Saturday, February 9, 2013

Rabbis, Skeptics, and the Suffering Messiah



On the day of His resurrection, two disciples were dragging themselves, “faces downcast,” towards a village called Emmaus. They suddenly found that they were joined by another, but “they were kept from recognizing Him.” Not knowing that this was their Lord, they confessed their profound disappointment to Him:

·        “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:21)

They had despaired of their faith. Therefore, Christ gave them a swift proverbial kick:

·        He said to them, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25-27)

According to Jesus, Scripture is about Him (John 5:39). By revealing how Scripture had prophesied His death and resurrection, Jesus provided a degree of comfort on the Emmaus road.

However, some critics argue that such comfort is not to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, professor of religion, Bart Ehrman, argues that prophecies of the Messiah’s death and resurrection are entirely absent from these Scriptures:

·        In the Jewish tradition, before the appearance of Christianity, there was no expectation of a suffering Messiah. But doesn’t the Bible constantly talk about the Messiah who would suffer? As it turns out, the answer is no. Since the beginning, Christians have frequently cited certain passages in the Old Testament as clear prophecies of the future suffering Messiah, passages such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, in which someone suffers horribly, sometimes expressly for the sins of others…Jews who do not believe in Jesus, however, have always had a very effective response: the Messiah is never mentioned in these passages. (Jesus, Interrupted, 228-29)

The fact that the word for “Messiah” is not mentioned in these passages is immaterial. The ancient rabbis regarded many passages as Messianic – even the most prominent ones (2 Sam. 7:14; Psalm 2; 110; Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 11) – although they do not contain this term.

Besides, it is beyond dispute that the ancient Rabbis did regard these passages as Messianic, along with almost every Messianic passage quoted in the New Testament! Alfred Edersheim provides two references from the Yalkut, which regard Psalm 22 as Messianic (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 718). Edersheim also provides two references for Isaiah 53 – one from the Midrash on Samuel, and the other from a Targum (727).

However, there are many other Jewish references regarding Isaiah 53 as Messianic. Rabbi Moshe Alshekh, a famous 16th century rabbinic scholar asserted:

·        [Our] Rabbis with one voice, accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet [Isaiah 53] is speaking of king Messiah.  (Rachmiel Frydland, What the Rabbis Know about the Messiah, 53)

Friedland also quotes the Talmud tractate Sanhedrin:

·        The Rabanan [rabbis] say that Messiah’s name is The Suffering Scholar…for it is written, “Surely He hath borne our grief and carried our sorrows, yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted.” [Isaiah 53] (54)

The Talmud quotes Isaiah 53:4 in reference to Messiah. However, it goes further by acknowledging that the Messiah would suffer for our sins. Clearly, this is in direct contradiction to Ehrman’s claim that the Jews believe that the “Messiah is never mentioned in these passages.”

Rabbi Friedland contradicts this claim:

·        Generally then, the Talmud, the Targum, the Midrashim, the Zohar and Pesikta Rabbati recognized a suffering Messiah in fulfillment of Isaiah 53 and other similar descriptions in the Tenach. (54)

Douglas Pyle adds some additional references. The revered 12th century Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides wrote:

·        “Yet he carried our sicknesses, being himself sick and distressed for the transgressions which should have caused sickness and distress in us, and bearing the pains which we ought to have experienced. But we, when we saw him weakened and prostrate, thought we were healed [Isaiah 53:5] – because the stripes by which he was vexed and distressed will heal us: God will pardon us for his righteousness and we shall be healed from our own transgressions and from the iniquities of our fathers.”

While it is true that modern-day no longer regard Isaiah 53 as Messianic, the ancient authorities did! Pyle provides a number of other quotations. Midrash Aseret Memrot states:

·        “The Messiah, in order to atone for them both [for Adam and David] will ‘make his soul a trespass offering,’ [Isaiah 53:10].”

The highly regarded 1st century Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai stated:

·        “The meaning of the words Bruised for our iniquities’ [Isaiah 53:5] is that since the Messiah bears our iniquities, which produce the effect of his being bruised, it follows that whoso will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities, must endure and suffer them for them himself.” (What the Rabbonim Say About Moshiach, Douglas Pyle)

There is just a wealth of ancient evidence to demonstrate that Ehrman’s claim is incorrect and that the ancient rabbis did regard Isaiah 53 as Messianic. However, today many rabbis have rallied around the assertion that the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53 is the nation of Israel and not the Messiah. Furthermore, instead of the Messiah dying for the sins of the people, according to this formulation, Israel would and did die for the Gentiles. However, it is time to look directly at Isaiah 53 to determine whether such an assertion is at all tenable.


Isaiah 53:1-3 Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we [Gentiles] see Him [Israel], there is no beauty that we [Gentiles] should desire Him [Israel]. He [Israel] is despised and rejected by [Gentile] men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we [Gentiles] hid, as it were, our faces from Him [Israel]; He was despised, and we [Gentiles] did not esteem Him.

For the sake of clarity, I’ve inserted within the parentheses what the modern rabbinic interpretation looks like. From the start, such an interpretation is highly implausible. For one thing, the narrator is no longer Isaiah but a Gentile spokesman [“we,” 53:3] who has incredibly slipped in and dislodged the author Isaiah. However, there is no precedent for such a thing in all of Scripture.

In a vain attempt to eliminate Jesus from consideration, the modern rabbis have condemned themselves to an absurd interpretation, in which Israel dies for “we” Gentiles. Is there any Biblical evidence that Israel would die a redemptive death for the Gentiles? No! All of the evidence points to God as Redeemer, not sinful Israel! Meanwhile, Israel is always characterized as the object of mercy, not its source.

In The Jew and the Christian Missionary, Rabbi Gerald Sigal also argues that this chapter could not possibly refer to Jesus:

·        Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, does not at all fit that of the Suffering Servant of the Lord as portrayed in Isaiah.

Why not? Sigal argues that the Jesus of the Gospels was popular. However the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 was not. In support of this charge, he cites several verses:

·        Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news of Him went out through all the surrounding region. And He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all. (Luke 4:14-15; similarly, Luke 8:4; Matthew 27:57)

However, Jesus’ popularity was only temporary and skin-deep. Ultimately, the world turned against Him:

·        John 7:7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me because I testify of it that its works are evil. (Also John 15:18-20)

·        John 6:66 From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.

·        Matthew 27:22 Pilate said to them, "What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?" They all said to him, "Let Him be crucified!"


Isaiah 53:4-6 Surely He [Israel] has borne our [Gentile] griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we [Gentiles] esteemed Him [Israel] stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He [Israel] was wounded for our [Gentile] transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him [Israel], and by His [Israel’s] stripes we [Gentiles] are healed. All we [Gentiles] like sheep have gone astray; We [Gentiles] have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him [Israel] the iniquity of us [Gentiles] all.

Remarkably, Sigal, following other rabbis, claims that the narrators are Gentiles:

  • The Gentile spokesmen depict the Servant (the Nation of Israel) as bearing the “diseases” and carrying the “pains” which they themselves should have suffered.
However, just a quick read through the Prophets of Israel will show that Israel wasn’t in any position to carry the sins of others. They could not even bear their own sins. The Prophets make it plain that it was Israel who has “gone astray” and “turned, every one, to his own way.”

Traditionally, Israel-as-Redeemer hadn’t been the Jewish position. Maimonides, commenting  on Isaiah 53:4, wrote:

  • Yet he carried our sicknesses, being himself sick and distressed for the transgressions which should have caused sickness and distress in us, and bearing the pains which we ought to have experienced. But we, when we saw him weakened and prostrate, thought we were healed [53:5] – because the stripes by which he was vexed and distressed will heal us: God will pardon us for his righteousness and we shall be healed from our own transgressions and from the iniquities of our fathers.”
According to Maimonides, the Redeemer is the Messiah. We even find this thinking reflected in the Day of Atonement Musaf (additional) prayer:

  • “Our righteous anointed [Messiah] is departed from us: horror hath seized us, and we have none to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities, and our transgression [53:5]. He beareth our sins on his shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wound, at the time that the Eternal will create him as a new creature.”

Despite of the wealth of evidence to the contrary, Ehrman confidently and repeatedly claims that:

  • The idea that Jesus was the suffering Messiah was an invention of the early Christians. (236)

Isaiah 53:7 He [Israel] was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He [Israel] opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.

Although we cannot find any Biblical references to affirm that Israel had been silent in the face of oppression, we do find that this is true of Jesus. Nevertheless, Sigal claims that:

  • Jesus presented a strong defense both before the Sanhedrin and Pilate!
In support of this absurd claim, Sigal cites John 18:20-21:

  • Jesus answered him, "I spoke openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where the Jews always meet, and in secret I have said nothing. Why do you ask Me? Ask those who have heard Me what I said to them. Indeed they know what I said."
This was no defense. Jesus acted provocatively in order to be found “guilty,” as the next two verses indicate:

  • And when He had said these things, one of the officers who stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying, "Do You answer the high priest like that?" Jesus answered him, "If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why do you strike Me?" (John 18:22-23)
According to the standards of that day, Jesus had answered confrontationally and was therefore struck. This was the opposite of a defense. Before the Sanhedrin, He remained silent, opening His mouth only to aid the prosecution:

  • But He kept silent and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked Him, saying to Him, "Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" Jesus said, "I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven." Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "What further need do we have of witnesses? (Mark 14:61-63)
Before Pilate, Jesus admitted He had a kingdom. According to Pilate’s thinking, this would place Him in competition with His boss Caesar, who had zero tolerance for any kingdoms besides his own:

  • “What have You done?" [Pilate asked.] Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here." Pilate therefore said to Him, "Are You a king then?" Jesus answered, "You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world." (John 18:35-37)
At this point, to exonerate a “rival” king was to betray Caesar – risky business! Jesus then further infuriated both Pilate and King Herod with His silence:

  • And while He was being accused by the chief priests and elders, He answered nothing. Then Pilate said to Him, "Do You not hear how many things they testify against You?" But He answered him not one word [in defense], so that the governor marveled greatly. (Matthew 27:12-14)
  • Then he questioned Him with many words, but He answered him nothing. And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused Him. (Luke 23:9-10)
Contrary to Sigal’s claim, we find no semblance of any defense here. If anything, Jesus was helping the prosecution to condemn Him.


Isaiah 53:8-9 He [Israel]  was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare His generation? For He [Israel] was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My [Gentile] people He [Israel] was stricken. And they made His [Israel’s] grave with the wicked--but with the rich at His [Israel’s] death, because He [Israel] had done no violence. Nor was any deceit in His [Israel’s] mouth.

Jesus was deprived of justice (“judgment”) and was killed. Therefore, no one could talk about His progeny (“generation”). However, this hadn’t been the case with Israel. Israel was not “cut off from the land of the living.” Israel remained to produce progeny. It is also clearly untrue that Israel “had done no violence. Nor was any deceit in His [Israel’s] mouth.” At times, the Prophets charged that Israel had morally descended below the Gentiles.

How was Israel’s grave with both the wicked and the rich? Sigal claims that, somehow, this was figuratively true. However, the Gospels declare that this was the case with Jesus, dying with sinners and buried in a rich man’s tomb. These are claims that could have been very easy to disprove had they not been true!

However, Sigal claims that this description could not fit Jesus because Jesus had done much “violence,” contrary to Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant. In support of this charge, Sigal cites Jesus’ “violence” to the money-changers (Matthew 21:12), His casting demons out into swine (Mark 5:13), and His teaching about bringing a sword to divide families (Matthew 10:34-35.)

However, this is a desperate attempt to disqualify Jesus. In none of these three instances did Jesus perform or advocate sinful violence. Clearly, there was no attempt to bring charges against Him for expelling the money-changers. If Jesus had broken the law, the Sanhedrin would have brought charges against him.

Sigal then claims that “no deceit in his mouth”(53:9) could not apply to Jesus! This is because Jesus had been misleading when He promised to raise the Temple up in three days (John 2:19-21), which He didn’t do, simply because He was talking figuratively about His body.

Sigal also indicts Jesus because He hid the truth, talking in parables (Matthew 13:10-11). According to him, this practice was deceitful. However, according to this thinking, poets are also deceitful.


Isaiah 53:10-11 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him [Israel]; He has put Him to grief. When You make His [Israel’s] soul an offering for sin, He [Israel] shall see His seed (”offspring”), He [Israel] shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand. He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His [Israel’s] knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their [Gentile] iniquities.

There is no reason to suppose that Israel’s death could represent “an offering for sin.” Sin offerings had to be without any blemish. Meanwhile, Israel was covered with them.  Consequently, Israel could not qualify to “bear their [Gentile] iniquities.”

We should also ask how it could possibly be that the knowledge of Israel “shall justify many?” There is absolutely no Biblical precedent for such an idea. However, it is true that faith (knowledge) in the Messiah will “justify many!” (Psalm 2:12).

Also, throughout, the masculine singular pronoun “he” is used to designate the suffering servant. Such a pronoun is very rarely used in regards to Israel. More usually, Israel is referred to as “you,” she/her.” and “they/them.” However, there is absolutely no problem at all in using “he” in reference to the Messiah.

Sigal claims that “offspring” or “seed” (53:10) could not pertain to believers in Christ, as Christians allege, because, according to him, this term is always used to designate one’s own children and not figurative or spiritual children.

However, even though this is the usual usage for “offspring,” there are exceptions. Sometimes, it can be used figuratively:

  • But come here, you sons of the sorceress, you offspring of the adulterer and the harlot! Whom do you ridicule? Against whom do you make a wide mouth and stick out the tongue? Are you not children of transgression, offspring of falsehood? (Isaiah 57:3-4)
It is also interesting to note that this Servant, who dies as a burnt offering for the people, will eventually “see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied.” This implies that He will live subsequent to His death. Therefore, this prophecy also represents a cryptic reference to the resurrection.

In fact, all of the verses envisioning the death of the Messiah also seem to contain a cryptic reference to His subsequent resurrection! I’ll just offer one more example:

  • Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. (Psalm 16:9-10)
Interestingly, this verse cryptically portrays the Messiah’s death and subsequent life. As David, He too will be in the grave (death). However, He will not remain and decay there (resurrection)!

This entire discourse will raise the question, “Why then isn’t God more explicit about these critical matters?” While I think that there are many reasons for this, I’ll just address one. There is knowledge that we are not ready to handle. The Apostle Paul writes:

  • No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him." (1 Cor. 2:7-9)
It is not just God’s enemies who are kept in the dark. It is we too, and I trust for good reason! Meanwhile, He has granted us a body of knowledge, which are we mandated to defend against the Gospel’s many detractors. May our Lord enable us!

1 comment:

  1. An absolutely tremendous article!!!! Interesting enough Isa. 53 is the very scripture the Ethiopian Eunuch was reading and Philip explained to him who the suffering servant was...... led him to faith in Jesus I might add...
    Thank you for sharing it.

    ReplyDelete