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Is Isaiah 52-53 a forbidden text for Jews?

14 March 2024

Is Isaiah 53 a "forbidden chapter" for Jews? This is a common, suggestive question, from the mouths of some Christians. The reason would be that these texts refer to Jesus and that Jews do not want to know this. In traditional Jewish literature, however, Isaiah's texts about the servant are also applied to the (Jewish) messiah.

Professor of Jewish Studies

Isaiah 53, a forbidden chapter?

It is true that Isaiah 53 is not on the list of prophets' readings (haftaras) in synagogues today. But many prophetic texts are not on this list. The haftaras are chosen for their content that fits the Torah readings. Therefore, unlike the five books of Moses, which are read continuously and in their entirety, the prophet readings are selections.

In fact, the text under discussion already begins in Isaiah 52:13. It is the so-called fourth Song of the Servant in Isaiah. In those four "servant songs", there is talk of a servant or slave – ebed in Hebrew, a word that can have both meanings. In most of these songs, it is quite clear that that term refers to Israel. After all, it says "Israel, my servant" or "my servant Jacob" (Isa 41:8; 49:3). In some texts, however, it seems that the servant and Israel do not quite coincide. For instance, in Isaiah 49:5, the servant is tasked with "bringing back Israel." These texts are among the most studied by exegetes, and it may not be possible to ever arrive at an unambiguous resolution of all the difficulties in the verses and words. Perhaps there is no need to. These are poetic texts which, as is typical of poetry, allow for multiple interpretations and can be rediscovered again and again.

These are the main verses about the "servant of YHWH" in Isaiah: 41:8-9, 42:1, 49:3-6, 52:13-53:12.

The suffering servant applied to the messiah

In the New Testament, a number of verses from Isaiah are applied to Jesus, and clearly read messianically (Mat 12:18-21; Acts 8:32-33). In later Christian interpretation, the texts about the "suffering servant" are read Christologically: they are seen as foreshadowings or predictions of Christ's suffering, death and resurrection. But even in the Jewish tradition, verses about the servant from Isaiah are sometimes applied to an individual messiah. Some of these emphasise the servant's suffering. But others, on the contrary, assume a triumphant, exalted messiah. We also find this duality in the New Testament. Indeed, verses from Isaiah can be adduced to prove both characteristics of the messiah. Let us give a few examples.

The leprous messiah in the Babylonian talmud

In the Babylonian Talmud, the most authoritative work of Jewish traditional literature, recorded from the 5th century onwards, the messiah is represented as a leper. He sits in the gate of the city among the other leprous beggars (Sanhedrin 98a-b). However, this leper stands out from the others. The other beggars refresh the bandages around their wounds by loosening and replacing them all at once. He, however, replaces them one by one. The reason is that he must be ready to take up his work as messiah, should the time be right. Further on in the text, he is called "the leper from the house of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi". That is a play on words with the Hebrew verb nasa, to bear, which is used for bearing our pains in Isaiah 53:4. That verse is therefore quoted as a proof text:

But it was he who bore our diseases, who took upon himself our sufferings.
We, however, saw him as an outcast, smitten and humiliated by God.

This passage in the Talmud has no problem with a depiction of the messiah as one who suffers with the sick and the poor, just like the servant of YHWH in Isaiah 53. In any case, there is nothing in this text to suggest that it is "forbidden", quite the contrary.

The triumphant messiah

The previous text alludes to the fact that the "leper" will at some point fulfil his role as messiah, whatever that may be. Other rabbinic texts emphasise the glorification of the messiah. Verses from Isaiah are also invoked for this, such as Isaiah 42:1:

Here is My servant, him will I support,
he is my chosen one, in him I find joy.

In Midrash Tanchuma, it is stated that the messiah will be more exalted than Abraham, Moses, and even the angels. To prove this, Isaiah 52:13 is quoted. The Hebrew terms used there are linked to these names via a play on letters:

Yes, my servant will succeed,
He will be exalted (rum) - like Abraham, exalted (nisa) - like Moses, and very highly exalted - more than the angels.

Two or three messiahs

Isaiah 52:13-53 describes how the servant will be highly exalted, but not before first suffering greatly and becoming despised and reviled. In the first rabbinic text, we already saw this development in the application of the servant to the messiah: the messiah first comes in the form of a leper. In the Christian application of the servant to Jesus, we see a similar development: Jesus first suffered, and even died, but then triumphs as a risen messiah. In some rabbinic texts, the two guises of the messiah, the suffering one and the triumphant one, are separated and attributed to two, or sometimes even three, messiahs. These bear names that are also found in the New Testament story of Jesus: Messiah, son of Joseph; son of Ephraim; and son of David. The first, priestly messiah, will rebuild the destroyed Second Temple, the second will die in the final battle with an evil ruler, and the last messiah, the son of David, becomes the messianic king who comes to bring salvation.

The messiah who first suffers and then is exalted

In a relatively unknown, late-Rabbinic text (about eighth century) dealing with those end times (Secrets of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai), the development of the suffering servant, who is first taunted and even turns his face away (Isa 53:3) but is then highly exalted, is applied to the messiah, son of David. The story goes like this: When the messiah, son of Ephraim will perish, God will reveal the messiah, son of David. However, people will not recognise him, saying, "You lie, the messiah has already come, and died, and no other messiah will come." After these taunts, the son of David turns his face away and hides (Isa 53:3 is quoted), resulting in more famine and misery. Yet eventually God will reveal himself again, and the messiah, son of David will be able to fulfil his role. 

Same proof texts as in the New Testament

It is noteworthy that not only verses about the (suffering) servant from Isaiah are quoted in this midrash. We also see other verses (discussed in this midrash) echoed in the New Testament, applied to Jesus, such as Micah 5:2 (Mat 2), Psalm 95:7 (Heb 3:17-18), Daniel 7:13 (Mat 26:64), and Zechariah 12:10 (Rev 1:7). Another example from rabbinic literature (Jerusalem Talmud 4.5.13) is the application of Numbers 24:17 to Simon Bar Kochba:

A star rises from Jacob, a sceptre from Israel.

This Simon was the leader of the second Jewish revolt against the Romans in 132-35 CE. He was considered the messiah by many Jews, including the influential teacher Akiva. Rabbi Akiva himself is said to have died a martyr's death because of his opposition to the Romans and his support for Bar Kochba. The star from Bethlehem (the city of David, in the region of Ephraim) is also known from Matthew 2, where it is associated with the birth of Jesus.

What can we conclude from this?

The rabbinic texts discussed all originated at a time when Christianity was already known and widespread. Are these texts reactions to the Christian reading of the passages about the suffering servant? Are they perhaps even anti-Christian? While anti-Christian polemic can certainly be found in rabbinic literature, it is difficult to prove that these texts are responses to Christian views on the messiah. The authors also seem to have no problem with the fact that some messianic interpretations of the texts from Isaiah, as well as other verses from the Old Testament, bear many similarities to Christian applications of those verses to the messiah Jesus.

The reverse is rather obvious: the New Testament writers, and the Christian thinkers and writers after them, used texts from the Tanakh that were and are read in Judaism before Jesus, and after Jesus, to speak about the messiah. It should be explained here that similar messianic readings of Isaiah texts and other Old Testament texts can already be found in Jewish literature from the Second Temple period, as found, for example, in Qumran.

Thus, the biblical texts quoted by Jews and Christians are the same, the names of the messiah are the same, the variation in images and representations is the same, only the identity of the messiah is different, and that too is actually very Jewish. We can therefore conclude that the Christian application of specific Old Testament texts to the messiah is fully in line with Jewish tradition, both before and after Christ.

On 26-27 February 2024, the PThU hosted the conference "Ongoing Interpretation. The Servant of YHWH in Text and Context". This conference focused on the exegesis and use of the texts from Isaiah 40-55 that deal with the "servant of YHWH" in Jewish and Christian interpretive traditions. PThU lecturer Lieve Teugels discussed the use of the verses from Isaiah in rabbinic literature.