We all know of a Jewish person who was shown the text of Isaiah 53, and not knowing what he was reading, assumed it was speaking about Yeshua. He responds that he does not believe in the New Testament. And then the shocked reader learns that this passage was written by Isaiah.
Christians who share the Gospel with Jewish people think of Isaiah 53 as a “silver bullet”, a proof that Yeshua was spoken of in the Prophets. It is easy to see why. Read this condensed version, and see what you think.
Isaiah 53:1 Who has believed what we have heard? … 2 For he grew up before him like a … root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, … 3 He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; … 4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by G‑d, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; … and the L‑RD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; … 8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away … For he was … stricken for the transgression of my people. 9 They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, … 10 Yet it was the will of the L‑RD to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the L‑RD shall prosper. 11 … The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, … because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
At face value, the words do sound like Yeshua. But if we consider that this is a short passage from one of the longest books in the Bible, when we look at the context, we have to ask whether this is literally a prediction of the suffering and death of Yeshua, or is Isaiah talking about events of his own time? And if the latter is true, how can the message also be speaking about Yeshua?
The larger question is, how do the NT writers use the Tenakh? Many believe that the Tenakh contains hundreds of prophecies about Yeshua, predicting details of his life, death and resurrection, which prove he is the Messiah. But does the NT’s use of Tenakh quotations really justify this?
How Does the NT Use Tenakh Quotations?
This is a huge question! I will attempt to offer a brief answer, and then return to the question of Isaiah 53.
First, we must try to read the NT without an agenda, and let the writers speak for themselves. Then, we must compare it to other literature of the time. The NT was written mainly by Jewish authors, and its messages is rooted in the Tenakh, and set against the backdrop of the first century Jewish hope for Messianic redemption. We have other Jewish literature from that world—mainly Talmud and Midrash—that shares similar hopes. So we have a good basis for understanding how Jews of that time interpreted the Tenakh.
Almost 100 years ago, Christian Judaic scholar George Foot Moore described Rabbinic exegesis of the Tenakh as:
“… atomistic exegesis which interprets sentences, clauses, phrases and even single words independently of the context or the historical occasion, … combines them with other similarly detached utterances and makes use of analogy of expressions, often by purely verbal association.”
He continues, “The interpretation of the Scriptures in the New Testament is of precisely the same kind.” (Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, Volume I:249-250, 1927. Cited in: David Instone Brewer, Techniques and Assumptions in Jewish Exegesis before 70 CE, 1992.)
Brewer adds: “Sixty years later most scholars still agree with [George Foot Moore’s] assessment, and the consequences are profound.”
In that era, Jewish interpreters of Tenakh looked for many levels of meaning. They said, “There are 70 faces to the Torah.” Like a multi-faceted jewel, the Tenakh yields different meanings when viewed from various directions. The literal meaning is important, but it is only one level of meaning.
The Rabbis had techniques for finding other meanings. Perhaps the most common of these is midrash. Midrash seeks meanings from the text other than the literal one. This is one way to bring the ancient texts alive, and let them speak to people in other times and places. Words from the Tenakh can be lifted out of their context, and fitted to different circumstances. We all do this. This is how the Bible speak to us today.
A classic example is found in a discussion of the two versions of the Shabbat command in the Ten Commandments. One says to “keep the Shabbat”, and one says to “remember” it. Yet G‑d spoke the command only once. The Rabbis’ solution to this mystery is that He said both at the same time.
Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, Exodus 20:8: “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it”: “Remember” (Exodus 20:8) and “Keep [the Sabbath day to sanctify it]” (Deuteronomy 5:12) were both stated in one pronouncement—something beyond the powers of a human being to say. As it is written (Psalm 62:12), “One thing has G-d spoken, these two have I heard. That power belongs to G‑d.”
The words of Psalm 62:12 perfectly explain this phenomenon. However, it has nothing to do with what the Psalm is about! This is midrash. The biblical words speak to something beyond their original meaning.
Isaiah 53 in Targum and Talmud
Returning to the question of Isaiah 53, here is a brief survey of references to it in the Talmudic period.
An early Aramaic translation of the Tenakh renders Isaiah 52:13: “Behold my servant the Messiah shall do well…” Zealous Messianic readers (including myself in earlier days) jump on this translation as “proof” that Jews saw the passage as “messianic”. But was this the meaning? The Aramaic could just as well mean “my anointed servant”, and not be messianic at all. Earlier in Isaiah (45:1), G‑d calls King Cyrus of Persia “My anointed”, because he was chosen to order and finance Israel’s return from exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Yet nobody thinks that Cyrus was “The Messiah”. In this Targum text, the meaning is simply that the “servant”, whoever he was or is, was chosen by G‑d.
It is worth noting that the original context of Isaiah 53 was primarily about the “good news” of the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem and the land of Israel, which was possible only because “Our G‑d reigns”. This was the original “good news of the Kingdom”, and this is why so many verses from Isaiah are cited in the NT in support of the good news that Yeshua proclaimed.
The “suffering servant” of Isaiah 42-55 is mostly talking about Israel. Sometimes, the servant will cause Israel to return to G‑d (49:5), but usually the servant is Israel. So Jewish Rabbis and scholars who insist that Isaiah 53 is talking about Israel, are correct in the literal meaning. Isaiah’s message was first for people of his time, or soon afterwards. Later applications of the texts fall into the category of midrash. This does not, however, make them incorrect!
The Talmud does not cite Isaiah 53 very often, but when it does, it uses the texts pretty much in the same way as the NT writers do. This first citation is talking generally about a person who is righteous, but suffers unjustly.
Berachot 5a: If the Holy One, blessed be He, is pleased with a man, he crushes him with painful sufferings. For it is said: “And the L‑rd was pleased with [him, hence] he crushed him by disease”. You might think that this is so even if he did not accept them with love. Therefore it is said: “To see if his soul would offer itself in restitution.” Even as the trespass-offering must be brought by consent, so also the sufferings must be endured with consent. And if he did accept them, what is his reward? “He will see his seed, prolong his days.” And more than that, his knowledge [of Torah] will endure with him. For it is said: “The purpose of the L‑rd will prosper in his hand.” (Isaiah 53:10).
The Jerusalem Talmud Shekalim 21a applies the first half of 53:12 to “Rabbi Akiva, who established the Midrash Halachot and Haggadot.” He and his students were tortured and murdered during the Bar Kochba Revolt. The second part of the verse could also be applied to him, but the Talmud does not do that.
Another passage applies the same verse (53:12) to Moses:
Sotah 14b: ‘Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great’ (Isaiah 53:12)—it is possible [to think] with the [great of] later generations and not former generations; therefore there is a text to declare, ‘And he shall divide with the strong’, with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who were strong in Torah and commandments. ‘Because he poured out his soul unto death’—because he surrendered himself to die, as it is said: “And if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of the book …” (Exodus 32:32). ‘And was numbered with the transgressors’—because he was numbered with them who were condemned to die in the wilderness. ‘Yet he bare the sins of many’—because he secured atonement for the making of the Golden Calf. ‘And made intercession for the transgressors’—because he begged for mercy on behalf of the sinners in Israel that they should turn in penitence.
And the last citation that I know of appears in a long discussion about the days of Messiah. While debating about the signs of the times, the length of the messianic age, how and when Messiah will come, and other matters, we find students in various schools wanting to name the Messiah after their Rabbi. The last suggestion for Messiah’s name is:
Sanhedrin 98b: 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 G‑d, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4).
Somebody thought Messiah would suffer from leprosy. Indeed, there is an earlier story in the same long discussion, where a Rabbi is told that he can find Messiah outside the gates of Rome, sitting with the lepers, bandaging his wounds, and waiting until he is called upon to bring the Redemption. In that story, there is no reference to Isaiah 53.
Isaiah 53 in the New Testament
With these examples in mind, let’s turn to the NT and survey the quotations from Isaiah 53, and see how they are used. I find it curious that the NT writers do not use Isaiah 53 as the “silver bullet” that will bring their message home to the Jewish people. It is not cited in any kind of systematic way, as if to interpret it as a prophecy of Yeshua’s redemptive death. Rather, it is cited piecemeal, much like the Talmud does.
Isaiah 53:1(John 12:37-38)
37 Although Yeshua had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him. 38 This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “L‑rd, who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the L‑rd been revealed?”
John is telling about the miracles Yeshua did, and yet they didn’t believe in him. And this is somehow a fulfillment of the words of Isaiah. John cites this verse because the words fit the story, but he is not talking about Yeshua suffering and dying for our sins.
Isaiah 53:1 (Romans 10:15-16)
15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Isaiah 52:7). 16 But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, “L‑rd, who has believed our message?”
Paul is writing about the need for someone to proclaim the good news. He quotes Isaiah 52:7, applying the ancient words to his own mission as an apostle. Some hear, and some do not hear, so he cites 53:1, referring to the people who do not believe him. These verses are part of a larger midrash that Paul is making on Deuteronomy 30. True, he is talking about the message of Yeshua, but he is not using these quotes from Isaiah to say anything about Yeshua suffering and dying for sins, only that there are people who do not believe the message.
Isaiah 53:4 (Matthew 8:16-17)
16 That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. 17 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”
Matthew is writing about healings that Yeshua did. The first half of 53:4 fits nicely with the story Matthew is telling. But he is not yet talking about anybody rejecting Yeshua, so the second half of the verse (“yet we accounted him stricken …”) is not relevant to this part of the story.
Isaiah 53:5-6 (1 Peter 2:23-25)
Peter goes farther afield in his appeal to Isaiah 53. He writes to people who already believe in Yeshua, who are being arrested and beaten for their faith. He tells them to act like Yeshua did when he was arrested, beaten and killed.
23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep”, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
Peter makes this partial quote from 53:5-6 to speak to the believers themselves. He pulls the words out of their original context, and in true midrashic style, he uses them to speak to people and circumstances that are not within the original meaning.
Isaiah 53:7-8 (Acts 8:26-35)
The last verses of Isaiah 53 cited in the NT are of a completely different form. Luke is not quoting the text in order to say something about Yeshua. Rather, a character in the story, an Ethiopian eunuch who was returning home from celebrating a festival in Jerusalem, was riding in his chariot and reading from Isaiah the Prophet. We don’t know how much of the book he read. It is a long way from Jerusalem to Ethiopia! But as he rode past Philip, he happened to be reading from Isaiah 53. Philip heard him reading, and struck up a conversation.
27 … Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Yeshua.
The passage the eunuch was reading is not even the most relevant part of the chapter! Luke was certainly not citing those verses to make any particular claim about Yeshua. The quote seems to be there just to establish that he was reading from Isaiah 53, and to give a basis for his question, “About whom is the Prophet speaking?” Philip began with this passage, and explained the good news to the eunuch, who believed Philip and was baptized.
Ironically, Luke tells us exactly what we do not need to know—which verses the eunuch was reading—and he does not tell us what we do want to know—how Philip used the Scriptures to share the good news! This is not the only time Luke does this. When he tells how the risen Yeshua revealed himself to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus, he chides them for being slow to believe what the prophets have written. “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). Wouldn’t we love to have that lesson written out for us?! But the scripture leaves us wondering what was said.
Therefore, no, Mr. Eunuch, the Prophet was not speaking about himself. Actually Isaiah was speaking about the nation Israel, who were suffering and as good as dead in exile, whom G‑d was about to restore to our city and land. But the words themselves tell a story beyond their literal historical meaning. They tell a story of one who was hated, rejected, suffered injustice, like the people he is part of, who was written off by history. But against all odds, he came back from death and is being restored. And it turns out that all his suffering was for the benefit of the same people who hated and rejected him.
In this article I am suggesting an alternative approach to prophecy and fulfillment, and to the use of the Tenakh in the NT. Once we set the New Covenant Scriptures back into their Jewish context, we can see that the NT quotes the Tenakh very much like the Rabbis do when making midrashic interpretations of the text. This means that words, phrases, and verses from Tenakh are separated from their original literal meaning, and applied in creative ways to later situations. This is a legitimate use of Scripture. We do it all the time. It is a testimony to the enduring power of the biblical text to speak to later generations.
As for Isaiah 53, we can avoid being blown out of the water by educated Jews if we use it like the NT does—not as a proof-text to prove that Yeshua is the Messiah, but rather to powerfully describe who he is and what he does, and let the Bible and the Spirit speak for themselves.