Is it true that Jews interpreted Isaiah 53 as referring to the Messiah until the medieval commentator Rashi explained it as referring to the people of Israel? Let’s find out
Answer: Christian missionaries claim that it is only with the commentary of Rashi (1040-1105), seeking to refute the Christian interpretation, that the Jews began to refer Isaiah 52:13-53:12 to the entire nation of Israel. This misconception perhaps owes its origin to Edward Pusey, who wrote in his 1876 introduction to The “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpretations (trans. Driver and Neubauer, [reprinted] New York: Hermon Press, 1969) that “The new interpretation began with Rashi” (p. XLIV). The interpretation was neither new, nor began with Rashi. This missionary allegation is refuted even by a Christian source. In Contra Celsum, written in 248 C.E. (some 800 years before Rashi), the Church Father Origen records that Jews contemporary with him interpreted this passage as referring to the entire nation of Israel. He wrote:
I remember that once in a discussion with some whom the Jews regard as learned I used these prophecies [Isaiah 52:13-53:8]. At this the Jew said that these prophecies referred to the whole people as though of a single individual, since they were scattered in the dispersion and smitten, that as a result of the scattering of the Jews among the other nations many might become proselytes. In this way he explained the text: “Thy form shall be inglorious among men“; and “those to whom he was not proclaimed shall see him“; “being a man in calamity.” (Origen, Contra Celsum, trans. Henry Chadwick, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Book 1.55, 1965, p. 50)
This shows that Jewish biblical exegesis subscribing to the belief that the people of Israel was the suffering servant spoken of throughout the entire passage pre-dates Rashi by many centuries.