Bart Ehrman comments on Isaiah 53 – Does Isaiah 53 Predict Jesus’ Suffering and Death or Has Isaiah 53 Been Debunked?
Ehrman notes Isaiah 53 is the foremost Old Testament passage referred to by Christians pointing to Jesus as the Messiah.
Isaiah 53 is the ONE passage, above all others, that has been used over the centuries by Christians to be a prediction that the messiah will suffer and die for the sake of others.
He points out the concept of a bodily resurrection was unique during that time.
This idea, that we would live forever in our bodies (if we were among the “righteous”) was repugnant to just about everyone in the ancient world. But it became a widely held view among Jews, and was taken up with passion by the early Christians.
In addition to Isaiah, this was affirmed by Dan 12:2.[Dan 12:2 KJV] 2 And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame [and] everlasting contempt.
The earliest Christians intepreted Isaiah 53 as referring to Jesus.
The reason this has been of such importance to Christian interpreters is that since the times of the New Testament, Christian readers have thought that Isaiah was describing the crucifixion of Jesus for the sins of the world.
In the publically accessible portion of his blog, he makes 5 points about Isaiah 53.
1. It is to be remembered that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible are not predicting things that are to happen hundreds of years in advance. They are speaking to their own contexts and delivering a message for their own people to hear, about their own immediate futures;
Yes, Isaiah was addressing people at that time and for a near future. But, that does not mean it is only addressed to them and only has a near fulfillment. As Erhman points out, even the early Christians believed in a far fulfillment and so it is not a modern invention.
2. The author is not predicting that someone will suffer in the future for other people’s sins at all. Many readers fail to consider the verb tenses in these passages. They do not indicate that someone will come along at a later time and suffer in the future, they are talking about past suffering. The Servant has already suffered – although he “will be” vindicated. And so this not about a future suffering messiah.
Not even do the modern Jews interpret it this way. Erhman even self refutes this with a later point he makes that the prevailing Jewish interpretation is the nation of Israel has been and will be suffering for the nations.
And if the propecy had a near fulfillment, who was it referring to?
3. In fact, it is not about the messiah at all. This is a point frequently overlooked in discussions of the passage. If you will look, you will notice that the term messiah never occurs in the passage. This is not predicting what the messiah will be.
That’s technically correct, however, just because a messiah is not explicitly mentioned does not mean it cannot refer to one. As pointed out by Rabbi Skobac, “the Messiah” is also never mentioned in the OT, yet both Jews and Christians believe in “the Messiah”.
But let’s grant it’s not talking about a messiah. The Isaiah 53 passage still has a remarkable similarity with what Jesus went through. So, we can simply interpret the passage as a prophecy of what someone would be like, even if he was not a messiah.
4. It is important as well to note that Jews *never* interpreted this passage as referring to a future messiah and was never read messianically. Until the Christians began doing so, as a prediction of Jesus. When they did so, they were saying that the messiah fulfilled a passage that no one had ever thought was talking about a messiah.
Jews practically never read Isaiah 53 in the first place, so they rarely had any interpretations of it.
However, it’s not true they never had any interpretations of it. There were some early Jews that held to a suffering servant redeemer.
Jewish tradition of the late, or early post-Second Temple period alludes to two redeemers, one suffering and the second fulfilling the traditional messianic role, namely Mashiach ben Yosef, and Mashiach ben David.
5. If the passage is not referring to the messiah, and is not referring to someone in the future who is going to suffer – who is it talking about?
Here there really should be very little ambiguity. As I mentioned, this particular passage – Isaiah 53 – is one of four servant songs of Second Isaiah. And so the question is, who does Second Isaiah himself indicate that the servant is? A careful reading of the passages makes the identification quite clear: “But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen” (44:1); “Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant” (44:21); “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (49:3).
Ehrman alludes to the suffering servant to be the nation of Israel and cites passages in earlier passages referring the Israel as the servant.
However, the servant is referred to as an individual in later passages.
Isa 49:6-7 And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth. Thus saith the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel, his Holy One, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nation abhorreth, to a servant of rulers, Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship, because of the LORD that is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, and he shall choose thee.
Isaiah 50:5 The Lord GOD hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back.
And looking at the passage itself, it unambiguously refers to an individual, not a group. Just count how many times it refers to “he”, “his”, “him” and not “they”.[Isa 53:2-10 KJV] 2 For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, [there is] no beauty that we should desire him. 3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were [our] faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But he [was] wounded for our transgressions, [he was] bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace [was] upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. 8 He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. 9 And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither [was any] deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put [him] to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see [his] seed, he shall prolong [his] days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.