Out From Under the Umbrella

playing in the rain

Was Jesus the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53?


The “Conversations With an Atheist Jew” series has brought up some interesting discussions and questions. One question that wasn’t fully answered was the question of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. I asked Harvey about this and he readily admitted that Jesus doesn’t fulfill the passage but doesn’t elaborate on why that is so. Remembering that Harvey gave the disclaimer that he is not a Rabbi and hasn’t studied Torah nor practiced Judaism in some time I’ve done a bit of research and found an excellent Jewish website, aish.com. Hopefully Harvey will contribute to the discussion in the comments.

I asked Harvey:

Is there a basis for a suffering servant Messiah in traditional Judaism? What is the traditional Jewish Interpretation of Isaiah 53?

Harvey replied:

Jewish scholars do not put the same interpretation or importance on Isaiah that Christian apologists seem to do. Since they do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth meets most of the criteria of Messiahship, I am not aware (remember, I am by no means either a Rabbi, nor am I currently studying Tankah) that Jewish scholars spend much time on this particular statement in Isaiah.

From aish.com  I found the following as a partial explanation as to why Jesus isn’t the suffering servant:

Biblical verses can only be understood by studying the original Hebrew text — which reveals many discrepancies in the Christian translation.

The Christian idea of a virgin birth is derived from the verse in Isaiah 7:14 describing an “alma” as giving birth. The word “alma” has always meant a young woman, but Christian theologians came centuries later and translated it as “virgin.” This accords Jesus’ birth with the first century pagan idea of mortals being impregnated by gods.

The verse in Psalms 22:17 reads: “Like a lion, they are at my hands and feet.” The Hebrew word ki-ari (like a lion) is grammatically similar to the word “gouged.” Thus Christianity reads the verse as a reference to crucifixion: “They pierced my hands and feet.”

Christianity claims that Isaiah chapter 53 refers to Jesus, as the “suffering servant.”
In actuality, Isaiah 53 directly follows the theme of chapter 52, describing the exile and redemption of the Jewish people. The prophecies are written in the singular form because the Jews (“Israel”) are regarded as one unit. The Torah is filled with examples of the Jewish nation referred to with a singular pronoun.
Ironically, Isaiah’s prophecies of persecution refer in part to the 11th century when Jews were tortured and killed by Crusaders who acted in the name of Jesus.

From where did these mistranslations stem? St. Gregory, 4th century Bishop of Nanianzus, wrote: “A little jargon is all that is necessary to impose on the people. The less they comprehend, the more they admire.”

You can read the article in it’s entirety here.  I intend to do a bit more research on that last statement attributed to St. Gregory.  If any of you have information or knowledge of this quote and it’s context please feel free to elaborate in the comments.  I have found similar quotes by various saints, not the least of which is St. Paul, himself.  The thought that it is alright to embellish the truth, or outright lie to progress the “gospel” isn’t a new thought.  It’s new to me because in the evangelical church it is never in question.  However if the gospel is such good news and the Holy Spirit does his work why would anyone need to do anything other than be completely honest and forthright?  Why does the “good news” need help?

11 thoughts on “Was Jesus the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53?

  1. DMA, great article, and I applaud your curiousity on such matters.I don't have a lot of time now, and I will give you my thoughts on the suffering servant of Isaiah later. In the meantime, I have a strong suspicion that the quote attributed to Gregory of Nazianzus is bogus. Not that I have not found some other wacky stuff out there, but this one looks a bit fishy to me.


  2. I googled the quote and all I can come up with are Jewish sites who provide it as part of this same refutation of Jesus as Messiah or Christian forums where they're discussing the Jewish refutation of Jesus as Messiah. I'm still looking into it because, even if it is a quote, it could very easily be taken out of context. Christians aren't the only cherry pickers out there, I'm sure.


  3. "Ironically, Isaiah's prophecies of persecution refer in part to the 11th century when Jews were tortured and killed by Crusaders who acted in the name of Jesus."Crap. Really? I don't think so. There are probably more reliable sources out there. :-p


  4. Yeah. I mostly was interested in the part where the Jews are referred to as one unit and the exile and redemption of them as a people. I think that is a pretty accurate traditional Jewish interpretation. I'm not sure how that 11th century stuff fits anymore than the Holocaust or Jesus for that matter.


  5. There are many other examples of mistranslations/misunderstandings in Christian Versions of The Torah. Noteworthy among them is the famous painting of Moses done by Michaelangelo, showing him with horns. Hebrew was and is written without specific vowel markings. It is assumed that the reader is able to distinguish the correct pronunciation and, therfore, the correct meaning of similar words by context. The Hebrew word for "beams" of light described as emanating from Moses' temples when he came down from Mount Sinai with the Tablets of the Law is similar to that for horns and this misunderstanding was perpetuated in all the subsequent versions of the Bible based upon the original Greek translation.Needless to say, if a translator is not only interested in transliteration to a vernacular language, often via previous translations rather than theoriginal Hebrew, but is also seeking Biblical references that can be interpreted as supporting Church teachings, it is not unlikely that slight changes in meaning might slip in.


  6. “Christianity claims that Isaiah chapter 53 refers to Jesus, as the “suffering servant.”In actuality, Isaiah 53 directly follows the theme of chapter 52”DMA, I wanted to re-read these ‘Suffering Servant” passages of Isaiah before I responded, but I believe this opinion to be correct. I do think this is the original intent of the writing.Isaiah has 4 “Suffering Servant Songs”, that look to me like lamentation songs written after the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon ~ 586BC. I looked up all four in my Thomson Chain Reference Bible, and the Fundamentalist notes claims all four as allusions to Jesus. All four appear to be written by the same person, but not Isaiah, and edited into the main text of Isaiah (I believe Isaiah to be a composite work written by several people).Chapter 53 is part of the fourth Suffering Servant Song, that actually begins in 52:13 and ends at 53:12. I personally think it is beautiful, striking and tragic poetry – and I don’t blame Christians for claiming it as an allusion to Christ. The Servant appears to be the nation of Israel, or the city of Jerusalem, and it is abused by the oppressor, Babylon. The poet blames the people of Israel, and their wandering away from Jehovah for the judgment of Babylon (53:8). But eventually, Israel will once again rise up and share the spoils with other strong nations (53:12).Anyway, that is what I think the ‘original intent’ of this is – the Suffering Servant is the Nation.


  7. It is apparent to me that there is much more than transliteration between languages. There is also interpretation. This creates a bit of a problem for someone, like me, who doesn't know how to read Hebrew or Aramaic. Clearly words in any language can mean more than one thing. So now we must rely on translators to choose the correct meanings. If said translator has an agenda that is an issue. 🙂


  8. In my home church this is preached. Isaiah refers to the Nation of Israel, but has multiple meanings and is also applied to Jesus. Israel is it's fulfillment, but Jesus is it's ULTIMATE fulfillment. I just don't see it when this passage is translated and interpreted from the Jewish perspective. IMHO what Christianity is saying is that they know more about the Jewish religion and God's intent than his own chosen people. The thing that puzzles me is that throughout the OT the Nation of Israel is only supposed to worship Yaweh as God. So in telling them they must now worship Jesus, that goes completely against the first commandment for them. This whole concept of Jesus as divine flies in the face of Judaism.


  9. If ANYTHING was pounded into the Hebrews' head from day one it was that God is ONE. Period. Not that he was one with "multiple persons." To say that Jesus was God, a second God distinct from "the father," must have been like a smack in the face to any serious Jew. No wonder they were irate! You would think God would have given them a heads up before Jesus came, saying that the rules were gonna change.


  10. EI,That is an interesting point, and one I've thought about myself. If God was, throughout the OT, foretelling of a Messiah, a Savior, wouldn't the very people he was telling have a better handle on the requirements of said Messiah than that? Wouldn't they recognize him? What was the point in obscuring his appearance? What was gained from deceiving his chosen people? Makes nare-a-bit of sense, does it?


  11. Compare Gospel of judas to suffering servant


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