Here now is THE post that has received the very most comments in the past ten years – 233 – more than any of the 2,965 OTHER posts. And as it turns out, it’s on an unusually important topic, for both Christians and those who want to understand Christians: is Jesus’ death and resurrection predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures? Read on:
Readers Mailbag: Does Isaiah 53 Predict the Death and Resurrection of Jesus?
May 8, 2020
I would like to get back into the practice of devoting one post a week to answering questions raised by blog members. I have a fairly long list of good questions I haven’t been able to get to, so why not just go through them week by week? If you have any pressing questions that are particularly intriguing or perplexing for you about the NT or early Christianity or any related topic, let me know as a comment on a post (any post will do, whether relevant or not). If it’s not something I can address or that I can answer in a line or two, I’ll let you know. Otherwise, I can add it to the list!
At the top of my current list is the following.
I wonder if you could talk about Isaiah 53 which I think is also a later insert by the scribes trying to justify what they had done to Jesus.
Ah, now *this* is a passage that students bring up every time I teach a class on the New Testament. Hundreds of years before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah predicted in detail his crucifixion for the sins of the world, to be followed by his resurrection. It’s right there in black and white, in Isaiah 53. Why don’t Jews SEE that?? It’s in their own Bible! Are they blind? Can’t they READ????
As it turns out, my students as a rule don’t understand the issues with Isaiah 53; that’s not particularly strange – most people don’t! The problem is not that the passage was a later insertion into the text of Isaiah; it instead involves what Isaiah was talking about. I’ve discussed the issue before several times, but it’s one that regularly comes up; here is how I explain it all in my most recent book, Heaven and Hell.
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is a passage that has long been cited by Christian interpreters as a virtually infallible prophecy of the death and resurrection of the messiah – i.e., Jesus. But that is almost certainly a misreading of the passage, at least as the author of Isaiah originally intended it. The passage deals with the “suffering servant” of the LORD. But in its original context the servant does not appear to be the future messiah.
Of course Jesus is not named in the passage. But even more surprising to many Christian readers who learn this for the first time, the word “messiah” never occurs in it either. There is a good reason for the surprise: it is hard indeed for Christians to read the chapter and not think that it is speaking specifically about Jesus.
He was despised and rejected by others;
A man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity…
He was despised, and we held him of no account
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases…
He was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities.
Upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed. (Isaiah 53:3-5)
Not only did this unnamed servant of the LORD suffer because of others, he also is vindicated by God. Doesn’t this refer to the resurrection of Jesus?
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
He shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
Yet he bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:11-12)
The main reason it is so difficult for Christian readers to see these words and not think “Jesus” is because for many centuries theologians have indeed argued that the passage is a messianic prophecy looking forward to the Christian savior. Anyone who is first shown this passage and told it is about Jesus will naturally always read it that way. Of course it’s about Jesus! Who else could it be about? This is surely a prophecy of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection made centuries before the fact.
Still, it is important to note that the passage never uses the term “messiah” or explicitly indicates it is talking about a messiah, but also that we have no evidence that any Jew prior to Christianity ever thought it was about the messiah. There is a good reason for that: before the birth of Christianity, no one thought the messiah would be someone who would die and be raised from the dead.
That may seem both weird and counterfactual to many Christian readers today. But historically it is almost certainly the case: the idea of a suffering messiah is not found in any Jewish texts prior to Christianity. The idea that the messiah had to suffer and die for others was first espoused by Christians on the basis of two facts that they “knew” about Jesus: he was the messiah and he had been crucified. Their conclusion: the messiah had to suffer and die.
But not in traditional Judaism. Instead, Jews consistently believed the messiah would be the great and powerful ruler who delivered Israel from its oppressors. He would be a mighty general, or a powerful cosmic judge come from heaven. Different Jews had different views of who or what the messiah might be, but all these views had one thing in common: they all thought of the messiah as a future figure of grandeur and might who would rule the nation with justice and power.
And who was Jesus? An itinerant preacher who got on the wrong side of the law and was arrested by the enemies of Israel, tried, and publicly tortured to death by crucifixion. This was just the opposite of what the messiah would be.
Christians nonetheless came to believe he was the messiah, and, naturally, started looking for proofs from the Bible that could support the idea — passages that, contrary to what everyone had previously thought, might indicate that the messiah was to suffer and be raised from the dead. Isaiah 53 was a natural choice. Christian thinkers picked up the passage, promoted it as a messianic text, and that has influenced its interpretation ever since.
But there are solid reasons for thinking the passage is about something else. To begin with, it is important to stress the historical context within which the passage was written. This part of Isaiah was produced after the Babylonian armies had destroyed Jerusalem and taken large numbers of the Jewish people into captivity in Babylon. These exiles were suffering, and the prophet was writing in order to give them hope. Those in captivity were suffering for the sins of the people, which had led to God’s punishment of the nation; but they would be returned to their land and good things would come. These suffering ones are talked about as God’s “servant”: they are serving God’s purposes.
Some readers think the servant has to be a single person since, after all, he is described as an individual, God’s servant. But it is important to realize that throughout the Hebrew Bible, groups of people could be, and often are, described as individuals. Nations are named after people. Thus the Southern nation after the civil war dividing Israel is named “Judah” – after one of the sons of Jacob; it is obviously a group but it is named after a person. So too with “Gog and Magog” in Ezekiel 38-39 and the fierce “beasts” that Daniel sees as ruling the earth in Daniel 7. Each is described as an individual animal, but it represents an entire national group.
Another reason for thinking Isaiah 53 does not refer to just one person, the future messiah who would die for sins, is that the passage describes the suffering of the servant as a past event, not future (he was despised and rejected; he has borne our infirmities; he was wounded for our transgressions). On the other hand – this is a key point – his vindication is described as a future event (He shall see light; he shall find satisfaction; he shall divide the spoil). The author thus is referring to someone (as a metaphor for a group of people) who has already suffered but will eventually be vindicated.
And who is that someone, that “servant of the LORD”? The historical context of the author’s writing is obviously an important factor in deciding, but there is a clincher to the argument. The author of Isaiah explicitly tells us who the servant is. Most readers don’t notice this because they do not read the passage in its literary context. But as biblical scholars have long known, there are four distinct passages in Isaiah that talk about this servant. And they tell us who he is. This is most clear in Isaiah 49:3, where God directly addresses the servant: “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’” The suffering servant is Israel.
In short, Isaiah 53 is not originally about a future messiah. It is about the nation of Israel taken into captivity. Some of the people were suffering horribly because of the sins of others. But God would restore them, raise them from the dead as it were, bringing them back to the land and allowing them to live again after their national destruction.
 For a full discussion see the authoritative account of John Collins, The Scepter and the Star: Jewish Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2010).
 For the factors that led Christians to think Jesus was the messiah, see my book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015).
 See the discussion of Isaiah in Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, pp. 307-21; 379-400.