Moshe Gold

     No other Bible portion has created as much controversy between Christian and Jewish people as the Suffering Servant in the Book of Isaiah (52:13 – 53:12).

     According to traditional Jewish teaching, the Suffering Servant is the nation of Israel. The traditional Christian interpretation proclaims this same portion as prophetic concerning the Messiah. Christians declare this prophecy fulfilled through Jesus. Jewish scholars claim that Christians are falsely reading Jesus into this chapter; purposely forcing a “private interpretation” to suit their own beliefs. For their part, Christians claim that their’s is a literal and normal understanding, and the oldest interpretation. They often cite the times Isaiah 53 is either directly quoted[1] or alluded to[2] in the New Testament as proof of its accepted messianic interpretation during the first century. The problem with this argument is that Jewish scholarship does not accept the New Testament as Holy Writ.

     To solve this dispute there must be found authoritative Jewish interpretations proving the Suffering Servant to be the Messiah rather than Israel. If such evidence exists, it is equally important that it be older and therefore more authoritative[3] than the presently accepted Jewish thought. Such evidence does exist and it is worthwhile to note the Rabbinic Anthology of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.  

The Suffering Servant in the Targum

     The earliest authoritative Jewish teaching concerning the Suffering Servant is found in the Targum of Jonathan. A Targum is an Aramaic translation or paraphrase of the Old Testament. From after the return from Babylon until the mid first century BCE[4], Aramaic gradually replaced Hebrew as the common language of Jewish people. Since Hebrew was still the language of Scripture it became necessary to provide translations to aid in understanding the Bible when it was read at the religious schools or worship services (e.g., Neh. 8:1-8). By the mid-first century BCE the Targums were considered authoritative within Judaism and thus quoted in the New Testament.[5]

     The Targum of the Books of the Prophets is the work of Jonathan ben Uzziel, who gives the authorized interpretation, handed down from one generation to another since early times.[6] This translation is named for him; the Targum of Jonathan. According to the Babylonian Talmud,[7] he was the most noted out of the eighty students of Hillel the Elder (20 BCE- 20 CE). Historians place him in the early–mid first century CE.  Contained in this Targum is the oldest received interpretation of the Suffering Servant. In it Isaiah 52:13 is translated, “Behold, my servant, the Messiah, shall prosper; he shall be exalted, and increase, and be very strong.” We may conclude from this that the oldest correct interpretation of the Suffering Servant is that of Messiah, not the nation of Israel.   

The Suffering Servant in the Talmud and the Zohar

     The Talmud is the highest authority in legal and practical matters within Judaism. Its roots are at least traceable to the academy set up by Ezra after the return from Babylon around the year 400 BCE. The oldest part of it, called Mishna (Repetition; the Received Oral Tradition), was codified ca. 200 CE with further comments, called Gemara (Completion), added until its final editing ca. 500 CE. One of the Tractates (Portions) of the Mishna is named Sanhedrin, and in it there is no question that the Suffering Servant is Messiah, not the nation of Israel as demonstrated in the quote below: 

R. Johanan said: For the sake of the Messiah. 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, Sanhedrin 98b) 

     The Zohar is about as old as the Talmud (ca. 400 BCE). It is the oldest portion of the Kabbalah (rabbinic conclusions about the mysteries of God and the Bible). The Zohar was first edited by the much revered and respected Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai (mid second century). Final editing was concluded in the thirteenth century. The following quote is from Zohar II, 212a:    

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 transgressions of the law; as it is written, ‘Surely our sicknesses he has carried.’ 

     Both the Zohar and the Talmud, the two oldest and most respected Jewish bodies of legal and revered writing, inform us that the Suffering Servant is The Messiah of God and not the nation of Israel.  

The Suffering Servant in Rabbinic Literature

     Rabbinic literature called Midrash is opinions of authoritative rabbis whose concern is correctly expounding portions of Scripture. Since these are opinion they are non-binding. However, the overwhelming conclusion of these Midrashim is that the Suffering Servant is the Messiah. Note the following sampling of quotes:

Midrash Tanhuma; parasha Toldot (400-600 CE):  “‘Who art thou, O great mountain?’ (Zechariah 4:7) This refers to the King Messiah. And why does he call him the ‘great mountain?’ Because he is greater than the patriarchs, as it is said, ‘My servant shall be high, and lifted up, and lofty exceedingly.'”

Midrash Ruth Rabbah, 2.14 (650-900 CE):  “‘Come hither’ draw near to the throne ‘and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,’ this refers to the chastisements, as it is said, ‘But he [Messiah] was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.'”

Midrash Lekach Tov (11th C.): “‘And let his [Israel’s] kingdom be exalted,’ in the days of the Messiah, of whom it is said, ‘Behold my servant shall prosper; he will be high and exalted, and lofty exceedingly.'”

Yalkut ii. 620 (13th C.):  “In a comment with regard to Psalm 2:6: ‘I have drawn him out of the chastisements’…The chastisements are divided into three parts: one for David and the fathers, one for our own generation, and one for the King Messiah; and this is that which is written, ‘He was wounded for our transgressions.'” 

The Suffering Servant in Rabbinic Controversy

     Judaism solidly taught that the Suffering Servant was the Messiah until a very influential Talmudic commentator Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105 CE (called Rashi) and some of the later rabbis began to interpret the passage as referring to Israel. In Rashi’s own words this was a defensive move to take away the case made by Christians that the Suffering Servant was fulfilled in Jesus.

     Rashi lived at a time when Christianity encouraged the persecution of Jewish people. Although he could do little to stop the murder and forced conversion under penalty of death, he and others wanted to safeguard the Jewish people from theological attack.

     Rabbi Joseph ben Kaspi (1280-1340 CE), like Rashi, wanted to change the accepted interpretation of Isaiah 53 to combat the Christian witness. He warned the rabbis that “those who expounded this section of the Messiah give occasion to the heretics (Christians) to interpret it of Jesus.” In response to this Rabbi Saadia ibn Danan in the 1500s observed: “May God forgive him for not having spoken the truth.”[8]

     Although Rashi and others had sincere intentions, they were wrong. Important Jewish rabbis and leaders realized the inconsistencies of Rashi’s interpretation. They presented a threefold argument: first, the agreement of the older commentators; second, that the text is in the singular; and third, they cited verse eight. This verse presents an impossible situation to those who interpreted this passage as Israel. 

      Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides) who lived in thirteenth century Spain was one of the greatest defenders of the Jewish faith against attack of Catholic theologians. Note his statement concerning the Suffering Servant: “The right view respecting this portion is to suppose that by the phrase ‘my servant’ the whole of Israel is meant….As a different opinion, however, is adopted by the Midrash, which refers it to the Messiah, it is necessary for us to explain it in conformity with the view there maintained. The prophet says, The Messiah, the son of David of whom the text speaks, will never be conquered or perish by the hands of his enemies. And, in fact the text teaches this clearly….’And by his stripes we were healed’ — because the stripes by which he is vexed and distressed will heal us; God will pardon us for his righteousness, and we shall be healed both from our own transgressions and from the iniquities of our fathers.”[9]

     Rabbi Moshe Kohen ibn Crispin who lived in fourteenth century Spain, said:

     I am pleased to interpret the passage in accordance with the teaching of our Rabbis of the King Messiah … and adhere to the literal sense. Thus shall I be free from forced and far-fetched interpretations of which others are guilty.

     This prophecy was delivered by Isaiah at the divine command for the purpose of making known to us something about the nature of the future Messiah, who is to come and deliver Israel.[10]

     Rabbi Moshe el Sheikh, called Alshech, Chief Rabbi of Safed (sixteenth century), in his Commentaries on the Earlier Prophets says of Isaiah 53:

Our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view.[11]

The Suffering Servant in Personal Challenge

     In this short article my point has been to demonstrate that there is a considerable, credible, consistent, and authoritative body of proof from Jewish primary sources testifying that the Suffering Servant is the Messiah. With these proofs available to the Jewish people why is there still a controversy over this portion of Scripture? Perhaps in the Jewish mind things have not changed much since the days of Rashi. Most Jewish people still view themselves as under attack by a hostile Christian world that seeks to strip them of their Jewish identity. As it was in Rashi’s day, the desire for self-preservation and peace goes beyond the desire for truth. Without realizing it, they have overthrown the very foundations of the Jewish religion by overthrowing the older and more authoritative teachings. They have broken the line of authority that goes back to the Prophets and have devised new ideas to suit the social situation. This has removed the Word of God from its place of primary importance and replaced it with the word of man.

     If my people truly are looking for peace, a sense of peoplehood, and pride in being Jewish, let them do as Jeremiah said and “ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16).  

[1] Isaiah 53:7-8, cf. Acts 8:26-35; Isaiah 52:15, cf. Rom 15:21; Isaiah 53:1, cf. John 12:38; Isaiah 53:4, cf. Matt 8:17; Isaiah 53:9, cf. 1 Pet 2:22; Isaiah 53:12, cf. Mark 15:28, Luke 22:37.

[2] Isaiah 53:5, cf. Romans 4:25; Isaiah 53:7, cf. 1 Pet 1:19, Rev 5:6, Rev 7:14; Isaiah 53:7, Isaiah 53:11, cf John 1:29,36; Isaiah 53:9,  Isaiah 53:11, cf. 1 John 3:5; Isaiah 53:8-11, cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 2 Corinthians 5:21; Isaiah 53:4-6, cf. John 10:11, “Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep”, Philippians 2:5-10; Isaiah 53:11, cf. Hebrews 9:28.

[3] In Jewish thought the closer in time to the Sages, which Sage was your mentor, or from which generation of Sage you were taught, has direct bearing on how authoritative your writings are. The older writings are generally more authoritative than the newer ones.    

[4] BCE is used by Jewish sources speaking of Before the Common Era instead of BC (before Christ). CE is used speaking of the Common Era instead of AD (in the year of our Lord). They use these designations because they don’t believe in Christ nor accept Him as Lord.

[5] Matthew 27:46 gives the Aramaic form of Psalm 21:2; Eph. 4:8 is closer to the Targum of Psalm 68:18 than to the Hebrew text.

[6] Babylonian Talmud Megillah, 3a tells that Jonathan was faithful to carry on the interpretation of Scripture received by Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

[7] Sukkah (28a = baba bathra 134a).

[8] S.R. Driver & Adolf Neubauer, The Suffering Servant of Isaiah According to Jewish Tradition, p. 203.

[9]  Driver & Neuber, pp. 78,81

[10] Driver & Neubauer, pp. 99, 114

[11] Driver & Neubauer, p. 258