Does “despised and we esteemed him not” describe Jesus?

Does the Gospel’s representation of Jesus show fulfillment of the description of the suffering servant: “he was despised and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3)?

Answer:

The Gospel accounts claim Jesus was popular throughout his life generally (Luke 2:52) and during his public ministry in particular. The evangelists insist that Jesus was greatly admired by large segments from every level of society. What is more, many were his loyal followers. True, the evangelists claim that the Jewish rulers condemned Jesus, but, nevertheless, they assert that Jesus had many followers even among the ruling class. The evangelists speak of Jesus as one who, while losing at times, many of his followers, always had, even at the end of his life, a great many faithful adherents. According to the Gospel accounts, these adherents came from every segment of society.

It is claimed that wherever he went, crowds flocked about him. True, it is said that Jesus felt many followed him for unworthy motives (John 6:26). However, this negative motivation or the servant’s disappointment at the lack of true loyalty is not reflected in Isaiah 53:3. There the servant is despised and rejected but nothing is said about his adversaries having, at one time been his followers, let alone that they had unworthy motives in initially following him. In verse 3, they never were his followers to begin with.

The Gospels’ Jesus is described in superlative terms that are the exact opposite of one who is despised and rejected. He is “glorified by all” (Luke 4:14-15); “a great crowd came together” to see him (Luke 8:4); “great crowds followed him” from near and far (Matthew 4:25); and he is called “a great prophet” (Luke 7:16).

John states that many of the Jews believed in Jesus (John 12:11), and that among them were many of the rulers who secretly believed in him (John 12:42). In Luke 13:31, we are told that even some of the Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod was planning to kill him and urged him to escape. Matthew 21:46 and Mark 12:12, 37, inform us that Jesus taught the crowds in the Temple and that his enemies were afraid to arrest him because they feared the multitudes who listened to him enthusiastically. Moreover, when his enemies made their final plans to arrest him, they decided: “Not during the festival, lest there be an uproar of the people” (Matthew 26:5, Mark 14:1-2, see also Luke 22:2). When Jesus entered Jerusalem, it was to the accompanying shouts of “Hosanna” coming from the crowds (Matthew 21:9) that declared him to be “the prophet Jesus” (Matthew 21:11).

Was Jesus abandoned in his last hours? As Jesus went to be crucified “a great multitude of people, and of women” accompanied him “beating themselves and bewailing him” (Luke 23:27).  At his crucifixion “many women [supporters] were there looking from a distance” (Matthew 27:55, Mark 14:40, Luke 23:49); Luke adds “all those acquainted with him were standing at a distance” (Luke 23:49); “all the multitude” attending the crucifixion began “beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48). John mentions the presence at the crucifixion of “the disciple whom he loved” (John 19:20). Nicodemus, a Pharisee and “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1), helped Joseph of Arimathaea, a rich man, to prepare the body for burial (John 19:39). Joseph of Arimathaea was a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 27:57, John 19:38) and a member of the Sanhedrin (Luke 23:50-51).

The overall Gospel accounts claim that Jesus had a large and loyal following throughout Judea and the surrounding territories. This group, it is alleged, consisted of people from among every strata of society. These were individuals who did not know of events in Jerusalem and were still loyal to him.

Some Christians claim that Jesus died without any significant following. This, however, is only an argument necessitated by theological needs. The Gospels allege that the masses adhered to a messianic belief that Jesus, who was believed to be the son of David (Matthew 9:27), was not only the prophet promised in Deuteronomy 18:15 (John 7:40), but was in fact, the very Messiah himself (John 7:41). Even though there was a division among the crowd over who he was (John 7:43), and many of his disciple left him (John 6:66), we must assume, the Gospels not telling us otherwise, that thousands of people throughout the country, still believed in him as the Messiah at the time of his crucifixion. It should be noted that, according to the Gospel narratives, the general Jewish populace did not have occasion to directly reject Jesus’ messianic assertions, since he had not openly claimed to be the Messiah (Matthew 16:16, 20; Mark 8:29-30; Luke 9:20-21).

The words of Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and rejected of men . . . and as one from whom men hide their faces . . . and we esteemed him not” cannot be applied to Jesus if one is to believe the New Testament narrative.

© Gerald Sigal