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Monday, 20 April 2020

'Believe that I Am': Encountering John's Christ in the Light of Isaiah (Part 1)

100-Word Summary

The Book of Isaiah was very important to the earliest Christians. One section within Isaiah (chapters 40-55), called deutero-Isaiah by biblical scholars, bore special significance in view of its mysterious Servant figure and special emphasis on Israel's redemption from sin. Isaianic language pervades the Gospel of John in its narration of Jesus' life. John contains four direct quotations from Isaiah—two of them serving as bookends to Jesus' public ministry—and many more allusions. John relies primarily on the Greek Septuagint version of Isaiah. By appreciating John's use of Isaiah, we can better understand its message about Christ.


The prophetic Book of Isaiah was so influential on early Christianity and its Christology (understanding of Christ's person and work) that it is sometimes called the fifth Gospel. Perhaps nowhere is this influence richer than in the Gospel of John. Reading the New Testament in light of the Old is what the Church has done from its earliest days. In a series of three posts, I hope to provide some observations on how the Book of Isaiah can help us to understand John's unique and sometimes puzzling Christology. This introductory post will offer some basic background information on Isaiah and John and a broad sketch of Isaiah's influence on John.

The Book of Isaiah

The Book of Isaiah is one of the books of the Nevi'im ("Prophets") division of the Hebrew Bible, and is also one of the Major Prophets in the Christian Old Testament. It is one of the longest books in either canon. The early chapters of the Book of Isaiah attribute its oracles to one Isaiah, son of Amoz, who (as we read in Isaiah as well as in 2 Kings 19-20) was a contemporary of King Hezekiah of Judah (8th century B.C.E.) There is a near-unanimous consensus among biblical scholars that the Book of Isaiah as we know it is not the work of a single human author. Rather, it is divided into three major units: proto-Isaiah (chs. 1-39), deutero-Isaiah (chs. 40-55), and trito-Isaiah (chs. 56-66). Proto-Isaiah is regarded as the earliest unit. Notably, it is the only unit in which Isaiah is personally mentioned. Much of its material goes back to the 8th century (pre-exilic period) and can plausibly be attributed to the historical prophet Isaiah himself. Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55) is usually dated to the exilic period (i.e. during Babylonian captivity). For instance, it is contemporaneous with Cyrus, king of Persia (Isa. 44:28; 45:1), who, according to the Book of Ezra, authorised the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Trito-Isaiah (chapters 56-66) are usually dated to the post-exilic period and regarded as a collection of several originally independent oracles.

In the first century C.E., the Book of Isaiah was circulating in its current canonical form as one book. All three sections within Isaiah were influential on early Christianity, but especially deutero-Isaiah. For example, all four canonical Gospels quote from the opening oracle of deutero-Isaiah (Isa. 40:3) to explain the mission or self-understanding of John the Baptist (Matt. 3:1-3; Mark 1:2-5; Luke 3:2-6; John 1:23). Moreover, deutero-Isaiah contains four 'Servant Songs' featuring a mysterious figure called YHWH's Servant (Isa. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; 52:13-53:12). Rabbinic Judaism has traditionally understood the Servant as Israel corporately, while Christianity has traditionally understood the Servant as the Messiah, Christ (which, however, is not incompatible with a corporate reading if one regards the Messiah as Israel personified). All four Servant Songs are quoted or alluded to in the New Testament as fulfilled by Jesus, but above all the fourth one (Isa. 52:13-53:12), which became a key text for early Christian understanding of Jesus' death. The difficulty of interpreting the Servant's identity is acknowledged in Acts 8, where the Ethiopian eunuch puzzles over it until guided by the Spirit-prompted Philip.

A Greek version of the Book of Isaiah had been available since around the third century B.C.E. as part of the Septuagint (LXX). This Greek translation of the Hebrew text is in some places "slavishly literal" and in others very free.1 A modern English translation of Isaiah LXX is freely available online.2 Outside of Judaea and Galilee, most early Christian churches (and many synagogues) would have used the Septuagint version of Isaiah (and the rest of the Jewish Scriptures) in public worship, since many diaspora Jews and nearly all Gentiles did not understand Hebrew. The Septuagint was thus, in a sense, the Bible of the early Church. It is for the same reason that all of the New Testament books were written in Greek, and that the authors usually (though not always) follow the Septuagint in scriptural quotations.

The Gospel of John

The fourth canonical Gospel is traditionally attributed to the Apostle John, son of Zebedee. This attribution is not made within the text itself, and is not followed by most contemporary biblical scholars. However, the Gospel does claim to reflect eyewitness testimony from the anonymous 'disciple whom Jesus loved' (John 19:26-35; 21:20-24). John is usually dated near the end of the first century C.E. Its content is very different from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and it contains numerous long discourses and dialogues. This, combined with its presumed late date, has sometimes led scholars to conclude that its narrative is largely unhistorical. However, this view has undergone a reappraisal in recent decades. For instance, the Gospel reflects intimate knowledge of the geography of the land (particularly of Jerusalem), of the Jewish liturgical calendar and customs and of the priestly leadership and Sanhedrin.3 Thus, a good case can be made, broadly speaking, for the historical reliability of this Gospel. The Gospel contains evidence of different stages and layers of composition. For instance, many scholars believe that the Gospel evolved from, or used as a source, a 'signs gospel' that narrated wonders worked by Jesus. Much of the distinctive theology of John is conveyed by its Prologue (1:1-18) and by the numerous long discourses and dialogues in which Jesus engaged. The Christology of John is generally regarded as 'higher' than that of the Synoptic Gospels, in that Christ is explicitly confessed as 'God' (John 1:1, 18; 20:28) and described as having pre-existed in heaven with God (e.g., John 1:15, 30; 3:13; 6:62; 8:42; 13:3).4 Jesus' teachings are often very rich and nuanced and are described as 'figures' or 'veiled sayings' (paroimia, John 10:6; 16:25) but never 'parables' (parabolē) as in the Synoptic Gospels.

The Gospel of John is known for employing subtle meanings that may be multi-layered and that are often missed by characters in the narrative. Some of these instances that are explicitly identified in the text can be found in John 2:19-21 ('destroy this temple'), 3:3 ('born again'), 4:31-34 ('I have food to eat'), 7:33-35 and 8:21-22 ('where I am going you cannot come'), 11:11-14 ('Lazarus has fallen asleep'), and 12:32-34 ('the Son of Man must be lifted up'). Instances of double meanings that are probably intentional include katalambanō in 1:5 (understand/overcome), anōthen in 3:3 (again/from above), pneuma in 3:8 (wind/Spirit), anabainō in 7:8 (go up/ascend), hupsoō in 3:14, 8:28, 12:32 (lift up [i.e. crucify]/exalt), seeing and blindness in John 9 (physical/spiritual), cleanness in John 13:10-11 (physical/spiritual), huper in 11:50 (die 'instead of' the people/die 'on behalf of' the people), teleō in 19:30 (Jesus dies/his work is complete). We will explore a couple more such double meanings in the course of this study; in particular, a double meaning pertaining to the expression egō eimi (literally 'I am,' but with the ordinary sense of self-identification, as in 'I am he' or 'it is I').

The Use of Isaiah in John

The Gospel of John has been strongly influenced by Isaiah, particularly in its Christology, and especially by deutero-Isaiah (chs. 40-55). In studying this influence we will focus mainly on the Septuagint version of Isaiah, for two reasons. The first reason is convenience, because we will then be working with two Greek texts, making parallels easier to identify (and, admittedly, this author is better trained in Greek than in Hebrew). The second reason is historical, and more legitimate: most of John's earliest readers would have known Isaiah only in Greek, and the author himself follows the Septuagint in most of his scriptural quotations.5 That John's immediate audience consisted of Greek speakers who were not fluent in Hebrew is evident from (i) his having written his Gospel in Greek, and (ii) his having provided Greek translations of numerous Semitic terms that he uses (e.g., 'Rabbi', 1:38; 'Messiah', 1:41; 'Cephas', 1:42; 'Siloam', 9:7; 'Gabbatha', 19:13; 'Golgotha', 19:17; 'Rabboni', 20:16). However, although there are exceptions, the Isaiah LXX texts we will be looking at generally follow the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) fairly closely, so the study's findings probably would not be much different if we made the MT our point of reference.

Points of contact between John and Isaiah can be placed in three broad categories: explicit quotations, allusions (specific literary dependencies that do not involve an explicit quotation), and thematic parallels. There are four explicit quotations from Isaiah in John, three of which come from deutero-Isaiah. These together already make it fairly clear that John identifies the oracles of deutero-Isaiah, including the Servant figure, as fulfilled in the life of Jesus. Indeed, the quotations from Isaiah in John 1:23 and 12:38-41 are like bookends to John's narrative of the public ministry of Jesus (the book of signs).6 Furthermore, John's high Christology is implicit already in his editorial comment on the quotation from Isaiah 6:9-10. He writes that Isaiah said this because he saw 'his glory,' that is, Christ's (for the same expression, see John 1:14; 2:11). However, Isaiah 6 describes a vision of YHWH sitting upon a throne; the 'him' whose glory Isaiah sees is YHWH (or, in the LXX, kurios sabaoth). Thus, John has interpreted Christ as the one called YHWH whom Isaiah saw in his vision!

Isaiah Ref. John Ref. Quotation (following John NABRE)
40:3 1:23 22 So they said to [John the Baptist], “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?” 23 He said: “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert, “Make straight the way of the Lord,”’ as Isaiah the prophet said.”
54:13 6:45 43 Jesus answered and said to them, “Stop murmuring among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets: ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.
53:1; 6:9-10 12:38; 12:40 37 Although he had performed so many signs in their presence they did not believe in him, 38 in order that the word which Isaiah the prophet spoke might be fulfilled: “Lord, who has believed our preaching, to whom has the might of the Lord been revealed?” 39 For this reason they could not believe, because again Isaiah said: 40 “He blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not see with their eyes and understand with their heart and be converted, and I would heal them.” 41 Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him.

John's allusions to Isaiah are too many, and too nuanced, to discuss here, but we will be exploring some of them in the articles to follow. We will conclude this article by briefly mentioning some of the thematic echoes of Isaiah in John, in order to show from the outset that the influence of Isaiah—especially deutero-Isaiah—on John is far more pervasive than just four explicit quotations. Firstly, a dominant theme of deutero-Isaiah is the notion of New Exodus. This text was written during the exile, which must have evoked ancient Israel's slavery in Egypt. Accordingly, the oracles repeatedly refer to YHWH as Israel's redeemer, deliverer, and saviour, remind Israel of YHWH's past deliverance from Egypt, and promise a future redemption which includes redemption from Israel's sins (Isa. 44:22-24). John's Gospel echoes this theme of New Exodus, with Jesus depicted as a new and greater Moses (John 1:17; 3:14; 5:46; 6:32-34) who liberates his people from enslavement to sin (8:31-36). Besides this, many of the images and concepts that appear prominently in John's Gospel echo images and concepts used in Isaiah. These include, inter alia, light and darkness; sight and blindness; truth, testimony, and judgment; glorification and exaltation; (eternal) salvation/life; the coming of God's word; vine and wine imagery; shepherd and flock imagery; and water and thirst imagery (along with rivers/wells/fountains). Clearly, the Gospel of John occupies a thought-world that draws heavily on the Book of Isaiah.

In the next article, I hope to look at what I believe are some fascinating allusions to Isaiah in John, with special attention to the influence of deutero-Isaiah on the words of Jesus in John 8:12-30. Then, in a third article, I hope to look more closely at the expression egō eimi ('I am') in the Gospel of John, and how it bears a double meaning shaped by the use of the same expression in deutero-Isaiah LXX.

  • 1 Moisés Silva, 'Esaias', in A New English Translation of the Septuagint (ed. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 823-24.
  • 2 Since ordinary English Bible translations follow the Hebrew Masoretic Text, apart from rare instances where textual criticism has identified the LXX reading as more likely reflecting the original Hebrew, comparing the New English Translation of the Septuagint with an ordinary English Bible can be a useful way for the amateur Bible student to identify where the meaning of the Greek diverges from the Hebrew.
  • 3 The reference to 'another disciple,' presumably the 'disciple whom Jesus loved' (cf. John 20:2) who was known to the high priest (John 18:15) helps to explain the latter.
  • 4 The Gospel holds Christ's deity in tension with his distinctness from God (John 1:1; 17:3; 20:17), just as it holds his equality with God (5:18; 10:30) in tension with the Father's being greater than he (14:28) and his dependence on the Father (5:19, 30).
  • 5 Andreas Köstenberger provides the following helpful summary of John's use of Isaiah: 'John seems to exhibit a pattern of closeness to the OT text in the Hebrew and as reflected in the LXX. John's default version seems to have been the LXX, but in no way does he use it slavishly, and throughout he exhibits a highly intelligent and discerning mode of OT usage. In four passages his Greek is identical to the LXX wording (10:34; 12:13, 38; 19:24). In several other passages John likely adapts the LXX rendering by making minor changes to suit his context (1:23; 2:17; 6:31, 45; 15:25; 19:36). In four cases John seems to be independent of the LXX (12:15, 40; 13:18; 19:37), whereby 12:15, 40 represent independent adaptations of the relevant texts, 13:18 may feature John's own translation from the Hebrew; 19:37 may draw on a Christian testimonium (in this final case the LXX is unsuitable because it misconstrues the Hebrew). It therefore appears that John was familiar with both the Hebrew text and the LXX (as well as with Jesus' own use and earlier Christian quotation practices) and thus was able to cite the Scriptures either in the exact or slightly adapted LXX version or to draw on the Hebrew where this suited his purposes of seemed necessary for some reason or another. Finally, in keeping with Jewish exegetical practice [e.g., gezerah shavah], John at times clusters two OT texts (12:13, 15; 12:38, 40; 19:36, 37) or combines interrelated texts (e.g., Zech. 9:9; Isa. 40:9; Gen. 49:11 LXX in 12:15; Exod. 12:46/Num. 9:12; Ps. 34:20 in 19:36; see also 7:38).('Isaiah', in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament [ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 417-18).
  • 6 This literary technique is referred to by scholars as an inclusio. For a recent and detailed account of the function of these quotations from Isaiah within John's Gospel, see Michael A. Daise, Quotations in John: Studies on Jewish Scripture in the Fourth Gospel (London: Bloomsbury, 2020). Daise argues that the quotation of Isa. 40:3 in John 1:23 functions as a call to faith while the quotations of Isa. 53:1 and 6:9-10 in 12:38-41 offer an explanation of the rejection of Jesus' message by many of the Jews.

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