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Sunday, 24 July 2022

Reading Isaiah like an Early Christian (7): "Who can describe his generation?" (Isaiah 53:8)

In this seventh installment of our series on Reading Isaiah like an Early Christian, we delve into what was perhaps the most famous celebrated Isaianic passage of all among early Christians: the Song of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).1 The words of this oracle—much like those of Isaiah 9:5-6 ("Unto us a child is born...")—are assumed by most Christians to be a messianic prophecy. Well, they do not just assume this; they read it in the New Testament. Most famously, in Acts 8:26-35, an Ethiopian eunuch is at a loss to identify the Suffering Servant until Philip explains to him about Jesus. However, at a grammatical-historical level it is by no means obvious that deutero-Isaiah, the author who wrote these words around the time of Cyrus, had a future Messiah in mind. As Rosenberg writes,
Jewish exegesis sees the Servant most frequently as the Jewish people, or its pious remnant, while conservative Christian exegesis insists that he is the Messiah. Modern scholars have attempted to identify the Servant with Jehoiachin or Zerubbabel, with Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Deuter-Isaiah himself, or with the 'prophet' class as a whole. None of these suggestions is completely satisfactory.2
Thus, we must reiterate a point made in the first article in this series: if we identify as Christians and affirm the authority of the New Testament, we cannot confine our interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament) to the literal, grammatical-historical meaning, because the New Testament writers did not do so. If we seek to read Isaiah like an early Christian, we must also examine the Jewish Scriptures mystically through the lens of the Christ-event. This will enable us to find buried treasure: veiled references to Christ and his redemptive work.  To take the Song of the Suffering Servant as an example, the Gospel of John has understood the Servant's "lifting up" (52:13) as referring to the manner of Jesus' death (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32-34). Paul has understood the rhetorical questions in 53:1 as foretelling that many would reject the gospel (Romans 10:16). Matthew has understood "carried (away) our diseases" (53:4) as foretelling Jesus' healing ministry (Matt. 8:17). Peter has understood "he committed no sin" (53:9) as foretelling Jesus' sinlessness (1 Pet. 2:22-23) and "he was wounded for our transgressions" (53:5) as foretelling the atoning power of his death (1 Pet. 2:24). And so on.

Our interest in this article lies in a single clause of Isaiah 53:8. In the MT, it reads, weʾęṯ-dôrô mîy yeśôḥēḥ. Depending how one interprets the noun dôr (period; age; generation [of time or of people]; dwelling-place) and the verb śîâḥ (complain; muse; talk about; meditate; consider) here,3 numerous renderings of the Hebrew are possible: "Who could have imagined his future?" (NRSV); "Who could describe his abode?" (JPS); "Yet who of his generation protested?" (NIV); "And as for his generation, who considered...?" (NASB); "And who could even think about his descendants?" (ISV); "and who shall declare his generation?" (KJV).

The Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation disambiguates the Hebrew, rendering dôr with genea (generation [of time; of people]; race; family history) and śîâḥ with diēgeomai (tell; relate; describe);4. thus, tēn genean autou tis diēgēsetai;5 "Who will describe his generation?" (NETS)6 This rhetorical question is perhaps most naturally read as a futuristic lament, akin to, "Who will [be left to] relate his family history?" However, this is not the interpretation of Isaiah 53:8 LXX that gained currency in the early church. A future indicative verb in ancient Greek can bear a deliberative rhetorical function more commonly associated with the subjunctive,7 and thus tēn genean autou tis diēgēsetai could be read as, "Who can describe his generation?"

Compare the following instances where the italicised future indicative verb has a deliberative sense, closer to "can" than "will":

      The heart is deep above all else, 
         and so is man, 
         and who [shall? can?] understand him? (Jeremiah 17:9 NETS)

      Sand of seas and drops of rain 
         and days of eternity—who [shall? can?] enumerate? (Sirach 1:2 NETS)

      For who [shall? can?] say, “What have you done?” 
         Or who [shall? can?] withstand your judgment? (Wisdom 12:12 NETS)

BDAG lexicon notes that genea is "a term relating to the product of the act of generating and with special reference to kinship, frequently used of familial connections and ancestry".8 Indeed, the word has a close etymological relationship to gennaō (beget; give birth to). This rhetorical question was therefore ripe for interpretation in line with early Christian beliefs about Jesus' supernatural origin, akin to "Who can describe his lineage/origin?"

This rhetorical question is quoted once in the New Testament, in Acts 8:32-33, where the narrator quotes Isaiah 53:7-8 LXX to explain which passage of Isaiah the Ethiopian eunuch was reading (presumably in Greek). However, while it is obvious from Philip's response that he (and the author of Acts) understand the prophet to be speaking about Jesus, no specific interpretation of the rhetorical question is provided. While numerous NT writers (some cited above) understand the Song of the Suffering Servant messianically, unfortunately no divinely inspired interpretation of the rhetorical question in Isaiah 53:8b is preserved. All is not lost, however, since a number of early patristic writers have left their interpretations on record.

The earliest clear reference—after Acts 8:33—to our rhetorical question in extant early Christian literature is found in Justin Martyr's first Apology, written in the mid-second century.9 The apologist declares,
And in order that the prophetic Spirit might make known to us that the one who suffers these things has an ancestry that cannot be described and reigns over his enemies, it spoke thus: ‘Who shall describe his descent? Because his life is removed from the earth, he has come to death from their crimes. (1 Apology 51.1)10
In his later work, the Dialogue with Trypho, Justin refers to our text no less than five times. It refers to the "mystery of the birth of Christ," which is "inexpressible" (Dialogue 43.3; cf. 89.3); showing that he "did not have mere human origin" (63.2); "that he is not of human generation" (68.4); "that his origin is indescribable, and no mere man has such an origin" (76.2).11 Thus, for Justin, Isaiah 53:8b refers to the virgin birth, but also to Christ having an indescribable "ancestry" (Greek: genos) and being divine ("no mere man").

In his Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, Irenaeus writes:
Then he says: Who shall declare His generation? Lest we despise Him as a man insignificant and of little account, because of His foes and because of the pains of His sufferings, this was said to put us right; for He who underwent all these things has a generation that cannot be declared, for ‘generation’ means His lineage, and that is, His Father is beyond declaration and expression. Recognise, therefore, even this as the lineage of Him who underwent all these sufferings, and despite Him not for the sufferings which He deliberately underwent for thy sake; but fear Him for His lineage. (Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 70)12 
Irenaeus has, like Justin, understood genea in the sense "ancestry" or "lineage," which is indescribable because Christ was begotten by God himself.

The Acts of Peter is an apocryphal acts that focuses primarily on a wonder-working contest between Peter and the heretic Simon Magus. The composition of the text is usually dated to the late second century, although it survives only in a Latin version of the fourth century, whose faithfulness to the lost Greek original is a subject of some debate.13

In an exchange in the Acts concerning the deity of Christ, Simon Magus asks, "Men of Rome, is a God born? Is he crucified? Whoever has a master is no God." Peter responds, "Cursed be your words against Christ. You spoke in these terms whereas the prophet says of him, 'Who shall declare his generation?'" (Acts of Peter 23-24)14 Evidently, this work understands Isaiah 53:8 as attesting to the ineffability of Christ's origin, and thus as refuting Simon Magus' challenge, "Is a God born?"

Tertullian, writing around the beginning of the third century, interprets our text in a slightly more mundane way, as referring to people's inability to recognise Christ in his human condition, rather than to the incomprehensibility per se of his origin:
Then those who pierced him will know who he is, and will smite their breasts, tribe to tribe—because in fact they formerly failed to recognize him in the humility of human condition: ‘And he is a man,’ says Jeremiah, ‘and who shall know him?’ Because also, Isaiah says, ‘His nativity, who shall tell of it?’ (Tertullian, Against Marcion 3.7.6)15

Eusebius, in his work Proof of the Gospel, written a decade or less before the Council of Nicaea of 325 (which he attended), anticipates its language about Christ in his interpretation of Isaiah 53:8, which he understands to be about "the ineffable generation" of the Son (Proof of the Gospel 4.15.53).16 Indeed, this is a very important biblical passage for Eusebius:
I am accustomed to quote in every question that is debated about His Godhead, that reverent saying: 'Who shall declare his generation?' (Proof of the Gospel 4.15.53)17
The following excerpt captures his understanding of the verse, which is indebted to Origen's ideas on the eternal generation of the Son:
the scope of the theology we are considering far transcends all illustrations, and is not connected with anything physical, but imagines with the acutest thought a Son Begotten, not at one time non-existent and existent at another afterwards, but existent before eternal time, and pre-existent, and ever with the Father as His Son, and yet not Unbegotten, but begotten from the Father Unbegotten, being the Only begotten, the Word, and God of God, Who teaches that He was not cast forth from the being of the Father by separation, or scission, or division, but unspeakably and unthinkably to us brought into being from all time, nay rather before all times, by the Father's transcendent and inconceivable Will and Power. 'For who shall describe his generation?' he says, and 'As no one knoweth the Father save the Son, so no one knoweth the Son save the Father that begat Him. (Proof of the Gospel 4.3.13)18

Although the Song of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) was being interpreted Christologically already in the earliest decades of the Christian movement, no canonical interpretation of Isaiah 53:8 LXX ("Who will/can describe his generation?") is preserved in the New Testament. Patristic testimony from the ante-Nicene period suggests that there was an established tradition of reading this question as pointing to the indescribable mystery of Christ's origin.  

  • 1 The full passage reads thus in the NRSV: "13 See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up and shall be very high. 14 Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals—15 so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him, for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate. 53:1 Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2 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, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity, and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. 4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases, yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. 9 They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with affliction. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. 11 Out of his anguish he shall see; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out himself to death and was numbered with the transgressors, yet he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors."
  • 2 Roy A. Rosenberg, "Jesus, Isaac, and the 'Suffering Servant,' Journal of Biblical Literature 84 (1965): 381.
  • 3 BDB 189-90, 967.
  • 4 BDAG 191-92, 245.
  • 5 Joseph Ziegler (ed.), Septuaginta (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983), 14:320.
  • 6 Trans. Moisés Silva, "Esaias," in New English Translation of the Septuagint, ed. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 866.
  • 7 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 465.
  • 8 BDAG 191.
  • 9 There may be an earlier, albeit oblique, allusion to Isaiah 53:8b in the Odes of Solomon, a proto-Gnostic 'hymnbook' usually dated to the early second century. Of the Word of truth, the twelfth Ode says, "And he never falls, but stands firm. And not known (is) his descent nor his way." (Odes 12.6, trans. Franzmann 101). However, while this text may witness to a mystical interpretation of Isaiah 53:8b, the Word in the Odes is an abstract hypostasis not readily identifiable with the person of Christ.
  • 10 Trans. Denis Minns and Paul Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr: Apologies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 209.
  • 11 St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, ed. Michael Slusser, trans. Thomas B. Falls, rev. Thomas P. Halton (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 118.
  • 12 Trans. Joseph P. Smith, S.J., St. Irenaeus: Proof of the Apostlic Preaching (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1952), 93. Irenaeus also quotes our text in his better-known work (cf. Against Heresies 2.28.5). Here, he uses it against Gnostics who claim to delineate in crudely exact terms the manner of the Word's generation by the Father.
  • 13 Callie Callon, "Acts of Peter," in Oxford Bibliographies in Biblical Studies (2021). doi: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0285
  • 14 Trans. J. K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 527-28.
  • 15 Trans. Ernest Evans, Tertullian: Adversus Marcionem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 189.
  • 16 Trans. W. J. Ferrar, The Proof of the Gospel, Being the Demonstratio Evangelica of Eusebius of Caesarea (2 vols.; London: SPCK, 1920), 1:201.
  • 17 Trans. Ferrar, Proof of the Gospel, 1:201.
  • 18 Trans. Ferrar, Proof of the Gospel, 1:168. See also Proof of the Gospel 5.1.14-25.