Tuesday, April 25, 2006

“Light” in Isa 53.11 and its possible effect upon Christian Resurrection Theology

Here’s a brief comparison of three translations of Isaiah 53.11

ESV: Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.

RSV: he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities.

NRSV: Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.

In translating the verse there is some debate as to what the Servant sees: (1) the fruit of his work (KJV, NKJV, RSV), (2) “light” meaning life, resurrection, vindication etc (NRSV, NIV, NJB), or (3) something unspecified (ESV).

Part of the problem is that there is no reference to “light” in the MT, Vulgate or Peshitta (hence the omission from the ESV, NASB etc) but it is included as part of the LXX and 1QIsa A and B. Additionally in the Isaiah Targum, it states that the Servant will see the “retribution” of his enemies. The ambiguity of modern translations derives from the textual confusion as to what the Servant sees after his suffering. It is quite possible that “light” was added in certain textual traditions in order to clarify this ambiguity. In this sense “light” could refer to either continued life in the face of death (Ps 36:9, 56:13) or life somehow attained beyond death (Ps 49:19; Job 33:28, 30, cf. 1 Clem 16:12).

In Jewish literature of the second-temple era it was possible to regard “light” as a catchword for “resurrection life”. Although the equation is somewhat debated (it could in some instances refer to the immortality of the soul), nevertheless several passages appear to link “light” with the life of the eschatological resurrection: 1 En 58:3; 92:3-5; 108:12-13; 2 En 65:8; Ps. Sol. 3:12; 1QS 4:8; Sib Or 1.379. If the resurrection connotations of “light” are imported into Isa 53.11 then in the words of G. E. Nickelsburg: “For Isaiah the resurrection of the righteous is in itself the vindication of the righteous” (Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism [HTS 26; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972] 19).

Early Christian interpretation of Jesus’ death and resurrection was understood via the grid of Isa 53.11-12 where the death and resurrection of Jesus was prefigured in the suffering and vivification of the Servant of Isaiah. It is this template that arguably stands behind the pre-Pauline formula of Rom 4:25 where Jesus “was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification”. See further the references to the resurrection of the Servant/Jesus in 1 Clem. 16.12 and Justin, Apol. 1.51.

Thus, the interpolation of “light” in Isa 53.11 (if it was an interpolation?), particularly via the Septuagint, arguably affected the resurrection theology of the early Christians where it was understood as both (a) the vindication of Jesus, and (b) as part of the justification of those whom he represented. How early this influence goes back is disputable as some do not see in Rom 4.25 any echo of Isaiah 53 (e.g. Kasemann, Romans, 128). In any case, the post-NT reading of Isa 53.11 with an emphasis on resurrection is very much in keeping with pre-Christian understandings of this passage in the LXX and 1QIsa.


  1. That was very en-light-ening. Okay, that was bad. But I did run across this variant in the DSS and wondered about it. I will have to check out those other references to light and ressurection in the pseudepigrapha.

  2. This brings up an interesting point; conjectural emendation was not a modern invention. Ancient scribes were faced with the same temptation to smooth out a reading as today's text editors, but without the same scholarly strictures.

    I'm usually no fan of brevio lectior, but in cases like this where a plurality of ancient evidence favours a harder reading (especially with a diversity of easier readings), it smacks of originality.

    Certainly hard readings still abound in the Scriptures, and given the tendency of scribes to emend them, I'd expect even ancient mss to evince attempts at fixing them up.

  3. Michael,

    That was very helpful.

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  5. Michael,

    The LXX and 1QIsa a&b don't track well together. It looks like 1QIsa reads r)h )wr but the LXX B reads DEIXAI AUTWi FWS ... which is syntactically a totally different construction and semantically would call for r)h in hifil not qal.

    Note that J.Charlesworth (Encyc. of DSS, OUP p901) renders both IQIsa(a) and the LXX "From the travail of his soul he shall shed forth light and be satisfied" which requires an emendation of the 1QIsa text does it not?

    Thank you for your posts on the resurrection, the absolute core of ancient orthodoxy.