Did Jews believe the suffering servant was the messiah?

Is it true (as Christians claim) that Jews at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple believed that Isaiah 53 spoke of a suffering messiah who was to die as an atonement for the sins of others and then be resurrected? Let's find out.

Answer: A number of interpretations as to the identity of the "suffering servant" and what he was to accomplish may have been current during the Second Temple period. However, there is no evidence to support the Christian contention that the interpretation of the servant as the suffering messiah later adopted by the followers of Jesus was one of them.

The Gospels themselves provide evidence that no such understanding of the passage existed prior to the crucifixion. For example, what did Jesus' disciples believe? After Peter acknowledges Jesus as the Messiah (Matthew 16:16), he is informed that Jesus will be killed (Matthew 16:21). Rather than acknowledging this as the prophetic fate of the Messiah he responds: "God forbid it, lord! This shall never happen to you." He would never have said this if he thought Jesus was the fulfillment of a supposedly centuries old prophetic interpretation of Isaiah 53 that coincides with that now found in Christianity.

As for Jesus himself, he requests that God "remove the cup from me" (Mark 14:36), that is, the humiliation, suffering, and death he is about to undergo? Obviously he didn't know that this is why he supposedly came to earth and that the travail he is about to undertake is allegedly the fulfillment of Isaiah 53. It is clear that a removal of "the cup" would destroy what Christian's would later claim is God's plan for mankind's redemption.

Did Jesus offer a prayer that he knew to be nothing but an empty gesture on his part?

Jesus supposedly taught the disciples to understand the Scriptures as referring to himself as the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, who was to arise from the dead after dying as an atonement for mankind's sins. Teaching about a suffering messianic figure who dies for other people's sins some Christian's claim was standard Jewish interpretation until the rabbis supposedly corrupted the true teaching to hide that Jesus fulfilled Isaiah 53.

However, when Jesus "was teaching his disciples and telling them, 'The Son of Man is to be delivered up into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he has been killed, he will rise again three days later" (Mark 9:31) we are told "they did not understand this statement" (Mark 9:32). This was obviously a concept that was unfamiliar to them.

The news of Jesus' death brings a reaction of "mourning and weeping" (Mark 16:10) from Jesus' disciples. "And when they heard that he was alive . . . they refused to believe it" (Mark 16:11). John explains, "For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise again from the dead" (John 20:9). The disciples reaction is not what would be expected if they saw events as fulfillment of Isaiah 53.

One would expect that if there were any first century C.E. Jews who were familiar with the interpretation of Isaiah 53 espoused by present-day Christians, that it would have been Jesus and his followers. Yes, there are New Testament anachronisms that attribute such teachings to Jesus. Yet, we find instances where Jesus and/or his followers express themselves in a manner that runs counter to this new Christian interpretation.

It is apparent from the Gospels that before and for sometime after the crucifixion Jesus' own disciples didn't view Isaiah 53 as referring to a suffering messiah who would die for the sins of the people and then be resurrected. It was only in the post-crucifixion period that these notions developed among the followers of Jesus. There is simply no evidence that this was a Jewish interpretation of the passage. The Question remains as to who are the Jews contemporary with Jesus that supposedly held to what has become the present Christian understanding of the meaning of Isaiah 53? They simply cannot be identified because they never existed.

© Gerald Sigal