Isaiah 53 is often quoted in support of the belief that on the Cross, God poured out his wrath onto Jesus. It is claimed that the crushing of the Messiah was God the Father’s handiwork, and it pleased him to do so. Our English Bibles read this way, but are they consistent with the original text? What does it say in the Bible Jesus knew?
The Primacy of the Septuagint for Biblical Authority
A few points before we analyse this passage regarding the reliability of Scripture.
- The earliest Old Testament version we have is the Greek Septuagint (LXX). The translation of the Torah into Greek was commissioned by Ptolemy II in 3rd Century BCE, and the whole Greek OT existed by 132 BCE. No original Hebrew source texts have survived.
- The earliest complete OT in Hebrew is the Masoretic text which dates from 10th-11th Century. The Masoretic Text is different from the original OT (different alphabet etc) and contains identifiable errors.
- The Septuagint is thus our oldest (by c.1200+ years) complete OT text. Both Jesus and the Apostles quoted from it (or its source) and treated it as authoritative.
Although we now know that a) there were at least three variants of the OT text around at the time of Christ and b) the LXX was the Apostles’ primary text, most Bible translations still choose to follow the Masoretic text as primary. What is more, our modern Bibles include many English translation assumptions, and even additions (supposedly helpful “clarifications” added to the text by the translators).
Examining Isaiah 53
This is not only an important Christological passage, it is also one where there are significant discrepancies between our Bibles and the Septuagint.
Examine below the difference between the King James (embracing Masoretic) and two versions of the Septuagint – both the commonly used translation by Sir Lancelot Charles Lee Brenton in 1844, and the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) completed in 2009 (you will see these are remarkably consistent). We will start with verses 4-6:
|KJV:||L. C. L . Brenton (1844):||NETS (2009):|
|Isa 53:4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
Isa 53:5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
Isa 53:6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
|Isa 53:4 He bears our sins, and is pained for us: yet we accounted him to be in trouble, and in suffering, and in affliction.
Isa 53:5 But he was wounded on account of our sins, and was bruised because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his bruises we were healed.
Isa 53:6 All we as sheep have gone astray; every one has gone astray in his way; and the Lord gave him up for our sins.
|Isa 53:4 This one bears our sins and suffers pain for us, and we counted him to be in trouble and calamity and ill-treatment.
Isa 53:5 But he was wounded because of our acts of lawlessness and has been weakened because of our sins; upon him was the discipline of our peace; by his bruise we were healed.
Isa 53:6 All we like sheep have gone astray; a man has strayed in his own way, and the Lord gave him over to our sins.
Compare the differences in bold.
Looking at Verse 4: In the KJV, man considers God pro-active with regard to the Messiah’s suffering (“smitten of God“). The earlier text, the LXX, contains no reference to God. In any case, what is often skipped over is the transition from v4 to v5 “we considered him… but”. The text is drawing a clear contrast between our assumptions (what we thought was going on) and reality. In other words, when “we considered” we got it wrong.
In verse 6, the KJV depicts the Father as placing our sins upon Christ. In the LXX, by contrast, God’s action is in giving up Christ. (The Greek is ambiguous as whether this is ‘for our sins’ (possibly as a sacrifice/ransom, handing him over to men) or ‘to our sins’ (e.g. to become sin for us). In either case, God simply hands Christ over to us, for us.
But even if we go with the KJV where God the Father actively laid our iniquity on Jesus, it was so that he could carry our sins far away (John 1:29, Psalm 103:12).
Now we move to verses 10-12:
|KJV:||L. C. L . Brenton:||NETS:|
|Isa 53:10-11 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Isa 53:12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.||Isa 53:10-11 The Lord also is pleased to purge him from his stroke. If ye can give an offering for sin, your soul shall see a long-lived seed: the Lord also is pleased to take away from the travail of his soul, to shew him light, and to form him with understanding; to justify the just one who serves many well; and he shall bear their sins.
Isa 53:12 Therefore he shall inherit many, and he shall divide the spoils of the mighty; because his soul was delivered to death: and he was numbered among the transgressors; and he bore the sins of many, and was delivered because of their iniquities.
|Isa 53:10-11 And the Lord desires to cleanse him from his blow. If you offer for sin, your soul shall see a long-lived offspring. And the Lord wishes to take away from the pain of his soul, to show him light and fill him with understanding, to justify a righteous one who is well subject to many, and he himself shall bear their sins.
Isa 53:12 Therefore he shall inherit many and he shall divide the spoils of the strong, because his soul was given over to death, and he was reckoned among the lawless, and he bore the sins of many, and because of their sins he was given over.
As we see, the KJV has the Father pleased to bruise/strike his Son. The LXX has the Father pleased to cleanse Him from the bruise/strike. The LXX’s Father does not strike His Son – indeed He seeks to take away the pain of his soul. See the repetition and consistency of the Lord’s desires in verses 10 & 11 in the LXX? The Father’s heart is full of compassion towards the suffering of His Son.
Finally, v12 brings in a new assumptions in the KJV. Being numbered with the transgressors, the Messiah made intercession for them (but with whom?) Inevitably this brings with it the implication that intercession is needed; without it, presumably, the Father would be hostile to the transgressors.
The LXX declares simple facts: the Messiah, given over to death, was numbered along with the transgressors, and was delivered over to death because of their sins. That’s it.
Jesus in The Gospels
In the Gospels when talking of the coming passion, Jesus talks only of being handed over to men: to suffer and be crucified at the hands of men, never is He being handed over to God. Consistently, all New Testament presentations of the Gospel follow this same course.
We cannot go beyond the text. For that reason, we have to conclude that Isaiah 53 cannot be used to support the notion that Jesus was suffering at the hands of his Father, nor that his Father was pleased to punish him. The LXX clearly presents a Messiah suffering in the hands of men, offered up because of our sin. In the Bible of the Apostles there is no smoking Gun with the Father’s hand on the trigger.