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Does Isaiah 53 Predict Jesus’ Suffering and Death?

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 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!”

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) were 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).

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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).

The rest of this post is for members only.  If you join, you’ll get tons.  If you don’t, you won’t.  It doesn’t cost much, and all proceeds go to charity.  So why do yourself and the entire world a favor?

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What About the Original *Old* Testament?
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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 23, 2019

    Great post!

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  2. Robert
    Robert  August 23, 2019

    Bart: “If you will look, you will notice that the term messiah never occurs in the passage.”

    When one tries to trace the possible roots for why early Hebrew speaking messianic Jews might have begun to apply this passage to Jesus as an anointed messiah, I wonder if they were attracted to the Hebrew מִשְׁחַת (mišḥaṯ, disfigurement) in Isa 52,14, which is similar to the Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ (mšiḥ, anointed/messiah). The same word-play might also explain the later use of anointed/messiah in the Aramaic Targum of Isa 52,13.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2019

      Yup, it’s possible. The Christians who appeal to the passage (e.g., Justin) never say anything about that; and, of course, there is no evidence that the earliest Christians — the ones who knew the Bible in Hebrew — used the passage to defend a view of the suffering messiah; that’s one of the most striking things: Isaiah 53 is never quoted in the NT to prove Jesus is the suffering messiah (e.g., in Paul, etc.. All very odd..

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      • Avatar
        brenmcg  August 26, 2019

        Isnt it quoted in luke 22 and acts 8 to show hes the suffering messiah?

        1
        • Bart
          Bart  August 26, 2019

          No. It’s not quoted in Luke 22 and in Acts 8 the most striking thing is that it is quoted *without* reference to a suffering messiah.

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          • Avatar
            brenmcg  August 26, 2019

            but its quoted without reference because Luke wants Isaiah to do the talking himself. “he was numbered with the transgressors” tells Theophilus where to look in Isaiah. And if that line is fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah the very next line must be too, “he bore the sins of many and made intercession for the transgressions”.
            Acts does the same but spells it out even more “… For his life was taken from the earth.” – Luke says beginning with this passage philip went on to explain the gospel – the very next line in Isaiah being “stricken for the transgression of my people”

          • Bart
            Bart  August 27, 2019

            Yes, what’s striking is precisely that he doesn’t quote the line that you’re saying is the most important one to him. My view is that we can’t assume we know what an author *wanted* his readers to do; we only know what he wrote, and what he didn’t write.

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          • Avatar
            brenmcg  August 27, 2019

            Ok understand – though I find the double coincidence in Luke and acts to be compelling.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 28, 2019

            It’s the same author, so it is indeed interesting — but not as interesting as if two different authors were citing it…

          • Avatar
            Iskander Robertson  August 28, 2019

            “Yes, what’s striking is precisely that he doesn’t quote the line that you’re saying is the most important one to him.”

            the verse starts with :
            Therefore, I will assign him a portion from the multitudes and he will divide the mighty as spoils….

            quote:

            The word for “spoils” is שָׁלָל֒ / shalal — and it means spoils or booty as in spoils of war.

            “Behold! A day of the L-rd is coming, and your plunder shall be shared within you. And I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to wage war; and the city shall be captured, and the houses shall be plundered. . . And the wealth of all the nations round about-gold and silver and apparel-will be gathered in very great abundance.” Zechariah 14:1 – 2, 14.

            and

            “the inhabitants of the cities of Israel will go forth and make fires and heat up with the weapons. . . Thus will they spoil those who spoiled them and plunder those who plundered them, says the L-rd G-d.” Y’echezkel / Ezekiel 39:9 – 10.

            QUESTION:
            COULD this be one of the reasons luke did not find this line important?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 28, 2019

            Do you mean is it humanly possible? Of course. Is it probable? There’s no way to know.

          • Avatar
            Iskander Robertson  August 28, 2019

            levitical sacrifices did not atone for murder. there is no way luke would have seen jesus as a levitical sacrifice. the romans who murdered jesus were not performing a levitical sacrifice. think about it, does it make sense for a roman to think, “hey, this guy is dying for my sin of murdering him, let me go kill him and believe, i will be saved from frying like bacon in hell” ?

            does that make sense?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 28, 2019

            I’m not sure what you mean by Levitical sacrifice. Do you mean sacrifices as prescribed in Leviticus? There were lots of different functions for sacrifices, one of which was atonement for sin.

          • Avatar
            Iskander Robertson  August 28, 2019

            is it possible that “bearing the sins” has nothing to do with “sacrificed for sins” ?
            for example, the earth “bears our sins” for doing sins on it. so you are doing SINS on it, not that you are pouring sins into it.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 28, 2019

            Yes, it’s a different image. (E.g., the scapegoat bore sins into the wilderness, but was not sacrificed)

      • Robert
        Robert  August 26, 2019

        Bart: “… of course, there is no evidence that the earliest Christians — the ones who knew the Bible in Hebrew — used the passage to defend a view of the suffering messiah; that’s one of the most striking things: Isaiah 53 is never quoted in the NT to prove Jesus is the suffering messiah (e.g., in Paul, etc.. All very odd..”

        Of course, we don’t have any real evidence of what the earliest Aramaic or Hebrew speaking ‘Christians’ thought about anything. Yet you agree below that “the passion narratives contain allusions to” Isaiah’s suffering servant. I also don’t think it is too much of a stretch to think it might have been part of the scriptural argument behind Paul’s quotation of the pre-Pauline tradition he quotes in 1 Cor 15,3: “… that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures …”

        • Bart
          Bart  August 27, 2019

          Yup, I agree, that’s entirely possible. If it was his principle source of reference, though, you would imagine he would cite it somewhere (e.g., in Romans or Galatians?). But who knows?

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      • Avatar
        dankoh  August 27, 2019

        Doesn’t he even hint at this passage? Evans certainly seems to think so.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 28, 2019

          I don’t think there’s anywhere in Paul that clearly refers to Isaiah 53, but if you say something like “the messiah suffered in fulfilment of the Scriptures” (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:3-5) then it would be easy for a reader to day to say — that’s Isaiah 53! Not sure if it was what was in Paul’s mind or not though….

  3. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  August 23, 2019

    The analysis of these passages is perfectly convincing. But the early Christians were probably desperate to find some legitimacy in scripture, and these passages were the best they could find. I wonder whether the people who referenced these passages were aware of their fudging? Surely they recognized the tenses. Surely they were aware of the references to Israel as the servant. An early instance of cooking the books for Jesus? I wonder to what extent they were dishonest, as opposed to delusional? That question applies today, to the many, many, preachers every Sunday delivering sermons on these passages to their sheep– I mean, congregations.

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  4. Avatar
    Stephen  August 23, 2019

    Surely one of the KJV translators’ finest moments!

  5. Avatar
    jhague  August 23, 2019

    Doesn’t this sound exactly like Jesus? Isn’t this a prophecy about what would happen to the messiah?

    1. None of the Christians I know will ever accept any interpretation other than that this passage is referring to Jesus. Are you able to convince your students that this passage is not about Jesus?

    2. Did the New Testament authors write parts of Isaiah into their writings so that Jesus’ suffering and death matched Isaiah?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2019

      1. Sometimes; 2. Yes, the passion narratives contain allusions to it.

      1
      • Avatar
        jhague  August 26, 2019

        So the allusions to Isaiah are not historical. Thererore there are parts of Jesus’ crucifixion story where we do not know what actually happened, correct?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 27, 2019

          Right!

          • Avatar
            jhague  August 27, 2019

            I know we can only speculate, but would you guess that Jesus was arrested, immediately sent for crucifixion which included flogging before and then put in a common grave? (Not all of the discussions, meetings, etc as stated in the NT)

          • Bart
            Bart  August 28, 2019

            Yeah, pretty much. May indeed have been arrested at night and next day condemned as part of a busy morning agenda, at a “trial” that took less than a minute….

            1
  6. Avatar
    fishician  August 23, 2019

    Since he is addressing Israel it seems sensible that he refers to “our sins” referring to the people of Israel. He’s not just giving a history lesson; he’s preaching, after all!

  7. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  August 23, 2019

    How you interpret and also what you focus on in the Bible matters. There were different authors with different views and intentions.

    I have heard Jews say they are still waiting for their Messiah and also that they don’t believe Jesus was the Messiah.
    If their suffering is past, then?

    Did first-century Jews (the first Christians) use the Messiah story because of conflicts/war with Rome? Forgeries, counter-forgeries, probably counter-counter-forgeries, etc.

    I am rewriting prayers with Bible verses that not about suffering. I was searching for “Hail” in the NT for “Hail Mary, There were interesting results. Hail was used a lot in the Ancient Egyptian Book of the dead (resurrection).

    Currently, I think there is some helpful information in the NT. The combination of the Book of the Dead and some of the NT is helpful for me.

  8. Avatar
    jscheller  August 23, 2019

    I have preached a sermon on how Isaiah so clearly foretold Jesus’ Passion in chapter 53, and never really doubted it until I started reading what you’ve had to say on it. So now, I am thinking you may have something to say about the Passion narrative being retrofitted to Isaiah by early Christians, i.e., do you think that Isaiah 53 had anything to do with formulations of…
    a) … the story of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb (made his grave with the wicked but with the rich at his death)?
    b) … the narrative of Jesus’ trials (him being silent)?
    c) …Jesus’ flogging?
    d) …the descriptions of Jesus’ unfair treatment under trial (he was taken from prison and from judgment)?

    I would certainly think that how well chapter 53 can be aligned with the passion narrative has to have something more to it than coincidence.
    Thanks,
    Joel Scheller

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2019

      Yes, I think these are allusions to the passage, written up by Christians to make Jesus appear to have fulfilled prophecy.

      5
  9. Avatar
    Joel Smith  August 23, 2019

    “He is despised and rejected of men… he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities… he was taken from prison… for he was cut off out of the land of the living… thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed (his children), he (God) shall prolong his days.” -Isaiah 53 (KJV)
    According to Isaiah, the suffering Messiah will be put in prison. He will then come out of this prison to see his children. And he then will live to an old age. Jesus didn’t do any of these things. Neither did the Nation.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2019

      Of course it’s metaphorical language. Christians took “seeing his children” to mean he would live again to see his followers — i.e., it’s a prediction of the resurrection; Jews understood it to mean that the nation would live on, with new children born to it.

      2
      • Avatar
        Joel Smith  August 27, 2019

        What good is a prophecy that can’t be verified that it has been fulfilled? Come out of a metaphorical prison? Live to see his symbolic children? Live to a non-verifiable old age? You & I both equally fulfill this prophecy then too.

  10. Avatar
    qditt  August 24, 2019

    Thank you Dr. Ehrman for your insights on this post. I wish I had a question, but you’ve laid it all out in a clear, concise manner. I would love to learn more about Isaiah and his schools of thought, as they are so frequently incorporated into NT scripture. Seeking truth with an open mind to be more tolerant and considerate of others, focusing on unity instead of division is what I believe can make this world a better place, so thank you.

  11. Avatar
    Gary  August 24, 2019

    Whenever I debate this chapter with Christian apologists they pull out references from Jewish writings that they believe indicate that some Jews during the time of Jesus and earlier believed that this passage was messianic. Sorry I can’t remember the sources. Is there any truth to this claim?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2019

      Nope, not true at all. Next time ask them for the references. If they give them to you, look them up. And pay close attention to when the sources were written! There is no reference to Isaiah 53 as messianic prior to Christianity.

      • Avatar
        mkahn1977  August 26, 2019

        I’ve often heard of an obscure passage in the Talmud being cited as proof that the sin offering was rejected by the high priests after Jesus’s death and right up until the temples destruction… I can’t remember what was quoted, but are you familiar with this?

  12. Avatar
    brenmcg  August 24, 2019

    There are many servants of the lord, not just Israel; and the suffering/righteous servant of Isaiah 53 can’t be Israel.
    Israel was sold into slavery for their own sins and transgressions – not suffering for someone else’s. The suffering servant was “punished for the transgressions of my people”.

    Israel also cant be the servant of Isaiah 49:6 “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

    The truth is that whether Isaiah was written before or after the exile the initial readers of it would not have known who the servant that “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” was supposed to be.

  13. Avatar
    meltuck  August 24, 2019

    Thank you for this post. It has resolved for me the question that has troubled me for years; why Isaiah 53 is written in the past tense.

  14. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  August 24, 2019

    “Doesn’t this sound exactly like Jesus? Isn’t this a prophecy about what would happen to the messiah?”

    i read that “silent ” doesn’t really mean silence. what the argument is that the suffering servant does not condemn , curse , attack and threaten his persecutors like jesus does in gospel of mark, matthew, luke and john .his (jesus’)threats come before execution when he addresses the high priest and jewish people

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2019

      Yes, the Gospels certainly wrote their accounts to show that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies….

      2
  15. Avatar
    doug  August 24, 2019

    When these facts are spelled out to people who believe Second Isaiah referred to Jesus, what counter-argument do they offer, if any?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2019

      The most sophisticated argument would be that Isaiah’s text had a “double” fulfillment, one with Israel and then, the complete one, with Israel’s messiah.

      2
  16. Avatar
    dankoh  August 24, 2019

    Yet another point is Isa. 53:10 – “He will see offspring [zerah] and lengthen his days.” That is, he will have lots of children and a long life, not unlike what Job got for admitting he could not challenge God. Dead messiahs can’t have those things.

    But the main point is your #2, which – not at all incidentally – is a continuation of the opening lines of Second isaiah – “Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people . . . for her service [servitude?] is ended.”

    1
    • fefferdan
      fefferdan  August 26, 2019

      Thanks for pointing this out, dankoh. I too have noticed the “many offspring” verse as hard to reconcile with the idea of the crucified Christ. But don’t expect that win the argument with fundamentalists. They will tell you that the many offspring are Jesus’ spiritual children, the Christians. Faith, like conspiracy theories, is hard to argue against.

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      • Avatar
        dankoh  August 27, 2019

        “Zerah” literally means “seed” and always means physical offspring, whether of a plant or a man. Particularly in Second Isaiah – and the Hebrew says the servant WILL SEE his offspring, meaning he will live long enough to see his descendants. See also Lev. 15:32, which discusses what to do when a man has a shikvat-zerah – a seminal emission.

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  17. Avatar
    godspell  August 25, 2019

    Somehow, I never made the connection before–but now I’ve got a Handel on it. (Do a good job proving Jesus didn’t believe in Hell, because that pun certainly merits it).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CP4JSVMBdZg

  18. Avatar
    Rokyro  August 25, 2019

    Hi Bart,

    As usual, totally unrelated question. I’m having a discussion with a friend about harmonizing Acts and Paul. One of my problems is with the edicts of the Jerusalem Council. It seems fairly clear that one of the edicts deals with dietary conditions of unclean meat. Yet, when I read Paul, 1 Corinthians and Romans, this doesn’t seem like it’s much of a big issue with him. Do you think he signed off on the edicts as depicted in Acts? Also, what’s going on in Galatians chapter 2? Do you think the issue is dietary restrictions, or table fellowship, or both? Is Paul going back on his word?

    Any reply is greatly appreciated!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2019

      I don’t think there ever was an edict: that’s Acts’s way of showing a reconciliation between Paul and the Jerusalem apostles; and Gal. 2 is about table fellowship, but the issue is being driven by the requirements of kosher.

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    • Avatar
      Arianne  August 26, 2019

      You might want to consider Alan Garrow’s hypothesis: https://www.alangarrow.com/bntc2017.html

      He argues that a more complete version of the Jerusalem council’s edict is found in the Didache, and that it’s not as unambiguously Pauline-friendly as the author of Acts made it out to be. In particular, he highlights the Didache’s reference to the need for being “perfected at the last season” for salvation. Garrow argues that, if something like that was in the original Jerusalem agreement, it might have been interpreted by Paul’s opponents to mean that circumcision is a requirement to be saved at the Parousia, even if it’s not a requirement for baptism per se. If Acts 15 doesn’t mention circumcision, it’s because the Jerusalem council’s verdict wasn’t so clear-cut on this topic, and hence the author was weary of bringing it up (according this this theory). Likewise, the reason Paul doesn’t bring out the Jerusalem verdict in Galatians is that it doesn’t necessarily help his case regarding circumcision — his opponents already knew about the agreement, but just interpreted it differently.

      Garrow goes into much more detail. I’d recommend watching the whole video if you’re curious, and judge the hypothesis for yourself.

  19. Avatar
    billw977  August 25, 2019

    So, I’m assuming you don’t buy this “dual prophesy” theory. There are several references in the NT about how certain things in the NT mimics things in the OT: Such as Mose’s 40 days on the mountain and Jesus’s 40 days in the desert, or as Jonah was 3 days in the belly of the whale, the Passover, etc.etc….There are OT prophesies that go so far as to say certain individuals represent divine things, like in Zechariah. So wouldn’t it not be too far of a stretch to consider that Isaiah was thinking of the present and the future? Although I consider myself an “agnostic believer” I’m more inclined to think that these verses in Isaiah fit the person represented as Jesus than Israel…..

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2019

      I’m not quite sure what you mean by not buying it. I don’t think that is what the author who wrote the words had in mind, no.

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  20. Avatar
    RorscHaK  August 26, 2019

    Bart, some Christian missionaries seem to push a “suppression theory” suggesting that Rabbinic Judaism removed Isaiah 53 from their lectionary cycle to prevent Jews from noticing this “obvious” prophecy about Jesus.

    This appears to be conspiracy theory nonsense for me, but I wonder how much information about this is present (I’ve seen arguments that the suffering servant song was retained in lectionary cycle in the Islamic world but only not present in the Christian world or something similar)

    I can’t really find any academic information about this, so my BS detector isn’t satisfied yet.

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