2018-12-15

Jewish Understandings of a Suffering Messiah before the Christian Era (4)

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by Neil Godfrey

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The witnesses to a Jewish, pre-Christian, belief in a Suffering Messiah that we have heard from so far:

  1. Ecclesiasticus,
    • Interpreted the Servant Songs in Isaiah as references to a new coming of Elijah as the messiah.
  2. the Testament of Benjamin,
    • Attributed to a messiah from the tribe of Joseph the atoning death found in Isaiah’s Servant chapters.
  3. and the Parables of Enoch.
    • Describe a messianic figure whose attributes are taken from Isaiah’s Servant passages.
  4. the Peshitta
    • A pre-Christian translation portraying Isaiah’s Servant chapters as references to the messiah.
  5. the Gospel of Luke
    • The mocking expression “the chosen one” most probably derives from pre-Christian

6. Aquila’s “leper messiah” translation of the OT

Aquila’s agenda was to replace the Septuagint that was seen as allowing too much room for Christian interpretations of the messiah. We must accept that Aquila was drawing upon pre-Christian interpretations of the messiah “bearing our sicknesses” to justify his translation.

At the beginning of the second century A.D.263 Aquila completed in Palestine a new translation of the O.T. into Greek, designed to replace the LXX, as the latter offered Christians too much scope for the production of christological proof-texts.264 Aquila’s interpretation of the servant in Isa. 53 is to be inferred, inter alia, from his agreement with Test. B. 3.8 in the understanding of Isa. 53.5,265 and from his exegesis of 53.9 as referring to the judgement which the servant holds; messianism is implicit at both points.266 Further, Aquila translates (according to Jerome) נגיע (Isa. 53.4) by άφημένον267 (leprous, cf. Vulgate: quasi leprosum), a translation which is explained by the fact that the past participle of נגע in postbiblical Hebrew (Pu’al) and Aramaic (Pa’el) has the meaning ‘leprous’. For our question this translation is very illuminating because the exegesis ‘leper’ for Isa. 53.4 is met with also in rabbinic literature and is here referred to the Messiah.268

We are thinking of two places in B. Sanh. 98 which alone in the Talmud, along with a late Midrash text,269 have preserved the curious conception of a leprous Messiah.270 One text is B. Sanh. 98b, from circa A.D. 200.271 In an enumeration of messianic titles it is here said ‘And the teachers said “the leprous one”, those of the House of Rabbi272 said “the sick man” is his name, for it is written: “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, but we thought him stricken with leprosy (? גגו ), smitten and tormented by God” (Isa. 53.4)’.273 The other text is B. Sanh. 98a (alleged experience of R. Jehoshua’ ben Levi, circa A.D. 250), where it is described how the Messiah sits outside the gates of Rome among the wretched people who ‘bear pain’ (cf. Isa. 53-4),274 and alone among them unbinds and binds just one wound at a time, so that without delay he may fulfil the summons to save Israel.

Aquila’s translation of Isa. 53 permits us to trace back this reference of Isa. 53.4 to the leprous Messiah as far as A.D. 100.275 But we must go back yet a step further; the messianic interpretation of Isa. 53.4 cannot have arisen first circa A.D. 100, for quite apart from the messianic exegesis of Isa. 53 in Test. B. (cf. p. 57) and Peshitta (cf. p. 60), it is completely out of the question that the Jews should have begun to interpret messianically the passion texts of Isa. 53 only at a time when Christians were already using Isa. 53 as the decisive christological proof text.276

(Jeremias, 63 f.)

To see how Aquila’s translation is dated to the beginning of the second century scroll down to the end of the this post where you will see the footnote #263.

I had intended at the start of this series to copy the footnotes but have changed my mind at this point because of frustrations with trying to make Hebrew fonts behave was driving me insane.

7. Theodotion’s second century translation

Theodotian displayed a combative anti-Christian bias in his translation of Isaiah 53. Yet the alternative translations he supplied portrayed other roles of the messianic figure. If Christians found in these verses a messiah interceding for transgressors and even being counted among them, Theodotian replaced those passages with another figure who was judgmental and punishing evil doers, and holding himself aloof from them. Either way, he could not avoid a messianic figure.

The translation of Aquila was followed by that of Theodotion277 in the second century A.D.278 Theodotion too interpreted Isa. 53 in a messianic sense. This stands out most plainly from his translation of the concluding sentence of the chapter. Isa. 53 (M.T.) . . . . . The verb . . . means ‘to have to do with a person’, either in bonam partem — ‘to intercede’ — or in malam partem — ‘to attack someone’. The Heb. text certainly had intended the first meaning, to judge by the context: ‘and he made intercession for the transgressors’. The following understand it correctly: the N.T. (Rom. 8.34; Heb. 7.25; I John 2.1 f.), Justin,280 the Vulgate,281 Targum,282 B. Talmud,293 also the very free rendering of the LXX (καί διά τάς αμαρτίας αύτών παρεδόθη) alluding to martyrdom has understood הפגיע in bonam partem. For the first time Peshitta understands the verb in malam partem,284 as also does Aquila who translated, according to Pseud. Chrys. (n. 278): ‘occurret irridentibus eum‘, and Symmachus: καί τοΐς άθετοΰσιν (contradicentibus Pseud. Chrys.) άντέστη (Cod. 86) ‘and he opposed those who rejected him’. In Theodotion this interpretation in malam partem continues; he translates ‘et impios torquebit (Pseud. Chrys.). Thus with him the chapter concludes with the quite monstrous image of the servant torturing the godless. If we refuse to accept a crude error on the part of the Pseud. Chrys. text, which has unfortunately only been preserved in Armenian, we shall have to take as our point of departure the fact that LXX, Ά, and Targ. agree to regard Isa. 53.9 as a description of the last judgement,285 and so by ‘torture’ Theodotion is thinking of eternal damnation.286 The fact that he saw in the servant the ultimate judge shows that he interpreted Isa. 53 messianically.287

Since, unlike Aquila and Symmachus, Theodotion did not prepare a new translation, but took the LXX, also in use among the Christians, as his basis and ever and again improved it by reference to the original, it is to be expected that in some of his corrections he was influenced by the intention of excluding christological interpretations which the LXX made possible. The text already discussed (Isa. 53.12 e) arouses this suspicion. That Theodotion replaced the LXX text καί διά τάς αμαρτίας αύτών παρεδόθη is not surprising, since here the LXX had translated very freely. But that Theodotion substituted for the statement of the LXX about the vicarious martyrdom of the servant a phrase which in its offensive harshness was not warranted by the Heb. text (‘and he will torment the impious’) might well be due to dislike of the Christian use of the LXX (cf. Rom. 4.25). Among the few fragments of the Theodotion translation of Isa. 53 his rendering of Isa. 53.12d: . . . . ‘and he was reckoned with the transgressors’, is also very unusual. The LXX here translates καί έν τοΐς ανόμοις έλογίσθη, but Theodotion: καί των άσεβων άπέσχετο (Cod. 86), ‘and he kept aloof from the impious’. The striking feature here is that Theodotion has replaced a completely correct translation of the LXX by one which says exactly the opposite: the servant who is reckoned with the wicked (Heb., LXX, ‘Ά, Σ) has become in Theodotion the servant who holds himself aloof from the wicked.288 In this change again anti-Christian prejudice may have played a part. The text Isa. 53.12d was especially important for Christians (cf. Luke 22.37) because it did not refer in merely general terms to the suffering of the servant, but asserted that vicariously (53.12e) he was numbered with the criminals. More plainly than elsewhere in Isa. 53 they could find here a prophecy of the scandal of the cross. By reversing the meaning of the text Theodotion perhaps wished to make impossible the Christian interpretation.

(Jeremias, 64 ff.)


The Date of Aquila’s Translation

263 The dating of the translation of the O.T. by Aquila is determined by the fact that he was, on the one hand, a pupil of R. Akiba (Jerome on Isa. 8.11 ff. [Migne, PL 24, 119 A]: ‘Akibas quern magi strum Aquilae proselyti autumant’·, J. Qid. I, 1 [59 a 9]), on the other hand of R. Eli’ezer ben Hyrcanos and of R. Jehoshua’ ben Hananiah (J. Meg. I, 11 [71c 9]; the activity of the two last named reached its zenith c. A.D. 90. But R. Jehoshua’ had served in the Temple as a Levite (B.Ar. 11b; Siphre Num. §116 on 18.3; T. Sheq. 2.14) and thus before the destruction of the Temple must have reached the canonical Levitic age of 20, and consequently must have been born before A.D. 50. R. Eli’ezer b. Hyrcanos was still older than R. Jehoshua‘, for he did not begin his studies until the age of 22 or 28 (Pesiqta R. Eli’ezer 1; Gen. R. 42.3 on 14.1; Ab. R. Nat. 6) and he pursued them many years under Rabban Jochanan b. Zakkai before A.D. 70. Thus he must have been born, say between A.D. 30 and A.D. 40 (J. Klausner, Jesus von Nazareth, 1930, 46; cf. R. T. Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash, 1903,142, n. 1; and according to Klausner, op. cit., 65, he was already at an advanced age c. A.D. 80). As far as the date of Eli’ezer’s death is concerned, we know that he died before R. Akiba, hence before A.D. 135 (B. Sanh. 68a); for some time up to his death he was in banishment and was avoided by colleagues and pupils. Since Aquila read his translation both to him and to R. Jehoshua‘ (J. Meg. I, 11 [71c 9]) the latter could hardly have been produced after A.D. no, and more likely earlier.

(p. 62)


Zimmerli, Walther and Joachim Jeremias. 1957. The Servant of God. London : SCM Press.


Two, maybe three, more posts to conclude this series.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 Comments

  • MrHorse
    2018-12-15 00:41:43 GMT+0000 - 00:41 | Permalink

    Aquila’s translation of Isa. 53 permits us to trace back this reference of Isa. 53.4 to the leprous Messiah as far as A.D. 100. But we must go back yet a step further; the messianic interpretation of Isa. 53.4 cannot have arisen first circa A.D. 100, for quite apart from the messianic exegesis of Isa. 53 in Test. B. and Peshitta, it is completely out of the question that the Jews should have begun to interpret messianically the passion texts of Isa. 53 only at a time when Christians were already using Isa. 53 as the decisive christological proof text.

    (Jeremias, 63 f.)

    I agree it was likely that “Aquila was drawing upon pre-Christian interpretations of the messiah” as Neil says before that full quoted passage.

    I would be interested to know more about “Aquila’s agenda was to replace the Septuagint that was seen as allowing too much room for Christian interpretations of the messiah.”

    (It would be interesting to know if he ever hoped to reduce the room for Christian interpretations of the messiah).

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-12-15 03:03:44 GMT+0000 - 03:03 | Permalink

      We will return briefly to Aquila in the context of other rabbinical associates of his in a future post (#6 I think it will be).

  • Bob Moore
    2018-12-15 21:30:05 GMT+0000 - 21:30 | Permalink

    In the last sentence, > …could hardly have been produced after A.D. no… < = "A.D. 90"?

  • Pingback: A Suffering Messiah Before Christianity? — the other side of the question |

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