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