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Isaiah 53

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Isaiah 53, taken from the Book of Isaiah, is the last of the four Songs of the Suffering Servant, and tells the story of the Man of Sorrows or "The Suffering Servant", which became a common theme in medieval and later Christian art. The passage is known for its interpretation by many Christians to be a prophecy of the coming of Jesus, being written over 700 years before his birth. This interpretation is rejected by Jewish theologians, many of whom identify the servant to be the nation of Israel.[1] Many Christians view the entire chapter, and particularly this passage to refer to the suffering Jesus faced as well as the absolution of sins believed to be made possible by his death.[2]

8From imprisonment and from judgment he was taken, and his generation who shall tell?
For he was cut off from the land of the living; because of
the transgression of my people, a plague came upon them.

-- Hebrew translation of Isaiah 53:8 from Judaica Press Complete Tanach

Textual versions

The passage survives in three versions, from three autonomous and parallel manuscript traditions: the Masoretic text that is the most familiar one, the Septuagint text, and the Qumran community's Great Isaiah Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, dated ca 100 BC.

The Christian "Man of Sorrows" passage of Isaiah 53 is a selected text that usually omits those characteristics of the human scapegoat for the sins of Israel that are not applicable directly to Jesus, or that can only be applied through allegory, such as "he is as a root in a thirsty land: he has no form nor comeliness; and we saw him, but he had no form nor beauty. But his form was ignoble, and inferior to that of the children of men." (Septuagint version)

Much of the meaningfulness of Joseph of Arimathea's role (q.v. for discussion) hinges upon the words of Isaiah 53:9, "He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth."

Jewish and Christian scholars both agree that 52:13 is the natural beginning of the section, which is reasonable when one considers that the original Hebrew does not have the modern chapter breaks.[3] The speaker from 52:13 to the end of chapter 52 is God himself, whereas from the beginning of 53:1 through 53:9 the gentile kings of nations are speaking in their numbed astonishment. This narrative expressed by the surprised leaders of the surrounding gentile nations is referred to in 52:15. This alternation in speakers is evident in that verses 52:13 and 53:11 speak of "My [i.e. God's] servant," while the intervening verses refer to "our transgressions" (i.e., in the Jewish view of this chapter, the transgressions committed by the gentile nations against God's servant, Israel, or, in the Christian view of this chapter, the sins of individuals against God).

Jewish literature

Influential Jewish commentator Rashi, as have all other rabbis have believed Isaiah 53 referred to Israel.[4] Rashi, writing in the 11th century, did have some historical precedent for this interpretation, as his commentary became one of the best popular commentaries on the Tanakh. In Christian church father Origen's Contra Celsus, written in the year 248, he writes of Isaiah 53:

Now I remember that, on one occasion, at a disputation held with certain Jews, who were reckoned wise men, I quoted these prophecies; to which my Jewish opponent replied, that these predictions bore reference to the whole people, regarded as one individual, and as being in a state of dispersion and suffering, in order that many proselytes might be gained, on account of the dispersion of the Jews among numerous heathen nations.[5]

The first book of the Talmud Berachoth page 5a states "If the Holy One, blessed be He, is pleased with a man, He crushes him with painful sufferings. For it is said: And the Lord was pleased with [him, hence] He crushed him by disease (Isa. 53:10, an exegetical reading). Now, you might think that this is so even if he did not accept them with love. Therefore it is said: To see if his soul would offer itself in restitution. Even as the trespass-offering must be brought by consent, so also the sufferings must be endured with consent. And if he did accept them, what is his reward? He will see his seed, prolong his days. And more than that, his knowledge [of the Torah] will endure with him. For it is said: The purpose of the Lord will prosper in his hand. … It has been taught: R. Simeon b. Yohai says: The Holy One, blessed be He, gave Israel three precious gifts, and all of them were given only through sufferings.. These are: The Torah, the Land of Israel and the world to come."

The Mahari Kara (R' Yosef Kara, a contemporary of Rashi 11th century C.E.) on Isaiah 52:13: Quote: "Behold My servant shall prosper: Israel My servant shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. And [according to] the teachings of our Rabbis: He shall be more exalted than Abraham, as it is written: "I have raised my hand toward the Lord…" [Gen 14:22]. He shall be more lifted up than Moses, as it is written: "…as the nurse lifts up the suckling…". And he [Israel] shall be higher than the ministering angels, as it is written: "And they had backs, and they were very high…" [Ezek 1:18].

The Midrash Rabba on Deuteronomy says, "The Israelites poured out their soul to die in the captivity, as it is said, 'Because he poured out his soul to die.' (Isaiah 53:12)"[6]

Furthermore, the Midrash known as Tana Devei Eliyahu contains three references to Isaiah 53, applying them to the righteous of Israel (chapters 6,13,27).[7]

Another Midrash, Aleph Beitot (final chapter) quotes Isaiah 53 in reference to the nation of Israel as a whole.[7]

Kuzari also identifies Isaiah 53 as the nation of Israel.[7]

Chovot ha-Levavot also identifies Isaiah 53 as the nation of Israel.[7]

Isaiah 53 in the New Testament

One of the first claims in the New Testament of Isaiah 53 to be a prophecy of Jesus comes from the Book of Acts, in which its author, Luke, describes a scene in which God commands Philip the Apostle to approach an Ethiopian eunuch who is sitting in a chariot, reading aloud to himself from the Book of Isaiah. The eunuch comments that he does not understand what he is reading (Isaiah 53), and Philip explains to him that the passage refers to Jesus. "And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? Of himself, or of some other man? Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus."[8]

Isaiah 53 as Israel

Citing a number of Biblical verses that refer to Israel as the "servant", many of them from the Book of Isaiah,[9] Jewish scholars, and several Christian scholarly books, like Revised Standard Version Oxford Study Edition Bible, The Revised Standard Version tell us that Isaiah 53 is about national Israel and the New English Bible echo this analysis.[10] Judaism, teaches that the "servant" in question is actually the nation of Israel.[1] These scholars also argue that verse 10 cannot be describing Jesus. The verse states:

10he shall see [his] seed, he shall prolong [his] days

This description, is inconsistent with the short, childless life of Jesus.[1]

The reason that the Servant is referred to in the third person may be that these verses are written from the point of view of Gentile nations amazed at Israel's restoration, or it may simply be a method of figurative description.[1][11] Supporters of this theory argue that the reason for the use of past tense is based on the differences between Proto-Isaiah and Deutero-Isaiah. Chapters 40-55 of Isaiah are referred to as "Deutero-Isaiah" because the themes and language are different from the rest of the book, leading some scholars to believe it was written by another author. Deutero-Isaiah differs from Proto-Isaiah in that it refers to Israel as already restored, which could account for the past-tense of the passage.[1]

The Servant passages in Isaiah, and especially Isaiah 53, has to be compared with Psalm 44. Psalm 44 directly parallels the Servant Songs, it is probably the best defense for reading Isaiah 53 as applicable to the nation of Israel.

Isaiah 53 as Jesus

A Christian argument is that, although Isaiah does elsewhere refer to "my servant Israel," it is reasonable to argue that this "Israel" is not in fact the nation of Israel, but the Messiah. Just as the Messiah is sometimes referred to as "David," after his progenitor (cf. Ezekiel 34:23-24, 37:24), it is not unreasonable that he might be referred to as "Israel."

As a proof to this idea, in Isaiah 49:3 KJV, God states, "Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified." Shortly thereafter, the scripture reveals that this servant called "Israel" would be responsible "to bring Jacob again to him [God], though Israel be not gathered..." (Isa. 49:5), and God declares that the servant called "Israel" should be "my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel..." Furthermore, God states, "...I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth" (Isa. 49:6). This "Israel" could be seen as the Messiah, who is to be responsible for raising Jacob and re-gathering Israel (Isa. 27:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17; 1 Corinthians 15:52-55; Gospel of Matthew 24:29-31).

Debate about Isaiah 53 in Jewish/Christian relations and their consequences

Before 1000

The earliest known example of a Jew and a Christian debating the meaning of Isaiah 53 is the example from 248 cited by Origen stated above. The discourse between Origen and his Jewish counterpart does not seem to have had any consequences for either party. This was not the case for the majority of centuries that have passed since that time. In Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:24, written in the 700s, a debate about a much less controversial topic results in the arrest of the Jew engaging in the debate.[12]


In 1263 at the Disputation of Barcelona, Nahmanides expressed the Jewish viewpoint of Isaiah 53 and other matters regarding Christian belief about Jesus's role in Hebrew Scripture. The disputation was awarded in his favor by James I of Aragon, and as a result the Dominican Order compelled him to flee from his home country for the remainder of his life. Passages of Talmud were also censored. In a number of other disputations, debate about this passage resulted in forced conversions, deportations, and the burning of Jewish religious texts.[13]

Modern era

The use of Isaiah 53 in debates between Jews and Christians still often occurs in the context of Christian missionary work among Jews, and the topic is a source of frequent discussion that is often repetitive and heated. Some devout Christians view the use of the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53 in proselytization efforts as an act of love. A common view among Jews today is that, while the persecutions of the Middle Ages that resulted from disputations are in the past, Jews still suffer under the threat that their children will be drawn into Christian groups that engage in active proselytization.

Many Jews[who?] view the suffering of their people that often results from Jewish/Christian debates when the Jews debated the Christians about this particular passage as a historical verification of their interpretation of the passage itself.

See also

Notes and references

External links

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