The Suffering Servant 

Some people say that the Jews had no conception of the death of the messiah:

"So too, when Jesus talked about a messiah, he actually meant 'messiah.' The messiah for first-century Jews was not some kind of spiritual being who resided with God in heaven. And it certainly was not someone who was to be executed and then raised from the dead. Jews had no concept of any such messiah." (Bart Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, p. 54).

Is it plausible that the Jews had no such concept? Isaiah prophesies a servant who will carry the transgressions, not of his own which he has committed, but of others, and die in their stead:

  • “Who has believed our report?
    And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
  • “For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant,
    And as a root out of dry ground.
    He has no form or comeliness;
    And when we see Him,
    There is no beauty that we should desire Him.
  • “He is despised and rejected by men,
    A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
    And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
    He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
  • “Surely He has borne our griefs
    And carried our sorrows;
    Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
    Smitten by God, and afflicted.
  • “But He was wounded for our transgressions,
    He was bruised for our iniquities;
    The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
    And by His stripes we are healed.
  • “All we like sheep have gone astray;
    We have turned, every one, to his own way;
    And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
  • “He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
    Yet He opened not His mouth;
    He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
    And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    So He opened not His mouth.
  • “He was taken from prison and from judgment,
    And who will declare His generation?
    For He was cut off from the land of the living;
    For the transgressions of My people He was stricken.
  • “And they made His grave with the wicked—
    But with the rich at His death,
    Because He had done no violence,
    Nor was any deceit in His mouth.
  • “Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him;
    He has put Him to grief.
    When You make His soul an offering for sin,
    He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days,
    And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand.
  • “He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied.
    By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many,
    For He shall bear their iniquities.
  • “Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great,
    And He shall divide the spoil with the strong,
    Because He poured out His soul unto death,
    And He was numbered with the transgressors,
    And He bore the sin of many,
    And made intercession for the transgressors.”
  • (Isaiah 53:1-12).

Blood Sacrifice Nation Israel
The Messiah Targum of Jonathan
Philo Judaeus Apostolic Preaching

One thing that is made painfully and explicitly clear in this passage, is that the Suffering Servant must die.


Blood Sacrifice

The circumstances of this man, as plainly he is in Isaiah 53, are similar to those of a sacrificial animal:


Nation Israel

Who can this servant be? Tallying up the totality of 'servant' passages in the book of Isaiah reveals that elsewhere Isaiah refers to the nation of Israel as a servant. Can it mean this in all cases? In spite of the difficulties, nevertheless this interpretation is preferred by some commentators:

"Whatever the historical background of this great elegy, our seer uses it to portray Israel as the tragic hero of the world's history. His prophetic genius possessed a unique insight into the character and destiny of his people, seeing Israel as a man of woe and grief, chosen by Providence to undergo unheard-of trials for a great cause, by which, at the last, he is to be exalted. Bent and disfigured by his burden of misery and shame, shunned an abhorred as one laden with sin, he suffers for no guilt of his own." (Kaufmann Kohler, Jewish Theology, pp. 371-372).

This Jewish interpreter is perfectly comfortable with the concept of blood atonement, "Only the fundamental idea, that Israel as the 'first-born' among the nations has been elected as a priest-people, must remain our imperishable truth, a truth to which the centuries of history bear witness by showing that it has given its life-blood as a ransom for humanity, and is ever bringing new sacrifices for its cause." (Kaufmann Kohler, Jewish Theology, p. 352). His assumption is that it is the nation, not the Messiah, both individually and corporately for His congregation, who is giving His life-blood as a ransom.

Is this interpretation possible? Israel is a servant, and the terms and conditions of Israel's service are laid out in Deuteronomy 28, blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience:

“Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the Lord your God will set you high above all nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the Lord your God: Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country.” (Deuteronomy 28:1-3).

The other side of the coin,

“But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.” (Deuteronomy 28:15-17).

In some of the servant references, it does appear that the nation is meant, in some cases both the nation and the Messiah, the nation considered as incorporated in the Messiah. Is it theoretically possible for the nation to reject the Messiah, yet still be Israel? Not Biblically. The nation and the Messiah are not altogether disparate things running along separate tracks:

In some of these references, however, there is such a disjunction between the Servant's circumstances and the nation's that both cannot be meant, rather the Messiah alone: "The Lord GOD has opened My ear; and I was not rebellious, nor did I turn away." (Isaiah 50:5). Given the nation's long history of apostasy and rebellion, "I was not rebellious" is not the testimony of the nation! Nonetheless Isaiah 53 is such an indigestible 'problem passage' for unbelievers, that they are gong to keep on trying to make a non-functional interpretation work, no matter what:

"But, to confine ourselves to the principal passages only, a profound grammatical and historical exposition has convincingly shown, for all who are in a condition to liberate themselves from dogmatic presuppositions, that in none of these is there any allusion to the sufferings of Christ. Instead of this, Isa. 1. 6, speaks of the ill usage which the prophets had to experience; Isa. liii. of the calamities of the prophetic order, or more probably of the Israelitish people; Ps. cxviii. of the unexpected deliverance and exaltation of that people, or of one of their princes; while Ps. xxii. is the complaint of an oppressed exile."
(Strauss, David Friedrich; Eliot, George. The life of Jesus critically examined (Kindle Locations 16238-16243). Kindle Edition.)

There is no room in the 'contract' between Israel and God for punishment for any other party's misconduct. Yet it is frankly admitted of the Suffering Servant, that "he suffers for no guilt of his own." Of Israel it is known, if innocent, “Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.” (Deuteronomy 28:5). The unstated assumption is that God has reneged on His covenant with Israel, which makes no allowance for unmerited punishment; the God-fearing cannot follow where this interpretation leads. Better to say, "Once four hundred jars of wine belonging to R. Huna turned sour. Rab Judah, the brother of R. Sala the Pious, and the other scholars (some say: R. Adda b. Ahaba and the other scholars) went in to visit him and said to him: The master ought to examine his actions. He said to them: Am I suspect in your eyes? They replied: Is the Holy One, blessed be He, suspect of punishing without justice?" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakoth, 5b.)

Jesus Christ Pantocrator

It is often stated that there is no such theme in Judaism, and yet here it is, though scoffers deny:

"The clue to the logic of the kerygma lies in the phrase that christ died 'for us,' namely the congregation of Christians. Such a notion cannot be traced to old Jewish and/or Israelite traditions, for the very idea of a vicarious human sacrifice was anathema in these cultures. But it can easily be traced to a strong Greek tradition of extolling a noble death. The tradition has its roots in the idea that a warrior 'dies for' his country, its laws, or his people." (Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel, The Book of Q and Christian Origins, p. 216).

The example offered is that of Socrates, a non-warrior who did not die 'for' anyone.


The Messiah

The concept of vicarious atonement so prominent in Isaiah 53 was picked up on by some readers, who perceived this man's life as a "trespass-offering:"

"Raba, in the name of R. Sahorah, in the name of R. Huna, says: 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. 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." (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakoth, 5a.)

That Isaiah 53 describes the Messiah's travails is admitted by some of the rabbis whose opinions are compiled in the Talmud, which adds its own diagnosis, "What is his [the Messiah's] name?. . .The Rabbis said: His name is 'the leper scholar,' as it is written, 'Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted.'" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, 98b).

This odd understanding of Isaiah 53:4 somehow made it into the Latin Vulgate: "...vere languores nostros ipse tulit et dolores nostros ipse portavit et nos putavimus eum quasi leprosum et percussum a Deo et humiliatum..." (Isaiah 53:4, Latin Vulgate), for which the Douay has, "Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted."

Minus the leprosy, Jesus said it was Him: "For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end." (Luke 22:37).


Targum of Jonathan

Linking this passage to the Messiah was not novel:

"For example, where Yahweh says 'Behold my servant' in Isaiah 42:1 and 52:13, the Targum of Jonathan adds the interpretative word 'Messiah.'" (F. F. Bruce, 'New Testament History,' p. 315).

Interpreting Isaiah 53 as a prophesy of the Messiah has a long history, both Jewish and Christian: "Ps. ii. 6 is applied to the Messiah in the Midrash on 1 Samuel xvi. 1 (Par. 19, ed, Lemberg, p. 45a and b), where it is said that of the three measures of sufferings one goes to the King Messiah, of whom it is written (Is. liii.) He w as wounded for our transgression.'" (Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Appendix, Kindle location 27389); "On Is. xliii. 10, the Targum renders 'My servant' by 'My servant the Messiah.'" (Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Appendix, Kindle location 27613). Going to the Messiah is the obvious interpretive move. Another instance:

“According to the book Sifre, R. Joses the Galilean says: 'King Messiah has been humbled and made contemptible on account of the rebellious, as it is said, He was wounded for our transgressions, etc. (Isa. 53: 5). How much more will He make satisfaction therefore for all generations, as it is written, ‘And the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isa. 53: 6).’”
(Schürer, Emil. A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (Kindle Locations 11893-11896). Capella Press.)

The people who want to discount this evidence, which is plentiful, do so on grounds that it post-dates Jesus, which it technically does, but their claim that no Jewish interpreter ever took this tack is hollow. They seek some missing nuance, or bluster that 'no first century Jew ever thought, etc.' Read the fine print, because for those writers entirely dependent on secondary sources, the crucial disclaimers and qualifications have fallen out: "My point here is that no Jew before Christianity was on the scene ever interpreted such passages as referring to the messiah." (Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, p. 117). Be it so; but why would non-Christian Jews adopt such an interpretation after Christianity was on the scene, knowing that this scriptural identification is crucial to the gospel? Adopt it they certainly did; it's in the Talmud! The Talmud does indeed post-date the gospel. It is a compendium of the views, not of those who accepted Jesus as Messiah, but of those who did not. Yet even these teachers did accept the Suffering Servant as Messiah.


Born at Bethlehem Pierced
O God His Bones
Cast Lots Born of a Virgin
Mother's Children Lifted Up
Stretched Out My Hands On a Donkey
Weeks The Grave
Thirty Pieces of Silver Light to the Gentiles
Out of Egypt House of David
House of My Friends With the Transgressors
Eyes of the Blind With the Rich
I thirst Darkness over the Land
Gall and Vinegar Shame and Spitting
Familiar Friend Son of Man
Den of Thieves Afar Off
E'er the Sun

John the Baptist identified the Messiah as the "Lamb of God:"

"The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, 'Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!'" (John 1:29).

This identification would seem to have been learned from a study of Isaiah's Suffering Servant passage. Lessons from this most potent passage include the redemptive power of suffering, known also, oddly enough, from the grant of liberty to the slave who loses an eye or a tooth:

"Thou teachest us this thing out of Thy law as a conclusion a fortiori from the law concerning tooth and eye. Tooth and eye are only one limb of the man, and still [if they are hurt], the slave obtains thereby his freedom. How much more so with painful sufferings which torment the whole body of a man! And this agrees with a saying of R. Simeon b. Lakish. For R. Simeon b. Lakish said: The word 'covenant' is mentioned in connection with salt, and the word 'covenant' is mentioned in connection with sufferings: the word 'covenant' is mentioned in connection with salt, as it is written: Neither shalt thou suffer the salt of the covenant of thy God to be lacking. And the word 'covenant' is mentioned in connection with sufferings, as it is written: These are the words of the covenant. Even as in the covenant mentioned in connection with salt, the salt lends a sweet taste to the meat, so also in the covenant mentioned in connection with sufferings, the sufferings wash away all the sins of a man." (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakoth, 5a.)

That it is so insistently stated by opponents of Christianity that Judaism knows nothing of such themes ought to inspire suspicion, not conviction. It was not beyond the ability of the Rabbis to read Isaiah 53 and comprehend its plain meaning. It is certainly true that this passage became a flash-point in the controversy between Christians and Jews, and many who denied Jesus as Messiah preferred to offer other competing interpretations; however, to deny the basic theme laid out very clearly in this verse, of substitutionary atonement, is known to Judaism at all, is laying it on a bit thick.

There is an element of anachronism in these claims, because some modern Jews have indeed discarded the notion of a personal Messiah: "The foremost leader of modern Reform Judaism was Abraham Geiger, a brilliant German scholar and critic. . .He maintained that all references to a restored national life and to a personal Messiah should be dropped from the creed." (Abram Leon Sachar, A History of the Jews, p. 330). But to impose this viewpoint on earlier generations would be like saying that, because the modern-day 'Jesus Seminar' does not believe in the virgin birth, therefore Thomas Aquinas cannot have believed in it either. There were many readers, throughout Jewish history, who were willing to read the Messianic texts with an open mind and to believe what these texts plainly say.


Philo Judaeus

Some see paradox in the combination of features of Isaiah's Servant King, "The paradoxical nature of the servant-king's suffering and exaltation is at the heart of his glorious accomplishment. He who was 'lifted up' and exalted (Isa. 52:13) is the very one who 'has borne our griefs' (53:4) and 'bore the sin of many' (53:12). . .Although exaltation and humiliation seem to be extreme opposites, the servant is exalted through humiliation and victorious through suffering." (Jeremy R. Treat, The Crucified King, p. 86). Victory through abasement is a familiar scriptural theme; Philo Judaeus sees in the burning bush which confronted Moses an allegory of victory through suffering:

"All these circumstances are an allegory to intimate the suggestions given by the other notions which at that time prevailed, almost crying out in plain words to persons in affliction, "Do not faint; your weakness is your strength, which shall pierce and wound innumerable hosts. You shall be saved rather than destroyed, by those who are desirous to destroy your whole race against their will, so that you shall not be overwhelmed by the evils with which they will afflict you, but when your enemies think most surely that they are destroying you, then you shall most brilliantly shine out in glory." (Philo Judaeus, On the Life of Moses, Chapter XIII).

The notion of establishing a 'market' in virtue and vice, so that one man's perfect obedience to the law can outweigh others' dereliction, is found in Philo,

"Namely that every wise man is a ransom for a worthless one, who would not be able to last for even a short time, if the wise man by the exertion of mercy and prudence did not take thought for his lasting; as a physician opposing himself to the infirmities of an invalid, and either rendering them slighter, or altogether removing them unless the disease comes on with irresistible violence, and surmounts all the ingenuity of medical skill. And in this way Sodom was destroyed, since there was, as it were, no good which could be put in the scale sufficient to outweigh the unspeakable multitude of its wickednesses. So that if the fiftieth number could have been found, according to which an emancipation for the slavery of the soul and complete freedom is proclaimed, or if any one of the numbers below fifty which the wise Abraham enumerated descending at last down to ten, the number peculiar to instruction, the mind would not have been destroyed in so inglorious a manner." (Philo Judaeus, On the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel, Chapter XXXVII, 121.5).

Thus we ought to rejoice if there is a virtuous man living in our city, because he can save the whole place from God's wrath.


Apostolic Preaching

'Servant' is a title for Jesus found in the earliest apostolic preaching: "The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His Servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let Him go." (Acts 3:13). This title hearkens back to Isaiah's frequent description of the Messiah as a servant. Peter cites this passage in particular,

“For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving £us an example, that you should follow His steps: 'Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth;' who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.” (1 Peter 2:21-24).

Presumably this is the interpretation Philip offered to the Ethiopian eunuch,

“The place in the Scripture which he read was this:
'He was led as a sheep to the slaughter;
And as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.
In His humiliation His justice was taken away,
And who will declare His generation?
For His life is taken from the earth.'”

“So the eunuch answered Philip and said, 'I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?'” (Acts 8:32-34).