Was the cross a punishment God inflicted on Jesus? One verse that is used to teach that it was is Isaiah 53:10. Isaiah 53 is about the Suffering Servant, who is understood to be Messiah. This passage, then, is understood by the Church to be about the cross and the atonement. Let’s read it, first, in the New International Version, which is in agreement with most other English versions.
Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer. (NIV)Other versions have it similarly: “Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief” (New King James Version). “And Jehovah hath delighted to bruise him, He hath made him sick” (Young’s Literal Translation). “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (English Standard Version).
Was the cross really about God crushing Jesus, bruising him, making him sick? I used to think so, and this was a verse I used to teach that. I taught that Jesus took God’s punishment in our place, that God crushed Jesus, venting his anger on him so he would not have to vent it on us. This is known as the penal substitutionary theory of atonement. In recent years, however, I have had to let that theory go, because what I have seen in Scripture leads me to a different conclusion, a different understanding of the cross.
So what about Isaiah 53:10, then? Are the English versions quoted above the best rendering of Isaiah’s words? They are direct translations of the Hebrew text, at least of the best one that is available today, but do they give us the best sense of what Isaiah prophesied?
There is another family of translations that is very ancient. It is known as the Septuagint, also referred to as the LXX. A couple of hundred years before Christ, a group of Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek for the benefit of post-exilic Jews who were scattered in Greek-speaking countries and had forgotten the Hebrew language. The traditional story is that these Jewish scholars were seventy in number, which is why this collection is call Septuagint, which means “seventy,” as do the Roman numerals, LXX.
Now, here is why the Septuagint is important for us consider: It was the version of the Old Testament Scriptures that was used by the early Church, even by the apostles themselves. Whenever the Old Testament is quoted in the New Testament, guess which version is used — the Septuagint!
So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at how the Septuagint renders Isaiah 53:10. I could give you the Greek words themselves, which would be a simple cut and paste, but since many do not read Greek, I will quote the Brenton version, which is a classic English translation of the LXX. Then I will tell you about the Greek verb that is used:
The Lord also is pleased to purge him from his stroke. (Brenton)The Greek word for “stroke” is plege and here speaks of a wound that has been inflicted by a blow. The verb for “purge” is katharizo and means to cleanse or purify. It is where we get our English word “catharsis.” The St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint version has Isaiah 53:10 this way: “The Lord wishes to cleanse Him of His wound.”
The important thing to notice here is that God does not crush or bruise the Messiah, or make him sick. God does not inflict any wound on him. Quite the opposite, God is shown as cleansing and healing the wound!
The LXX reading seems to me more like what I find in the New Testament concerning the cross. When I think, for example, of how Peter and Stephen preached the gospel in the book of Acts, the cross was not something God did to Christ but something wicked men did. What God did was to raise Christ from the dead.
Isaiah 53 presents a stunning image of what Christ suffered in the atonement. But I do not think it is a picture of God crushing, bruising or punishing Christ. It is a portrait of God delivering Christ — and us through him.