Beyond Tradition

"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men." Colossians 2:8

The Messianic Matrix

Part II of IV (click here for Part I):

Who is the suffering servant of Isaiah 53?

Old Testament:

Isaiah 52:13-15 and 53:1-12 verse by verse:

 Isaiah 52:
13. Behold, My servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.
14. According as many were appalled at thee--so marred was his visage unlike that of a man, and his form unlike that of the sons of men--
15. So shall he startle many nations, kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them shall they see, and that which they had not heard shall they perceive.
 Isaiah 53:
1. 'Who would have believed our report? And to whom hath the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2. For he shot up right forth as a sapling, and as a root out of a dry ground; he had no form nor comeliness, that we should look upon him, nor beauty that we should delight in him.
3. He was despised, and forsaken of men, a man of pains, and acquainted with disease, and as one from whom men hide their face: he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4. Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; whereas we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

5. But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed.
6. All we like sheep did go astray, we turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath made to light (or reflect) on him the iniquity of us all.
7. He was oppressed, though he humbled himself and opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before her shearers is dumb; yea, he opened not his mouth.
8. By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and with his generation who did reason? for he was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due.
9. And they made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich his tomb; although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth
10. Yet it pleased the LORD to crush him by disease; to see if his soul would offer itself in restitution, that he might see his seed, prolong his days, and that the purpose of the LORD might prosper by his hand:
11. Of the travail of his soul he shall see to the full, even My servant, who by his knowledge did justify the Righteous One to the many, and their iniquities he did bear
12. Therefore will I divide him a portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty; because he bared his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.


New Testament:

Matthew 8:16-17: "When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: 'He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.'"

 

John 12:38: "This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: ‘Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?'"

 

Acts 8:30-32: "Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked. ‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth."

 

Romans 10:16: "But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, 'Lord, who has believed our message?'"

 
Clearly, Isaiah 53 is the crème de la crème of hotly debated passages when it comes to messianic claims. It should also be noted that since there was no chapter and verse in the ancient text, as you've noticed, the description actually begins at Isaiah 52:13-15, all the way through and to the end of chapter 53, but is generally referred to as Isaiah 53. I took this Isaiah passage from the Masoretic text, which I substituted for the New American Standard bible (the "pro-Christian" bible) I frequently quote from, and I'll specifically point things out about the colored texts in a bit. As you can see, it is one long and continuous dirge about a broken rejected Servant of God who is being subjected to abuse and who actually carries the sins, burdens and pains of others; who then dies and is buried as a criminal, yet is vindicated by God at the end. The dispute isn't necessarily what Isaiah intended, because he clearly meant redemption (and there's no way to get around that), but exactly who is doing the redeeming, and who the first-person speaker is between the verses 52:13-15 and 53:11-12 -- these two passages actually represent the first person voice of God himself, which starts off as God (first person), then switches to the narrator (third person), then back to God.

The externals: the ancient rabbis

Modern Jewish scholars insist that the Suffering Servant described here is and always has been recognized as Israel. The externals of this prophecy, or what the ancient Jewish rabbis believed about it prior to or shortly after Christian tradition are extremely complex, intricately tied into a slew of different material ranging within different periods of historical circumstances and thought, and highly vulnerable to subjective views. Therefore, it is certainly no less suspect for Christians to argue emphatically that a suffering Messiah tradition was equated to Isaiah's description by the early rabbis than for critics to emphatically reject this view. We won't go into detail about the various ancient rabbinic material on this subject since there was a variety of interpretations as to who the Servant was in rabbinic thought within different circles. However, though some today would declare Christians as being carefree fraudsters and slanderers of scripture, they can’t escape the reality that this was indeed considered an individual -- the Messiah -- instead of Israel in the earliest rabbinic circles,[1] thus the early Christians were merely following a messianic blueprint within their culture that had been laid out even decades prior.
Even the late J. Immanuel Schochet, who had been one of the most recent outspoken critics against Christianity's messianic claims, admitted that this view is found in the earliest forms of rabbinic tradition, in spite of current rabbinic polemics against the view.[2]   

It’s also worth noting the significance of the fact that first century Judeo-Christians themselves unanimously associated this passage with the Messiah, and contrary to what some might argue, doesn’t negate this just because they were Christian, as they were very much a part of first century Judaism and influenced by the variety of ancient Jewish thought about scripture as it pertained to Messiah (unquestionably in the case of Paul, the author of the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of John). Even though this was one of the most popular passages quoted by the New Testament writers as the fulfillment of Christ within their various written works, they only quote bits and pieces of it randomly within their works. This shows that the writers were taking the knowledge about the whole of Isaiah 53 to their audience for granted, and since these written works were distributed separately to the network of churches scattered across Judea and the Mediterranean suggests that this prophecy, both the knowledge and the meaning of it, was at the heart of the Christian core in the very early stages of the movement.

The concept of a collective suffering nation instead of a specific individual was indeed known as early as the 3rd century CE, indicated by Origen, who recorded his exchange of dialogue with a group (or school) of Jews that associated it to the nation Israel as a whole.[3] As I pointed out, there were various views about who Isaiah 53 represented, indicative of various schools of thought. In the same vein, we could point out that the eunuch in Acts (8:30-33), who was curious about the passage and who it represented, did not acknowledge the prophecy as pertaining to Israel, but an individual, either Isaiah about himself or someone else. Had Isaiah 53 been recognized by Jews as pertaining to Israel instead in the first century, Luke could have easily used it as an opportunity to rebut that idea. In other words, if this was the controversy at the time Luke wrote this account, the eunuch might have assumed the passage was speaking of Israel, and then Philip correcting him of his error. Much less speculatory, however, is the fact that Trypho, a Jewish man who was also engaged in dialogue with Justin Martyr, acknowledged Isaiah 53 as pertaining to Messiah.[4] Note that both of the latter two written accounts came earlier than Origen's account.

 
The subsidiary arguments   

Since typical messianic terms that we see scattered throughout Isaiah's writings (i.e. 'Prince,' 'the anointed,' 'Shiloh,' 'David,' 'Son of David,' 'Son of man,' 'My Holy One,' etc.) are totally absent from this particular passage, Jewish scholars use this to refute inclinations of an individual Messiah. However, not only is this obviously an argument from silence, but even an argument from silence here is not entirely true, as the phrase (verse 2 in the passage above): "For he shot up right forth as a sapling, and as a root out of a dry ground" arguably reflects other similar references to the Messiah as a root, stem, branch; and was not only a term explicitly recognized in other Old Testament scriptures that have messianic connotations (see Isaiah 4:2, 11:1-10; Jeremiah 23:5; Zechariah 3:8-10), but was a term used by ancient rabbinic commentators in descriptions and discussions and Messiah.[5]

Moreover, the the sufferer is essentially a mystery throughout the passage, and one could make the same argument of any specific references to Israel that are also absent (i.e. 'house of Israel,' 'house of Judah,' 'house of Jacob,' 'Jacob,' 'Ephraim,' 'Zion,' 'the nation,' etc.). Though God did recognize Jacob (or Israel, his second name) as "My Servant" earlier in the chapters of Isaiah, he made it perfectly clear to us that it was Jacob each time (see Isaiah 41:8-9, 44:1, 44:21, 45:4, 48:20), unlike the nondescript servant figure described in Isaiah 53, which isn't directly associated with Jacob in the way those other passages are. So, assuming Isaiah was specifically referring to Jacob’s descendants (or Israel) in Isaiah 53, one must assume not only that Isaiah changed protocol but took this particular passage in 53 for granted. The problem is, Isaiah's hearers would not have known who he was referring to since he also mentions another nondescript servant that preceded Isaiah 53...

 

Isaiah 49:5-8 "And now says the LORD, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him. For I am honored in the sight of the LORD, and My God is My strength, He says, 'It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.' Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and its Holy One, to the despised One, to the One abhorred by the nation, to the Servant of rulers, 'Kings will see and arise, princes will also bow down, because of the LORD who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel who has chosen You.' Thus says the LORD, 'In a favorable time I have answered You, and in a day of salvation I have helped You; And I will keep You and give You for a covenant of the people, to restore the land, to make them inherit the desolate heritages."

 

Coincidentally, if you notice, not only is the servant in this passage, which is just a few chapters back, also despised just as the servant is in Isaiah 53, but this servant is definitely not Jacob or Israel since he is used by God not only to bring Jacob "back to Him" but to restore the tribes of Israel. Interestingly enough, God will also give this servant "for a covenant to the people" (see my discussion specifically about this passage in Part I). Although some would argue that Isaiah the prophet may have been speaking about himself in this case, the passage indicates that this servant also brings God’s salvation to the world, even to the Gentiles, something that neither Isaiah nor any other Jewish prophet had ever done.

Also consider that Israel as "a people" is indeed referred to as God’s servant in subsequent chapters of Isaiah, but used in the plural as "servants" each time (see Isaiah 63:17, 65:8-9, 66:14). The trump card Jewish critics would use against this particular passage is that Jesus did not fulfill this prophecy since he did not restore the tribes of Israel (i.e. "to restore the land, to make them inherit the desolate heritages"), in which case the Christian would argue that this will occur during Jesus' second coming as the ruling King. In any event, and theological disagreement aside, as I have shown, when we analyze and compare other servants in other passages of Isaiah, the identification of Isaiah 53 isn't anywhere near as cut and dry in favor of Israel anymore than any other person.

A worthy rebuttal to the Christian view is that the sentence (verse 10 above): "he might see his seed" (Hebrew word zera) signifies that the figure has children, yet there is no record or early Christian tradition indicating Jesus had children. However, Christians argue that Isaiah is figuratively speaking about Christians as a whole who are considered "the sons of God" (John 1:12) or heirs of Abraham "according to the promise." Thus it's speaking figuratively about God's children and Christians actually being the spiritual descendants (seeds) of Israel (Galatians 3:25-29). There are in fact cases where Isaiah did use the Hebrew word zera (translated as "seed," "offspring" or "grain") figuratively in other passages (see Isaiah 1:4, 6:13, 23:3). Moreover, there are also verses that work against this being a nation and supports an individual, such as the verses in pink (above): "with his generation who did reason," or the fact that he was buried in a tomb. Therefore, these problematic intricacies once again aren’t in favor of either argument against the other by any means.

The internal arguments

The internal view is where the meat of the argument lies. The interesting thing about some of the debates with these passages is that it is sometimes based on variant translations in order to derive at different interpretations. Though the English translated Tanach is usually regarded by Jews as the authority on Old Testament translation (though this is based more in a sense that it is a "pro-Jewish" interpretation, as opposed to a "pro-Christian" interpretation, which some apparently view as being unbiased), in some cases, verses in the Tanach seem to be exercising liberty with variant translations that aren't even found in much older texts like the Septuagint and the Qumran Isaiah Scroll, both of which date between 100-300 BCE,[6] obviously predating any Jewish/Christian controversy (more on that later).

While Christians argue that the first person voice ('we/our/my') in Isaiah 53 are the Jews themselves speaking about the Messiah ('he/him/his'), or Isaiah speaking on behalf of the Jews who he represents, Jewish scholars argue that Isaiah is speaking from a first person voice of the Gentile nations ('we/our/my'), who are themselves speaking in remorse as to how they have subjected Israel ('he/him/his') to centuries of cruel treatment, with the verses 52:13-15 and 53:11-12 representing God speaking as himself sandwiching these passages. Other than the idea of the God-verses that are rather obvious, there are a slew of problems with the assessment of the "Gentile" verses. Of course, it's certainly not a surprise why this conclusion would be made, particularly when forced to deal with words like "my people" in orange (above). In other words, if this is Isaiah talking ('we/our/my'), as Christians argue, referring to Israel ('he/him/his'), as Jewish scholars argue, then Israel would in fact be Isaiah's people, so he obviously could not be talking about Israel. Instead, if we suppose the passages are speaking from the perspective of the Gentiles and not Isaiah himself, this takes care of this little problem, thus "my people" are the Gentile's people. It's rather strange, however, that the sentence (verse 3): "He was despised and forsaken of men," uses the third person plural "men" instead of a first person plural "us". In other words, if these are the Gentiles talking, who are the men who despised Israel suppose to be if not the Gentiles themselves who are supposedly speaking here? But one among the major flaws is the verses in black bold (verse 4-5 above) as follows...

 
"Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; whereas we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed."

 
Assuming these are the Gentiles speaking clearly implies that the Gentiles thought Israel was being judged and afflicted by God for its own sins but were wrong in this assessment, who was instead an innocent victim to the actions and iniquities of the Gentiles themselves causing these afflictions. The first problem is that this seems to conflict with the subsequent sentence in blue (above) where the Lord himself was "pleased to crush him" (God was pleased with Jewish enslavement in Egypt, their brutal subjection to Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome, the Holocaust, etc?). The second problem is that not only does this not make any sense, since the Gentiles afflicting Israel with abuse obviously would have known they were the cause of the abuse (as opposed to Isaiah speaking about his own people killing a man not realizing who he really was, which makes more sense), but is also contrary to scripture after scripture, prophet after prophet (including Isaiah himself) who declared that God did in fact use the Gentile nations time and time again to exact punishment on Israel for their own iniquities. And in each case, God was not exactly pleased about it (see 2 Chronicles 29:8-9; Psalm 78:58-61; Isaiah 5:13-16, 10:5-12; Jeremiah 30:11; Lamentations 1:3-5; Ezekiel 9:4-10, 39:23; Daniel 9:7; Amos 5:25-27, 9:8-10). Take particular note of what the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel had to say, which clearly states that not only did God use the Gentiles to exact his punishment on Israel, but that the Gentiles will also know that this was the case…


Ezekiel 39:23 "The nations [Gentiles] will know that the house of Israel went into exile for their iniquity because they acted treacherously against Me [God], and I hid My face from them; so I gave them into the hand of their adversaries, and all of them fell by the sword."

 
If scripture after scripture declares that the Gentiles were used by God to enact punishment on Israel for their sins, and Ezekiel is declaring that they would "know this," then the argument that the Gentiles in this case of Isaiah are expressing error in judgment for thinking Israel was being punished for its own iniquities is contradictory. The next major problem is the verse in red (verse 6-7)...

 
"All we like sheep did go astray, we turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath made to light [or reflect] on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, though he humbled himself and opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before her shearers is dumb; yea, he opened not his mouth."

 
The English version of the Tanach (53:6) translates the bold sentence as: "and the LORD has accepted his prayers for us all." Obviously this is quite an alternative translation, to say the least, which has no support in most ancient manuscripts -- Masoretic text [noted above], Qumran Scroll,[7] Septuagint (chap. 53:6), church father quotes, etc. This seems to suggest merely a quick-fix remedy from the atoning connotations -- God reflected our iniquities onto Him -- that the original passage implies. Moreover, it does nothing to remedy the verses in green (which I'll discuss next) that also gives implications of bearing the iniquities of others, verses that even the Tanach oddly does not change.

The Tanach translation also seems to contradict the following verse that he: "opened not his mouth," so he was obviously not praying, but was like a lamb led to the slaughter who said nothing. One could justifiably argue that Jesus contradicts this as well, since he was in fact not silent during his trial and crucifixion. So, it seems we have a contradiction in both cases. But if Jewish scholars are given freedom here to actually modify passages different from the much older passages, one might be given the right to interpret this particular phrase as meaning that he said nothing to his adversaries in his own defense in order to curtail the situation, which Jesus did not do, yet something Israel in fact did do on quite a few occasions when they were punished by the nations (see Exodus 3:9, 14:10-12; Numbers 14:1-4; 1 Samuel 9:16; Jeremiah 11:10-12; Ezekiel 8:17-18).

Moreover, if we are to accept this alternate translation in the Tanach: "and the LORD has accepted his prayers for us all," this must be considered in a rather nonsensical context of Israel finding it necessary to pray for the Gentiles even though, as we pointed out earlier, the Gentiles were used by God on many occasions for their own punishment. If Joe hired a lawyer to take you to court and sue you, would you actually pray to Joe to bless the lawyer who was against you? This is analogous to what we must conclude of that verse, hence, the re-translation makes little sense in its proper context. Another problem, which we briefly touched on, are the verses in green (verses 9, 11-12)...

 
"... although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth...  Of the travail of his soul he shall see to the full, even My servant, who by his knowledge did justify the Righteous One to the many, and their iniquities he did bear. Therefore will I divide him a portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty; because he bared his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors." 

 
The first bold sentence outrightly contradicts the fact that Israel "had done no violence" (see Jeremiah 6:6-7; Ezekiel 7:11, 12:19), whereas the last two sentences in bold begs the question as to how Israel will bear the sins and transgressions of the Gentiles, since not even the most pious orthodox Jewish practitioner could argue that anyone, including Israel, has always been free from sins and transgressions, something which Isaiah himself clearly points out in other passages (Isaiah 64:7; 65:1-8). Being sinless was always the requisite for one taking on the sins of another (i.e. the unblemished lamb of atonement). Just read the book of Judges or Numbers and you'll get an idea how many times the children of Israel provoked God to such anger for their iniquities that he wiped them out by the thousands on a couple of occasions with his own hand (also see Psalm 130:8; Jeremiah 3:6-10; Ezekiel 9:9; Daniel 9:11; Amos 3:1-2; Hosea 5:3).

As to the last sentence in bold: "yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors," once again, not only must make sense of how Israel would intercede for the Gentiles since the scriptures make it clear that the Gentiles were used as their punishment on many occasions, but according to Isaiah, there was no one to intercede for the Lord at the time...

 

Isaiah 59:15-16 "Yes, truth is lacking; and he who turns aside from evil makes himself a prey. Now the LORD saw, and it was displeasing in His sight that there was no justice. And He saw that there was no man, and was astonished that there was no one to intercede; then His own arm brought salvation to Him, and His righteousness upheld Him." 

 

So, putting aside the other problems we pointed out previously, unless this is assumed as a future generation of Israel, this particular intercession problem simply doesn't work here at all. It's an awkward and rather strained effort to shift from Messiah to Israel, which becomes clear on examination why the internals work in favor of an individual, and even though the Tenach tried to alter some of the passages in its favor, still could not escape this fact. It's rather ironic that modern scholars disregard presumptuous assertions Christians equate about Isaiah 53 with Christ and because of that, seem to favor the modern Jewish view that Isaiah 53 represents the nation Israel. But to assume it represents Israel not only implies the same presumptuous argument about atonement, but is simply not scriptural, in most cases illogical, and was not at all a resounding majority view by ancient Jewish authorities.

 
Click here to go to Part III, or go home 

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Source References

1. Bernd Janowski, Peter Stuhlmacher, Daniel P. Bailey, The Suffering Servant, pp.75-77; 2004.

    Various rabbinical sources, Jewish Messianic Interpretations of Isaiah 53 (www.iclnet.org).  

2. Dudi, Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet: Isaiah 53 is about the Jewish Messiah; 2012.

3. Origen, Contra Celsus, book 1, chap. 55 (www.newadvent.org).

4. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, chap. 89-90 (www.newadvent.org). 

5. Janowski, Stuhlmacher, and Bailey, ibid., pp.198-199.

6. Fred P. Miller, Qumran Great Isaiah Scroll (www.ao.net/~fmoeller/qumdir.htm).

7. Miller, Column XLIV, section 12.