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Isaiah & the Suffering Servant

Isaiah & the Suffering Servant


In the time after the New Testament texts were written, Christians have attached a variety of passages from the Hebrew Bible to Jesus. He realizes this prediction or embodies that psalm. One of the traditions that is found in the New Testament itself is that Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy of the ‘suffering servant’, a figure described four times in Isa 40–55. For example:

Isaiah 53

1 Peter 2

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. […] All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and Yhwh has laid on him the iniquity of us all. […] although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

For many Christians, Isaiah predicted the self-sacrifice of this suffering servant about eight centuries before Jesus was crucified.

Of course, Judaism does not agree with this interpretation of Isaiah. Instead, the servant is commonly identified not as an individual, but as the personification of Israel. This view is strongly supported by the chapters leading up to Isa 53.

Yet, despite this seeming clarity, there are some puzzles to be solved in these chapters that make the suffering servant’s identity less obvious than readers tend to think.

The Second Book of Isaiah

There are four ‘suffering servant songs’, all found in Isa 40–55. They are commonly outlined as:1

  • 42.1–4 or 1–9
  • 49.1–6
  • 50.4–9 or 4–11
  • 52.13–53.12

Isa 40–55 is identified by many scholars as ‘Deutero-Isaiah’ or ‘Second Isaiah’.

The beginning of this section is identified for its abrupt and significant change in writing style and vocabulary after chapters 1–39. Where those first thirty-nine chapters — called Proto-Isaiah or First Isaiah — are primarily concerned with the threats of Israel, Syria, and Assyria to the Judean kingdom, chapters 40–55 instead use ‘Israel’ in a broader sense to refer to the Judean people under the dominion of Babylon. The first focus suits Isaiah’s time period in the late eighth century BCE, but the second focus only makes sense in the mid sixth century, when the kingdom of Babylon had asserted itself as a world power and conquered the Judean kingdom.

The end of this section is based on the high level of ‘correspondence’ chapter 55 has with chapter 40.2

For these reasons (along with other, finer details), most scholars agree that ‘Deutero-Isaiah’ contains prophecies not from Isaiah, but an otherwise anonymous prophet writing about a century and a half later. This second prophet lived during the Babylonian exile, and wrote his prophecies in its final years. This author, like Ezekiel, may have written his book among the exiles in Babylon.3

Any interpretation of the servant songs must be found in this context.

Unity of the Servant Songs

It is a near-unanimous view that the four songs are a unity with each other, coming from a single hand, but there is no agreement whether they came from the same author as the rest of Deutero-Isaiah, or if they were written at the same time.4 There is also not full agreement on whether the rest of Deutero-Isaiah was from a single author, or from multiple authors adding to each other’s work over time.5 If there were multiple authors, they probably belonged to a similar school of thought rooted in study and reflection of Proto-Isaiah.6 Some also think there is no ‘progression’ (in a narrative sense) throughout the four songs.7

Most scholars took Deutero-Isaiah as a literary unity before 1980, but after this time scholars ‘increasingly emphasized the internal tensions’8 of smaller units throughout the chapters.9 It became common to ‘presuppose’ that the only clear explanation for these difficulties was multiple authors with different ideas and messages.10 A distinction is made between chapters 40–48 and 49–55 because of a shift in focus from Israel as a whole down to Jerusalem.11 This need not be different authors at work, but a single ‘programmatic’12 author simply bringing attention from the general to the specific.

Some scholars insisted the four servant songs were not closely related enough to their surrounding context; they could be removed completely without interrupting the flow of the rest of Deutero-Isaiah.13 However, many smaller thought units in Deutero can be rearranged without disrupting the flow,14 so this argument against the unity of Isa 40–55 has mostly been rejected. While the individual units of thought may work well independently, they contribute to a picture larger than themselves.15 Further, the language and style of the servant songs are argued to be too similar to the rest of Deutero to come from a different author.16

There have been various interpreters who found a framework that explains the arrangement of these smaller units, and how the servant songs fit into them. At first glance the placement of the servant songs throughout Deutero is ‘seemingly erratic’.17 One interpretation reads Isa 40–55 as a ‘liturgical drama’,18 a religious version of a play. In this view, Deutero consists of six acts, framed by a prologue and epilogue, and the four servant songs are each found in one of the six acts.19 Another interpretation finds in Deutero a prologue, a series of five chiasms, and an epilogue.20

Consequently, there is, in fact, an obvious narrative progression throughout the songs.21 In the first song, God installs his servant as judge and liberator. In the second, the servant talks about his non-violent mission. In the third, the servant talks of the resistance he has met, and the suffering he faces. In the fourth song, God declares that his servant has suffered but will be exalted, followed by observers declaring the servant’s innoncence despite the appearance that God had punished him, which concludes with the servant receiving a reward from God.22

With these points in mind, as well as the possibility that Deutero contains much more structure than usually thought, we should consider explanations for the ‘internal tensions’ that don’t require us to speculate about multiple authors unless absolutely necessary.

The Nation of Israel as the Servant

Mentioned above, the chapters leading up to Isa 53 repeatedly identify Israel (aka Jacob) as a ‘servant’ of God.

Isaiah 41

But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen […] saying to you, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you’

Isaiah 43

But now thus says Yhwh, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: […] You are my witnesses, says Yhwh, and my servant whom I have chosen

Isaiah 44

But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! […] Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. […] Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.

Isaiah 45

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen

Isaiah 48

‘Yhwh has redeemed his servant Jacob!’

Isaiah 49

And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’

One would think that, by the time readers get to Isa 53, there is no question the author intended readers to identify the ‘suffering servant’ with Israel. And indeed, it is unanimous among scholars that Deutero-Isaiah as a whole identifies the servant with ‘the nation [of Israel] in its entirety’.23 However, the question comes down to how the servant songs individually identify the servant. Here, the answer is more ambiguous.24

The fourth servant song (Isa 52.13–53.12) is the one used in the New Testament to describe Jesus: his appearance was marred beyond recognition (52.14), he was despised and rejected (53.3), he was wounded for our transgressions (53.5), he did no violence and never deceived (53.9). Yet Isa 49 — which explicitly calls the servant Israel — and the fourth servant song share the imagery of the servant being exalted over nations and kings, which takes place amid a new exodus (e.g. return from exile, pathways made clear and safe by God’s presence, maintaining the temple vessels).25

Isaiah 49

Isaiah 52–53

Thus says Yhwh, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, ‘Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of Yhwh, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’ Thus says Yhwh: In a time of favour I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out’, to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’ They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene.

Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of it, purify yourselves, you who carry the vessels of Yhwh. For you shall not go out in haste, and you shall not go in flight; for Yhwh will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rearguard. See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals—so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

It is possible the idea of personifying Israel as God’s servant, teaching the nations how to follow their god Yhwh, is rooted in earlier prophetic literature.26

Isaiah 2.3 cf. Micah 4.2

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yhwh, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’

Despite the thematic parallels between Isa 49 and 52–53, it is Isa 49 in particular which most acutely shows the problem with flatly identifying the servant as Israel.

Isaiah 49.3, 5, 6

And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ […] And now Yhwh says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him […] he says, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel’

How can Israel be God’s faithful servant, if the servant’s goal is to bring faithless Israel to God? Within this text, the servant is somehow both Israel and not.27 Because of this internal discontinuity some scholars insist the servant cannot be Israel.28

An Individual as the Servant

Some more reactionary interpreters today insist the messianic interpretation is a uniquely Christian one. While the identification of the servant with the whole nation of Israel is certainly ancient, the interpretation that the servant is a person — not a personification — is also just as ancient, and is found in Judaism both before and after the advent of Christianity.

Targum Isaiah interprets the servant as the Messiah, directly inserting messianic details such as how long Israel waited for the Messiah’s appearance, and the Messiah’s mission to rebuild a glorified temple in Jerusalem.29

Isaiah 52–53

Targum Isaiah

See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.

Behold, my servant the Messiah shall prosper. He shall be exalted and extolled, and he shall be very strong.

Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals

As the house of Israel anxiously hoped for him many days, (which was poor among the nations; their appearance and their brightness being worse than that of the sons of men:)

But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

He shall build the house of the sanctuary, which has been profaned on account of our sins; his was delivered over on account of our iniquities, and through his doctrine peace shall be multiplied upon us, and through the teaching of his words our sins shall be forgiven us.

A major figure throughout Deutero-Isaiah, named directly in the text, is Cyrus. The Persian king conquered Babylon in 538 BCE, and soon after released the Judean exiles from their punishment. Cyrus’ historical influence is felt throughout Deutero-Isaiah (41.1–7, 21–29; 43.14; 44.24–45.7; 46.11; and 48.14–16),30 with the most important point being 45.1, where the author states that God has called Cyrus ‘his משיח’, Messiah.

There are differing ideas about how Deutero presents Cyrus. While calling him a ‘Messiah’ who fulfills God’s will is certainly an exalted position to be in, there is also some overlap in the language used to describe the servant and Cyrus.31 On the one hand, this has been interpreted as the servant now predicted to fulfill a mission which Cyrus failed. The servant becomes an ‘anti-Cyrus’, succeeding where God’s intended Messiah fell short.32 On the other hand, the overlap could indicate that Cyrus and the servant were each seen to be contributing toward the same goal, complementing one another within God’s plan.33

Some scholars argue that the Judean king Josiah stands in the background of the servant songs. When Josiah became king of Judah, a scroll containing God’s law was allegedly discovered in the temple. This led to major, monotheizing reforms throughout the kingdom. (It is commonly thought that this scroll was an early version of Deuteronomy, newly written under Josiah as a way to reshape and unify his kingdom.) This led to a propagandizing campaign to elevate Josiah as the greatest king since David himself (e.g. 2 Kings 22.2; 23.25). When Josiah was suddenly killed in battle, pierced by arrows in the valley of Megiddo, the kingdom was confronted with the question: ‘why was the righteous king rejected by YHWH’?34

For Jeremiah, Josiah’s unexpected death meant that YHWH was not yet finished bringing judgment to the nation, that is, Judah would also experience judgment like northern Israel before any promised restoration of all Israel could take place.35

An answer that justified Josiah’s death without completely reevaluating his moral character would be that his death was a vicarious one: though a just king, he bore the punishment due for the sins of his predecessor Manasseh.36

2 Kings 23

Before him there was no king like him, who turned to Yhwh with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him. Still Yhwh did not turn from the fierceness of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him.

The concept of vicarious punishment was not universally accepted by the Hebrew Bible’s authors. Ezekiel, for example, flatly condemns such a notion (18.20). But there are still places where we find the idea, including punishment inflicted on multiple generations (Exo 20.5; 34.7; Num 14.18; Deut 5.9).37 Even Ezekiel symbolically displays vicarious punishment on himself.

Ezekiel 4.4–6

Then lie on your left side, and place the punishment of the house of Israel upon it; you shall bear their punishment for the number of the days that you lie there. For I assign to you a number of days, three hundred and ninety days, equal to the number of the years of their punishment; and so you shall bear the punishment of the house of Israel. When you have completed these, you shall lie down a second time, but on your right side, and bear the punishment of the house of Judah; forty days I assign you, one day for each year.

The fourth servant song even appears to borrow from other texts where good people suffer (Isa 53.3 from Psa 22.7; 53.7–9 from Jer 11.19).38

After Josiah’s death, we are told the Judeans wrote songs lamenting him (2 Chr 35.24–25). Ostensibly (it is argued), Josiah’s impact on Judean culture continued even through these laments, shaping language and motifs used by later biblical authors. For example, Zech 12.10–13.1 may owe to this historical event.39 The theological problem of Josiah’s death would have extended more broadly to the conquest of his entire kingdom by Babylon. It would only be natural to apply these Josianic motifs, a righteous king who suffered on behalf of his kingdom, to the servant figure.40

There is possibly another person from the Hebrew Bible who stands behind Deutero’s servant figure: Moses.

As noted by G. von Rad, the prominence of the second exodus theme in Deutero-Isaiah invites, if it does not demand, an identification of the servant of the Lord with a second Moses figure.41

This is not a new connection, but one made at least as far back as the Talmud.

b. Soṭa 14a

The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him [Moses]: Do you seek to enter the land to perform these mitzvot for any reason other than to receive a reward? I will ascribe you credit as if you had performed them and you will receive your reward, as it is stated: “Therefore will I divide him a portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty; because he bared his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors”

Mentioned earlier, Deutero-Isaiah is popularly recognized as building the theme of a ‘new exodus’: God’s people are held in bondage in a foreign land, but they will soon be delivered, protected by God on the journey to the land promised to their ancestors and led by God’s servant. It would only be natural to compare Deutero’s servant figure with Moses. There are some interesting parallels between the four servant songs and the Torah, suggesting a conscious literary reflection on the book traditionally attributed to Moses:42

  • The first song: contains a cluster of terms from Gen 1 (create, firmament, earth, bring forth); builds the theme of Yhwh’s name, lifted from Exo 3; uses the verb ‘bring out’ three times, lifted from its three uses in Exo 3.10,11,12
  • The second song: takes the verb ‘send’ from Exo 3.10,13–15; uses ‘my commandments’ based on Exo 20; also uses the verb ‘bring out’ which is repeated in Exodus; alludes to Moses drawing water from rocks
  • The third song: highlights the servant’s role as teacher, based on Moses’ role as teacher in Deut 1.5; 4.1,5,14; 5.31; 6.1
  • The fourth song: interprets Moses’ death in Deut 34, such as his burial in Moab (criminals)

Why doesn’t Deutero just identify the servant as Moses by name? Because Moses, insisting on receiving the punishment due to Israel, requested that God strike out his name from ‘the book you have written’ because of his Israel’s sins in the wilderness (Exo 32.32). This is hinted at in Isa 48.19.43

An identification of the servant with a second Moses figure provides a ready solution for the problem of the corporate vs. individual identity of the servant figure. At Israel’s own request, Moses was the representative of his people (Ex. 20:18–19).44

Aside from Cyrus, Josiah, or Moses, there have been a variety of proposed identities for this individual servant: Hezekiah, Jehoiachin, Jeremiah, Joshua, Uzziah, Zerubbabel, or even the anonymous author himself.45 Despite the many options, none have grabbed widespread acceptance. We are left with so many theories precisely because we have two ideas of what the ‘servant’ is in the text of Deutero-Isaiah.46

An Ideal as the Servant

A remaining solution to our problem is the possibility that Deutero-Isaiah contains two servants whose identities are interrelated. Under the argument that all of Deutero-Isaiah comes from a single author, positing two servants whose identities are intertwined may be the only way to account for Isa 49’s identification of the servant as both Israel and the agent of Israel’s learning and liberation.

Despite Israel being identified as God’s ‘servant’ outside of the suffering servant songs, the author’s evaluation of each Israel and the suffering servant is different. The suffering servant faces opposition, but remains faithful to God even to death. The servant Israel doubts (40.27), and is unobservant and ignorant (42.18–20). The servant Israel is pictured more negatively than the suffering servant.47

This is further seen in the fourth servant song. Isa 52.13–53.12 can be divided into smaller units, with the speaking voice changing between them.48 The biggest difficulty in interpreting chapter 53 is the shifting pronouns: we, they, my, you. For example, is the ‘we’ the nations looking on from the outside-in, or Israel evaluating itself?49 We might understand the fourth song this way:

Isaiah 52–53


52.13–15 See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals—so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

The speaker (‘my’) is God. He declares that he will exalt his servant, which will shock the nations because of how lowly the servant appeared to be, and how severe his suffering was.

53.1–3 Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of Yhwh been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.

The speaker (‘we’) reiterates the point in the first unit. If this speaker is the nations, then the ‘others’ who ‘despised and rejected’ the servant would be Israel. Or, this is Israel looking upon the servant, and the ‘others’ are the nations that were ‘astonished at’ the servant in the first unit.

53.4–6 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and Yhwh has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

The speaker (‘we’) recounts how the servant appeared to be punished by God, but was actually suffering their punishment vicariously. This speaker most naturally reads as Israel; it makes more sense for them to be the ones who ‘have gone astray’, unlike the nations, which were always outside of God’s ‘flock’. If the speaker in the second unit was Israel, this third unit continues the second.

53.7–10 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of his people. And his grave was with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of Yhwh to crush him with pain, that if he made his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of Yhwh shall prosper.

The text I’ve provided here adapts the NRSV, with pronouns adjusted based on variants found in the Masoretic Text, 1QIsaa, and the LXX.50 In this reconstruction, the speaker is not clearly identifiable: it could be Israel or the nations. Whichever way, the speaker reflects on the servant further, noting how he suffered for ‘his people’.

53.11–12 Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

The speaker in the final unit is again God. Nothing substantially new is given here, only a reiteration of what has already been said about the servant.

In Deutero-Isaiah’s historical context — the Babylonian exile nearing its end — identifying the servant as a personification of all Israel would lead us to see this song as a theological interpretation of the exile: the nations thought God was punishing Israel with the exile, but Israel was instead redeeming the nations through their own suffering, and Israel’s reward in the end was God restoring the nation after Babylon’s conquest by Cyrus of Persia. Yet the fourth unit of this fourth servant song mentions ‘his people’ alongside the servant himself. This statement is a strong indication that the servant and Israel are distinct; he is a member of a people-group, and he suffers for them. In the end, God will reward the servant for his selfless act.

The contrast between Deutero-Isaiah’s ‘blind and deaf’ servant Israel on the one hand and the painfully obedient servant of the four servant songs on the other hand, as well as the references to the servant interacting with Israel, has led several scholars to interpret the suffering servant as an ideal. In this view, the servant is a personification, but not of the entire nation of Israel. Instead, the servant represents ‘the steadfastly righteous minority’,51 a symbol that ‘recapitulates in himself all the religious gifts and the religious mission of Israel’.52 In other words, he represents the ‘Israel within Israel’.53


I find the Josiah and Moses interpretations somewhat dubious when it comes to their details. However, contrary to some claims that there are no parallels to vicarious suffering in the Hebrew Bible,54 we do see it in the cases of both Josiah and Ezekiel. Though Josiah’s reforms undoubtedly left a broad impact still seen in Deutero-Isaiah,55 the specific point of vicarious punishment is solid, and helps us come to a better understanding of Deutero-Isaiah’s servant songs. Likewise, though some of the details connecting the servant to Moses seem to be a stretch, the exodus theme is present nevertheless, which allows us to see Moses behind the suffering servant at least in a general sense.

Reading the suffering servant as the personification of an ‘ideal Israel’, I think, makes good sense of both Deutero-Isaiah’s overall purpose and its finer details. The author was addressing the exiles who were about to be freed. They were exiled for their ancestor’s sins, but they will return to their homeland in a new exodus, so now is the time to fulfill their role as God’s servant, a light to the nations. And within this message he acknowledges their past failures, giving them a teacher to listen to: the embodiment of Israel’s potential will serve to lead the historical Israel into the future. Their identities were intertwined in the text because the ‘loyal’ and ‘active’ suffering servant is what Deutero-Isaiah thought the ‘disloyal’ and ‘passive’ nation of Israel needed to become.56

While we may never completely understand how Deutero-Isaiah came to be written, or what the author intended to mean with his internally conflicting ideas about God’s ‘servant’, the view that the servant songs depict a personified ‘ideal Israel’ is appealing to me.


1 John McKenzie, Second Isaiah, xxxviii; Klaus Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah, 19.

2 Baltzer, 2.

3 Jan Koole, Isaiah III: Volume I: Isaiah 40–48, 13–14.

4 McKenzie, xxxviii.

5 Baltzer, 5.

6 Koole, Vol. I, 12.

7 McKenzie, xxxix.

8 Antti Laato, The Servant of YHWH and Cyrus: Interpretation of the Exilic Messianic Programme in Isaiah 40–55, 3.

9 Baltzer, 5.

10 Laato, 3–4.

11 Baltzer, 4.

12 Ibid., 5.

13 McKenzie, xxxix.

14 Ibid.

15 Baltzer, 7.

16 Laato, 18.

17 Baltzer, 15.

18 Ibid., 7.

19 Ibid., 15.

20 Laato, 11–13.

21 Koole, Vol. I, 15.

22 Baltzer, 19.

23 Shalom Paul, Isaiah 40–66, 18.

24 Ibid.

25 Laato, 157*

26 McKenzie, xliv.

27 McKenzie, xliii.

28 Jan Koole, Isaiah III: Volume II: Isaiah 49–55, 251; Randall Heskett, Messianism within the Book of Isaiah as a Whole (Doctoral dissertation, National Library of Canada), 190; Laato, 17.

29 Heskett, 183.

30 Koole, Vol. I, 15.

31 Laato, 31.

32 McKenzie, xlviii.

33 Laato.

34 Laato, 232.

35 Marvin Sweeney, ‘The Legacy of Josiah in Isaiah 40–55’, The Desert Will Bloom: Poetic Visions in Isaiah (ed. Steven McKenzie), 123.

36 Laato, 233.

37 Paul, 398.

38 Ibid.

39 Laato, 152–153.

40 Ibid., 234.

41 Gordon Hugenberger, ‘The Servant of the Lord in the ‘Servant Songs’ of Isaiah’, The Lord’s Anointed: Interpretation of Old Testament Messianic Texts (ed. Philip Satterthwaite & Richard Hess), 129.

42 Baltzer, 20–21.

43 Ibid., 21.

44 Hugenberger, 130.

45 McKenzie, xlvii; Paul, 18; Heskett, 183.

46 Laato, 17.

47 Ibid., 34–35

48 Paul, 397.

49 Ibid.

50 Baltzer, 393; The New Jewish Publication Society of America Tanakh.

51 Paul, 398.

52 McKenzie, liii.

53 Heskett, 186.

54 McKenzie, li.

55 Sweeney, 128–129.

56 Laato, 35.


  1. Anonymous2.9.23

    What are your thoughts on this article about the Targum as referring to the Messiah? It argues against the view that the Targum refers to the Messiah on certain interpretive grounds. In my opinion, this poses a challenge to footnote 29 in your article, but I won’t make any judgments until you read it.


    1. I don't think this article (which I personally found to be a slog to read; I am not very interested in theological apologetics / counter-apologetics, and this was heavily polemical) challenges the point I was making in that section. For example, commenting on Tar Isa 52.13, the article's author says: ‘Here the servant is the Messiah. The Targum is almost the exact same wording as the Hebrew, except that he mentions the Messiah.’ This is essentially the same as what I lay out: ‘Targum Isaiah interprets the servant as the Messiah, directly inserting messianic details’, followed by citing Tar Isa 52.13. (The author clearly was not arguing 'against the view that the Targum refers to the Messiah'.)

      My citation of a source does not indicate my agreement with anything or everything the source says. Unless directly stated otherwise, it is only meant to demonstrate that whatever thought mentioned in my article is articulated or acknowledged by scholarship, rather than something I have pulled from thin air. However, in this case, the source I cited in footnote 29 (Heskett, 183) says: ‘Are there warrants to interpret Isa. 52:15-53:12 messianicaIIy? While the Targum interprets the Servant to be the Messiah, it re-interprets the phrases about his sufferings as referring to Israel or the rival nations.’ This is essentially in agreement with the article you provided: it says, regarding, Isa 52.13, ‘Here the servant is the Messiah.’ Regarding 52.14, ‘Here the servant is Israel.’ 52.15, ‘Here the servant is Israel.’ 53.3, ‘It seems that the servant here is the NATIONS’. 53.4, ‘The servant’s role here is applied to BOTH the Messiah and Israel.’ 53.7, ‘The servant here is again the nations.’ etc.

    2. Anonymous4.9.23

      “Some more reactionary interpreters today insist the messianic interpretation is a uniquely Christian one. While the identification of the servant with the whole nation of Israel is certainly ancient, the interpretation that the servant is a person — not a personification — is also just as ancient, and is found in Judaism both before and after the advent of Christianity.”

      So going back to your article very briefly (with the section I quoted above in mind), would you say that Targum Isaiah refers to the Messiah as suffering and dying? I should apologize because I think I might’ve misrepresented the article and was thinking of something else than I originally intended.

      There is an argument among some Jesus Mythicists that because Targum Isaiah is interpreting Isaiah’s Suffering Servant passages in a messianic way (which seems to be the case) then that would be a good argument to prop up Mythicism because they could argue that the entire narrative of Jesus’s crucifixion in the gospels could’ve just been based off of earlier OT precedents and passages (like the servant passages). This is because (according to them) having Targum Isaiah interpret Isaiah as “messianic” would also mean that Targum Isaiah viewed the Messiah as suffering and dying (just like Jesus is in the gospels).

      My question simply applies to the section of your article I quoted above and how it relates to the Mythicist argument I layed out (I’m not trying to argue for Mythicism, but only just asking the question I had originally intended to ask).

      So in short, I know you didn’t say in the quote that Targum Isaiah interpreted the Messiah as suffering and dying, but do you think the author of Targum Isaiah could have had this idea in mind and if so, is this good evidence for the Mythicist argument I layed out?

    3. Regarding your first question, I do not think the Targum identifies the Messiah as suffering. Within the Targum's interpretation of Isa 52–53, the 'suffering' element of the servant is applied to Israel, while the 'victorious' element is applied to the Messiah (and sometimes both simultaneously), and other elements are applied to foreign nations. The Targum seems to flip between the three referents in its interpretation of the servant as the author(s) thought necessary. (This distantly reminds me of how Parable 5 in the Shepherd of Hermas is given two explanations in the text, with some of the symbols having different referents between either explanation, despite both being 'true'.)

      Regarding your second question, I think the simplest explanation for the origins of Christianity are that (a) a man known as Jesus of Nazareth spread an apocalyptic message in Galilee and Judah circa 30 CE, and was soon after crucified by Roman authorities on charges of sedition, and (b) his followers sought to explain his death through the textual and oral traditions available to them, and their theology concerning him, and the apocalypse which he prophesied, developed over the subsequent decades, eventually arriving at the forms we find in the New Testament. We see the same sort of dissonance reducing strategies in the Dead Sea Scrolls concerning the Teacher of Righteousness, and in the centuries after concerning this or that historical figure.