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Showing posts with label Origen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Origen. Show all posts

Saturday, 4 June 2022

Reading Isaiah like an Early Christian (5): "I too am a witness...and the Child whom I have chosen" (Isaiah 43:10)

As we continue our series looking at Christological interpretation of Isaiah in the early Church, we move back into the part of the book (chs. 40-55) known to biblical scholars as Second Isaiah, which mentions Cyrus by name and was therefore written long after the death of the eighth-century prophet Isaiah.1 The passage that concerns us here is part of a speech addressed by Yahweh to Israel (Isaiah 43:1-13).
10 You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. 11 I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior. 12 I am the one who declared and saved and proclaimed, not some strange god among you; you are my witnesses, says the Lord, and I am God. 13 Indeed, since that day I am he; there is no one who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can hinder it? (Isaiah 43:10-13 NRSV)
The translation above from the Masoretic Text (MT) conveys one of the Hebrew Bible's most emphatic biblical declarations of God's unique divinity vis-à-vis all other reality. The addressees, Israel, are named as God's witnesses to his divine identity and saving acts. However, in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures that was predominantly the Bible of the early Church, things take a different turn:
10 Be my witnesses; I too am a witness, says the Lord God, and the servant whom I have chosen so that you may know and believe and understand that I am. Before me there was no other god, nor shall there be any after me. 11 I am God, and besides me there is none who saves. I declared and saved; I reproached, and there was no stranger among you. 12 You are my witnesses; I too am a witness, says the Lord God. 13 Even from the beginning there is also no one who rescues from my hands; I will do it, and who will turn it back? (Isaiah 43:10-13 NETS)2
Notice that, unlike in the MT, in the LXX God declares himself to be a witness in vv. 10, 12. The change from "You are my witnesses...and the servant whom I have chosen" to "I too am a witness... and the servant whom I have chosen" introduces ambiguity over who this "servant" is. And this only adds one more to a series of references to an ambiguous "servant" in Second Isaiah.

References to Yahweh's "servant" (Heb. עבד, ʿęḇęḏ) abound in Second Isaiah. Over the past two centuries, biblical scholars have noted four passages that single out an anonymous individual "servant" who is celebrated for his sacrificial life that brings redemption to others.3 Scholars distinguish these four "Servant Songs" (Isa. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12) from other Second Isaiah references to God's servant—including Isaiah 43:10 MT.4 While the latter seem obviously to refer to Israel/Jacob corporately, scholars have reached many different conclusions about the identity of the servant of the Servant Songs. It has even been called an "insoluble" problem.5

Christian interpreters of Isaiah, have, from the earliest times, interpreted most of the references to a singular "servant" in Isaiah—both inside and outside of the Servant Songs—to refer to Christ. Matthew 12:15-21, for instance, quotes the first Servant Song (Isaiah 42:1-4) and applies it to Jesus.6 And the fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) is a key text that the NT writers use to understand the significance of Jesus' death.

An interesting feature of Second Isaiah LXX is that it consistently renders references to the ʿęḇęḏ into Greek as pais. This word has a broad semantic range that includes the meaning "servant" but also "child," either with a focus on prepubescent age or on the person's status as someone's offspring (hence "son"/"daughter").7 The LXX translator obviously intended pais to mean "servant," corresponding to ʿęḇęḏ, but once Christian interpreters had applied the word to Christ, whom they understood to be God's Son, the sense "child" or "son" would have come into mind. Indeed, this move would have been aided by the Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 9:5 LXX—the text discussed in my previous article—where "child" translates paidion, a diminutive of pais that always means "child," not "servant."8 Where the Book of Acts refers to Jesus as God's pais (3:13; 3:26; 4:27; 4:30), with obvious dependence on Second Isaiah, it is not clear whether the sense "servant" or "child/son" is in view; English translations differ. However, given that David is also called God's pais in 4:25, "servant" is more likely.9 The qualification "whom I have chosen" (hon exelexamēn) might seem incongruous with "son," since one does not choose one's "son" except with adoption. However, in Luke's Transfiguration account, the heavenly voice declares Jesus to be "my chosen Son" (ho huios mou ho eklelegmenos), and Luke clearly does not regard Jesus as God's adopted son.10

The statement ʾanî hûʾ ("I [am] he"), which occurs in vv. 10, 13 MT (along with a few other passages, mostly in Isaiah),11 is a succinct declaration of Yahweh's absolute deity that is typically translated in the LXX as egō eimi, "I am [he]". Such is the case here, in 43:10 LXX.12 The absolute declaration ἐγώ εἰμι is famously used seven times by Jesus in the Gospel of John, and New Testament scholars widely agree that it is intended to echo God's use of egō eimi in Isaiah LXX.13 But one can go further and argue that two of Jesus' egō eimi sayings in John are specifically intended to echo Isaiah 43:10. I have written about this literary dependency in greater detail elsewhere;14 for our purposes here, it suffices to point out the close parallel between the following:
so that you may know and believe and understand that I am he (hina gnōste kai pisteusēte kai sunēte hoti egō eimi, Isaiah 43:10 LXX)


...for unless you believe that I am he (ean gar mē piseusēte hoti egō eimi), you will die in your sins (John 8:24)

I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur you may believe that I am he. (hina pisteusēte hotan genētai hoti egō eimi) (John 13:19)
While we lack any quotation of Isaiah 43:10-13 in the New Testament, John's allusions to it in the egō eimi sayings of Jesus show that he wants us to identify Jesus with God. The mysterious wording of Isaiah 43:10 LXX facilitates this. The line before the hina-clause just quoted reads, kagō martus, legei kyrios ho theos, kai ho pais, hon exelexamēn. An early Christian reader would probably have read thus:
I also am a witness, says the Lord God, and [so is] the Son, whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe and understand that I am he.
The following rendering is, however, also syntactically possible:
I also am a witness, says the Lord God, and [I am] the Son, whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe and understand that I am he.15
We cannot know which of these two readings John followed, but since he places on Jesus' lips a saying formed from the last clause of this verse, it seems clear that he has understood the full statement as applicable to the Son and not only the Father. That is, it is not just that the Son joins the Father as a witness to the Father's deity, but that the Son joins the Father as a witness to their joint deity.

Of course, we cannot be certain of John's interpretation of Isaiah 43:10, since we only have his allusions to it. However, further evidence that this interpretation had currency in the early Church can be found in early patristic writings.

The Ascension of Isaiah is a Jewish Christian apocalypse that scholars regard as a two-part work, with chapters 6-11 dating from the late first century, and chapters 1-5 from the early second century16—roughly contemporaneous, that is, with the date range usually assigned to the Gospel of John. Ascension of Isaiah 4 foretells the coming of an Antichrist figure named Beliar and states the following about him:
And he will do whatever he wants in the world; he will do and speak like the Beloved, and he will say, 'I am the Lord, and there was no one before me.' And all the people in the world will believe in him. And they shall sacrifice to him and serve him, when they shall say: This is the Lord, and besides him there is no other. (Ascension of Isaiah 4.6-8).17
The Beloved is Ascension of Isaiah's usual term for Christ. Thus, the apocalypse describes Beliar as speaking like the Beloved, but the words that it attributes to Beliar (and then to his followers as they worship him) appear to be a paraphrase of Isaiah 43:10-11 LXX:18
I am the Lord, and there was no one before me... This is the Lord, and besides him there is no other (Ascension of Isaiah 4.6, 8) 
...I am he. Before me there was no other god, nor shall there be any after me. I am God, and besides me there is none who saves. (Isaiah 43:10-11 NETS)
It would appear to follow that, if Beliar "speaks like the Beloved" when he arrogates to himself the words of Isaiah 43:10-11, the Beloved rightfully speaks the words of Isaiah 43:10-11 about himself. Thus, it seems that the author of Ascension of Isaiah agrees with the Gospel of John—again, only implicitly through allusions—that God's declaration of his deity in Isaiah 43:10 also applies to Christ.

Irenaeus of Lyons quotes from Isaiah 43:10 in his famous five-volume work Against Heresies. In Book 3 he writes,
Therefore neither the Lord nor the Holy Spirit nor the apostles ever called God, in the proper sense of the word, anyone who was not the true God; neither have they called Lord, in an absolute way, anyone other than God the Father, who rules over all things, and his Son, who has received from his Father sovereignty over all creation. (Adv. Haer. 3.6.1)19
Having quoted several OT passages to substantiate this, he continues:
So no one else, as I have just said, is called God or Lord, except He who is God and Lord of all things—he who said to Moses, 'I am who I am', and: 'Thus shall you speak to the children of Israel: He who is has sent me to you'—and his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who makes children of God those who believe in his name. It is still the same when the Son said to Moses: 'I came down to deliver this people.' It is indeed he, in fact, who descended and ascended for the salvation of men. So then, through the Son, who is in the Father and has the Father in him, the God "who is" manifested himself, the Father bearing witness to the Son and the Son announcing the Father, according to what Isaiah also says: 'I am a witness, says the Lord God, as well as the Child20 whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe and understand that I am.' (Adv. Haer. 3.6.2)
Irenaeus quotes from Isaiah 43:10 again in 4.5.1 and 4.20.8, but these passages add little to what is already evident from the above about how he understood the text. For Irenaeus, Isaiah 43:10 is a proof text about the absolutely unique deity of the Father and the Son.

This great third-century theologian refers to our text in four separate passages, of which we will discuss three.21 In his Commentary on John, as well as in his Exhortation to Martyrdom, Origen interprets Isaiah 43:10 to mean that the Father is a witness, and so is the Son:
For we have noticed that God confesses that he is a witness, and declares the same thing about the Christ, exhorting all to become imitators of himself and the Christ, insofar as they witness to the things to which it is necessary to witness. For he says, ‘Become my witnesses; I, too, am a witness, says the Lord God, and the servant22 whom I choose.’ (Commentary on John 2.209)23 
And in Isaiah the One who exhorts us to martyrdom joins in bearing witness to this with His Son. The passage reads, ‘You are my witnesses, and I am a witness, says the Lord God, and the Son whom I have chosen’. (Exhortation to Martyrdom 34)24 
Origen quotes the passage in a more technical theological context in the Dialogue with Heraclides, which requires some background. This text was only discovered in 1941 and "consists of the minutes of a discussion held at a synod of bishops summoned to discuss the opinions of a certain Bishop Heraclides whose orthodoxy has been called in question".25 After Bishop Heraclides opens with a credal statement, Origen begins his "cross-examination, which is designed to elicit from Heraclides a confession of the pre-existence and independent existence of the Son."26 The crux of it is thus:
Origen: Is the Father God?
Heraclides: Assuredly.
Origen: Is the Son distinct from the Father?
Heraclides: Of course. How can he be Son if he is also Father?
Origen: While being distinct from the Father is the Son himself also God? Heraclides: He himself is also God.
Origen: And do two Gods become a unity?
Heraclides: Yes.
Origen: Do we confess two Gods?
Heraclides: Yes. The power is one.
Origen: But as our brethren take offence at the statement that there are two Gods, we must formulate the doctrine carefully, and show in what sense they are two and in what sense the two are one God. Also the holy Scriptures have taught that several things which are two are one… 
Origen goes on to discuss Genesis 2:24, which says that a man and his wife become one flesh, and 1 Corinthians 6:17, which says that "anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him." He continues:
The appropriate word when human beings are joined to one another is flesh. The appropriate word when a righteous man is joined to Christ is spirit. But the word when Christ is united to the Father is not flesh, nor spirit, but more honourable than these—God. That is why we understand in this sense ‘I and the Father are one.’
After condemning those who abolish the distinction between Father and Son and those who deny the deity of Christ, Origen asks:
What then do the divine Scriptures mean when they say: ‘Beside me there is no other God, and there shall be none after me,’ and ‘I am and there is no God but me’? In these utterances we are not to think that the unity applies to the God of the universe… in separation from Christ, and certainly not to Christ in separation from God. Let us rather say that the sense is the same as that of Jesus’ saying, ‘I and my Father are one.’ (Origen, Dialogue with Heraclides 4)27
The passages quoted are Isaiah 43:10 and Deuteronomy 32:39. Origen anticipates an objection to the binitarian theology he has just outlined, namely that if these scriptural texts apply only to the Father, the Son is excluded from being God. Hence, Origen argues that these statements are made by the Father and the Son as a unity. Had Origen elaborated on this interpretation, he probably would have noted—as he did in his other writings—that both the Father and his pais are named as witnesses in the former text.28

Eusebius' work Eclogae Propheticae ("Prophetic Extracts"), written in the early fourth century (before the Council of Nicaea) has not been translated into English. It makes a passing reference to our text, and my attempt at a translation is as follows:
‘Be my witnesses, I too am a witness, says the Lord God, and the child29 whom I have chosen.’ And who might be the child whom the Lord God has chosen, whom also he reckons with himself that he will be a witness with him when they testify, or the one about whom also it had earlier been said, ‘Jacob is my child, I will lay hold of him’ [cf. Isa. 42:1], and the rest? Which things have clearly been prophesied about our Saviour and Lord Jesus. (Eclogae Propheticae 4.21)30
Eusebius does not comment on the Christological significance of the text here, merely echoing the widely held Christian viewpoint that the pais in this passage (and others in Second Isaiah) is Christ. Later, in his Commentary on Isaiah, he offers a more detailed comment, showing that he understands the Lord God to be identifying himself with his divine Servant (as per the second rendering suggested in section 2 above).
Let the witnesses of these events come, and let those who have testified be justified, since even I God will be their witness, and the servant whom I have chosen, concerning whom he said above: 'Behold, my servant whom I have appointed, my chosen one, my soul receives him favorably'. Therefore, God himself is even this servant, my chosen one, as the Savior made clear in the Gospels when he said: 'Whoever acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge him before my Father who is in heaven.' I will serve as a witness for my witnesses, so that you may know and believe and understand that I am. Before me there was no other god, nor shall there be after me... For if one is from the beginning, this one must be divine, as the theology concerning his one and only Son counsels. Continuing on with delivering his instruction, the Word says: I am God, and besides me there is none who saves. And he affirmed this when he proclaimed above: Even I, the Lord God, am the servant whom I have chosen, and so he does not fail to connect the present passage with the theological discussion above concerning the servant, whom he has chosen. I am God, and besides me there is none who saves, and I am the servant whom I have chosen. For he said that he was a witness, and the servant whom he has chosen, and so we conclude that this God who saves is also the servant, whom he has chosen. And although the text says: Besides me there is none who saves, it is not denying that the servant whom he has chosen is indeed a Savior. (Commentary on Isaiah 278-79)31
Although Eusebius is often said to have had Arian sympathies, his Christological reading of Isaiah 43:10 is actually bolder than those of Irenaeus and Origen, in that he has the Lord God saying, "I...am the pais whom I have chosen."

We have seen that the Septuagint Greek translation of Isaiah 43:10 introduced ambiguity into the identity of the Hebrew's text's "servant" (ʿęḇęḏ) in two ways. First, it changed the subject from second-person to first-person, so that God says "Be my witnesses. I too am a witness," rather than "You are my witnesses," which leaves the ensuing "and the servant whom I have chosen" unidentified. Second, it translated ʿęḇęḏ with the Greek word pais, which can mean "servant" but also "child" or "son." This—in the context of the wider Christological interpretation of the Servant in Isaiah 40-55—enabled early Christian exegetes to read Isaiah 43:10 as a statement about the Father and the Son:
I too am a witness, says the Lord God, and the Son whom I have chosen so that you may know and believe and understand that I am he. Before me there was no other god, nor shall there be any after me. I am God, and besides me there is none who saves.
Significantly, early Christian exegetes understood both witnesses, Father and Son, to be testifying in their own person "that I am he. Before me there was no other god," etc. This exegetical move is evident already in the late first and early second century in the Gospel of John and the Ascension of Isaiah, and continues in the second- and third-century Fathers Irenaeus of Lyons and Origen of Alexandria.
  • 1 See Isaiah 44:28, 45:1, 13.
  • 2 Moisés Silva, "Isaiah," in Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (eds.), A New English Translation of the Septuagint (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 857.
  • 3 James M. Ward, "The Servant Songs in Isaiah," Review & Expositor 65 (1968): 433-446.
  • 4 See also Isaiah 41:8, 9; 42:19; 44:1, 2, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 50:10.
  • 5 Leland Edward Wilshire, "The Servant-City: A New Interpretation of the 'Servant of the Lord' in the Servant Songs of Deutero-Isaiah," Journal of Biblical Literature 94 (1975): 356.
  • 6 Interestingly, Matthew translates the Hebrew text, whereas the Septuagint actually disambiguates the "servant" of the first Servant Song by identifying him as Jacob and Israel: "Iakob is my servant...Israel is my chosen" (Isa. 42:1 NETS). This would still not have stopped early Christian interpreters from identifying the servant with Christ, however, since Christ was regarded as the true Israel (cf. the interpretation of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:14).
  • 7 See BDAG 750
  • 8 See BDAG 749. A diminutive is a suffix added to a word to show affection or emphasise smallness; for instance, "piglet" is a diminutive of "pig."
  • 9 The same is true in Didache 9.2-3, 10.2-3, where both David and Jesus are called God's παῖς. Cf. also 1 Clement 59.2-4; Diognetus 8.9-9.1; Martyrdom of Polycarp 14.1-3; 20.2. In the latter, παῖς almost certainly means "son": "God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed [παῖς] Jesus Christ"; "bring us all...into his heavenly kingdom through his only-begotten [pais], Jesus Christ".
  • 10 See Luke 1:35, for instance, which interprets the virgin birth as a proof (though not necessarily the cause) of Jesus' divine Sonship.
  • 11 See, e.g., Deut. 32:39, Isa. 41:4; 43:25; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12; 52:6.
  • 12 The ʾanî hûʾ in 43:13 is not preserved in the LXX translation.
  • 13 "An analysis of the application of ἐγώ εἰμι in its bipartite form in the Fourth Gospel leads one to conclude that the key to a proper understanding of these Johannine declarations is the distinctive use of this succinct expression in LXX Isaiah as a rendering for
    אני הוא ... Indeed, the interpretative process encountered in connection with Jesus' absolute ἐγώ ἐιμι statements can be described as an important witness to the fourth evangelist's familiarity with, and indebtedness to, Isaianic traditions, clearly extending far beyond the four direct citations taken from this prophetic book" (Catrin H. Williams, I Am He: The Interpretation of ʾAnî Hûʾ in Jewish and Early Christian Literature [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000], 299); "The Gospel of John...places on the lips of Jesus during his ministry another of the characteristically Deutero-Isaianic declarations of unique divine identity. The Johannine choice is the concise statement 'I am he', in Hebrew ʾanî hûʾ, usually translated in the Septuagint Greek as egō eimi ('I am'), the form in which it appears in John's Gospel... It is certainly not accidental that, whereas in the Hebrew Bible there are seven occurrences of ʾanî hûʾ and two of the emphatic variation ānokî ānokî hûʾ (Isa. 43:25; 51:12), in John there are seven absolute 'I am' sayings, with the seventh repeated twice (18:5, 6, 8) for the sake of an emphatic climax (thus seven or nine in both cases). The series of sayings thus comprehensively identifies Jesus with the God of Israel who sums up his identity in the declaration 'I am he'. More than that, they identify Jesus as the eschatological revelation of the unique identity of God, predicted by Deutero-Isaiah" (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008], 39-40).
  • 14 See also here.
  • 15 Because the verb "to be" is elliptical in God's initial statement, it could also be understood as elliptical in the statement about ho pais. Notably, in the Hebrew (where the subject is "you" rather than "I"), the syntax works this way: "You are my witnesses... and [you are] my servant, whom I have chosen..." However, this reading is rather unnatural, as it seems to conflate the speaker (God) with his pais. It would likely have been seen as risky after the rise of the Sabellian heresy in the early third century; yet we will see below that Eusebius follows it in the early fourth century.
  • 16 "the date of the apocalypse is now agreed within relatively close parameters... The dominant view is that the apocalypse contains some first-century material, and that this first-century element is given by the substance of chs. 6-11. It is disputed whether the material in chs. 1-5 comes from the first or the second century CE, the greater weight of scholarship preferring the second century." (Jonathan Knight, "The Christology of the Ascension of Isaiah: Docetic or Polymorphic?", in Jonathan Knight and Kevin Sullivan (eds.), The Open Mind: Essays in Honour of Christopher Rowland [London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015], 155).
  • 17 This is my translation from the Latin synopsis in Paolo Bettiolo, Alda Giambelluca Kossova, Claudio Leonardi, Enrico Norelli, and Lorenzo Perrone, Ascensio Isaiae: Textus (Turnhout: Brepols, 1995), 375, which in turn is translated from the Ethiopic in which alone this part of the book is preserved.
  • 18 Unfortunately a comparison cannot be made in Greek, since Ascension of Isaiah 4.6-8 survives only in an Ethiopic version. God makes similar statements in Isaiah 44:6, 45:5-6, 45:21, and 46:9 to the effect that "I am God, and there is no other beside me." Jonathan M. Knight describes Beliar's claim as "words which are parodied from Isa. 45.18, that 'I am the LORD, and before me there was no one'" (Disciples of the Beloved One: The Christology, Social Setting and Theological Context of the Ascension of Isaiah [Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1996], 50). Enrico Norelli states in his commentary (in Italian) that the language appears to from Isaiah 47:8-10, where the daughter of Babylon is said to declare blasphemously, "I am and there is no other". However, he goes on to argue that the language is drawn from that of the Ten Commandments, in Exodus 20:2-3 and Deuteronomy 5:7 (Ascensio Isaiae: Commentarius [Turnhout: Brepols, 1995], 251-52). However, it remains true that Isaiah 43:10 corresponds more closely to Beliar's words than any other biblical text. In no other Isaianic text does God say that there is no other before him, and the Decalogue statements are phrased in the second person. Of course, the Christological implications remain the same, no matter which definitive biblical statement of unique deity is being implicitly applied to Christ.
  • 19 Translations are based on the French translation of Adeline Rousseau, Irénée de Lyon: Contre les hérésies (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1984), based on his Sources chrétiennes critical text.
  • 20 Of course, as with the Book of Acts and other references in Greek literature to Jesus as God's παῖς, we cannot be certain whether Irenaeus understood the word in the sense "child/son" or "servant." That Irenaeus regards Isaiah 43:10 as a proof text concerning the Son's relationship with the Father suggests the reading "child/son," however.
  • 21 The fourth is Contra Celsum 2.9. Origen does not directly link our text to Christology, but discusses it in a Christological context: "To this we will reply that not even we suppose that the body of Jesus, which could then be seen and perceived by the senses, was God. And why do I say the body? For not even his soul was God; for he said of it: ‘My soul is exceeding sorrowful even unto death.’ However, according to the doctrine of the Jews it is believed to be God who says: ‘I am the Lord, the God of all flesh.’ And, ‘Before me there was no other God, and after me there will be none.’ He was using the soul and body of a prophet as an instrument. According to the Greeks, it is believed to be a god who is speaking and being heard through the Pythian priestess, who says ‘But I know the number of the sand and the measure of the sea, And I understand the dumb and I hear him that speaketh not.’ Similarly in our opinion it was the divine Logos and Son of the God of the universe that spoke in Jesus, saying: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’, and ‘I am the door’, and ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven’, and any other such saying. Therefore, we bring the charge against the Jews that they have not believed in Jesus as God, because he had been everywhere witnessed by the prophets as being a great power and a God like the God and Father of the universe. We say that it was to him that the Father gave the command in the Mosaic story of creation, when He said, ‘Let there be light’, and ‘Let there be a firmament’, and all the other things which God commanded to come into being. To him also He said, ‘Let us make man according to our image and likeness.’ And when the Logos was commanded, he made everything that the Father enjoined him." (trans. Henry Chadwick, Origen: Contra Celsum [London: Cambridge University Press, 1953], 73).
  • 22 Again, it is the translator's decision whether to render the Greek παῖς as "servant," "child" or "son."
  • 23 trans. Ronald E. Heine, Origen: Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Books 1-10 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1989), 151.
  • 24 trans. Rowan A. Greer, Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, and Selected Works (New York: Paulist, 1979), 66. The Greek word translated "Son" by Greer is again παῖς.
  • 25 John Ernest Leonard Oulton and Henry Chadwick, "Dialogue with Heraclides," in The Library of Christian Classics, Volume II: Alexandrian Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954), 430).
  • 26 Oulton and Chadwick, "Dialogue with Heraclides," 433.
  • 27 trans. Oulton and Chadwick, "Dialogue with Heraclides," 438-40.
  • 28 With regard to the latter text, he might have pointed out that God is spoken of in the first person in Deuteronomy 32:39-42 and in the third person in 32:43, with the latter text being applied to Christ in Hebrews 1:6.
  • 29 Again, "child" translates pais, and could also be rendered "servant."
  • 30 Greek text in Thomas Gaisford, Eusebii Pamphili, Episcopi Caesariensis: Eclogae Propheticae [Oxonii: E Typographeo Academico, 1842], 202.
  • 31 Eusebius of Caesarea, Commentary on Isaiah, trans. Jonathan J. Armstrong, ed. Joel C. Elowsky (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2013), 217-18. It should be noted that Eusebius' Commentary on Isaiah is usually dated to after the Council of Nicaea, unlike the other works of Eusebius cited in this series. Armstrong suggests that the comments on Isaiah 60 allude to Constantine's baptism in 337, which would imply that the commentary was finished between that date and Eusebius' death in 339.

Sunday, 22 May 2022

Reading Isaiah like an Early Christian (4): "A child was born for us...named Angel of Great Counsel" (Isaiah 9:6)


Most Christians who hear the words of Isaiah 9:6 feel instinctively that they are hearing a prophecy about the birth and Messianic destiny of Jesus:
6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Great will be his authority, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6-7 NRSV)
Handel's Messiah has certainly reinforced the Christological interpretation of this text in the popular Christian imagination. It may surprise some readers, therefore, to learn that many biblical scholars today maintain that, at the grammatical-historical level, this text is not a prophecy about a future Messiah. H. G. M. Williamson's comments are typical:
...the passage as a whole seems to announce that its readers are living at a turning point in the [Davidic] dynasty's fortunes and that the long-hoped-for rule of justice and righteousness is about to begin. None of this implies a break in dynastic rule or a restoration of the monarchy. The predominant thought of the passage neither demands, nor is even particularly suitable to, a postexilic date.1
He argues that the birth or accession of a Davidic king, possibly Hezekiah or Josiah, adequately explains the historical occasion for this oracle. Joseph A. Fitzmyer similarly scolds scholars guilty of "reading [a Messianic] meaning into this...Isaian passage."2 And John J. Collins states that "Modern critical scholarship...has generally rejected a messianic interpretation" of this text.3

This observation underscores the distinction made in the first article in this series between the grammatical-historical, literal meaning of texts, which is the the primary interest of biblical criticism, and the spiritual meaning of texts, the sensus plenior, which is the primary interest of theologians and anyone reading Scripture through the mystical lens of Christian faith. It is the latter sense that is the focus of the series, but it is important not to fall into a false dichotomy between the two senses.

Strictly speaking, if we limit ourselves to the grammatical-historical sense, we will have to surrender Isaiah 9:6 and many of our other favourite Messianic texts, and admit that the New Testament writers and even Jesus himself were poor exegetes. Conversely, if we go beyond the literal sense to assign a spiritual, Messianic significance to Isaiah 9:6, we should likewise be prepared to do so for other texts, even if they are not quoted in the New Testament.4

It is immediately apparent from reading Isaiah 9:5-65 in the New English Translation of the Septuagint that the Septuagint Greek differs markedly from the Hebrew Masoretic Text:
5 because a child was born for us, a son also given to us, whose sovereignty was upon his shoulder, and he is named Messenger of Great Counsel, for I will bring peace upon the rulers, peace and health to him. 6 His sovereignty is great, and his peace has no boundary upon the throne of Dauid and his kingdom, to make it prosper and to uphold it with righteousness and with judgment from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord Sabaoth will do these things.
John J. Collins' essay, "Isaiah 8:23-9:6 and Its Greek Translation," provides a very helpful explanation of the nuances of the LXX translation. Collins comments on the titles given to the child in Isaiah 9:6 MT indicate the "ideal qualities" of a human king, "however hyperbolic they may be."6 The most striking of the titles, for Collins, are El Gibbor, "mighty God," and Abi ʿAd, "everlasting father." The LXX translation, however, "departs strikingly from the Hebrew at several points." There are indications in the preceding verses that the translator has readdressed the oracle "to a setting in the second century B.C.E. rather than to the time of Isaiah."7 The rendering of two different Hebrew words with the Greek παιδίον ("child") in Isaiah 7:16 and 9:5 points to an effort to systematise these two figures. Coming to the titles of the child in Isaiah 9:5(6), the Greek combines the two titles "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God" (MT פלא יועץ אל גבור) into one, megalēs boulēs angelos ("Angel/Messenger of Great Counsel"). The following titles, "Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (MT אביעד שר־שלום), are translated, egō gar axō eirēnēn epi tous archontas ("for I will bring peace upon the princes"). Collins notes, "The translator evidently read אבי as a verb and עד as a preposition."8 שר ("prince") may have been understood generically and thus made plural. There are some textual difficulties in the Hebrew at the end of the verse, possibly reflecting a lost fifth title of the child that the LXX translates with the added words, eirēnēn kai hugieian autō ("peace and health to him").

Scholars differ on the significance of angelos in the LXX translation—a word that, as we will see below, played a key role in early Christian interpretation of this text. By the time of the NT, angelos was largely a technical term meaning "angel," with the broader sense "messenger" having nearly faded at least in Christian circles.9 In the LXX, while angelos is the usual translation of Hebrew מלאך, it is also applied to human messengers with some frequency. Either way, the word emphasises the child's instrumental agency on God's behalf. Just as the Targum has demoted the child by taking his loftiest titles away and applying them to God,10 so the LXX translator may be demoting the child by reducing his status from "God" to angel or messenger. This is not necessarily a mistranslation of אל; Collins notes that the word is also translated angelos in Job 20:15,11 where the theological stakes are lower. Collins is inclined to translate angelos in Isaiah 9:5 as angel, and to understand it "not so much a demotion as a clarification of his status in relation to the Most High."12 To what extent the the LXX translator wished to assign the child to the category "angel" is unclear (just as it is unclear to what extent the original author wished to assign the child to the category "god").

Considering how easily an application of this oracle to Jesus arises in the minds of any Christian reader (even without Handel's help), and the almost universal messianic interpretation of the passage in the Church Fathers (as we shall see), it is surprising that Isaiah 9:6 is never quoted in the NT. This should remind us that the NT is nothing like a Christian commentary on the OT. It does not provide an exhaustive account of how the early Church interpreted the Jewish Scriptures; not even close. In many cases, we must rely on the testimony of the Church Fathers to learn how a particular passage was interpreted in the early Church.

Nevertheless, there is strong circumstantial evidence in the NT itself for a Christological interpretation of Isaiah 9:6. In particular, the Gospel of Matthew narrates how Jesus "left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali" (Matt. 4:13 NRSV), and interprets this event as having fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah. Matthew then quotes from Isaiah 8:23-9:1, which is the beginning of the same oracle that contains Isaiah 9:6. Moreover, there is a possible allusion to Isaiah 9:7 in Luke 1:32-33, although this Lucan prophecy about Jesus is probably based mainly on 2 Samuel 7:8-16.13

As the Septuagint was much more widely used than the Hebrew Bible in the early Church (at least, outside Jewish Christian communities in Judaea and surrounds), extant early Christian interpretations of Isaiah 9:5(6) relies on the LXX version, with its distinctive phrase "angelos of Great Counsel."14

The earliest extant Christian interpreter of our text is Justin Martyr. In his first Apology (c. 153 A.D.),15 Justin writes,     
1 And how Christ, after his birth, was going to escape the attention of other human beings until he grew to manhood, which in fact happened—hear the things that were said in advance with reference to this. 2 They are these: 'A child was born for us, and a young man was given for us, whose rule is on his shoulders,' signifying the power of the cross, on which he placed his shoulders when he was crucified, as will be shown more clearly as the discourse proceeds. (1 Apol. 35.1-2)16
Justin also cites our text twice in his Dialogue with Trypho (c. 160 A.D., but with some material possibly dating back to c. 135):17
And, in calling him angel of great counsel, did not Isaiah predict that Christ would be a teacher of those truths which he expounded when he came upon this earth? For he alone openly taught the great counsels that the Father intended for those who either were, or shall be, pleasing to him, as well as for those men or angels who withdrew from his will. (Dial. 76.3)18

if you had known who he is who at one time is called angel of great counsel, and Man by Ezekiel, and Son of Man by Daniel, and a child by Isaiah, and Christ and God [and] who is to be adored by David, and Christ and Stone by many prophets… you would not have blasphemed him who has come, and assumed human nature, and suffered, and ascended into heaven. (Dial. 126.1)
Justin understands angelos to mean "angel" in Isaiah 9:5 LXX. This is clear, not only from his distinction between "men or angels" in the immediate context, but also from Justin's repeated statements elsewhere that Christ is God, and man, and angel.19 Justin explains his use of this term for Christ in terms of Christ's function as the Father's agent in revelation:
I shall attempt to prove my assertion, namely, that there exists and is mentioned in Scripture another God and Lord under the Creator of all things, who is also called an Angel, because he proclaims to man whatever the Creator of the world—above whom there is no other God—wishes to reveal to them. (Dial. 56.4)
Justin later mentions that the one who appeared to Moses at the burning bush "is termed an angel and is God" (kai angelos kaloumenos kai theos huparchōnDial. 60.4).20 This is a case in point of what Charles A. Gieschen has famously called "angelomorphic Christology." Explaining his preference for this term over "angel Christology," Gieschen writes:
'angel' terminology also raises the ontological question that has moved some interpreters to dismiss a priori the impact of such concepts on early Christology. It is crucial to understand that distinctions which early Christian documents make between Christ and the 'created' angels do not preclude the use of angel-morphic traditions in expressing Christology. Angelic forms and functions do not of necessity imply a nature that is less than divine. This conclusion is evident from OT texts which equate God and his angel.21
Justin makes just such a distinction, by saying that the pre-existent Christ is called an angel because he brings God's revelations to man (functional), but is God (ontological).

The next writer to cite Isaiah 9:5 is Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, who wrote c. 180 A.D. What is fascinating about Irenaeus' use of this text is that, while he is aware of and interprets the LXX title "Angel of Great Counsel," he is also aware—uniquely, among ante-Nicene Christian writers—that the title El Gibbor appears in the Hebrew text, and makes full Christological use of this:
Thus, then, does the Word of God in all things hold the primacy, for He is true man and Wonderful Counsellor and God the Mighty, calling man back again into communion with God, that by communion with Him we may have part in incorruptibility. (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 40)22
54 And again the same prophet says: A son is born to us and a child is given to us, and His name has been called, Wonderful Counsellor, God the Mighty. 55. And he calls Him ‘Wonderful Counsellor,’ even of the Father, whereby it is pointed out that it is with Him that the Father works all things whatsoever as we have in the first of the Mosaic books, which is entitled ‘Genesis’: And God said: let us make man according to our image and likeness. For He is here seen clearly, the Father addressing the Son, as Wonderful Counsellor of the Father. Now He is also our Counsellor, giving counsel—not constraining, as God, and nonetheless being ‘God the Mighty,’ he says—and giving counsel to leave off our ignorance and receive knowledge, and to go forth from error and come to truth, and to cast forth corruptibility and receive incorruptibility. (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 54-55)
Interestingly, Irenaeus quotes the LXX version of the text almost as if it were a separate prophecy from Isaiah:
And again Isaias says: And they shall wish that they had been burnt with fire; for a child is born to us, and a son is given to us, whose government is set upon His shoulders; and His name is called Messenger of Great Counsel. For I will bring peace upon the princes, again peace and health to Him. Great is His empire, and of His peace there is no end, upon the throne of David and upon his kingdom, to guide and to uphold with justice and right, from henceforth and for ever. For thereby it is proclaimed that the Son of God both is to be born and is to be everlasting king... But the words whose government is set upon His shoulders mean allegorically the Cross, on which He held His back when He was crucified; for what was and is an ignominy for Him, and because of Him, for us, the Cross, that, he says, is His government, that is, a sign of His empire. And he says Messenger of Great Counsel: messenger of the Father, whom he announced to us. (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 56)
Irenaeus follows Justin in interpreting the reference to "shoulders" as a prophecy of the cross of Christ, and in interpreting "Messenger/Angel of Great Counsel" functionally.23 However, in commenting on the title "God the Mighty," he shows that he has access to a Jewish tradition of interpretation that was unknown to Justin.24

Tertullian cites our text in three of his works, two of which are discussed here.25 In Against Marcion, Tertullian echoes the view found in Justin and Irenaeus that "whose government is placed upon his shoulder" refers to the cross:
For although death reigned from Adam until Christ, why should not Christ be said to have reigned from the tree, ever since by dying on the tree of the Cross he drove out the kingdom of death? In the same sense also Isaiah says, Because to us a child is born: what is new in this, unless he is speaking of the Son of God? And, Unto us one is given, whose government is placed upon his shoulder: which of the kings ever displays the sign of his dominion upon his shoulder, and not rather a crown upon his head or a sceptre in his hand, or some mark of appropriate apparel? No, only the new king of the new ages, Christ Jesus, <the king> of new glory, has lifted up upon his shoulder his own dominion and majesty, which is the Cross, so that from thenceforth, as our previous prophecy stated, he did as Lord reign from the tree. (Against Marcion 3.19.2)26
In another work, Tertullian explains—like Justin before him—that Christ is called an angel in this text in a functional, not ontological, sense:
Certainly he is described as the angel of great counsel, 'angel' meaning 'messenger', by a term of office, not of nature: for he was to announce to the world the Father's great project, that concerned with the restitution of man. Yet he is not on that account to be understood as an angel, in the sense of a sort of Gabriel or Michael. For the son also is sent by the lord of the vineyard to the husbandmen, as the servants too had been, to fetch of the fruits of it: but the son must not be reckoned one of the servants just because he succeeded to the servants' task. So I shall find it easier to say, if I have to, that the Son himself was the angel (that is, the messenger) of the Father, than that there was an angel in the Son. (On the Flesh of Christ 14.3).27

Tertullian's line of interpretation is found again in Origen.28 Origen also seems to think that the Son "became" an angel, for the sake of making angelic appearances.29

While our text is cited in other ante-Nicene writings,30 for sake of brevity we will only consider one more author: Origen's third-century contemporary Novatian, a Roman presbyter.

In his work On the Trinity (more appropriately titled "The Rule of Truth"),31 Novatian argues at length that the angel who appeared to Hagar in Genesis 16 could not either have been God the Father nor an ontological angel, but rather one who is ontologically God but functionally God's angel or herald. Novatian uses Isaiah 9:5 as a proof text for the notion that Christ can be called "angel":
(7) Now Scripture portrays this angel as both Lord and God, for He would not have promised the blessing of progeny if He had not been both angel and God. Let the heretics try to explain away this passage. (8) Was it the Father who was seen by Hagar, or not? For it was stated that He was God. Far be it from us to call God the Father an angel, lest He be subject to another, whose angel He would be. (9) But they will say that He was an angel. If He was an angel, how could He possibly be God since this name has never been given to angels? However, if we examine both sides of the question, truth itself drives us to this conclusion: we must acknowledge that He was the Son of God. Because He is of God, He is rightly called God, since He is the Son of God; and because He is subject to the Father and herald of the Father’s will, he is proclaimed ‘Angel of Great Counsel.’ (10) Therefore, if this passage is not appropriate to the person of the Father, lest He be called an angel, nor to the person of an angel, lest He be called God, it does, however, suit the person of Christ, since He is not only God, inasmuch as He is the Son of God, but also an angel, inasmuch as He is the herald of the Father’s dispensation. Heretics must realize that they are acting contrary to the Scriptures when they say they believe that Christ was also an angel, but do not want to admit that He is also the God who they read came frequently to visit the human race in the Old Testament...It is quite evident, then, that it was not the Father who spoke to Hagar in the present passage but rather Christ, because He is God. The title of angel is also appropriate to Christ because He was made ‘the Angel of Great Counsel.’ He is an angel because He lays bare the heart of the Father, as John declares." (de Trinitate 18.7-10, 22)32 

Christian writers of the second and third centuries are united in interpreting Isaiah 9:6-7(5-6)—which, apart from Irenaeus, they appear to have known only via the LXX translation33—as a prophecy concerning Christ. The common themes that emerge from their exegesis include that (i) the reference to his rule being upon his shoulder foretells the power of Christ's cross and (ii) Christ is called Angel of Great Counsel, not because he is ontologically an angel, but because he, although God by nature, has the function of declaring the counsel of God the Father to God's creatures.

I was able to access Eusebius' Commentary on Isaiah only after completing this article, and thus here reproduce most of his lengthy and insightful interpretation on this text, without any comment.
What this is about he states next when he says: Because a child was born for us, and a son also given to us, whose sovereignty is on his shoulder: and he is named messenger of great counsel. And he was the one who was called son and child and Emmanuel. This is the third time in the same prophecy where the son is also called child... For this very reason the child is this son, who was given as a gift from God to those who have believed in him and who has many more names than those stated above. And he has been named messenger of great counsel. And although this name may seem rather ordinary, it points to something beyond mortal nature, even angelic. For he addressed him not simply as messenger, but as messenger of great counsel. And what else could the great counsel be except the counsel of the great God concerning the calling and salvation of all nations, which the messenger himself, our Savior, would minister in the benevolent counsel of the Father? According to the Hebrew Scriptures he has been honored with greater forms of address than messenger, for it is said that he bears the government on his shoulder. For the government of the prophesied child (that is, the glory and the honor and the kingdom) is the government that is on his shoulder and over all (clearly, the government should be understood as the arm of the divinity in him). He has been called messenger of great counsel because of his divinity, for he alone understands the secret things of the fatherly counsel, and he is the messenger to the worthy. We said that he has been deemed worthy of an even greater title than messenger, for the Hebrew text reads, as translated by Symmachus: And his name will be called marvelous, able to advise, strong and powerful, eternal father, ruler of peace; and Aquila says: His name is called wonderful, counselor, strong, powerful, father still, ruler of peace; and according to Theodotion's translation: And she called his name wonderful, counselor, strong, master, eternal father, ruler of peace.

But instead of strong, the Hebrew text has El, which means God. For there are many passages in Scripture where El stands for God, and the text at hand should likewise be counted among them, for through the wording of the Hebrew God is proclaimed to be the child born for us. Accordingly, in the above prophecy concerning the child born for us and the son given to us, along with the other names and El, according to the Hebrew text, it is clear that the prophecy makes him known to be God. And so he is called El Gibbor in the Hebrew tongue. But Aquila translates this phrase as strong, powerful, and  Symmachus does as well. Theodotion translated this phrase as strong, master, protector—among which titles it is probable that he included the name of God as the child born for us. And we would not miss the mark to translate the phrase powerful God, since it has been pointed out to us that the word El translates to 'God.' And so we have boldness to call him so. The phrase El Gibbor in the Hebrew tongue is translated strong, powerful in the Greek, and the name Emmanuel includes El in it and additionally takes on the phrase God with us. And such names of the revealed child present his nature as superior to that of a mere man. Now I suppose that there are those who distrust the Septuagint because it is silent concerning the true recipient of the portentous and surpassing greatness of these names, but in another way this is stated summarily in the literal meaning: And he is named messenger of great counsel. And how has he said father of the coming age, for we will understand that it is our father Adam who is being handed down who is of 'the present age' and of the mortal race of people. But 'just as in Adam we will all die,' according to the apostle, 'so we will all be made alive in Christ.' (Commentary on Isaiah 65-66)34
  • 1 "Messianic Texts in Isaiah 1-39," in King and Messiah in Israel and the Ancient Near East: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar, ed. John Day (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), 257.
  • 2 The One Who Is to Come (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 38).
  • 3 "Isaiah 8:23-9:6 and Its Greek Translation," in Scripture and Tradition: Essays on Septuagint, Hebrew Bible, and Dead Sea Scrolls in Honour of Raija Sollamo, ed. Anssi Voitila and Jutta Jokiranta (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 205. Collins, for his part, avers that whether the passage is messianic is a question of definition. If by "Messiah" one means a figure who would restore the monarchy after it was broken by the Babylonian exile, or certainly a figure who would literally usher in endless peace, then this text is not messianic. However, it is nonetheless "a reaffirmation of the mythology of kingship in the historical context," due to its idealised picture of what kingship could offer (ibid., 212).
  • 4 I am making a subtle dig at unitarian apologists who argue, for instance, that since Genesis 1:26 ("Let us make man in our image") is agreed by biblical scholars not to be a statement spoken by the Father to the Son, it thus cannot be interpreted as such. These apologists are conflating the grammatical-historical sense with the spiritual sense.
  • 5 The versification differs in the LXX and MT from the English, so Isaiah 9:5-6 LXX/MT correspond to 9:6-7 English.
  • 6 "Isaiah 8:23-9:6 and Its Greek Translation," 211.
  • 7 "Isaiah 8:23-9:6 and Its Greek Translation," 215.
  • 8 "Isaiah 8:23-9:6 and Its Greek Translation," 216.
  • 9 See my article, When is an angelos not an angel? A critique of Christadelphian lexical semantics.
  • 10 "and his name will be called before Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, existing forever, 'The messiah in whose days peace will increase upon us'" (trans. Collins, "Isaiah 8:23-9:6 and Its Greek Translation," 213).
  • 11 "Isaiah 8:23-9:6 and Its Greek Translation," 217.
  • 12 "Isaiah 8:23-9:6 and Its Greek Translation," 217.
  • 13 So David W. Pao and Eckhard J. Schnabel, "Luke," in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 260. Pao and Schnabel also comment on the "parallels" between Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:8-14, without claiming any direct literary dependence.
  • 14 It should be borne in mind that patristic references to this text do not always indicate whether the patristic author understood angelos in the sense of "Angel" or "Messenger." In some of the modern translations we will quote, the translation "angel" or "messenger" is just an educated guess by the modern scholar.
  • 15 So Denis Minns and Paul Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr: Apologies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 44.
  • 16 Trans. Minns and Parvis, Justin, 177. They note the likelihood of a lacuna here (ibid., 177 n. 1), since Isaiah 9:5 has nothing to do with the hiddenness of Christ in his childhood, and Justin interprets it with reference to his death.
  • 17 c. 160 is the usual date for the Dialogue, but Timothy J. Horner argues that the Dialogue was a redacted version of an earlier "Trypho Text," an account of a real dialogue with Trypho, which he dates to c. 135 A.D. (Listening to Trypho: Justin Martyr's Dialogue Reconsidered [Leuven: Peeters, 2001]).
  • 18 Michael Slusser (ed.), St. Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho, trans. Thomas B. Falls, rev. Thomas P. Halton (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 118. All subsequent translations of the Dialogue are from the same.
  • 19 "I prove from all the Scriptures that Christ is spoken of as a King, and a Priest, and God, and Lord, and an Angel, and a Man, and a Leader, and a Stone, and a Begotten Son..." (Dial. 34.2); cf. Dial. 56.4, 10; 59.1; 60.1; 61.1; etc.
  • 20 Text in Philippe Bobichon, Justin Martyr, Dialogue avec Tryphon: Introduction, Édition Critique, Traduction, Notes, 2 vols. (Fribourg: Academic Press, 2003), 1:346.
  • 21 Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 4.
  • 22 Trans. Joseph P. Smith, St. Irenaeus: Proof of the Apostolic Preaching (Westminster: Newman Press, 1952), 73. Other translations of this work below are from the same source.
  • 23 Irenaeus also makes a passing reference to this LXX title in his better-known work, Against Heresies (3.16.3).
  • 24 Given the prominence of "God" as a Christological title in Justin's writings, it is difficult to believe that he would not have mentioned the title "Mighty God" in the Hebrew of Isaiah 9:5, had he been aware of it—particularly when trying to win over Trypho the Jew.
  • 25 The third, in Against the Jews 10.11, is nearly identical to that from Against Marcion.
  • 26 Trans. Ernest Evans, Tertullian: Adversus Marcionem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 229.
  • 27 Trans. Ernest Evans, Tertullian's Treatise on the Incarnation (London: SPCK, 1956), 51.
  • 28 "'For no one has known the Father but the Son and he to whom the Son will reveal him.' And to the extent that he is the Word, he is the 'messenger of great counsel' 'upon whose shoulder the authority' has come to rest, for he has become king because he suffered the cross." (Commentary on John 1.278, trans. Ronald E. Heine, Origen: Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Books 1-10 [Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1989], 91).
  • 29 "217 The Savior, therefore, in a way much more divine than Paul, has become 'all things to all,' that he might either 'gain' or perfect 'all things.' He has clearly become a man to men, and an angel to angels. 218 No believer will have any doubt that he became a man; and we may be convinced that he became an angel if we observe the appearances and the words of angels when [some angel appears with authority] in certain passages of Scripture when the angels speak. For example, 'An angel of the Lord appeared in the fire of a burning bush. And he said, I am the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob.' But also Isaias says, 'His name shall be called angel of great counsel.'" (Commentary on John 1.217-18, trans. Heine, Origen, 77). Elsewhere, Origen objects the notion that Christ was "some angel," which the pagan apologist Celsus was willing to concede for the sake of argument. Origen responds, "Next, as he supposes that he can say of the Saviour by way of a concession Let us assume that he really was some angel, we say that we do not accept this from Celsus as a concession. But we consider the work of him who visited the whole human race by his word and teaching, according as each one of those who believe him was able to receive him. This was not the work merely of an angel but, as the prophecy about him says, 'of the angel of the great counsel'. For he proclaimed to men the great counsel of the God and Father of the universe concerning them..." (Contra Celsum 5.53, trans. Henry Chadwick, Origen: Contra Celsum (London: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 305-306.
  • 30 Cf. Hippolytus, De benedictionibus Isaaci et Iacobi et Moysis 1-2; In Danielem 2.32.6; Traditio apostolica 4, 8; Gregory Thaumaturgus, In Origenem oratio panegyrica 4.42; Cyprian, Ad Quirinum 2.21; Victorinus, Commentarii in Apocalypsim Ioannis 10.1; Peter of Alexandria, Epistula canonica 5; Eusebius, Generalis elementaria introductio 1.17, 3.30, 4.7; Eusebius, Demonstratio evangelica 1.1.2, 4.10.17, 5.10.6, 7.1.135-153, 7.2.2-23, 9.8.1, 9.8.16, 10.3; Eusebius, Commentary on Isaiah at 9:6; Lactantius, Diuinae Institutiones 4.11.7, 4.12.10, 5.7.1.
  • 31 The work never uses the word "Trinity," so this title has probably been imposed on it retrospectively. It is basically a commentary on the Roman creed, focusing on those parts which were controversial at the time—above all, matters of Christology.
  • 32 Trans. Russell J. deSimone, Novatian: The Trinity, The Spectacles, Jewish Foods, In Praise of Purity, Letters (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1974), 68-69, 72. The phrase "Angel of Great Counsel" is quoted again in de Trinitate 21.3, 28.8, 31.16-18.
  • 33 Tertullian and Novatian wrote in Latin, and so presumably followed the Old Latin, which is close to the LXX.
  • 34 Eusebius of Caesarea, Commentary on Isaiah, trans. Jonathan J. Armstrong, ed. Joel C. Elowsky (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2013), 49-50.

Monday, 9 May 2022

Reading Isaiah like an Early Christian (3): "It was no ambassador or angel but the Lord himself that saved them" (Isaiah 63:9)

Continuing our series on Christological texts in Isaiah, we turn to the rich and fascinating text that is Isaiah 63:9. We will first look at the text in its context in the Hebrew Bible and its translation in the Septuagint. We will then look at its reception in the New Testament before surveying its interpretation in the early Church.

Isaiah 63:9 in Context 

Isaiah 63:1-6 is a "divine warrior scene" in which a figure comes from Edom and "marches toward Zion wearing red garments, which at first glance appear regal (63:1) but actually are covered with the blood of the nations (63:3)."1 Although the figure is not explicitly identified, the lofty language used of the figure and the connection with the earlier divine warrior scene in Isaiah 59:15b-21 (where the Warrior is explicitly YHWH) leaves no doubt as to his identity.2 The Divine Warrior comes to save his people and to destroy their enemies.

The Divine Warrior scene ends at 63:6 and gives way to a "communal lament" that runs from 63:7-64:11. The lament "begins in hymnic style in verse 7 by urging the people to commemorate YHWH's glorious deeds," an appeal followed by "two historical reflections in verses 8-10 and vv. 11-14."3 63:7-14 as a whole establishes "the covenantal nature of the human-divine relationship," strains in which are lamented in vv. 15-19a, eliciting a petition for God to visit Israel anew as he had once done at Sinai.4 Despite the shift from divine warrior scene in 63:1-6 to communal lament from 63:7-64:11, there are obvious connections between the two passages. Above all, "theophanic themes" involving YHWH's deliverance and judgment, past and present, are evident throughout.5

Isaiah 63:9 is a verse with significant textual difficulties in the Hebrew text. As Bogdan G. Bucur explains, the textual variations hinge on two short words, לא and ער:
In the former case, the question is whether to choose the ketiv לא ('not') or the qere, the homophone לו ('to him'). As for צר, the question is whether to accept the MT vocalization of צַר ('constraint,' 'distress,' 'affliction') or to vocalize it as צִיר, which would yield 'messenger.'6
Depending on the textual decision one makes and how one reads the syntax, one arrives at one of two quite different renderings:7
8 [...] and he became their savior. 9 In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (RSV)

8 [...] and he became their savior 9 in all their affliction. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (NRSV)
The second of the above readings was followed by the Septuagint translators:
8 [...] And he became to them salvation out of all affliction. It was no ambassador or angel but the Lord himself that saved them, because he loved them and spared them; he himself ransomed them and took them up and lifted them up all the days of old.8
The idea is similar to that in Isaiah 35:4 LXX, the text we looked at in the previous article: "God...himself will come and save us." There is a notable difference, in that Isaiah 35:4 is a prophecy of the future whereas Isaiah 63:9 recalls past events—probably, above all, those of the Exodus. However, given the prominence of New Exodus language in Isaiah, the wider idea in this communal lament is that what God had done in the past, he will do in the future: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence" (64:1 NRSV).

What is particularly significant about the second reading of Isaiah 63:9 above—the one that the Septuagint followed and that was therefore dominant in early Christianity—is that it contrasts God's direct saving activity with the notion of his working through an agent such as a messenger or an angel. Bucur notes that this contrast also features in rabbinic Jewish exegesis of the Exodus story, with several rabbis insisting that it was the Holy One himself and no agent who undertook certain key acts of deliverance.9

Isaiah 63 in Revelation 19

Isaiah 63:9 is never quoted in the New Testament. The Divine Warrior Scene that shortly precedes it, however, is alluded to in Revelation 19. Interestingly, while the Divine Warrior in Isaiah 63:1-6 is undoubtedly God, Revelation 19 applies this imagery to Christ:
11 Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a scepter of iron; he will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Revelation 19:11-16 NRSV)
There is no mistaking that this figure wearing a robe dipped in blood and treading the winepress of the wrath of God is the figure described in Isaiah 63:2-3. And yet Isaiah 63:3-5 contains language similar to 63:9 about God working alone rather than through an agent or messenger: "I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me... I looked, but there was no helper; I was abandoned, and there was no one to sustain me, so my own arm brought me victory". It is difficult to understand how Revelation could identify the Divine Warrior of Isaiah 63:1-6 as someone other than God—unless there is someone other than God who is also fully divine, as the names "the Word of God" and "King of kings and Lord of lords" already suggest.10

Isaiah 63:9 in the Early Church

Irenaeus of Lyons, writing c. 180-185 C.E., comments thus on our passage: 
And Isaias says that those who served God are in the end to be saved through His name… And that He was Himself to bring about these blessings in person, Isaias declared in the words: Not an intercessor, nor an angel, but the Lord Himself hath given them life, because He loves them and has pity on them; He Himself redeemed them. (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 88).11
In his better-known work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus offers a similar interpretation: 
So again, that He who was to save us would not be purely a man, nor a being without flesh—for angels have no flesh—Isaiah announced by saying: "It is not an elder, nor an angel, but the Lord himself who will save them; because he loves them and spares them, himself will deliver them." (Adv. Haer. 3.20.4)12
The anonymous Epistle to Diognetus, usually grouped among the Apostolic Fathers but dated to c. 200 A.D., does not quote Isaiah 63:9 but probably alludes to it in the following words:
But the truly all-powerful God himself, creator of all and invisible, set up and established in their hearts the truth and the holy word from heaven, which cannot be comprehended by humans. To do so, he did not, as one might suppose, send them one of his servants or an angel or a ruler or any of those who administer earthly activities or who are entrusted with heavenly affairs, but he sent the craftsman and maker of all things himself, by whom he created the heavens, by whom he enclosed the sea within its own boundaries, whose mysteries all the elements of creation guard faithfully, from whom the sun was appointed to guard the courses that it runs during the day, whom the moon obeys when he commands it to shine at night, whom the stars obey by following the course of the moon, by whom all things are set in order and arranged and put into subjection, the heavens and the things in the heavens, the earth and the things in the earth, the sea and the things in the sea, fire, air, the abyss, creatures in the heights, creatures in the depths, creatures in between—this is the one he sent to them. (Ep. Diognetus 7.2)13
In his work On the Flesh of Christ, Tertullian, writing in the early third century, seeks to refute those who say that Christ was clothed with an angel. At the conclusion of his argument, he writes, "What more do we need, when we hear Isaiah crying out, 'Not an angel nor a delegate, but the Lord himself hath saved them?'" (De Carne Christi 14.6)14

Origen, the great Alexandrian exegete, quotes the passage a few decades later in his commentary on the Song of Songs. He regards the woman's longing for her lover as signifying the Church's longing for Christ himself and no mere minister: 
This is the content of the actual story, presented in dramatic form. But let us see if the inner meaning can also be fittingly supplied along these lines. Let it be the Church who longs for union with Christ… [after the Law] But, since the age is almost ended and His own presence is not granted me, and I see only His ministers ascending and descending upon me, because of this I pour out my petition to Thee, the Father of my Spouse, beseeching Thee to have compassion at last upon my love, and to send Him, that He may now no longer speak to me only but by His servants the angels and the prophets, but may come Himself directly and kiss me with the kisses of His mouth—that is to say, may pour the words of His mouth into mine, that I may hear Him speak Himself, and see Him teaching. The kisses are Christ’s, which He bestowed on His Church when at His coming, being present in the flesh, He in His own person spoke to her the words of faith and love and peace, according to the promise of Isaias who, when sent beforehand to the Bride, had said: Not a messenger, nor an angel, but the Lord Himself shall save  us. (Commentary on Song of Songs 1.1)15

Highlighting the similarity between Isaiah 35:4 (discussed in the previous article) and 63:9, Cyprian of Carthage—a contemporary of Origen—quotes the two texts in immediate succession in his list of proof texts supporting the proposition "That Christ our God should come as the Enlightener and Saviour of the human race" (Ad Quirinum 2.7).16


Isaiah 63:1-6 is a divine warrior scene that depicts YHWH's theophanic deliverance of Israel and wrathful judgment of her enemies. Following on that, Isaiah 63:7-64:11 is a communal lament that petitions God to make just such a theophanic intervention. It recalls how God has done this in the past, and one possible reconstruction of the text of Isaiah 63:9—which the Septuagint follows—emphasises that it was God himself and no mere agent (messenger or angel) who intervened.

Already in the Book of Revelation, the Divine Warrior of Isaiah 63:1-6—who had emphasised that he worked alone, because there was no helper—is interpreted as Jesus, the Word of God. In like manner, the Church Fathers of the second and third centuries consistently interpret the language of 63:9 ("It was no ambassador or angel but the Lord himself that saved them") as a reference to the Incarnation, in which the divine Son of God personally came in human flesh to save humanity from their enemies.
  • 1 Matthew J. Lynch,  "Zion's Warrior and the Nations: Isaiah 59:15b-63:6 in Isaiah's Zion Traditions," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 70 (2008): 245, 256.
  • 2 These two divine warrior scenes "form an inclusio around and are textually joined to chaps. 60-62," which speak of Zion's restoration (Lynch, "Zion's Warrior," 245).
  • 3 Judith Gärtner, "'...Why Do You Let Us Stray from Your Paths...' (Isa 63:17): The Concept of Guilt in the Communal Lament Isa 63:7-64:11," in M. J. Boda, D. K. Falk & R. A. Werline (eds.), Seeking the Favor of God. Volume 1: The Origins of Penitential Prayer in Second Temple Judaism (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006), 146.
  • 4 Richard J. Bautsch, "Lament Regained in Trito-Isaiah's Penitential Prayer," in Boda, Falk & Werline, Seeking the Favor of God, 87.
  • 5 Lynch, "Zion's Warrior," 259.
  • 6 Bogdan G. Bucur, "The Lord Himself, One Lord, One Power: Jewish and Christian Perspectives on Isaiah 63:9 and Daniel 7:13," in Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism, ed. Andrei A. Orlov (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 241-42. The ketiv refers to the orthographic consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible, and the qere to the suggested vocalisation of the Masoretic Text.
  • 7 In fact two further renderings are possible; see Bucur, "The Lord Himself," 242 for the details.
  • 8 Moisés Silva, "Esaias," in New English Translation of the Septuagint, ed. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 872. The Greek text reads: 8 [...] καὶ ἐγένετο αὐτοῖς εἰς σωτηρίαν 9 ἐκ πάσης θλίψεως. οὐ πρέσβυς οὐδὲ ἄγγελος, ἀλλʼ αὐτὸς κύριος ἔσωσεν αὐτούς διὰ τὸ ἀγαπᾶν αὐτοὺς καὶ φείδεσθαι αὐτῶν· αὐτὸς ἐλυτρώσατο αὐτοὺς καὶ ἀνέλαβεν αὐτοὺς καὶ ὕψωσεν αὐτοὺς πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας τοῦ αἰῶνος. (Septuaginta, ed. Joseph Ziegler [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983], 14:355.)
  • 9 See Bucur, "The Lord Himself," 243-54.
  • 10 On the latter title, see my article, "Lord of lords" and "King of kings" as Hebraic Superlatives.
  • 11 Trans. Joseph P. Smith, S.J., St. Irenaeus: Proof of the Apostlic Preaching (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1952), 102.
  • 12 This is my translation of the French translation by Adélin Rousseau: "De même encore, que Celui qui devait nous sauver ne serait ni purement un homme, ni un être sans chair - car les anges n'ont pas de chair -, Isaïe l'a annoncé en disant: «Ce n'est pas un ancien, ni un ange, mais le Seigneur lui-même qui les sauvera, parce qu'il les aime et qu'il les épargne, lui-même les délivrera.»" (Adelin Rousseau, Irénée de Lyon: Contre les hérésies [Paris: Cerf, 2001]).
  • 13 Trans. Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers (2 vols.; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 2:145.
  • 14 Trans. Ernest Evans, Tertullian's Treatise on the Incarnation (London: SPCK, 1956), 53.
  • 15 Trans. R. P. Lawson, Origen, The Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies (New York: Newman, 1956), 59-60.
  • 16 Trans. A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1840), 3:37.