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?
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:
MISTRANSLATED VERSES “REFERRING” TO JESUS
Biblical verses can only be understood by studying the original Hebrew text — which reveals many discrepancies in the Christian translation.
A. VIRGIN BIRTH
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.”
C. SUFFERING SERVANT
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?