How Did Daniel Understand Isaiah’s Suffering Servant?

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by Neil Godfrey

Martin Hengel
Martin Hengel (1926-2009)

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.


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Neil Godfrey

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20 thoughts on “How Did Daniel Understand Isaiah’s Suffering Servant?”

  1. There is also no reason to think Pilate executed Jesus. Just because there is a known historical person in the Gospels, there is no reason to think the historical Jesus ever had anything to do with them. For example, the gospel of Luke says there was a relation between Governor Quirinius of Syria and Jesus’ family: a census. But there is no reason to think this ever happened.

    Luke writes “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.(Luke 2:1–7)”

    This appears to give a precise date, but elsewhere Luke has placed the nativity “in the days of Herod” (Luke 1:5 – “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah…”); as Herod died in 4 BCE and the census was in 6 CE, this means that the gospel is not consistent with the historical evidence. The scenario of Luke 2:1-7 is unrealistic in other ways as well: almost all scholars agree that people would not be required to travel in order to register for tax purposes (it would be the taxation officials who would travel, as they had to link property to its owners), and Joseph, as a resident of Galilee rather than Judaea, would not have been affected by the census in any case.

    By analogy, there is no reason to think Pilate had anything to do with Jesus.

    1. John MacDonald…we would have to ask why Luke is bringing up a time and name that has more to do with the Judas the Galilean account…and why he’s fudging facts with Roman taxation policy…and heck, why he’s twelve years out on Jesus’ year of birth from Matthew.

    2. There are a lot of these discrepancies and errors throughout the Gospels, which infects the idea of an historical Jesus and makes it implausible in my mind.

  2. I cite your comment here first: “noted related developments in the period of the Maccabean martyrs (around 165/164 BCE) when the book of Daniel appears to have been written.”

    I’ve heard that a bit that Daniel MIGHT have been written around that time. But recently I also heard that Daniel was referenced by at least two different major prophets before that time…in fact, I’ve just read ONE of those sources in Ezekiel 28. So if the dating for Ezekiel is correct, then Daniel is still allowable for the period of the Babylonian Exile. That DOESN’T necessarily remove the possibility someone could have taken such references and used them to create an apocryphal work in the 165bce/164bce period. And I’ll recognize it may be either way.

    Over the past couple of days, I’ve also read that Daniel is the ONLY book of the OT that EXPLICITLY referenced a messiah figure. That would independently confirm this next line: “Yet we must remember that in the second century B.C.E., we do not yet possess any fixed Jewish doctrine of the Messiah.”

    Does that leave OUT the last chapters of Ezekiel?

    There’s enough in those last few chapters of Ezekiel that gives a strong pointer towards a doctrine…but I’m noting a CONTRAST between it and Daniel’s.

    How can one prophet reference a messianic figure rebuilding a temple while the other references a DESTRUCTION of it?

    That would be an entire line of scholastic enquiry all its own.

    We also have different viewpoints that can give us a clue as to whether Isaiah 53 was necessary to Daniel’s writings.

    Bringing in Gnostic Christian groups…depends on which group. Some groups AND the Samaritans really didn’t NEED any of the prophets. Heck, the Samaritans stop their scriptures at Joshua…so it would have been irrelevant to them. Same too with the Gnostic groups that didn’t go by any Jewish prophets. They didn’t need Isaiah 53.

    I think on a separate post we had a discussion going on the impact of the Apocryphal works of the 165BCE period being more where some ideas came from (Seth, Enoch)…and if Daniel were in the same lot and time-period, could have stood without reference to OT canonical prophets.

    Of course, the proto-Orthodox/proto-Catholics would have had a definite need of both Daniel AND Isaiah to build their view. But I always see them as really forcing the interpretation onto the text of Isaiah 53.

    And then there’s the IF Daniel WAS really written in the time-period of the Babylonian exile…was Isaiah ON a canon list at that time, or were the Jews of Babylon IN the 70-year exile STILL evaluating his prophesies? And if so, would he have YET been on Daniel’s required reading list? LESS problem on this IF the 165bce theory…then, yes, Daniel would have had Isaiah 53 on his reading list…he just may not have needed Isaiah 53.

    1. “But recently I also heard that Daniel was referenced by at least two different major prophets before that time”

      I’ve recently heard that, too, though just about Ezekiel, not any other OT prophet. When I checked the reference, I found Ezekiel did indeed mention someone by that name. There is nothing in the references, though, to connect that Daniel with any particular writing or with any particular time, place, or event in Israel’s history.

  3. Perhaps I could have explained the second part of my above comment better…instead of mixing the thoughts on later groups with Daniel himself.

    So I’ll break it down to the two possible periods that Daniel could have written in…one the Babylonian exile, the other the 165BCE period.

    I don’t see it a given that he might have needed to use Isaiah even in the Babylonian period for the reason i stated in the final paragraph of my comment. He MAY, he may NOT have read Isaiah at that point…but it depends on when exactly in that period Isaiah was listened to by the exile community before final acceptance of his work. I’m sure all scholars look to see WHAT point of time Isaiah was given credence by anyone in that exile community, let alone Daniel.

    If the latter time of 165bce and in WITH the writers of Sethian and Enochian works of the time…these works don’t draw amazingly well with the Prophets. IF a work written by someone anonymous in that period, simply attaching a name he’s read in Ezekiel…then the anonymous writer RESOLVES the problem that exists in the CONTRAST to Ezekiel’s final chapters…he’s not on the same page as Ezekiel.

    Of course, the lattter date FULLY allows him to have been able to read Isaiah 53 and consider it canonical to some sections of the extant people of the time…but if he’s ALREADY written a contrast to Ezekiel…I doubt he’d be any more wanting to go totally IN LINE with Isaiah.

    And in terms of thematic tie-in and conceptual relationship…a 165BCE Daniel is pretty much grouping in with Sethian/Enochian stuff as pre-Christian Gnosticism. Hence why I still see the later Gnostics having a similar lack of need to use Isaiah 53.

    That’s WHY in my first comment I saw it streaming more in line with the Gnostic thinking and the later Gnostic groups.

    1. I think I’ve heard that the Babylonians or neighbors had many more Daniel tales not found in the Bible. This might suggest a Babylonian origin to the whole series.

      It is often said that Judaism was forever changed by the Babylonian exile/captivity.

    1. Yes. Looks extremely useful as background to my own concentration on 2 Mac. 6-7 as the main origin of Christianity. Though parts of that text ‘s dates, as all biblical dates, might be contested, few doubt that it contains material from, descriptions of, the Maccabesn period, from at least 167 BCE.

      An historian would suggest that according to the usual logic of history, this is the most likely timeframe for the origins of Christianity: the period most immediately preceding it, of course. Which here would be say, 170 to 4 BCE.

      1. Interesting passage. This part reminds me of Socrates in the “Apology”.

        24 “Such pretense is not worthy of our time of life,” he said, “for many of the young might suppose that Eleazar in his ninetieth year had gone over to an alien religion, 25 and through my pretense, for the sake of living a brief moment longer, they would be led astray because of me, while I defile and disgrace my old age. 26 Even if for the present I would avoid the punishment of mortals, yet whether I live or die I will not escape the hands of the Almighty. 27 Therefore, by bravely giving up my life now, I will show myself worthy of my old age 28 and leave to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws”


        1. I agree with Neil’s sources that see it seems, Isaiah leading to parts of Daniel; leading to 2 Maccabees; leading finally to the gospels and Jesus.

          But it all seems to really firm up first, in 2 Maccabees 6-7. Where we see seven or eight very Christlike figures. Sons of God dying to save us all. As in 2 Mac. 7.37-38:

          “I offer up my body and my life for our ancestral laws, imploring God to show mercy soon to our nation, and by afflictions, and blows to make you confess that he alone is God. Through me and my brothers, may there be an end to the wrath of the Almighty…” NAB

          Clearly this is a Christ figure. One offering us salvation by atonement.

          From here to Jesus, is a very, very small step.

          CF. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2%20Maccabees%207&version=NRSV

          1. Probably the example of Socrates, giving up his life, influenced all this as well. There’s at least one fairly recent academic article on that, on the philosophical death or “Mouri,” roughly spelled.

    2. Glad it’s of interest. These sorts of studies bring the biblical literature alive and make it comprehensible, in my view. They make a huge difference to understanding our religious heritage.

  4. Carrier is an interesting fellow. For a long time I wondered if Christianity started out as some sort of Conspiracy to lie about a God-man to people in order to make the world a better place. I have expressed this in four or five comments in the comment section here: http://vridar.org/2015/09/21/comments-open/#comment-73290
    Carrier has also raised the issue that Christianity might have started out as a noble lie (cf. Plato in the Republic). In his essay “Why The Resurrection Is Unbelievable” in the anthology “The Christian Delusion,” Carrier writes: “It’s also possible the first Christians ‘claimed’ to have had these visions [of Jesus] even when they didn’t. They could have done so simply to join, lead, or support a movement whose moral goals they approved and believed should be implemented and preached to society for the good of their fellow man (Carrier, The Christian Delusion, pg 306).”

    Carrier also anticipated the current debate about whether the Jews anticipated a killed messiah. Carrier writes “Some Jews even suspected the end would shortly follow the death of the messiah (Daniel 9:25-27), (Carrier, the Christian Delusion, pg. 306; also cf Carrier, The End Of Christianity, 56, 372n9)

    1. The White Lie a longstanding theory about Christianity. Even many preachers will hint at it. Hinting that promises of physical miracles are not literally true. But they ask “What harm” is done by these false Santa-like promises.

      They say that such false promises at least attract crude people, “children,” to churches. Where they can be taught allegedly a higher religion. One stressing “spirit,” spiritual moderation.

      This would explain why many adults might seem to know there are things that are not true in religion – but they support it anyway. Or why priests might have even often invented bits of the Bible, or assembled and edited stories they knew to be not entirely true. In the days from Babylon and Socrates, on.

      It may be that many such stories – like tales telling us to be meek, obedient servants, or ” Martyrs” – existed long ago. Particularly in Babylonia, by c. 587 BC. The early tales were continually edited and expanded. Till by 167 BC they, with many new additions and considerable revisions, became parts of Daniel and Isaiah. Among other texts. With many more updates, by c. 60 AD, these martyr tales had morphed into the first gospel.

      1. In my theology, the apocalyptic day of the End, is a metaphor for the day we grow up, and see the lies in our faith, our messiah. In that moment, our childhood spiritual heaven of spiritual dreams and hopes, our messiah, “dissolves.” But more realistic adults help build a new heaven on earth (Rev. 21, etc.)

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