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. (Isaiah 53:10-11)
Perhaps no text in the Hebrew Scriptures is as contentiously debated between Jews and Christians as Isaiah 53.1 Who is God's servant who is mentioned there? The debate over this passage has produced a litany of polemical arguments. Christians use it as as evidence of Jesus' role as the Jewish Messiah, and Jewish scholars argue fervently that it refers to the nation of Israel. Christians read Isaiah's gripping depiction of undue suffering and see Jesus on the cross, atoning for the sins of mankind. Jewish readers see an equally gripping depiction of the undue suffering of Israel in diaspora at the hands of the Gentiles. Christians see their Messiah, while Jewish people see their family tree.
A while back, a friend of mine, who also happens to be the director of Jews for Judaism Australia, posted this question on Facebook: "If it became clear to you that Jesus was not and could not be the fulfillment of Isaiah 53, would that automatically bring you to give up your belief in Jesus as your messiah?" In less than three days, that 34-word post prompted 476 comments, equivalent to 68 pages of discussion!
Most responses didn't really engage with the question but were simple rhetoric from Christians to prove that Isaiah 53 is about the Messiah. The Christian rhetoric prompted Jewish rhetoric, and the cycle repeated itself over and over.
A Bit of History
The debate over Isaiah 53 is intense, but it isn't a new one. In 248 a.d., the Christian church father Origen recorded the earliest example of such debate in his seminal work Contra Celsum:
Now I remember that, on one occasion, at a disputation held with certain Jews, who were reckoned wise men, I quoted these prophecies; to which my Jewish opponent replied, that these predictions bore reference to the whole people, regarded as one individual, and as being in a state of dispersion and suffering, in order that many proselytes might be gained, on account of the dispersion of the Jews among numerous heathen nations.2
Origen gives no indication that the debate convinced his Jewish audience about the Messiahship of Jesus. But I find it interesting to note, from this nearly 1800-year-old source, that the connection between Isaiah 53 and the suffering of the Jewish people in dispersion was already fixed firmly in Jewish minds.
Perhaps this makes sense, since Origen wrote just 112 years after the traumatic end of the Bar Kokhba revolt, in which 580,000 Jewish men, women, and children were slain,3 and the majority of surviving Jews were expelled from Judea. After all, Isaiah 53 is a vivid depiction of unjust suffering, and certainly the Jewish people had suffered unjustly only recently .
Ironically, debates over Isaiah 53 have been used at different times as vehicles for anti-Semitism, most famously at the Disputation of Barcelona. This public debate occurred in 1263 between Rabbi Nachmanides and a Jewish convert to Catholicism named Pablo Christiani. Despite a good showing from Nachmanides, he was afterwards exiled from Spain by the Dominican Order (which had organized the debate), which claimed that Nachmanides had blasphemed against Christianity.
Perhaps the conversation about Isaiah 53 is so turbulent because it's been approached as polemic since the time of the early church. A polemic by definition is "a strong verbal or written attack on someone or something." Polemics don't engage topics holistically. They don't appreciate the different facets of complex issues, and they don't seek conversation. Instead, polemical arguments reduce issues to one-sided, black-and-white rhetoric.
Our conversations about Isaiah 53 might be better aided by abandoning our polemics and engaging in dialogue—dialogue that not only recognizes Jesus as the suffering servant-Messiah that he is, but also recognizes and appreciates the suffering of our own people as connected to the passage. Perhaps we shouldn't approach Isaiah 53 as an either/or but as a both/and: the Suffering Servant is both the nation of Israel, and the Messiah.
Is this a legitimate reading of Isaiah 53? Compare Matthew's usage of Hosea 11:1, "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son." Matthew uses this verse to refer to Jesus' early life in Egypt, writing that "this was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, 'Out of Egypt I called my son' " (Matthew 2:15). No one argues that Matthew's use of the verse negates the fact that Hosea originally referred to the nation of Israel. Jesus is God's son who was called out of Egypt and Israel is God's son who was called out of Egypt: one is a type or prefigurement of the other.
Could the suffering of Israel be a type of the suffering of Jesus—or vice-versa? This topic has been explored through the amazing works of many Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall, Mark Antokolsky, and Moses Jacob Ezekiel, to name just a few. The Jewish Museum in New York recently had an exhibit titled "Chagall: Love, War, and Exile," which included an essay by New York University art history professor Kenneth E. Silver.4 Silver noted that Chagall "could demonstrate not only to Jews but also—perhaps primarily—to Gentiles that what was being done to modern Jews had a direct parallel in the fate of Jesus, cruelly misunderstood and executed for his outsider status."5 And further, "Perhaps more than anything else, it was the image of Jesus Christ as a Man of Sorrows—a sufferer—that made him the exemplary Jew."
I find Chagall's work fascinating because he mixes images of Jesus' suffering and Jewish suffering, both of which connect with traditional understandings of Isaiah 53. And yet, given the historically conflicting interpretations of this passage, it's startling to see them juxtaposed.
I've found it incredibly helpful in my evangelistic work to allow these two seemingly contradictory interpretations to collide and yet coexist. We need to recognize that the topic of Jewish suffering is emotionally volatile. In claiming Isaiah 53's fulfillment in the suffering of Yeshua, we must not undermine or devalue the real and painful truth of Jewish suffering throughout the ages.
Furthermore, acknowledging both interpretations is the historically honest thing to do. One of my favorite chapters in the Bible is Luke 24 because it captures the doubts, misgivings, and belief—or lack of belief—of Jesus' disciples immediately after the resurrection. Within the chapter, this passage occurs immediately following the narrative about the disciples on the road to Emmaus:
Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem." (Luke 24:44-47)
It wasn't until Jesus "opened their minds to understand the Scriptures" that they understood the need for the Messiah to suffer and die. Even his first disciples didn't understand or accept his suffering until Jesus explained it to them (see also Matthew 16:21-23). How does this square with our insistence that Isaiah 53 clearly and irrefutably refers to the sufferings of the Messiah and only to that?
Yet Isaiah 53 is a compelling passage for Jewish seekers who are looking for answers, as demonstrated through the many testimonies of Jewish people who were convinced and convicted by the description of God's Suffering Servant. Jesus himself claimed to fulfill verse 12 of Isaiah 53: "For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors.' For what is written about me has its fulfillment" (Luke 22:37; similarly, Matthew and 1 Peter speak of Jesus in relation to the passage and there are many other allusions to Isaiah 53 in the New Testament). This fulfillment was indeed intended by God, the divine author who inspired the words of Isaiah. Nevertheless, the notion that Isaiah 53 so clearly points to Jesus to the exclusion of the Jewish people is in my view incorrect.
So how should we approach Isaiah 53 in witnessing to our Jewish friends and family?
First, I recommend we begin with honest discussion regarding the history of its interpretation, moving away from polemics and towards meaningful dialogue. Perhaps you've already talked about Isaiah 53 with friends or family. Try revisiting the passage with a different approach. Go through the chapter verse by verse, admitting freely where the suffering of Israel can be seen in the passage, while continuing to point out where Jesus' suffering can also be seen. Look for the similarities between Jewish suffering and Jesus' suffering instead of looking only for the differences.
Second, when we claim, with scriptural warrant, that Isaiah 53 is fulfilled in the suffering of Yeshua, we must not do so in a way that undermines or devalues the real and painful truth of Jewish suffering throughout the ages.
Third, we need to pray that God will "open their minds to understand the Scriptures," just as he did for Yeshua's own disciples. We must recognize that no one will grasp the truth unless God first opens their minds.
Finally, we need to approach this passage as Philip did in Acts 8:35: "Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus." Philip began with Isaiah 53 because that was the topic at hand, but he didn't end there. Instead he followed Jesus' example from Luke 24:27, "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). Isaiah 53 must live within its whole context: we can't use it as a isolated "prooftext," nor should we.
This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.
1. The passage is actually Isaiah 52:13–53:12, but for convenience is often referred to simply as "Isaiah 53."
3. According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio; http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/69*.html