Isaiah’s Suffering Servant has been co-opted by Christians as a prophecy of Jesus Christ but how did pre-Christian Jews understand this figure? My last post in a series examining Martin Hengel’s scholarly work on this question was From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel). Here is the long overdue follow up post. So far we have
- surveyed the evidence Hengel finds for how the authors of the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira interpreted the Suffering Servant we read about in Isaiah 53;
- noted related developments in the period of the Maccabean martyrs (around 165/164 BCE) when the book of Daniel appears to have been written.
Though we sometimes read dogmatic assertions by scholars who don’t keep themselves up to date across their field of research to the effect that no pre-Christian era Jew could ever have thought that the Messiah was destined to suffer and be killed, Martin Hengel has no qualms arguing on the basis of early Jewish writings that pre-Christian Jews really do appear to have done just that. And why not? How better to make sense of a persecuted and often martyred community? We must keep in mind that there was no fixed idea of any other kind of Messiah (“anointed one”, “Christ”) in this period.
Yet we must remember that in the second century B.C.E., we do not yet possess any fixed Jewish doctrine of the Messiah – there basically never was one – but must rather deal with various ideas of anointing and the Anointed One. In Qumran, not only the Davidic Messiah but also the eschatological high priest and the prophets are considered “anointed ones.”
— Hengel, Martin, ‘The Effective History of lsaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period’, in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p103. (Bailey is responsible for translating Hengel’s essay into English and updating it in consultation with the author.)
Hengel warns us not to expect an author to introduce the new ideas or interpretations emerging in the Maccabean period with an unambiguous supporting citation to an earlier text.
Because the ideas introduced are new, they are at first only cautiously hinted at. Isaiah 53, as a unique text in the Old Testament, may have helped this development along, though at first the collective understanding [i.e. that the Suffering Servant represented Israel] stood in the foreground, and only certain aspects of the whole text exerted an influence. It also needs to be remembered, as already said, that the pre-Christian Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha contain almost no literal scriptural citations. We can therefore conduct only a very cautious search for traces. (p. 96)
So the argument is suggestive rather than conclusive. We might further consider the interpretative power of the argument: Does it explain the emergence of earliest Christian interpretations more directly than a radical revision of Jewish thought being sparked by a belief in a crucified leader’s resurrection from the dead?
Let’s get started.
Begin with the conclusion of the book of Daniel, 12:2-3 (English Standard Version — I omit in this post many of the grammatical nuances of the Hebrew text). After the resurrection we read that wise/insightful shall shine like the brightness of the heavens:
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky . . . .
That’s a new idea. Where did it come from? Let’s consider Isaiah 53:13 as a candidate:
“See, my servant shall have success or insight; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.”
Success or insight? The word in question here is יַשְׂכִּ֖יל and it can mean both. If we knew it meant “insight” then the potential link with Daniel 12 would be more direct. Early Greek translators took it this way: the LXX and Aquila render the word to mean “he shall understand” and “he shall be wise and insightful”.
Notice the motifs at work in Isaiah here. In Isaiah 53 the insightful or wise one will be exalted “very high” and the reader may well recall Isaiah 6:1 where God’s throne itself is “high and lofty”. The early chapters set God’s highness and loftiness against the lowest status possible for the king of Babylon: Isaiah 14:9ff mocks the king of Babylon who aspired to be exalted as high as God’s throne but ended his days covered in worms of the underworld while the nations he once ruled smugly scoff at his plight. Isaiah’s Servant is the contrasting foil. He was brought low in suffering but in righteousness he has been exalted to the very heights of God.
Daniel (I’ll use “Daniel” as both the name of the book and the name of the presumed author) appears to have taken up Isaiah’s theme of ironic reversals:
- In Isaiah we read of the king of Babylon seeking to be as high and exalted as God but being brought down to death and the underworld instead while the righteous Servant who was humbled to the utmost is the one who is exalted to the highest to be with God.
- In Daniel we have the comparable theme of the king of Babylon being debased for his boastful self-exaltation while the martyrs, those who know their God, suffer for now but are promised to be resurrected and exalted to be with God. Hengel suggests Daniel is building on the ideas he found in Isaiah.
In Daniel, the king of Babylon becomes the pattern for the self-apotheosis and fall of Antiochus IV (Dan. 8:25). By contrast, the [wise and insightful are] led through their martyrdom to resurrection and ascension, that is, to fellowship with God. At the same time the scene in Daniel 7:9-15 becomes vivid, in which the true Israel (i.e., the martyrs and those faithful to the law) appears “like a son of man” before God the judge and his heavenly court.
The “startling” of many nations in Isaiah 52:15 (so NRSV; cf. LXX … “they will be amazed or astonished;’ reading perhaps “they will tremble;’ instead of MT’s “he will sprinkle” . . . ), together with the mention of the kings who must shut their mouths, would then have to be understood as a manifestation of judgment (cf. Dan. 7:10ff.). (pp. 97-98)
Daniel takes those who are understanding and who suffer for their God and exalts them with a resurrection from the dead. Was this concept likewise inspired by Isaiah?
Compare Daniel 12:2
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
with Isaiah 53:9-10
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
And further, Daniel 12:3
Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.
with Isaiah 53:11 (ISV)
Out of the suffering of his soul he will see light and find satisfaction. . . .
The resurrection from the “dust of the earth” in Daniel 12:2 would correspond to the overcoming of the grave in Isaiah 53:9 and 10. The phrase “to everlasting life” in Daniel 12:2 would find its equivalent in “he shall prolong his days” . . . in Isaiah 53:10, while the statement in 53:11, “he shall see light” (. . . so NRSV; NJB; NIV) — attested in 1QIsaa, 1QIsab, 1QIsad, and the LXX . . . over against the MT (which lacks “light”) — is reflected in the vision of the [wise and understanding] who have been exalted to be with God according to Daniel. (p. 98)
Was the author of the book of Daniel, then, reading Isaiah to find meaning in the cruel events of his own time (the Maccabean rebellion and martyrdoms)?
If so, he appears to have found in Isaiah assurance that God had a plan that would succeed. In Isaiah 53:10 he read
“through him [the Suffering Servant] the will of the Lord shall prosper”
and a few phrases later he read something that sounded very like a final judgment over all the nations or at least to the establishment of God’s kingdom over all nations of the earth (Isaiah 53:12 – NJPS)
“receiving the multitude as his spoil”.
Was it from this spring that Daniel 7:9-28 was inspired?
Therefore, in rereading our text, the author of Daniel 11 and 12 (and 7) could perhaps have understood it in a collective sense as a promise which is to be fulfilled now in the end-time. There is even room for the possibility of vicarious atonement — cautiously alluded to — in Daniel’s reference to the suffering of [the wise and understanding] and their function as “those who lead many to righteousness” (. . . Daniel 12:3). But the exceptional reserve of the texts at precisely this point needs to be respected.
Subsequently we find Jewish literature alluding to Isaiah 52:13ff and Daniel 12:3, such as in the Testament of Moses 10:9-10 (also known as the Assumption of Moses) where Israel is highly exalted:
“And God will raise you to the heights and fix you firmly in the heaven of the stars. . . . And you will behold from on high and see your enemies on the earth”
There is a difference that this later author has woven in to his sources. In Isaiah and Daniel we read of the suffering of the Servant as a prelude to his exaltation. By the time of this new text the exaltation has been preserved but allusion to suffering of that Servant — meant here as a figure for Israel as a whole — has been removed.
This post has drawn attention to the possibility that the author of the book of Daniel has reinterpreted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant as a figure for the martyrs of his own day. In Isaiah our author appears to have reinterpreted in his own apocalyptic style the Suffering Servant of Isaiah as a promise of resurrection from the dead for those martyrs. We know from other sources that an atoning power was attributed to the blood of the Maccabeans.
Other studies have tied Daniel’s Son of Man figure to a metaphor of the resurrected or vindicated martyrs. The allusions and interpretations we find in these passages are all very close to imagining Isaiah’s Suffering Servant as martyr whose blood will have the power to save and who will be exalted with God to judge the world.
Next post (without having to wait another year this time!) will be how the Suffering Servant was interpreted in another book that was very influential on many New Testament authors — the book of Enoch.