Isaiah 53 is the ONE passage, above all others, that has been used over the centuries by Christians to be a prediction that the messiah will suffer and die for the sake of others. Every semester my students quote the passage to me and say “SEE! Jesus really *is* the messiah predicted by Scripture, centuries before he came!”
I have been talking about how the view of a future resurrection of the body came from. This idea, that we would live forever in our bodies (if we were among the “righteous”) was repugnant to just about everyone in the ancient world. But it became a widely held view among Jews, and was taken up with passion by the early Christians. These Christians appealed to the Jewish Bible for support of their view, even though “resurrection” is actually only clearly taught in one passage (Daniel 12:1-3).
But they found other passages they claimed were relevant for the idea of resurrection. And most strikingly, they turned to Isaiah 53. Why do I call that striking? Because it is the ONE.
Isaiah 53 Debunked?
But for most Jews — and indeed, possibly for the author himself — this is not at all what the passage was about. It was instead about how God would “raise his people” from the dead. I’ll explain more about how that is what the passage is really about in a later post. For now I want to explain about why it is almost certainly not about a future suffering messiah.
Here is how I explain it in my undergraduate textbook, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction. In this context, I have already explained and shown the evidence for why critical scholars are unified in thinking that this part of Isaiah (chs. 40-55) was not written by Isaiah of Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE, before the destruction of the northern part of Israel by the Assyrians. But by a different author in the mid 6th century BCE, after the destruction of the South (and Jerusalem) by the Babylonians, and the leaders of the nation of Judea, and many others, had been taken into exile into Babylon.
That context within which the author is writing very much matters for interpreting what he has to say in this passage. The context is almost always completely ignored by Christian apologists who read the passage in isolation, as if it were written in a historical vacuum as referring only to the distant future.
Isaiah 53 – Intrigues Us All
No passage of Second Isaiah has intrigued readers and interpreters – especially among Christians – more than the four passages that are dedicated to describing a figure known as the “Suffering Servant.” Some scholars have called these passages “songs,” or “songs of the suffering servant.” The passages are Isa. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12. It is not known whether the author of 2 Isaiah has inherited these passages from an earlier tradition that he has incorporated into his book or if they are his own creation.
In these passages, the Servant of Yahweh is said to have suffered horribly for the sake of others; but God will vindicate him. He, in fact, is the delight of Yahweh and will be used by him to accomplish his will on earth: “I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations … He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth (42:1, 6).
Suffering for the Sake of Others
The author believes that this unnamed servant “shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up” (52:13). But the most important, impressive, and well-known comments involve his horrible sufferings for the sake of others. The reason this has been of such importance to Christian interpreters is that since the times of the New Testament, Christian readers have thought that Isaiah was describing the crucifixion of Jesus for the sins of the world.
He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our trasngressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (53:3-6)
The author goes on to say that he was silent before his oppressors; that he was cut off from the land of the living; that he made his tomb with the rich, and that it was “the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.” Doesn’t this sound exactly like Jesus? Isn’t this a prophecy about what would happen to the messiah?
- 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;
- The author is not predicting that someone will suffer in the future for other people’s 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.
- It is important as well to note that Jews *never* interpreted this passage as referring to a future messiah and was never read messianically. Until the Christians began doing so, as a prediction of Jesus. When they did so, they were saying that the messiah fulfilled a passage that no one had ever thought was talking about a messiah.
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).
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