Was God ‘Pleased’ to Punish Christ? Isaiah 53 in the Septuagint

Was God Pleased to Punish Christ? Isaiah 53 in the LXX

Between the writings of the fathers and our liturgical hymnography, there are a number of different analogies or explanations for the purpose behind the death of Christ.

For example, some have spoken of it as a ransom for the devil, while the majority of Orthodox hymns and liturgical references point to the death of Christ as defeating death itself, eliminating the corruption—both psychical and physical—that resulted from Adam’s transgression.

As the great Paschal hymn says:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

And on the other hand, the Synodikon of Orthodoxy:

The Church which is purified from the blood offered to demons by the blood which flowed in mercy from your side cries aloud to you, Lord: I will offer you a sacrifice of praise!

Christ’s death (and resurrection) was for restoring fellowship between an incorruptible and Life-giving God and a corrupt and death-tainted humanity. It was to re-connect (a literal interpretation of “religion”) man with God.

One can certainly see in many of the fathers an emphasis on Christ’s death for our sins in the sense that He died in order to remove (expiate) our sins and create in us a clean heart (cf. Psalm 50/51, a process that is begun in Baptism and renewed through Confession and the reception of the Eucharist “for the remission of sins and life everlasting”). While the idea of Christ being our substitute is present in some writings, it is not necessarily a central point. We must remember that Christ did not suffer so that we wouldn’t have to. Rather, He died so that we could also handle suffering along with him—unto the resurrection of life.

On the other hand, noticeably lacking (with a few exceptions) in the Orthodox Church is a “penal” or vengeful theory of the atonement; that is, that Christ was punished by the Father on the Cross in order to appease the Father’s wrath and anger towards us. Many eastern scholars have attributed this more closely with paganism than Christianity, to be blunt. Instead, the scriptures of the New Testament explain that Christ’s death shows the incomprehensible love of God towards humanity (Rom. 5:8), and not His anger/wrath—while we were yet sinners.

Attempts to explain God’s wrath or anger towards the Son creates not only both an economic and ontological Trinitarian nightmare, but also presumes that one could somehow understand God’s “feelings” beyond mere anthropomorphisms, which ever and again fall tremendously short of the truth. God is not emotional as we are, filled with passions and subject to change. He is as constant as the northern star.

In studying the history of the penal theory of the atonement, it becomes apparent that a key scripture text for its justification is Isaiah 53. Two portions of this prophecy are most noteworthy, verses 4 and 10. These are rendered in the Tanakh (i.e. the Masoretic Text, via the Aleppo and Leningrad Codices, ca. A.D. 940–1008) as follows:

53:4 – Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing, our suffering that he endured. We accounted him plagued, smitten and afflicted by God.

53:10 - But the LORD chose to crush him by disease, that, if he made himself an offering for guilt, he might see offspring and have long life; And that through him the LORD’s purpose might prosper.

In the rabbinical (post-Christian, Judaic) understanding, this passage—and the Suffering Servant figure of Isaiah—is a reference to the people of Israel as a whole, but not to any one person. The Alexandrian presbyter Origen mentions this interpretation among the rabbis of his own day (A.D. 284):

Now I remember that, on one occasion, at a disputation held with certain Jews, who were reckoned wise men, I quoted these prophecies; to which my Jewish opponent replied, that these predictions bore reference to the whole people, regarded as one individual, and as being in a state of dispersion and suffering, in order that many proselytes might be gained, on account of the dispersion of the Jews among numerous heathen nations. —Contra Celsum 1.55

Despite attempts to make the Suffering Servant the nation of Israel as a whole, Christians have always seen this as a reference to the sufferings of Christ, who in His own life re-capitulated and fulfilled the entirety of the life of Israel. Just as Christ is the new and true Temple, He is also the new and true Israel.

The Great Isaiah Scroll (1Q Isa, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 20th century) shows a similar, but slightly different reading than the medieval text:

53:4 - אכן חולי‸י‸נו הואה נשא ומכאובינו סבלם ואנחנו חשבנוהו נגוע ומוכה אלוהים ומעונה

53:10 – ויהוה חפץ דכאו ויחללהו אם תשים אשם נפשו יראה זרע ויארך ימים וחפץ יהוה בידו יצלח

In both manuscripts, the Suffering Servant is “afflicted” and “struck down” by God, with the statement made that the Lord (Yahweh) chose and was willing to “crush” him—both by disease and suffering (depending on the reading). While only speculation, it is possible that a scribal error has produced crush instead of purify in v. 10, as דָּכָא (crush) could’ve been wrongly copied instead of זָכָה (clean/purify), close to the Aramaic דְּכָא (which means clean or pure, as in a moral sense).

The oldest manuscript of this text—the Greek translation(s) of the Old Testament or Septuagint—presents a reading of Isaiah 53 that is slightly different from both Hebrew readings:

53:4 – This one bears our sins and suffers pain for us, and we accounted him to be in trouble and calamity and ill-treatment.

53:10 – And the Lord desires to cleanse him from his blow. If you offer for sin, your soul shall see a long-lived offspring.

While the idea of substitution is arguably present in the Septuagint (LXX), a “penal” notion of the appeasement of a vengeful deity is not. There is no reference to God striking down the Servant or afflicting him, nor is God willing to crush him (through either disease or suffering). Instead, v. 10 shows that the Lord “desires to cleanse him from his blow,” which would align with an idea of a copyist’s oversight in the Hebrew. The “trouble” and “calamity” experienced by the Suffering Servant is also not blamed on God in the Greek, as it seems to be in both Hebrew manuscripts.

If the Jews read Isaiah 53 as the sufferings of Israel as a whole, would it not be comforting to believe that this suffering was being done under the providential hand of God, rather than random and meaningless suffering? Considering that the fulfillment of this prophecy and its adjoined promises have not come to pass for the Jewish people as a whole—if we read it according to their interpretation—the idea of an error is less likely, with an intentional change in meaning more probable.

It certainly begs the question and could lead one to speculate further on the discrepancies between the older Greek and the more recent Hebrew editions of this prophecy. Unfortunately, we can’t examine either Theodotion or Aquila’s Greek translations (second century A.D.), as they are both lost.

I don’t propose to have a definitive answer to this dilemma, but I do find it interesting that—in the first millennium of Church history, prior to the composition and editing of the Masoretic Text (10th–11th centuries)—there was no predominant explanation of the atonement that explicitly agrees with the “penal” theory, a view that has become predominate in the West and especially within Protestantism, following the work of Anselm of Canterbury. Worthy of note is the fact that all Protestant and most Roman Catholic translations of the Old Testament today are (largely) based upon the medieval Hebrew text.


  1. Joel J. Miller says

    Thanks for sharing this analysis. Besides being very useful in itself, it’s a great example of how the church guides us to proper understanding — even in something so basic as a favored text (LXX vs. Masoretic).

  2. Eric Jobe says

    Gabe, forgive me for coming to this late, but I stumbled upon this post of yours, and I wanted to make a few remarks about it.

    (1) There are no lexical differences between the MT and DSS manuscripts, with the exception of החלי->ויהחללהו, which is only a change in equivalent verb conjugations (perfect to waw-consecutive).

    (2) 1QIsa preserves the daleth in דכא

    (3) The Hebrew word for “purify” is זכה with a final heh, not aleph, so a miscopying of that word would not only involve the daleth-zayin confusion, but also heh-aleph, which is far less likely.

    (4) דכא and החלי are in a hendiadys relationship “bruise and put to grief.” To change the one to “purify” destroys the poetic figure, making it all the more unlikely.

    (5) It is more likely, given scribal habits, that the change from דכא to זכה was made during translation, not copying, because…

    (6) It is common for the LXX translators to do this sort of thing when they encounter theology in the Hebrew that they either do not understand or disagree with. In other words, the LXX translator bristled at the idea the same as we do.

    (7) Ascribing agency to God for the sufferings of the Suffering Servant does not have to be understood in a penal sense. I think we could all say that it was the Father’s will that Christ suffer, even as Christ himself said, “Not My will be done, but Thine.” In v. 10, it says that it was the will of Yahweh to bruise him, using חפץ (pi’el) “he desired.” Later in the verse, it says that it was “the pleasure of Yahweh to prosper Him by His hand” using חפץ (noun). So, we are to understand the pleasure of Yahweh (or his will) to bruise the Suffering Servant within the context of ultimately prospering him (יצלח).

    So then, there is no textual reason why we should posit that the Hebrew original read זכה, since (a) there is no Hebrew manuscript record of this (b) the switch from דכא to זכה is not likely, and (c) the change can be easily attributed to the theological predilections of the LXX translator. Most importantly, the suffering of the Servant can be understood as expiation alone, and not having anything to do with penalty, which is not semantically stated in either version.

    I don’t think we should jump too quickly to find corruption in the Hebrew text when we don’t need to. I fear that the result is an unnecessary vilification of the Hebrew Bible, which (although sometimes obscured) is a part of the history and tradition of the Sacred Scriptures. People are lead to believe that the Hebrew text is corrupt, and in most cases it just isn’t. What we are usually dealing with is a change from an uncorrupt Hebrew text to the LXX, sometimes unintentional, and sometimes intentional. In these cases, the contrast helps us understand the text even better, as if the Scriptural tradition itself is multi-dimensional or dynamic as it moves from Hebrew into Greek. We should embrace the differences and work with them, not try to sweep them under the rug of “textual corruption.”

    Thanks for considering these points. I don’t mean to be overly-critical, rather I simply want to foster what I think is a more fair analysis of the Hebrew text.

    • says


      Thanks for your comments, even on such an old post.

      I’m not as invested in Hebrew scholarship as someone like yourself, so forgive me for any shortcomings I have in that area. I am committed to Orthodox Tradition, of course, and so—following St. Augustine—I respect both Hebrew and Greek textual traditions, while always giving preference, and never eliminating, the Greek. That is the only motivation behind this reflection, not any hatred of the Hebrew textual tradition.

      1. Thanks for this note. My DSS access in the original language was rather limited when I first wrote this in 2012, so I was relying on what I could find at the time.

      2. Granted, although, in my understanding, the Greek likely predates the Dead Sea Scrolls, so this does not overrule the possibility of a change in the Hebrew after its initial translation.

      3. I don’t know if I agree that it’s unlikely simply because it would require two oversights instead of one. It seems like a simple mistake to make, given the visual similarities. Either way, I grant that this was only speculation (as stated in the original article).

      4. Maybe, maybe not. I think this is based on presuppositions about a language far-removed from those studying what we know as Hebrew today. I can’t really say much beyond this, as it’s beyond my purview.

      5. I realize you hang your hat on scholarship in this realm, so you have more at stake in this than I do—I’m just an amateur. But I will say that if they changed things in translation (as they often did), it was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and is correct—no matter what historical-critical studies into the ancient Hebrew text/language might either speculate or arguably demonstrate.

      6. This is possibly an assertion based on presuppositions about the LXX translators that I do not share. Unless I’m reading you incorrectly—if so, forgive me. I think it is ridiculous and even arrogant to assume we understand a dead language (Masoretic and Modern Hebrew are not the Hebrew of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and David) better than the LXX translators, which—according to tradition—were Jewish scribes and masters of both the language and theology of the scriptures. While my Protestant colleagues and scholars at work will tell me the LXX translators are often wrong or don’t know what they’re talking about, I can only breathe a heavy sigh in frustration. I don’t share such a dim view of the LXX translators. If something differs between the Hebrew and the Greek—following Augustine—I assume the Greek is correct, but we should not throw out either. Both are valid in their own right, but the Hebrew does not overrule the Greek. We also don’t have the Hebrew of the LXX translators’ day, as I understand it. There were multiple textual traditions in the Hebrew, just as with other writings (like the NT in Greek).

      7. This is a great point. I certainly agree that such a reading is not necessary, but I doubt Western interpreters dedicated to the penal theory would agree! I don’t reject the idea of the Son experiencing the penalty of sin (suffering, death) on the Cross, of course—it is the idea that the Father took “pleasure” in this that I find abhorrent, and so too do most Orthodox theologians of which I’m aware. That was the main point of this article, not necessarily the suffering part in-and-of-itself. I probably wasn’t clear enough, but this article was already longer than I wanted it to be when I first wrote it.

      On your concluding thoughts, (a) I don’t find a lack of Hebrew evidence for the change in terms compelling, as we don’t even have the Hebrew of this text prior to the DSS. The MT is a heavily revised, edited, and modified edition of the text, including key errors (missing a whole line of an acrostic Psalm, for example), (b) We can agree to disagree that it’s unlikely for the mistake to have been made, and (c) the change is certainly possible, but I would not ascribe negative connotations to such, if this is in fact the case (It’s possible you aren’t either, but I’m not certain on this point—again, forgive me if I’ve read you wrong!).

      Also, I think we both agree that the text (in whatever language) does not require the penal interpretation. I think this is harder to maintain, but it is certainly possible.

      And let me assert again that my point in this is not to attack the Hebrew text. Following St. Augustine, I think the Hebrew text (at least the one he had access to, along with Jerome) is divinely-inspired and venerable. Yes, it differs from the Greek, and we should never let the Hebrew reading override the Greek, but they are both valuable in the life of the Church (and scholarship).

      In response to this, however, I must say that my experience has been the exact opposite. Working closely with scholars from a critical and Protestant background has shown me that most approach the LXX with suspicion and even animosity. The translators are called “clueless.” This is the attitude I’m most commonly experiencing, and so forgive me if I don’t bow down to the latest of critical, largely-Protestant, anti-Traditional scholarship! My fidelity belongs to the Church, and the Church has made clear in several ways that the LXX is to be preferred. It is not the only text we should consult, but it is the first, as Pelikan once wrote. So again, forgive me if my words in the original article came off as “corruption” in an attacking sense; it was rather speculation and an attempt to understand why these discrepancies may have entered into the textual tradition between Greek and Hebrew.

      I appreciate your comments! Thank you, again.

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