This is the last in a series of posts here on Daniel Boyarin’s book “The Jewish Gospels“. In this post (actually, I’ll need
two three posts), I will examine the final chapter of his book, where Boyarin provides a controversial interpretation of the “suffering servant” passage found in the Biblical book of Isaiah, chapter 53.
But before we can get to Boyarin, we have a lot of background to cover – so much background, in fact, that I’ll need to devote this post just to the background. In this first post, I’ll look at the way Judaism and Christianity have viewed Isaiah 53. My second post will look at Boyarin’s analysis in the context of the Jewish-Christian dispute over the meaning of this passage.
One caveat: entire books have been written about Isaiah 53, and seemingly none of them agree. Below is my effort to provide a brief but fair summary of Isaiah 53, but it’s probably not as fair as I might wish, and I know it’s not brief!
Isaiah 53 is the last of four “songs” in Isaiah (the first three begin at 42:1, 49:1 and 50:4) describing a “suffering servant” of God who is called to bring justice to Israel and the other nations of the world. By the second song, it is clear that the servant has not succeeded (“I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all.”). By the third song, we learn that the servant has been beaten and abused.
The fourth “song”, beginning at Isaiah 52:13 and continuing into Isaiah 53, is set forth in full below. (I am reprinting the New International Version translation of Isaiah, as this translation is closest to what I see cited most often by Christians.)
52:13 See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness —
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.
53:1 Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
In some respects, this fourth “song” of the suffering servant follows themes from the prior three songs: the servant is described as “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering”. But Isaiah 53 appears to introduce a new idea: the servant has suffered “for” the sins of others. The text declares that “[s]urely he took up our pain and bore our suffering … he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities … Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer … the Lord makes his life an offering for sin …”.
Christians interpret Isaiah 53 as prophecy concerning Jesus of Nazareth: Jesus would suffer and die to bring atonement for the sins of all who would come to believe in him. Granted, there are probably a few Christians out there who read Isaiah 53 in some other way. But the text of Isaiah 53 sounds a lot like what we read in the gospels, where Jesus suffered on the cross (and beforehand, when he was scourged by Roman soldiers). According to the gospels, Jesus was pierced: he was nailed to the cross and stabbed in his side by a Roman soldier. Perhaps most significant for Christians is the idea that the servant in Isaiah 53 is said to have suffered and died for our sins, which is the way Christians understand the suffering and death of Jesus.
For Christians, Isaiah 53 is an instance where the Bible interprets the Bible. The Gospel of Matthew states that Jesus healed the sick “to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.’” The Gospel of Luke has Jesus refer himself as the suffering servant: “It is written ‘and he was numbered with the transgressors’, and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me.” Perhaps most on point is the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-39: the apostle Philip meets the eunuch as he is reading the Bible and struggling to understand Isaiah 53:7-8. Once Philip explains that the passage refers to Jesus, the eunuch agrees to be baptized.
Acts 8 begins a long tradition where Isaiah 53 is used as a principal proof text for Christian claims about Jesus. According to one prominent Christian Bible commentary, “No where in all the Old Testament is it so plainly and fully prophesied, that Christ ought to suffer, and then to enter into his glory, as in this chapter [Isaiah 53].”
The Jewish view of Isaiah 53 is … different.
The predominant Jewish reading of Isaiah 53 is that the “suffering servant” is not a single person, but the people of Israel as a whole. This interpretation is based in some part on examining together the four “songs” of Isaiah. The first of these songs is prefaced by the statement that God’s servant is Israel. The second song contains the statement “you are My servant, O Israel”. Isaiah 53 is itself prefaced by prophecy concerning Israel, so that when the fourth “song” begins with “See, my servant will act wisely”, that servant can logically be seen as being Israel.
According to this interpretation, Isaiah 53 is prophecy concerning the eventual redemption of the people and nation of Israel. Isaiah predicted exile and calamity for the Jewish people, but Isaiah 53 appears in “messages of consolation” that describe the eventual restoration and vindication of Israel. When this restoration occurs, according to Isaiah 52:15, the humbled kings of nations “will be amazed when their age-old assessment of the Jew is finally proven wrong.”
To be sure, there are other Jewish ways to read Isaiah 53. The suffering servant might be a righteous portion of Israel, suffering for the sins of the remainder of Israel. Or the suffering servant might be an historic figure such as Moses or Jeremiah.
Finally, there are Jewish sources that describe the suffering servant as a messianic figure. It is instructive to read some of these sources in context. Many Christians point to Sanhedrin 98a and 98b, two pages of a chapter of the Babylonian Talmud, as proof that Jews saw Isaiah’s suffering servant as the Jewish Messiah. But these pages are chock full of different rabbis arguing different (and possibly contradictory) opinions of what the Messiah will be like (someone like King David, or someone “sitting among the poor lepers”) and when the Messiah will come (when “all judges and officers are gone from Israel” or when “Zion shall be redeemed with judgment”). The reference to Isaiah 53 comes when the rabbis argue what the Messiah will be named: Shiloh, or Yinnon, or Haninah, or Menahem. One argument is that the Messiah will be named “’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.’” This passage might be read to confirm some portion of the traditional Christian reading of Isaiah 53 (for example, that the suffering servant might be the Jewish Messiah), and confound other portions (for example, that the suffering servant would be afflicted by God with disease).
A Jewish reading of Isaiah 53 can become quite complicated. For example, consider the issue of vicarious atonement: can one person suffer (and even die) to atone for the sins of another? As a general rule, the Jewish view of atonement is one of personal responsibility – no one can atone for another’s sins. But even here, there is room for discussion. Might animal sacrifice (a practice that has not been possible in Judaism for nearly 2,000 years, since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem) be a form of vicarious atonement? What about the idea (affirmed in some Biblical passages, and denied in others) that children can suffer for the sins of their parents? Or the more difficult and controversial notion, found in Jewish books such as the pseudepigraphical 4 Maccabees, that the death of a martyr might provide atonement for others?
If Jews and Christians share the Hebrew Bible as holy scripture, why can’t we agree on what it means? One answer is that we don’t share the entire text in common. The Jewish Bible does not contain the New Testament, which (as I noted above) confirms that the suffering servant is Jesus. But even where we share the same text, we don’t share the same translation. A traditional Christian translation of Isaiah 53:3 refers to the suffering servant as “familiar with pain”, but a Jewish translation (such as the ArtScroll Tanach or the Jewish Publication Bible) says that the servant is “accustomed to illness”. The former sounds something like Jesus, the latter less so. The Jewish translation is that the servant was “wounded”, or “pained”, but not “pierced”. Moreover, while Christians read Isaiah 53:5 to say that the servant was pierced “for” our transgressions (sounding a lot like vicarious atonement), the Jewish reading is that the servant was wounded “because of” our transgressions (sounding less like vicarious atonement). Which translation is right? That’s hard to say, particularly when you’re dealing with a text written over two thousand years ago, in a language that had not been in everyday common use until very recently.
Some Christians may be frustrated by all this complexity. Christians have a clear position when it comes to Isaiah 53, so why not the Jews? One answer to this question is, Jews are not required to all read this text in the same way. While Isaiah 53 may be read by Christians as a key (perhaps even the key) Old Testament prophecy of Jesus, this text is not central to any Jew’s understanding of Judaism. Different Jews can read this text in different ways, and nothing prevents a single Jew from reading Isaiah 53 in multiple ways. It is a Jewish attitude that we get closer to the divine when we admit to (and study) the various possible meanings of a Biblical text. “The Torah has 70 faces,” goes one expression. “Both are the words of a living God,” goes another expression.
Here’s another way to understand the Jewish-Christian difference: disagreement about Isaiah 53 reflects the different approaches that Jews and Christians take to the Bible. The prominent Christian scholar F. F. Bruce writes that for Christians, the Old Testament is “the preparation of the gospel”, the “witness to Christ”, a “promise” to be fulfilled with the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So it is logical for Christians to read Isaiah 53 as referring to Jesus.
But for Jews, the Old Testament (or to use a more Jewish title, the Tanach or the Hebrew Bible) is not about Jesus, nor primarily about the promised coming of a Messiah (though for Jews, the Messiah is important). Instead, the Hebrew Bible is primarily the story of Israel: its birth, history, and covenant with God, as well as how this story fits with God’s plan for all of humanity. So it is logical for Jews to read Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel.
One of my favorite scholars, Amy-Jill Levine, writes in her book “The Misunderstood Jew” that “synagogue and church each has its own story, told in its own order.” The fact is, Jews and Christians do not order the books of the Hebrew Bible in the same way. The Christian Old Testament ends with the book of Malachi, predicting the coming of the prophet Elijah to prepare for the way of the Messiah before “the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Malachi leads nicely into Matthew’s description of John the Baptist, who assumes the role described for Elijah as forerunner for Jesus. The Jewish Bible ends not with Malachi, but with 2 Chronicles, where the Persian King Cyrus proclaims the end of the Babylonian Exile and permits the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their Temple.
For me, Levine’s picture of distinct biblical canons is beautiful and stirring: Jews and Christians share a sacred text but read the goal of the text differently. For Christians the Old Testament leads to Jesus, and for Jews it leads home. One might even imagine an interfaith discussion of these end points and the differences behind them, a discussion that could lead to mutual respect and understanding.
For the most part, this is not how the history has played out. Instead, the history of Jewish-Christian discussion of Isaiah 53 is full of acrimony, misunderstanding and mutual distrust. In part 2 of this post, I’ll look at the unfortunate history of these discussions, and how Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels” fits into this history.