TextPart 2: Does Isaiah’s Servant Really Die for the People? The ancient witnesses to Isaiah 53:8 disagree on a central confession about Jesus’ death found in the New Testament. John D. MeadeIllustration by Peter Gurry. Images from Wikipedia, iStockphoto, and UnsplashApril 5, 2022 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Isaiah’s fourth servant song is by far the most famous, not least because Christians have long read it as one of the greatest Old Testament prophecies about the heart of the Christian faith, the death of Jesus. In this Easter series, we are focusing on major textual problems in Isaiah 53 as a necessary step in identifying the suffering servant. In our Easter series on major problems in the text of Isaiah 53, we now come to the end of Isaiah 53:8. Most of our English translations read the final line of the verse similar to the ESV, “who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” The NIV has “he was punished,” while the NET reads “he was wounded.” These translations clearly convey that the servant was stricken for the transgression of God’s people. The new NASB 2020 renders the text slightly differently: “For the wrongdoing of my people, to whom the blow was due.” Here, the NASB’s rendering signals that the blow was due to the people and does not portray one, single servant as being stricken or punished. These different renderings arose because of a difficult Hebrew text, whose history shows variants and different ways of understanding it as we shall see. These different renderings arose because of a difficult Hebrew text. The New English Bible actually renders a different Hebrew text, “stricken to death for my people’s transgression.”1See also the commentary by Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40–55: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 345, for a similar translation. According to this translation, the servant is stricken to death, an idea not clearly presented in the translations mentioned above. Clearly, there are two different translations coming from two different Hebrew texts. This problem requires a deeper look at the ancient witnesses in order to arrive at a solution. The testimony of the ancient witnesses First, we will list all the witnesses in original language and English translation, group them according to the Hebrew text they attest, and finally make some observations about them. The textual problem is indicated in each witness by the use of italics so that one can see the different readings most clearly. ReadingWitnessText1. He was stricken to deathLXXDue to the lawless deeds of my people, he was led to death ἀπὸ τῶν ἀνομιῶν τοῦ λαοῦ μου ἤχθη εἰς θάνατον2. He was stricken for them1QIsaaDue to the transgression of his people, he was stricken for them מפשע עמו נוגע למו3. He struck themMS 715Due to the transgression of my people, he struck themמִפֶּשַׁע עַמִּי נָגַע לָמֹוTheodotion, AquilaDue to the faithlessness of my people, he struck themἀπὸ ἀθεσίας τοῦ λαοῦ μου ἥψατο αὐτῶνLatin VulgateDue to the sin of my people, he struck thempropter scelus populi mei percussit eosSyriac PeshittaAnd due to iniquities of my people, they struck himܘܡܢ ܥ̇ܘ̈ܠܐ ܕܥܡܝ ܩܪܒܘ ܠܗAramaic TargumThe sins which my people sinned he will cast on themחובין דחבו עמי עד לותהון ימטי4. Strike was theirsMTDue to the transgression of my people, the strike belonged to them מִפֶּשַׁע עַמִּי נֶגַע לָמֹו SymmachusDue to the offense of my people, the strike belonged to them διὰ τὴν ἀδικίαν τοῦ λαοῦ μου πληγὴ αὐτοῖς 1QIsab, 4QIsadDue to the transgression of my people, the strike(?) belonged to them מפשע עמי נגע למוA survey of witnesses to Isaiah 53:8 To summarize, the witnesses attest four main options for the original Hebrew: “he was stricken to death” LXX“he was stricken for them” 1QIsaa“he struck them” MS 715, Theodotion, Aquila, Vulgate, Peshitta, Targum“the strike belonged to them” MT, Symmachus, 1QIsab(?), 4QIsad(?) Isaiah 53:8 in Codex Leningrad (1008 AD), 1QIsaa (2nd c. BC), and Codex Sinaiticus (4th c. AD). Images from Sefaria, Wikipedia, Codex Sinaiticus Surveying the evidence Reading 1 The first reading is based on the Hebrew source of the Septuagint (LXX), which differed slightly but significantly from the Masoretic Text (MT): “he was stricken to death” (נֻגַּע לַמָּוֶת). Although the LXX has the verb “he was led,” the translator probably wanted to harmonize 53:8 with 53:7 (“as a sheep was led to the slaughter”) by using the same Greek verb. Thus, the Hebrew source of the LXX contained the same consonants for the word “stricken” as all our other Hebrew manuscripts and most probably agreed with the verb that we see in 1QIsaa, the most famous Dead Sea Scroll. Because most of our English translations are based on the MT, readings like this one are often overlooked and not even included in a footnote. We will return to the full reading of the LXX below as we make a decision on the original text. Reading 2 The second reading is found in 1QIsaa and it also differs from the MT slightly: “he was stricken for them” (נוגע למו). Although most of our English translations render the MT as a passive verb (“was punished”), the only clear ancient evidence for such a translation is actually found, not in the MT, but in 1QIsaa, a manuscript discovered seventy-five years ago. Reading 3 The third reading is based on several witnesses that usually agree with the MT but, here, differ with it slightly by giving “he struck them” (נָגַע לָמֹו). Not only was this the Hebrew source of several ancient translations such as the Latin Vulgate, but it is also attested in one medieval Hebrew manuscript (known as DeRossi 715). Thus, this vocalization was probably known from an earlier time and existed alongside the MT’s reading (see Reading 4). But this, like reading 4 below, arose from a guess. The reason for this is that the translators and the later scribe didn’t have a copy of the text with vowel letters (known as matres lectiones) like what we find in 1QIsaa or the later vowel signs. Related A New Series on Isaiah’s Suffering ServantJohn D. MeadePart 3: The Servant’s Burial according to the ScripturesPeter J. GentryPart 4: Who Does the Servant Intercede For?John D. Meade Reading 4 The final reading is found in the MT and reads “a strike belonged to them” (נֶגַע לָמֹו). Only Symmachus, who revised the Greek Septuagint around 200 AD, unambiguously preserves a noun “strike” in agreement with the MT (1QIsab and 4QIsad are ambiguous on this point). That’s a fascinating observation in itself since most English translations claim to translate the MT and then usually footnote where they diverge from it—but here they give no note. Regarding the meaning of who receives the blow (“to them”; לָמֹו), only the Syriac Peshitta has “him,” but it also rendered the verb as a plural “they struck,” which is a clear sign of interpretation. This raises the question about whether the Hebrew pronoun (לָמֹו) is plural “them” or singular “him.” All the ancient translations (except Peshitta) use the plural “them,” and this is the normal way to read the Hebrew. But the very interesting part is that most of our English translations lack an equivalent for this word in the MT (but see NASB above), probably because it is difficult to translate. But a literal translation of the MT would be “a strike belonged to them.” In context, this would refer to the people of Israel as the ones receiving the blow. By now, one can see that textual criticism is essential for understanding what happens to the suffering servant and so for identifying who he is. The careful study of our witnesses not only shines a light on the textual problems, but it also offers a probable solution too. Unfortunately, most translations do not footnote this problem, so English Bible readers are usually unaware of it. So, what text should we choose and then translate? The original text Basically, textual criticism works by identifying the reading that best explains the origin of the others. This assumes that a scribe is likely to modify the original text, either accidentally or intentionally. From the three texts listed above, we prefer the first reading (“he was stricken to death”) as the original text.2See Jan de Waard, A Handbook on Isaiah (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 194–95; Dominique Barthélemy, Critique Textuelle de l’Ancien Testament. 2. Isaïe, Jérémie, Lamentations. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 50/2 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1986), 397–99. The LXX attests both the verb “he was stricken” (נוגע) and the oldest form of the final word “to death” (למות). It is easier to believe that a scribe accidentally omitted a letter in copying, or that the letter was lost in a damaged margin of a manuscript than to think that a scribe intentionally modified the text. Since the LXX’s text also preserves the continuity of the masculine singular subject found in the rest of the song, this reading commends itself as what Isaiah most probably wrote. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Get 50% off the directors’ new book when you subscribe. Leave this field empty if you're human: On the other hand, 1QIsaa shows an intermediate form of the text, a form which still preserves the original reading of the verb “he was stricken” (the reading most of our English translations assume anyway), but one which already shows the accidental omission of the single letter taw from “to death” (למות) resulting instead in “to them” (למו). This copyist error must have occurred very early in the transmission of the text for it now appears in the very wide base of witnesses shown above. If the error crept in early, we would expect exactly this situation. For its part, the MT continued to transmit the text it received, which then preserved an inferior vocalization for “strike” (נֶגַע) along with the corrupted final word “to them” (למו). Its reading “a blow belonged to them” must have been interpreted as referring to the people of Israel and eventually aided a national interpretation of the servant. Conclusion The textual decision here significantly changes the meaning of this song with respect to whether the servant dies and, in turn, who the servant is. Only the Hebrew parent text of the LXX preserves the servant’s death on account of the people’s transgression. Later scribal mistakes obscure the servant’s death and its purpose found in the original text. What’s at issue is ultimately something central to the New Testament’s witness about Jesus. What’s at issue, then, is ultimately something central to the New Testament’s witness about Jesus. One of the matters of chief importance that Paul received is that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). Paul, and those who transmitted early tradition about the Messiah’s death, seems to have been reading the version of Isaiah 53:8 argued for here (cf. Isa. 53:12) which explains how he arrived at this conclusion. John D. Meade John (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate 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 A Critical Edition of the Hexaplaric Fragments of Job 22–42. View all posts Notes1See also the commentary by Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40–55: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 345, for a similar translation.2See Jan de Waard, A Handbook on Isaiah (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 194–95; Dominique Barthélemy, Critique Textuelle de l’Ancien Testament. 2. Isaïe, Jérémie, Lamentations. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 50/2 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1986), 397–99.