Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

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by Neil Godfrey

A bibliography of a few Vridar posts taking an in-depth look at the Suffering Servant figure in Isaiah and how it was understood before Christianity. . . .

The Influence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

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?

This post looks at some work by Martin Hengel and demonstrates the way other pre-Christian texts — Sirach and Zechariah  — interpreted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant figure.

From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel)

The previous post showed the apparent influence of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 upon the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira. This post pauses to look at some background before resuming with the way the Book of Daniel adapted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant idea in the light of contemporary events — around 165/164 BCE.

A chapter by Martin Hengel is the basis for the posts.

It appears that at the end of this post I anticipated writing one more to conclude the series. I must complete that as soon.

Other posts:

Suffering Messiah is a Very Jewish Idea

The Evolution of the Son of Man, the Human & Divine Messiah

Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah in the Gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark As a Fulfilment of Isaiah’s New Exodus

Jesus displaces Isaac: midrashic creation of the biblical Jesus . . . (Offering of Isaac . . . #6)

The Servant in Isaiah 40-55, scholarly interpretations — individual and/or collective identities

How Could a Crucified Jesus Be Identified With God?

Crucified God: origin and original meaning of the concept (Couchoud continued)

There may be others but the above come to view the most easily for now.




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19 thoughts on “Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity”

  1. With the crucifixion narrative in the NT, the question is: how can we tell if we are looking at historical events through a scriptural lens, or a-historical events invented to fulfill scripture? I don’t think criteria can help us.

    1. I find comparisons with known entities helpful. We know Roman and Greek emperors were often associated with mythological paraphernalia — by themselves and by their admirers. We know historical works can be constructed around mythical themes such as a titanic struggle between good and evil or a steady march of human progress or the acting out of a great stage tragedy.

      Despite all the mythical and literary accretions and garb added to the historical reality, we can always see the clear evidence for that historical reality. Not every detail is explained by the mythical and literary garb. One can remove those trappings without losing sight of the reality they have accompanied.

      But if removing the mythical or rhetorical elements leaves us without any evidence for anything else, then the simplest conclusion to draw is that it was all make-believe after all.

      Some scholars seem to get a bit lost in this process, however. A few seem to think that by merely rationalizing the miraculous and being able to imagine a historical underlay, then such a historical underlay is plausible reality. It might plausible, true. But unless there is independent evidence for its reality then we have no independent evidence for its historical reality. It is only a mythical tale from first to last.

      Perhaps we are wrong and maybe the reality has been so thoroughly lost, but if so, then we have no way of ever knowing that is the case so we are still left with the presumption of myth.

      1. “Intertextuality” as a genre of writing in the New Testament presents an interesting problem. There are two poles of interpretation, with a lot of room in between. On one end, we could argue that in an intertextual narrative like Matthew’s Jesus infancy account the gospel writer started with information about the historical Jesus and then added some material to make it seem like the story about Moses from the Old Testament. On the other end, we could say that the gospel writer simply wanted to rewrite a story from the old Testament and apply it to his times, in which case there is no reason to think there is any reliable information about the historical Jesus at all in the intertextual narrative. And there is a lot of room between these two poles. When we present the problem in this way, it becomes a hard and sophisticated problem to try to determine what part of the intertextual narrative (if any) presents information about the historical Jesus. This is the problem that comes up when the issue of “Intertextuality” is introduced as a New Testament genre. The question is: What criteria or method do we use to determine which part of the “Intertextual” narrative is giving us information about the historical Jesus? Can we assume that any part of the “Intertextual” narrative is representing the historical Jesus? If the intertextual narrative says that Jesus did “such and such,” does this mean the historical Jesus actually did it, or was this characterization of Jesus just the author’s way of rewriting the Old Testament story (and the historical Jesus never did it)? Even if a part of the narrative is actually representing the historical Jesus, how could we know that? This is why “Intertextuality” as a literary genre seems to make reconstructing the historical Jesus more problematic in my eyes. It looks like one big mess.

        1. I think intertextuality is a technique, not a genre. We can find intertextuality in different genres.

          We are so habituated to thinking of the gospels as being “about” these people in history or currently in heaven that we forget to look at them for what they are. The Jesus and disciples, the priests and Romans, they are all literary constructs. They are entirely literary figures.

          That is the first level at which we must approach the gospels — because that’s most simply what they are. Literature. Forget anything outside them (like history and geography) for now.

          The next step is to understand them and for that we need context. That’s where we can look to other sources and see relationships between the literature and information external to that literature- – like geographical place-names; social and religious systems; etc.

          We can also see relationships with other literature — such as very similar miracle stories and intertextuality with other texts.

          We put all of this together and what can we say about the gospels?

          We can say that they are creative writings set in a more-or-less real world setting prior to the destruction of the Jewish temple. Not an exact real-world setting because we identify several anachronisms. In today’s terms we might be able to say they are a form of “historical novel”.

          And by today’s standards we might expect to see a small disclaimer somewhere where the author protects herself from defamation by saying any resemblance between real persons and the literary ones is entirely coincidental.

          My point — rather simplistically expressed — is that we have no grounds whatever for assuming that any of the characters in the narrative are real. Okay, Pilate is there, but his character is nothing like that of the historical Pilate so in a sense he is also a literary fiction.

          Now the above argument does not “prove” that there was no historical Jesus. But I think it does raise justifiable questions about the way some people want to argue the point.

          1. The common response to the point that Mark used Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 to construct the crucifixion narrative is that after Jesus died, his followers were desperately searching scriptures to explain what happened. But mythicists point out that since the gospel writers seem to be simply inventing material anyway, there is no reason to think this wasn’t done in the case of the crucifixion. Paul says “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3),” so this could either mean Christ’s death fulfilled scripture, or else Paul learned about Christ’s death by reading scripture.

            But is it reasonable to think the crucifixion narrative was invented? By analogy, it is completely reasonable to think that Matthew simply made up the Nativity account of Jesus:

            On the whole Matthew seems to have borrowed the birth story of Jesus from Josephus’ retelling of the nativity of Moses. Whereas Exodus had Pharaoh institute the systematic murder of Hebrew infants simply to prevent a strong Hebrew fifth column in case of future invasion, Josephus makes the planned pogrom a weapon aimed right at Moses, who in Josephus becomes a promised messiah in his own right. Amram and Jochabed, expecting baby Moses, are alarmed. What should they do? Abort the pregnancy? God speaks in a dream to reassure them. “One of those sacred scribes, who are very sagacious in foretelling future events truly, told the king that about this time there would a child be borne to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through the ages. Which was so feared by the king that, according to this man’s opinion, he commanded that they should cast every male child into the river, and destroy it… A man, whose name was Amram, … was very uneasy at it, his wife being then with child, and he knew not what to do… Accordingly God had mercy on him, and was moved by his supplication. He stood by him in his sleep, and exhorted him not to despair of his future favours… ‘For that child, out of dread for whose nativity the Egyptians have doomed the Israelites’ children to destruction, shall be this child of thine… he shall deliver the Hebrew nation from the distress they are under from the Egyptians. His memory shall be famous whole the world lasts.’” (Antiquities, II, IX, 2-3)

            It is evident that Matthew has had merely to change a few names. Herod the Great takes the role of the baby-killing Pharaoh, and he is warned by his own scribes (along with the Magi) of the impending birth of a savior, whereupon he resolves to kill every child he has to in order to eliminate the child of promise. Joseph takes the place of Amram, though the precise cause of his unease is different. Mary takes the place of Jochabed. A dream from God steels Joseph, like Amram, in his resolve to go through with things.

            The rest of Matthew’s birth story is woven from a series of formulaic scripture quotations. He makes Isaiah 7:14 LXX refer to the miraculous virginal conception of Jesus. It is likely that he has in this case found a scripture passage to provide a pedigree for a widespread hagiographical mytheme, the divine paternity of the hero, which had already passed into the Christian tradition, unless of course this is the very door through which it passed.

            It is revealing that Matthew’s Magi learn from scribal exegesis of Micah 5:2 that the messiah must be born in Bethlehem. This is the same way Matthew “knew” Jesus was born there–it had to be!

            The flight of the Holy Family into Egypt comes equally from exegesis, this time of Hosea 11:1, which allows Matthew to draw a parallel between his character Joseph and the Genesis patriarch Joseph, who also went to Egypt. Matthew also seems here to want to foreshadow the death and resurrection of Jesus. Note that Isaiah 52:9-10 makes the exodus from Egypt into a historical replay of God’s primordial victory over the sea dragon Rahab, equating Egypt with Rahab. Matthew also knew that Jonah was swallowed by a sea monster at God’s behest, and he saw this as a prefiguration of Jesus’ descent into the tomb (Matthew 12:40). The flight into Egypt has the child Jesus already going down into Rahab, the belly of the sea beast.

            The closest Matthew can come, via punning exegesis, to providing a prooftext for Jesus having become known as “the Nazarene” would seem to be Judges 13:7, “The boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth.” He knew Jesus must be born in Bethlehem yet was called “Jesus of Nazareth,” so he cobbled together a story whereby Jesus was born in Mary and Joseph’s home in Bethlehem, only to relocate in Nazareth (after Egypt) to avoid the wrath of Archelaus (Matthew 2:22-23). Luke, on the other hand, working with the same two assumptions, contrived to have Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth but to be in Bethlehem for the census when the time came for Jesus to be born. In both cases, exegesis has produced narrative.

            So, by means of historical analogy, just as there is no reason to think that Matthew is doing anything else besides simply inventing the Nativity account of Jesus out of whole cloth, mythicists would say it is a least possible that Mark invented the crucifixion narrative out of whole cloth. As for the crucifixion itself, the implicit piercing of hands and feet could have simply come in Mark 24 from Psalm 22:16b

            I’m not a mythicist, but that’s what I think their argument is. When intertextuality is at play in the New Testament, it may be wise to bracket whether the text in question has an historical core or not, and simply say we don’t know.

            1. Tim Widowfield recently posted the following interesting quote:

              Bishop Timothy Whitaker points out that Form Criticism, of the type I did above about Jesus’ nativity in Matthew (and relating Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 to the crucifixion narrative), puts into question whether the gospels were written to preserve the memory of the historical Jesus. Whitaker writes: “Most kinds of historical Biblical criticism such as source criticism, redaction criticism, and literary criticism do not necessarily challenge the traditional view of the Gospels. The case is different with Formgeschichte or ‘form criticism,’ which is a kind of historical Biblical criticism developed by German New Testament scholars in the early twentieth century, notably Karl Ludwig Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolf Bultmann. . . . The form critics proposed that these ‘forms’ were transmitted over a long period of time in anonymous Christian communities in which they were creatively adapted to the needs of the communities. The impression is created by the form critics’ theory of the oral phase of the transmission of the traditions about Jesus that the Gospels tell us more about the early Christian communities than they do about Jesus. Formgeschichte, which literally means ‘form history,’ does indeed challenge the premise that the Gospels were written to preserve the memory of Jesus’ life by eyewitnesses.”

    2. When I asked a christian where is his proof that jesus was accustomed to illness their source becomes the verse in Isaiah 53 which says that the ss was diseased and accustomed to illness. This means that apologist desperate to find jesus in Isaiah have to make Jesus ill and diseased. They are using Isaiah 53 as their only source for evidence.

      1. Good point, Rob…pretty much all our information on Jesus doesn’t allow for him to have even known sickness or even been sick. Nothing in ANY ancient sources gives us even a hint he was ever ill.

        Even less so if we go by the thoughts of any Gnostic groups who thought Jesus a God/angel…have ANY of us ever heard of sick Gods or Angels? So if we only go by information as brought down to us by proto-Orthodox/Catholic…they themselves haven’t attested to a Jesus who personally ever experienced illness.

        So if Isaiah 53 was a source of supposed “evidence,” it’s a square-peg/round hole scenario. The interpretation then is forced.

        Not surprised the Christian you asked, Rob, came out with such a thing. They’re not fans of accuracy or logic.

    1. is this your proof that the jesus in the gospels was accustomed to illness?

      “Despised and rejected by men, a man of pains and accustomed to illness, and as one who hides his face from us, despised and we held him of no account.”

      1. It’s one thing to consider Jesus a “suffering servant,” but nothing strongly comes across as him “suffering.”

        There’s no real suffering in the time it was supposed to have taken for him to have died. Otherwise he’d still be alive for days like every other person up on a Roman crucifix device. They were designed to make people suffer for days, weren’t they?

        Dying in a few hours while everyone else took days to die really doesn’t come across as empathy for the others being executed by the Romans.

        Just a thought.

        1. the gospels are shape shifting jesus.
          sometimes unrecognizable gardener and other times unseen guy who can walk through angry crowds.

          mary madgalene uses her hair to oil the feet of her man god. this is supposed to be “ugly little man” which became beautiful in european paintings.

          gospels have no knowledge of jesus appearance.

          1. True. The gospels are damed sly and evasive and double-tongued about everything. Shifting appearances constantly. Sleight of hand. Now you see it, now you don’t. Polysemy everywhere.

    2. David Ashton…

      Interesting sources, though I’m trying to ascertain where you were going with them.

      “Physician heal thyself” is actually attested as part of Marcion, if I remember. As a statement of whether or not it meant Jesus was familiar with illness in relation to fitting Isaiah 53, I’m going to head-scratch. Out on its own, it doesn’t give an indicator.

      I’m not sure where you’re going with Sanhedrin 106b…athough we know JOB suffered…that doesn’t really tie to whether Jesus would have or not.

      I did read through it quickly…and I note it’s the description of Jethro, Balaam and Job where they advised Pharaoh. Jethro advising against harm…Balaam obviousy ADVISING harm…and Job being the silent middle-ground being absolutely fair and impartial.

      Interesting how that reads…while still allowing for Job to be a valid neutral ground in things, telling where that has its own problems if Balaam and Pharaoh still end up being nasty.

      And Celsus…needs a bit more explanation on how Celsus impacts.

      1. Questions not comments or conclusions.

        “Older writers remembered, it seems, the frailty of Jesus’ human appearance. Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215) says his face was ugly. The pagan writer Celsus (c.178) asked ‘How can the Son of God been such an ugly little man?; and the Christian writer Origen (c.185-254) accepts the description and quotes Isaiah 52ff…. Tertullian (c.160-220)…repeatedly emphasised Jesus’ frail human form…. Robert Eisler…put together a description of Jesus from Byzantine citations of a now-lost version of Josephus…the language of a police description…. Tertullian remarked, Jesus’ physical appearance may have partly prompted the barrage of mockery and insults, which the Gospels so surprisingly preserve…. Two of them are striking: ‘Physician heal thyself!’, and ‘He saved [i.e. healed] others, but he cannot save [i.e. heal] himself’…. In themselves the jibes suggest that Jesus’ physical frailty was, in that harsh age, incongruous with he splendour of his message….small, frail and ill-favoured.” – Don Cupitt & Peter Armstrong, “Who was Jesus?” (BBC, 1977) pp.27-28.

        Google “Jesus is Balaam the Lame”.

        1. I understand that there was something of a cultural trope in Hellenistic times that the wise philosopher was physically/outwardly not up to par. The witty Aesop, for instance, is depicted as somewhat ugly and mis-shapen. Socrates, too. One might see the early Christian hints of the appearances of Paul and Jesus in the same tradition. All the easier in the case of Jesus having the Isaianic passages about “no form or comeliness” to draw upon.

          1. Good point.

            Contra Celsum 6.75. Worth perusal: Peter Stuhlmacher et al, “The Suffering Servant” (2004).

            Apart from the ambiguity of Luke 19.3 (cf. 2.52), the impression given by the gospels is a man of presence with more physical energy than his followers.

  2. Regarding Isaiah, I find it fascinating that conservative Christian scholars and liberal mythicists look to the same texts to make their respective cases. Conservative scholars want to argue the Old Testament is a prophetic prefiguring of Christ, while mythicists argue that the New Testament Narratives were in part created by haggadic midrash out of the Old Testament. This is nowhere more evident than in conservative writer David Limbaugh’s new book “The Emmaus Code: Finding Jesus In The Old Testament (2015).”

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