The Influence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

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by Neil Godfrey

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

The Suffering Servant

13 Behold, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
14 As many were astonished at him—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the sons of men—
15 so shall he startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which has not been told them they shall see,
and that which they have not heard they shall understand.

53 Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him;
he has put him to grief;
when he makes himself an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand;
11 he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous;
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant is a major text for Christianity (in the New Testament it is used to interpret Christ’s death) but what did it mean to adherents of Judaism before Christianity?

Did any Jewish interpretations anticipate the meaning it held for later Christians?

To what extent were the authors of the gospels innovative in their use of Isaiah 53 (and Isaiah as a whole)? To what extent were they simply employing ideas they absorbed from their surroundings?

Is it possible that Christianity itself evolved in part from earlier sectarian understandings of Isaiah 53?

Martin Hengel brings us a little closer to answering these questions when he offers insights into the influence this text had on various ideas in Second Temple Judaism:

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), pp. 75-146.

Scholarship is used to thinking of the book of Isaiah as a collation of works originally by a number of authors (e.g. chapters 1-39 labelled Proto-Isaiah; 40-55 Deutero-Isaian; 56-66 Trito-Isaiah) but in the context Hengel is addressing the book was understood to be the unity we know today. Not only a unity but of prophetic significance as a whole. Hengel establishes early in his essay the point that from the Hellenistic period on the book of Isaiah (as a whole) was often treated in Judaism as work prophetic of the last days. So in Sirach (composed around 200 BCE — prior to the Maccabean era) we read of Isaiah the prophet:

24 He comforted the mourners in Jerusalem. His powerful spirit looked into the future, 25 and he predicted what was to happen before the end of time, hidden things that had not yet occurred. (Sirach 48:24-25 GNT)

Ben Sirach interprets Isaiah’s Servant — and prepares for the Gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark opens with a blend of prophetic passages from Isaiah and Malachi and allusions to the Exodus that lead directly into an Elijah scene. Two centuries earlier Ben Sirach similarly linked Isaiah, Malachi and Elijah in a pivotal prophetic time. Hengel does not draw the comparison with the Gospel of Mark (a comparison enriched by Elijah’s own association with Exodus and wilderness motifs) but I’m sure someone has:

Mark 1:2-4

Even as it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, Who shall prepare thy wayThe voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight;

John came . . . clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist . . . [i.e., in role of Elijah]

Malachi 3:1
Isaiah 40:3
Exodus 23:20

Sirach 48:1, 7, 10

Then the prophet Elijah arose like a fire . . . who heard rebuke at Sinai and judgments of vengeance at Horeb . . .

You [=Elijah] who are ready at the appointed time, it is written,

to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury, to turn the heart of the father to the son, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

Malachi 4:5-6
Isaiah 49:6

Hengel cautiously expresses some doubt as to whether Sirach “wished to identify the Servant [of Isaiah] directly with Elijah redivivus.” He does, however, along with other scholars he cites recognize that Sirach has given Isaiah 49:6 “a messianic or at least an individual interpretation”. (The significance of an “individual” interpretation lies in the various interpretations of the Servant passages: some reading the Servant as an individual but others at the time viewing the Servant as a literary figure representing Israel. Compare how the “son of man” in Daniel 7 was originally composed as a representative of the nation of Israel — in contrast to gentile nations represented by wild beasts — yet came to be interpreted by some as a literal, heavenly individual.)

Was the author of the Gospel of Mark writing in the context of a long-known intellectual tradition that played with piecing Isaiah’s Servant, Malachi’s Messenger, Exodus liberation and adoption tropes, and Elijah into scenarios of messianic end times?

The Book of Zechariah interprets Isaiah 53?

Martin Hengel takes us further back than the Book of Sirach and to the period of the immediate successors of Alexander the Great, the Diadochi. (Hengel believes those who date the Book of Zechariah to around 240-226 BCE are setting it too late: he sets it around the time of the battles of Gaza (312 BCE) or Ipsus (301 BCE).) The passages of particular interest are:

Zechariah 12:9-13:1

And on that day I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. 

10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born.

11 On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-rim′mon in the plain of Megid′do.

12 The land shall mourn, each family by itself; the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself, and their wives by themselves;

13 the family of the house of Levi by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the Shim′e-ites by itself, and their wives by themselves;

14 and all the families that are left, each by itself, and their wives by themselves.

13:1 On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.

and Zechariah 13:7-9

Awake, O sword, against my shepherd,
    against the man who stands next to me,”
                says the Lord of hosts.
“Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered;
    I will turn my hand against the little ones.
In the whole land, says the Lord,
    two thirds shall be cut off and perish,
    and one third shall be left alive.
And I will put this third into the fire,
    and refine them as one refines silver,
    and test them as gold is tested.
They will call on my name,
    and I will answer them.
I will say, ‘They are my people’;
    and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”

Hengel tells us that “countless interpreters of Zechariah have . . . suspected, I believe correctly, the influence of the Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53” (p. 85). A shepherd was one of the most common metaphors for a ruler and here is commonly thought to be messianic: he suffers with God’s approval in order to bring about the reconciliation of the people. The Suffering Servant in Isaiah is reinterpreted to produce a new scenario in Zechariah. In Isaiah the blameless Servant suffered vicariously for the sins of the people of God. In Zechariah, however, the focus is on the suffering of God’s people. They suffer for their own sins but in doing so are purified and when they mourn for the suffering of the shepherd the happy relationship with God is finally restored.

Before continuing, notice the specific links between Isaiah 53 and these Zechariah passages.

The links between Zechariah 13 and Isaiah 53

In Zechariah God commands his sword to “strike” (הַ֤ךְ from the verb נָכָה) his shepherd. A number of scholars believe that the Hebrew text known in the Second Temple era originally said “I will strike” (אַכֶּ֤ה — from the same verb). There are two justifications for this argument:

  1. In some Greek (Septuagint) manuscripts we find that πατάξω (“I will strike”) has been used to translate the Hebrew version of Zechariah 13:7 known to their scribes;
  2. “I will strike” in Zechariah 13:7 would parallel the “I will turn my hand” introduction to the next line.

Whichever reading we settle upon, the meaning is clear: God’s judgment is about to fall upon the one he describes as “my shepherd”.

Notice also in Zechariah 13:7 that the shepherd is also portrayed as “the man who stands next to me”. This can also be translated as “the man who is my associate” or “companion”. As Hengel notes, this is

a designation that comes relatively close to “my Servant.” (p. 87)

And of course, following the striking down of the shepherd, God’s flock is scattered.

Compare God’s Servant in Isaiah 53.

He, too, is subject to the same verb, “to strike” (מֻכֵּ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים = “struck down by God”) in Isaiah 53:4.

Following this description we read that the sheep have all scattered — Isaiah 53:6.

In Zechariah we are reading about the direct actions and immediate plans of God; in Isaiah we are reading about the same types of events from a future perspective, in retrospect.

In Isaiah we are reading of a vicarious suffering that makes atonement for the sins of the people.

In Zechariah we are reading of God’s punishment that is designed to refine and reconcile; this punishment appears to begin with the striking of the shepherd who stands close to God.

The links between Zechariah 12 and Isaiah 53

The repeated expression “on that day” in the other passage in Zechariah mark it as clearly apocalyptic. Judea and Jerusalem are threatened with destruction from invading armies. From 12:10 we read

how after a heroic struggle a great cultic festival of mourning is held. (p. 87)

God pour out a “spirit of compassion and supplication” upon the people that enables them to properly lament over their sins and to look upon the one whom they had pierced while acknowledging their guilt in relation to him. The great lament recalls the time of Jeremiah when the Jews mourned over the death of King Josiah (who had also died as a result of being pierced) in the valley of Megiddo.


What of the reference to Hadad-rimmon?

One can furthermore ask whether the comparison with the lament or mourning for the dying and rising Hadad-rimmon in the plain of Megiddo in Zechariah 12:11 is not already a veiled reference to the apocalyptic possibility of a resurrection of the dead, which we encounter in Isaiah 26:19, a roughly contemporary text.

Of this puzzling text in Zechariah 12:10 Karl Elliger asks,

“Has this figure already flowed together with the figure of the Deutero-Isaianic Servant, revealing the figure of a martyr Messiah or a messianic forerunner who suffers for the sins of the people?”

Elliger answers this question in the affirmative by referring to the statement of the shepherd in Zechariah 13:7 and the concluding promise of 13:1 that the

“fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity”.

A messianic reference in Zechariah 12:10 is also maintained decisively by W. Rudolph, who identifies

“the one whom they have pierced” with the shepherd or Messiah of Zechariah 11:4ff. and 13:7, claiming that “the prophet is under the influence of Isaiah 53, where the verbs חֹלָ֣ל and דֻכָּ֖א in 53:5 are synonymous with the verb דָּקָ֑ר [in Zech. 12:10].” (p. 88, my formatting)

Hadad-rimmon. The Jewish Encyclopedia, the Bible Hub, BiblicalTraining and Net Bible are all top of the list of hits from a Google search. It appears the name was that of a vegetation god and the mourning was much the same as for the dying (and rising) god Tammuz. Could it possibly be that Second Temple era exegetes would bring to mind a comparison of some sort between such a god along with cultic mourning for him on the one hand, and a dying and rising servant or shepherd of Yahweh on the other? That sounds like it should be a forbidden thought.

Further links. . . . 

Zechariah 12:9ff is about a great victory over the military might of foreign nations. Isaiah 52:13ff appears to be the same.

Isaiah 53:1-9, like Zechariah 12:10ff, portrays a collective lament of the people. The nation does not fully grasp the extent of their guilt, however, until they see the death of the Servant (just as they needed to see the death of the Shepherd to fully mourn as they should).

Isaiah 53:10-12 describe the final overcoming of sin and guilt just as in Zechariah the people come to purification and reconciliation with God.

I also ask myself whether in the later (unknown) interpretive tradition of this puzzling text in Zechariah the immediate comparison of the “house of David” with “God” or the “angel of Yahweh” in 12:8 could have carried over to the “only child” or the “firstborn” or “pierced one” in 12:10. (p. 89)

Other Influences

In a future post I’ll continue Hengel’s discussion. We need to see the possible influence of Isaiah 53 on the Book of Daniel, 1 Enoch, the Testament of Moses, the Apocryphon of Levi, the Testament of Benjamin, the Book of Wisdom, as well as the way Jewish translators reinterpreted the original Hebrew text.

If the Isaiah Suffering Servant passages were so influential then we must imagine scribal elites discussing at some length various interpretations of the Servant in relation to messianic hopes. Or if the various linkages are not considered strong evidence of a direct influence, we must at least imagine other readers making links between the various books as they studied and spoke about the texts. We do know that Second Temple Judaism was a time when many did find mystical meanings in Scriptures by means of such word and concept associations.

What is especially interesting is that it appears very certain that at least some Jews surely were indeed using these scriptures to postulate a dying messianic figure to come (or one who had come) before Christianity appeared on the scene.

Finally, I need to acknowledge Richard Carrier’s citation and discussions of aspects of Hengel’s essay in his On the Historicity of Jesus. Without that I would not have known about the volume in which it was published. Thank Hadadrimmon for interlibrary loans.

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13 thoughts on “The Influence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity”

  1. Mark clearly interprets Jesus in the typology of the Suffering Servant. Mark writes: “Mark 10:45 New King James Version (NKJV) 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to SERVE, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

    1. Ehrman and McGrath says the messiah was never supposed to suffer, but we know that it may have been prefigured in scripture (or the first Christian thought it was prefigured in scripture) that there would be some suffering to overcome Satan, because scripture says ” He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel (Genesis 3:15).”

      1. We need to be careful here that we don’t retroject our own interpretations back into the interpretations extant during Second Temple Judaism. Do we have evidence that Gen 3:15 was understood as a messianic text then?

        1. I looked at a bunch of commentaries and Matthew Poole’s commentary might be helpful here. Poole writes regarding the bruised head of the serpent in Genesis 3:15 that:

          “The head is the principal instrument both of the serpent’s fury and mischief, and of his defence, and the principal seat of the serpent’s life, which therefore men chiefly strike at; and which being upon him ground, a man may conveniently tread upon, and crush it to pieces. In the devil this notes his power and authority over men; the strength whereof consists in death, which Christ, the blessed Seed of the woman, overthroweth by taking away the sting of death, which is sin, 1 Corinthians 15:55-56; and destroying him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, Hebrews 2:14.”

          So this may have been interpreted as a messianic text by the thinkers in Jesus’ time.

          1. There is nothing in Poole’s commentary that provides any evidence for how Second Temple Jewish groups interpreted the passage. Poole is simply repeating a modern Christian interpretation.

            1. 1 Corinthians 15:55-56 seems to be referring to the serpent in Genesis (the ‘sting’ of death), so Paul might have had his eye on the description of the serpent in genesis when considering the work of Christ.

              But since the earliest source that we have in Paul (the Corinthian Creed, “Christ died for our sins according to scriptures”) speaks of atonement, it would seem natural that a prophesy about the Devil in genesis would be essential background for Paul in his presentation of his gospel in the epistles.

              1. To relate Paul’s interpretation to a Messianic interpretation of the Second Temple era is itself is entirely speculative. We need evidence, not speculation. Otherwise we are just doing Christian apologetics. Evidence means reading in Second Temple documents, or documents that have a good case for being derived from the Second Temple era, specific statements linking the Genesis scenario to messianic interpretations. As far as I know we don’t have anything like that. Therefore it is out of court. — At least it is for me until I see more than how it “might have been” interpreted.

              2. Recall the “possibly to probably to definitely” slippery slope we see way, way too often among biblical scholars. We need to steer clear of their fallacious methods.

  2. I agree. The very earliest gospel may not have directly concerned itself with atonement for sin, if the Christ of Paul was murdered at the instigation of demonic forces in/at an ultramundane realm. The discovery of the applicability of Isaiah’s servant as a messianic text and the implications of that on behalf of a fleshy incarnation could have been a later development. That “he died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15) may not have entailed a full-blown atonement doctrine at the outset.

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