Boyarin, Isaiah 53 and Interfaith Dialog Done Badly (Part 1 – Interpretation)

This is the last in a series of posts here on Daniel Boyarin’s book “The Jewish Gospels“. In this post (actually, I’ll need two three posts), I will examine the final chapter of his book, where Boyarin provides a controversial interpretation of the “suffering servant” passage found in the Biblical book of Isaiah, chapter 53.

But before we can get to Boyarin, we have a lot of background to cover – so much background, in fact, that I’ll need to devote this post just to the background. In this first post, I’ll look at the way Judaism and Christianity have viewed Isaiah 53. My second post will look at Boyarin’s analysis in the context of the Jewish-Christian dispute over the meaning of this passage.

One caveat: entire books have been written about Isaiah 53, and seemingly none of them agree. Below is my effort to provide a brief but fair summary of Isaiah 53, but it’s probably not as fair as I might wish, and I know it’s not brief!

Isaiah 53 is the last of four “songs” in Isaiah (the first three begin at 42:1, 49:1 and 50:4) describing a “suffering servant” of God who is called to bring justice to Israel and the other nations of the world. By the second song, it is clear that the servant has not succeeded (“I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all.”). By the third song, we learn that the servant has been beaten and abused.

The fourth “song”, beginning at Isaiah 52:13 and continuing into Isaiah 53, is set forth in full below. (I am reprinting the New International Version translation of Isaiah, as this translation is closest to what I see cited most often by Christians.)

52:13 See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness —
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.

53:1 Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

In some respects, this fourth “song” of the suffering servant follows themes from the prior three songs: the servant is described as “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering”. But Isaiah 53 appears to introduce a new idea: the servant has suffered “for” the sins of others. The text declares that “[s]urely he took up our pain and bore our suffering … he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities … Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer … the Lord makes his life an offering for sin …”.

Christians interpret Isaiah 53 as prophecy concerning Jesus of Nazareth: Jesus would suffer and die to bring atonement for the sins of all who would come to believe in him. Granted, there are probably a few Christians out there who read Isaiah 53 in some other way. But the text of Isaiah 53 sounds a lot like what we read in the gospels, where Jesus suffered on the cross (and beforehand, when he was scourged by Roman soldiers). According to the gospels, Jesus was pierced: he was nailed to the cross and stabbed in his side by a Roman soldier.  Perhaps most significant for Christians is the idea that the servant in Isaiah 53 is said to have suffered and died for our sins, which is the way Christians understand the suffering and death of Jesus.

For Christians, Isaiah 53 is an instance where the Bible interprets the Bible. The Gospel of Matthew states that Jesus healed the sick “to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.’” The Gospel of Luke has Jesus refer himself as the suffering servant: “It is written ‘and he was numbered with the transgressors’, and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me.” Perhaps most on point is the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-39: the apostle Philip meets the eunuch as he is reading the Bible and struggling to understand Isaiah 53:7-8. Once Philip explains that the passage refers to Jesus, the eunuch agrees to be baptized.

Acts 8 begins a long tradition where Isaiah 53 is used as a principal proof text for Christian claims about Jesus. According to one prominent Christian Bible commentary, “No where in all the Old Testament is it so plainly and fully prophesied, that Christ ought to suffer, and then to enter into his glory, as in this chapter [Isaiah 53].”

The Jewish view of Isaiah 53 is … different.

The predominant Jewish reading of Isaiah 53 is that the “suffering servant” is not a single person, but the people of Israel as a whole. This interpretation is based in some part on examining together the four “songs” of Isaiah. The first of these songs is prefaced by the statement that God’s servant is Israel. The second song contains the statement “you are My servant, O Israel”. Isaiah 53 is itself prefaced by prophecy concerning Israel, so that when the fourth “song” begins with “See, my servant will act wisely”, that servant can logically be seen as being Israel.

According to this interpretation, Isaiah 53 is prophecy concerning the eventual redemption of the people and nation of Israel. Isaiah predicted exile and calamity for the Jewish people, but Isaiah 53 appears in “messages of consolation” that describe the eventual restoration and vindication of Israel. When this restoration occurs, according to Isaiah 52:15, the humbled kings of nations “will be amazed when their age-old assessment of the Jew is finally proven wrong.”

To be sure, there are other Jewish ways to read Isaiah 53. The suffering servant might be a righteous portion of Israel, suffering for the sins of the remainder of Israel. Or the suffering servant might be an historic figure such as Moses or Jeremiah.

Finally, there are Jewish sources that describe the suffering servant as a messianic figure.  It is instructive to read some of these sources in context. Many Christians point to Sanhedrin 98a and 98b, two pages of a chapter of the Babylonian Talmud, as proof that Jews saw Isaiah’s suffering servant as the Jewish Messiah. But these pages are chock full of different rabbis arguing different (and possibly contradictory) opinions of what the Messiah will be like (someone like King David, or someone “sitting among the poor lepers”)  and when the Messiah will come (when “all judges and officers are gone from Israel” or when “Zion shall be redeemed with judgment”). The reference to Isaiah 53 comes when the rabbis argue what the Messiah will be named: Shiloh, or Yinnon, or Haninah, or Menahem. One argument is that the Messiah will be named “’the leper scholar,’ as it is written, ‘surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows, yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted.’” This passage might be read to confirm some portion of the traditional Christian reading of Isaiah 53 (for example, that the suffering servant might be the Jewish Messiah), and confound other portions (for example, that the suffering servant would be afflicted by God with disease).

A Jewish reading of Isaiah 53 can become quite complicated. For example, consider the issue of vicarious atonement: can one person suffer (and even die) to atone for the sins of another? As a general rule, the Jewish view of atonement is one of personal responsibility – no one can atone for another’s sins. But even here, there is room for discussion. Might animal sacrifice (a practice that has not been possible in Judaism for nearly 2,000 years, since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem) be a form of vicarious atonement?  What about the idea (affirmed in some Biblical passages, and denied in others) that children can suffer for the sins of their parents? Or the more difficult and controversial notion, found in Jewish books such as the pseudepigraphical 4 Maccabees, that the death of a martyr might provide atonement for others?

If Jews and Christians share the Hebrew Bible as holy scripture, why can’t we agree on what it means? One answer is that we don’t share the entire text in common. The Jewish Bible does not contain the New Testament, which (as I noted above) confirms that the suffering servant is Jesus. But even where we share the same text, we don’t share the same translation. A traditional Christian translation of Isaiah 53:3 refers to the suffering servant as “familiar with pain”, but a Jewish translation (such as the ArtScroll Tanach or the Jewish Publication Bible) says that the servant is “accustomed to illness”. The former sounds something like Jesus, the latter less so.  The Jewish translation is that the servant was “wounded”, or “pained”, but not “pierced”. Moreover, while Christians read Isaiah 53:5 to say that the servant was pierced “for” our transgressions (sounding a lot like vicarious atonement), the Jewish reading is that the servant was wounded “because of” our transgressions (sounding less like vicarious atonement). Which translation is right? That’s hard to say, particularly when you’re dealing with a text written over two thousand years ago, in a language that had not been in everyday common use until very recently.

Some Christians may be frustrated by all this complexity. Christians have a clear position when it comes to Isaiah 53, so why not the Jews? One answer to this question is, Jews are not required to all read this text in the same way. While Isaiah 53 may be read by Christians as a key (perhaps even the key) Old Testament prophecy of Jesus, this text is not central to any Jew’s understanding of Judaism. Different Jews can read this text in different ways, and nothing prevents a single Jew from reading Isaiah 53 in multiple ways. It is a Jewish attitude that we get closer to the divine when we admit to (and study) the various possible meanings of a Biblical text. “The Torah has 70 faces,” goes one expression.  “Both are the words of a living God,” goes another expression.

Here’s another way to understand the Jewish-Christian difference: disagreement about Isaiah 53 reflects the different approaches that Jews and Christians take to the Bible. The prominent Christian scholar F. F. Bruce writes that for Christians, the Old Testament is “the preparation of the gospel”, the “witness to Christ”, a “promise” to be fulfilled with the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So it is logical for Christians to read Isaiah 53 as referring to Jesus.

But for Jews, the Old Testament (or to use a more Jewish title, the Tanach or the Hebrew Bible) is not about Jesus, nor primarily about the promised coming of a Messiah (though for Jews, the Messiah is important). Instead, the Hebrew Bible is primarily the story of Israel: its birth, history, and covenant with God, as well as how this story fits with God’s plan for all of humanity. So it is logical for Jews to read Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel.

One of my favorite scholars, Amy-Jill Levine, writes in her book “The Misunderstood Jew” that “synagogue and church each has its own story, told in its own order.” The fact is, Jews and Christians do not order the books of the Hebrew Bible in the same way. The Christian Old Testament ends with the book of Malachi, predicting the coming of the prophet Elijah to prepare for the way of the Messiah before “the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Malachi leads nicely into Matthew’s description of John the Baptist, who assumes the role described for Elijah as forerunner for Jesus. The Jewish Bible ends not with Malachi, but with 2 Chronicles, where the Persian King Cyrus proclaims the end of the Babylonian Exile and permits the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their Temple.

For me, Levine’s picture of distinct biblical canons is beautiful and stirring: Jews and Christians share a sacred text but read the goal of the text differently. For Christians the Old Testament leads to Jesus, and for Jews it leads home. One might even imagine an interfaith discussion of these end points and the differences behind them, a discussion that could lead to mutual respect and understanding.

For the most part, this is not how the history has played out. Instead, the history of Jewish-Christian discussion of Isaiah 53 is full of acrimony, misunderstanding and mutual distrust. In part 2 of this post, I’ll look at the unfortunate history of these discussions, and how Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels” fits into this history.

  • AJ

    Thanks once again for a great post!

    I don’t know if your computer displays a Hebrew font, but here is verse 53:5:
    וְהוּא מְחֹלָל מִפְּשָׁעֵנוּ, מְדֻכָּא מֵעֲוֹנֹתֵינוּ; מוּסַר שְׁלוֹמֵנוּ עָלָיו, וּבַחֲבֻרָתוֹ נִרְפָּא-לָנוּ

    I’d like to address the issue of translation, particularly the “for” vs. “because of” question. The words in question are מִפְּשָׁעֵנוּ (mipesha’enu) and מֵעֲוֹנֹתֵינוּ (me’avonotenu). More precisely, the prefixes in question are מִ (mi/”mee”) and מֵ (me/”meh”). The only reason for the difference in vowel-age (“mee” vs. “meh”) is grammatical – the two prefixes are identical, as the context suggests.

    The prefiex מ (mem) is the short for the word מין (min), to which the BDB Lexicon devotes no fewer than seven pages. The primary definition of the word is “from”, but secondary definitions include “out of”, “round about”, “through” and “on account of” (we’ll get back to this last one in a moment). Never is the translation “for” given. Strong’s Concordance gives a similar set of definitions. Again, “for” is nowhere to be found.

    Interestingly, BDB cites the above verse 53:5 and uses the definition “on account of”, which is ambiguous, potentially meaning either “for the sake of” or “because of”. And yes, these happen to comprise the two very different definitions which lie at the core of this particular dispute. But given the fact that 1) in the hundreds of other instances of the word “min” (and prefix “mem”) throughout the Hebrew Bible, the definition “from” (or the similar “out of”, “of”, etc.) applies, and 2) there are other Hebrew words which Isaiah himself uses (e.g. “ma’an”) which are much more naturally suited to the definition “for the sake of”, I see no reason why in this particular instance of the prefix, the definition “for” is in any way substantiated. “On account of” is a perfectly legitimate definition, but only in the “because of”/”resulting from” sense. Meaning, the “servant” suffers “as a result of” our sins.

    Additionally, as a little experiment, I did a search for all the words “me’avon-” and “mipesha-” in the Hebrew Bible and checked to see how they were translated in http://bible.cc, under “parallel”, which includes 16 different translations. The word “me’avon-” occurs 10 times, including Isaiah 53:5. In ALL verses (but one), in ALL 16 translations, the “mem” prefix is translated “from”, or occasionally “of” or “less than”. Never is it translated “for”, except notably in the one verse Isaiah 53:5, where it is translated “for” across the board. As for “mipesha-“, this occurs only 3 times, including Isaiah 53:5, which again was “for” all the way through. In the second case it is translated in the natural “from” or “of”. The third instance is in Isaiah 53:8, which is part of the passage you quote above. Mostly, it is defined as “for” (as above), but curiously the God’s Word Translation and Young’s Literal Translation render it “because of” and “by” respectively. “By” is the opposite of “for”, and accords with the natural “from” family of definitions. I see this as a bit of a “slip” on the part of the translators, since there would be no reason to translate the word “mipesha-” as “for our transgressions” in one place but “because of/by the transgression” in another place. This little slip, and the fact that in all other instances of the “mem” prefix used in conjunction with “avon” and “pesha”, these translations define it as “from” (or translations of a similar meaning – certainly not “for”), points strongly to a very significant “fudge” that has taken place in translating this particular verse.

    To be fair though, this kind of fudging goes on all the time in traditional Jewish translations and commentaries. But these are called “drash”, meaning they build into the understanding of the text a homiletic/midrashic teaching, which many times does not accord with the straightforward meaning. I have no problem if Christians want to “darshen” (make a homiletic interpretation of) this verse to mean that the future messiah would undergo suffering “for” our sins. People of faith want to see their beliefs confirmed in their sacred texts – it’s natural and understandable. However, for anyone who wants to look at the text per se and is interested in the straightforward meaning, they should know that the Christian translations of Isaiah 53:5 are simply incorrect.

    There’s a great deal more I’d like to discuss here, but I thought this one point deserved its due treatment.

    Once again, thanks for posting!
    AJ

    • lbehrendt

      AJ, I am struggling to cover Boyarin’s take on Isaiah 53 as briefly as I can, and covering things briefly is not my strong point. Thank you for taking the time to cover this important point in such depth. I’d run across some of what you’d written elsewhere, but not all of it, and your analysis is (IMHO) the best and most even-handed I’ve read to date. I’m going to dispute your take-away conclusion, but I enjoyed the journey on the way to this conclusion.

      You’ve certainly helped me with my more general point, which is that translation MATTERS. Differences in translation of Isaiah 53 are a part of why Jews and Christians understand this text differently.

      There are secondary points. First, there is something about the Hebrew language that makes the language open to multiple interpretations. Second, there is no reason why the author of Isaiah must have intended to convey a single meaning in chapter 53. Third, Judaism has no reason (apart from the continuing argument with Christianity) to interpret Isaiah 53 to have a single meaning. Isaiah 53 does not carry the same kind of importance in Judaism as it does in Christianity.

      What I’m hoping to avoid is arguing what the text “really” means, or that the text “cannot” mean what this-or-that person claims it to mean. There is a great deal of such discussion out there on Isaiah 53, written by both Jews and Christians, and so far it’s led us nowhere.

      I disagree with your takeaway conclusion, which is that the Christian translations of Isaiah 53:5 are “simply incorrect” if what we’re looking at is the “straightforward”, “per se” meaning of the text. For shorthand, let’s refer to that “straightforward” meaning as the “plain meaning” (a term used by lawyers). My point is this: there IS NO plain meaning of this text for Jews and Christians. We can argue whether there’s a plain meaning for Jews, and a different plain meaning for Christians, but there’s no single plain meaning applicable to both groups.

      My ultimate view is based on context. Within the context of the Christian Bible, the idea of a suffering Messiah predominates. It would make no sense for Christians to read Isaiah 53 outside of this context. The Jewish scriptures provide a different context, one where the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53 does not fit. There is no neutral context that Jews and Christians might share to come up with a Jewish-Christian take on Isaiah 53. It is best, I think, to treat this chapter of the Bible as if it existed in separate Jewish and Christian versions, and to let each group do what it thinks best with its own version of the text.

      • AJ

        I personally have no problem if the text were to mean “he was pieced for our sins”. There are plenty of examples in Jewish tradition which speak about certain individuals atoning for the masses. And I have no problem with the idea of multiple interpretations. But it has to be carried by the language, and the prefix “mem” does not carry the meaning “for”. Though if you can find a Hebrew linguist or a Tanach expert who says otherwise, I’d be very interested!

        • lbehrendt

          AJ, it’s my preference to let Christians translate their texts as they see fit.

          The meanings of prepositions are tricky and (I think) heavily influenced by context. As you probably know, early Christians relied on the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible — a translation commonly known as the Septuagint. I’m no linguist in either Hebrew or Greek, but I understand that the Greek version of Isaiah 53:5 uses the Greek Greek διά (dia) for the Hebrew “mem”, and that this preposition would have the meaning “on account of”. Christians might fairly interpret “mem” in relationship to the Septuagint, the same way we might interpret a Hebrew word in Tanach in light of its use in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

          I would struggle to translate “mem” in Isaiah 53 as meaning “from”. To say that the servant suffered “from” our transgressions sounds weird — it’s like saying that Joe suffers from allergies. But by “from”, I understand you to be referring to something like cause and effect, that our transgressions cause the servant to suffer. Pictorially, it is something like transgressions -> suffering.

          The problem is, if we’re considering transgressions -> suffering, the word “for” can carry the same meaning as the word “from”. If you ask me why I spent time in jail and I respond “for robbery”, I’m NOT saying that I was jailed as an atoning act for the sins of other robbers! I AM saying that robbery -> jail. And if I say I went to jail “from robbery”, I don’t know what sense that would make, unless the police caught me in the act and took me directly to jail, as I might say that I came straight home “from” work.

          Instead of “from”, let’s look at another phrase you suggested, “out of”. To make the language feel more natural, I’d substitute “because of” instead of “out of”. If it helps, the translation “because of” is what is used in the Stone Tanach, a good Jewish Bible translation. The translation “because of” fits the traditional Jewish interpretation, that it is our sins that brought suffering to the suffering servant. Of course, it’s ALSO the Christian view that Jesus suffered because of the Original Sin of people; if we were somehow sinless, Jesus would not have had to suffer and die.

          I find it hopeless to analyze the plain meaning of prepositions outside of the context of where we find them. If I say that a gift is “for” you, I mean that it is for your benefit. But if a Christian says that she is giving up alcohol “for Lent”, she doesn’t mean that she’s going on the wagon to benefit Lent! In that context, “for” loses the meaning “for the benefit of” and instead takes on the meaning “because of”. This works in reverse, again depending on context. If you ask me why I’m working nights, I might say “because of” the tuition increase at my son’s school. In that case, I’ve taken a second job “for” my son’s benefit. Context is king.

          We have the language later in Isaiah 53:5, that (quoting the Stone Tanach) “the chastisement upon him was for our benefit.” Here, the Stone translation provides the word “for”, not that it’s really necessary. It appears that, even if the servant suffered “from” sin, he suffered “for” us. I agree, there’s still a difference in meaning between the Christian and the Jewish translations — in the Jewish translation, the “benefit” conferred by the servant’s suffering is not necessarily to change the cosmic relationship between sin and people. This benefit instead appears to be a lesson taught to the Gentile kings in Isaiah 52:15 concerning the truth about God and God’s relation to Israel. But if you come to Isaiah 53 with the Christian context that the Old Testament is prophecy concerning Jesus, then the benefit conferred by the servant’s suffering is the one Jesus intended to confer. Context is king, and the definition of “mem” is not going to dethrone the context.

          • AJ

            it’s my preference to let Christians translate their texts as they see fit.

            I agree. Let me be clear – I’m not making any comment on what the sacred texts of any religion should be, what their adherents should believe, etc. Christians should be able to write Isaiah 53 any way they want to. But it’s a different Isaiah 53 than the Hebrew version. And that’s ok.

            early Christians relied on the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible

            If the English is based on the Septuagint, then all bets are off! My comments are assuming translation from the Hebrew.

            this preposition would have the meaning “on account of”

            As I mentioned above, this phrase is ambiguous, meaning either “because of” or “for the sake of”. So a translation from the Septuagint could legitimately carry the latter.

            the word “for” can carry the same meaning as the word “from”… giving up alcohol “for Lent”…

            A nice point vis-a-vis English, but the “mem” prefix does not carry that same linguistic ambiguity (as far as I know).

            Context is king, and the definition of “mem” is not going to dethrone the context.

            Agreed, words don’t change the context. But at the same time, context doesn’t necessarily have the ability to change a word to convey something outside its range/family of meanings. To say that “mem” means “for” is outside its range of possible meanings and has no precedent linguistically (again, to my knowledge).

            I have a feeling we’re at an impasse here, which is ok. Just let me reiterate: The only point I’m making is a technical one. As I said in my previous comment, despite whatever perceived “threat” it might pose to Jewish theology, I personally wouldn’t be bothered one iota if the Hebrew could translate to mean “for our sins”. And if Christians want to read it that way, despite the Hebrew, I say fine, “gezunterheyt” – may everyone live and be well!

            AJ

            • lbehrendt

              AJ, OK, here are two views on the meaning of the word “min”. http://bit.ly/PscDA2. http://bit.ly/PxPy0i.

              This stuff is way, WAY past anything I might claim as expertise. But from these cited pieces, I think that the way to understand the meaning of the preposition “min” (or the use of the letter “mem” as a preposition/word prefix, which I believe means the same thing) is in a functional sense. The preposition might be used in a comparative sense, a partitive sense or a causative sense. The comparative sense would be something like Ecclesiastes 9:18, “better (is) wisdom from weapons of conflict (mik-lay)”, or the more natural “wisdom is better than weapons of war.” I doubt that Isaiah 53:5 uses “mem” in a comparative sense.

              I think your argument is that Isaiah uses 53:5 in a causative sense, that “wounded from our transgressions” is better understood as “wounded because of our transgressions”. I think the Christian reading is closer to the partitive sense, that “mem” indicates that something is a part of something else, such as “wounded in connection with our transgressions”.

              I will grant you that there does not seem to be a simple way to understand “mem” to mean “for”, at least not in the sense of “for the purpose of”. I think that the Christian use of “for” is best defended in terms of a broader context, one that arguably includes the idea of vicarious suffering.

              To be sure, defining “mem” as “from” can be defended, though I’ll note that you originally cited Strong’s Concordance, which provides many different meanings for “mem”, including from, out of, on account of, off, on the side of, since, above, than, so that not, more than, some of, even to, both…and, either…or, and because. Even if we assume that the correct translation is “from”, what does “from” mean? Synonyms for “from” include of, off, out of, by, with, since, and … yes … “for”.

              Translations can be more or less literal, but are rarely completely literal. All translations contain an element of interpretation. If we understand Isaiah 53:5 to mean “wounded from”, we are very much in need of interpretation! We simply do not employ the expression “wounded from”.

              I’m inclined for the moment to translate “mem” in Isaiah 53:5 as meaning something like “because of”, “in connection with”, “on account of” or even “as part of”. In any case, the understanding of this verse needs to be based on something more than a preposition.

  • AJ

    Thanks for the sources. Re: The New American Commentary, here’s the author’s comment on 53:5: “The preposition [‘min’] ‘from’ means that the consequence (suffering) ‘arose from, was derived from, was because of’ our rebellion.” (See note 376, p. 450.) Yet earlier in the book (p 433) he mentions “the Servant’s suffering for ‘our transgressions’ (53:5).” Note that he doesn’t put quotes around the word “for”. When looking at the grammar, the author concludes “because of our transgressions.” When translating the section however, he goes with the traditional Christian “for our transgressions”. How does he get from one to the other? See the last paragraph on p. 450:

    “The first half of the verse indicates that the reason for this suffering was ‘because of our rebellion’ and ‘because of our iniquities’. This forthright confession of guilt plainly states that the Servant suffered the consequences for ‘our’ (the Israelite speakers) sinful acts. This act was penal, for it involved a just punishment for rebellious acts. It was also substitutionary because the punishment that should have fallen on the Israelites who sinned were transferred instead to the Servant.”

    In other words, to say that Jesus died “because of our sins” implies that it was “for our sins”. If I go to jail “because” you ran a red light, it implies that I also did time “for” you, instead of you. I definitely do get the logic, and I understand constructing a translation which has this emphasis. It makes much more sense to me now. It’s not a literal translation (as I think the author himself would admit), but it’s potentially (though not necessarily) implied.

    Ok, I think we can move on…