Dr.Swamidass' Grad Resources Talk: "The light of life" in Isa.53:11

In today’s Zoom presentation, @swamidass mentioned the significance of the phrase of “the light of life” in Isa. 53:11 as a prophecy of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Depending upon what Bible translation you read, this topic can sometimes get a little confusing. And Josh’s explanation was necessarily brief because of all that he had to cover in the time allotted. So perhaps I can shed some additional light (no pun intended) on this interesting topic.

For example, if you read Isa.53:10-11 from the NIV, you will find:

Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
–– Isaiah 53:10-11 (NIV)

But if you consult most other translations, the light of life is missing. For example, here is the same passage in the KJV Bible and the ESV Bible:

10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
–– Isaiah 53:10-11 (KJV)

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
–– Isaiah 53:10-11 (ESV)

So the NIV shows “he will see the light of life” while the KJV and ESV stop at “he will see”. Why?

Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (initially in 1947, with additional finds in the years following), the oldest extant manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament (the Masoretic Text with vocalization and accents known as the Masorah) dated from the 9th century. That is one of many reasons why the accidental discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in a cave near Wadi Qumran was so monumental. It pushed backwards in time by about a millennium our oldest texts of the Hebrew Bible.

As Josh mentioned in his talk, the Isaiah Scroll found in that Qumran cave includes the crucial phrase the light of life. Obviously, the KJV Bible translation of 1611 couldn’t include that phrase because they knew nothing of the Qumran scrolls—but why doesn’t the ESV Bible from 2001 include that reading? The answer is that the ESV decided to relegate it to a footnote, because the translation chose to rely upon the traditional Masoretic Text for its main reading but to mention the light of life variant in a concise footnote which may confuse some unfamiliar readers:

53:11 Masoretic Text; Dead Sea Scroll he shall see light

That ESV footnote should be understood to mean:

The above text of 53:11 is translated from the traditional Hebrew Masoretic Text—but based on the Isaiah Scroll from Qumran, this would be translated as he shall see light.

Now you may be wondering why the ESV committee didn’t include the additional words “of life”. The answer is they could have based upon a careful study of the ancient phrase and how it is rendered in the Greek Septuagint and other ancient sources. I’ll not go into the technicalities of translation but there are solid reasons why many have chosen to render the underlying word as “light of life” and not just “light”.

That said, why is the light of life so important? Dr. Swamidass explained that it was language referring to resurrection. Why would that be? Imagine yourself living in the ancient world. Whenever a person saw a light-source which wasn’t coming from the sun, moon, or stars, it typically was associated with life. If you were in a wilderness on a dark night and saw a light in the distance, you assumed that you were looking towards a city, a village, or an encampment. It was an exciting and even comforting sight. Very rarely would such a light NOT be associated with living human beings. Also, the ancients noticed that plants thrive in light but usually wither and die in darkness. So ancient literature often associates light with life and being alive.

I hope that provides some additional insight to Joshua’s comments in his presentation on the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.