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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
 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.