by David R. BrewerIntroduction to Apologetics – AP101 Dr. William Edgar Wednesday, November 27, 1996
One brisk morning a few years ago a friend of mine and I went door to door handing out gospel tracts. The cover title was a question: “Why on September 17, 1994 is Isaiah 52:13-53:12 not read in synagogues all around the world?” We walked up to one middle-aged Jewish man who was on the porch reading his newspaper. When he read the title of the tract and the first few lines, he became absolutely incensed. He could not believe that we would actually have the gall to suggest that Isaiah 53 was referring to the Messiah and not to the nation of Israel, as is commonly taught in Jewish synagogues – and he was not reluctant to tell us so!
How can we be certain that modern Jewish religious thought on the subject of Isaiah 53 – in particular, “eved adonai”, (“the servant of the LORD”) – is in error? This paper will give an apologetic for the Christian belief that Isaiah 53 (throughout this paper “53” will be understood to include the complete text, 52:13-53:12) indeed refers to Messiah Jesus. This apologetic will be presented by: (1) setting forth germane hermeneutical principles; (2) giving a general overview of the history of the interpretation of Isaiah 53; (3) discussing authoritative rabbis of previous eras who believed that this chapter refers to the Messiah; (4) explaining the prophet Isaiah’s use of the term “eved” (“servant”); and (5) stating some crucial reasons why as Christians we believe that Isaiah 53 is pointing forward to Jesus of Nazareth and not to the nation of Israel as modern Jewish scholars believe; (6) and lastly, making concluding comments concerning a Christian apologetic of Messiah Jesus in Isaiah 53.
A Few Comments About Hermeneutics
In John Calvin’s monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion, he explains that man cannot come to the point where he truly understands himself unless he carefully gazes at God’s face.1 This principle can also be aptly applied to Bible interpretation. When each and every one of us comes to the Word or God, we bring certain presuppositions with us, whether we are aware of it or not. These can color the way we interpret the Bible. It is not realistic to expect that we can easily move our presuppositions to the back of our minds somewhere, but if we are to interpret the Bible responsibly, they must be adapted.2
Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 4:4 that “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”3 I have learned as I have used apologetics to discuss OT Messianic prophecies with Jewish people that, when they read the OT, they have a veil that is covering their understanding (see 2 Cor. 3:15-16). The only time that an individual will clearly understand the OT is when the Holy Spirit removes his blindness through his repentance from sin and faith in Messiah Jesus.
A General Overview of the History of the Interpretation of Isaiah 53
Franz Delitzsch made an extraordinary but true comment about the 53rd chapter of Isaiah when he said that this chapter is “the most central, the deepest, and the loftiest thing that the Old Testament prophecy, outstripping itself, has ever achieved.”4 When a Christian reads Isaiah 53 he is struck by how amazingly the chapter describes what our Savior Jesus Christ went through in His sufferings, death, resurrection and ascension. In contrast to this, when an unbelieving Jewish person today reads this chapter, if he reads it at all, he sees a description of the nation of Israel, especially since more than likely his local rabbi has made it clear to him that this is the “proper” Jewish interpretation of this chapter. How did a Jewish person, centuries ago, understand this chapter?
There is a very definite contrast between the beliefs and opinions that the rabbis held about the Messiah in the time period of 450 B.C.E.-400 C.E. and between the opinions that the modern rabbis hold about the Messiah. There is quite a difference between the verses that ancient rabbis considered to be Messianic and the ones that modern rabbis consider to be Messianic.5 It is very typical for modern rabbis to consider non-Messianic the same passages that ancient rabbis considered Messianic. Dr. Alfred Edersheim compiled a list of 456 passages6 in the OT that are applied by the most ancient writings to either the Messiah or to Messianic times. During the time that the ancient rabbis were writing the Talmud,7 most of the rabbis believed that the 53rd chapter of Isaiah was referring to the Messiah.8 Actually it was not until about the 11th century C.E. that other views were proffered. During this time period Rashi (Rabbi Solomon Yizchaki, 1040-1105) originated the view that the servant of the LORD was the nation of Israel. Not only did many of Rashi’s contemporaries not agree with his view of Isaiah 53, but there were rabbis centuries after Rashi who continued to disagree with him.9 Interestingly enough, Rashi was not consistent with his own view of the identity of “the Servant of the Lord”. Rashi did state that “eved adonai” was the nation of Israel in his Biblical exposition of the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, but in his Talmudic commentary of this same chapter he contradicted himself by writing that “eved adonai” refers to the Messiah.10
Rabbis and Authoritative Jewish Sources Who Believed that Isaiah 53 Referred to the Messiah
“I think that it is pretty clear that Isaiah 53 refers to the nation of Israel.” This is a statement that I heard a Jewish friend of mine (we’ll call him “Joseph”) from NJ say as we were discussing the Messiah in the OT. This statement was definitely not a surprise to me since I have heard it many times. After saying this, Joseph stood opposite me looking as if he was waiting for me to disagree with his statement. Instead, I asked Joseph, “Have you ever heard of Rambam?” (He is also known as Maimonides). Joseph answered, “Of course, who hasn’t heard of him!” I proceeded to ask him, “Then you would probably respect his opinion when it comes to his explanation of the Hebrew Bible?” Joseph said, “Yes, he was a famous and well-known rabbi so I would respect him.” I asked, “Are you aware that Maimonides believed that the entire 53rd chapter of Isaiah referred to the Messiah?”11 Needless to say, Joseph was quite surprised to hear that a rabbi of this stature held a very different opinion regarding the identity of “eved adonai” as compared to his own rabbi and all of the rabbis that he had talked to for that matter. This is just one very common example of how most Jewish people today are quite unaware that there were some very prestigious rabbis who believed that “the Servant of the LORD” referred to the Messiah.
John Calvin, in his commentary on the Book of Isaiah, makes a very interesting comment regarding the interpretation of Isaiah 53 when he says that it “is to be literally understood of the Messiah, as all expositors that I have met with agree . . .”12 The following is what some of these rabbis and other rabbinical sources (in approximate chronological order) said about whom “the Servant of the LORD” referred to in Isaiah 53:
The Babylonian Talmud13 in Sanhedrin 98b states that the Messiah was the leprous one that bore our sicknesses.14 Actually the Babylonian Talmud is the oldest and “earliest indisputable, firsthand evidence of a rabbinic interpretation of Isaiah 53 which takes the servant as the Messiah, and attributes suffering to him.”15 A date of about 200 C.E. for the tradition of this Talmud is suggested by the formula used to introduce this section.16
One of the Aramaic translations17 was of the opinion that “the Servant of the LORD” referred to the Messiah.18 The rabbi that produced this translation had quite a problem though. This 53rd chapter of Isaiah obviously refers to the Messiah but this idea of a Messiah suffering for the sins of his people was impossible according to his theology. So throughout his writing he endeavors to prove that all of the verses that refer to the Servant’s glory refer to the Messiah but all of the references to the Servant’s suffering refer to Israel.
The Midrash Rabbah says that the King Messiah, in an explanation of Ruth 2:14, is the one who was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.19 The context of this section of the above Midrash is the idea of a suffering messiah that is connected to Isaiah 53:5 in one of the six interpretations given to this verse in Ruth. The tradition of this particular Midrash, which more than likely is dated from the middle of the 3rd century C.E., is just one example of the 53rd chapter being understood in a messianic way by later rabbis.20
The Yalkut, which was a later midrash, said that the King Messiah is identified with the exalted Servant in Is. 52:13 (in ii. 571), and it also linked (in ii. 620) the chastisements of the Messiah with he who “was wounded for our transgressions”.21
There is an interesting quotation from the liturgy for Yom Kippur (i.e., The Day of Atonement) which makes a clear connection between the Messiah and the one who carried the Jewish people’s iniquities and transgressions. This liturgy also states that this Messiah was wounded because of their transgressions. According to some sources the author of this liturgy was Eleazer ben Kalir (9th century C.E.).22
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (also known as Rambam or Maimonides) (1135-1204) made a clear connection between the Messiah and Is. 52:15 and in 53:2.23
In 1350 C.E., Rabbi Moshe Kohen Ibn Crispin of Cordova and Toledo in Spain strongly disagreed with Rashi’s view and he made it very clear through his writing that the interpretation that the Servant is the Messiah is the natural sense and meaning of this chapter. He acknowledged that this interpretation was in harmony with the teaching of the Rabbis. He believed that the interpretation of those who connect “the Servant of the LORD” with the nation of Israel was “ . . . forced and far-fetched . . .”24 If you read further in this rabbi’s writing he did not believe though that the passage referred to God. He was aware of the Christian interpretation that this passage refers to Jesus the God-Man and he couldn’t understand how God could suffer and die.25
Don Yitzchak Abrabanel (1437-1508) strongly disagreed with the “Nazarenes” who believed that Isaiah 53 referred to Jesus. He himself believed that “eved adonai” referred to the nation of Israel but he did admit that the interpretation that the Servant was the future Messiah was “the opinion of our learned men in the majority of their Midrashim.”26
Rabbi Saadyeh Ibn Danan of Grenada (2nd half of the 15th century C.E.) believed that according to the principles of interpretation this passage referred to King Messiah. If we read more of what this particular rabbi wrote, we can derive some hints of why Rashi went against the traditional Jewish interpretation and said that the Servant was the nation of Israel and not Messiah (also called King Messiah). This rabbi wrote about the “heretics” who believed that the Messiah was Jesus. We can deduce from what he and other rabbis wrote, that during Rashi’s period and in later centuries Christians used Isaiah 53 as an apologetic in their debates with Jewish people by arguing from this chapter that Jesus was the Messiah. Evidently, this type of apologetic was so effective that many rabbis changed and began to say that the Servant was Israel.27 There is another probable reason why Rashi came up with this new and innovative interpretation that the Servant was the nation of Israel. Toward the end of Rashi’s lifetime (1040-1105) the Crusades were started by the Church to protect herself against the large number of Muslims from Asia Minor and to free the city of Jerusalem from Muslim domination. About 10 years before Rashi died, Pope Urban II issued an appeal that started the Crusader period into motion. On the way to “the Holy Land” fanatical groups of peasants traveled eastward through southern Germany, Hungary, and the Balkans, murdering the Jewish communities on the way. The actual Christian armies did not reach the Holy Land until May of 1099 but during this time period there were many conversions forced upon the Jewish people.28 Also during this time period Jewish money was confiscated to help pay for the expenses of the Crusades and communities of Jewish people had to buy “protection” from their “Christian” overlords. So, in view of the above horrors and due to the pressures of these wicked professing Christians, Rashi wanted to preserve his people from accepting this type of faith, which explains why he came up with his view of the Servant in Isaiah 53.29
In 1575 C.E., Rabbi Elijah Ben Moshe De Vidas who was a Kabbalistic (mystical) scholar at Safed (upper Galilee), also believed that the Servant in Isaiah 53 referred to the Messiah. He wrote that the phrase in Isaiah 53:5 refers to the Messiah who “was wounded for our transgressions . . . bruised for our iniquities”. According to him this meant that whoever does not accept the fact that Messiah suffered for their iniquities will have to suffer for those transgressions himself.30
Rabbi Moshe el Sheikh (commonly known as “Alshech”) who was Chief Rabbi of Safed and a disciple of Joseph Caro sometime during 1603-1607, wrote that the rabbis who lived during his time period all agreed that Isaiah was speaking of King Messiah. He stated that in his opinion his method of interpretation was “straightforward” and he was reading the text in its literal sense.31 So as not to misrepresent this Rabbi, later on in his writing he wrote that in his view the Messiah was a reference to David.32
Even as late as 1650 there were rabbis who still strongly disagreed with Rashi’s unorthodox view of Isaiah 53. Rabbi Naphtali ben Asher Altschuler wrote that he was expectantly waiting for the Messiah to come during his lifetime and he continued to write that he was amazed Rashi and Rabbi David Kimchi did not interpret this passage to refer to the Messiah just as the Targums had.33 Although if we read all that this rabbi wrote about this passage he definitely disagreed with the view of Christians that the Servant referred to Jesus. In his writing he presented several arguments to support his opinion on this matter.34
Most of the rabbis by the time of the 1800s believed, in harmony with Rashi’s interpretation, that Isaiah 53 referred to the Messiah, but there was a Jewish scholar and famous Jewish educator named Herz Homburg (1749-1841) who in 1818 wrote in his commentary that this passage referred to King Messiah. He mentioned that, in his opinion, Rashi and Ibn Ezra were in error when they said that the Servant in Isaiah 53 referred to Israel.35
As I have read through quotes from the writings of many ancient rabbis, I have discovered that most of them of course did not link “the Servant of the LORD” in Isaiah 53 with Jesus Christ, who was considered to be God by Christians, simply because they could not fathom how God could be a servant, how He could have suffered and then died.
The Prophet Isaiah’s use of the term “eved” in his book
The term “servant” is quite often used in the book of Isaiah as a collective or generic term which many times Isaiah used to refer to “Israel”.36 Other times Isaiah uses the term “servant” to refer to the righteous remnant within the nation of Israel. We see this in Isaiah 41:8-9; 42:18-19; 43:10; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20; and in 49:3. We also see the same thing in other prophetical books – see Jer. 30:10; 46:27-28; Ezek. 28:25; 37:25 (cf. Psalm 136:22). The plural word “servants” in the book of Isaiah only comes after Isaiah 53 – see 54:17; 56:6; 63:17; 65:8-9, 13, 15; and 66:14. In fact after Isaiah 53, the singular for “servant” is not used again but there are 11 references to “his servants”, “my servants”, or “the servants of the LORD”.
It is vital to maintain a clear distinction between “servant” referring to the nation of Israel and “servant” referring to an individual who has a multi-faceted ministry to the nation of Israel (see Isaiah 42:1-7; 49:1-9; and 50:4-10). If one sits down and reads all of the verses mentioned above where Isaiah uses the term “servant” and reads the contexts of each verse, it is relatively easy to understand when Isaiah is referring to the nation of Israel. Isaiah makes it abundantly clear in the context either by rebuking Israel for her sin, by linking the terms “Jacob”, “son of Abraham”, and “Jeshurun” to “servant”, or by linking the return from the Babylonian Captivity to “servant”.
Some Reasons Why Christians Interpret Isaiah 53 to refer to Messiah Jesus As Opposed to the Modern Jewish Interpretation that It Refers to The Nation Of Israel
One of the most important reasons why believers in Jesus connect “eved adonai” in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 with Messiah Jesus is because there are at least eleven places in the NT in which this chapter or portions of it is formally or informally cited and applied to Jesus (Matt. 8:17; Mark 15:28; Luke 22:37; John 12:38; Acts 8:32, 33; Romans 10:16; 15:21; and 1 Peter 2:22, 24, 25).
As I mentioned above, during Rashi’s time there were other notable rabbis who disagreed with his view of Isaiah 53. There were a few reasons why they believed that Rashi’s “new” interpretation was in error: (1) These rabbis quoted verse 8 of Isaiah 53: “ . . . For the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due” and they explained that “my people” referred to Israel who was the recipient of the Servant of the Lord’s suffering. (2) They mentioned many times in their writing that every time the Servant is mentioned is in the singular. (3) Time and time again rabbis mentioned that the interpretation that the Servant of the LORD is the Messiah was in harmony with the opinion of almost all of the ancient rabbis.
As we more deeply delve into this question of whom does “the Servant of the LORD” refer to in Isaiah 53, we might ask ourselves the question, “How do we know from a natural and normal reading of this chapter that it does indeed refer to Messiah Jesus?” There are several evidences within this chapter that the prophet Isaiah was prophesying about Jesus:
(1) As we look at the pronouns used in this chapter, we can see that the prophet Isaiah was clearly making a differentiation between the first person pronouns, “we,” “us” and “our” and the third person masculine pronouns, “he”, “him” and “his”. This distinction between these various pronouns can be especially seen in Isaiah 53:4-9. We see repeatedly in these verses that “he” will suffer for “our” sins.
The question is, “who does the ‘our’ , ‘us’ and ‘we’ refer to?” The entire section of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 begins and ends with the LORD speaking but it is vital to identify who the speakers are in the middle of this section (i.e., in Isaiah 53:1-9).37 I agree with Franz Delitzsch38 that the most likely speaker of this report regarding the Servant’s degradation, suffering, and death is the believing Jewish remnant.
Let’s accept, just for the sake of argument, the traditional Jewish interpretation of this chapter. If, as modern rabbis would say, the Servant in this chapter is Israel, then you end up with exegetical nonsense. Ask yourself if it makes sense that Israel as the Servant would suffer, die, and all of this resulting in others’ salvation. As I briefly mentioned above, in the above view, how would the phrase in verse 8b be explained, which says “ . . . he was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due”? So was Israel cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of Israel to whom the stroke was due? Of course not, that would make absolutely no sense! When the Jewish prophet Isaiah (who was born in Israel) writes “my people” he is obviously referring to Israel, is he not? So how could Israel die for Israel? Since the Servant in this 53rd chapter suffers voluntarily for the sins of other people and then dies, resulting in our well-being, who else could the Servant refer to except Messiah Jesus. This will be discussed in more detail as I discuss more evidences in Isaiah 53 that the Servant is Messiah Jesus and not Israel.
2. As we read through Isaiah 53, we are confronted with the fact that the Servant of the LORD suffers even though He was innocent. This is brought out very clearly in verses 8 and 9. If the Servant of the LORD was Israel, then this would be the only chapter in the Bible where Israel ever suffered even though she was innocent and completely blameless.
3. In Isaiah 53:7, the Servant suffers in a voluntary and quiet way. He of His own choice “poured out His soul to death” (53:12; literal). The only one who has suffered without uttering a word is the Lord Jesus Christ. Just like any nation, never in the history of Israel have they suffered without complaining about how unfair their suffering was.
4. Throughout Isaiah 53 (vv. 4-6, 8, 10, 12) the prophet writes that the Servant suffers to death in place of and as a substitute for others. This theological statement of substitutionary death and vicarious suffering is in perfect harmony with what we know from the NT of Jesus Christ. If the Suffering Servant is Israel, an excellent question could be asked of those who hold this view: “Where in the Hebrew Bible do we ever see Israel suffering for other groups or other people?” There are numerous passages in the OT where we see Israel suffering, but she never suffers for other groups. Israel’s suffering was normally because God was punishing her for her own sin, and the instrument which God used to punish her was other nations.
5. The prophet Isaiah wrote in 53:5 that the Servant’s piercing and crushing was for our transgressions and iniquities, and he continues to explain that the Servant’s suffering resulted in our well-being or peace and our healing. Isaiah points out another effect of the Servant’s suffering and death when he says in the last part of 53:11 about the Servant that “By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities.” This idea of the Servant Jesus’ suffering and death “paving the way” for the spiritual healing of many is mentioned numerous times in the NT. Although an important point is if Israel is the Servant, this means that Israel’s suffering should have resulted in the salvation of the many. When has this ever happened and is this in harmony with what the Bible says about the results of Israel’s suffering? There is not one place in the Bible in which we see that Israel’s suffering would result in the above effects. So therefore, the Servant must be Jesus.
6. A critical detail that Isaiah states about the Servant is that he will die (53:8, 12). Indeed the end result of the sufferings of the Servant is death. I really doubt that any of the modern Jewish scholars who propose that the Servant is Israel would agree that in history Israel died. It is well known from the history of Israel that even though many nations have tried to decimate her, the nation of Israel is still very much alive. In Jeremiah 31:35-37 God promised that the nation of Israel will exist forever!
7. According to 53:10-11, the Servant will not remain dead but will be resurrected. In these verses it can be seen that due to Jesus’ resurrection He will see His offspring (see John 1:12) and He will prolong His days since He will always be the Son of God. Obviously, if Israel never has “died” or “will die” there is no need for her to be resurrected, so “the Servant of the LORD” in this chapter definitely cannot refer to the nation of Israel.
8. Isaiah 53:10 says, “But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering . . .” The Hebrew word translated “guilt offering” is “ ‘asham “. This is the same word that is used in the fifth chapter of Leviticus when it describes “The Law of Guilt Offerings”. If we read through this chapter of Leviticus we read about the qualifications for this particular offering. It is written in verses 15 and 18 that the offering was to be “without defect”, “perfect”, or “without spot or blemish”. An obvious question is, “if Israel is indeed the Servant in Isaiah 53, does she fulfill this important qualification of being a perfect offering?” We know that the answer to that question is clearly no. Only Messiah Jesus could have and indeed fulfill this vital qualification of being a perfect sacrifice without blemish (see 1 Peter 1:19). Louis Goldberg tells an interesting story about a discussion he had with a rabbi regarding this verse (i.e., Isaiah 53:10). As Dr. Goldberg and the rabbi were talking about the qualifications for the guilt offering in Leviticus 5, the rabbi picked up his Hebrew Bible, read through the chapter and after carefully contemplating the chapter, he closed his Bible and said: “Let’s not discuss this any further.”39 I think the Rabbi “got the point”!
It is clear and manifest to all unprejudiced minds that Isaiah 53 cannot be applied to a collective body personified, but must refer to an individual person.40 There are many clues in this chapter of Isaiah that an individual person is being spoken of here and not the nation Israel. In 53:3 the subject of the sentence is the Hebrew word “ ’ish ” (“man”). In 53:10 and 12 it says that the Servant has a soul. It is true that Israel is called a “Servant” as I mentioned earlier but whenever Isaiah gives Israel that title, he makes it very obvious that he is referring to Israel and not a person. For example, Isaiah uses the terms “Jacob” and “Israel” (look at Isaiah 41:8; 44:1, 2, 21; 44:4; 48:20) to clarify whom he is talking about. Isaiah also uses the Hebrew plural together with the singular to make it abundantly clear that he is talking about Israel in a collective sense.41 An excellent question to ask any modern rabbi is, “If you are so confident that the Servant of the LORD is the nation of Israel, then why do you jump from Isaiah 52:12 to 54:1 every year when you read selections from the prophets in your synagogue reading?”42
A few concluding comments about a Christian Apologetic of Jesus in Isaiah 53
It is crucial that as believers we understand what our Jewish friends believe about Isaiah 53. If we understand what the ancient rabbis said about this passage, we can more thoughtfully discuss this issue with Jewish people today. Many times when I have discussed Isaiah 53 with Jewish people they have had to admit that they have never read it before. It is effective to type out this whole chapter, using a Jewish translation, and then ask the Jewish person to read it, without telling them where in the Bible it came from. Quite often after reading the entire chapter, the Jewish person will just say, “Oh, that’s just from the New Testament!” Many of them are without a doubt surprised when they learn that it is actually from their own Hebrew Bible. Please pray with me that God would move upon the hearts of more believers to share the good news of Messiah Jesus with Jewish people by using solidly-based apologetics and that as a result God will move on their hearts so that they might respond to this good news.
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