Friday, April 10, 2020

“He will see light” in Isaiah 53:11

Over on Southern Equip today, I published a piece on Easter and textual criticism by commenting on a few of the crucial textual variants within Isaiah 53. I hope the post introduces more folks to some of the issues that have been long recognized, even if some of our translations are slow to incorporate them.

Isaiah 53:11 contains a significant problem in the text. I provide the main witnesses and some additional commentary on the reading in Ziegler’s II App containing the readings of the Three.

The Key Witnesses to “He will see light” in Isaiah 53:11

יראה אור וישבע “He will see light and be satisfied”

1QIsaa (four lines up; image from Digital Dead Sea Scrolls)
יראה אור י[שבע “He will see light, he will [be satisfied]”

יראה או[ר ] ושבע “He will see lig[ht] and be satisfied”

4QIsad (2nd line from top; image from Leon Levy Library)
δεῖξαι αὐτῷ φῶς “to show him light”

In each witness, “light” is the direct object of the verb “to see.” This is a fairly common idiom, even in Isaiah (cf. Isaiah 9:2). G probably read the same Hebrew consonantal text but as a causative instead of the simple transitive.

The Key Witnesses to Isaiah 53:11 “He will see”

MT (= Vulgate, Peshitta, Targum?)
יִרְאֶה יִשְׂבָּע “He will see, he will be satisfied”

ὄψεται ἐμπλησθήσεται “He will see, he will be filled”

ὄψεται ἐμπλησθήσεται “He will see, he will be filled”

ὄψεται χορτασθήσεται “He will see, he will be filled

The readings of ‘the Three’ are found in Ra 86 and Q as the Edition makes plain below. But I want to comment here on a peculiarity in the Edition and an uncharacteristic infelicity in the second apparatus. Below at v. 11, Ziegler broke up the marginal note in Ra 86 (pictured below) across two separate readings, giving the impression that there were two separate fragments in the margin of the manuscript: (1) ὄψεται and (2) ἐμπλησθήσεται ἐν τῇ γνώσει αὐτοῦ. The obvious problem here is that the reader cannot tell whether the Three had the crucial word φῶς or not. One must actually consult the MS, which is easier now than ever, to see that there is one continuous fragment for the Three which omits φῶς, and therefore, the Three agree with MT. In fact, the Three are the earliest witnesses to the shorter text.

Ziegler’s Göttingen Isaias

Ra 86 (Barb. 549, f. 112v; image from Digivatlib)
Our reading is the top note in the margin with an index to δεῖξαι in the bible text. Clearly, the scribe copied one continuous note for the Three, and we do not have to wonder whether the Three had the longer or shorter reading. In the new critical edition of the Hexaplaric fragments, the one continuous reading of Ra 86 will be supplied so that future researchers will be able to access the correct reading more easily.

Thus, the main witnesses to the proto-Masoretic Text all attest the shorter text, the text without “light.”


A couple of factors probably decide in favor of the longer reading, “he will see light.” First and most significantly, different Qumran texts and G agree. All agree that 1QIsab is a very good representative of proto-MT and it has the longer text against MT. That 1QIsaa (a text not as close to proto-MT), 4QIsad, and G agree with 1QIsab probably shows the independence of the longer reading across witnesses. Second, it’s probable that אור was omitted because אור looks similar to the אה, and thus homoioteleuton accounts for an accidental omission of אור just before the time of the Jewish revisers.

I’m happy to see that many English translations have already adopted this reading (e.g. NIV CSB). I wonder what it would take for them all to adopt it.


  1. Richard Putman4/11/2020 5:40 pm

    I see that NIV have adopted the reading "...he will see the light of life..." with the footnote "Dead Sea Scrolls (see also Septuagint); Masoretic Text does not have the light of life". However, I know of no DSS or LXX text that shows "light of life". Is there anyone any the wiser?

    1. Richard, good question. The "of life" is the NIV's interpretation of the metaphor "to see light." See Job 3:16 where Job laments that he was not " infants who never see the light?" Not to see light is to die in delivery like a miscarried newborn.

    2. Richard Putman4/11/2020 9:05 pm

      Thank you, John. I still wonder whether there isn't some variant because of the footnote stating "Masoretic text does not have the light of life". That certainly suggests the full expression "light of life" exists somewhere else.

    3. Richard, in addition to the sources mentioned above, I’ve searched the catalogues of variants in Kennicott and de Rossi. None of these have “of life,” or “light” for that matter. The NIV is interpretive. See the CSB or NRSV for the simple reading I would adopt, “he will see light.” Does this help?

    4. Richard Putman4/11/2020 10:14 pm

      Thank you very much, John. Without evidence to the contrary, I concur.

    5. If I may some two years late seeing this post ask what about the Bomberg/Chayim Masoretic text reading here?

  2. Thank you, John, for an interesting post!
    Which witness does G refer to?
    Kind regards,
    Conrad Elmelund

    1. G refers to “Greek translation” commonly called Septuagint (LXX). It’s translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Thanks.

    2. Thanks!
      I am curious - do you prefer "G" over "LXX"?
      Since the Three are Greek too is it not more disambiguate to use "LXX"?

    3. Good question, Conrad. Most text critics use G or its gothic equivalent for the Greek translation. LXX is traditional for “the Seventy.” Historically, the Seventy are only responsible for the translation of the Seventy and later their work was understood to apply to the whole Old Testament. Scholars today recognize this point of confusion and often adopt OG “Old Greek.” So G works just fine here.

  3. Excellent post, John! Thanks.

  4. John, I very much appreciated following the discovery trail--and highlighting such demonstrates the importance of good textual work. It made for a good study on the morning it was posted. Many thanks!

    1. Thanks, Alistair. I'm glad you found it helpful and interesting.

  5. "Second, it’s probable that אור was omitted because אור looks similar to the אה, and thus homoioteleuton accounts for an accidental omission of אור just before the time of the Jewish revisers."

    At the risk of sounding like Maxwell Smart, the vav and resh would have to be switched to look anything like a heh. I find that hard to believe let alone probable.

    1. Good question. My assumption is that this error probably happened in the scripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For some reason, my image of 1QIsaa is no longer visible in the post, but the error I have in mind is more probable in that script than the later script. Maybe that makes more sense now?

  6. Thanks, John. Good conclusion. The French Bible des Semeurs has also added "light".

  7. Hello,
    I have a quick question is someone can help me, please.

    Sometimes changes take place to correct errors that are caused when a scribe merge two words that the end of the first one and the beginning of the second one are identical. For example, the last two letters in "were" are similar to the first two letters in "recalling," which might cause the scribe to write it "werecalling." What is the technical term we use to describe this? This is not considered "homoioteleuton," correct?

    1. Haplography (due to parablepsis)...but not as you rightly suspected.

      Very often more common language like scribal error, slip or blunder might be used in an instance like you mentioned above. Personally, I don't think scribal habits--or it's corresponding terminology has been given enough attention...for what it's worth.