Boyarin attempts to set the stage for his interpretation of Isaiah 53 by presenting his readers with a sketch of the debate between the Christian missionaries and the Jewish community surrounding this passage. The problem with Boyarin’s depiction is that it is inaccurate, simplistic and crude; it presents the matter as a case of “either or” with no appreciation for the nuances involved.
First Boyarin posits that the Jewish community believes that the Messianic interpretation for Isaiah 53 was merely a product of the failure of Jesus’ mission. In other words, the idea that this passage is referring to the Messiah only arose as a Christian apologetic to explain Jesus’ death. Boyarin then counters with the “revelation” that Jewish interpreters have explained this text as Messianic “well into the early modern period”.
What Boyarin fails to tell his readers is that the Messianic interpretation is still alive and well in the teachings of Jewish rabbis who live today. No one is attempting to “suppress” the Messianic interpretation and the Messianic interpretation does not contradict the national interpretation. The debate between Jews and Christian missionaries does not center on the question as to whether the passage is Messianic or national. The question is; does this passage ONLY speak of a suffering Messiah? Is there no other way to read the passage? And furthermore, even if this passage IS speaking of a suffering Messiah; can it be referring to Jesus with all of the theological implications that the Church has appended to this belief? The answer to these two questions, as we shall see, is a resounding “NO”, but first let us gets back to the details of Boyarin’s presentation.
Boyarin finds “no evidence at all that any late ancient Jews read this passage as referring to anyone but the Messiah” (TJG, pg. 152). Boyarin has missed one of the most crucial pieces of evidence in this case. The Christian Scriptures themselves testify that the disciples of Jesus had already identified him as the Messiah, yet they did not expect him to suffer and die. The Gospels tell us that the disciples were completely shocked by Jesus’ death. This would certainly indicate that if anyone read Isaiah 53 as a teaching about the Messiah before Jesus’ times, the teaching was unknown to Jesus’ disciples.
Boyarin argues that the suffering of the servant described in Isaiah is parallel to the suffering of the “saintly exalted ones” described in Daniel 7:25 (TJG, pg. 144). At first this would seem to undercut his entire position which attempts to posit that the Isaiah servant is the individual Messiah and not the nation, while Daniel clearly refers to the suffering of the nation. Boyarin postulates that the passage in Daniel was read as a reference to an individual despite the plural terminology that the prophet uses. This faulty argument in and of itself is enough to discredit Boyarin’s position, but there is more to it. The prophet actually describes the suffering as an attempt by the enemies of the holy exalted ones to “alter the seasons and the law” – a fitting description of the religious persecution of the Jewish people which attempted to abolish observance of the appointed holy days. These metaphors can in no way be read as a description of Jesus’ suffering. Boyarin does not bother to explain how the details of Daniel’s prophecy harmonize with his interpretation.
The key difference between the Jewish and Christian interpretations of this passage has completely escaped Boyarin. Isaiah 53 is all about vindication. God’s servant, who suffered grievously, will one day be vindicated to the eyes of those who despised him. This is the primary thrust of the passage.
The missionary interpretation insists that it is Jesus who is going to be vindicated and ONLY Jesus who will be vindicated. According to the Church, the servant’s role can only be fulfilled by one who stands apart from all of humanity by virtue of his alleged divinity – no one can share in the servant’s accomplishment. The key element of the Church position is that the servant must be Jesus to the absolute exclusion of anyone else.
Judaism, on the other hand, asserts that the primary thrust of the passage is the vindication of those who accomplished God’s purpose on earth. Israel is God’s agent here on earth and it is through this nation that God’s purpose is fulfilled. Some individuals from within the nation, such as the prophet, the Messiah or the righteous may play a more prominent role in fulfilling God’s purpose, but they do so as part of the collective Israel. It is not by virtue of their being apart from Israel that they fulfill their role but because they are the heart of the nation that they achieve God’s purpose. If the passage is primarily speaking of Messiah, the prophet or the righteous remnant, it is not to the exclusion of the nation but that the nation’s role is concentrated in these individuals with the nation fulfilling the same role in a general sense. The vindication of the Messiah, the prophet or the righteous remnant is not something that stands apart from the vindication of Israel, but is part and parcel of the general vindication of the nation.
The concept of God’s purpose being fulfilled both by the nation and by an individual or an entity within the nation is a theme that is open and evident in the later chapters of Isaiah. In these chapters (40-66) the prophet refers to the nation as God’s servant (41:8; 43:10; 44:1; 44:21; 48:20) and he refers to an entity within the nation as God’s servant (42:1; 44:26; 49:3). Yet the prophet uses the same imagery and language to describe both the nation and this entity within the nation. The collective nation and the specific entity within the nation are both called from the womb (44:2,24; 49:2,5), are supported by God (41:10; 42:1), are chosen by God (41:8; 42:1), have God’s spirit placed upon them (44:3; 59:21; 42:1), are sheltered in the shade of God’s hand (51:16; 49:2), are called upon to establish the earth (51:16; 49:8), will bring the desolate ruins to life (61:4; 49:8), will be honored by kings (49:23; 49:7), will have ministers bow to them (45:14; 49:7), will serve as a light to the nations (60:3; 42:6; 49:6), were humiliated by their enemies (51:7,23; 49:7), fear that they have toiled in vain (40:27; 49:4), are honored by God (43:4; 49:5), and God is glorified through them (44:23; 49:3).
The theme of Israel’s vindication is also prevalent throughout the book of Isaiah. The prophet consistently teaches that those who trust in God will not be shamed (25:9; 30:18; 40:31; 41:10,11; 44:21; 45:25; 49:23). Isaiah describes how Israel’s righteousness will be obvious to the eyes of the nations and that God will reward their labor on His behalf (26:2; 40:10; 51:7; 60:21; 62:2).
The Jewish interpretation that has God’s purpose achieved through the prophet, the Messiah and the righteous more precisely and through the nation in a general sense – is fully supported by the text. The Christian interpretation which categorically cuts the nation out of God’s plan completely ignores the words of the prophet.
The concept that Israel is God’s servant has always been an integral part of Jewish self-identity. The Jewish people understood that they were called by God to serve His purpose here on earth. It was always understood that various members or entities within the nation, such as the prophet or the Messiah, will fulfill this calling more precisely than the nation as a whole – but these individuals will always be seen as an integral part of the nation. The theological assumption that only a divine being can fulfill God’s purpose and the doctrine which completely cuts Israel out of the role as God’s servant has no basis in any version of Jewish thought.