Isaiah 53 and the “Suffering Servant.”

Missionaries misleadingly assert that the entire chapter 53 of the book of Isaiah refers to Jesus as the “Suffering Servant” of God who dies for the sins of the world. Someone could easily be fooled to believe this argument if Isaiah is read out of context and without a proper translation. At this point, take out a Tanach and turn to Isaiah 52 and read straight through 53, then proceed further:

If you read the text correctly, Isaiah is clearly telling us how the nations of the world will react when they witness the future messianic-redemption of the Jewish people. (Throughout the book of Isaiah, the Jewish people are referred to as the “Servant of G-d” and in the singular, e.g. Isaiah 41:8, Isaiah 49:3). First, they will be astonished, literally covering their mouths at what they see, because they never believed that they would witness the glorious redemption of a persecuted, rejected and despised Israel – which they themselves persecuted! Then, they will try to understand why this newly exalted Israel suffered so much. Originally they believed it was because G-d had rejected the Jews. Now that they see that this is not true, they will say that the suffering was the result of the transgressions of the nations (themselves) who persecuted the Jewish people.

While it is useful to share the entire chapter with the students, if time is of the essence the major mistranslations to focus on are these two:

1.“He [Israel] was wounded because of (מ) our [the nations] transgression.” (Isaiah 53:5). In this verse the Hebrew letter (מ) means “because of” or “from.” It is never translated as “for” which would incorrectly indicate a vicarious atonement.

2. “For the transgression of my people they (למו) were stricken.” (Isaiah 53:8). The word they (למו) is plural (see Psalm 99:7) and clearly indicates that this verse does not refer to a single individual.

Another important detail to point out is that his chapter does not clearly identify Jesus of Nazareth. Even if we take the approach that the chapter does speak of Messiah, it could just as easily apply to anyone in history who suffered. How about Moses, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Chaninah Ben Tradyon, Jews in the Holocaust, etc? The entire application to Jesus by missionaries is based on faith, but when carefully scrutinized it doesn’t prove anything.

One other point to emphasize, if you have time. In Matthew 16, we see that Jesus himself does not claim to be Messiah. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you think I am?” One answers “Elijah,” another, that he is John the Baptist. Peter thinks he is the Messiah. However, when Jesus then says that he must go up to Jerusalem, be killed, and resurrected on the third day. Peter rebukes him “God forbid it, lord, this shall never happen to you.

One may ask “Why does Peter need to rebuke Jesus?” If, indeed he is the promised messiah, then Peter, no doubt familiar with Isaiah 53, should have had no problem. Yet, since neither he, nor any other apostle of Jesus knew of any strange concept of Messiah suffering, dying, and being resurrected, they did not see Isaiah 53 as being a definitive passage containing information defining the “suffering servant” and vicarious atonement role of Messiah.