For many Christians, Isaiah 53 is the granddaddy of proof texts pointing to Jesus from the Jewish Scriptures. Jews and Christians have been arguing over the identity of the
‘Suffering Servant’ since at least the year 248, when the Christian scholar
Origen recorded it in his book ‘Contra Celsus.’ Later, Martin Luther wrote that
Isaiah 53 is “the foremost passage on the suffering and resurrection of Christ, and there is hardly another like it.”
With all the focus on this chapter by apologists – and thus, by their opponents as well – it is perhaps surprising that according to most contemporary (and most often Christian) scholars, while there is disagreement about the exact nature of the servant’s identity (and
other theological aspects of the chapter), there are areas of wide agreement,
and that contemporary scholarship has rejected many of the central apologetic
claims of Isaiah 53.
A sampling of contemporary scholars:
Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament theologian and former Old Testament professor at Columbia Theological Seminary (until his retirement), wrote the following:
“It is important to recognize that there is a significant scholarly line of argument that concludes that this poem [Isaiah 53] will not bear the theological freight familiarly
assigned to it, and that its theological claims are rather minimal…One must
recognize a certain dis-ease about making a maximal theological interpretation
(a large Christian inclination) on what are at best unstable critical
grounds.” Isaiah: 40-66.
Additionally, many conservative Christians argue that Isaiah 53 does not necessarily portray a perfect servant; merely one who has been unfairly punished:
“The guilt of Israel is not important for this model. Relative to the nations, Israel was innocent. As we were told in (Isaiah) chapter 40, the punishment exceeded the guilt in any
case. Here the prophet is concerned with the excess of punishment.” The
Collegeville Bible commentary: based on the New American Bible, by Dianne
Bergant & Robert J. Karris.
Geoffrey Grogan, the late Principal Emeritus of the International Christian College in Glasgow, Scotland, argued that while Isaiah 53 implies perfection “of some kind,” that is not the main message of the chapter.
“Strictly speaking, Is 53 does not assert absolute sinlessness…the use of the word “oppressed” (53:7) shows that his sufferings were wickedly inflicted.”- Psalms, Geoffrey
Many scholars point out that if Isaiah 53 is interpreted as an individual suffering as atonement for others, that is a major departure from the rest of Scriptural teaching – a major contradiction.
“The concept of vicarious suffering and atonement is not to be found
either here or anywhere else in the Bible… I know of no person in the Bible,
nor has any scholar pointed to any such, who took it upon himself, or who
considered himself, or who was appointed or considered by others, to be a
vicarious sufferer for wicked people deserving of punishment.” Studies on
Isaiah: Harry Meyer Orlinsky.
“Like a guilt offering, the death of the servant results in
atonement…nowhere else does the Old Testament state that a human being may
serve as a guilt offering, which leads other scholars to think it
“unwise” to press the meaning of the text.” Old Testament
Theology: Paul R. House (Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School).
“A human sacrifice for sin occurs nowhere else in the Old Testament, and [Lutheran scholar Gerhard von Rad writes]: “’the suggestion that the servant’s sacrifice surpassed the sacrificial system would certainly be unparalleled in the Old Testament, and it perhaps
also contradicts Deutero-Isaiah himself.’” Old Testament theology By Paul
“The picture does not fit. Christians…can hardly claim that the literal
significance of some details establishes Jesus, while sidestepping the fact
that he does not literally fulfill other aspects. – Israel’s faith, By John
Goldingay (Old Testament professor at Fuller Theological Seminary).
“The notion that the messiah himself would suffer does not seem to have
been a part of Jewish expectation, and indeed quite the opposite.”- Suffering
and the Goodness of God, by Christopher Morgan & Robert Peterson. (Professor
of Theology at California Baptist University and professor of theology at
Covenant Theological Seminary, respectively)
For ‘many commentators’ [Isaiah 53’s] “chief significance is seen to lie in its afterlife, when the Christian church chose to use the passage as a vehicle for developing
its…theology…without warrant from the Old Testament witness itself.”
Isaiah By Brevard S. Childs (late professor of Old Testament at Yale University)
It appears that the most popular beliefamong scholars is that Israel is the servant.
“The servant is Israel, but dressed in the best values of Israel’s heroes
(Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Jeremiah)”- The cultural world of the prophets:
the first reading and the responsorial psalm By John J. Pilch (Catholic
“Those who hold – and they constitute a vast, perhaps the majority of biblical scholars – that Israel is the subject of Isa. 53…” Studies on the second part of the Book of
Isaiah, By Harry Meyer Orlinsky, Norman Henry Snaith
“…picture of Israel, the obedient servant of the Lord, in Isaiah 40-55”- NT Wright, evangelical apologist, The climax of the covenant: Christ and the law in Pauline theology
“However, Isaiah very clearly states that the servant is Israel…there
are two Israels, one sinful and the other righteous.” Eerdmans Dictionary
of the Bible (Evangelical)
“This servant is actually identified as Israel (49:3), and the following
passages are also most readily understood as referring to the people as a
whole…It seems, then, that the passage has been expanded to allow for a
certain identification between the prophet and Israel…” – Sees servant as Isaiah
or remnant of Israel (A history of prophecy in Israel By Joseph Blenkinsopp, a
“Israel as God’s servant in Isaiah. The verse goes on to explain that God
makes Israel a light to the nations, a conduit to bring salvation to all the
earth. In the context of Second Isaiah, this probably refers to the Babylonian
exile. The images in the poem fit well with this…the nations were startled at
Israel’s appearance after its experience of suffering.”- How to Read the
Bible: History, Prophecy, Literature–Why Modern Readers … By Steven L
McKenzie, Old Testament professor at Rhodes College
Overall, contemporary scholars agree the servant, whoever it is, existed in Isaiah’s time, and was not Jesus. “There is no sign in any of these passages that the prophet was thinking of a person who would come in the future.”- The Hebrew Bible, a comparative approach, Christopher Stanley (Professor of Theology at St. Bonaventure University)
“Like all of the alleged prophecies of Christ in the Hebrew Bible, this poem had its own original context in ancient Israel that had nothing to do with Jesus. The identity of the servant in its original context can only be determined by comparison with the other
references to the servant in Second Isaiah.”- By Steven L McKenzie, Old Testament
professor at Rhodes College
“Scholars disagree about the identity of the servant…some think the servant is an individual; others think the servant is Israel or an idealized group within Israel… Regardless of the servant’s identity, contemporary scholarship agrees that Isaiah was not
providing previews of Jesus’ tragic fate 500 years later” – Exploring the
evolving view of God: from ancient Israel to the risen Jesus By John M. Perry, Biblical
professor at Cardinal Stritch University
Anyone can cherry-pick scholars to try and prove their point, but I quote these scholars to demonstrate that there is wide agreement among biblical scholars that Isaiah 53 has “minimal” theological claims, that the apologetic assumptions are “unparalleled” compared to the rest of Scripture, that Isaiah 53 is not speaking of a future person, and that it has “nothing to do with Jesus.”
When so many contemporary scholars (mostly Christian) come to this conclusion, it should cause reflection among those who so confidently believe Isaiah 53 is a proof text for Jesus.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal
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Thomas, this will probably be irrelevant to you, but bare with me when I say that all the scholars you mentioned are not Christian scholars because they consider – it can’t be otherwise, not so? – the (core of the) NT to be myth, that is, they are more (or is that less?) than doubting Thomases.
I need to explain what I mean by “Christian” scholars. There are at least two kinds of, say, English scholars: 1. Scholars of any discipline for whom England is part of who they are, and 2. Scholars of any nationality, whose discipline is the English language. The scholars you mentioned are scholars of different nationalities whose bread and butter (and perhaps interest) is the Christian religion.
Bography, not only are/were many of the scholars above devout Christians (NT Wright is a Christian apologist, for example), but that their writings express a genuine belief in Christianity. So there’s not really much support to claim they’re not ‘real’ Christians.
Furthermore, that misses the point of the post. The point is that Isaiah 53 is a central (perhaps THE central) messianic proof text for Christianity. Isaiah 53 is the only place Christians can point to and claim that it foreshadows the death, resurrection of the messiah, and his atoning power. Thus, if Isaiah 53 is not speaking of Jesus (or the messiah, either), then one must recognize that there is no biblical evidence for the belief that the messiah’s suffering brings atonement.
And so, if it is the opinion of biblical scholars (many of whom profess to Christian beliefs) that Isaiah 53 contradicts the rest of the Hebrew Bible, and probably refers to Israel, or someone else who existed during the Babylonian exile, that is a big deal. That means that a core proof text, the only text in the Hebrew Bible which is ‘proof’ for this theology, does not in fact say what apologists say it does, it means that those who see Jesus in Isaiah 53 are forcing their theology into the bible.
These scholars are not just making these statements because of ‘historical criticism’- they recognize that the common apologetic interpretation of Is 53 contradicts the rest of the OT; they recognize that it is folly to claim that despite the bible’s repeated ban on, say, human sacrifices, suddenly one chapter in the book of Isaiah is teaching a radically new theology.
Not only is that illogical and without biblical basis, but it makes the G-d who is teaching this (alleged) message into a trickster- He says one thing dozens of times, repeatedly and clearly, and then, his main message of atonement is buried in Isaiah ch 53? One would have to disregard the entirety of scripture in order to have that view.
Many thanks for compiling and/or sharing this list with us.
This helps to show that intelligent people, mainly Christian or non-Jews, can read Isa 52-53 like many Jews. It matters little if some became “doubting Thomases” because of their Christian or religious studies. Some do or did have a vested interest in promoting Christian dogma and beliefs and in not “upsetting any institutional apple carts”.
But one does not need to be a scholar in order to read verses in Isa 52-53 literally and objectively and come to the same conclusions as these individuals. One can plainly see Israel is the suffering servant. Of course, ordinary suffering servants can also have a leader who is a suffering, human servant. Isaiah didn’t know anything about Jesus, but he and his audience knew Israel’s suffering. On the other hand, most who wrote about Jesus in the NT knew enough about the writings of Jewish prophets, like Isaiah, to snatch a few verses here and there in an effort to justify their writings and teachings.
Your point, aside from being false as Thomas points out, is indeed irrellevant. None of the scholars quoted were making points tied to their particular beliefs or non-beliefs. They were commenting on the likely meaning of the text based on textual analysis and a hollistic approach to the Heberew bible. And in doing so they concluded that it does not refer to Jesus despite having no bias to a Jewish interpretation. They may consider the NT a myth but they also consider the OT a myth so they have no bias.
To put it another way, if you were to compile a list of Jewish biblical scholars who anylized Isaiah 53 – in their capacity as biblical scholars and published their conclusion that it was referring to the promised future Jewish messiah, a person who would die and in doing so would atone for all the the sins of the world past and future, you would be making a valid point, even if those Jewish scholars were not personally faithful Jews.
Feel free to provide such a list.
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Have you considered that the targum of Jonathan Ben Uziel, and the Sanhedrin 98b, that is, ancient sources, pre-Christ, without motivation to counter the Christian claim to this prophecy, saw Isaiah 53 (and the other servant songs) as Messianic? “The Leper-scholar” as the Talmud calls Him.
That aside, resting on the frail assumption that the NT was written generations after Jesus and his disciples, and carefully constructed so that the narrative of Jesus’ life would fulfill OT prophecies is total nonsense. John AT Robinson, and John Wenham have written exemplar works on the topic of dating the writings of the New Testament, and conclude pre-AD 70 for the NT cannon, and Pre-AD 50 for the Synoptic gospels.
It seems that Thomas’ point escaped you – it is not founded on the assumption that the NT was written at a later date – it is just founded upon a contextual reading of Isaiah. The fact that the ancient Rabbis (and many modern ones as well) see this as a symbolic read on Messiah does not change the contextual grammatical meaning
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BOGRAPHY, you are a real piece of work! You don’t have to be a Christian to study Christianity, or to be a Jew to study Judaism. Scholars are scholars precisely because they employ historical-critical methods, and try to be uncolored by belief. Being a “doubting Thomas” means that you are not swayed by mere emotion or fervor. Do you consider it bad to have an intellectual basis to your religion? If so, why does G-d give you a brain?
Even a cursory understanding of Christian history reveals a plethora of differing opinions about who Jesus was, what his precise relationship to G-d was, etc, even among very orthodox authors. Why do you think it took until 315 CE to finally codify the creed? Extreme Christian Diversity! You have a very bad habit of coloring scripture with your own pre conceived perspective, while consistently ignoring information to the contrary that is presented to you. This is called confirmation Bias. You will never be able to sift anything objective from your dearly held opinion while your opinion (which consequently must be G-d’s opinion,) is unshakable.
Look for a moment at how you use language in your various posts with all your clever word play and riddles, it illustrates what I see as a key issue. You are constantly “clarifying” “what you really mean when you say X or Y.” Here is a thought. JUST SAY WITH CONVENTIONAL ACCEPTED LANGUAGE WHAT YOU REALLY MEAN!
Proverbs 17:20 ‘He who has a crooked mind finds no good, And he who is perverted in his language falls into evil.”
These scholars are not threatened by the possibility that the servant is Israel because THE TEXT EXPLICITLY SAYS SO MULTIPLE TIMES. EVEN MARY IN THE MAGNIFICAT IN LUKE CALLS ISRAEL THE SERVANT!
you may find more in depth knowledge of your religion by opening yourself up to more possibilities. If your belief is true what do you have to fear from a contrary opinion?
There are indeed rabbinic references to a messianic reading of Isaiah 53, BUT these are Aggadic expositions/opinions (NON BINDING) about a figure called Moshiach Ben Yosef, who IS NOT the Davidic messiah, NOT SIMILAR TO CHURCH THEOLOGY, and these sources are also of a relatively late date.
Judaism believes in a priestly messianic figure, and a kingly figure, TWO DIFFERENT PEOPLE cf. (Obadiah 1:21).
Even in Exodus, Joshua, and Judges you had a duality to the authority structure in Israel shared between the priesthood and the type of righteous lay authorities, appointed by the head of the generation with G-d’s, and also the community’s approval. ex. the priests and Joshua. These two authorities operated in conjunction with the “council of elders, judges, etc.”
The one time in Jewish history where these authority structures became largely conflated (molded into one structure) was with the Hasmoneans, and THIS PROVOKED MUCH OUTCRY AND SECTARIANISM FROM WITHIN THE COMMUNITY at the time, because it strayed from usual practice. That change in structure was one reason why the Dead Sea Sect left Jerusalem and splintered.
ALSO, read in context, a messiah Ben Yosef can be ANY ISRAELITE In ANY GENERATION who suffers persecution, and generates communal repentance because of it, etc. Jonah, Samson, Job, etc. all share similarities with a messiah Ben Joseph picture, (and also with Isaiah’s suffering servant.)
I GRANT THAT WHILE JESUS MAY HAVE BEEN SEEN IN THIS LIGHT BY HIS STUDENTS INITIALLY, later Christian theology took such ideas to an unknown, VERY FOREIGN level.
If rabbi B has any corrections to what I’ve said, please chime in. 🙂
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