One of the most common–and least enlightening–exercises in religious history is the batting back and forth of biblical verses. Rabbi David Wolpe.
In Part 1 of this series, I looked at one of the most controversial chapters in the Bible, Isaiah 53. For Christians, Isaiah 53 is prophecy concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Jews interpret Isaiah 53 in varying ways, but the dominant Jewish interpretation is that Isaiah 53 predicts the redemption of the people and nation of Israel.
To understand the meaning of Isaiah 53, we need go beyond what this chapter says, and beyond how Jews and Christians have interpreted this chapter. To understand Isaiah 53, we need understand how this text has been used over the centuries. Isaiah 53 has been used in ways that have transformed what the text means.
The Debate In Antiquity
The beginning of the transformation goes back at least as far as 150 C.E., when the Christian father Justin Martyr wrote his Dialogue With Trypho. The dialogue describes a (probably fictional) attempt by Justin to convince a Jew named Trypho of the truth of Christianity. As part of this effort, Justin cited Isaiah 53 at least eight times (Chapters 13, 42, 53, 76, 97, 111, 114, 118) as proof that repentance comes solely “by faith through the blood of Christ, and through His death” (Chapter 13). Trypho’s response is important – even if the Dialogue is fictional, it represents what one important church figure thought to be the Jewish position on Isaiah 53. According to Trypho, the Messiah expected by the Jews was a king-savior, not a redeeming suffering servant: “For we [Jews] all expect that Christ will be a man [born] of men, and that Elijah when he comes will anoint him.” (Chapter 49)
Let’s give credit to Justin for honest reporting: the view he ascribed to Trypho is very similar to the majority Jewish opinion I reported in Part 1 of this series. In addition, Justin’s own interpretation of Isaiah 53 should come as no surprise to us: it is the traditional Christian reading, well-supported by Christian scripture. But Justin does bring something new to our discussion: he states that Jews have failed to accept Christian doctrine because Jews fail to understand their own Bible:
I think that … I would persuade even those who are possessed of scanty intelligence. For these words have neither been prepared by me, nor embellished by the art of man; but David sung them, Isaiah preached them, Zechariah proclaimed them, and Moses wrote them. Are you acquainted with them, Trypho? They are contained in your Scriptures, or rather not yours, but ours. For we believe them; but you, though you read them, do not catch the spirit that is in them. (Chapter 29)
We can pass over some of Justin’s invective – he’s probably not the first debater to accuse his opponents of stupidity. More difficult to dismiss are the charges that Jews are not “acquainted” with their own sacred texts … that the Jewish Bible is only properly understood by Christians … and that as a result the Jewish Bible is “not yours, but ours”, forfeited by Jews to Christians.
The Debate In The Middle Ages
The idea that Jews fail to understand their own scriptures was a recurring theme in the well-known Jewish-Christian “disputations” that occurred hundreds of years after Justin’s time, during the Middle Ages. The best known of these disputations took place in Paris in 1240, Barcelona in 1263 and Tortosa in 1413-14. These disputations were not debates like that portrayed by Justin; they were trials, accompanied by persecution of neighboring Jewish communities, where Jewish leaders were ordered to defend Judaism against Christian accusations. The matters debated were not topics of mutual interest, but instead were selected to show that Judaism was illegitimate. For example, in the Paris Disputation Jews were forced to respond to charges that the Talmud contained “blasphemies against the Christian religion”.
The Jewish debaters were placed into what one scholar has called a “classic ‘no win’ situation”: the Jewish participants were forced to debate, but could not state their case without being threatened by the Church with punishment for heresy and (in the case of the Disputation of Tortosa) trial by the Inquisition. Naturally, Jews were reluctant to participate in these disputes. At times, the Jewish debaters refused to speak at all. Once the Church pronounced itself the winner of these Disputations, the results could be devastating. For example, following the Disputation of Paris, 24 cartloads of Jewish sacred books – thousands of volumes in all – were burned on the streets of Paris. Some say that French Judaism never recovered from this catastrophe.
The Christian participants in these Disputations adopted new techniques for making their case against Judaism. Like Justin before them, the Christian debaters (particularly in Barcelona and Tortosa) sought to prove their claims by appealing to Isaiah 53 and other Jewish scriptures. But the Christian debaters went further than this: they also sought to argue that the Talmud (a multi-volume compilation of Jewish law and wisdom) also proved that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. This new argument went past anything attempted by Justin: Christians were now proclaiming a superior ability to interpret texts like the Talmud that are sacred only to Jews. Indeed, when Jewish debaters questioned Christian interpretation of the Talmud, the common Christian response was to accuse the Jews of heresy against Judaism!
The Christians introduced a second critical twist in these Disputations: the Christian side was led in each dispute by former Jews who had become Church officials, and who claimed the ability to prove the truth of Christianity from exclusively Jewish sources. Thus the Jews suffered the additional indignity of having to argue for the legitimacy of Judaism against former Jews who had abandoned the faith and whose supposedly “inside” knowledge of Judaism was respected by the Church over the knowledge of the leading Rabbis of the day.
Can we learn anything new about Isaiah 53 from these proceedings? Not really. From the available evidence, the Christian side followed the same explanation employed by Justin: Isaiah 53 is prophecy concerning Jesus. The position taken by the Jews in these debates was described as follows by the Rabbi who represented Judaism in the Disputation of Barcelona, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (more commonly known as Nahmanides, or the Ramban):
The proper way to understand [Isaiah 53] is that it refers to the whole Jewish people according to the language, ‘Do not fear My servant Jacob’, ‘And He said to me, you are My servant, Israel, through whom I will be glorified,’ and so in many places. However according to the Midrash it is applied to the Messiah. I am forced to explain it according to the words of the books (Midrashim). With total agreement they say that the Messiah the son of David, about whom these words are written, will not be defeated, will not die in the hands of his enemies, and so the writings show this explanation.
It thus appears that the Jewish and Christian debate positions on Isaiah 53 remained pretty much the same between the time of Justin and the time of the Ramban. Only the debate itself changed: it grew more rancorous, more hostile, and (at least on the Jewish side) more perilous.
The Debate Today
Fast forward to today. Of course, Jews now debate Christians in relative safety, and with a freedom of speech that would have been unthinkable in the Middle Ages. But in other respects, nothing has changed. For an example, consider the “Isaiah 53 Campaign”, an ongoing missionary effort by “Chosen People Ministries” to “make the Jewish community more aware of Isaiah 53”. The effort was launched in June, 2010 in the greater New York area, and the campaign reached Los Angeles in March, 2012. The New York portion of the Isaiah 53 Campaign reportedly cost $300,000, but given that (1) this Campaign was the centerpiece effort of the Chosen People Ministries in 2010 and (2) the Chosen People Ministries has an annual budget of around $12 million, it’s likely that the Chosen People Ministries is spending millions of dollars annually to present Jews with their Isaiah 53 message.
The heart of this Campaign is Isaiah 53 Explained, a book that Chosen People Ministries will send free to anyone in their target audience. The Campaign advertises this book using billboards and ads in newspapers, bus shelters, phone kiosks, subway cards and sides of buses. During one week in 2010, Chosen People Ministries promoted the book with 75,000 postcards and 40,000 automated phone calls directed to Jewish homes in New York City. The campaign was backed by teams of paid staff members and volunteers performing “street outreach” and “personal follow-up” with anyone who requested a copy of the book.
The Campaign is couched in the language of one Jew talking to another about the search for “a deeper spirituality” and an “intimate personal relationship with God.” The book claims that its purpose “is not to persuade you to change religions,” but Chosen People Ministries describes a different purpose when it solicits money from committed Christians. There, Chosen People Ministries confirms its “commitment to the evangelical Christian faith” and states that it “exists to evangelize and disciple Jewish people”.
If you put two and two together, it’s obvious that the purpose of the Isaiah 53 Campaign is to convert Jews to Christianity. But the Campaign takes a “soft-sell” approach. At no point does the Campaign state that Jews should become Christians. Instead, the stated goal of the Campaign is to get Jews to read Isaiah 53 “with an open mind”, avoiding the tendency “to prejudge the Bible” and instead to “allow it to speak for itself.” Of course, the Campaign effectively promises that any honest reading of Isaiah 53 will inevitably lead Jews to the understanding that Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah.
Not surprisingly, Jewish counter-missionary groups have pushed back against the Isaiah 53 Campaign, with web sites attacking the Campaign and urging Jews to “discover the truth” about Isaiah 53. According to the Jewish counter-missionaries, Christian missionaries are misrepresenting Isaiah 53 in an attempt to trick Jews into conversion.
Can we learn anything from the present debate about the “true” meaning of Isaiah 53? I don’t think so. The Christian argument and the Jewish response are pretty much those advanced by Justin and Trypho nearly 2,000 years ago. And oddly enough, many of the characteristics of the old “disputations” have continued into the present day. Jews are still being told that they are ignorant of their own scriptures. Christians are still telling Jews the “true” meaning of the Hebrew Bible. Christians are still arguing that when it comes to Isaiah 53, they understand the Jewish Talmud better than the Jews do. The Christian side of the debate is often led by people who were born Jewish but who are now pursuing a Christian agenda. I wonder whether modern Christian missionaries appreciate how faithfully they are imitating the tactics used by their inquisitorial predecessors!
To make matters worse, the Christian debaters have added a new twist to this distasteful business: many Christians now claim that a medieval Jewish Rabbi named Shlomo Yithaki (better known to the world as Rashi) invented the idea that Isaiah 53 refers to the Jewish people as a whole, and that he did so to improve the Jewish position in the ongoing Jewish-Christian debate. According to this claim, nearly all Jews prior to Rashi acknowledged that Isaiah 53 was prophecy concerning a suffering servant Messiah just like Jesus. This claim is important enough that it will take up a large portion of my next post on Isaiah 53. But for the moment we can simply note how the tone of the Christian debaters has grown nastier: not only are Jews still ignorant of their own Bible and incapable of reading it correctly, but Jews also have conspired to hide the truth about Isaiah 53 from the rest of the world.
For our part, we Jews have taken advantage of our freedom to debate Christians on equal terms by engaging in the sort of invective that was prohibited to our medieval forbearers. In truth, not all of this invective is new. But it is nonetheless jarring to read Jewish sources arguing in effect that Jesus was too violent and enigmatic to fit the prophecy of Isaiah 53. I should point out that Jews do not seek to convert Christians to Judaism, so at least the Jewish counter-missionary invective is aimed only at Jews. Nevertheless, for a Jew like me who argues for the value of a respectful Jewish-Christian dialog, the tone adopted by some Jewish counter-missionaries strikes me as unfortunate and counter-productive.
The True Meaning of Isaiah 53
Within the walls of church and synagogue, the words of Isaiah 53 continue to carry sacred prophecy. But in the space where Judaism intersects Christianity, no such sacred meaning is present; all we have is a never-ending argument, a battleground where each side fights from positions entrenched more than a millennium ago. In a better world, Isaiah 53 would be treasured by Jews and Christians as a potential bridge between two faiths, an invitation to interfaith dialog and mutual understanding – a kind of Rosetta Stone each might use to understand the other. Instead, Isaiah 53 stands as a monument to acrimony, suspicion and everything else that’s wrong with the Jewish-Christian relationship, and as a reminder (one that is particularly painful to the Jewish side) of the historic connection between the Christian effort to evangelize and to persecute the Jewish people.
From an interfaith perspective, the true meaning of Isaiah 53 has nothing to do with the right understanding of a prophesized suffering servant. The true interfaith meaning of Isaiah 53 is interfaith misunderstanding and mistrust. As we’ve seen with the Isaiah 53 Campaign, Isaiah 53 continues to carry with it the Christian accusation that most Jews cannot be trusted to explain or even understand their own texts, and the Jewish accusation that Jews cannot trust the explanation of Isaiah 53 proffered by Christians.
As much as I like dialog … and as much as I like winning debates … I think we should realize that the Isaiah 53 debate is getting us nowhere. I believe that Jews and Christians should talk to each other. But surely after 2,000 years of Isaiah 53 mishegoss, we can find something else to talk about
With this said … we are finally ready to tackle Boyarin’s discussion of Isaiah 53. Stay tuned for part 3 of this series.
H/T to Stephanie Hammer for helping me organize my thoughts on this topic.
 Admittedly, after being pressed by Justin, Trypho does state that “Scriptures announce that Christ had to suffer.” See Chapter 89. We might read this as confirmation of the minority opinion I reported earlier, that some Jewish sources describe the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 as a messianic figure. But Trypho refuses to admit that this suffering servant-Messiah could possibly die (or have died) on the cross. Indeed, I can find nothing in the dialogue to indicate that Trypho thought the Messiah would die in the course of his suffering. Also, there’s nothing in Trypho’s admission that contradicts his earlier statement that the Messiah would be a king anointed by Elijah – it is possible for a king to suffer, or for the Messiah to have suffered before becoming king. For further evidence of the majority Jewish opinion on Isaiah 53, we have the following report of the third century Christian scholar Origen of Alexandria in his work Contra Celsus: “Now I remember that, on one occasion, at a disputation held with certain Jews, who were reckoned wise men, I quoted these prophecies [in Isaiah 53]; 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.”
 This is not to say that the Jewish view of Isaiah 53 remained unchanged over the centuries. In particular, Judaism has changed as it has reacted and responded to different historical circumstances, as well as the cultures and practices of other peoples. In his article The Development of a Jewish Exegetical Tradition Regarding Isaiah 53, Joel Rembaum argues that Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53 has been influenced by the traditional Christian interpretation. According to Rembaum, this Christian influence resulted in Jews being more willing to view the suffering of the Suffering Servant as vicarious in nature, that Israel was being punished in the diaspora (1) for its own sins, as “satisfaction to God” in order to merit a future reward, and (2) to atone for the sins of all of humanity. Rembaum acknowledges a “shift in the emphasis of Jewish interpretation” of Isaiah 53, away from the notion that the Suffering Servant is an individual and towards the idea that the servant is the nation of Israel. But to Rembaum, this “shift” was largely a matter of medieval Jews affirming their covenantal relationship with God, in response to Christian attacks on the legitimacy of Judaism as a whole.