The “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 (1)

Isaiah 53 in the “Great Isaiah Scroll” from Qumran (Dead Sea scrolls)

Isaiah 53, also called Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song, is one of the best known chapters in the Book of Isaiah. It describes God’s suffering servant. For Jews it is a metaphor for the nation of Israel which has been frequently and repeatedly persecuted and oppressed. For Christians it is a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus. In this post I want to take another look at how the New Testament makes use of the Hebrew Bible (‘Old Testament’), with specific reference to this chapter in Isaiah. In my next post I will look at Isaiah 53 in the context of the book of Isaiah, and will ask the questions “who wrote it?” and “why?” Finally I will look at various interpretations of the “suffering servant”.

Isaiah 53 is frequently quoted by Christians to show how the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind was predicted by the prophet. The New Testament quotes various parts of this chapter in the following ways:

  1. According to Luke 22:37, Jesus himself quoted from Isaiah 53:12 to say that he would be “counted among the lawless”: 

    35 He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” 36 He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” 38 They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.” 

    Some argue that the positioning of this saying in Luke, at the beginning of the events in the garden of Gethsemane leading to Jesus’ arrest the night before his crucifixion, reveals that Jesus saw himself as the one destined to fulfill the whole of Isaiah 53, and therefore identifying himself as the suffering servant. However, in its immediate context it is part of Jesus’ explanation about the need for his disciples to buy swords, which is picked up again just a few verses later (v.49) when they literally draw swords. In other words, it appears that Jesus was telling his disciples that he – and they, because of their solidarity with him – should henceforth expect to be regarded by the authorities as “lawless” or as criminals. If the intention is to identify Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering servant, it seems to be an odd place to cite these words as being fulfilled when a more logical place would have been in 23:33 where he was literally “counted with the lawless”: “And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” Some manuscripts, no doubt made by some scribe or scribes coming to the same conclusion, insert this quote from Isaiah 53 at Mark 15:27-28 “They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘He was counted with the lawless ones’.” Various scholars have suggested this and several other places during the passion narrative as the point when this Isaiah 53 prophecy was more properly fulfilled, which highlights the problem that we cannot be certain what Jesus (or Luke) meant by citing Isaiah 53 here.
  2. Matthew 8:16-17 cites Isaiah 53:4 in the context of Jesus’ healing ministry: “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases’.” These verses are applied to Jesus in two ways in the NT. First, Matthew cites them with reference to Jesus’ work as a healer. The Hebrew word (מַכְאוֹב) translated “diseases” (sometimes also translated as “sorrows”) means physical pain and suffering, while “infirmities” translates חֳלִי which means “diseases”. Matthew’s “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” is an accurate translation of the Hebrew. The Septuagint Greek (LXX) translation, however, used the word ἁμαρτίας sin instead of “diseases”. The second citation of these words in the NT is by Peter (1 Peter 2:21-24) who quoted Isaiah 53 to encourage his readers to follow in Jesus’ steps: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth’ [from Isa 53:9]. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.” After undoubtedly quoting Isaiah 53:9 – “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” – he may have gone on to allude to another part of the same Isaiah passage: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.” This may be an allusion to the words in the LXX that the suffering servant “bears our sins and suffers pain for us” although he does not specifically make this connection (although there was no real need to do so – having already quoted Isaiah the similarity in phrasing suggests quite strongly that he is further alluding to the same chapter). Peter may have been following the Septuagint Greek (LXX) translation which used the word ἁμαρτίας sin rather than the Hebrew. In any case, the Hebrew and the Greek translation have quite different meanings, and Matthew follows the Hebrew while Peter seems to follow the Greek. Matthew applies them to Jesus’ work as a healer, while Peter gives them a different meaning and applies them to Jesus carrying sins on the cross.
  3. The Acts of the Apostles has a pericope where an Ethiopian official was reading from Isaiah, and came to a verse in chapter 53 which said: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” (Acts 8:32-33, quoting Isaiah 53:7-8). The Ethiopian asked Philip: “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Philip’s answer does not provide any explanation of the specifics, but says simply “starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (v35).

These quotations, or allusions, in the NT to Isaiah 53 tell us several things about how the NT writers used the Hebrew Bible (or its Greek translation).

  • First, different writers could use the same text in the Hebrew Bible in different ways, and give them different meanings. One writer could use the Hebrew, with one meaning, while another writer used the Greek translation, with an entirely different meaning. Or they could use the same text in the HB and apply them to different events, saying both events fulfilled the same prophecy.
  • Second, although Isaiah 53 seems to be the ideal prophecy to quote with respect to Jesus’ sufferings during the crucifixion the NT writers, and Jesus himself, quote it primarily with reference to Jesus and his disciples being regarded as lawless criminals, and to Jesus’ non-retaliation. The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion would have been the ideal place to quote Isaiah 53, yet the Gospel writers don’t take this opportunity and are silent. In fact, later generations of Christians have made more of Isaiah 53 than the writers of the NT, and found applications to Jesus which weren’t made by the NT writers.
  • Third, it seems that the first Christians did not think of Isaiah 53 in quite the same way later Christians did – as a prophecy of Jesus suffering as an atonement for the sins of the world – or at least Peter is the only NT writer who gives it this meaning, and even then his emphasis was on Christians following Jesus’ example of non-retaliation.

Going back to the first of those three points, we should note that when NT writers used HB/OT texts they often re-appropriated them or re-interpreted them for a new situation, and in doing so they weren’t necessarily implying that the whole passage applied in every detail to the ’new’ situation. A good illustration of this is the way Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”) is used in Matthew 2:15 (This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”) This reads (in Matthew) as though the Hosea text was primarily about Jesus. However, if we continue reading in Hosea the very next verse says “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.” The writer’s shift from the singular “my son” to the plural “they sacrificed to the Baals” makes it clear that God’s “son” there is the nation of Israel and the words cannot primarily refer to Jesus or to his taking refuge in Egypt. The Hosea text has been wrenched from its context and appropriated by Matthew because the words in just one verse fit the situation with Jesus. However, the Hosea text in its context cannot by any reasonable stretch of the imagination apply primarily to Jesus. We should therefore be careful in thinking that because a NT writer refers to a text in the HB that the passage must therefore refer primarily to the ‘new’ situation. With respect to the Isaiah 53 text, even though the NT quotes it and applies it to Jesus this is not its primary meaning.

In my next post I will look at Isaiah 53 in its context to determine its primary meaning.

Continue reading … part 2

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