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Showing posts with label Tertullian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tertullian. Show all posts

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.

Monday, 20 June 2022

Reading Isaiah like an Early Christian (6): "I stretched out my hands all day long towards a disobedient people" (Isaiah 65:2)



The opening verses of Isaiah 65 introduce a speech by Yahweh about the rebelliousness of his people Israel:
1 I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
    to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
    to a nation that did not call on my name.
2 I held out my hands all day long
    to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
    following their own devices...  
6 See, it is written before me:
   I will not keep silent, but I will repay;
I will indeed repay into their laps 
7 their iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together, 
   says the Lord [Heb. YHWH]; 
because they offered incense on the mountains 
   and reviled me on the hills, 
I will measure into their laps 
   full payment for their actions. (Isaiah 65:1-2, 6-7 NRSV)
Our main interest in this article lies with early Christian interpretation of the first line of v. 2. The Hebrew verb pāraś normally refers to spreading out one's hands in prayer, so the picture of YHWH with his hands spread out in supplication to Israel represents a paradoxical reversal, reflecting the extent of God's efforts to win over his people.1

The Septuagint Greek translation of Isaiah 65:2a follows the Hebrew closely, except that it adds a second adjective describing Israel: "I stretched out my hands all day long towards a disobedient and contrary people" (exepetasa tas cheiras mou holēn tēn hēmeran pros laon apeithounta kai antilegonta).2 The Hebrew verb pāraś has been suitably rendered with the Greek verb ekpetannumi, meaning to spread out, hold out, or stretch out, and with tas cheiras (the hands) likewise suggesting "an imploring gesture";3 it is used in Exodus 9:29, 33 LXX of Moses' intercessory prayer.

In its original context in the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah 65 verses 1-2 are synonymous, both concerning Israel and referring to "the efforts to which God has made to win the faithless back."4 The sense of v. 1 is, "Although I was present and would have responded had they beckoned Me, they did not seek Me."5 Most interpreters thus take the Niphal forms here as permissive, reflecting God's readiness to be found by his disinterested people. The LXX, however, translates them with an effective sense: "I became visible to those who were not seeking me; I was found by those who were not inquiring about me,"6


Paul quotes Isaiah 65:1 and 65:2 in Romans 10:20-21 as part of his extended discourse in Romans 9-11 on Israel's unbelief in the Gospel message
20 Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, “I have been found by [or, among] those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me [Isaiah 65:1].” 21 But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people [Isaiah 65:2].” (NRSV)
Paul's wording follows the Septuagint, despite some minor changes,7 the most significant of which for our purposes is that the words holēn tēn hēmeran ("all day long") have been brought to the beginning of the clause for emphasis. Like the Septuagint, Paul has understood Isaiah 65:1 in an effective sense. This allows him to set Isaiah 65:1 and 65:2 in contrast,8 with 65:1 referring to the gracious finding of the message of salvation by those who had never sought it (particularly Gentiles), and 65:2 referring to the rejection of that message by most of Israel.9

Paul offers minimal comment on Isaiah 65:1-2, and since he simply attributes the words to "Isaiah," it is not clear whom he understands the speaker to be in this oracle. Commentators on Romans are in seemingly unanimous agreement that Paul understands the speaker to be God,10 which is understandable given that YHWH is the speaker of this oracle in Isaiah MT. However, I would like to explore the possibility—which admittedly cannot be proven conclusively—that Paul has understood Christ to be the Kyrios (Isaiah 65:7 LXX) who speaks these words.


Firstly, although Paul says almost nothing about the text beyond quoting it, it is already certain from what he does say that he is offering an early Christian reinterpretation of this prophetic text—either his own or one that was in circulation.11 This reinterpretation has divided vv. 1-2 into two parts fulfilled by two present-day events related to the message about Christ: "the Jews' general refusal of the gospel" (65:2) and "the Gentiles' eager acceptance of it" (65:1).12 Thus, it cannot be ruled out this reinterpretation had particularised other aspects of the oracle's meaning to the early Christian setting (including who the speaker is).

Secondly, it is generally recognised by Pauline scholars that Paul makes considerable use of the rabbinic exegetical principle known as gezerah shavah.13 This principle entails that two biblical texts that use the same word or phrase can be interpreted jointly, with the meaning of the term in one text informed by the other.14 A widely recognised Pauline use of gezerah shavah occurs in Romans 4:1-8, where Paul uses the occurrence of the verb logizomai ("count"; "impute") in Genesis 15:6 and Psalm 31(32):1-2 LXX to infer that both passages are about forensic justification.15 So, what does gezerah shavah have to do with Romans 10:20-21? If we look at Paul's Scripture quotations in Romans 10:5-21 (and even the rest of the book) as a catena—a connected series—we will notice that important terminology recurs in multiple passages. Let us note a couple of interesting parallels.

(i) In Romans 10:6-8, Paul quotes from Deuteronomy 30:12 LXX and interprets the generic reference to "the word" (to rhēma) there to mean "the word of faith that we proclaim," i.e. the gospel. Similarly, Septuagintal references to "bringing good news" (euangelizō, Isa. 52:7) and "our report" (ho akoē hēmōn, Isa. 53:1) are understood to refer to "the word of Christ" (rhēma Christou) in Romans 10:15-17, which—per Isaiah 53:1—some have rejected. Given that we know Paul followed a Christianised reinterpretation of Isaiah 65, would he not have likewise understood words such as "because I called you and you did not answer, I spoke and you misheard" (Isaiah 65:12 LXX) to refer to Israel's rejection of the Christian message?16

(ii) Another biblical phrase that is key to Paul's argument in Romans 10 is drawn from Joel 2:32(3:5): "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved". Although Paul does not quote the entire verse, it uses the verb euangelizō ("bring good news"), which links it via gezerah shavah to Isaiah 52:7. What is fascinating is that, while in the Hebrew Bible, Joel 2:32 refers to calling on the name of YHWH, Paul understands this "Lord" (kyrios in the LXX) to be Christ, as his interpretation in vv. 9-12, 14-17 makes clear.17 But the speaker of Isaiah 65:1 LXX says, "I was found by those who were not inquiring about me. I said, 'Here I am,' to the nation that did not call my name." We know that Paul understood these words to refer to the Gentiles' belief in Christ, and by connecting Joel 2:32 with Isaiah 65:1 (gezerah shavah), Paul could have concluded that both prophetic texts are referring to calling on the name of the same "Lord."18 Since we know that Paul understood this "Lord" to be Christ in Joel 2:32, it is possible, indeed likely, that Paul also understood Christ to be the "Lord" in Isaiah 65:1-7.


Having established the possibility—indeed, likelihood—that Paul identified the Kyrios who speaks in Isaiah 65:1-7 to be Christ, we will be "bold" like Isaiah (Rom. 10:20) and ask further how Paul might have understood the words, "All day long I stretched out my hands," if understood as spoken by Christ. There is admittedly an element of speculation here, but I think some intriguing observations can be made. 

Now, we already established that for the Lord (whether God or Christ) to "spread out his hands" to his people (Isa. 65:2) was an act of self-humiliation, since this was a reversal of the proper order whereby his people ought to "spread out their hands" to him in supplication. Now, Seifrid comments:
In contrast with the LXX, Paul fronts the adverbial expression 'all the day,' stressing God's abiding love for his people. The anthropomorphic language of Isaiah is dramatic and poignant, preparing Paul's readers for his following discussion of Israel's salvation: 'All the day I have stretched out my hands...'19
But if Christ is the speaker, then Paul is stressing Christ's love for his people, and the language need not be understood as anthropomorphic, since Christ had literal hands. Of course, the "day" when Christ most definitively spread out his hands was the day of his Passion, when in the ultimate act of divine self-humiliation, the One "existing in the form of God" "humbled himself" even to "death on a cross" (Phil. 2:6-8).

Still more can be said. Seifrid adds that 
The expression ["all day long I have stretched out my hands"] indirectly also recalls the suffering to which believers in Christ are exposed according to Paul's citation of Ps. [43:22(44:23)] in 8:36 ('On account of you, we are put to death all the day').
Indeed, the quotation of Isaiah 65:2 in Romans 10:21 and the quotation of Psalm 43:22(44:23) in Romans 8:36 use the same Greek phrase, holēn tēn hēmeran ("all day long"), and Paul brings it to the front of his quotation of Isaiah 65:2 for emphasis. By gezerah shavah, Paul might well have connected these two passages. The full quotation in Romans 8:36 is, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered" (NRSV), which is interpreted as referring to, inter alia, the "persecution" and "sword" to which believers in Christ are exposed. But the comparison to "sheep to be slaughtered" obviously likens the suffering of believers to the suffering of Christ, who likewise "like a sheep... was led to the slaughter" (Isa. 53:7 NETS).20 And this comparison is not lost on Paul, who earlier in the chapter stated, "we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him" (Rom. 8:17 NRSV).

So we have the following hypothetical analogy between believers' suffering and Christ's:
Believers go as sheep to the slaughter [Romans 8:36/Ps. 43:22] //
  just as Christ went as a sheep to the slaughter [Isaiah 53:7] 
Believers are killed all day long [Romans 8:36/Ps. 43:22] //
   just as Christ stretched out his hands all day long (on the cross) [Romans 10:21/Isaiah 65:2]
Lastly, although less relevant to interpreting Paul, it is worth noting that the Gospel of John contains some significant parallels. In John, Jesus' death is described as his being "lifted up" (lemma: hupsoō, John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32-34) and "glorified" (lemma: doxazō, John 12:23; 13:31). These two verbs correspond to Isaiah 52:13 LXX, which says of the Servant figure that "he shall be exalted (lemma: hupsoō) and glorified (lemma: doxazō) exceedingly". It is well established in biblical scholarship both that John is alluding to Isaiah 52:13 and that he is using the verb hupsoō with a double meaning, by which Jesus' physical "lifting up" on the cross was also his "lifting up" in the sense of exaltation.21 This use of Isaiah 52:13 LXX by John closely parallels how we are suggesting Paul may have understood Isaiah 65:2 LXX. John has taken a verb from Isaiah 52:13 that originally had a metaphorical meaning (the Servant was "lifted up" in exaltation) and added a second meaning by extending it physically to Christ's crucifixion (being "lifted up" on a cross). In like manner, my suggestion is that Paul may have taken the phrase "All day long I stretched out my hands" in Isaiah 65:2, which originally had a metaphorical meaning ("I patiently implored") and added a second meaning by extending it physically to Christ's crucifixion (stretching out one's hands on a cross all day long). Furthermore, just as stretching out one's hands is a gesture (of imploring), so John also understands Christ's crucifixion as a gesture (of "drawing," perhaps as fish into a net, John 12:32). Finally, just as Paul drew a comparison between Christ's suffering and that of his followers, so John draws an implicit comparison between Christ's being "glorified" in his death (and God in him), and Peter's "death by which he would glorify God"—which, coincidentally, is said to involve Peter stretching out his hands (John 21:18).22

We have made the case at some length that Paul likely understood Christ as the Lord who speaks the words of Isaiah 65:2 and possibly understood the words "All day long I stretched out my hands towards a disobedient and contrary people" with reference to Christ's crucifixion. Again, neither of these claims can be proven conclusively; Paul simply does not give us enough information about his understanding of Isaiah 65:2 to verify them or rule them out. However, there is enough circumstantial evidence to make them an intriguing possibility.

What is certain is that the next-earliest Christian interpretation of Isaiah 65:2 that is on record does interpret it as a prophecy about the cross, and that this interpretation was widely held in the early patristic period. To this witness we now turn.



The Epistle of Barnabas is a homiletic text dating to the early second century A.D., probably c. 130, written either in Alexandria or Syro-Palestine.23 It was not written by Paul's associate Barnabas, and indeed does not claim to have been—it is anonymous. In surveying the Jewish Scriptures for testimony about baptism and the cross, the writer says,
But we should look closely to see if the Lord was concerned to reveal anything in advance about the water and the cross … In a similar way he makes another declaration about the cross in another prophet [cites 4 Ezra 4.33, 5.5, Exodus 17:8-13] … And again in another prophet he says, ‘All day long I have stretched out my hands to a disobedient people that opposes my upright path.’ ... [continues by citing Numbers 21:4-9] (Barn. 11.1, 12.1, 12.4)24
It is clear from the way the quotation of Isaiah 65:2 is introduced that the writer has understood it to be a "declaration about the cross." Interestingly, Barnabas follows the same word order in the quotation as Paul in Romans 10:21, with holēn tēn hēmeran fronted for emphasis. This may indicate that Barnabas is following Romans,25 or that Barnabas and Romans are following a shared early Christian tradition concerning this text.


In his Dialogue with Trypho, writing about three decades after Barnabas (but with some material perhaps contemporaneous with it),26 Justin follows the same interpretation:
Isaiah likewise foretold the manner of his [the Lord’s] death in these words: 'I have stretched out my hands to an unbelieving and contradicting people, who walk in a way that is not good.' (Dialogue 97.2)27

Another two decades or so after Justin, the Bishop of Lugdunum (Lyons) writes, 
And again, concerning His Cross, Isaias says as follows: 'I have stretched forth my hands all the day to a stubborn and contrary people'; for this is a figure of the Cross. (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 79)28

The prolific Carthaginian polemicist wrote his work Against the Jews around the beginning of the third century, another two decades or so after Irenaeus. Once again, he interprets it as one of several biblical prophecies about Christ's Passion: 
From this it is also clear that the city was due to be destroyed at the same time as when its leader was having to suffer in it, in accordance with the writings of the prophets who say, ‘I have stretched out my hands for the whole day to a people who are stubborn and speaking against me and who walk not in a way that is good but after their own sins.’ Likewise in the psalms, ‘They have destroyed my hands and my feet. They have counted all my bones. Moreover, they themselves have seen and considered me’, and ‘in my thirst they have given me vinegar to drink.’ (Against the Jews 13.10)29

The Didascalia Apostolorum is a pseudepigraphic church order document, originally written in Greek but surviving only in Syriac. It is usually dated around the beginning of the third century with a Syrian provenance.30 The text says the following about our passage:
For when our Lord came to the People, they did not believe Him when He taught them, but put away His teaching from their ears. Therefore, because this People was not obedient, He received you, the brethren who are of the Gentiles… But concerning the People, who believed not in Him, He said thus: 'I spread forth my hands all the day long to a people that obey not and resist, and walk in a way that is not good, and go after their sins: a people that is provoking before me.' (Didascalia Apostolorum 21.15)31
It is certain that the author understood Isaiah 65:2 to have been spoken by "our Lord," Christ, concerning his rejection by the Jews. It is not clear whether "I spread forth my hands all the day long" is taken to refer to the cross or to his imploration of the Jews more generally.


Another early third-century work is Hippolytus of Rome's Blessings of Moses, which survives in Armenian and Georgian versions. No English translation has been published, to my knowledge; what follows is my translation of a French translation:
It is possible to hear this also of the future coming of the Lord. For he who on Mount Sinai appeared to Moses, he, with the Angels, will come and save the saints from their persecuting and oppressing enemies, thus sparing those who have hoped in him. For he says: 'All the sanctified ones (are) under your hands' [Deut. 33:3]. For cover and shelter for all, who could it be but the Lord who has stretched out his hands and sanctified all who run to him, as the hen (does) to cover her chicks? [Matt. 23.37] And Ezra, in a prophetic voice, said the same thing: 'Blessed is the Lord who has stretched out his hands and revived Jerusalem!' [4 Ezra 7.27] And, through Isaiah, He rails against the rebels and says, 'All day long have I stretched out my hands to the rebellious people.' And here Moses says, 'All the sanctified ones (are) under your hands, even these are under you.' (Blessings of Moses 320)32

It seems clear from the reference to the Lord's future coming with the angels and the likely allusion to Matthew 23:37 that "the Lord" here refers to Christ. It is not certain whether Hippolytus has understood Christ to have "stretched out his hands" on the cross or in a more general imploring sense.


Writing in the mid-third century, Novatian clearly interprets our text with reference to the cross.
(6) For Divine Scripture often mentions things that have not yet been done as already done, because they are eventually going to be done; and it foretells things which are certainly about to happen, not as though they are going to happen in the future, but rather as though they had already happened. (7) In fact, though Christ had not yet been born in the time of Isaiah the prophet, Isaiah stated: ‘For a child is born to us.’ And although Mary had not yet been approached, he said: ‘And I went to the prophetess and she conceived and bore a son.’ (8) Though Christ had not yet made known the divine secrets of the Father, Isaiah stated: ‘And His name will be called the Angel of Great Counsel.’ (9) He had not yet suffered, and the prophet declared: ‘He was led as a sheep to the throat-cutter.’ (10) As yet there had been no Cross, and he stated: ‘All the day long I have stretched out My hands to an unbelieving people.’ (On the Trinity 28.6-10)33
Novatian writes in Latin, but like the second-century Epistle of Barnabas and like Hippolytus (if the Armenian word order is true to the Greek), his word order in the quotation matches that of Paul in Romans 10:21.


Novatian's contemporary in North Africa quotes Isaiah 65:2 in a list of proof texts adduced to prove "That the Jews would fasten Christ to the Cross" (Ad Quirinum 2.20).34


The view that "I stretched out my hands all day long towards a disobedient and contrary people" (Isaiah 65:2) was a prophecy spoken by Christ was widely held in the second and third centuries, from Alexandria/Syro-Palestine in the East to Carthage, Rome, and Gaul in the West. Most of these writers are, furthermore, clear that they understand the prophecy to refer to Christ's crucifixion, the stretching out of his hands on the cross.

We cannot be certain about the origin of this exegetical tradition. It could stem from reflection directly on Isaiah 65:2 LXX, or indirectly via Romans 10:21. However, given what we argued in the first part of this article—that Paul himself likely understood it as a prophecy spoken by Christ and possibly even about the cross—the possibility cannot be discounted that the crucifixion interpretation of Isaiah 65:2 goes back to the Apostle to the Gentiles himself.

  • 1 Cp. Isa. 1:15; 1 Kings 8:22, 38; Ps. 143:6; Lam. 1:17. "However, in marked contrast with the other verses, which speak of human supplication vis-à-vis the Deity, here, paradoxically, the Deity is begging for the attention of inattentive humans" (Shalom M. Paul, Isaiah 40-66: Translation & Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012], 592); similarly, J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 524.
  • 2 The translation follows Moisés Silva's, except that I have translated πρὸς with "towards" rather than "to" ("Esaias," in New English Translation of the Septuagint, ed. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright [New York: Oxford University Press, 2007], 874). Both are within the semantic range of pros + accusative. Greek text is taken from Septuaginta, ed. Joseph Ziegler (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983), 14:355.
  • 3 BDAG 307; cf. J. Lust, E. Eynikel, & K. Hauspie, A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint, 2 vols. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1992), 1:139.
  • 4 Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 400); "Admittedly, Isa. 65:1 speaks in the first instance of Israel's disobedience" (Mark A. Seifrid, "Romans," in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007], 665).
  • 5 Paul, Isaiah 40-66, 592.
  • 6 Silva, "Esaias," 14:355. The Greek terms are emphanēs egenomēn and eurethēn.
  • 7 In quoting Isaiah 65:1, the verbal expressions emphanēs egenomēn and eurethēn beginning vv. 1a and 1b have been inverted. The preposition en seems to have been inserted between eurethēn and tois, changing "by those" to "among those," although this is text-critically uncertain. "Among those" would imply that only some Gentiles had found God, not the Gentiles in general.
  • 8 "In their original context these words from Isaiah 65:1 (‘I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me …’) seem to refer to rebellious Israel; but, as in his application of the Hosea prophecy, Paul recognizes here a principle which in the situation of his day is applicable to Gentiles, and the LXX wording...lent support to this application"  (F. F. Bruce, Romans: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1985), 207–208).
  • 9 "The prepositional phrase πρὸς τὸν Ἰσραὴλ that introduces the final citation in this pericope should be taken as 'in reference to Israel' rather than as a direct address, 'to Israel.' The particle δέ appears again with the sense of 'but,' indicating that the address to the Gentiles in v. 20 shifts to Israel in v. 21" (Robert Jewett and Roy David Kotansky, Romans: A Commentary [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006], 648–649); "πρὸς δὲ τὸν Ἰσραὴλ λέγει, 'but concerning Israel he says'... Paul specifies Israel as the target, thereby making still clearer the point that v 20 referred to Gentiles" (James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9–16 [Dallas: Word, 1988], 626–627).
  • 10 E.g., Dunn, Romans 9-16, 626-27; Jewett and Kotansky, Romans, 626-67; Seifrid, "Isaiah," 667; Joseph A. Fitzmyer S.J., Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, (New Haven; Yale University Press, 2008), 600; James R. Edwards, Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 257–258; Richard N. Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 858–860; Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 687–688.
  • 11 "The historical question of when Isa 65:1–2 was first divided into two parts—the first verse speaking about Gentiles who have responded positively to God; the second verse speaking about the people of Israel who have been 'disobedient and obstinate'—will probably never be answered. It may have been done by Paul himself here in Rom 10:20–21—or, perhaps more likely, by some earlier Christian apostle or teacher in the Jerusalem church or in the congregations of Syrian Antioch" (Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans, 858–860).
  • 12 France, Romans, 208. Similarly, "Paul cites the text typologically in precisely this sense: God's dealings with Israel in the past have been recapitulated in the present" (Seifrid, "Romans," 666).
  • 13 "Traces of the apostle's Jewish identity can be seen in... the reception of manifold requirements and methods of Jewish biblical exegesis at the time (Qal Wa-homer in Rom 5.9f. and elsewhere; Gezerah shavah in Rom. 4.1-12 and elsewhere, Midrash-exegesis in Gal. 3.6-14 and Rom. 4; typology in 1 Cor. 10.1-13; allegory in Gal. 4.21-31)" (Oda Wischmeyer, Paul: Life, Setting, Work, Letters, trans. Helen S. Heron with revisions by Dieter T. Roth [London: T&T Clark, 2012], 77); "there can be no doubt that Paul does at times employ a Stichwort approach in adducing Old Testament citations (e.g. gezerah shavah)" (James M. Scott, "'For as Many as are of Works of the Law are under a Curse' (Galatians 3.10)," in Paul and the Scriptures of Israel, ed. Craig A. Evans and James A. Sanders [London: Bloomsbury, 1993/2015], 191).
  • 14 David Instone Brewer explains that gezerah shavah encompasses two rules. The first is "the definition of an ill-defined word or phrase in one text by its use in another text where its meaning is clearer. It does not attempt to survey all the possible uses of the word or phrase throughout the Scripture but it assumes that the meaning of a word in one text is always the same as its meaning in another." The second is "the interpretation of one text in the light of another text to which it is related by a shared word or phrase. The two texts are often concerned with the same subject, but the existence of the same word or phrase in two texts can suggest a relationship between them even if they are concerned with completely unrelated subjects" (Techniques and Assumptions in Jewish Exegesis before 70 CE [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1992], 17-18).
  • 15 "in Rom. 4:1-8 Paul combines Gen. 15:6 with Ps. 32:1-2 on the basis of the verb logizomai, which both texts have in common. This is an application of the rule called 'analogy' (gezerah shavah) by the Rabbis." (Klaus Haacker, The Theology of Paul's Letter to the Romans [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003], 102).
  • 16 "The LXX rendering [of Isaiah 65:2] may pick up the concrete expression of Israel's rebellion as it is portrayed in context, which includes dismissal of the 'word of the LORD' (Isa. 65:3-7, 12; 66:3-5; also 59:1-15)" (Seifrid, "Isaiah," 667).
  • 17 "if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord... you will be saved...the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him" (vv. 10, 12). Paul pairs the quotation from Joel with one from Isaiah 28:16 about the precious stone of which "the one who believes in him will not be put to shame". This can only be Christ in Paul's understanding; yet Paul identifies the referent of Isaiah 28:16 and Joel 2:32 as the same: "But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?" (v. 14)
  • 18 "The nation refuses to 'call on the name of the (risen) Lord' (10:3-4, 13)—the very charge that the Lord brings in Isaiah (Isa. 65:1b; cf. 64:7)" (Seifrid, "Isaiah," 667).
  • 19 "Romans," 667.
  • 20 That is, according to the early Christian interpretation of the Servant Song of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, which we know that Paul followed, based on his quotation of Isaiah 53:1 in Romans 10:16 and his quotation of Isaiah 52:15 in Romans 15:21.
  • 21 See, e.g., Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 63-67; James M. Hamilton, Jr., God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 414f; Bruce R. Reichenbach, "Soteriology in the Gospel of John," Themelios 46 (2021): 578-81.
  • 22 The verb is a different one, ekteinō, meaning "extend" (e.g., to receive irons) rather than "spread out" as ekpetannumi in Isaiah 65:2. So the verbal parallel is not compelling, but it is interesting nonetheless that, for John, an action of extending the hands was suitable language to describe an apostle's death that glorifies God like Christ's did.
  • 23 So Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 2:7-8.
  • 24 Trans. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, 2:53, 57.
  • 25 An early 20th century work on the use of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers rates it as "B" (highly probable) on a scale from A to D that the author of Barnabas knew Romans (A Committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology, The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (Oxford: Clarendon, 1905).
  • 26 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]).
  • 27 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), 148; see also Dialogue 114.2; 1 Apology 38.1.
  • 28 St. Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, trans. Joseph P. Smith (Westminster: Newman, 1952), 97.
  • 29 Trans. Geoffrey D. Dunn, Tertullian (London: Routledge, 2004), 68-69.
  • 30 Joel Marcus, "The 'Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs' and 'Didascalia Apostolorum': A Common Jewish Christian Milieu?", Journal of Theological Studies 61 (2010): 600-602.
  • 31 Trans. R. Hugh Connolly, Didascalia Apostolorum (Oxford: Clarendon, 1929), 185.
  • 32 French original: "Il est possible d'entendre aussi ceci de la venue future du Seigneur. Car, celui qui, sur le Mont Sinaï, est apparu à Moïse, celui-là, avec des Anges, viendra et sauvera les Saints de leurs ennemis persécuteurs et oppresseurs, épargnant ainsi (à) ceux qui auront espéré en Lui, (la défaite). Car il dit: «Tous les sanctifies (sont) sous tes mains». Car couverture et abri pour tous, qui peut l’être, sinon le Seigneur qui a étendu ses mains et sanctifié tous ceux qui courent à Lui, comme la poule (fait) pour couvrir ses poussins? Et Esdras, d’une voix prophétique, a dit la même chose: «Béni est le Seigneur qui a étendu ses mains et fait revivre Jérusalem!» Et, par Isaïe, Il vitupère les rebelles et dit: «J’ai étendu mes mains tout le jour vers le people rebelle». Et ici, Moïse dit: «Tous les sanctifies (sont) sous tes mains, et ceux-ci sont sous toi»." (Maurice Brière, Louis Mariès & B.-Ch. Mercier, "Bénédictions de Moïse," in Patrologia Orientalis 27.1-2 [Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1954], 130-31).
  • 33 Novatian, The Trinity, The Spectacles, Jewish Foods, In Praise of Purity, Letters, trans. Russell J. deSimone (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1974), 96.
  • 34 Trans. A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1840), 3:56.

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)

Conclusion


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.