The “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 (4)

Prophet Isaiah, by Antonio Balestra (1666-1740). The Hebrew text is from Isaiah 6:6 “Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.”

In my previous posts I argued that the song of the “suffering servant” was a message of hope for the exiles in Babylon. The writer was either living among the captives or was one of the people who was left in the Land, and wrote to encourage the captives to cross the desert and return to their homeland where a restored and revitalised nation of Israel would rise to prominence on the world stage. He personified the exiles as a suffering servant of God whose fortunes were about to change and who would be “exalted.” To my mind this is the most natural reading of the poem in its context. It isn’t unusual to personify the nation as a servant, and the writer actually does this several times throughout chapters 40-56. However, by referring to this servant in the singular the writer creates some ambiguity: is he referring to the nation, or to some individual? If it is an individual, then who? Could he be speaking about himself, or someone else? (This is precisely the question asked by the Ethiopian official in Acts 8:34.)

Several scholars have come to the conclusion that Second Isaiah’s language in this poem reflects the pain of an individual so intensely that the writer may well be speaking of himself, although there is not even a hint in the book as to who the writer might be. A few scholars* have argued that the suffering servant was King Jehoiachin (also known as Jeconiah) who was taken into captivity by the Babylonians. I personally think this proposition has a lot of merit. Jehoiachin was on the throne for only 3 months and 10 days when he was taken into exile at the age of 18 and made a prisoner in Babylon. The court officials who were taken into exile with him would have included many of the priests and scribes who were responsible for keeping the kingdom’s records and preserving and maintaining both civil and religious documents and archives. Some excellent scholarship has been done on the work undertaken by these scribes in captivity, and there is now practically a consensus amongst biblical scholars that much of the Hebrew Bible as we know it was composed, copied, edited and redacted in the hands of these scribes in Babylon, who were probably confined together with Jehoiachin. For example, the book of Kings concludes with a description of Jehoiachin’s time in Babylon, enabling us to date fairly precisely when the final lines of the book were written.

In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of King Jehoiachin of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, King Evil-merodach of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, released King Jehoiachin of Judah from prison; he spoke kindly to him, and gave him a seat above the other seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes. Every day of his life he dined regularly in the king’s presence. For his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, a portion every day, as long as he lived.

2 Kings 25:27-30

As these are the concluding lines of Kings we can be confident that the book was written, or completed, in the 37th year of the exile, or soon after, around 562BCE (For more details on the dating and archaeological confirmation, read my post here. Chronicles, on the other hand, concludes with the return from exile, so it was clearly written later.) It describes Jehoiachin’s elevation from prison to a place of honour in the royal court of Babylon, and for the other captives this would have been an encouraging sign that their fortunes as a nation may have been about to change. Seeing the king elevated from prison to honour would have provided hope, and the scribes who were responsible for preserving the teachings of the prophet Isaiah may have taken the opportunity to write the song of the servant who was “exalted and lifted up” against this background and as a fitting sequel to Isaiah’s message. Jehoiachin’s exaltation after so long in prison would have seemed miraculous, or, in the words of Isaiah 53:1, “Who would have believed it?”

Kings of Judah, like all kings and rulers, were held to be responsible for both the fortunes and misfortunes of the nation. If they ruled well the nation prospered; if they made poor decisions the nation suffered. Their personal successes or failures were mirrored in the nation as prosperity or disaster. As the leader of the nation they represented it, and personified it. Coming to the throne at the age of 18 and ruling for such a short time Jehoiachin had little time to exercise any influence and could be described as “a young plant” and “a root out of dry ground” (Isaiah 53:2). As a captive he was “taken away” and as a prisoner in a foreign land “he was cut off from the land of the living” while no one could have imagined a future for him (v.8). As the representative of the people and embodiment of the nation it could be said that his sufferings were on behalf of his people and for their sins. Having reigned for only 3 months he could hardly have done much to warrant this treatment on account of his own actions, and so it is described as “a perversion of justice” (v.8). It could be said that he therefore suffered for the sins of the people, rather than his own actions: “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (v.5). Yet, according to the writer of this poem, because he suffered in silence and accepted his lot with patience God would “allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong” (v.12). The poem begins and ends with the servant being exalted, seated with the great.

Whether the servant song is about Israel/Judah in exile, or about their king who represented the nation, its purpose would have been to encourage the exiles and give them hope. Jehoiachin’s exaltation would undoubtedly have done that and so I personally think there is a convincing case that the occasion probably provided the immediate impetus for writing the poem. The fact that later writers (such as some of the writers of the New Testament) saw resemblances to the sufferings of Jesus, means that the poem could be appropriated and re-applied to this new situation. But the application to Jesus was not the primary meaning. In the context of the exile, and for people who were languishing in a foreign land, a vision of a Messianic figure who was to come hundreds of years later would have provided little or no comfort. However, a change in the fortunes of their king, present with them in exile, would have been immensely encouraging.


* For example, see Michael Goulder, ‘”Behold My Servant Jehoiachin”.’ Vetus Testamentum 52, no. 2 (2002): 175-90.

By the way, I’ve used a painting of Isaiah above by Antonio Balestra, although, as I’ve explained previously, I agree with the majority of biblical scholars who argue that Isaiah 40-56 was not written by the prophet Isaiah but rather by someone living at the time of the exile more than a century later.

The “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 (3)


Jews Mourning in Babylonian Exile (based on Psalm 137), 1832, Eduard Bendemann. In the public domain.

As early as the twelth century scholars have noticed that the emphasis and tone of Isaiah 40-55 is markedly different from the first 39 chapters. While the main concern of chapters 1-39 was the threat from the Neo-Assyrian empire, 40-55 is concerned with Jews living in exile in Babylon. By the time of the Babylonian exile the Neo-Assyrian empire had collapsed, defeated by the Babylonians who went on to conquer Judah and Jerusalem and take its king, the nobility and officials into exile. Scholarship now widely accepts that chapters 40-55 were written much later than 1-39, by a “Second Isaiah” who lived during the Babylonian exile. The main thrust of Second Isaiah is to provide comfort and hope for the Jews living in exile, and to encourage them with the message that the time is soon coming when they will leave Babylon, cross the desert, and return to Zion/Jerusalem. The sequel, and the third part of this “trilogy,” is in chapters 56-66 (“Third Isaiah”) which records the return from exile and commencement of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Second Isaiah declares its intentions to offer hope and comfort in the face of adversity from the very first verses:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’S hand
double for all her sins. (40:1-2).

In one lengthy section (43:1-48:22) the prophet compares the return from exile in Babylon to the exodus from Egypt, with the crossing of the Red Sea being re-enacted in the exiles’ crossing of the desert and a “way in the sea” becoming “a way in the wilderness”.

16 Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: [an allusion to the defeat of the Egyptians with their chariots in the Red Sea]

18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19 I am about to do a new thing … I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (43:19)

As God provided water for Israel when they were in the wilderness after escaping slavery in Egypt, so God will again provide water in the desert which lies between Babylon and the land of Israel: “I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people” (43:20) and “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground” (44:3). The exiles should take comfort in the fact that what God has done in the past he will do again in the future:

Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it forth to the end of the earth; say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!”  They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock; he split open the rock and the water gushed out” (48:20-21).

For the exiles in Babylon who had been forcibly removed from their homeland, this message would have given hope, together with prophecies that Jerusalem with its Temple and Judah would be rebuilt and inhabited again (e.g. 44:26-28). As Moses was chosen by God to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt, so Cyrus is called God’s “shepherd” and a “Messiah” (מַשִׁיחַ =Messiah/anointed), the agent of God in freeing the Jews from Babylon (44:28-45:1). Like the fleeing slaves, the exiles would be set free: “Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued; for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children” (49:25).

This message was followed by a series of visions of a restored Israel with Jerusalem rebuilt and glorified, elevated to be the most beautiful and important of all the world’s cities, reaching a crescendo with the return of the Lord to Zion (52:7-10). Immediately following this series of visions of a restored city and nation comes the fourth servant song, Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Against the setting of an exiled and oppressed people who are not only restored to their ancient homeland but also elevated to be of prime importance among the nations, this song about a servant who first suffers and then is exalted makes perfect sense.

See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him —so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals—  so he shall startle many nations (52:13).

Having said restored Israel would prosper, this servant song says the suffering servant will prosper. As the nations would be astonished that Israel and Judah which had been destroyed and exiled by first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians could be restored to be even greater than they were at first, so they will be startled by the amazing recovery of the suffering servant. Despite the terrible things which happen to him, the servant will be vindicated and numbered with the great (53:11-12).

In the context of Second Isaiah – a message of comfort and hope to a nation in exile – and against this background of the nation’s prolonged sufferings, it becomes clear that the song of the suffering servant personifies the nation as an individual. It is followed by another song (54:1-17) where Jerusalem is personified as a childless woman (the book of Lamentations personifies Jerusalem in a similar way) who becomes the wife of the Lord and has many children. It is similar to the suffering-servant song in that it provides hope and promises restoration for the exiles. There are several similarities between these two songs. In the song of the childless woman God acknowledges that “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer” (54:7-8). In a similar way, in the servant song the writer says “it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” (53:10). Both songs make similar claims that the sufferings of the servant and the childless woman were inflicted by God because of sins committed by the people, but that God will also bring them to victory. The themes are similar, and both songs would have been relevant and encouraging to people in exile wondering if they would ever see their homeland again. The message of Second Isaiah was that their tribulation would be temporary and would lead to greater prosperity than previously experienced.

Continue reading … part 4

Raphael – Renaissance Painter.


Raphael, The Prophet Isaiah

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino was born on the 6th April 1483 in Urbino, Italy. He also died on the 6th April 1520 in Rome, Italy. He was known for painting and architecture and he wielded his craft in the Renaissance period of Italy. His work is admired for its clarity of form and ease of composition and for the concept of the Neoplatonic form of human grandeur. In the Renaissance many of the churches’ teachings were rejected, including that human nature is sinful. Raphael’s humans are beautiful, thus embodying the new philosophy of humanism, or the concept that humans are good.

He was born to Giovanni Santi, a painter, and Magia di Battista Ciarla, who both died when Raphael was a child. His father offered his son lessons and later he joined Perugino’s workshop either as a pupil or as an assistant. Raphael studied the works of his contemporaries Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. He earned the title of ‘master’ at just 17. Raphael was reputed to be engaged to the niece of a friend who was a cardinal but he continuously put off the wedding. Raphael was thought to love women and he was supposedly to die as the result of a night of passion which caused a fever at just the age of 37. This gave him the enduring reputation as a womaniser.

However, there is no doubting that Raphael was a genius at his chosen craft. The Prophet Isaiah, 1512 is just one of his works. His famous works include Transfiguration, 1520; The Sistine Madonna, 1512; The Marriage of the Virgin, 1504; Self-portrait, 1506 and The Triumph of Galatea amongst others. He also found time to work as an architect, building churches and beautiful buildings.

However, it is his painting, The Prophet Isaiah, that I would like to concentrate on in this piece. Stephen chose this painting to illustrate his blog post on understanding Isaiah (go there to see the full picture) and the painting has some interesting features. Note the bold use of colour, the brightness of the light and the fine brush strokes which are almost invisible and give the painting an unearthly quality. This quality is highlighted by the cherubs which adorn the ornate background. The bodies are muscular and beautiful, a feature of his work. However, it is the scroll and the authentic Hebrew writing which is a feature of note and tells us something of what is evolving in the society that Raphael painted in.

Before the birth of the Renaissance, many works that featured biblical themes had illegible scrawl substituted for Hebrew, as the language was considered the work of the devil because of its association with the Jews, the so-called “Christ killers”. However, intellectuals of Raphael’s time wanted to learn the ancient language as, rediscovering history, it came to be considered as one of the four classic ancient languages along with Greek, Latin and Arabic. Hebrew inscriptions could be found on tablets, scrolls, books, shields, framed wall panels and tombstones. Lettered ornaments on sleeves, collars and hems suggested sacred messages coming from the figure or addressed to the figure. Some intellectuals believed that Hebrew was the ‘divine’ language, the language of the angels and it is interesting to note that Raphael included cherubs in his painting with Hebrew clearly displayed on the scroll. Intellectuals even believed that if all societies and peoples learned to speak Hebrew there would be peace and the practice of war would be no more. Kabbalah studies became popular, Christians believing they could unlock the secrets of the Bible by studying ancient Jewish texts and beliefs and thus gaining greater understanding of life’s mysteries. Some Jews were very sceptical of the interest in their culture and others embraced it. However, treatment of the Jewish people did not necessarily improve and the Catholic church still considered them a hostile enemy. Therefore it could be speculated that Raphael was being rather modern and daring by using the original Hebrew script in his work.

Raphael was an artist who painted at the height of the Renaissance and he was a creature of his times. Those times began to loosen the hold of the Catholic church on western society and humanism began to take root. Modern western civilisation can see its beginnings in this era thus making his works very significant indeed.

The “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 (2)


The Prophet Isaiah, by Raphael, 1512. From a fresco located in Basilica di Sant’Agostino, Rome. In the public domain. The prophet is holding the Hebrew text of Isaiah 26:2-3a “Open the gates, so that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in. Those of steadfast mind …”

To understand any text in the Bible we have to see it in its historical and literary context. In the case of Isaiah 53, this not only means reading the whole of the book of Isaiah – all 66 chapters – to see how this chapter “fits” with the overall themes and messages, it also means placing it in its historical and social context. What was happening at the time when these words were written? How would the initial audience have understood them, and how was the message relevant to them?

Biblical scholars have long recognised that the book of Isaiah has three major parts which differ from each other in terms of content and style as well as in their messages. The differences are so significant that most scholars agree that they were written by three different writers, at different times. Consequently, scholars often refer to the three divisions as “First Isaiah” (or Proto-Isaiah, chapters 1-39), “Second Isaiah” (or Deutero-Isaiah, chapters 40-55), and “Third Isaiah” (or Trito-Isaiah, chapters 56-66). If you read the book through as a whole you will notice that there are logical breaks between the three divisions, and the style of writing changes significantly. It is argued that only chapters 1-39 were written by the prophet Isaiah (or by one of his followers) in the eighth century BCE, that chapters 40-55 were written in the sixth century during the exile which began in 586BCE by an unnamed writer, and that chapters 56-66 were written after the return from exile in 515BCE when the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple was underway. Third Isaiah was possibly compiled as an anthology consisting of twelve “oracles” which may have originally been written (or spoken) by multiple prophets. There is a considerable amount of evidence within the book that it was not all written at the same time. For example, the name “Isaiah” occurs several times in chapters 1-39 but never after, and specific details in chapters 40-66 suggest that the writers had detailed knowledge and experience of the exile. For example, Second Isaiah refers to the Persian king Cyrus twice by name and says of him “I have aroused Cyrus … and he shall build my city and set my exiles free” (45:13). Cyrus lived 600-530BCE and Isaiah’s ministry was between 740 and 698BCE, more than a century before Cyrus was born, but he would have been well known to someone living at the end of the exile. Interestingly, Isaiah 45:1 calls Cyrus God’s מַשִׁיחַ anointed, using the word from which we get the English “Messiah”. The Greek translates it is as Χριστός Christos, from which we get the word “Christ”. This is the only place in Isaiah where the word מַשִׁיחַ / Messiah is used, and it describes a Persian king, probably because he was chosen by God as a saviour figure to restore the vanguished kingdom of Israel.

The chapter we are looking at – Isaiah 53 – is in Second Isaiah where it is one of four poems, or songs, which describe an unnamed “servant of the Lord.” In two of the songs it appears that the writer may be speaking about himself:

  1. The second song begins by saying “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me” and goes on to say  “You are my servant,” which makes it seem that the writer is describing his own calling by God. However, there is some confusion because the verse continues “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (49:1-3). I’ll come back to this shortly. The identification of the writer as the servant is maintained because the writer goes on to say “And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob* back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him …” (v5). If this servant is Israel how can Israel be called on to bring Jacob/Israel back to God?
  2. Similarly, in the third song the writer again describes his calling: “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (50:4) He describes the people’s response to his message using servant terminology: “Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant?” (v10), apparently speaking of himself as this servant.

The identification of the servant as Israel, noted in the first point above, is not unusual in the context of Isaiah. On several occasions the writer of Second Isaiah describes Israel as God’s servant. For example:

  • 41:8 But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend;  you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off.”
  • 43:10 You are my witnesses [speaking to Israel, see v1], says the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen.
  • 44:1    But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen!
  • 44:21    Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are my servant; , you will not be forgotten by me.
  • 45:4 For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.
  • 48:20    Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it forth to the end of the earth; say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!” (Incidentally, this verse is one of the many which provides evidence that Second Isaiah was written during the time of the exile in Babylon.)
  • 49:3 And he said to me, “You are my servant, in whom I will be glorified.”

In fact, almost every time the writer of Second Isaiah uses the word עֶבֶד servant it refers to Israel. In only two or three places is the servant unnamed or not identified. The fourth song begins with the same servant terminology, but it is unclear whether the writer here is speaking of himself or not: “See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high” (52:13).** Because of the confusion (especially in the second song) about whether the writer is describing himself or Israel as God’s servant, there is a possibility that he both speaks to Israel but also personifies and represents Israel. In other words, the prophet as God’s servant, and as a member of the nation of Israel, acts as a “servant” on two levels: individually, and corporately as a representative of the wider community.

Continue reading … part 3.


* The name of the patriarch Jacob was changed to “Israel”. “Jacob” is used in poetry as the semantic equivalent of “Israel.”

** The fourth poem actually begins in 52:13 and includes all of chapter 53 – the chapter divisions are a late invention and don’t form part of the most ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible.

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