Jewish Pre-Christian Prophecies of Suffering Servant Messiah (5)

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by Neil Godfrey

So far we have presented the following seven witnesses to a Jewish, pre-Christian, belief in a Suffering Messiah:

  1. Ecclesiasticus,
    • Interpreted the Servant Songs in Isaiah as references to a new coming of Elijah as the messiah.
  2. the Testament of Benjamin,
    • Attributed to a messiah from the tribe of Joseph the atoning death found in Isaiah’s Servant chapters.
  3. and the Parables of Enoch.
    • Describe a messianic figure whose attributes are taken from Isaiah’s Servant passages.
  4. the Peshitta
    • A pre-Christian translation portraying Isaiah’s Servant chapters as references to the messiah.
  5. the Gospel of Luke
    • The mocking expression “the chosen one” most probably derives from pre-Christian
  6. Aquila’s leprous messiah translation of the OT
    • the messianic servant bore our sicknesses, that is, became a leper
  7. Theodotion’s second century translation
    • to counter Christianity he translated Isaiah 53 as a judgmental messiah

The eighth piece of evidence is the Aramaic translation of Isaiah per the Targum on Isaiah. I quote Jeremias in full.

(θ) The Aramaic translation of Isaiah must be considered here from a chronological point of view, although the Targ. on Isaiah289 in its present form is not older than the fifth century A.D., for the text was fixed much earlier. The history of the oral tradition of translation, the result of which the Targ, represents, goes back to pre-Christian times.290 In particular it can be shown that the messianic exegesis of the servant texts Isa. 42.1 and Isa. 52.13 in the Targ, Isa. is old. Of the nineteen servant passages in the Heb. text (cf. p. 50) only three are messianically interpreted in the Targ, Isa.: 42.1; 43.10; 52.13;291 in all three texts the Heb. עבדי is rendered עבדי משיחא by the Targ.292 Our conclusions so far make it certain that the messianic interpretation of Isa. 42.1 and 52.13 rests upon ancient tradition (cf. pp. 57 ff.).293 The observation that the description of the Messiah as servant of God is to be found only in the pre-rabbinic layer of late Jewish literature (II Esd. [IV Ezra], Syr. Bar., cf. p. 49) but nowhere in rabbinic literature outside the Targ. (cf. p. 50), points to the same conclusion. Above all, the ancient date of the messianic exegesis of Isa. 52.13 in the Targ. is clear from the fact that Targ. Isa. explains the whole context Isa. 52.13-53.12 uniformly in a messianic sense; for the messianic interpretation of 53.1-12 cannot, as we saw (p. 64), have first arisen in the Christian era.

The Targ. Isa. 52.13-53.12 runs:

(52.13) ‘Behold my servant, the Messiah, will have success, will become exalted, great and strong.’

(14) ‘As the house of Israel have hoped in him many days when their appearance was overcast in the midst of the peoples and their brightness less than that of the sons of men;’

(15) ‘so will he scatter many peoples; for his sake kings will be silent, will lay their hand on their mouth; for they see what they had never been told and perceive what they had never heard of.’

(53.1) ‘Who hath believed this our message ? and to whom hath the strength of the mighty arm of the Lord thus294 been revealed ?’

(2) ‘And the righteous295 shall be great before him, yea, as sprouting branches and as a tree which sends out its roots beside water brooks, so will the holy generations increase in the land which was in need of him. His appearance is not like that of worldly things and the fear which he inspires is not an ordinary fear, but his brightness will be holy so that all who see him will gaze (fascinated) upon him.’

(3) ‘Then (he) will be despised and will (make to) cease the glory of all kingdoms.296 They will become weak and pitiable—behold, like a man of sorrows and as one destined to ills and as if the shekina had turned its face from us—despised and disregarded’.

(4) ‘Then he will make intercession for our transgressions and for his sake our iniquities shall be forgiven, though we were accounted bruised, smitten by Yahweh and afflicted.’

(5) ‘But he will build up the sanctuary which was desecrated because of our transgressions and surrendered because of our iniquities, and by his teaching his peace297 will be richly upon us, and when we gather to listen to him our transgressions will be forgiven us.’

(6) ‘We were all scattered as sheep, each one had gone his own way into exile; but it was Yahweh’s will to forgive the transgressions of us all for his sake.’

(7) ‘When he prays he receives an answer and hardly does he open his mouth, but he finds a hearing. He will deliver the strong from among the peoples to be slaughtered as a lamb, and as a ewe that is dumb before its shearers, and no one will (dare) to open his mouth and plead.’

(8) ‘He will bring our exiles home from their suffering and chastisement. Who can tell the wonders which will come upon us in his days? For he will remove the dominion298of the peoples from the land of Israel; he will lay to their charge299 the sins of which my people were guilty.’

(9) ‘And he will deliver over to hell the godless and those who have enriched themselves by robbery unto the death of (eternal) destruction, so that they who commit sin may not be preserved and may no longer speak cunningly with their mouth.’

(10) ‘And it pleases Yahweh to refine and purify the remnant of his people in order to cleanse their soul from transgressions. They shall see the kingdom of their Messiah; they will have many sons and daughters;300 they will live long, and those who fulfil the law of Yahweh will by his good pleasure have success.’

(11) ‘From subjugation by the peoples he will deliver their soul; they will see the punishment of them that hate them; they will be satiated by the plunder of their kings. By his wisdom he will acquit the innocent to make many servants of the law. And he will make intercession for their transgressions.’

(12) ‘Hereafter will I apportion to him the plunder of many peoples and he will distribute strong towns as booty, because he surrendered301 himself to death and brought the rebels under the yoke of the law. And he will make intercession for many transgressions and for his sake the rebellious will be forgiven.

It can be seen how, step by step, in Targ. Isa. 52.13-53.12 is depicted the glorious establishment of the messianic kingdom over Israel. The statements about the passion of the servant have been so radically and consistently removed by artificial contrivances that faint traces remain only in two places.302 Even allowing for the targumic translation technique, the section Targ. Isa. 52.13-53.12 stands out by the unusual freedom of its paraphrase in the context of Targ. Isa. 40-66,303 which elsewhere keeps more closely to the Heb. text. For this violent reinterpretation of the text there is only one possible explanation: we have here a piece of anti-Christian polemic.304 From the second century at the latest, Judaism was concerned in various ways to wrest Isa. 53 from its use by Christians as a christological scriptural text proof (cf. p. 75). The curious form of Isa. 53 in the Targ. shows to what extremes this attempt was carried through. The whole section was indeed messianically explained because the messianic interpretation of Isa. 52.13-53.12 was so firmly rooted that Targ. Isa. could not escape it, but the passages about suffering, in brusque contradiction to the original, are replaced by the current view of the Messiah. The fact that this thoroughgoing process of reinterpretation of Isa. 52.13-53.12 was applied to both the Greek (see pp. 65 ff.) and the Aramaic texts of Isa. 53 shows how firmly rooted in Palestinian Judaism was the messianic exegesis.

(pp. 66-71)

I would very much love to locate scholarly publications addressing Jeremias’s presentations, not only for, but especially against the thrust of his interpretation of the evidence. Any reader who can direct me in this quest please do so.

Two more witnesses to appear.


289 Editions: P. de Lagarde, Prophetae Chaldaice, 1872, from the Codex Reuchlini; with apparatus: Stenning, 1949. The section Isa. 52.13-53.12 has been published by G. Dalman in Aramäische Oialektproben2, 1927,10 f. The very meritorious work of Seidelin comes to debatable results because the distinction between the Jewish-Hellenistic and the Jewish-Palestinian exegesis of Isa. 42 and 53 is not recognized and in the evaluation of rabbinic material no distinction is made between allusions to and interpretations of Isa. 53. Besides that, the age of the rabbinic interpretations of Isa. 53.4 has not been realized, and the meaning of the anti-Christian polemic undervalued.

281 Of the remaining sixteen texts the Targ. refers (i) to Israel 41.8, 9; 44.1, 2, 21 (twice); 45.4; 48.20; 49.3; and probably also 49.5, 6 (see n. 214); (ii) to penitent sinners (see n. 219) 42.19 (twice); (iii) to the prophets (see n. 220) 50.10; (iv) 44.26 the Heb. text was perhaps read by the Targ. as a plural (see n. 221); (v) 53.11 (Heb. text עבדי ) in the Targ. is an infinitive: ‘in order to make servants of the law’.

292 Textual uncertainty exists only with regard to Targ. Isa. 42.1. עבדי משיחא is read in the Codex Reuchlini (see n. 289), the Codex Nuremberg (see Stenning, XXIX) and the Wilna edition, 1893. But the Codex Qrientalis, 2211 (British Museum) and others have simply עבדי . Yet the reading עבדי משיחא is supported by the fact that the whole Palestinian tradition — as distinct from the Hellenistic (see pp. 52 f.) — from before the Christian era onwards, interprets Isa. 42.1 ff. messianically (see p. 75).

293 The messianic interpretation of Isa. 43.10, which perhaps is occasioned by Heb. עבדי , in the mouth of God, as in 42.1; 52.13 (Seidelin, 228), has on the contrary no parallel in other late Jewish literature; Midr. Ps. 51 §3 on 51.6 refers Isa. 43.10 to David. But Jerome says on Isa. 43.1-10 that the Jews had interpreted the section de secundo Salvatoris adventu, quando post plenitudinem gentium omnis salvandus sit Israel (cf. Seidelin, 222, n. 79).

2כדין 94; ed. Venice 1517: כדון (now), probably scribal error.

295 צדיקיא (plural); on the other hand Codex Reuchlini (n. 289, Biblia Hebraica Rabbinica, ed. J. Buxtorf the elder, 1618-19) and the Arab. ed. of the Targ. Jonathan I (1196 a.d. ; see Dalman, 1,48, n. 1) read the singular: צדיקא . The singular is supported by the striking singular of the immediately preceding verb: ויתלבא . It could refer to the Messiah (cf. the messianic explanation of our text by R. Berechiah (circa 340) which seems to have been removed from talmudic literature, n. 313). Probably, however, a collective singular was intended, so that between the better attested plural and the singular reading there is no difference of meaning.

296 The textual question to be discussed here is of great importance. There are two alternative readings, which though hardly distinguishable in writing are, in fact, very different. (1) Codex Orientalis 2211 (British Museum) and the bulk of the MSS., as also the Wilna edition (1893) read: יפסיק Aph’el: ‘he will make to cease’. (2) But Codex Orientalis 1474 (British Museum) reads: יפסוק Qal: ‘it will cease’. Codex Reuchlini יפסלן is ambiguous on account of the missing mater lectionis. The two versions presuppose a different subject; in the first (reading: יפסיק ) the Messiah is the subject and the translation is: ‘Then he (the Messiah) will be despised and will make to cease the glory of all kingdoms’ (for this reading see Wünsche, 41; Humbert, 445, 38,n.1; S-B.,1,482; II, 284; Kittel, 179; Brierre-Narbonne, 99; North, 12). In the second case (reading: יפסוק ) ‘the honour of all kingdoms’ is the subject, and the translation is: ‘As a result the honour of all kingdoms will end and will turn to shame’ (for this reading see Dalman, op. cit. in n. 289, 10, n. 18; Seidelin, 207, 211 f.). Without question the textual evidence points predominantly to the first reading יפסיק) ): the weakly attested second reading ( יפסוק ) stands moreover under the suspicion of wishing to set aside the suffering of the Messiah. Thus in Targ. Isa. 53.3 we have, in all probability, the statement: ‘then will he be despised’, a trace of the idea of messianic suffering.

שלמיח 297 ; Codex Reuchlini (see n. 289), Codex Nuremberg (cf. n. 292) and the Venice edition (1517) read שלמא without suffix.

289 שולמן can also mean ‘ruler’.

303 Cf. Aytoun, 172.

304 This is generally admitted. Even Dalman, who had tried to escape this conclusion (I, 43-49) was forced to grant it later; G. Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua, 1929, 172. The tendentious overworking is plainly distinguishable against an older version of the text — Hegermann, 116-122. In the following period the Jewish exegesis of Isa. 53 remains understandably determined by the opposition to the Christian interpretation (see Fischel, 66 f.).

Zimmerli, Walther and Joachim Jeremias. 1957. The Servant of God. London : SCM Press.


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6 thoughts on “Jewish Pre-Christian Prophecies of Suffering Servant Messiah (5)”

  1. Broadhead EK (1999) ‘The Suffering Servant of god’, chapter 10 in Naming Jesus: Titular Christology in the Gospel of Mark, Bloomsbury Publishing; especially the first few pages of that chapter, pp. 101-3.

    The first two pages, pp. 101 and 102, available here https://books.google.com.au/books?id=yeTeBAAAQBAJ&pg=PA102&lpg=PA102&dq=on&source=bl&ots=NYBryze5uc&sig=u0jCDrIXuRF_WNngCKNOaZMl5KU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiZ2faNnKPfAhXTZCsKHee5BzsQ6AEwAHoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false


    and, brief mention by Shirley Lucass in The Concept of the Messiah in the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity, 2011, Bloomsbury, – https://books.google.com.au/books?id=qPERBwAAQBAJ&pg=PA111&lpg=PA111&dq=on+Jeremias+messiah&source=bl&ots=seUUC8Gt19&sig=KW5RjMXOz1ETQNP9WcNTI8_d4XY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjTtZbDnqPfAhVMf30KHfN6Cds4ChDoATAIegQIAxAB#v=onepage&q=Jeremias&f=false

  2. Thank you all for the references. I have read some and since caught up with others.

    Fitzmyer’s arguments (on other questions as well as this one) I tend to find somewhat limited with respect to methods. But he points to Hooker’s “Jesus and the Servant” for detailed arguments against Jeremias. I’m still waiting to get access to that work.

    Hengel’s arguments add new perspectives that curtail some of Jeremias’s points but augment others. (I think I have posted on some of Hengel’s study of Isaiah 53 before here.)

    Collins is the one I was most interested in because I have found many of his arguments in other areas to be informative. But some aspects of his methods and line of argument here raised questions. For example:

    (a) unless there is a proposed literary connection is made explicit then Collins generally says it must remain doubtful. I am reminded of the Gospel of Mark that contains relatively few explicit literary references to other (OT) texts but few would suggest it is not heavily indebted to certain OT books. I think it is Hengel who demonstrates that first efforts at new interpretations are generally seen to be made cautiously, implicitly and only later do they appear with the full confidence of explicit connections.

    (b) Collins challenge to each point made by Jeremias or is to concede one part that is true and applicable to Jesus or early Christianity, but in the same context some other aspect is not applicable to Jesus or early Christology. Therefore, it is not a precursor to Christian interpretations. Such an approach is surely fallacious. It appears to me to declare any point invalid if a closely related point is not applicable to Jesus. This seems to dismiss any argument that does not demonstrate a balanced or substantial pre-Jesus Jesus concept. It seems not unlike a creationist’s argument against evolution because a finished product could not be reached through meandering hit and miss stages.

    One interesting example of that is when he rejects a particular identification as a true “suffering servant” figure because the suffering the figure experiences is mental, anguish, emotional suffering and “not the sort of suffering we associate with Jesus”. Gethsemane is not mentioned by Collins.

    I can’t help but recall Thomas L. Thompson’s identity of David as a suffering messiah figure in Psalms and in episodes of his narrative career.

    (c) I can understand the logic of the argument he points to in order to discount Jewish anti-Christian bias in their interpretations/translations of Isaiah 53. But how realistic is it to imagine rabbis being the only ones not influenced by religious bias in late antiquity? And yes, as a rule of thumb we don’t presume something to exist at a certain time if we have no evidence from that time period for it; but sometimes it really is the case that it is easier, simpler, to explain the existence of an idea if it did have a birth some time before we have clear evidence of its existence.

    (d) Collins relies on Christian dogma to explain all of the Christological interpretations of OT passages: that is, the followers of Jesus were convinced of the applicability of totally new interpretations of OT passages to Jesus after he died. The easter experience is not mentioned by Collins but that’s the missing element on which the dogma rests. I find such an explanation problematic for various reasons. Just on Occam’s principles alone a far simpler explanation can be easily enough found than one that requires personal experiences leading to a complete change in cultural and religious beliefs and interpretations and an ability to go out and persuade other Jews and gentiles to embrace the radically new ideas.

    Conclusion: Thanks to the pointers you guys above have given me I feel I know where to look for further critiques of Jeremias’s arguments and will be following up some of these in more depth.

  3. Readers Ignore. This comment is solely for my own benefit: listing here the sources I want to return to over the next few weeks…

    From chapter 10 in Broadhead’s ‘Naming Jesus’
    — Fitzmyer, Luke, pp. 200, 212, 1566
    — Conzelmann, Outline, p. 85
    — Cullmann, Christology, pp. 51-82

    From Lucass’s ‘Concept of Messiah’
    — Collins, Sceptre, 123-125

    Hengel’s chapter in Suffering Servant.

    From Collins ‘Sceptre’ pp. 142ff
    — Higgins “Jewish Messianic Belief” — via Landman “Messianism in the Talmudic Era”
    — Hooker, Jesus and the Servant
    — Heinemann, Messiah of Ephraim
    — Klausner, Messianic Idea, 483

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