TextA New Series on Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Our Easter series addresses a set of textual problems that are crucial to the identity of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. John D. MeadeIllustration by Peter Gurry. Images from Wikipedia, iStockphoto, and Unsplash.March 29, 2022 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level As Easter approaches, many Christians will be remembering the gospel of Christ, that he died for our sins, was buried, and was raised “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). No doubt, one scripture that many will read during holy week will be Isaiah 52:13–53:12, also known as the fourth servant song. This passage is a crucial text for understanding the events that took place in Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago. Numerous questions surround this famous text, the most important of which is the identity of the servant. Four servant songs Isaiah 52:13–53:12 is the last and by far the most famous of Isaiah’s four servant songs. In all four, the vexing question is the identity of the servant. In the first song (Isa. 42:1–9), Isaiah presents the nation of Israel as the servant. In the second (Isa. 49:1–13), at first, Israel is identified with the servant (49:3) but then, shockingly, the servant is tasked to turn Jacob back to the Lord and to gather Israel to him (49:5). The servant must be one who can both embody the nation and be distinct from it at the same time, as a king who represents his people completely. The third and fourth servant songs (50:4–9; 52:13–53:12) read straightforwardly, if the servant is the future king, David’s awaited descendant. Thus, the last three of the servant songs can be read as speaking about the one king in relationship to the nation: he embodies and represents the nation totally, but he must also now intervene and save the nation. The servant’s identity But not all readers arrive at this conclusion and interpretation has been varied. The identity of the servant in Isaiah 52:13–53:12 has been debated from the beginning. In Acts 8:26–35, the Ethiopian eunuch is reading the prophet Isaiah, but he does not know how to interpret Isaiah 53:7–8. The eunuch asks Philip to help him understand, “I ask you, concerning whom does the prophet say this? Concerning himself or concerning another?” (Acts 8:34). Philip begins from this scripture to preach Jesus to him. The identity of the servant has been debated from the beginning. Today, debate over the identity of the Servant continues to divide interpreters. Jewish interpreters typically say the servant is the nation of Israel. Most Christian interpreters claim the servant is Jesus the Messiah, while some commentators continue to hold that the servant is the prophet. Have most Christians been wrong for 2,000 years in interpreting the servant as Jesus? To answer this, we need to ask a prior question about the textual transmission of Isaiah 52:13–53:12. The text The more fundamental question is what the text of the song is. English Bible readers may not be aware that there are several important problems in the textual history of this passage that affect translation and therefore interpretation. In fact, our major English versions disagree on which manuscripts preserve the original text, and therefore, they disagree at several key points within this passage. And these are no minor differences. They center on the servant’s identity and work, his suffering and death, his burial, his resurrection, and his bearing of sins and intervention at the rebellions of the many. Indeed, the problems cluster around the very tenets of the Gospel that Paul says he received as of chief importance (1 Cor. 15:3–5). A new series Over the weeks leading up to Easter, the Text & Canon Institute will be addressing some of the most important textual problems in the fourth servant song. Dr. Peter Gentry, Dr. Anthony Ferguson, and I will guide readers through these difficulties. We will treat these five textual issues: Does the servant startle the nations because he is disfigured or sprinkle them after being anointed? (Isa. 52:14–15) Is the servant stricken for the people’s rebellion, or are they? (Isa. 53:8) Is the servant’s death or his tomb that is with the rich? (Isa. 53:9) Who and what does the servant intercede for? (Isa. 53:12) Is the resurrection of the servant anticipated in what he sees? (Isa. 53:11) We want to help readers see the problems in the textual history of this passage by comparing English translations and commentaries. When readers see the analysis of difficulties in our primary sources, they can appreciate how textual criticism aims to determine the probable, original text and how those decisions influence Bible translation at the most fundamental level. Since texts were copied by hand, those hands sometimes changed the text when copying it. Many of these modifications are insignificant, but in Isaiah 52:13–53:12, there are important differences to the text we would do well to note and form opinions about. Join us this Easter season for a series of articles on the intersection between textual criticism and Bible translation as we give a deep reading of one of the most significant passages that informs us about the person and work of Christ. Be sure to subscribe to get the new articles in the series in your inbox. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: John D. Meade John (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Professor of Old Testament and Codirector of the Text & Canon Institute at Phoenix Seminary and a contributor of the Hexapla Project. He is the author (with Ed Gallagher) of The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity and Scribes and Scripture: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible (with Peter Gurry).