Who’s the Subject of Isaiah 53?

Let’s take a closer look at an age-old controversy.

by Efraim Goldstein | April 20 2018

Isaiah 53 has sparked debate amongst rabbis for centuries. Most Jewish people don’t know this passage or whom it refers to. Amongst the Jewish community, there is no consensus on what this passage is about. People either have not read it, accept the status quo, believe it’s irrelevant, or are indifferent. But what we think about and what we do with this passage directly impacts how we view Scripture in light of God’s promises. 

The Traditional Response to Isaiah 53

Isaiah 53 does not appear in synagogue calendar readings. But its obscurity, its presence in the shadows, and the silence surrounding it shouts its importance. Its omission from the synagogue readings points to its uniqueness. One Jewish scholar, Claude Montefiore, explained: “Because of the Christological interpretation given to the chapter by Christians it is omitted from the series of prophetical lessons for the Deuteronomy Sabbaths…the omission is deliberate and striking.”1

We’ve left out a portion of our prophets because of what Christians think about it.

Why is the omission so striking? Because when we finish the cycle of readings for the year, we haven’t really finished it. We’ve left out a portion of our own prophets ostensibly because of what Christians think about it. Why has the Christian interpretation of Jewish Scripture placed regulations on what is or is not read in synagogues around the world?

But it isn’t only because of the Christian interpretation that the Isaiah passage is omitted. After all, the services from which it is omitted aren’t for Christian ears. So the problem is not what Christians think of the passage—it’s what Jewish people might think.

Are you willing to explore this obscure passage?

The Text of Isaiah 53

Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds 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; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.

These words were written over 2700 years ago, but they still jump off the page. If nothing else, this chapter is packed with incredible drama, heroics, and pathos. But many people find a personal challenge in these words that is interwoven with the questions: who is this person and what in the world was he doing?

It’s a question worth considering for oneself, but it is also helpful to see the progression of opinions given by our rabbis.

The Early Rabbis and Isaiah 53

Some of the first written interpretations or targums (ancient paraphrases on biblical texts) see this passage as referring to an individual servant, the Messiah, who would suffer. Messianic Jewish Talmudist, Rachmiel Frydland, recounts:

Our ancient commentators with one accord noted that the context clearly speaks of God’s Anointed One, the Messiah. The Aramaic translation of this chapter, ascribed to Rabbi Jonathan ben Uzziel, a disciple of Hillel who lived early in the second century c.e., begins with the simple and worthy words:

Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper; he shall be high, and increase, and be exceeding strong: as the house of Israel looked to him through many days, because their countenance was darkened among the peoples, and their complexion beyond the sons of men (Targum Jonathan on Isaiah 53, ad locum).2

We find the same interpretation in the Babylonian Talmud:

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.” (Sanhedrin 98b)

Similarly, in an explanation of Ruth 2:14 in the Midrash Rabbah it states:

He is speaking of the King Messiah: “Come hither,” draw near to the throne; “and eat of the bread,” that is, the bread of the kingdom; “and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,” this refers to the chastisements, as it is said, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.”

The Zohar, in its interpretation of Isaiah 53, points to the Messiah as well:

There is in the Garden of Eden a palace named the Palace of the Sons of Sickness. This palace the Messiah enters, and He summons every pain and every chastisement of Israel. All of these come and rest upon Him. And had He not thus lightened them upon Himself, there had been no man able to bear Israel’s chastisements for the transgression of the law; as it is written, “Surely our sicknesses he has carried.” (Zohar II, 212a)

The early sages expected a personal Messiah to fulfill the Isaiah prophecy. No alternative interpretation was applied to this passage until the Middle Ages. And then, a completely different view was popularized by Jewish commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki), who lived one thousand years after Jesus.

Rashi and the Perception of Isaiah 53 in the Middle Ages

Rashi believed that the servant passages of Isaiah referred to the collective fate of the nation of Israel rather than a personal Messiah. Some rabbis, such as Ibn Ezra and Kimhi, agreed. However, many other rabbinic sages during this same period and later objected to Rashi’s interpretation. These rabbis—including Maimonides—realized the inconsistencies of Rashi’s views and would not abandon the original messianic interpretations.

The objections these rabbis put forth to Rashi’s view were threefold: First, they showed the consensus of ancient opinion. Second, they pointed out that the text is grammatically in the singular tense throughout. For example, “He was despised and rejected … he was pierced for our transgressions … he was led like a lamb to the slaughter.” Third, they noted verse eight of chapter 53. This verse presents some difficulty to those who interpret this passage as referring to Israel:

By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? (Isaiah 53:8)

But, were the Jewish people ever “cut off from the land of the living?” Absolutely not! God promises that Israel will live forever:

If this fixed order [the sun to shine by day, the moon and stars to shine by night, etc.] departs from before me, declares the Lord, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever. (Jeremiah 31:36)

Likewise, this interpretation makes nonsense of the phrase, “for the transgression of my people he was stricken,” since “my people” clearly means the Jewish people.

How can the sin-bearer and the sinner be the same?

If verse eight refers to Israel, then are we to read that Israel is stricken for Israel because of Israel’s sin? How can the sin-bearer and the sinner be the same? Likewise, how can Israel be the servant, the one who “had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth” (Isaiah 53:9)? Israel is not now, nor ever has been, without sin—the Scriptures are replete with examples of Israel’s disobedience.

All of these inconsistencies troubled many rabbis, and they expressed their opinions concerning Rashi’s view. Rabbi Moshe Kohen Iben Crispin of Cordova, who lived in the 14th century, said of the Israel-as-servant interpretation, it “distorts the passage from its natural meaning,” and that Isaiah 53 “was given of God as a description of the Messiah, whereby, when any should claim to be the Messiah, to judge by the resemblance or non-resemblance to it whether he were the Messiah or not.”3

The Rabbinic View of Isaiah 53 Today

To this day, many rabbis persist in citing Rashi as the definitive word on how to interpret Isaiah 53. Others do see the weakness of Rashi’s view and say the passage applies to an individual, perhaps Isaiah himself, King Cyrus, King Hezekiah, Josiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Moses, Job, or even some anonymous contemporaries of Isaiah as the one spoken of by the prophet.4

But looking through this list of people, we are confronted with the fact that none of them was totally blameless. None of them died for the sins of others.

We also cannot deny the reality that countless numbers of Jewish people have come to believe in Yeshua after studying this very passage.

Leah’s Journey with Isaiah 53

Leah was a 25-year-old Jewish woman who was searching for answers to her spiritual questions. When faced with the question, “Was Jesus who he claimed to be?” she wanted the answer to be no. Leah confessed, “I’m starting to see that Jesus is the Messiah, but if I accept it, I’m also rejecting my father, who did not believe in Jesus. I loved him more than anyone else in this world—I can’t do it.”

When she was challenged to read Isaiah 53, Leah found her dad’s old, faded Tanakh. Opening it to the passage in question, she made two astounding discoveries. First, the passage really did sound like it was describing Jesus. And second, her father had circled the entire chapter. And in the margin he had written: “messianic prophecy—Yeshua is Messiah.”

Leah just had to ask … “Who is Yeshua?” When she understood that Yeshua is the Jewish way to say Jesus, it dawned on her. It was a convincing passage, indeed, and even her father had not been able to dismiss it. And that was a key part of what led her to acknowledge that Jesus fit the description of the suffering servant.

Jesus in Isaiah 53

Isaiah predicted that the Servant of the Lord would be disfigured by suffering and rejected by many. 700 years later, Yeshua was struck, spat on, mocked, and blasphemed (Mark 15:17–19, Matthew 27:39–44).

Isaiah said this person would come from humble beginnings. Yeshua grew up in a city with a poor reputation, Nazareth (Luke 2:39–40,51).

Isaiah said that the Servant would bear our sins and suffer in our place. 700 years later, Jesus “himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

Isaiah predicted that the Servant would heal many. Jesus made the lame walk, the blind see, and the sick healthy all throughout his earthly ministry (Matthew 8:16–17).

Isaiah said that he would voluntarily take our punishment upon himself. Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Jesus did not defend himself before Herod, Pontius Pilate, or the Sanhedrin (Matthew 26:62–64, 27:11–14; Luke 23:9). Just as Isaiah foretold, he remained silent during his suffering.

Isaiah predicted that the Servant would die, be buried with a rich man, but would not remain dead. Jesus did all of this when he died on a cross (Mark 15:37; John 19:33–34), was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57–60), and when he rose three days after his death.

In 1922, the late David Baron, a British Jewish believer in Yeshua who was well-versed in rabbinics, wrote:

It is beyond even the wildest credulity to believe that the resemblance in every feature and minutest detail between this prophetic portraiture drawn centuries before his [Jesus’] advent and the story of his life, and death, and glorious resurrection as narrated in the gospels, can be mere accident or fortuitous coincidence.5

Can it be true? Ask yourself—if you have the courage to believe it.


1. C.G. Montefiore & H. Loewe, Rabbinic Anthology (New York: Schocken Books, 1974) p. 544

2. Frydland, Rachmiel, ISSUES: A Messianic Jewish Perspective, Vol. 2:5, p. 2

3. Baron, David, The Servant of Jehovah (Jerusalem: Israel Keren Ahvah Meshihit, 2000, p. 13

4. Encyclopedia Judaica, article on Servant of the Lord, Vol. 14, p. 1187

5. Baron, The Servant of Jehovah (2000), p. viii