Isaiah 53 is not a prophecy of Jesus, unless you ignore its original context and only focus on the potential ‘hits’ and ignore the clear ‘misses,’ using a hazy ‘pesher’ approach to its interpretation.
The trouble for Evangelical apologists is that there are no clear ‘dying/resurrected Messiah’ passages in the OT. And Isa. 53 is only advantageous to Christian apologists if they pick and choose which parts of it to emphasize and which to de-emphasize. For instance:
Was Jesus “despised [and] shunned by men?” According to Luke 4:15, he taught in the synagogue and everyone praised him. And huge crowds supposedly followed him, and he was described as making a ‘Triumphal Entry’ into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:8-11; John 12:12-13,17-19).
Was Jesus ‘familiar with disease’ and ‘stricken by God’ (where the Hebrew word for ‘stricken’ is one that is used in the Hebrew Scriptures to stand only for leprosy as at Leviticus 13:3,9,20 and 2 Kings 15:5).
Was Jesus silent before his accusers? In each of the four gospels Jesus opened his mouth and said something before his accusers, such as “You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Also, Jesus is accused of many things throughout the Gospels, like being a drunkard or possessed or breaking the law, or committing blasphemy and we can read his defense in each case, so Jesus had plenty of words for his accusers throughout his life per the Gospels. Christians read into the text that these were formal accusations as at a trial, but the text in Isaiah says no such thing, and as already stated, Jesus was not silent at his trial either, but is depicted as pronouncing counter judgment on his accusers by declaring that they would see the Son of Man coming soon.
Was Jesusʼ “grave set among the wicked, and with the rich, in his death.” According to some Gospel passages there were no other bodies in the tomb in which Jesusʼ body was placed. So his grave was with himself, not with the wicked or with the rich. (“Among the wicked and with the rich” in Isa. 53 might also refer to two equally notorious groups if this is a Hebrew poetic parallelism). Nor does this passage say anything about a rich man providing a place for the servant. Christians read Gospel stories into such vague statements. (And perhaps the earliest Gospel author invented his story, adding “two bandits” on either side of Jesus on the cross, and having a man bury Jesus in “a tomb hewn of rock”—a tomb only a rich person could afford so that his Jesus story deliberately echoed the passage in Isaiah?)
Was Jesus crushed by disease? “the Lord chose to crush him by disease, that if he made himself an offering for guilt, he might see offspring and have long life…” Did Jesus see any offspring, or have a long life?
“Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong.” Not sure how that applies to Jesus.
Does Isaiah 53 mention the Messiah? Verse 1 does not actually say that the servantʼs message would not be believed, but merely asks, “Who can believe what we have heard?” There seems to be no prophecy there at all. Nor is there any indication that the servant would be arrested as a criminal or scourged or crucified with criminals or make intercession for his persecutors. None of that is in there. Verse 6 does say, “the Lord visited upon him the guilt of us all,” but there are other interpretations of that than the Christian one.
There is a Judaic interpretation of Isaiah 53 that seems plausible. The suffering servant is the nation of Israel which is represented by King Uzziah, who was its king in Isaiahʼs time and who died of leprosy. According to Shmuel Golding, Isaiahʼs message may have been: “Here is your leprous king, who is in type suffering under Godʼs hand for you the backslidden servant nation of Israel” (which explains verse 6). Uzziah was taken away from the royal palace because of his affliction as a leper and spent his remaining years in isolation, which fits verse 8. Golding says the following:
Israel is portrayed as a suffering servant on account of its anointed leader being stricken with leprosy. Israel, like the leper, is a suffering servant of God. Both have suffered humiliation at the hand of their fellowmen: the leper because of his unsightly appearance; Israel through its defeat at the hands of the Babylonians. The gist of the message is that Israel like the leper has suffered, but nevertheless will retain its identity in the form of the exiled Jewish people and that they will prosper in this form. [Shmuel Golding, The Light of Reason, volume II (Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Institute of Biblical Polemics, 1989), p. 36.]
This interpretation of Isaiah 53 seems preferable to the Christian one because it does not suffer from drawbacks (1)-(6) mentioned above. It would also better explain the many changes of tense that occur in the chapter. And Israel is indeed referred to as ‘Godʼs servant’ (e.g., at Isa 49:3). However, the given interpretation does not make the chapter into a prophecy so much as an explanation of Israelʼs situation at around the time of Isaiah. At the very least, it shows, I think, that Isaiah 53 is not a clear example of a fulfilled prophecy (or set of fulfilled prophecies) in the Bible. So it is not any good support for premise (1) of the Argument from the Bible.
Also, per Ehrman, Many readers fail to consider the verb tenses in these passages in Isa 53. They do not indicate that someone will come along at a later time and suffer in the future. They are talking about past suffering. The Servant has already suffered — although he “will be” vindicated.
Bart Ehrmanʼs Questions on Isaiah 53
Christians thought that Jesus was the messiah, and they knew that he had been crucified. And so they developed the idea that the messiah was supposed to be crucified. (And they started to appeal to non-messianic texts such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 in support of their views.)… Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), almost universally thought by scholars to be written by a different author from chapters 1-39 (themselves written by Isaiah of Jerusalem in the 8th c. BCE). Second Isaiah was writing after the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem (including the temple) in 586 BCE, while the leaders of the people and many of the elite had been taken into exile in Babylon, in what is known as the Babylonian Captivity… Several important points concerning Isaiah 53:
- It is to be remembered that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible are not predicting things that are to happen hundreds of years in advance; they are speaking to their own contexts and delivering a message for their own people to hear, about their own immediate futures;
- In this case, the author is not predicting that someone will suffer in the future for other peopleʼs sins at all. Many readers fail to consider the verb tenses in these passages. They do not indicate that someone will come along at a later time and suffer in the future. They are talking about past suffering. The Servant has already suffered — although he “will be” vindicated. And so this not about a future suffering messiah.
- In fact, it is not about the messiah at all. This is a point frequently overlooked in discussions of the passage. If you will look, you will notice that the term messiah never occurs in the passage. This is not predicting what the messiah will be.
- If the passage is not referring to the messiah, and is not referring to someone in the future who is going to suffer — who is it talking about? Here there really should be very little ambiguity. As I mentioned, this particular passage — Isaiah 53 — is one of four servant songs of Second Isaiah. And so the question is, who does Second Isaiah himself indicate that the servant is? A careful reading of the passages makes the identification quite clear: “But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen” (44:1); “Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant” (44:21); “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified’” (49:3).
The book of Second Isaiah itself indicates who the Servant of the Lord is. It is Israel, Godʼs people. In Isaiah 53, when the author describes the servantʼs past sufferings, he is talking about the sufferings they have experienced by being destroyed by the Babylonians. This is a suffering that has come about because of sins. But the suffering will be vindicated, because God will now restore Israel and bring them back to the land and enter into a new relationship with them.
It may be fairly objected that the Servant is said to suffer for “our” sins, not “his” sins. Scholars have resolved that problem in a number of ways. It may be that the author is thinking that the portion of the people taken into exile have suffered for the sins of those in the land — some of them suffering for the sins of all. Those who have been taken into captivity have suffered displacement, loss, and exile for the sake of everyone else. But now the servant — Israel — will be exalted and restored to a close relationship with God — and be used by him to bring about justice throughout the earth.
There may be problems with this interpretation — as there always are with every interpretation! — but the facts remain that the suffering servant is never described as the messiah, his suffering is portrayed as past instead of future, and he is explicitly identified on several occasions as “Israel.”
What Does Isaiah 53 Mean? How Best To Interpret it? Bibliography & Links to Online Sources
The “Servant of the Lord” in Isaiah: General Bibliography [Last updated 2015-05-18] click here.
Who Is the Servant of the Lord?: Jewish and Christian Interpretations on Isaiah 53 from Antiquity to the Middle Ages by Antti Laato, 2013, in-depth review by Alphonso Groenewald, click here.
“Kingship and Servanthood in the Book of Isaiah” by Ulrich Berges from a highly acclaimed volume published in 2014, The Book of Isaiah: Enduring Questions Answered Anew by Richard J. Bautch (Ed.), J. Todd Hibbard (Ed.), click here to read part of the article.
“For fundamentalists only: Isaiah 53 in context,” click here
Award winning Christian seminarian leaves the fold after examining the so-called Old Testament “Prophecies of Jesus” in detail: George Bethune English, The Grounds of Christianity Examined. For a bit of his story click here. For his view of Isaiah 53, click here and start reading at the paragraph beginning, “The next prophecy proposed to be considered, is the celebrated prophecy of Isaiah, consisting of part of the 52nd, and the whole of the 53rd chapter…”
Rabbi Tovia Singer (a conservative Jew who agrees that Scripture is inspired) defends Judaism against the Christian missionary selective quotation approach to the Hebrew Bible. Also does debates, and has recently re-edited his encyclopedic work that responds to numerous claims made by Christian missionaries, click here.
Fiddler Zvi disputes the Christian use of OT passages, including Isaiah 53, in an informative and entertaining fashion, click here.
Gerald Sigal, Isaiah 53: Who is the Servant? 307 pages, but a summary can be read for free by clicking here.
Uri Yosef, Counter Missionary Articles and Lessons, The Jewish Home. Click here then scroll down and click on the links to Identifying the “Suffering Servant.”
David Berger and Michael Wyschogrod, Jews & Jewish Christianity, a shorter work that discusses the use of Old Testament passages by Christians. Available for free along with many other pro-Jewish and anti-Christian missionary works, click here.
Rabbi Moshe Shulman, Judaismʼs Answer features many articles on Isaiah 53
Charles C. Hennell, An Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity, 2d ed. (London: T. Allman, 1841), ch. 13, “On the Prophecies of Isaiah,” click here. See also, ch. 12, “On the Prophecies,” and ch. 14, “On the Prophecies of Daniel,” pp. 325-403
Michael Arnheim, Is Christianity True?, 1984, ch 6, “Fulfillment of Prophecy?”
Dewey M. Beegle, Prophecy and Prediction, 1978. An Evangelical Bible scholar and translator whose book on prophecy was composed in reply to various conservative views of Old Testament prophecy. Not available to read online, but copies can be obtained at oneʼs local library via inter-library loan. Info for Amazon purchase, click here. Beegleʼs testimony is also featured in Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists.Labels:Bible, biblical studies, Christian Apologetics, inerrancy, inspiration, Isaiah, prophecy, the canonical Gospels
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