Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Is Isaiah Teaching About a Jesus-like Figure?

Note: The reason I'm examining Isaiah 53 here is because it is an oft quoted passage in the Old Testament (hundreds of years before Jesus) that Christians claim is a prophecy about Jesus. The Dead Sea Scrolls have demonstrated that the Isaiah 53 we have today is the same Isaiah 53 that we had BEFORE Jesus was born, so Christian tampering cannot be alleged here, as it once was by secular scholars before we discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls. What follows is pre-Christian and was accepted by pre-Jesus Jews as the Word of God. I am using a popular Jewish translation to show that Christians are not engaging in faulty translations to try to force Jesus into the Old Testament. It's also important to note that Jews in the day of Jesus were not expecting a suffering Messiah, though there are a handful of exceptions in Jewish tradition that can be pointed out (nearly all AFTER Jesus, however). In other words, it would be quite bizarre for Jewish followers of Jesus to attempt to apply this passage to the Messiah, and it is also bizarre how closely it matches the life of Jesus and what He taught about what would happen to Him. With that, I'll move onto the JPS translation of Isaiah 53, along with my notes.

Before I show you how the JPS (Jewish Publication Society) renders this passage, I want to note that this IS in fact a translation done by orthodox, conservative, and reform Jews (in other words, NOT Messianic or Christian Jews). This is the newer updated JPS translation which was finished in the 1980s. Other than changes in capitalization, punctuation (I've removed some of the quotation marks), line spacing, and adding some of the translators' footnotes INTO the text via parentheticals, I have not made any changes to their translation.

After their translation I will add a few notes of my own. I will admit that I am sharing thoughts I have gathered from others or had myself, but I am not surveying any commentaries for my notes. I may be missing or misunderstanding something because of my lack of knowledge. Please let me know if I'm not on-point on anything.

I am also going to begin in Isaiah 52:13 because that's where most scholars agree this passage starts.

Isaiah 52

13 Indeed, My servant shall prosper, be exalted and raised to great heights.
14 Just as the many were appalled at him (translators' note: Hebrew reads "you")-- so marred was his appearance, unlike that of man, His form, beyond human semblance--
15 Just so he shall startle (translators' note: Meaning of Hebrew uncertain) many nations. Kings shall be silenced because of him, for they shall see what has not been told them, shall behold what they never have heard.

Isaiah 53

1 Who can believe what we have heard? Upon whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2 For he has grown, by His favor, like a tree crown, like a tree trunk out of arid ground. He had no form or beauty that we should look at him: No charm, that we should find him pleasing.
3 He was despised, shunned by men, a man of suffering, familiar with disease. As one who hid his face from us (translators' note: i.e., as a leper) , He was despised, we held him of no account.
4 Yet it was our sickness he was bearing, our suffering that he endured. We accounted him plagued, smitten and afflicted by God;
5 But he was wounded because of our sins, crushed because of our iniquities. He bore the chastisement that made us whole, and by his bruises we were healed.
6 We all went astray like sheep, each going his own way; and the LORD visited upon him the guilt of all of us.

7 He was maltreated, yet he was submissive, He did not open his mouth; like a sheep being led to slaughter, like a ewe, dumb before those who shear her, he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppressive judgment he was taken away, who could describe his abode? For he was cut off from the land of the living through the sin of my people, who deserved the punishment.
9 And his grave was set among the wicked, and with the rich, in his death though he had done no injustice and had spoken no falsehood.
10 But the LORD chose to crush him by disease, that, if he made himself an offering for guilt, He might see offspring (translators' note: emendation yields "His arm," i.e. His vindication) and have long life, and that through him the LORD's purpose might prosper.
11 Out of his anguish he shall see it. He shall enjoy it to the full through his devotion.

"My righteous servant makes the many righteous, it is their punishment that he bears;
12 Assuredly, I will give him the many as his proportion, he shall receive the multitude of his spoil. For he exposed himself to death and was numbered among the sinners, whereas he bore the guilt of many and made intercession for the sinners."

My thoughts:

We first read of the servant in this passage as someone who WILL BE raised up to great heights. But the following verses suggest that something must happen first, something that brings him low.

The translators' note in verse 15 which points out that the Hebrew says "you" seems preferable to me. Just as the Jewish people had suffered so much, so also would this servant who represents them.

The word "startle" in 52:15 is given as an alternative in many Christian translations, but here is given as the main translation with the note that the Hebrew is uncertain. And yet, in EVERY other place where the word "nazah" is used in the Hebrew Bible, it doesn't mean "startle," but "sprinkle," and is usually used of sprinkling sacrificial blood (see for instance Lev 16:15)! Isaiah uses the word in 63:3 as well, where it is also clearly a reference to sprinkling blood. It seems that startle is suggested because afterwards it is said that kings would shut their mouths at him. However, the overall thrust of the passage is about someone who dies as a guilt offering for the people. While the 53rd chapter focuses on this death as being for the atonement of the Jewish people, 52:15 says that this blood effects atonement for the nations as well.

53:1-3 points out that this servant of the LORD would suffer greatly and not be held in high regard by the people, but looked over. However, verse 4 tells us something quite unexpected. It was for the sins of those who rejected him that he was suffering. Though they assumed that he must be undergoing a just punishment from God, Isaiah tells us that this servant was in fact paying the price that those who taunted him should have been paying for their sins! Verses 5 and 6 re-emphasize these points. His suffering is to make us (in particular the Jewish people, but gentiles who become part of the community of God are also in view) whole, and the guilt we acquired for turning away from God was placed on him. HE took the punishment.

Verses 7-9 tell us a few things. First of all, they reiterate that he suffered for sins he did not commit. Those men who sentenced him did so unjustly. Secondly, he viewed it as proper to accept this undeserved punishment, so he did not defend himself. Third, he suffered the fate that was reserved for criminals, and his place of burial was reserved for a rich man (see Matthew 27:57-60 in the New Testament).

Verse 10 puts this event into view from God's perspective. It was part of God's purpose to crush His servant, so that he would be an asham, a guilt offering, for the sin of God's people (that's what is meant by calling the servant the "Arm of the LORD"-- the one who accomplishes God's purposes. By dying for sins, the servant would see offspring. While the JPS emphasizes that this means he would be vindicated, I think it's important to suggest that the servant would truly see offspring through dying, but that they would not be physical offspring. After all, these are offspring that come about through his DEATH. It is after his death that he is exalted, as Isaiah 52:13-15 suggests (note the tenses). It is through his atoning death, and his being raised up which comes after it, that he is able to see SPIRITUAL offspring-- those who become children of God because they are atoned for by his servant's blood.

Verse 12 uses an important word-- intercession. Though the people have turned away from God and deserve death, God punishes His servant in their place. The servant of the LORD has interceded for them. He is able to do what they cannot-- serve as a sinless mediator between God and mankind.

For information on Jewish interpretations of Isaiah 53, please check out my post on this subject.

Questions for the skeptic:
Why does this passage so closely match the details of Jesus' life? Is it coincidence? Did the apostles lie? If so, why? What evidence do we have that would make us doubt their accounts, other than a bias against the supernatural?

Does this passage reflect a Jesus which is far more Jewish than some would suggest? It is often alleged that Jesus' story was taken from pagan mythologies (a claim which has no real scholarly support, but which persists nonetheless), but this dying and rising figure is in a Jewish source-- the Old Testament. Does this suggest that there is much more cohesion between the Old Testament and New Testament, which collects documents spanning over a thousand years, than skeptics would like to admit?

Why do you think that the sacrifice of the innocent for the sin of the guilty is an almost universal theme among mankind?

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