studies 1961;7(04):297-333, p. 298

[2] Ibid, p. 330

[3] Timothy H. Lim, Pesharim (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002, p. 82

[4] For example, in 1QpHab column vii, line 4

[5] Maurya P Horgan, Pesharim: Qumran Interpretations of Biblical Books, (Washington: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1979), p. 259