Penal Substitution, the Suffering Servant, and the Septuagint

Christians often say things like “Jesus bore our punishment on the cross”, or “Jesus absorbed God’s wrath on the cross”. This is a form of what is called penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Literally, punishment – in our place – forgiveness. Passages cited to affirm this idea come down to how we interpret Isaiah 53 – the “suffering servant song”. The problem we have is this: What Isaiah 53 says in the Bible we read, and what it said in the Bible the New Testament authors read, differs significantly on crucial points relating to PSA.

First, a bit of background on the texts:

Our Old Testament is translated mostly from the Masoretic text (MT) and other early Hebrew scriptures. It the contemporary Jewish Bible, and since 1943 even the Roman Catholics use it. Christian scholars use other texts as well, but the MT is the foundation. The manuscripts date to 700 – 1000 CE, but are based on work done 200 CE by the eminent Jewish scholars of the time trying to unify disparate versions. But they also agree with the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran and dating to the time of Jesus. (Esp. the Isaiah scroll). So scholars have good reason to view this as authoritative.

The Septuagint (LXX) is the second authoritative Old Testament text. It is regarded as a dynamic (idea-for-idea, not word-for-word) Greek translation of the Hebrew done in 300-200 BCE in Alexandria under Ptolemy. The LXX was needed because under Alexander the Great the world was Hellenizing, and Greek became the lingua franca – it was the English of their day, uniting the known world. It should be noted that at this time the modern Hebrew in which the Masoretic text was written had not existed yet. The Old Testament was written in Old Hebrew at that stage. It is called the Septuagint (seventy/two) or LXX, because according to tradition 72 Rabbis were involved in the translation. It is the Old Testament quoted by Paul, and the text quoted by Jesus according to the gospel writers. Of course Jesus didn’t speak Greek to the crowds but Aramaic, and it is possible that Jesus was quoting something closer to the Masoretic text than the LXX. But this is somewhat unlikely since the LXX was so firmly rooted in Jewish tradition at that stage. It is also what the Ethiopian eunuch quotes when he asks Philip who Is. 53 applies to (Acts 8). In short: the LXX was the Old Testament for 1st century Christians and also many Jews.

Later, though, Jews began to regard it with suspicion. The most notable cause is Isaiah 7:14. The Hebrew says ‘a young woman will be with child’, but the LXX says ‘a virgin will be with child’. Of course the Jews (after Jesus) claimed that this was a mistake, but the Christians loved it.

Some ministers and academics I asked said that they viewed the Septuagint as inspired along with the Hebrew text, and mostly the two complement each other. The Greek Orthodox Church regards the LXX as inspired and authoritative, and it is their Old Testament.

So we have two inspired texts, and usually it is not a problem. But in Is. 53 things start getting complicated. In our Bibles and the Hebrew text, the “suffering servant song” is the foundational text for saying that Jesus carried our punishment in our place as the basis for our forgiveness, and that God the Father was the one doing the punishment. All the New Testament passages that people interpret as “Jesus was made sinful, and the Father punished him instead of us” hinge on Is. 53. But that’s not what the LXX says. Where the Hebrew says “his death was God’s punishment to atone for our sins”, the LXX says “He died at our sinful hands, and by bearing it, his death atoned for our sins”.

The two texts are in parallel below. While reading it, ask yourself: does the LXX even contradict the Hebrew, or do they say the same thing? Does this bother you if they don’t? Why or why not? If this was what the church was using in the first few centuries, did they preach a slightly different atonement theory? If the LXX is what the New Testament authors were reading and quoting, how should we be interpreting what they wrote? (Reading the sermons in Acts in the light of the LXX is interesting.) Is it an either/or thing, or can both be true?

Isaiah 52:13-53:12:

English Standard Version

Septuagint, New English Translation

Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.
As many were astonished at you– his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind–
so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.
Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
See, my servant shall understand
and he shall be exalted and glorified exceedingly.
Just as many shall be astonished at you—
so shall your appearance be without glory from men
and your glory
be absent from the men—
so shall many nations be astonished at him,
and kings shall shut their mouth,
because those who were not informed about him shall see
and those who did not hear shall understand.
Lord, who has believed our report?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord
been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

He grew up before him like a child,
like a root in a thirsty land;
he has no form or glory,
and we saw him, and he had no form or beauty.But his form was without honour, failing
beyond all men,
a man being in calamity and knowing
how to bear sickness;
because his face is turned away,
he was dishonoured and not esteemed.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
This one bears our sins
and suffers pain for us,
and we accounted him to be in trouble
and calamity and ill-treatment.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
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.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned–every one–to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
a man has strayed in his own way,
and the Lord gave him over to our sins.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation,
who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring;
he shall prolong his days;
And he, because he has been ill-treated,
does not open his mouth;
like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and as a lamb is silent before the one shearing it,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation his judgment was taken away.
Who will describe his generation?
Because his life is being taken from the earth,
he was led to death on account of the acts of lawlessness of my people.
And I will give the wicked for his burial
and the rich for his death,
because he committed no lawlessness,
nor was deceit found in his mouth.
And the Lord desires
to cleanse him from his blow.
If you offer for sin,
your soul shall see a long-lived offspring.
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
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.
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.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.
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.