ISAIAH 53: JESUS IS NOT THE SUFFERING SERVANT – Part 9

Continued from Part 8

ISAIAH 53:5

53:5:  “But he was wounded as a result of our transgressions, he was crushed as a result of our iniquities.” 

Christian renderings of the Hebrew text attempt to convey the message that the servant vicariously took upon himself the sins of the people, and this caused him, and not them, to suffer the consequences.  This conclusion is arrived at by a distortion of the text.  That is, they claim the servant took on the iniquities of others and thereby, allowed their sins to be expiated through his suffering.  This is a distortion of the meaning of the text that attempts to evade the real reason Jesus was executed.  A correct rendering of the text reveals that the nations of the world come to the realization that the servant’s suffering stemmed from their actions and sinfulness toward him.  (The singular used here for a plural collective community.)   The realization here is that the servant’s pain is not because of his own sins.  He bears the pain inflicted on him by others.  This verse reflects the nations’ realization that the servant suffered the consequences of their (the nations’) own persecution imposed in order to hide their own iniquities.

Why was Jesus arrested and executed?

Jesus was an apocalyptic revolutionary.  His insurrectionist activities brought upon him Roman condemnation and execution.  Jesus probably expected divine intervention with God sending His angels to annihilate the Roman’s.  His execution by a method reserved for rebels is evidence that the Romans considered him a seditionist.

Certainly, a movement with a messianic intimation and inherent kingship connotations raised concern among Roman officials entrusted with the maintenance of the Pax Roma (Roman Peace).  John’s Jesus acknowledging that he considered himself a king (John 18:37) was an admission of guilt of a serious offense under Roman law.  Under Roman law only the emperor could appoint a king. The Gospels’ Jesus did not suffer because of the iniquity of others, but because he challenged Roman sovereignty over Judea.  Pressing his messianic pretensions was, to the Roman administration of the country, a challenge to Roman rule.  It was common knowledge, of which Pontius Pilate was certainly well aware, that anyone who claimed to be the Messiah must also claim to be king of the Jews.  The Gospels’ Jesus challenged Roman rule by the way he is said to have entered into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:7-11, Mark 11:7-11, Luke 19:35-39, John 12:12-13).  Jesus’ manner of entry into Jerusalem and the accompanying acclaim the Gospels say he received from the people was seen as the commission of an act of treason against the emperor.  This assured his arrest and crucifixion.  From the moment Jesus was hailed as the son of David he was a marked man.  The seizure of the Temple courtyard was also by its nature a subversive act against Rome.  The Romans could not see Jesus’ offense as solely against the Jewish priesthood.  They would understand it as directed against their control over the symbol of Jewish nationhood, the Temple.  Pilate had no alternative but to treat Jesus as a political threat.

Despite the evangelical attempt to exonerate Pilate (Matthew 27:24; Mark 15:14; Luke 23:4; John 18:38, 19:4) by blaming the Jews (John 19:11) and thereby free Rome from responsibility for the crucifixion, it must be remembered that this method of execution was reserved for political crimes against Rome.   Blaming the Jewish people and their leaders for Jesus’ death was the early church’s response to widespread Jewish refusal to accept the false claims made on behalf of Jesus.

Jesus was executed for his own challenge to the Roman Empire.  He imagined himself to be the Messiah, the king of the Jews, and died for that mistake.  Jesus’ death was not a vicarious sacrifice for the benefit of mankind in general or for the Jewish people in particular.  Jesus’ death was the result of his own failure to recognize his limitations.  One of the limitations Jesus had was that he did not qualify to be the servant.

53:5:   “The chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his wounds we were healed.”

The scourging mystery

Referring to the suffering undergone by the servant, “with his wounds we were healed.”  Christian claim this refers to Jesus receiving “stripes,” that is, being scourged prior to his crucifixion.  But, was Jesus scourged prior to his crucifixion?  And, if he were scourged, how did this “heal” anyone?

It is commonly assumed that Jesus underwent great suffering and blood loss as a result of being scourged by the Romans prior to his crucifixion. This sentiment is based on an erroneous understanding of the Gospels.  According to Matthew, Mark, and John, Jesus was scourged prior to his crucifixion.  Matthew and Mark relate that at the end of the trial Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, “scourged and delivered him [Jesus] to be crucified” (Mark 15:15, Matthew 27:26).  That is, Pilate scourged him after sentencing.  John writes that Pilate scourged Jesus in the course of the trial (John 19:1), before he brought him out to face “the Jews” once more (John 19:4-5).

Some Christians have tried to harmonize the different versions by claiming there was a double scourging.  But Luke has a completely different approach to the scourging narrative.

The scourging in Luke’s version of Passion events presents a problem in that Jesus does not undergo scourging at any time prior to or after his arrival at the execution site.  Luke alludes to scourging but there it is offered as an alternative punishment to crucifixion.  It would be a beating that would be the full penalty; that is, more like a warning than a sentence.  According to Luke, Pilate said:  “I will punish him and release him” (Luke 23:16) and “I have found nothing deserving of death in him; I will therefore punish him and release him” (Luke 23:22).  In the end, Luke’s Jesus never undergoes scourging, although he allegedly predicts his own scourging:  “For he will be delivered up to the gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, and after they have scourged him, they will kill him; and the third day he will rise again” (Luke 18:32-33).  Scourging appears to have been a customary preliminary administered to those about to be crucified.  The condemned, usually stripped naked, was beaten and mocked all the way to the execution site.  In addition, he was bound or nailed to the crossbeam (patibulum) either before starting on his way or on arrival at the place of execution.  He was required to carry or drag the crossbeam all the way to the execution site.  Such procedures were apparently not followed when the Gospels’ Jesus was led to his death.  After the Roman soldiers abused and mocked him (Matthew 27:30, Mark 15:19) they “put his own clothes on him” (Mark 15:20, see also Matthew 27:31) and the Synoptic Gospels maintain that he did not carry the crossbeam for most of the distance (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26).

The crossbeam mystery

According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus was unable to carry the crossbeam the entire distance to the execution site and the Roman soldiers pressed one Simon of Cyrene into service to carry it the rest of the way (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26).  Why was Jesus unable to carry the crossbeam the full distance?  It has been suggested that Jesus had become so physically weak from the scourging that he simply could not continue under the weight of the crossbeam.  The soldiers, it is presumed, pressed Simon into service to prevent Jesus from collapsing of exhaustion before they could execute him.  The theory seems to gain support from the short time that it took for him to die once he was crucified (Mark 15:44, John 19:33).  How weak could Luke’s Jesus have been when, relieved of the burden of the crossbeam, he is said to have turned to the “daughters of Jerusalem” and to have spoken to them at some length (Luke 23:28-31).  But, of course, this is in Luke where Jesus never undergoes scourging!

The Johannine mystery

According to John’s version of the story, Jesus carried his own crossbeam the entire distance.  Christians maintain that Simon is not mentioned in John because in Johannine christology there is no room for Jesus needing or accepting help from human beings.  This is tantamount to saying Johannine christology is derived by rejecting any fact that would deny the making of the Johannine christological myth.

© Gerald Sigal

Continued…