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The Suffering Servant of Isaiah

I’ve been writing up a storm on my Bible Introduction. It’s a god awful amount of work, but I’m making really good (OK, disgustingly good) progress. Here’s a chunk I wrote up today, when dealing with the post-exilic prophets. It’s obviously (maybe too obviously for you!) just a rough draft.

Brief context: at this point I am discussing 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.

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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).

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    dallaswolf  July 11, 2012

    I am enjoying watching the authoring process.

  2. Avatar
    hwl  July 11, 2012

    Bart, can you provide citations of journal articles and scholarly books that evaluate the arguments from different sides? The interpretation of Isaiah 53 has been fiercely debated between Jews and Christians for centuries, and is a common argument Christian apologists (e.g. “Jews for Jesus”) – past and present – use in proselytizing Jews. I think some details in the passage don’t fit Jesus’ life and death (e.g. 53:10 mentions “his offspring” and “shall prolong his days”); other details do seem to match the New Testament portrayal of Jesus’ life or NT beliefs about reason for his death (e.g. 53:12).
    How might the passage have shaped the gospel authors’ accounts of the life of Jesus (i.e. they historicised the prophecy) e.g. “They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich” led the gospel writers or early Christian tradition to invent the figure of the presumably well-off Joseph of Arimathea?
    Do you think Jesus might have read Isaiah 53 thinking it was about him, so he led his life accordingly and was willing to die for Israel? Hence the early Christian tradition of reading Isaiah might have originated from Jesus himself?
    I take the point about the past tense. However, I have heard evangelical apologists who explain it (away) in terms of the so-called “prophetic past”: the seer projects himself into the distant future and is able to see the past relative to this time point (but in the future relative to the prophet’s own time). This is no longer a historical or textual argument, but a theological one. How would you respond as an exegete?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2012

      If you seriously want to look into the matter, the best thing to do is to check out serious biblical commentaries, by critical scholars, both on Isaiah and on the Gospels. (For the latter, don’t overlook Raymond Brown’s The Death of the Messiah). It is generally conceded (outside of very conservative evangelical circles) that the *reason* Isa. 53 (and Ps. 22, etc.) sound so much to us like Jesus crucifixion, is because the Christians who told stories of Jesus’ death, and the Christians who wrote about it, were deeply informed by these passages of Scripture. They knew them, inside out, and when they told their stories about Jesus, they told them in such a way as to show that Jesus “fulfilled” these prophecies.

      • Avatar
        hwl  July 12, 2012

        Thanks. Just a quick question – do you think the early Christian tradition of reading Isaiah as about Jesus originated from the post-Easter church or from Jesus himself?

      • Avatar
        hwl  July 12, 2012

        “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”
        How do OT scholars figure out that the Hebrew prophets were speaking solely about their contemporaries’ immediate futures, instead of a combination of the near future and distant future?

        “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.”
        I agree there is no textual evidence the Isaiah had in mind the messiah. However, I am not persuaded this point is all that important in Jewish-Christian dialogue. Consider the cosmic judge, the Son of Man in Daniel 7: there is no evidence the author had in mind the messiah. Yet Christians from the earliest times through the centuries have identified the figure with Jesus, not on the ground that the passage is referring to the messiah therefore it is referring to Jesus, but instead on the ground that – in view of the early Christians – Jesus fits the description in Daniel 7 therefore the passage is about Jesus. Similarly, could one argue that even though Isaiah 7 is not about the messiah, Jesus fits the description of the suffering servant fairly well, so it is about Jesus?

        In “Jesus and Victory of God” NT Wright argues that Jesus saw himself as True Israel, and could have identified himself with the Suffering Servant. What’s your take on his thesis?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 13, 2012

          I’m not sure how Jesus fits the description of the Son of Man, since he hasn’t come on the clouds to have dominion over the kingdoms on earth!

          But yes, Christians said that he was the Son of Man. And the Suffering Servant. And they told their stories about him in light of those beliefs.

          I think Tom Wright is letting his theology influence his history. I think there’s virtually no way Jesus thought of himself as a suffering servant. His goal was certainly not to suffer, let alone to suffer for the sake of others. That theology was put on his lips only after he had been crucified by followres who wanted to make sense of it.

      • Avatar
        mdt4302  April 12, 2014

        To me at least, that view makes the most sense. The messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 reminds me of how Christians today tend to interpret the book of Revelation as being fulfilled through the lens of *current* events. Probably not a coincidence.

  3. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  July 11, 2012

    That makes sense. Once again.

  4. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  July 11, 2012

    Although … I’ve used your argument on a debate board and I got this as a response. How would you answer those objections? Here’s the link: http://community.beliefnet.com/go/thread/view/43851/29228451/The_Suffering_Servant_cant_be_Jesus._And_vice_versa.&post_num=21#521765095

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2012

      I’m afraid to reply adequately would take a 40 page article — or maybe a book!

  5. Avatar
    seeker_of_truth  July 11, 2012

    Hello Bart,
    I became a member because you started blogging about your Bible Introduction and I’m very glad I did. You are the only author I really like on the Bible.
    Spiritually I am interested in the Buddha and Hindu Saints.
    What brings me to the Bible after being raised liberal Protestant is the Bible’s place in Western Civiliaztion.
    I have 2 questions.
    1. Will your Bible Introduction include Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books?
    2. What’s your opinion of the HarperCollins Study Bible?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2012

      1. Yup!

      2. I think it’s the best thing going.

  6. Avatar
    ZachET  July 11, 2012

    Just last week James White and Michael Brown on a radio show did an in-depth discussion on this and came to very different conclusions

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2012

      Now that’s the shock of the century!! 🙂

  7. Avatar
    profdave  July 11, 2012

    Thanks, Bart, for the insights. I teach a Bible as Literature course on the college level and I have difficulty having some students accept this kind of rational, critical approach, particularly those who have been taught to see these kinds of passages as prophecies of Jesus. I was wondering, though, if you don’t mind responding, how were you “taught” to interpret these kinds of “prophecies” at Wheaton College and The Moody Bible Institute? What would they have said to such a critical approach?

    Keep up the great work!–your blog is a wonderful resource.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2012

      We were taught that liberals like me had no clue how to read the Bible because we were not inspired by the Holy Spirit, and were headed straight to hell!

      • Avatar
        hwl  July 12, 2012

        Are those evangelicals at Wheaton and Moody claiming they are inspired by the Holy Spirit? Wouldn’t this make their biblical interpretations inerrant, because the Holy Spirit cannot lie? That’s a new take on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy!

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 13, 2012

          No, they wouldn’t go that far. But many of them would say that you cannot understand the Word without the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Whether that leads them into theological hot water is another question.

  8. Avatar
    CuriousKat  July 12, 2012

    This chapter was the one my mother strongly suggested I read before every communion service in order to prepare my mind for the upcoming, ahem, sacrifice of God. Yup, talk about reeking havoc on my teenage mind. Anyway, I heard a discussion on a Christian radio station not too long ago (I tune in occasionally to check on them) that stated flat out that there is in existence an “almost” word for word manuscript dating from the 5the century that proves there was only one Isaiah and that we could therefore trust that all manuscripts (including your field of expertise) could be relied upon whether they were original (none existing) or merely second or third generation copies. Is this true (the so-called almost exact copy)? And if it is true at what point could a possible collation have occurred?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 13, 2012

      Nope, it’s not true. Either you misheard them, or they don’t konw what they’re talking about. In any event, even if there *were* a fifth century (I assume they mean BCE) copy of the entirety of Isaiah (which there decidedly is not!) it would not prove that all parts were written by the same author in the 8th c. BCE. Even scholars who hold to 1, 2, and 3 Isaiah (which, by the way, is just about every scholar except those who have religious reasons to want to think otherwise) maintain that 3rd Isaiah is probably 5th century. So by the time this copy was made (and it wasn’t made, since it doesn’t exist) all three already would have done their writing.

      • Avatar
        CuriousKat  July 18, 2012

        Thanks Bart. I always think there is something fishy when the trumpets blare and the drums roll about the “almost word for word” manuscript that somebody found somewhere that proves the entire Bible to be true. I suppose even Christians have their agenda, even if it does involve skullduggery. Thanks again for your integrity and humor.

  9. Avatar
    SJB  July 14, 2012

    The interesting question is not whether the Book of Isaiah comes from multiple sources but why these different authors were associated with each other in the first place. I assume there must be theological reasons for an editor or editors to collect them but are there textual reasons as well? Did anyone in antiquity note the difference in writing styles or was that a modern insight?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 14, 2012

      My view is that there are *lots* of interesting questions, not just one!

      The usual hunch is that the later prophets saw themselves as standing in the intellectual/prophetic line of Isaiah and so it made sense to put all of them on the same scroll. There certainly are similarities. No, no one saw them as different, to my knowledge, until the German scholar Bernhard Duhm in 1892.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  November 3, 2017

        (Found when I was researching Isaiah 53) Ibn Ezra in the XII century appears to question whether there was more than one Isaiah. Commenting on chapter 40, he writes that it seems to be like the book of Samuel, which was continued after Samuel’s death.

  10. Avatar
    Pat Ferguson  July 18, 2012

    1. “… , the Servant of Yahweh is … the delight of Yahweh ….”.
    …..
    “… the Servant of the Lord …. is Israel, God’s people.”
    Agreed, but weren’t the people of Israel looking for, in the time of Second Isaiah, the promised coming a king-like Messiah who was to be sent by YaHVeH-Jehovah to rule Israel as a temporal-spiritual leader and conquer its enemies? Historically, isn’t it this hoped-for “king-like messiah” who became dogmatized by (if I may borrow your term) proto-orthodox Christians in some 30 OT prophecies and, later, by orthodox Christians in their hymns and formal prayers in terms like “Christ the King”?

    2. “I think there’s virtually no way Jesus thought of himself as a suffering servant.”
    OK, I can agree with this statement too. But, there are another twenty or so OT prophecies which point toward a Suffering Messiah who would lead the Israelites away from the “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” thinking and behavior taught to them in Moses’ Law (Exo. 21:24, et. al). Isn’t it possible, then, that Jesus—despite his best efforts to teach the people in his time and place to “love one another” (John 13:34, et. al); to be tolerant and forgiving, and who withdrew from public after realizing the people “would come and take him by force, to make him a king” (John 6:15)—became this type of “suffering servant” by circumstance, rather than by personal choice or divine/public decree?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 18, 2012

      Looks like you and I need to agree to disagree on whether there was any notion of a suffering messiah in Judaism before Christianity came along. I don’t know of a single instance!

      • Avatar
        Pat Ferguson  July 18, 2012

        So agreed 🙂
        Also, as best I can tell, you’re correct: “there was [not] any notion of a suffering messiah in Judaism before Christianity came along.” The various OT prophecies of Isaiah and others which I’ve researched point toward a promised and long sought “king-like messiah, ” not a “suffering servant”. That latter title is an apparently erroneous epithet applied to Jesus of Nazareth, but, whether it was applied by proto-orthodox or orthodox Christians, I’m unable to say conclusively.
        Regards . . . . .

      • Avatar
        RG959  November 27, 2018

        Bart,

        Micah 5:1 says “They will strike Israel’s ruler on the cheek with a rod.” Is this ruler the messiah?

        This never happened to Jesus but if it did, the following verses go into how “HE” will liberate the Jewish people from the Assyrians; which Jesus never did and couldn’t have since the Assyrians were long gone after Jesus showed up.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 28, 2018

          It’s a metaphorical statement that the foreign adversary (in this case teh Assyrian monarch Sennacherib?) would humiliate the king of Juda (Hezekiah?)

      • Avatar
        Barryb  May 14, 2019

        https://www.oneforisrael.org/bible-based-teaching-from-israel/inescapable-truth-isaiah-53/
        Hello Bart, iam a new member on your blog. I love your debates and i have watched them all. I don’t know if you react to older blogs.
        Isn’t it true that jewish tradition considired Isaiah 53 as an messiah prophesy? And that the jewish changed this few after Jesus his death? In the death see scrolls it was seen as in important messiah prophesy? Is this correct?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 15, 2019

          No, I’m afraid it’s just hte opposite of the truth. The Dead Sea Scrolls decidedly do not read it messianically. Neither did any Jew, prior to Christianity. If anyone tells you they did, ask for the ancient proof. It ain’t there.

          • Avatar
            Barryb  May 27, 2019

            Thank you for reponding Bart, iam a big fan of your blogs and debates.

            Is it true that in the talmud there are many reference about the messiah being the suffering servant? And if that’s true doesn’t that mean that many jews thought that it was about the messiah? i know that the references are not prior to Jesus. Still it puzzles me dat Jews would see Isaiah 53 as being about the messiah, is it true and if it is, why is that?

            Some examples.

            2. The Babylonian Talmud states:

            The Rabanan say that Messiah’s name is The Suffering Scholar of Rabbi’s House (or The Leper Scholar) for it is written, “Surely He hath born our grief and carried our sorrows, yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted.”[3]

            Here, the Babylonian Talmud applies Isaiah 53:4 to the Messiah.

            3. The Babylonian Talmud also states:

            The Messiah—what is his name?…The Rabbis say, The leprous one; those of the house of Rabbi [4] say, The sick one, as it is said, “Surely he hath borne our sicknesses.”[5]

          • Bart
            Bart  May 27, 2019

            I can’t speak to the Babylonian Talmud, except to say that it was produced some 500 years or more after the Dead Sea Scrolls. I certainly wouldn’t use a writing produced by an American Christian in 2015 to explain a text written by a German Christian in 1500.

  11. Avatar
    RabbiEli  July 13, 2013

    Here’s something you may find interesting.
    “His grave is with the wicked, and his deaths are with the rich.” (53:9)
    The servant of God is buried with the wicked, but the Christian scriptures tell us that Jesus was buried with the rich and not with the wicked. God’s servant is to die with the rich, yet the Christian scriptures tell us that Jesus did not die with the rich, but with the wicked. It is obvious that Isaiah did not have Jesus in mind when he uttered these words.

  12. Avatar
    Thomasfperkins  November 8, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman,
    If you are agnostic to God, what do you think of Satan? I am drawn like a magnet to Isaiah 45 and wonder if the good/evil, God/Satan is a false dualism. Do you have an opinion? Is this addressed in any of your books?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 10, 2014

      I don’t believe there are any supernatural, personal beings, good or evil.

      • Avatar
        1qaz2345  December 9, 2014

        Hello Bart,

        You’ve said in your lectures and also here, that there are no Jewish sources before Christians existed that interpret Isaiah 53 as referring to the “messiah” but instead to Israel. This is a very interesting factoid, however, one individual brought to my attention the 11Q13 pesher as well as the Jonathan ben Uzziel Targum as being pre Christian sources. This is way out of my line of expertise, what is your response to both of those sources as being pre Christian sources identifying Isaiah 53 as messianic?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 9, 2014

          I’m afraid I’m on the road and hundreds of miles from my books, so I can’t say anything definitive. But 11Q13 is the Melchizedek scroll; it does not contain a clear statement about a suffering messiah. (In Isaiah 53 itself, the suffering servant is almost certainly Israel. THe problem is that that one is not called the messiah)

    • Avatar
      Deek  February 3, 2015

      It is important to note that the Zoroastrianism of Cyrus the Great and his vision of his Empire finds it’s way into Judaism and Christianity. Ahura Mazda/Angra Mainyu… like a formula where we plug other names into the blank slots.

  13. Avatar
    Deek  January 9, 2015

    I’m out on my limb again with this but here goes-

    “HE” is Israel but, specifically, those who had experienced exile in Babylon. No problem. What is looming ahead is the collision between the returning elite (the majority of their number staying on in the newly transformed Persian Babylon) and the vast majority of lower class Judahites who remained in Judah after 588BCE. The returnees wanted to return to their former dominance but the stay-behinds couldn’t see why that should be a given. The ‘suffering servant’ is the language of the returnees declaring just why they should, Isaiah3 (53:12) “I will give him [the returnees] the many as his portion, he shall receive the multitude as his spoil”. In other words, we bore it for all of us and our just reward is the power and reward over every one else. Isaiah.3 (53:3) He [the Returnees] was despised, shunned by men [in captivity]. A man [the returnees] of suffering, familiar with dis-ease [in captivity] as one who hid his face from us [in captivity]. He [the returnees] was despised, we [the stay-behinds] held him of no account. Yet it was our [the stay-behinds] sickness that he [the returnees] was bearing, our [the stay-behinds] suffering that he [the returnees] endured. This, along with other language addressing this crisis, is the Levitic propaganda for dominance after a surprising turn of fate with Cyrus the Great defeating Belshazzar and his Father in 540BCE. Am I just way off here?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2015

      I hold to a similar view.

      • Avatar
        Deek  January 12, 2015

        The process is rather threefold. ‘people of the land’ are both the ‘stay-behinds’ and the ‘mutts’. They don’t have the ‘Law’ as it hasn’t been written. The waves of returnees from 520-458BCE also are w/o the ‘Law’ and they assimilate accordingly. Ezra speaks of the guilt and sin of the former exiles having married ‘foreign’ women. These aren’t the CHOSEN chosen. The waves with and after 458 are the special bunch as they have the word. I;m preparing all of this for a new OT course I’m preparing. Truly fascinating history under the stories.

      • Avatar
        Deek  January 19, 2015

        Curious if you feel that THEOCRACY can be assigned to a population of 1500? Seems more like a cult assignation than a full on theocracy. I’m thinking of late-6th to late-5thC BCE Jerusalem. Archaeologically the footprint doesn’t hold much more than that with NO evidence of an inward migration from ANYWHERE. Thoughts?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 20, 2015

          I suppose it depends on what you mean by theocracy.

          • Avatar
            Deek  January 20, 2015

            1. A form of government in which God or a deity is recognized as the supreme civil ruler, the God’s or deity’s laws being interpreted and enforced by the ecclesiastical authorities.
            2. A system of government by priests claiming a divine commission.
            3. A commonwealth or state under such a form or system of government.

            Contemporary Examples: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Vatican

  14. Avatar
    john76  November 1, 2015

    I think the first Christians were inventing the details of the crucifixion story by rewriting Psalm 22 an Isaiah 53. Regarding Isaiah 53, we read:

    The conversion of Ethiopian Queen Candace’s eunuch is yet another Acts parody of a
    story prized by the resistance. The eunuch “who had charge of all her treasury” was on the
    road to Jerusalem and was reading the “suffering servant” passage from Isaiah (53:7–8),
    when Philip approaches him saying “Do you understand what you are reading?”. (Acts
    8:30). After interpreting the text, Philip convinces the eunuch to declare “I believe that
    Jesus Christ is the Son of God” and immediately baptize himself.

  15. Avatar
    Zboilen  November 17, 2016

    Hi Bart, you wrote in your post, ” 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.”

    I don’t understand the purpose of why those in exile had to suffer for those living in Israel. In other words how would the suffering of a person benefit another? Is it through the lessons learned through that suffering that the person then help and teach others? Is there a concept in Judaism that would explain this?

    – Zak

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2016

      Yes, it’s that age-old idea that one can suffer in the place of another. It’s like one person paying someone else’s fine. Or in antiquity, like an animal substituting for a human in being killed as a sacrifice.

  16. Avatar
    jogon  February 27, 2018

    Hi Bart what’s your opinion on the Messiah Ben Joseph tradition in Judaism, do you think this is a post jesus development?

  17. Avatar
    jogon  March 5, 2018

    Thanks Bart, final question on this topic is what is your opinion on Targum Jonathan Ben Uzziel? Richard carrier says this relates Isaiah 53 to the messiah but I am aware he is quite tendentious so I was wondering what the mainstream opinion is?

  18. Avatar
    jogon  March 5, 2018

    This is what he says in his book “the early-first-century Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel on Isaiah 53 (a kind of paraphrastic commentary in Aramaic; Jonathan ben Uzziel was traditionally a student of Hillel, who died c. 10 ce , and a contemporary of Shammai , who died c. 30 ce ), which explicitly identifies the suffering servant there as the Christ“

    I don’t know how accurate this is though.

    Just for the record I don’t subscribe to the mythicise view and just read the book out of interest!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2018

      Yes, you’ll notice that he doesn’t talk about the date of the Targum *itself* (when it was written). Maybe he doesn’t know.

  19. Avatar
    jogon  March 6, 2018

    Ah I see!

    What is the date of the Targum?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2018

      Ah, just look it up. Even Wikipedia will do! (No where near to any time prior to the NT!)

  20. Avatar
    Veyron  April 24, 2018

    Jogon, according to methodological principles of dating the Targums, Pseudo-Jonathan could not have been composed earlier than the middle of the fourth century CE. What is the oldest manuscript of the Targum, I can’t recall, but these documents has undergone some editorial revision in 7th century because of an obvious allusion to the wifes of Prophet Muhammad and probably to himself also. Remember, that by the term Messiah Jews have in mind a powerful warrior, who represents at the same time a chosen savior-prophet of Israel. Isaiah 53 is not about Israel neither about Jesus.

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