Over the years many Christians can’t understand why Jewish people can’t see that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53. It would be nice if it was so simple. One of the most common questions is whether the New Testament authors were familiar with Isaiah 53 or any other texts in the Tanakh (the Old Testament) that pointed to a suffering messianic figure. After all they were Jewish and had read the Scriptures all their lives. But there is no doubt that the early followers of Jesus had a hard time accepting the fact that Jesus was going to suffer and die: A couple of passages prove my point:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you! (Matt 16:21)
He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise. But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. (Mark 9:31)
Also, with the exception of 1 Peter 2: 24-25, the New Testament passages that quote Isa. 53 don’t address the atoning significance of the Servant’s suffering. However, we do see Jesus is a Passover sacrifice (e.g, Jn. 19:14;1 Cor. 5:7-8); an unblemished sacrifice (1 Pet.1:19; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 7: 26-28; 9:14; 1 Pet. 2:21-25); a sin offering (Rom 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:21) and a covenant sacrifice (e.g., Mk. 14:24; 1 Cor. 11:25).
Something else we need to remember is the following: Words and concepts are separate entities. “Word-bound” approaches to what really are concept studies can lead us astray. Messianism is a concept study. While it can be seen that the word “Messiah” means “Anointed One” and is derived from verbs that have the general meaning of “to rub something” or, more specifically, “to anoint someone,” it must be remembered that “Anointed One” almost never refers to the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. This is why the reader must not assume every time they read where a priest, prophet, king, or even Cyrus in Isa. 45:1 is anointed, this automatically means the individual is “The Messiah.” Furthermore, other names were used to describe the messianic person other than the “Messiah.” Some of the names include Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man, Prophet, Elect One, Servant, Prince, Branch, Root, Scepter, Star, Chosen One, and Coming One.
Many scholars have asked what might of led to the acceptance of a Suffering Messiah. Let’s see if we can trace the history here:
Possibility #1: One can observe atoning features about the Maccabean martyrs. Note: this info is adapted from J. J. William’s book, Maccabean Martyr Traditions in Paul’s Theology of Atonement: Did Martyr Theology Shape Paul’s Conception of Jesus’s Death?
- The books of 2 and 4 Maccabees record that God judged the Jews through Antiochus Epiphanes IV because of the nation’s religious apostasy (cf. 1 Maccabees 1; 2 Macc 7:32).
- God poured out his wrath against Israel through the invasion of Antiochus because of its disobedience to the Torah prior to 4 Macc 17:21–22 (1 Macc 1:1–63; 2 Macc 5:1–7:38; 4 Macc 4:15–6:29).
- 4 Macc 6:28–29 states that Eleazar offers his “blood” to be a “ransom” so that God would “be satisfied.” A passage in 4 Macc 17:21–22 states that the Jewish martyrs die a propitiatory death for the nation.
- The martyrs die as penal sacrifices of atonement for the nation’s sins because the fundamental reason behind their deaths was Israel’s disobedience to Torah, and they died to end God’s judgment against the nation’s sin and to save the nation from his wrath (2 Macc 7:32–38; 4 Macc 6:28–29; 17:21–22).
- 2 Maccabees 7:37-38: “I [the youngest of the seven sons martyred one by one in front of their mother], like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.”
- 4 Maccabees 6:27-29: [Eleazar prays] “You know, O God, that though I might be saved myself, I am dying in burning torments for the sake of the law. Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs.”
- 4 Macc. 6:27–29: Eleazar (one of the Jewish martyrs who died for the nation) asked God to use his blood to be a ransom so that he would be the means by which he purified, provided mercy for, and to be the means by which he would satisfy his wrath against the nation. The author interprets the significance of the martyrs’ deaths in 4 Macc. 17:21–22 by stating that they purified the homeland, that they served as a ransom for the nation, and that their propitiatory deaths saved the nation.
- 4 Maccabees 17:22: “And through the blood of those devout ones and their deaths an atoning sacrifice divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated.”
- 4 Maccabees 18:4: “Because of them [those who gave their bodies in suffering for the sake of religion; 18:3] the nation gained peace.”
1.The martyrs suffered and died because of sin (2 Macc 7:18, 32; 12:39–42; 4 Macc 4:21; 17:21–22; cf. Lev 1:1–7:6; 8:18–21; 16:3–24).
2. The martyrs’ blood was the required price for the nation’s salvation (2 Macc 7:32–38; 4 Macc 6:28–29; 7:8; 17:21–22).
3.The martyrs’ deaths ended God’s wrath against the nation (1 Macc 1:1–64; 2 Macc 7:32–38; 8:5; 4 Macc 17:21–22).
4. The martyrs’ deaths provided purification and cleansing for the nation (4 Macc 6:28–29; 17:22; cf. Lev 16:16, 30; Isa 53:10).
5. The martyrs’ deaths spared the nation from suffering the penalty for their own sin in the eschaton (2 Macc 5:1–8:5; cf. 2 Macc 7:1–14).
6. The martyrs died vicariously for the nation (2 Macc 7:18, 32; 4 Macc 4:21; 17:21–22).
John C. Collins talks about the case for of a pre-existing suffering Messiah:
“In the late-first century CE apocalypses of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch the messiah dies. His death, however, does not involve suffering and has no atoning significance. In 4 Ezra 7:29-30, the death of the messiah marks the end of a four-hundred-year reign and is the prelude to seven days of primeval silence, followed by the resurrection. In 2 Bar 30:1, “when the time of the appearance of the messiah has been fulfilled” he returns in glory, and then all who sleep in hope of him rise.” Neither scenario bears any similarity to Isaiah 53.” -Collins, Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2007, 124.
But Collins also says the following:
“The Christian belief (in a suffering Messiah) in such a figure, and the discovery of prophecies relating to him, surely arose in retrospect after the passion and death of Jesus of Nazareth. There is no evidence that any first century Judaism expected such a figure, either in fulfillment of Isaiah 53 or on any other basis. The notion of a suffering and dying messiah eventually found a place in Judaism.” pg 126.
It was after the resurrection, that Jesus said:
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
Unfortunately, Jesus does not list any specific texts that say the Messiah will suffer and die.
Also, Paul says the following:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15: 3-4).
Once again, the problem with this passage is that Paul does not list what texts he is referring to in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). Hence, he could be talking about a typological prophecy from the Binding of Isaac story. Or, maybe Paul saw the Messiah’s priestly work is seen in Psalm 110:1-4. Also, in the context of Zechariah 6- the crown placed on the head of the high priest named Joshua who is then referred to as the “Branch” which is a Messianic title. The Messiah has a dual role: as a priest he would provide atonement and make intercession for the people. If we just jump to Isaiah 53, that brings up the issue of whether Paul is using the LXX (The Greek Septuagint). See the article The Use of Quotations from Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in the New Testament.
But let’s get back to Collins and his comments about how a suffering Messiah shows up later in Jewish literature. We do see a case for a suffering Messiah in the Jewish literature.
The Shottenstein Talmud, a comprehensive Orthodox Jewish commentary states the following about Isaiah 53:
They [namely, those sitting with Messiah] were afflicted with tzaraas- as disease whose symptoms include discolored patches on the skin (see Leviticus ch. 13). The Messiah himself is likewise afflicted, as stated in Isaiah (53:4). Indeed, it was our diseases that he bore and our pains that he endured, whereas we considered him plagued (i.e. suffering tzaraas [see 98b, note 39], smitten by God and afflicted. This verse teaches that the diseases that the people ought to have suffered because of their sins are borne instead by the Messiah [with reference to the leading Rabbinic commentaries]. (1)
In the Zohar, which is the foundational book of Jewish mysticism, we see a text about the relationship between Isaiah 53 and atonement:
“The children of the world are members of one another, and when the Holy One desires to give healing to the world, He smites one just man amongst them, and for his sakes heals the rest of the rest. Whence do we learn this? For the saying, ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities’ [Isa. 53:5].i.e., by letting of his blood- as when a man bleeds his arm- there was healing for us-for all the members of the body. In general a just person is only smitten in order to procure healing and atonement for a whole generation.” (2)
Solomon Schechter apeaks about this issue in his book Aspects of Rabbinic Theology:
The atonement of suffering and death is not limited to the suffering person. The atoning death extends to all the generation. This is especially the case with such sufferers as cannot either by reason of their righteous life or by their youth possibly have merited the afflictions which have come upon them. The death of the righteous atones just as well as certain sacrifices [with reference to b.Mo’ed Qatan 28a].‘They are caught (suffer) for their sins of the generation.’ [b Shabbat 32b]. There are also applied to Moses the Scriptural words, ‘And he bore the sins of many’ (Isaiah 53), because of his offering himself as the atonement for Israel’s sin with the golden calf, being ready to sacrifice his very soul for Israel when he said. ‘And if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of my book (that is, from the Book of the Living), which thou hast written’ (Ex. 32) [b. Sotah 14a; b Berakhoth 32a). This readiness to sacrifice oneself for Israel is characteristic of all the great men of Israel, the patriarchs, and the Prophets citing in the same way, whilst also some Rabbis would, on certain occasions, exclaim, ‘Behold I am the atonement for Israel’ [Mekhilta 2a;m. Negaim 2:1]. (3)
We also see a case for an atoning Messiah in the Prayer Book For Day of Atonement-The Musaf Prayer
“Messiah our righteousness is departed from us: horror hath seized us, and we have no one to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgressions. He beareth our sins on his shoulder, that He may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wounds, at the time the Eternal will create him (the Messiah) as a new creature. O bring up from the circle of the earth. Raise him up from Seir, to assemble us the second time on Mount Lebanon, By the hand of Yinnon.” -Written by Rabbi Eliezer Kalir around 7th century A.D
Also, “The Rabbis said: His name is “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. [Isaiah 53:4].” – Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b
And let us not forget that Maimonides, a preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher and one of the greatest Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages also quotes Isaiah 53: 2; 52:15 as being about the Messiah.
Much of modern Judaism knows the the traditional view of Messiah ben David who is a descendant of David and of the tribe of Judah. But there is another messianic view in Judaism that speaks of Messiah ben Yossef who is also referred to as Mashiach ben Ephrayim, the descendant of Ephrayim. This figure will serve as a precursor to Messiah ben David. His role is political in nature since he will wage war against the forces that oppose Israel. In other words, Messiah ben Yossef is supposed to prepare Israel for it’s final redemption. The prophecy of Zech. 12:10 is applied to Messiah ben Yossef in that he is killed and that it will be followed by a time of great calamities and tests for Israel. Shortly after these tribulations upon Israel, Messiah ben David will come and avenge the death of Messiah ben Yossef, resurrect him, and inaugurate the Messianic era of everlasting peace. (4)
What is interesting is that R. Saadiah Gaon elaborated on the role of Messiah ben Yossef by starting that this sequence of events is contingent. In other words, Messiah ben Yossef will not have to appear before Messiah be David if the spiritual condition of Israel is up to par.
This is why it says in the Talmud, “If they [the people of Israel] are worthy of [the Messiah] he will come ‘with the clouds of heaven’ [Dan 7:13] ;if they are not worthy, ‘lowly and riding upon a donkey’ [Zech. 9:9]” (b. Sanhedrin 98a).
I don’t see any evidence the first followers of Jesus invented the Suffering Messiah story. There were certainly implicit cases where we see a case for a Messiah who will be an atonement for sin. But just like many other issues in the Tanakh, what was implicit becomes more explicit in the New Testament. We see that the best way to tackle the issue is to examine the evidence in the Jewish literature (including the Bible).
1. Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Vol 2. (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books. 2000),157. 2. Tractate Sanhedrin, Talmud Bavli, The Shottenstein Edition (Brooklyn: Mesorah, 1995), vol 3 98a5, emphasis in original. 3. Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology. London: 1909. Reprint. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1994, 310-311. 4. Jacob Immanuel Schochet. Mashiach: The Principle of Mashiach and the Messianic Era in Jewish Law and Tradition. New York: S.I.E. 1992, 93-101.