Saturday, 21 May 2016

Why did Jesus and Paul misquote Isaiah?

Once a week some friends and I get together for a little midweek Bible-study. For the past few months we have being going through the book of Isaiah and this week we tackled chapters 59-61. While there are a lot of incredible things going on in these chapters, the one thing that I wanted to write about today was the observation that we made on how both Paul and Jesus quoted from this portion of Isaiah in a way that most evangelicals I know would frown upon.

The first passage I would like to highlight is a familiar one in Ephesians chapter 6 from verse 14 to 17 which says:-

Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness.  For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

While Paul is not attempting to quote Isaiah verbatim, it is obvious that he is drawing inspiration from Isaiah 59:17 which says:-

He put on righteousness as his body armor and placed the helmet of salvation upon his head. He clothed himself with a robe of vengeance and wrapped himself in a cloak of divine passion.

The interesting thing about these two lists is that Paul has taken the body armor or the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation from Isaiah but has left out the robe of vengeance. Remarkably, Paul replaces the robe of vengeance in Isaiah’s list with the shoes of peace in his own. He also adds the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit (which is not a literal sword but Jesus Christ who is the Word of God) to his list. I was wondering about these differences between Paul and Isaiah but the only related verse that I could really find on the armor of God was from Paul again in 1 Thessalonians 5:8 which once again omitted vengeance from the list saying only:-

But let us who live in the light be clearheaded, protected by the armor of faith and love, and wearing as our helmet the confidence of our salvation.

Looking a bit closer at Isaiah 59 again I also quickly discovered that violence itself was strongly condemned (especially verses 6 and 7). On its own, this could be something I could just brush off but once I got to chapter 61, I started to see a bit of a pattern emerging. The first 2 verses in that chapter read as follows:-

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me,
    for the LORD has anointed me
    to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
    and to proclaim that captives will be released
    and prisoners will be freed.
He has sent me to tell those who mourn
    that the time of the LORD’s favor has come,
    and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.

Many of us are familiar with this passage as Jesus once quoted it in a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. But like Paul, Jesus left out the part about vengeance. Luke 4:20 actually says that after reading up until the second last line quoted above that He stopped mid-sentence and “rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat back down”. Now usually when I am reading the Bible I will stop at the end of a chapter, sometimes if I am reading something deep and hard hitting I might only read one or two verses but I can’t ever recall stopping mid-sentence in something. Who does that? No one stops reading before the word 'and' and thinks, "yeah I will pick there again tomorrow". This action was not lost on Jesus' audience; Luke’s account continues and says that “everyone was amazed at the gracious words that came from His lips” (verse 22).
     These gracious words did not sit well with them. They were all for the day of the Lords favor as long as it rested on them and they were all for being liberated from oppression but they were not so keen on seeing their enemies escaping God’s anger. Jesus responds to them but telling them that although there were certainly many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time during a three and a half year drought he was not sent to any of them but rather to a foreigner, a widower from Sidon. Likewise, many had leprosy in the time of Elisha but the only one healed was a Syrian named Naaman (verses 25-27). This infuriated the crowd to the point that they tried to throw Him off of a cliff right there and then.

As I have already mentioned, it would be easy to dismiss these verses if they were rare exceptions but we actually see this over and over again throughout the New Testament. Paul does the exact same thing probably about a dozen more times in the book of Romans alone where Old Testament verses that originally spoke of violent retribution against Israel’s enemies are intentionally edited to extend grace and mercy toward outsiders. You can see a long list of these subverted Old Testament texts in this excellent article by Derek Flood by clicking over here.

I don’t want to assume too much as to why Paul and Jesus did this. I’m more of a student than a teacher who likes to flesh out his thoughts by writing them out online. For now though I will share three impressions that I get from reading this.

1 – Firstly, the New Testament does not deny the punishment or the destruction of the wicked. There is still a strong sense of warning toward those who stray from Christ. These cautions are not just found in the words of others but in Paul and Jesus’ as well. Paul and the others then are clearly making a different sort of statement with their quotes.

2 – The shift in the New Testament seems to come from the idea of where violence and destruction come from. In the Old Testament there is a sense that everything comes from God Himself. Life, death, blessings, curses, creating and destroying, the Lord gives and the Lord takes. But from Christ onward death, destruction and suffering are more clearly presented as things that are adverse to God. They are portrayed as things originating from the devil or as the natural consequences of sin. God on the other hand is revealed as one who is at war with these things. He is the giver of life and creator of all that is good, He is the one who restores what has been stolen by the enemy.

3 – Apart from what is mentioned in the point above I think that the primary reason Paul and Jesus seem to reinterpret (or bring greater clarity to) what was written elsewhere is simply to proclaim that the Lords favor was on all people. The good news is meant to be a blessing to all nations reaching far beyond the borders of Israel. This was good news for the gentiles and a word of caution to the Jews that heritage alone was not enough to save them. Yes, there is a grave side (pun intended) to aligning oneself against God but that is not part of the gospel; that is what happens outside of the gospel.
Whether you agree with me on these points or not, I think that there is a comfort in knowing that when we read something that we perceive to be harsh, unjust or even morally repugnant in scripture, we can take comfort in the fact that Christ revealed to us the true image of God (Hebrews 1:3). He is the one that we are to build our theology and our very lives upon. Our own understandings and interpretations may fall short but we have a sure and constant person to fall back on.

For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 3:11

PS - One last final note, a few hours after posting this I began to consider that neither Jesus or Paul had technically misquoted Isaiah. One simply alluded to it while the other quoted correctly but not completely. The point remains valid though even if my title is a little inaccurate.


  1. Good discussion. I think the Derek Flood paper is excellent. And there is another factor. It wasn't just on violence that the NT changes the OT, it was part of how first century Jews interpreted their scriptures. This post of mine gives a brief outline.

    1. Thanks, Derek's paper is excellent, I actually feel like I need to go back and reread it a few more times still to really grasp everything that he says, I look forward to reading your link as well.