Does the Septuagint Vindicate the Watchtower Interpretation of Isaiah 9:6 ?

by Luke Wayne
03/21/19

Jehovah's Witnesses, who believe that Jesus is not God but rather is Michael the Archangel, have long struggled to provide an adequate answer as to why the coming Messiah is called "Mighty God" in Isaiah 9:6. Their most common answer is to try and minimize the weight of the term by claiming that it is a lesser title than that given to Jehovah, who is called "Almighty God." (see our article on that argument HERE). This argument is undermined, however, by the fact that in the same context, in the very next chapter, Jehovah is himself called "mighty God," (see Isaiah 10:20-21). While many Jehovah's Witnesses will just weakly assert (without a shred of evidence) that Isaiah meant a lesser sort of god by "mighty God" in chapter 9 but switched to meaning Jehovah Himself in chapter 10, the Watchtower society has occasionally put forward a slightly more clever argument. They assert that the reading found in the Greek Septuagint, the ancient pre-New-Testament Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, actually identifies the Messiah as an angel rather than God and thus, they claim, vindicates their view. This argument can sound persuasive to the uninformed, but in actuality, it offers no help to the Jehovah's Witnesses position.

The Verse

In the vast majority of all Bible translations, the verse in question reads: 

"For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace," (Isaiah 9:6, NASB).

Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses agree that the child who is born, the son who is given, is the coming Messiah (i.e., Jesus). Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses are also in essential agreement as to what the Hebrew words mean in the relevant portion of the verse. The Watchtower Society's "New World Translation" reads:

"For a child has been born to us, A son has been given to us; And the rulership will rest on his shoulder.  His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace," (Isaiah 9:6, NWT).

Thus, this verse represents one of several places in the Bible where Jesus is plainly called "God." Both sides agree that this is what the verse actually says, so far as the words go.

The Argument

However, though the Jehovah's Witness cannot escape the fact that the text plainly says that Jesus is God, they insist that it doesn't really mean that Jesus is God, at least not in the ultimate sense of the word. They argue, again, that this verse is identifying Jesus as a lesser divine being (i.e., Michael the Archangel). Thus, he is "a god," indeed, even a "mighty god," but He is not Jehovah God Almighty. To support this, they argue that the ancient Septuagint translation shows that early Jewish readers understood the passage to identify the Messiah as an angel rather than the true and living God. The Septuagint here reads: 

"Because a child was born to us, a son also given to us, whose sovereignty was upon his shoulder, and he is named messenger [or angel] of great counsel, for I will bring peace upon the rulers, peace and health to him," (Isaiah 9:6, LXX)1

The Greek word for "messenger" here is the word "ἄγγελος" (angelos) from which we get our English word "angel," and is indeed the word often used to describe heavenly angels. Thus, they say, the Septuagint translators understood "mighty God" to really mean "angel."

Jewish Interpretations

First of all, it is not altogether clear that "Messenger of great counsel" is intended as an interpretation of "mighty God." In this ancient Greek version, the titles "wonderful counselor," "mighty God," "everlasting father," and "prince of peace" are all missing, replaced with the single title of "messenger of great counsel." There is nothing in the clause "of great counsel" to suggest an interpretation of the word "mighty," thus we have no grounds to assume that the word "messenger" was meant as an interpretation of the word "God." For all we know, this version of the Septuagint tradition may well have been translated from a manuscript where, perhaps due to a scribal error, some of the Hebrew text of the verse was simply missing. It is also possible that this is a highly interpretive paraphrase of the passage as a whole rather than an interpretation of any of the particular words. At any rate, there is hardly enough here to substantiate the claim that "mighty God" meant "the archangel Michael" or anything of the sort. Despite other uses of the word "angelos," the phrase here seems only to mean that the Messiah would be a messenger who delivers the counsel of God which would, in turn, bring peace.

Secondly, however we understand the Septuagint's meaning, this is just one in a long history of widely varying Jewish interpretations of this text. The ancient Aramaic translation, or the Isaiah Targum, took it a completely different direction:

"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; he will accept the law upon himself to keep it, and his name will be called before the wonderful counselor, the mighty God, existing forever. The messiah in whose days peace will increase upon us," (Isaiah 9:6, Isaiah Targum).2

This version tries to shift most of the names given away from the child to be born and instead make them titles for God, then somewhat awkwardly shifts the focus back to the child at the end of the verse. Thus, there was no agreement between ancient Jewish translators and interpreters on how to understand this verse. Indeed, even modern Jewish scholars have continued to offer up inventive new translations, such as in the New Jewish Publication Society Version:

"For a child has been born to us, A son has been given us. And authority has settled on his shoulders. He has been named 'The Mighty God is planning grace; The Eternal Father, a peaceable ruler.'” (Isaiah 9:6, NJPSV).

In this case, disagreeing with both the Septuagint and the Targum alike, they cram the four titles together into one cumbersome name for the child which is itself a praise to God. All of these clever but conflicting efforts stem from the fact that a plain reading of the text, which calls the promised child "mighty God" and "everlasting Father," was and is as troublesome to Jewish scholarship as it is to the Watchtower society. They grappled with it in a variety of ways but could not land on any definitive interpretation because the grammar simply does not support any of these options.

Early Christian Readers

It is also worth noting how early Christian readers understood this text when reading it through the lens of what was revealed about Christ in the New Testament. The vast majority of early Christians did not speak Hebrew and relied on the Septuagint. Yet, this passage, even in the paraphrastic Greek version, seemed to them only to support their belief in the Trinity and the deity of Christ. Note, for example, how it plays into one third-century Christian's exposition on who it was who spoke to Hagar in Genesis:

"Was that the Father that was seen by Hagar or not?  For He is declared to be God. But far be it from us to call God the Father an angel, lest He should be subordinate to another whose angel [messenger] He would be. But they will say that it was an angel.  How then shall He be God if He was an angel? Since this name is nowhere conceded to angels, except that on either side the truth compels us into this opinion, that we ought to understand it to have been God the Son, who, because He is of God, is rightly called God. He is the Son of God. But, because He is subjected to the Father and is the Announcer of the Father’s will, He is declared to be the Angel of Great Counsel. Therefore, although this passage neither is suited to the person of the Father, lest He should be called an angel, nor to the person of an angel, lest he should be called God; yet it is suited to the person of Christ that He should be both God because He is the Son of God, and should be an angel [messenger] because He is the Announcer of the Father’s mind." (Novation, A Treatise Concerning the Trinity, Chapter 18).

No angel could be called God. Yet God the Father could not be called an angel (i.e., messenger) because no one had the authority to send Him. God the Son, however, was Himself God yet submitted to the Father's authority in the incarnation. One God, yet more than one person, existing in distinct relationships. Thus, Christ could rightly be called "messenger of great counsel" in that He was sent by the Father, and yet was not an "angel" by nature, but was Himself the eternal God! The Septuagint's paraphrase carried with it no troubling implications for the thoroughly Trinitarian convictions of the earliest Christians.

It must also be noted that there is a longer version of Isaiah 9:6 within the Septuagint manuscript tradition which was the version quoted by a number of early Christians (though certainly not all). It reads:

"...He shall be called the angel of great counsel, God the mighty, the Father of the world to come, the prince of peace," (Isaiah 9:6, some LXX manuscripts).3

Thus, even the Septuagint tradition, taken as a whole, does identify the Messiah as the "mighty God" and not merely a lesser messenger.

Conclusion

There is nothing in the Septuagint tradition of this verse that would imply that Jesus is an archangel, nor is there anything that inherently conflicts with Trinitarian conviction. What's more, the Septuagint version of this particular verse is clearly a paraphrase at best, if not a faulty reading due to a scribal error. Either way, it certainly has no authority over a careful reading of the full Hebrew text or a more careful translation thereof. The Septuagint is part of a long tradition of Jewish interpretations which have struggled with this verse exactly because a plain reading of the Hebrew text says that the Messiah will be God. Christians simply take the text at face value, especially since it accords so well with other passages that plainly identify Jesus as Jehovah. Whether Jehovah's Witnesses like it or not, the Bible is a Trinitarian book.

  • 1. A New English Translation of the Septuagint (Oxford University Press, 2009); bracketed text added for clarification
  • 2. Bruce D. Chilton, The Aramaic Bible: Volume 11 (T & T Clark LTD, 1987).
  • 3. In addition to being found in a minority of Septuagint manuscripts, the is the version quoted in sources like: Athanasius, On Luke 10:22, Chapter 5; Pseudo-Ignatius, Epistle to the Antiochians, Chapter 3; Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, Book 5, Section 3; John Chrysostom, Homilies on Philippians, Homily 6; John Cassian, Against Nestorius On the Incarnation of the Lord, Book 2, Chapter 3 (also in book 7, chapter 10); Theodoret, Counter Statements to the Anathemas of Cyril, Against Anathema 6; Leo the Great, Letter to Flavian (or "the Tome"), Section 2; and others. It seems to be the version possessed by Irenaeus of Lyons in the late second century, who cites both titles 'messenger of great counsel' and 'mighty God' in Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 33, Section 11, etc.