QUESTION: Would it be possible sometime to explain in the Newsletter how Isaiah 53 is interpreted by Jews who are nonbelievers in Jesus? Is that chapter included in the Hebrew Scriptures? Is it read in the synagogue? Is it discussed in Hebrew school?
ANSWER: Isaiah 53 is definitely included in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jewish religious leaders down through the ages have had too much respect for the Scriptures to tamper with them. They would not delete a controversial passage. On the other hand, they will use a variant translation wherever possible in order to play down or entirely avoid the obviously Christological portent of some Old Testament passages.
With Isaiah 53, however, no matter how freely one interprets the language, the passage very obviously describes one who was allowed by God to suffer and die for the sins of others. It so closely parallels the life, ministry and death of Jesus of Nazareth that nonbelieving Jewish scholars have been hard pressed to find other logical interpretations.
There are two most widely used Jewish explanations concerning the identity of the Suffering Servant described in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. One theory holds that the passage refers to the entire nation of Israel; the other theory holds to the thought that the passage refers to Isaiah himself. The obvious answer to both of these explanations is that the pronouns used there do not lend themselves well to either theory.
A minority of Jewish people do hold to another thought, which is that the passage does refer to a suffering messiah, but not to Jesus. Proponents of this idea say that there will be two messiahs—one the Messiah ben Joseph, who will come to suffer, and the other Messiah ben David, who will come to conquer and reign.
Although Isaiah 53 is definitely contained in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is omitted from the liturgical synagogue readings during that portion of the calendar year when the Prophet Isaiah is normally read.
As for this problem passage” being discussed in Hebrew school, it would be highly unlikely below seminary level. Generally the prophetic writings are not studied at the lower levels of religious training that comprise the experience of the average Jewish person. For this reason, most Jewish people are unaware that the Isaiah 53 passage even exists. A very common response from a Jewish person who is shown that text for the first time is, “That’s not from our Jewish Bible. That sounds like the New Testament.”
Showing a Jewish person Isaiah 53 does not automatically guarantee that he or she will believe in Jesus. Isaiah himself wrote that as a nation, Israel would hear and not understand, and they would see and not perceive (Isaiah 6:9, 10). Nevertheless, individual Jews do come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, often without ever having seen Isaiah 53. When such people see the passage for the first time, they are usually quite startled to discover that it was there all along.