Isaiah’s Servant in Paul: The Hermeneutics and Ethics of Paul’s Use of Isaiah 49-54

Isaiah’s Servant in Paul: The Hermeneutics and Ethics of Paul’s Use of Isaiah 49-54 December 11, 2022

What is the significance of the Servant in Isaiah in relation to the New Testament, particularly Paul’s letters? Dr. Daniel Cole interprets this famous portion of text from Isaiah, including Isaiah 53, not simply as fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah but in the church.

Daniel M. I. Cole’s recent monograph, Isaiah’s Servant in Paul: The Hermeneutics and Ethics of Paul’s Use of Isaiah 49–54, WUNT 2.553 (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2021), discusses this viewpoint; his book is the topic of our current conversation. Cole completed an earlier version of this work as his doctoral dissertation.

Dr. Cole is currently Lecturer in New Testament at Trinity Theological College in Perth, Australia. In Sydney, he worked as a minister in the Anglican church, and then he earned his Ph.D. in the U.S.A. at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) in Deerfield, Illinois.

Here is my recent interview with Dr. Cole:

Doing a Doctoral Dissertation on Paul’s Use of Isaiah

Oropeza: What made you decide to do your dissertation on Paul’s use of Isaiah 49–54?

Cole: To be honest, it was never my plan to write on Paul’s use of Isaiah. I had gone to TEDS with the intention of researching verbal aspect under Dr. Con Campbell. During the coursework phase of my PhD there, I was challenged to evaluate how directly useful this topic would have been for the church and for equipping me to train pastors and Christians leaders in the future.

While Greek linguistics remains an interest for me, I realized that in one way or another all of the seminar papers that I was writing that semester had to do with the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Because I also have an interest in ethics, I reread the NT, looking for where the NT use of the OT might intersect with this.

Eventually, I identified that Paul’s use of Isaiah’s Servant as somewhere that not only sat at this intersection but also raised very interesting hermeneutical questions. After a lot of reading and a bit of refining with my new supervisor, I settled on this as a fruitful avenue of exploration.

Paul’s Use of Old Testament Scripture: The Goldsworthy Way

Oropeza: Which particular authors and/or methods influenced you significantly regarding the way you approach Paul’s use of Scripture?

Cole: I found many scholars working in the field of the NT use of the OT stimulating, especially with respect to my topic Richard Hays, J. Ross Wagner, and Matthew Harmon. Yet the most influential author on a methodological level was D. A. Carson. While his approach shares many similarities with others, he emphasizes the question of hermeneutical warrant as the key to unlocking the use of the OT.

I am convinced that this question—what warrant does an author have interpreting and using the OT in this particular way?—provides very strong explanatory power to the use of the OT. This I find to be the case whether in Second Temple Jewish literature or the New Testament. More broadly on the framework for the relationship between the Testaments, I have been strongly influenced by Graeme Goldsworthy.

Oropeza: I do not recall reading Graeme Goldsworthy. What is his approach to relationship between Testaments?

Cole: Goldsworthy argues that main theme of the Scriptures is “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule.” To get to this, he takes a biblical-theological approach to the relationship between the Testaments, by which he means how every text of the Scriptures relates to every other text.

Because of his theological and hermeneutical presuppositions, he means by this how every text relates to Christ and his gospel. Specifically with respect to the relationship between the Testaments, he emphasizes the importance of understanding how Jesus and the Apostles understood and taught the Old Testament. In terms of his main works, According to Plan lays out the scheme, while Christ-Centred Biblical Theology and Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics provide the methodology.

The Servant of Isaiah as Jesus and the Church (Isa 49­­—54)

Oropeza: What is the central idea behind your book?

Cole: The central thesis of my book is that Paul teaches that prophecies about the servant from Isaiah (esp. Isa 49–54 as these are those used by Paul) are fulfilled in Jesus and in the church.

Paul locates many within this prophecy—his congregations (Isa 52:11 in 2 Cor 6:17 and Isa 54:1 in Gal 4:27), people in gentile regions who have yet to hear the gospel (Isa 52:15 in Rom 15:21), and even Jewish non-believers (Isa 52:5 in Rom 2:24 and Isa 53:1 in Rom 10:16). Significantly, he also gives a large place to his own fulfilment of this prophecy, not only as a herald of the gospel (Isa 52:7 in Rom 10:15) but also within the individual servant (Isa 49:1 in Gal 1:15 and Isa 49:8 in 2 Cor 6:2).

This is not an imposition on the text of Isaiah; Paul sees in Isa 49–54 a salvation history that climaxes in the death and resurrection of Christ and continues in the ongoing work of Christ through his union with his followers, the servants.

It is because Isaiah’s Servant lives in Paul that Paul becomes part of the fulfilment of God’s promises to the servant.

Oropeza: How do you unfold and support this thesis throughout the several chapters of your book?

Cole: In the book I begin by investigating each of the verses that Paul quotes or alludes to in the context of the Masoretic Text (Hebrew Scriptures). My concern here is not just with the grammatical details of these verses but also the bigger questions of their interrelationship and the impact that these have on the interpretation of the section as a whole, particularly concerning the characterization of the servant.

From this I argue that Isaiah presents a coherent history of salvation—Israel chosen and then rejected as the servant (Isa 42–48), the commissioning of a new individual servant (Isa 49), the servant’s ministry, rejection, and death (Isa 50–53), and his ongoing work in the restored Zion through his children, the servants (Isa 54).

I then have a chapter on Second Temple Jewish traditions use of these verses. By considering the relevant passages of the Greek OT, the Septuagint (as an interpretation in its own right), 1 Enoch, the Psalms of Solomon, the Wisdom of Solomon, Qumran (11Q13 and 1QHa), and Targum Jonathan, I conclude that each author’s conception of history (and God’s relationship to it) guides their use of the particular verses.

This leads into the heart of the book, which are the three chapters on Paul’s use of these verses, in Romans, 2 Corinthians, and Galatians. In each case I examine the meaning and function of the Isaianic quote/allusion within each of Paul’s arguments before considering the hermeneutical warrant by which he can use these passages in the way that he does.

In each case I show the way in which the shape of Isaiah’s prophecy influences Paul’s use of it. This leads to several conclusions, depending on Paul’s focus in the particular sections. By drawing these together, I arrive at the main thesis above and finally sketch out some implications for hermeneutics and ethics.

From Romans to 2 Corinthians to Galatians: The Canonical Order

Oropeza: I’m curious about the order in which you address the use of Isaiah in Paul’s letters. You start with Romans, move to 2 Corinthians, and then to Galatians. Scholars almost unanimously believe the reverse: that Galatians was written first, 2 Corinthians second, and Romans last. How does this order enhance your argument?

Cole: It is clear that these three books were written in the order that you note. Yet it is also clear that the question of the extent to which Paul’s thought develops is highly debated. More importantly for my work, I could see no evidence of development in his use of these Isaianic passages. In this sense, then, there is little methodologically to push for one ordering over another.

By taking the canonical ordering, however, Paul’s uses follow the same salvation-historical shape as Isaiah’s servant prophecy itself—moving from sin, to a proclamation of the gospel that must be received by faith, and finally to the twin implications of Paul’s ministry and the church’s new reality. While this is co-incidental, keeping this same shape in my work is, I think, helpful for understanding how Paul’s uses fit together.

Isaiah’s Servant in Romans

Oropeza: You mentioned earlier several conclusions that you came to in the various sections of book. What are those conclusions? I’m especially curious about your insights from Isaianic use in Romans.

Cole: With respect to Romans, Paul gives an expansive view of Isaiah’s servant; this should not be surprising given the focus on the gospel in the letter. This starts with Paul’s use of Isaiah 52:5 in Romans 2:24, which many see as one of Paul’s most egregious uses of the OT. I conclude, however, that while the interlocutor defines himself with respect to the Law in terms of Isa 42 (where the nation as the servant uses the Law to instruct the gentiles), Paul argues that the Law defines the interlocutor in terms of Isa 52 (a transgressor under judgment and mocked by the gentiles). This raises important questions about the role of context in Paul’s use of the OT, and I argue that the narratival shape of Isaiah means that contextual relevance can’t be measured purely by textual distance.

Oropeza: I agree that Paul’s use of Scripture in this passage is not egregious as certain scholars have claimed. I argue for this position in Scripture, Texts, and Tracings in Romans (“Paul’s Use of Deutero-Isaiah in Rom 2:24 and in the Gospel of Romans” 31-50).[1]

Cole: The other three quotes from the servant prophecies take place in the aftermath of the servant’s death and resurrection. Paul uses these to demonstrate the reality of the salvation-historical time (since he has been sent out as a messenger of the gospel: Rom 10:15), the centrality of faith in the response to the gospel and the expectation that not all will respond in this way (Rom 10:16), and his own ministry to the gentiles through Christ working in him (Rom 15:21).

I argue that these confirm Ross Wagner’s argument in Heralds of the Good News that Paul assumes in Romans that Jesus’s death fulfils Isa 53. I conclude, moreover, that Paul uses the servant prophecy as a salvation-historical indicative to define various relationships between God, Jesus, himself, his readers, and Jews and gentiles. These form the basis for various imperatives within Romans, especially with respect to the place of faith and the Romans’ fellowship with Paul in his planned mission to Spain.

Isaiah’s Servant in 2 Corinthians and Galatians

Oropeza: What are some conclusions about Isaiah’s Servant that you make in 2 Corinthians and Galatians?

Cole: While union with Christ explicitly features only in Rom 15:21, it is a central hermeneutical warrant in Paul’s uses of the servant prophecy in both 2 Corinthians and Galatians. With respect to Paul’s own ministry to the gentiles, I conclude that Paul sees himself as part of the fulfilment of Isa 49:8 (2 Cor 6) and 49:1 (Gal 1), since Christ works in him.

For him, this means that his ministry takes on the same Christ-like features of suffering and obedience to God rather than pleasing people. It also has the same goal of reconciliation as the ministry of the servant. For this reason, I conclude that the servant prophecy forms an important (although not often recognized) OT background to Paul’s doctrine of union with Christ and plays a fundamental role in shaping the nature of Paul’s ministry.

With respect to the response of the churches, Isaiah’s prophecy means that the Corinthians must not only view everyone from this salvation-historical perspective but also live out the role of the servants by separating from the false teachers. Likewise, the Galatians must live out their identity as the children of the servant who have now been adopted into the heavenly, free Zion.

By bringing these together, I argue that Paul uses Isaiah’s servant prophecy as a narratival indicative that forms the basis of many of the imperatives of the gospel that he lays on himself and others. This, I conclude, invites us as Christians to read Isaiah’s servant prophecy with closer attention than we often do.

Often, we focus on Jesus’s fulfilment of Isaiah 53:6. This is good and right, but we must also see the broader story of the servant that is fulfilled in Christ and his ongoing work through the proclamation of the gospel. In this way Paul summons all his readers to live in light of the Isaianic new creation and the redefined relationships that this entails.

Picture of the book, Isaiah's Servant in Paul
Picture of the author (Daniel Cole) and his book; taken and sent by the author for the purpose of this interview

Oropeza: Thank you for sharing some insights from your book with us, Dan!


[1] The earlier version of my essay was presented at the Society of Biblical Literature (Denver, Nov. 2018), which is available through


About B. J. Oropeza
B. J. Oropeza earned his Ph.D. in New Testament Theology from Durham University (England). He is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Azusa Pacific University. Among his many works include Perspectives on Paul: Five Views (Baker Academic), Exploring Intertextuality (Cascade), Practicing Intertextuality (Cascade), Exploring Second Corinthians (SBL Press), and 1 Corinthians (New Covenant Commentary series, Cascade). You can read more about the author here.

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