Jewish vs. Christian Interpretations of Isaiah 53

Christians have been citing Isaiah 53 as an example of fulfilled messianic prophecy since the first century AD (see Matthew 8:17 and Acts 8:26-40).

The passage is remarkable because it was written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus…yet if you were to read it aloud on a street corner, most people would probably assume it was a New Testament passage describing Christ’s crucifixion after-the-fact:

Who has believed our message
   and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
   and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
   nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
   a man suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
   he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
   and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
   stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
   he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
   and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
   each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
   the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
   yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
   and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
   so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgement he was taken away.
   Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
   for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
   and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
   nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
   and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
   and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
After he has suffered,
   he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
   and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
   and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
   and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
   and made intercession for the transgressors.

– Isaiah 53 (NIV)

I think it’s important to be familiar with both the Christian and Jewish interpretations of this passage. Instead of trying to be overtly persuasive, I’ll just report both perspectives with minimal commentary of my own. You can draw your own conclusions.

But first, just to give you a flavor of the controversy, I was kind of amused by the slanted terminology used on Wikipedia (and the one-sided use of citations). The following screenshot was taken on March 20, 2013…but I’m guessing it will be re-worded for neutrality sometime in the future:

isaiah 53 wikipedia

The Jewish commentary that I’ve read concerning this passage isn’t always 100% in agreement, but you can check out some credible resources HERE and HERE. The following excerpt is taken from SimpleToRemember.com, an online resource for information on Judaism:

“Christianity claims that Isaiah chapter 53 refers to Jesus, as the “suffering servant.” In actuality, Isaiah 53 directly follows the theme of chapter 52, describing the exile and redemption of the Jewish people. The prophecies are written in the singular form because the Jews (“Israel”) are regarded as one unit. The Torah is filled with examples of the Jewish nation referred to with a singular pronoun. Ironically, Isaiah’s prophecies of persecution refer in part to the 11th century when Jews were tortured and killed by Crusaders who acted in the name of Jesus.”

You can check out some Christian resources HERE and HERE. Jonathan McLatchie writes:

“Some might point to the fact that contemporary Jews reject this passage as being messianic. However, having read the conventional views among them, I think such a view is untenable. Firstly, if the passage — as most contemporary Jews maintain — is really a personification of the nation of Israel, then the passage makes no sense when it says “…for the transgressions of my people [i.e. Israel] he was striken…though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.” The term “the servant” is also used of the messiah in other parts of the Bible, such as in Zechariah 3:8 (“I am going to bring my servant, the Branch”).”

Regardless of where one stands on the religious spectrum, I think we owe it to ourselves to investigate claims of fulfilled prophesy. When considered in light of other evidence, I find that passages like Isaiah 52-53 speak for themselves, and strongly reinforce the larger truth claims of Christianity.

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6 thoughts on “Jewish vs. Christian Interpretations of Isaiah 53

  1. Thanks for sharing that Matt, it’s really healthy to see both sides with things like this, because it can be really frustrating to only see one side and then wonder why people don’t see it like I do. When I know more about both sides, I can be more understanding and gentle, and perhaps more convincing when conveying my beliefs.

  2. “Behold, my servant will accomplish his purpose;

    he will be high and lifted up, and very exalted.

    Just as many were appalled over you–

    his appearance was a disfigurement from the human

    and his form from that of humanity…” Is 52:13 [sets the context]

    From NICOT (Prof. John Oswalt)
    [just an interesting note that Targ. adds “the Messiah” after “my servant”]

    ‘”High and lifted up are used in combination four times in this book (and no where else in the OT). In the other three places (66:1; 33:10; 57:15) they describe God….The same point may be made concerning exalted….only God can be lifted up. Is it here than being said that the nation of Israel [the explanation of some for ‘servant’] will be exalted to the place of God? Is it a prophet of Israel? In each case the answer must be no. This is the Messiah or no one.”‘

    • Wow. Interesting point. So, for any theologically-serious person, it ought actually to be considered prideful to apply this passage to themselves.

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