Isaiah 52.13 – 53.12: ‘One of the most difficult and contested passages in the Bible’ ~ the Jewish Study Bible

Isaiah 52.13 – 53.12: The servant.

One of the most difficult and contested passages in the Bible, these fifteen verses have attracted an enormous amount of attention from ancient, medieval, and modern scholars. In particular the identity of the servant is vigorously debated. Although the servant is spoken of as an individual, the reference may well be to the collective nation (or the remnant).

Thus, many argue that the servant symbolises the entire Jewish people. The passage, then, describes the nation’s unjust tribulations at the hands of the Babylonians (and later oppressors) as well as the nation’s salvific role for the world at large.

Others maintain that the passage describes a pious minority within the Jewish people; the minority suffers as a result of the sins committed by the nation at large. (Bolstering these interpretations is the fact that the term “servant” in Deutero-Isaiah generally refers to the nation as a whole or an idealised representation of the nation; cf. 42.1-9n; 42.18-22 nn; 49.1-13 n.). Other scholars argue that the servant in this passage is a specific individual (cf. 50.4-11n.). Targum and various midrashim identify the servant as the Messiah but this suggestion is unlikely, since nowhere else does Deutero-Isaiah refer to the Messiah, and the absence of a belief in an individual Messiah is one of the hallmarks of Deutero-Isaiah’s outlook (in contrast to that of First Isaiah).

Because of marked similarities between the language describing the servant and Jeremiah’s description of himself (see Jer. 10.18-24; 11.19), Saadia Gaon argued that the text refers to Jeremiah, while the Talmud (b. Sot. 14a) records the opinion that it describes Moses. Both opinions have been echoed by modern scholars. On the other hand, equally impressive parallels between the servant and First Isaiah can be observed (see ch 6). Furthermore, many passages in Deutero-Isaiah view the prophet Jeremiah as a model for the nation as a whole without equating the nation and that prophet.

Christians have argued that this passage in facts predicts the coming of Jesus. Medieval rabbinic commentators devoted considerable attention to refuting this interpretation. The passage is deeply allusive, drawing on the texts from Jeremiah and Isaiah noted above and also on Isa. 1.5-6; 2.12-14; 11.1-10; Ps. 91.15-16.

~ Extract from The Jewish Study Bible p. 872 ~

The Jewish Publication Society TANAKH translation produced by a committee of esteemed biblical scholars and rabbis from the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism movements. A translation from the Masoretic (Hebrew) text of the Scriptures.

my copy

Categories: Bible, Biblical Hebrew, Christianity, Debates, Jesus, Jews, Recommended reading, Scholars, Tanakh

12 replies

    • Instead of just posting links it might have been better to interact with the post Ken.

      • Although the servant is spoken of as an individual, . . .

        At least they admit that.

        This passage is about one individual out of the greater context of the remnant of Israel.

        The pronouns throughout Isaiah 52:13-15 to 53:1-12 are about “He” and “Him” – a singular individual.

      • Not only did Jesus Himself say that He is the fulfillment of the Servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and Isaiah 61:1-2 – Mark 10:45;

        Luke 4:16-21

        But Matthew also, a Jew (as Mark is also) wrote in the first century that Jesus is the fulfilment of Isaiah 41:1-8, another of the “Servant” songs of Isaiah – Matthew 12:15-21

        Luke 4:14-21

        14 And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district. 15 And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all.

        16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

        18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
        Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
        He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
        And recovery of sight to the blind,
        To set free those who are oppressed,
        19 To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”

        20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him.
        21 And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

        Matthew 12:15-21
        15 But Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. Many followed Him, and He healed them all, 16 and warned them not to tell who He was. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet:

        18 “Behold, My Servant whom I have chosen;
        My Beloved in whom My soul is well-pleased;
        I will put My Spirit upon Him,
        And He shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles (nations).
        19 “He will not quarrel, nor cry out;
        Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.
        20 “A battered reed He will not break off,
        And a smoldering wick He will not put out,
        Until He leads justice to victory.
        21 “And in His name the Gentiles will hope.”

      • Wrong Kenny The pronouns throughout Isaiah 52:13-15 to 53:1-12 are about “He” and “Him” – identified as the Nation of Israel, His Servant as a singular individual

        The following article investigates the various pronouns used throughout Isaiah, we can see how the use of the masculine singular is actually appropriate when referring to “My Servant” . It also clarifies the use of a plural pronoun within the text of Isaiah 53 as well as the plural form of the word “death”.

        From a historical/literary context perspective, learn and understand why the Pronouns throughout 52:13-15 to 53:1-12 do not identify a dying messiah deity would suffer for the sins of others and then be raised from the dead, neither a messiah that would share the same essence of divinity with YHWH to form a triune idol god kenny lol.. Enjoy 🙂

  1. Jesus Himself – Mark 10:45; Matthew 20:28








    the writer of Hebrews, probably Barnabas, or Silas or Luke writing for Paul.

    These are ALL first century Jews !!

    Luke is the only Gentile (Greek, Roman) writer

    The Law of God says:

    “let every fact be confirmed by 2 or 3 witnesses” (Deuteronomy 19:15)

    We have 8, even 9 different authors / witnesses, from the first century.

  2. Isaiah 53: What Did The Rabbis Say?
    Maybe you weren’t told, but many ancient rabbinic sources understood Isaiah 53 as referring to the Messiah.
    Here are quotations from some of them:

    Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b): “Messiah …what is his name? The Rabbis say,’The leprous one’; those of the house of the Rabbi (Jehuda Hanassi, the author of the Mishna, 135-200) say: ‘Cholaja’ (The sickly), for it says, ‘Surely he has borne our sicknesses’ etc. (Isa.53,4).”

    Babylonian Talmud, (Sanhedrin 98), p.2 “Rabbi Yochanan said, The Messiah-what is his name?… And out Rabbis said. “the pale one”… is his name, as it is written “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows-yet we considered him stricken by G-d, smitten by him and afflicted.”

    Midrash Ruth Rabbah: 2:14 “Another explanation (of Ruth ii.14): — He is speaking of king Messiah; `Come hither,’ draw near to the throne; and eat of the bread,’ that is, the bread of the kingdom; `and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,’ this refers to his chastisements, as it is said, `But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.'”

    Rabbi Mosheh Kohen Ibn Crispin: This rabbi described those who interpret Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel as those: “having forsaken the knowledge of our Teachers, and inclined after the `stubbornness of their own hearts,’ and of their own opinion, I am pleased to interpret it, in accordance with the teaching of our Rabbis, of the King Messiah….This prophecy was delivered by Isaiah at the divine command for the purpose of making known to us something about the nature of the future Messiah, who is to come and deliver Israel, and his life from the day when he arrives at discretion until his advent as a redeemer, in order that if anyone should arise claiming to be himself the Messiah, we may reflect, and look to see whether we can observe in him any resemblance to the traits described here; if there is any such resemblance, then we may believe that he is the Messiah our righteousness; but if not, we cannot do so.” (From his commentary on Isaiah, quoted in The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters, Ktav Publishing House, 1969, Volume 2, pages 99-114.)

    Rabbi Moses Maimonides: (1135-1204) “What is the manner of Messiah’s advent….there shall rise up one of whom none have known before, and signs and wonders which they shall see performed by him will be the proofs of his true origin; for the Almighty, where he declares to us his mind upon this matter, says, `Behold a man whose name is the Branch, and he shall branch forth out of his place’ (Zech. 6:12). And Isaiah speaks similarly of the time when he shall appear, without father or mother or family being known, He came up as a sucker before him, and as a root out of dry earth, etc….in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which kings will hearken to him, At him kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived.” (From the Letter to the South (Yemen), quoted in The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters, Ktav Publishing House, 1969, Volume 2, pages 374-5)

    Also from the Rambam Maimonides:

    “Whoever does not believe in him (Messiah), or does not await his coming, denies not only the other prophets but also the Torah and Moses, our teacher, for the Torah attests to his coming.” Source: Hilchos Melachim from the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam, 11:1.

    Rabbi Moses, ‘The Preacher'(11. Century) wrote in his commentary on Genesis (page 660):
    “From the beginning God has made a covenant with the Messiah and told Him,’My righteous Messiah, those who are entrusted to you, their sins will bring you into a heavy yoke’..And He answered, ‘I gladly accept all these agonies in order that not one of Israel should be lost.’ Immediately, the Messiah accepted all agonies with love, as it is written: ‘He was oppressed and he was afflicted’.”

    Targum Jonathan ( 4th Century ) The Aramaic translation of Isaiah 53, ascribed to Rabbi Jonathan ben Uzziel, a disciple of Hillel, begins with the simple and worthy words:

    Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper; he shall be high, and increase, and be exceeding strong: as the house of Israel looked to him through many days, because their countenance was darkened among the peoples, and their complexion beyond the sons of men. (Targum Jonathan on Isaiah 53 )

    Zohar: Rabbi Simeon Ben Jochai (2nd Century), “There is in the garden of Eden a palace called: ‘The palace of the sons of sickness, this palace the Messiah enters, and summons every sickness, every pain, and every chastisement of Israel: they all come and rest upon Him. And were it not that He had thus lightened them off Israel, and taken them upon Himself, there had been no man able to bear Israel’s chastisement for the transgression of the law; this is that which is written, ‘Surely our sicknesses he has carried’ Isa.53,4).- As they tell Him (the Messiah) of the misery of Israel in their captivity, and of those wicked ones among them who are not attentive to know their Lord, He lifts up His voice and weeps for their wickedness; and so it is written, ‘He was wounded for our transgressions’ (Isa.53,5), part II, page 212a and III, page 218a, Amsterdam Ed.)

    • Isaiah 53: What Did The Rabbis Say?

      Maybe you weren’t told, but many ancient rabbinic sources understood Isaiah 53 as referring to the nation of Israel

      There is NO instance where we see that a Messiah deity sharing the same essence of divinity with YHWH who is to die for the sins of people and be raised up again based on Isaiah 53. When we look at the facts, it is clear that the missionary claims with regards to Rabbinic belief are unsubstantiated.

      Here are references from some of them:

      Mikros Gadolos:

      Rabbi Yosef Kara[6]: French exegete who lived at the time of Rashi or slightly before that. He authored a commentary on Nach. He explains Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel.

      Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra[7]: 12th century Spanish Rabbi, author of a commentary on the Tenach and various works on grammar and other subjects. Ibn Ezra explains Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel.

      Rabbi David Kimchi[8]: Also known as the RaDaK, lived in the 13th century and wrote an important commentary on the Tenach and works on grammar. Radak explains Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel.

      Rabbi Yechiel Hillel ben David[9]: 18th century Rabbi and author of the commentaries on the Nach called Metzudos Dovid, and Metzudos Tzion. The former is an explanation of the text and the later deals with issues of grammar and word meaning. He explains Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel

      Rabbi Meir Leibish Malbim[10]: 19th century Rabbi who wrote a commentary on most of Nach. His commentaries include explanations of the words and their grammar and a simple commentary on the meaning of the text. He explains Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel.

      Rabbi Jacob bar Reuben[15]: This is taken from his important polemical work called Wars of the Lord, written in 1170. This work had a lot of influence in later generations when Jews were forced into debates with Christians. This was written against a Christian opponent to defend Judaism. He argues that Isaiah 53 does not apply to Jesus, but that it refers to Israel.

      Rabbi Yeshaya m’Trani[16]: 13th century Rabbi. This is from his commentary on Isaiah where he says Isaiah 53 is about Israel.

      Nizzahon Vetus[17]: According to Dr. David Berger[18] this is a collection of Polemic arguments from Ashkenaz[19] dating from the 12th and 13th century. They were collected for use in the forced debates. It argues that Isaiah 53 is about Israel.

      Rabbi Shem Tov ibn Shaprut[20]: 14th century Spanish talmud scholar and philosopher. He, like many other Rabbis in Spain was involved in debates with Christians[21]. This comes from a work written about them. He explains how it applies to Israel.

      Rabbi Moshe Cohen of Tordesilla[22]: 14th century Spanish Rabbi and author of the work Ezer Emunah (Aid to the Faith) which defends Judaism against Christian attacks. It is based on a number of debates he was involved in. He applies this passage to Israel.

      Rabbi Shlomo Astruc[23]: 14th century Spanish rabbi and author of Midrashai HaTorah. Sometimes he is called En Shlomo Astruc. According to the Chida ‘En’ was a title for a great person. His commentary is complex: 52:13 is about the Messiah; 52:14 Israel; 52:15 both, the rest is about Israel’s suffering.

      Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Muhlhausen[24]: 15th century Rabbi. This entry comes from his work Nizzahon which defends Judaism against both Christians and Karaites. The commentary is polemical and contends Isaiah 53 is about Israel.

      Rabbi Avraham Farisol[25]: 16th century Rabbi from Avignon. Author of a polemical work called Shield of Avraham which is a debate with Christians. He explains this passage as a reference to Israel.

      Rabbi Meir Aramah[26]: Wrote a commentary in Isaiah called Urim v’Tummim. This chapter is explained with regards to Israel in exile.

      Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac de Marini[29]: Rabbi in Padua in the end of the 17th century. He authored a work called Tikkun Olam on Isaiah. He explains it with regards to Israel.

      Rabbi Menasha ben Yisroel[30]: 17th century Rabbi from Amsterdam. He was the author of many works and had his own printing press. This entry is a polemical text where he answers questions about the Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53 as being Israel.

    • Even ancient Church Father Origen acknowledged in his day that the consensus of the Jews regarding Isaiah 53 was viewed as the nation of Israel identified as the Servant of the Lord that “bore reference to the whole people, regarded as one individual, and as being in a state of dispersion and suffering, in order that many proselytes might be gained, on account of the dispersion of the Jews among numerous heathen nations.” 🙂

    • Sam

      And not one of them identified this passage with Jesus!

  3. This is for you Kenny – 🙂

    The following two articles subjects the Fourth Servant Song to a critical. in-depth analysis in which the Jewish interpretation of “Isaiah 53” is measured against a combination of the teachings of the Hebrew Bible and the historical record. The analysis employs a well-known and widely used methodology from the domain of research and discovery, the Scientific Method, which has been adapted and applied to the entire process of validation. In a subsequent essay, the Christian interpretation will be subjected to a similar process.

    1st article:

    Hypothesis: Israel is the servant in the Fourth Servant Song

    Conclusion: The servant in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song is (the righteous
    remnant of) Israel.

    2nd article:

    New Hypothesis: The Messiah is the servant in “Isaiah 53”

    Conclusion: The Christian interpretation of “Isaiah 53” is false, since neither the Messiah nor Jesus can be identified as the entity being referred to as “My servant”.

    Overall research summary

    Final Conclusion for Parts I & II: The Jewish interpretation of Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (“Isaiah 53”) that Israel is the identity of the entity being referred to as “My servant” is correct.

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