What is the difference between Isaiah 53 in the Masoretic, Greek Septuagint and the Targum text?

Perhaps the greatest of all Messianic prophecies in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures / the Old Testament) concerning the advent of the Jewish Messiah is found in the 53rd chapter of the prophet Isaiah. This section of the Prophets, also known as the “Suffering Servant,” has been long understood by the historical Rabbis of Judaism to speak of the Redeemer who will one day come to Zion. These accounts differ in who the identity of the Suffering Servant is.

The Babylonian Talmud says: "The Messiah, what is his name? The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, ‘surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted..." (Sanhedrin 98b).

Modern Rabbis of Judaism believe that the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53 refers to Israel, or to Isaiah himself, or even Moses or another of the Jewish prophets. But Isaiah is clear - he speaks of the Messiah, as many ancient rabbis concluded.

The Hebrew text of the Old Testament is called the Masoretic Text because in its present form it is based upon the Masora—the Hebrew, textual tradition of the Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes (or Masorites). The Masoretes were rabbis who made it their special work to correct the faults that had crept into the text of the Old Testament during the Babylonian captivity, and to prevent, for the future, its being corrupted by any alteration. They first separated the apocryphal from the canonical books, and divided the latter into twenty-two books, being the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Then they divided each book into sections and verses.

There is a great difference of opinion as to when the Masoretic Text was written, but it was probably completed in the 10th century AD. Several editions existed, varying considerably, but the received and authoritative text is that of Jacob ben-chayim ibn Adonijah, who carefully sifted and arranged the previous works on the subject. It was published in 1524.

Although the existing copies of the Masoretic Text date back only to the tenth century, two other important textual evidences bolster the confidence of textual critics that it is accurate. The first is the successive discoveries of manuscripts at Qumran by the Dead Sea since 1947. These revealed portions of manuscripts several centuries older than any previously known. The second is the comparison of the Masoretic text to the Greek translation called the Septuagint (or LXX), which was written around 200-150 B.C. The oldest existing manuscripts date back to the fourth century A.D. Both the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal an amazing consistency with the Masoretic Text, assuring that God was divinely and sovereignly protecting His Word through thousands of years of copying and translating.

The Septuagint (also known as the LXX) is a translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek language. The name Septuagint comes from the Latin word for “seventy.” The tradition is that 70 (or 72) Jewish scholars were the translators behind the Septuagint. The Septuagint was translated in the third and second centuries BC in Alexandria, Egypt. As Israel was under the authority of Greece for several centuries, the Greek language became more and more common. By the second and first centuries BC, most people in Israel spoke Greek as their primary language. That is why the effort was made to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek—so that those who did not understand Hebrew could have the Scriptures in a language they could understand. The Septuagint represents the first major effort at translating a significant religious text from one language into another.

In comparing the New Testament quotations of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint was often used. Many of the New Testament quotes from the Hebrew Bible are taken from the Septuagint. This is the result of the fact that by the late first century BC, and especially the first century AD, the Septuagint had “replaced” the Hebrew Bible as the Scriptures most people used. Since most people spoke and read Greek as their primary language, and the Greek authorities strongly encouraged the use of Greek, the Septuagint became much more common than the Hebrew Old Testament.

As faithful as the Septuagint translators strove to be in accurately rendering the Hebrew text into Greek, some translational differences arose. But the fact that the apostles and New Testament authors felt comfortable, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, in using the Septuagint should give assurance that a translation of the original languages of the Bible is still the authoritative Word of God. In this regard there is no interpretive difference of Isaiah 53.

The Targum (plural, Targumim) is an Aramaic paraphrase/explanation/interpretation of the Hebrew text of the Jewish Scriptures provided by the rabbis in the course of teaching. These paraphrases or explanations were not meant to carry equal authority with the Word of God, and it was normally forbidden to record them in writing, just to make sure that no one would equate them with the written Word of God. However, this rule was not always obeyed, and a good many were written down. In some circles, certain of the targumim were considered authoritative. Various rabbis whose targumim were recorded had followers who accepted their explanations as authoritative, and, in some cases, they put them on par with the Word of God. It is against this backdrop that Christ conducted His ministry and often clashed with various sects..“For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.”Mark 7:8

Jesus gave a specific example of the Jews of His day esteeming the Targum over the Word of God: “And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.” Mark 7:9–13

The Targum is useful today to help the modern interpreter understand how certain groups or even a large portion of the population understood a certain passage. In some cases where the meaning of a passage is unclear, we may be able to better understand what the passage intends to say if we can understand the logic of the Targum in question. Again, in this regard there is no interpretive difference of Isaiah 53.

There is a caution here for modern Christians. There are some modern paraphrases of the Bible such as The Living Bibleor, The Message, which some Christians read and study as if those books were the Word of God. These works are NOT translations of the Bible, but paraphrases. They may be helpful in understanding Scripture, much like the Targum is, but they should not be used in place of Scripture. At best, such paraphrases should be supplemental materials.

Likewise, some Christians may accept the interpretations of a certain Bible teacher or pastor as if those interpretations were the inspired Word of God. While the church today has some wise and faithful teachers, every teaching must be evaluated on the basis of God’s Word. A teacher’s authority only extends as far as his teaching is an accurate presentation of the Word. We should never follow any teacher to the extent that his or her words are put on par with Scripture.

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© 2020 Tony - Antonakis Maritis