Boyarin, Isaiah 53 and Interfaith Dialog Done Badly (Part 3 – Boyarin)

This is the third and final post in my series on Isaiah 53. In part 1 of this series, I compared the Christian and Jewish interpretations of this verse: Christians view Isaiah 53 as prophecy concerning Jesus Christ, and Jews hold multiple views, with the predominant view being that Isaiah 53 is prophecy concerning the people of Israel. In part 2 I examined the clash between Christian missionaries and Jewish counter-missionaries over the correct interpretation of Isaiah 53. With this background in place, I can finally turn to what Daniel Boyarin has to say about Isaiah 53 in his book The Jewish Gospels.

Boyarin sets forth his purpose from the outset: he wants to overthrow the commonly accepted notion that Jews were not expecting a Messiah like Jesus. It is often stated that, during the time of Jesus, Jews were looking for (or at least hoping for) a Messiah-king that would restore Israel’s independence and usher in a time of justice and peace. Obviously, Jesus did not fit this conventional description. So according to many scholars, Jesus’ earliest followers explained Jesus’ messiahship by developing a new idea, one never before imagined by the Jews of that time:  that the Messiah was supposed to suffer and die to redeem humans from sin.

It is the idea of suffering messiah as Christian invention that Boyarin wants to challenge, and I think he is right to do so. Current scholarship emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus and his followers, and it makes equal sense to investigate the Jewishness of their ideas and emerging doctrines. Moreover, it’s not as if Jews all held to a single common belief concerning their anticipated Messiah. While most first century Jews may have expected the Messiah to be a great king, this view was not held unanimously. Some Jews may have expected the Messiah to be a Moses-like prophet. The Jewish community at Qumran, the group that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, may have expected two messiahs, a king-Messiah and a priest Messiah. It is possible that some Jews in the first century were not expecting a Messiah of any type. Given the diversity of first century Judaism, it seems worthwhile to consider the Jewishness of the early Christian conception of the Messiah.

Boyarin’s consideration of this question is characteristically radical. For Boyarin, it is not enough to argue that there’s something Jewish in the idea of a suffering Messiah. No, Boyarin claims instead that this idea is thoroughly Jewish, “current” among Jews during Jesus’ day and “entrenched” in Judaism even before Jesus was born.

How can Boyarin prove the Jewishness of the suffering Messiah, when (as he admits) “there is precious little pre-Christian evidence among Jews for the suffering of the Messiah”? Boyarin marshals two arguments to make his case.

His first argument is that the Gospels “use perfectly traditional [Jewish] midrashic ways of reasoning” to develop the idea of a suffering Messiah. Here, Boyarin refers to midrash, which broadly speaking is a Jewish way to read scripture that looks past the plain meaning of the text in an effort to find a deeper or hidden meaning. (“Midrash” can also refer to a book containing midrashic readings, or a midrashic interpretation of a particular verse.)

The techniques used in midrash are varied and complicated. One such technique is to read two pieces of sacred text together – for example, Boyarin argues in his book Border Lines that the prologue to the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) is midrash combining Genesis 1 (“In the beginning …”) and Proverbs 8:22-31 (where Wisdom says that she was with God before the Earth was created). In similar fashion, Boyarin argues in The Jewish Gospels that the Gospel authors (for example, the author of Mark 8:38 and Mark 14:62) employ Jewish midrash by combining Daniel 7’s Son of Man and Isaiah 53’s suffering servant to produce a Christ that is both divine and suffering.

But Boyarin’s argument here misses the point he set out to make. Everyone – even those who argue that Christians invented the idea of a suffering Messiah – agree that this idea is based on Jewish texts like Daniel 7 and Isaiah 53. The question is not whether Christians relied upon these Jewish texts, but whether this understanding is itself a Jewish one. To prove his point, Boyarin must show something more than that the Gospel authors interpreted Old Testament texts in combination – Jews hold no monopoly on this practice. Moreover, even if Boyarin could prove that Mark used Jewish techniques of interpretation, this would not mean that Mark’s result was Jewish. I may have cooked last night’s dinner in a wok, but that doesn’t make the result Chinese!

Boyarin’s second argument is more direct: he claims that the idea of a suffering Messiah was “perfectly Orthodox” during Jesus’ lifetime and beyond, and that “the Suffering Messiah is part and parcel of Jewish tradition from antiquity to modernity.” Unfortunately, Boyarin makes a mess of this argument. Because Boyarin’s argument runs counter to those I’ve made in my earlier posts, I will give this matter a close analysis. (Luckily, since Boyarin takes only 4 pages to make this argument, my analysis need not take too long!)

Boyarin makes six points to support his argument that Jews read Isaiah 53 as prophecy of a suffering Messiah:

  1. Boyarin cites Palestinian Talmud interpretation of the biblical passage “the land shall mourn” as referring to “the mourning over the Messiah.” But this interpretation says nothing more than that the Messiah will be mourned after he dies. There’s no indication here that the Messiah will suffer, and there’s no connection here between the Messiah and Daniel 7 or Isaiah 53.
  2. Boyarin cites Sanhedrin 98b in the Babylonian Talmud, where a group of rabbis discuss what the Messiah would be named. One name proposed is “the leper scholar”; following this proposal, the Talmud text quotes Isaiah 53:4 as support. As I previously acknowledged, Sanhedrin 98b does link the Jewish Messiah to Isaiah 53, but it is not proof that “many or most Jews” read Isaiah 53 as referring to the Messiah. I’ll take up this argument below, but first I want to address Boyarin’s other points.
  3. Boyarin cites Rabbi Yose Hagelili to state that “the King Messiah fasts and suffers for the sinners, as it says, ‘and he is made sick for our sins etc.’” Yose Hagelili (Jose the Galilean) was an important rabbi from the 1st or 2nd century whose words are recorded in the Talmud. But Boyarin’s quote here is not from the Talmud – it is from a book written by a 13th Century Dominican friar. In a footnote, Boyarin admits that “one must question whether this is a real rabbinic text.”
  4. Boyarin cites the Karaite Yefet ben Ali as understanding that Isaiah 53 refers to the Messiah. It should be noted that Karaites are heterodox Jews, far outside the Jewish mainstream – one would not normally cite the opinion of a Karaite to prove what Jews think in general. Moreover, Yefet ben Ali lived roughly 900 years after Jesus died.
  5. Boyarin cites Rabbi Moshe Alshekh to state that “our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm that [Isaiah] is speaking of the King Messiah, and we ourselves also adhere to the same view.” Rabbi Alshekh lived in the 16th century, 1,500 years after Jesus died. His statement is literally false, as many Rabbis before the 16th century (in particular, Rashi) believed that Isaiah 53 refers to Israel and not to a single person.
  6. Boyarin cites Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (also known as the Ramban) to “concede” that Isaiah 53 is entirely about the Messiah, though Boyarin notes that the Ramban dissented from this opinion. The Ramban is one of the most important Rabbis of medieval Judaism, and while he lived 1,200 years after the death of Jesus, Jews give great weight to any opinion expressed by the Ramban. But Boyarin has distorted the Ramban’s view of Isaiah 53. If you’ve read my prior posts, you know that the Ramban represented the Jewish side in the famous Barcelona Disputation. In this disputation, the Ramban argued that the “truthful meaning” of Isaiah 53 is that it refers to the Jewish people in general, and not to a suffering Messiah. The Ramban conceded the existence of Jewish midrash (such as that found in Sanhedrin 98) connecting the Messiah to Isaiah 53’s suffering servant, but he argued that such midrash was not authoritative.[1]

Let’s return to a closer examination of point (2) above, where Boyarin points to the “scholar leper” described in Sanhedrin 98. Sanhedrin 98 is part of the Babylonian Talmud, a work written roughly 500 years after Jesus’ death – this is not much proof for what Jews thought during Jesus’ lifetime.  Moreover, there’s no inconsistency between Sanhedrin 98 and the belief that the Messiah would be a great king. As Boyarin himself noted, Jose the Galilean and Moshe Alshekh both describe the suffering servant as “King Messiah”. Indeed, Sanhedrin 98a describes the Messiah as “sitting among the poor lepers” but ready at a moment’s notice to leave the lepers behind and take up his messianic mission. A leper can be king. It has happened before.

When one examines the Talmud and other similar sources, what’s striking is not how Isaiah 53 is interpreted, but how little this passage is discussed. The Talmud’s “meager treatment” of Isaiah 53 should make us that much more reluctant to use Sanhedrin 98 to understand how the Jews of Jesus’ day read Isaiah 53. This is particularly the case, given that we have direct evidence (such as the third century report of the Church father Origen) that Jews near the time of Jesus interpreted Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel. For further evidence, we have the history of the Simon Bar Kokhba, the military and political leader of the Jewish revolt against Rome in the early second century. For a short time, many (if not most) Palestinian Jews regarded Bar Kokhba as the Messiah – and whatever else one might say about Bar Kochba, he did not resemble a suffering servant!

So, I think Boyarin has failed to make his case. Nevertheless, I persist in my admiration of Boyarin. Perhaps I like the way Boyarin instinctively pokes his thumb in the eye of religious orthodoxy. More likely, I’m charmed by his attraction to unpopular (indeed, impossible) arguments.

Perhaps it’s up to me to state Boyarin’s case in a way that’s less extreme and better supported by the available evidence. In all likelihood, the conventional scholars are right and the notion of a suffering Messiah is largely the invention of early Christians. But to be sure, this invention was based on Jewish ideas, including (of course) the Jewish idea that a Jewish Messiah is coming to the Jewish people. Moreover, the idea of a suffering Messiah could not have been completely foreign to early Judaism – it was at least Jewish enough to be understood (and even embraced) by the relatively small number of Jews who followed Jesus and joined the early Christian movement.  Perhaps we can see the suffering Messiah as an idea nascent in Jewish texts, if not fully realized (or even recognized) there. Upon the emergence of a Jewish sect whose Messiah had already come, this nascent idea came to the forefront to help shape the beliefs of early Christianity.

How to sum up this series on Isaiah 53?  Boyarin favorably cites the work of Martin Hengel, who wrote that the expectation of a suffering Messiah could have existed “at the margins” of first century Judaism, as a secondary motif. Let’s amend this idea only slightly, and say that Isaiah 53 contains two motifs, one of a suffering servant Messiah and the other of a suffering servant nation of Israel. We can leave it to others to argue which motif is primary and which is secondary. In our interfaith dialog, we need only understand that both motifs exist, and that one motif does not preclude the other. Perhaps we’ll never get past the argument that one motif is right and the other wrong, even though the argument has gotten completely out of hand and is leading us nowhere. But I think the right reading of Isaiah 53 is not the one that wins the argument, but the one that finally puts the argument to an end.


[1] Not all of the midrash in the Talmud can be literally true. For example (and this came up in the Barcelona Disputation), there’s a passage in the Talmud stating that the Messiah was born on the day of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., roughly 40 years after the death of Jesus. Whatever figurative or poetic meaning one might find in this Midrash, Jews do not think that this Midrash literally identifies the Messiah’s birthday.

  • Stephaniebarbe Hammer

    Another wonderful post. Isaiah is so complex. I’ll have to reread it.

  • AJ

    Thanks for this analysis of Boyarin’s argument. I haven’t studied Isaiah carefully and wouldn’t try to offer any opinion as to who or what is the subject of discussion – a messiah, Israel, or anything else.

    I would just say that I’m seeing (at least) three goals/orientations in approaching this material: 1) to justify/fortify a belief system, 2) to analyze it academically for its own sake, and 3) to look for ways to make peace, largely in reaction to problems resulting from #1. I think #3 is a great thing, probably the most important approach to put our efforts into at this time, and a niche that you can help to fill which is sorely needed.

    At the same time I’d be careful not to negate approach #2 as necessarily supporting an endless cycle of polemics. With all the social, political and religious “noise” out there surrounding Isaiah 53 and other texts, I appreciate there being a limited corner of the world which (at least in theory) tries to put all that aside in order to focus on and understand the original meaning of the text.

    It may be that the author of Isaiah wrote chapters 52-53 with multiple motifs in mind, or it could be not. To make that determination one would have to know more about this author, learn from other passages in the work, analyze the language, study the historical context, know whether it was a writing/storytelling/poetic technique used at the time, etc. The same goes for determining the actual motif under discussion. But one can still hold that and try to promote a two-motif interpretation as being beneficial for bringing people together. These approaches aren’t mutually exclusive!

    So if I could make a suggestion, I would say that perhaps part of the work of #3, of facilitating peace, is to articulate the various approaches we can take to the text, and to help people appreciate that each approach has value, each has a place.

    • lbehrendt

      AJ, funny you should mention it. Boyarin’s analysis of Isaiah 53 contained a strong polemic element, one I struggled with and ultimately decided not to highlight. For example, Boyarin’s Isaiah 53 analysis contained the following:

      “”This commonplace view [that Isaiah 53 was distorted by the Christians from its allegedly original meaning, in which it referred to the suffering of the People of Israel] has to be rejected completely. The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent, and it remained current among Jews well into the future following that–indeed, well into the early modern period. The fascinating (and to some, no doubt, uncomfortable) fact is that this tradition was well documented by modern Messianic Jews, who are concerned to demonstrate that their belief in Jesus does not make them un-Jewish. Whether or not one accepts their theology, it remains the case that they have a very strong textual base for the view that the suffering Messiah is based in deeply rooted Jewish texts early and late. Jews, it seems, had no difficulty whatever with understanding a Messiah who would vicariously suffer to redeem the world.” [emphasis added]

      Not surprisingly, Boyarin is now being cited as authority on a number of Messianic Jewish web sites. For the record: if Boyarin feels some sympathy for modern Messianic Jews, well … so do I. But it would be difficult for read the above quote and conclude that Boyarin was seeking to rise above the cycle of Isaiah 53 polemic.

      But you are raising a broader and more important question than the one posed specifically by Boyarin’s Isaiah 53 analysis. You are positing three perspectives one might bring to this material, which we might refer to in shorthand as faith-based, objective-academic and interfaith-ecumenical. We would normally assume that the first and last of these perspectives would look to Isaiah 53 with an end in mind, while the second perspective would seek to understand Isaiah 53 objectively, (as you put it) for its own sake.

      How would one go about analyzing Isaiah 53 objectively? Should any such analysis at least mention the polemic history of the text? I would argue that this is a must. We live in the age of post-modernity, where any claim to objectivity is suspect. While I believe that objectivity is worth striving for (I’m not so post-modern as to believe that objectivity is completely impossible), I don’t think we should take anyone’s claim to objectivity at face value.

      But there’s something else going on. I think that scholars must recognize how their work will be used. Imagine that I’m a scholar who has written an objective study of demographic and population patters in Palestine-Israel over the past 200 years. As you may know, such studies are used today on both sides of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Should I simply publish the study without regard to the possible effect on the conflict? Does my being a scholar shield me from responsibility for any consequences arising from my work?

      It would be great to resolve the Isaiah 53 polemic by getting back to the original meaning of the text … but with a text like Isaiah 53, this is maddeningly difficult to do. Are we to consider the original author of this text to be the prophet Isaiah? If so, then we’d need to perform a “quest for the historic Isaiah”, to consider which words in the text are authentic Isaiah quotes and which were modified or added later on. Are we to consider the work of scholars claiming that the book of Isaiah is really three books, with Isaiah 53 written by an unknown author perhaps 150 years after Isaiah’s death? It’s an open question whether Isaiah has an original meaning, or whether the text in our Bibles represents layers upon layers of interpretation, not to mention editing, by subsequent scribes, redactors and canonizers.

      I plan to discuss this general question in more detail. For now, I’ll say quickly that it IS important to understand as best we can the original meaning of a sacred text. But the process of determining this meaning is, by necessity, creative. It cannot be done objectively, the way that (say) a subatomic particle can be discovered and analyzed objectively. We simply do not know enough about the author(s) of these works or the time(s) when these works were created to understand these works the way they would have been understood at the time(s) of their creation. Given the unavoidable creative element in this endeavor, we cannot avoid personal responsibility for how we interpret biblical texts, and for the consequences that flow from our interpretations.

      Great comments, AJ.

      • AJ

        And a great response. So I hear you saying a number of things about objectivity: 1) Bias invariably creeps in. 2) It’s at least as much an art as it is a science. 3) It’s not always a good thing – i.e. we have to be responsible about what we say/publish. I agree. Still I think it’s a noble thing to strive for where possible, both for the purpose of advance in the field and also because I’d say it’s a healthy thing to practice being open and curious rather than always trying to advocate for a position.

        • lbehrendt

          AJ, I think we agree on the pieces to this puzzle, but we may not be assembling them in the same way.

          I start with the extreme difficulty of discerning the original intent of any piece of sacred text. This task is hard enough when we look at New Testament materials, such as the epistles of the Apostle Paul, where we can at least imagine what the original might have looked like, even if we’re not sure how the text in our possession may differ from the original. The task gets that much more difficult with a text like Isaiah, when we might not even agree on the basic outlines of the original – is the “original” things Isaiah said, or an oral tradition that grew out of what Isaiah said, or things that Isaiah wrote down, or the first composition (by whatever hand or hands) of a “book” of Isaiah, or the form of that book as it existed when it was first “published” for circulation, or the form of the book as it existed when it was first included in the canon of the Tanakh? To add to the problem, we have all of the difficulties associated with understanding the context of the original text – even if we assume that the text of Isaiah is from the historic Isaiah, we don’t know that much about the 8th century BCE context in which Isaiah purportedly lived. Add to this the problem of translating Biblical Hebrew, a language that hasn’t been anyone’s daily language for over 2,000 years.

          We can then layer in all of the problems that come with the kind of interpretation we do to make a text meaningful to us in our day. This is not so much a question of “bias” as it is of “relevance”. We want our religious texts to speak to our issues and concerns. It would be a significant achievement if we could understand the message Isaiah gave to King Ahaz of Judah around 720 BCE … but what we want to know is whether Isaiah is present-day proof that Jesus of Nazareth is the Jewish messiah. In the simple but profound terms used by the great theologian Krister Stendahl, we focus on what a text means instead of on what it meant, and worse, we confuse the two, assuming that what we think a text means is also what the text meant.

          Compounding all of our problems is that we are heirs to a legacy of biblical interpretation. For us, the book of Isaiah is not just the thoughts or writings of the prophet Isaiah, but the gloss and edits of over 2,000 years of redactors, scribes, canonizers, commentators and sages. To an extent, it’s impossible to separate the original intent of Isaiah from the thoughts of those that followed him. Worse, these commentators approached Isaiah with the concerns and issues of their own present-day.

          In my view, the ideal is that described by Stendahl, and I WILL discuss this ideal in upcoming posts. But I think the place to start IS with the original intent of the text, notwithstanding the difficulties of doing so – in fact, these difficulties must be acknowledged frankly, not just at the outset but as an integral part of the conclusions reached. We should KNOW if we’re not certain what the text “meant”, and we should understand where we think we confidently understand the text’s original intent and where we’re forced to speculate in order to present a complete picture of the text.

          But we must then undertake a second project, which is to understand what the text “means” in the present day. Stendahl would say that what the text meant is never the same as what the text means, no matter HOW confident we may be that we know what the text meant. Any effort to understand what the text “means” necessarily requires us to apply the text to a different historical and social context than the one that existed for the original author. It is in this sense that interpretation becomes “creative”, in my words.

          Stendahl’s distinction between what a text “meant” and what it “means” has two important consequences. One is that sacred texts lose some of their authority. Even if one imagines that God is the author of our sacred texts, God’s authority is limited to what the text “meant”. The authority of these texts to regulate present-day human activity is only the authority of those who supplied the creative element necessary to determine what the text “means”. We must avoid the “Biblical imperialism” that results from human beings imparting Godly authority onto their own creation of what a text “means”. A second related consequence is that we – not God, or Torah, or any other source we might believe to be divinely revealed truth — are morally responsible for our creation of what a text “means”.

          • AJ

            “Meant” and “means” is another useful way to frame the discussion. About the two consequences you mentioned, a common religious Jewish response to the first is that a text which is Divinely inspired is meant for all times, so that in essence God is capable of speaking to every generation through a single piece of text. In other words, it can “mean” something different for a later generation and yet still maintain its authority.

            As far as the “we” who gets to interpret what it means (again from a mainstream religious Jewish perspective), while there is always allowance for people involved in Torah to make a “drash” for inspirational purposes (e.g. speaking about the census as “everyone counts”), generally in order to be deemed a “true” interpretation it needs to thought of as representing the Oral Tradition, a teaching which was preordained at Sinai (as in Moses getting a preview of Rabbi Akiva interpreting the crowns on the letters). Some would say that the process of interpretation is thus not so much a “moral responsibility” as it is a function of maintaining authenticity, faithfully passing down the tradition, wherein the Talmudic and Medieval Torah sages are the primary torchbearers. In my experience it’s only in more liberal communities where interpretation is truly seen as a “living”, evolving process, guided by things like moral responsibility.

            In any case, I look forward to future posts!

            • lbehrendt

              AJ, I think what you’re describing above would fall into your original category 1): reading text to justify/fortify a belief system. In this case, the belief system is that certain special texts miraculously transmit the author’s intended meaning to the reader. I do not personally hold to this belief system, though I respect those who do. However, we need to consider what happens when different communities — each believing that their sacred scripture contains this miraculous quality — nevertheless read this scripture in different ways. When these two communities engage in dialog, they must resort to other techniques to explore the meaning of their sacred text.

  • Susan Browne


    You and Mr. Boyarin do a fine job of complicating what seem to this Christian girl not a very complicated issue.

    When you take human nature. It would be natural for the Jewish Holy men to believe that the Messiah was to be a Ruling King. Who wouldn’t prefer those prophesies? Christians believe the same thing. No disagreement there.

    One might ask that since Isaiah refers specifically to a man and NOT the nation why does anyone assume the nation was meant? Is that a common practice of the Tanach to substitute an individual for the nation? It is not my recollection that it is.

    However, I have come to see that it was for both … the man and the nation. Consider the difference in the problems the Jewish people had with the other nations before the diasporia. They went from being a nation who had to fight other nations for their survival, which was common to all peoples, but after the disaporia they literally were hunted down in every nation on earth and persecuted without cause. I think a good case can be made were the suffering nation, sacrificing for the sins of the world as I believe Jesus, the Son of God became the ‘suffering servant’ to take away the sins of the world.


    The word translated Messiah only appears 2 times in the Tanach. The one reference in Daniel 9 to the Messiah being cut off (from the land of the living) after the city is invaded and the Temple taken down which is exactly what happened after Jesus left.

    The second reference goes back to the earlier prophesies of Daniel dealing with the coming of the Messiah King at the end of the age.

    The case for Jesus being the Messiah seems to me to be much clearer.

    Jesus’ life and death fulfilled over 60 prophesies in the Tanach with over 300 references. Some are listed below. The statistical probability that one man could have fulfilled all these prophesies by accident are impossible to calculate … something like 1 in a billion.

    “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting. ” (Micah 5:2)

    “Then he said, ‘Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.’ ” (Isaiah 7:13-14)

    “Thus says the Lord: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.’ ” (Jeremiah 31:15)

    “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son. ” (Hosea 11:1)

    “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low. The crooked places shall be made straight and the rough places smooth;'” (Isaiah 40:3-4)

    “I will declare the decree: the Lord has said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You.'” (Psalm 2:7)

    “Nevertheless the gloom will not be upon her who is distressed, as when at first He lightly esteemed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward more heavily oppressed her, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, in Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined. ” (Isaiah 9:1-2)

    “Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’ ” (Matthew 4:12-16)

    “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound. To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Isaiah 61:1-2)

    “And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’ . . . And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’ ” (Luke 4:17-19, 21)

    “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.’ . . . The Lord has sworn and will not relent, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.'” (Psalm 110:1,4)

    “So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You.’ As He also says in another place: ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek'” (Hebrews 5:5-6)

    “Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. ” (Isaiah 53:1-3)

    “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. ” (John 1:11)

    “But although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him, that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke: ‘Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ Therefore they could not believe, because Isaiah said again: ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, lest they should see with their eyes, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.'” (John 12:37-40)

    “Let them not rejoice over me who are wrongfully my enemies, nor let them wink with the eye who hate me without a cause. ” (Psalm 35:19)

    “He who hates Me hates My Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would have no sin; but now they have seen and also hated both Me and My Father. But this happened that the word might be fulfilled which is written in their law, ‘They hated Me without a cause.'” (John 15:23-25)

    “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you. He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)

    “Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it. And many spread their clothes on the road, and others cut down leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then those who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!'” (Mark 11:7-11)

    “Even my own familiar friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” (Psalm 41:9)

    “Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you? . . . ‘ ” (Matthew 26:14-15)

    “‘I do not speak concerning all of you. I know whom I have chosen; but that the Scripture may be fulfilled, “He who eats bread with Me has lifted up his heel against Me.”‘ ” (John 13:18)

    “Then I said to them, “If it is agreeable to you, give me my wages; and if not, refrain.” So they weighed out for my wages thirty pieces of silver.” (Zechariah 11:12)

    “Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?’ And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver. ” (Matthew 26:14-15)

    “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7)

    “And the chief priests accused Him of many things, but He answered nothing. Then Pilate asked Him again, saying, “Do You answer nothing? See how many things they testify against You!” But Jesus still answered nothing, so that Pilate marveled.” (Mark 15:3-5)

    “I gave My back to those who struck Me, and My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard. I did not hide My face from shame and spitting.” (Isaiah 50:6)

    “For dogs have surrounded Me. The congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet. I can count all My bones. They look and stare at Me. ” (Psalm 22:16-17)

    “Just as many were astonished at you, so His visage was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men;” (Isaiah 52:14)

    ” . . . When they had twisted a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand. And they bowed the knee before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Then they spat on Him, and took the reed and struck Him on the head.” (Matthew 27:29-30)

    “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed . . .

    “Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him. He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand. He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:4-5, 10-11)

    “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and My tongue clings to My jaws. You have brought Me to the dust of death. For dogs have surrounded Me. The congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet;” (Psalm 22:15-16)

    “But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. ” (John 19:33-35)

    “Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong, because He poured out His soul unto death, and He was numbered with the transgressors. And He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:12)

    “All those who see Me ridicule Me. They shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, “He trusted in the Lord, let Him rescue Him, let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!”” (Psalm 22:7-8)

    “I also have become a reproach to them. When they look at me, they shake their heads.” (Psalm 109:25)

    “All those who see Me ridicule Me. They shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, “He trusted in the Lord, let Him rescue Him, let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!”” (Psalm 22:7-8)

    “And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ ” (Matthew 27:39-40)

    “They divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots.” (Psalm 22:18)

    “Then they crucified Him, and divided His garments, casting lots, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet: ‘They divided My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots.'” (Matthew 27:35)

    “My heart pants, my strength fails me. As for the light of my eyes, it also has gone from me. My loved ones and my friends stand aloof from my plague, and my relatives stand afar off.” (Psalm 38:10-11)

    “And the whole crowd who came together to that sight, seeing what had been done, beat their breasts and returned. But all His acquaintances, and the women who followed Him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things. ” (Luke 23:48-49)

    My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, and from the words of My groaning? O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear, and in the night season, and am not silent.” (Psalm 22:1-2)

    “Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “ELI ELI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?” that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?'” (Matthew 27:45-46)

    “They also gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” (Psalm 69:21)

    “And when they had come to a place called Golgotha, that is to say, Place of a Skull, they gave Him sour wine mingled with gall to drink. But when He had tasted it, He would not drink.” (Matthew 27:33-34)

    “And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication, then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn. ” (Zechariah 12:10)

    “But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe. ” (John 19:34-35)

    “Into Your hand I commit my spirit. You have redeemed me, O Lord God of truth.” (Psalm 31:5)

    “And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, “Father, ‘into Your hands I commit My spirit.'” Having said this, He breathed His last. ” (Luke 23:46)

    “And after the sixty-two weeks Messiah shall be cut off, but not for Himself . . . ” (Daniel 9:26)

    “He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living. For the transgressions of My people He was stricken. And they made His grave with the wicked — but with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth.” (Isaiah 53:8-9)

    “Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices. My flesh also will rest in hope. For You will not leave my soul in Sheol (the grave) nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.” (Psalm 16:9)



    • lbehrendt

      Susan, I got a chuckle out of what you said about complicating things. You might be right, but few things in Jewish-Christian dialog are simple. If you want a simple truth, it’s that Jews and Christians only appear to share the Tanach (Old Testament) in common. We read these books in different languages, in different orders, using different translations, and we read through the lenses of different traditions. We COULD keep things as simple as that. Where things get complicated is when someone insists that one tradition’s reading is right and the other is wrong.

      I’m not sure where you get the idea that the word translated as messiah (Moshiach) only appears twice in Tanach. “Moshiach” means anointed, or anointed one. It is a word used in Tanach to describe priests and kings, who were traditionally anointed with holy oil. Even non-Jews, such as Cyrus the Great of Persia, were described in Tanach as God’s “Moshiach” (Isaiah 45:1). According to Strong’s online Bible concordance, the word appears 39 times in Tanach. But if what you mean is that the King James Version of the Bible only contains two instances where “Moshiach” is translated as “Messiah”, I think you’re right. Both of the instances I found are in Daniel 9 (9:25 and 9:26). Interestingly, other English Bibles do not translate “Moshiach” as “Messiah” in Daniel 9 (see, for example, the NRSV, the NIV, the New Living Translation, the English Standard Version, and the American Standard Version).

      As for whether Isaiah 53 refers to a man or to a nation … if you read this chapter in full context, beginning (say) with Isaiah 52, it is clear that the context begins by referring to the suffering of a group: Zion, Jerusalem and God’s “people”. Isaiah 52:12 says that this group “shall not go out in haste”, for “the LORD will go before you.” Isaiah 52:13 then refers back to Isaiah 52:12 as proof that God’s servant will do well – “See, my servant shall prosper”. It is logical to assume that the servant in 52:13 is that referred to earlier in Isaiah 52, namely, the people of Israel. While it is possible that Isaiah switches meaning at 52:13, to refer to a single person and not the nation of Israel, there’s no obvious reason for such a switch, nor is there an obvious demarcation in the text where the switch occurs.

      If you look elsewhere in Isaiah, you’ll find that Israel is commonly referred to as God’s servant. See, for example, 41:8 and 49:3. You can find similar references elsewhere, such as Jeremiah 30:10 and Psalms 136:22. So, we should not be surprised to see Israel referred to as a single person-servant.

      In the final analysis, I think that you and I can both have our respective readings of Isaiah 53. I know that your Bible includes Acts 8:32-35, which provides a definitive Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53. I have no intent to talk you out of your reading of Isaiah, and I think it’s a good Christian reading to see the servant in Isaiah 53 as both Jesus and Israel. See, for example, Roger Olson’s discussion here.

      Finally, I understand that Christians see Jesus as fulfilling prophecies in Tanach. Obviously, Jews (that is, Jews who are not Christians) disagree. I’m not sure that either one of us wants to walk through each and every one of these prophecies and explore the Jewish-Christian difference of opinion. In any event, I want to address other comments you’ve made in other places here.

      Thank you so much for your honest and thoughtful communication.

  • Susan Browne


    You are right, of course, the term for Mashiyach means annointed, and that term is all over the OT (I am going to quit being politically correct … I call it the OT and get confused with all these other terms). In the King James Bible, the Hebrew word Mashiyach is only translated Messiah in Daniel 9. Isn’t that interesting?

    I love these discussions, but am supposed to get ready to move next Friday. The only good thing about that is that it is on a Thoroghbred horse farm with 20 horses that I don’t have to take care of … in Lexington we call them pasture ornaments. So responding to your great blog will be put on hold for a while.

    Regarding the simplicity …

    How can anyone get confused about God’s program. It is so simple … he took a group of people (nation) and cut them out from the herd to bred for the highest and best example of the species. Then these people spread all over the world and became a living testamony to the power of God. They became the obvious, so obvious, someone has to turn themselves inside out like a pretzel to get confused, brightest and the best: The most tenacious and gifted peoples (nation) in the world surviving against all odds in a hostile world.

    Then, he raised one of this group to be the most outstanding example of what he was looking for in a man. His people largely rejected him … but the rest of the world, who never understood God in the first place fell in love with him and took him in as their own.

    So God resurrected two birds with one stone. His people got to know him face to face as he had been with them for centuries. The rest got to know the man God loved the most. Therefore, the entire world got a chance to know the creator of the universe, and to chose which system they would follow; the system of hope, faith and love married to knowledge, wisdom and understanding or the world system of dog eat dog and the survival of the fittest.

    As much as I appreciate the fantastic labyrinth of detail that God has set up about himself to titilate the minds of the intellectually gifted. The facts of the matter are that God is so vast that no mind of man will ever be able to come to a point of complete knowledge … but so simple that a small child or someone mentally slow can get it immediately.

    I guess, to me all I can say about that is “Isn’t God wonderful?”



  • Keith Mccarty

    The description of the Jewish people as “My servant” ends a chapter and the new chapter describing “My righteous servant” leading into Isaiah 53 begins.

    The man described is G-d’s anointed king upon whom the spirit of G-d and the person of the spirit of the Holy G-d alights upon in Isaiah 11 and he is the teacher of righteousness who is Elijah.

    Elijah arrives with the angel of the covenant of sin forgiveness and reconciles the sons to the fathers and the fathers to the sons through the teachings of the L-rd given to Moses at Horeb.

    Jews For Judaism: Isaiah 53 Verse by Verse; with Commentary by G-d’s Righteous Servant of Isaiah 53 the Teacher of Righteousness Keith Ellis McCarty, Priest of the G-d of Israel