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Readers Mailbag: Does Isaiah 53 Predict the Death and Resurrection of Jesus?

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.

 

QUESTION:

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.

 

RESPONSE:

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 Jew’s 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 stress not only that the passage never…

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    brandon284  May 8, 2020

    Fantastic. In depth and highly informative. Happy to see a return to the mailbag!

  2. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  May 8, 2020

    Explain again how the example of the burning of a tree from the sermon on the mount or John the Baptist’s description of sinners being thrown into a furnace doesn’t necessarily describe eternal torment. Even if the fires last for a long time (or even eternity), the people in them don’t.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2020

      When trees are burned, they turn to ashes. They no longer exist as living things. So too with humans. They turn to ash. I.e. they are destroyed.

  3. Avatar
    SamHarper  May 8, 2020

    If the suffering servant is Israel, then who is the “we,” “us,” and “our”?

    Don’t the uses of “root” and “shoot” in verse 2 hint that it’s a messianic passage?

    Since there were four distinct servant songs, are we really justified in assuming that all four of them are talking about the *same* servant?

    Why does it call this servant the “righteous one” if the whole reason Israel was in exile was because they were *not* righteous?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2020

      The problem is that metaphorical language is never ever literally “logical” in a straighforward sense. If it could be written as literal fact, there would be no need to use metaphor. The servant is “Israel” that has suffered and “we” are the ones who observe it, also members of Israel. Just as Ezekiel thirty-seven refers to all the nation in the valley of the dry bones, but Ezekiel, who is part of that nation, watches it come back to life.

    • Avatar
      jrkovan  May 12, 2020

      Hi. Isaiah 53 is the 4th servant song. Each servant song refers again and again to israel my servant. In hebrew the servant can be in the singular and the word in hebrew lamo means to them. Kjv mistranslates this as to him. Also if christians believe that jesus is part of a triune god then reread isaiah 53 and every time it says servant replace it with the word god and ask does this make any sense? Why would god oppress god? How can god die? How can god acknowledge guilt? Makes no sense.

      • Avatar
        AngeloB  May 25, 2020

        It’s incredible how many people have misread this text.

  4. Avatar
    meltuck  May 8, 2020

    The writers of the synoptic gospels have Jesus predicting for his disciples his death and resurrection. Luke adds that he told them this had been written about him by the prophets. Then again, in the story about the encounter on the road to Emmaus, Luke has Jesus referring to “all that the prophets (plural) have declared.” Where did Luke get the idea that these events had been predicted? Are there any OT scriptures other than Isaiah that he could have been thinking about?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2020

      Isaiah 53 would certainly be one of the options. Also Daniel 9:26, or Zech 12:10, or Psalm 22:1, etc etc.

  5. Avatar
    jhague  May 8, 2020

    Was this passage to some degree written into Jesus’ death in the NT gospels?

  6. Avatar
    JoelSmith  May 8, 2020

    The man foretold by Isaiah 53 comes out of prison, lives to see his children & lives to an old age. None of these Events describe Jesus.
    Isaiah 11 says that Messiah appears and gathers the dispersed Jews back to himself. The Jews have only recently returned. In Jesus’ day they hadn’t been dispersed yet.
    Isaiah 65 says that “Achor (the city of Akka, Israel) a resting place for herds, for my people who seek me.“ Akka was a prison city. Isaiah said that Messiah will come out of prison.
    I agree that Jesus was a Messiah. These passages in Isaiah don’t fit him.

  7. Avatar
    smackemyackem  May 8, 2020

    Rabbi tovia singer does an excellent job with the subject in numerous videos and writings. Here is one of many.

    https://outreachjudaism.org/gods-suffering-servant-isaiah-53/

    • Avatar
      AngeloB  May 25, 2020

      Rabbi Michael Skobac does an excellent job too. See ‘A Rabbi cross-examines the New Testament’ on YouTube.

  8. Avatar
    veritas  May 8, 2020

    I have read this similar description, as you have pointed out clearly, by Orthodox Rabbi, Tovia Singer. Like yourself, he mentions of the suffering servant being Israel and not Jesus as Christians commonly/mistakenly say. Singer also cites, Numbers 23:19, “God is not a man, so he does not lie.
    He is not human, so he does not change his mind.
    Has he ever spoken and failed to act?
    Has he ever promised and not carried it through” ? as a reason for God not being Jesus in the flesh. Bart , why haven’t Jews or Judaism refuted, adamantly, the interpretation of Isaiah as speaking of Jesus ? Or have they? thanks.

  9. Belasaurius
    Belasaurius  May 8, 2020

    I’d heard a couple of objections to your line of thinking about this being an event in the past.
    1. There is no past tense in Hebrew
    2. There is a form of prophetic writing in which the writer is so certain something is going to happen, they write it in the past tense because they are so sure it is going to happen.

    These obviously are contradictory. I don’t know enough about ancient Hebrew to even try to respond, which is why I turn to you.

    thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2020

      1. That’s right, no past tense. Their two tenses are “perfect” for actions that are completed and “imperfect” for actions that are not completed. The suffering in this passage has been completed; the vindication not.
      2. Sometimes, yes. One knows by the literary *context*. Here the context speaks of the Servant and indicates that it is Israel at the time.

  10. Avatar
    nikko  May 8, 2020

    Bart, this is a bit off topic but would Jesus have known about with Judas of Galilee or Simon of Paraea? I don’t know when Judas died but could Jesus have had contact with him before he began teaching? Could he have seen these guys die in the attempt to do what the prototype messiah was supposed to do (lead Israel in an overthrow of the Romans) and conclude that messiahs actually die in the process and that if he was the messiah, he needed to die?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2020

      There’s nothing to suggest that he knew anyone like this personally; as an inhabitant of a small hamlet in rural nowhere, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity. He may have heard stories though. He certainly would not have thought either one was the “messiah”; so far as I recall, we know nothing about Judas’s death and no indication that either was called the messiah hfter his death.

  11. epicurus
    epicurus  May 8, 2020

    I started having issues with the Bible back in my Christian days after reading Calvinist verses and position, thinking either God is evil or the Bible contradicts itself. When I was told that fulfilled prophecy was the ultimate evidence of the Bible’s credibility, I read many of the supposed prophecies in the OT for the first time but was surprised to find that many of them were not written as prophecies at all.

  12. Avatar
    robgrayson  May 8, 2020

    Thank you, Bart. This is the clearest explanation I’ve read to date of the historical referent of the Suffering Servant.

  13. Avatar
    tom.hennell  May 8, 2020

    Bart

    Many thanks for extending membership of the forum .

    Would you discuss in detail your assertion that Paul (contrary to his several assertions) did not remain an observant Jew? As you will know, Paula Frederiksen has recently maintained the view that Paul remained Torah-observant even after becoming Christian. Earlier you have speculated that Paul “did not keep kosher or sabbath” when associating with Gentiles. But Paul never mentions the sabbath; and (‘the weak’, as in Romans 14, always being self-referential) it is most likely he ate only vegetables. Is it that Gentile wine might have been non-Kosher? Do we have any evidence for Jewish synagogues in the diaspora forbidding Jews from sharing Gentile wine in private meals?

    In support of Frederiksen, is 2 Corinthians 11:24, where Paul recalls that – for the sake of Christ – he has accepted the synagogue punishment of 39 lashes on five occasions. In diaspora Judaism, this option of ‘lesser’ punishment could only ever be offered to a person who asserted that they were an observant Jew, and was recognised in the synagogue as such. Mishnah; Makkoth 3:15 “when he is scourged, then he is your brother”.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2020

      Paul never claims he continued to keep the Torah faithfully after coming to believe in Jesus. Which assertions are you thinking of? 1 Corinthians 9:21 he explicitly states that he lived as a gentile when working among gentiles. I don’t think that he *willlingly* submitted to the synagogue punishment of 39 lashes. We actually have zero evidence of what that punishment was all about; but it almost certainly was not reserved for those who were “willing” to receive it. If a Jew in a synagogue violated the rules, they were punished, probably dragged out and beaten on the spot. The other point to stress though is that Paul *CERTAINLY* continued to think he was a faithful Jew. But the whole point is that he thought that did not require the constant adherence to speciics of Jewish law. Other jews disagreed, of course!

      • Avatar
        dankoh  May 11, 2020

        But didn’t Paul have a choice – he could accept the 39 strokes or he could renounce Judaism? If the latter, he would have been barred from the synagogue, where he wanted to continue preaching.

        It could be argued that a Jew was not allowed (by other Jews) to renounce his faith, but I have to ask if that was the case in Paul’s day.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 12, 2020

          No, we don’t have any idea if that was an option or not. If you get caught burning an American flag and a crowd takes you out and beats you up, you don’t have the option of saying, “Hey, I’m not really an American.” But the real point is that, so far as I know, we have zero ancient evidence about what the punishment was, why it was inflicted, how it was regulated, who enforced it, on what grounds, etc. In fact, outside of a few Christian sources, I’m not sure — are there *any* Jewish sources from around the time that even mention it?

          • Avatar
            dankoh  May 12, 2020

            There is a book of the Talmud, Makkot (“punishments”); it includes the kind of lash to be used, and whether it should be 40, 40 minus 1, more than 40, etc. That’s gemara, of course, though it is based on mishneh, suggesting that this form of punishment had been around for a while. (See m. Makkot 3:10.) So Paul’s “forty lashes minus one” probably was a standard legal formula.

            As for voluntary acceptance of the punishment, especially in the Diaspora, Fredriksen cites Anthony Harvey: “Forty Strokes Save One: Social Aspects of Judaizing and Apostasy” in support of her argument, which is that Paul was given lashes because his preaching threatened to bring the wrath of the Roman authorities down on the synagogue if they allowed him to encourage gentiles to abandon the civic gods. What I’m suggesting is that Paul could have chosen to refuse the lashes, but then he would have forfeited his right to preach or even come into the synagogue, because he would have rejected the synagogue authorities. So it’s not like the crowd beating someone up. (I shouldn’t have said “renounce Judaism”; my mistake.)

          • Bart
            Bart  May 13, 2020

            Yes, of course the Mishnah is 150 years later, so it’s hard to know whether it has any application or not, but Paul’s formula does sound “standard” (that is, he assumes his readers know what he’s talking about). I don’t think there is any evidence for Harvey’s position, but if you know of any do let me/us know! It’s a nice speculation, but that’s not the same as evidence….

        • Avatar
          tom.hennell  May 12, 2020

          We know at least one contemporary instance of renunciation by a very prominent Alexandrian Jew and nephew of Philo, Tiberius Julius Alexander (Josephus again; Antiquities 20:100).

          • Bart
            Bart  May 13, 2020

            Are you saying there were Jews who decided no longer to be Jews? Yes indeed, lots of them. I don’t think that’s what we’re asking. We’re asking whether someone who is condemned to Synagogue punishment of lashing can get off the hook by saying he is not really fully Jewish. I’m saying, definitely not, any more than I can get out of a criminal trial be denouncing my American citizenship (I’m using that as an analogy: I’m NOT saying it is exactly the same thing; people who violate a crime within a jurisdiction cannot get off by denying that they are bound to the jurisdiction)

          • Avatar
            tom.hennell  May 13, 2020

            No question of the offender “getting off the hook”; as he would be expelled from the synagogue community. So, as in the Community Rule at Qumran, expulsion and excommunication is the punishment for the gravest violations of the Torah. Lesser offences are punished by periods of ‘penance’ (the Qumran sectaries don’t seem to have gone in for corporal punishments). If you won’t serve the penance, you will be expelled.

            The choice – scourging or excommunication – is explicit in the Mishnah Makkoth 3:15; anyone liable to excommunication, may accept scourging instead. One who has been scourged cannot be excommunicated, one who has been excommunicated cannot be scourged.

            Retroverting from the Mishnah to the 1st century diaspora is problematic; but Josephus emphasizes the point that synagogue scourging is explicitly servile and degrading – terming the synagogue functionary responsible, ‘the public executioner’. Properly, these were slaves maintained by the magistrates as a public service to slaveowners for disciplining slaves. For a diaspora synagogue authorities to go through with scourging someone who did not ‘acccept’ synagogue discipline would potentially open them to grave charges. Perhaps Paul was a Roman citizen; would they take the risk?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 15, 2020

            I don’t think inflicting the punishment would open a synagogue up to grave charges. there was no one to charge them. There was not a kind of Jewish headquarters of a denomination that oversaw the workings of the individual communities; they weren’t responsible to anyone else. We are too accustomed to religions that have hierarchies and trans-community rules and requirements, rather than simply shared customs.

          • Avatar
            tom.hennell  May 15, 2020

            Apologies Bart; I did not make myself clear.

            We are talking hear about discipline administered in diaspora synagogues – assuming that as the context for Paul’s five scourgings. Jewish synagogues were permitted by the civic authorities to exercise discipline over Jewish members of their own congregations; and indeed were expected to do so, e.g. where Jewish congregants disturbed the peace. But regular synagogue congregations commonly also included non-Jewish ‘godfearers’ (some of whom may then also have been followers of Christ).

            Scourging a free person was a serious punishment ordinarily reserved to the civil authorities; there would be grave charges before the magistrate if scourging was administered in a synagogue on a non-Jew, whatever their offence or circumstances. If done to a Roman Citizen the charges would be heard before the Governor and death penalties would likely follow.

            Effectively, there was no system of criminal prosecution. Any free person who alleged that they had been assaulted by scourging, could initiate a civil case before the magistrates. It would then be for the synagogue authorities to prove that the complainant was acknowledged within the scope of their jurisdiction, and that due process had been followed.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 17, 2020

            No one would ever say Paul was a non-Jew. He certainly argued just the opposite. Whether others thought he was a *good* Jew is a different questin.

      • Avatar
        jhague  May 11, 2020

        The Jews that disagreed did so because Paul said that he lived as a gentile when working among gentiles, right? Other Jews would not see Paul as a faithful Jew, correct?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 12, 2020

          Depends how they defined “faithful Jew,” I suppose. Jews were no monolith at the time. But strictly observant Jews would certainly not think that someone who “lived like a gentile” when he chose to be a faithful Jew.

      • Avatar
        tom.hennell  May 11, 2020

        We agree that Paul always considered himself to be a Torah-observant Jew; some other Jews contested this point, others accepted it. Not untypical amongst Jews; then as now.

        Firm contemporary evidence for the punishment of 39 lashes is found in Josephus; not extensive, but on matters like the number of strokes, agreeing with Paul’s reference in 2 Corinthians 11. The only other formal synagogue punishment for which we have evidence is extirpation; and – in cities of the the diaspora – those two were all the civil authorities would allow. Synagogue congregations could not beat up unwelcome vistors without formal process; or they would have been in big trouble themselves. Scourging was the lesser punishment, and hence always voluntary; an accused with no commitment to the Torah could walk away unscathed, both from observance and synagogue authority.

        One key text is Galatians 2: 14, where Paul asserts outright that Peter in Antioch had been ‘living as a Gentile’ while still remaining an observant Jew – no one in Antioch having seen such practice as problematic for nearly twenty years. Those Jews who eventually did object to Peter’s behaviour, were outsiders from Jerusalem.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 12, 2020

          Thanks. Remind me: where is that in Josephus?

          • Avatar
            tom.hennell  May 12, 2020

            Antiquities 4:238

            “But for him that acts contrary to this law, let him be beaten with forty stripes save one by the public executioner; let him undergo this punishment, which is a most ignominious one for a free-man, and this because he was such a slave to gain as to lay a blot upon his dignity; for it is proper for you who have had the experience of the afflictions in Egypt, and of those in the wilderness, to make provision for those that are in the like circumstances.”

            Josephus agrees with 2 Corinthians, and against Deuteronomy 25, on the number of strokes, their wording, and on the punishment being servile and degrading. For Josephus scourging is the proper penalty for disregarding the Torah injunctions on charity to the poor and foreigners (as that is the context in Deuteronomy); but I doubt whether that was also the reason for Paul being scourged.

            Frederiksen speculates that Paul is more llikely to have fallen foul of Exodus 22:28 LXX: “Revile not the gods (of the Gentiles)”; both because Paul does seem not to have paid much respect to this particular Torah, and also if Gentile pagan authorities demanded it.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 13, 2020

            Great, thanks. That’s helpful (I talked with an expert in Judaism a few months ago who said they had nve herd avbout the forty lashes minus one, except from 2 Corinthians; I think they must have forgotten about Josephus!). Of course, the passage says nothing about teh person receiving the lashes having to agree to the punishment!

  14. Avatar
    fishician  May 8, 2020

    I sometimes hear people say that such passages can have a dual meaning: sure, it may apply to suffering Israel, but it was also a foreshadowing of Jesus. The same with Matthew taking out-of-context passages as prophecies of Jesus. I think that’s wishful and creative thinking, but do you have a specific response to such claims?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2020

      Yes, I’d say that this would be a claim that a passage doesn’t always mean what an author meant it to mean. for later Christians Isa 53 certainly did “mean” that.

  15. Avatar
    Provocateur  May 8, 2020

    Excellent exegesis

  16. Avatar
    Omatseyin Binitie  May 8, 2020

    Sir, you assume that Christians looked for scriptures to justify the fact that their messiah had died but isn’t it also possible that the holy spirit revealed it to them?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2020

      Sure. Anything, strictly speaking, is possible. But the claim that the Holy Spirit revealed it is a theolgoical view, not a historical interpretation. It’s also possible, strictly speaking that Moses or Isaiah came back from the dead and told them. Or that a voice from Sky did. Of that the Spirit of Error did. Etc. etc. These aer *possible*. But none is subject to historical inquiry.

  17. Avatar
    Scott  May 8, 2020

    Is there any indication that the stories told about Jesus were influenced by this passage in such a way as to make his tale match it more closely?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2020

      Yes indeed. He is silent. He is crucified between two wicked men. He is buried by a rich man. Etc. etc….

  18. Avatar
    Maccabeus  May 8, 2020

    An interesting tidbit, the Qumran community possibly expected a rejected and humiliated messiah because of Isaiah 53. See these lines from 4Q471b (Geza Vermes’ translation):

    “Who is counted as me to be despised and who is despised as me?
    And who is like me, forsaken [by men, and is there] a companion who resembles me?
    And no instruction resembles my instruction
    [For] I sit …
    Who is like me among the ‘gods’?”

    Vermes interprets this as narrated by the priestly messiah, and sees an allusion to Isaiah 53:3

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2020

      Where is this person called a messiah?

    • Avatar
      dankoh  May 12, 2020

      I don’t see Vermes connecting 4Q471b to the messiah, only to the suffering servant. Vermes says the “eschatological high priest” may be one who speaks these lines, citing to Esther Eshel. I found in JSTOR her article on 4Q471b, “A Self-Glorification Hymn.” Nowhere in that article does she suggest that this high priest is the messiah (though it may be possible he will herald the coming of the messiah).

      There is no evidence the Qumran community saw the messiah as suffering; to the contrary, “the heavens and the earth will listen to His Messiah, and none therein will stray from the commandments of the holy ones.” 4Q521 Fr.2.

  19. Avatar
    Poohbear  May 8, 2020

    Daniel said the “people of the prince” would destroy Jerusalem and the temple and would also destroy “he to whom all things belong.” The prince? Emperor Titus’ son Vespasian and “he”? The Messianic prince – one who dies “not for himself” but for his people.
    Jesus spoke of Jerusalem being “trampled under the feet of the Gentiles until the Gentiles time is fulfilled.” What? I suggest it’s when the Gentiles see Jesus as Jews do. Today people entering the clergy or “learn” about the bible in university are taught the exact doctrinal contortions the Jews developed during their bitter exile (ie Isaiah 53.) The Christian outlook becomes the Jewish one. Jerusalem was back in Jewish hands in 1967, at the height of the cultural and moral ferment of the West.
    There are TWO Messiahs in the OT – coming King, and he who Job called the “Redeemer” who is alive now and “will stand upon the earth in the latter days.” Redeem means “pay the price” and Jesus paid the price as David, Isaiah, Zechariah and others foresaw. Jacob said His coming would be for the whole world, and the Jewish nation would end with his coming. Jews who saw this became Christians.

  20. Avatar
    jsatzinger  May 8, 2020

    I was going to ask if you could recommend a book on the Hebrew Bible similar to your Introduction to the New Testament book. I see your recommendation for Collins above, which I have ordered. But is there something else you might also recommend? Another book? A good blog site? Thx

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2020

      Depends what you’re mainly interested in. Collins is a fine textbook. If you want a regular old book try Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible, and Silverman and Finkelstein, Unearthing the Bible.

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