Rabbinic Traditions that the Messiah was to Suffer? (6)

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by Neil Godfrey

Image of cover of Barry Holtz’s historical survey of Rabbi Akiba

Before addressing some of the modern criticisms of Joachin Jeremias’s arguments we are attempting to set out JJ’s case as fairly as possible.

In this post we look at Jeremias’s case for an early rabbinic preservation and development of the tradition of interpreting the suffering passages Isaiah 53 as applying to the messiah.

Before we start with the new we must recap the previous posts. The witnesses to a Jewish, pre-Christian, belief in a Suffering Messiah that we have heard from so far:

  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
  8. Aramaic translation of Isaiah
    • evidence of the suffering messianic exegesis goes back to pre-rabbinic times

Here we look at Joachim Jeremias’s ninth witness for a pre-Christian Jewish teaching about a suffering servant messiah: the Rabbinical tradition that Isaiah 53 was interpreted messianically.

Only two passages in Isaiah (more specifically, Deutero-Isaiah, chapters 40 to 55) have been consistently interpreted messianically in early rabbinic literature. These are Isa. 42.1 ff. and Isa. 52.13 ff. 

The Isaiah 42 passage:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.
He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.
A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth.
He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for his law.
Thus saith God the Lord, he that created the heavens, and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth, and that which cometh out of it; he that giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein:
I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles;
To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house. 

The other passage, Isaiah 52-53 contains passages of suffering:

13 Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.
14 As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men:
15 So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.

53:1 Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?
For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

In Jeremias’s words,

On the part of the Rabbis, likewise, only two Deut. Isa. servant passages have been understood in a messianic sense: Isa. 42.1 ff. and Isa. 52.13 ff.305 These are in fact the two passages which, so far, we have constantly found to be interpreted messianically. As for Isa. 42.1 ff, it is essential to note that only the messianic interpretation306 is found in rabbinic literature. The messianic interpretation of Isa. 52.13-53.12 by the Rabbis307 concerns both the passages of exaltation and the passages about suffering.308 In particular the reference of the passages about suffering in Isa. 53 to the Messiah emerges very early with the Rabbis, and simultaneously at several points.

R. Jose the Galilean

Jeremias on the testimony of Raymond Martini:

The context discusses the fact that Adam’s transgression caused countless sentences of death and puts the question: ‘What measure is the greater, that of mercy or that of punitive justice? Answer: the measure of goodness is the greater (here begins the addition of Raymundus Martini) and that of punitive justice is the smaller. How much more then will the king, the Messiah, who suffers and is in agony for the godless, justify all mankind, as it is written: “But he was wounded for our transgressions” (Isa. 53.5). The same is meant by Isa. 53.6: “But the Lord hath laid upon him the iniquity of us all”.’ (p. 72)

The first witness Jeremias calls in this particular context is Rabbi Jose the Galilean who wrote prior to A.D. 135 and the second Jewish war with Rome. His testimony is not secure, however, since it comes to us from the thirteenth century Raymond Martini and our surviving copies of the source lack the passage Raymond Martini claimed he saw in the late 1200s. The passage that is said to have existed at that time in the Siphre Leviticus 12.10 and 5.17 recorded a saying by R. Jose the Galilean that a King-Messiah would justify all peoples by means of his own pains, suffering and sorrows.

So what happened? Did the passage really exist and was it deleted after it came to the wider attention of the Christian world? Jeremias suspects that possibility on the basis of the “sharpness with which Judaism opposed the Christian exegesis of the passages about suffering in Isa. 53 . . . especially as elsewhere messianic exegesis of Isa. 53 seems to have been excised.” (p. 72)

This assumption gains a high degree of probability from the fact that similar statements have come down to us from a scholar closely connected with R. Jose, likewise a pupil of R. Akiba and, together with R. Jose, a teacher in Jabne and then in Lydda: R. Tarphon (Tryphon).

(pp. 72f)

R. Tryphon (the same whom Justin debated?)  

The Church Father Justin from the mid second century wrote a “Dialogue with the Jew Trypho/Tryphon”.  In that work Justin claimed that Jews in his day had been removing from their copies of the Septuagint (Greek language OT) “many” passages that Christians took to be prophecies of Jesus. In chapters 71, 72 and 73 of his Dialogue with Trypho/Tryphon Justin wrote:

But I am far from putting reliance in your teachers, who refuse to admit that the interpretation made by the seventy elders who were with Ptolemy [king] of the Egyptians is a correct one; and they attempt to frame another. And I wish you to observe, that they have altogether taken away many scriptures from the translations effected by those seventy elders who were with Ptolemy, and by which this very man who was crucified is proved to have been set forth expressly as God, and man, and as being crucified, and as dying; but since I am aware that this is denied by all of your nation, I do not address myself to these points, but I proceed to carry on my discussions by means of those passages which are still admitted by you. For you assent to those which I have brought before your attention, except that you contradict the statement,

‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive,’ and say it ought to be read, ‘Behold, the young woman shall conceive.’

And I promised to prove that the prophecy referred, not, as you were taught, to Hezekiah, but to this Christ of mine: and now I shall go to the proof.”

Here Trypho remarked, “We ask you first of all to tell us some of the scriptures which you allege have been completely cancelled.”

And I said, “. . . . From the statements, then, which Esdras made in reference to the law of the passover, they have taken away the following:

‘And Esdras said to the people, This passover is our Saviour and our refuge. And if you have understood, and your heart has taken it in, that we shall humble Him on a standard, and thereafter hope in Him . . . .

And from the sayings of Jeremiah they have cut out the following:

‘I[was] like a lamb that is brought to the slaughter: they devised a device against me, saying, Come, let us lay on wood on His bread, and let us blot Him out from the land of the living; and His name shall no more be remembered.’

And since this passage from the sayings of Jeremiah is still written in some copies [of the Scriptures] in the synagogues of the Jews (for it is only a short time since they were cut out), and since from these words it is demonstrated that the Jews deliberated about the Christ Himself, to crucify and put Him to death, He Himself is both declared to be led as a sheep to the slaughter, as was predicted by Isaiah, and is here represented as a harmless lamb; but being in a difficulty about them, they give themselves over to blasphemy.

And again, from the sayings of the same Jeremiah these have been cut out:

‘The Lord God remembered His dead people of Israel who lay in the graves; and He descended to preach to them His own salvation.’

“And from the ninety-fifth(ninety-sixth) Psalm they have taken away this short saying of the words of David:

‘From the wood.’

For when the passage said, ‘Tell ye among the nations, the Lord hath reigned from the wood,’ they have left, ‘Tell ye among the nations, the Lord hath reigned.’ Now no one of your people has ever been said to have reigned as God and Lord among the nations, with the exception of Him only who was crucified . . . .

Three of those four passages Justin accuses the Jews of removing from their Scriptures are evidently Christian forgeries or interpolations. But the Isaiah passage comparing the messiah to a lamb led to slaughter is original, and Justin is telling us that the Jews had themselves acknowledged that this verse applied to the messiah but were now denying that it applied to Jesus.

Recall from an earlier post that Aquila very early (end of first century/beginning of second) made a new translation of the Jewish Scriptures to remove or re-write passages that Christians found too amenable for their teachings about Jesus, so we have here some support for Justin’s accusation.

Obviously, we may naturally be very suspicious of the claims of a Christian apologist but Jeremias has a point when he writes:

On the other hand it speaks for the credibility of Justin that in his arguments with Tryphon Isa. 53 especially is in question,316 which presupposes a common point of departure; and, further, Justin carefully distinguishes between passages and readings which his opponents recognize and those which they do not, and emphasizes that he builds up his christological proof only on the former (Just. Dial. 71.2 f., 120.5).

The passages in which Justin informs us that Tryphon agreed that the Messiah was to suffer (παθητός):

Then he [= Trypho] replied, “Let these things be so as you say—namely, that it was foretold Christ would suffer, and be called a stone; and after His first appearance, in which it had been announced He would suffer, would come in glory, and be Judge finally of all, and eternal King and Priest. Now show if this man be He of whom these prophecies were made.”
(Dial. 36.1)

And Trypho replied, “Now, then, render us the proof that this man who you say was crucified and ascended into heaven is the Christ of God. For you have sufficiently proved by means of the scriptures previously quoted by you, that it is declared in the Scriptures that Christ must suffer, and come again with glory, and receive the eternal kingdom over all the nations, every kingdom being made subject to Him: now show us that this man is He.”
(Dial. 39.7)

Then I inquired of him, “Does not Scripture, in the book of Zechariah, say that Elijah shall come before the great and terrible day of the Lord?”

And he [=Trypho] answered, “Certainly.”
(Dial. 49.2)

. . . they agree that some scriptures which we mention to them, and which expressly prove that Christ was to suffer, to be worshipped, and [to be called] God, and which I have already recited to you, do refer indeed to Christ, but they venture to assert that this man is not Christ. But they admit that He will come to suffer, and to reign, and to be worshipped, and to be God
(Dial. 68.9)

. . . .  For if the prophets declared obscurely that Christ would suffer, and thereafter be Lord of all . . . .

Then Trypho said, “I admit that such and so great arguments are sufficient to persuade one; but I wish [you] to know that I ask you for the proof which you have frequently proposed to give me. Proceed then to make this plain to us, that we may see how you prove that that [passage] refers to this Christ of yours.
(Dial. 76.6-77.1)

Then Trypho remarked, “Be assured that all our nation waits for Christ; and we admit that all the scriptures which you have quoted refer to Him. Moreover, I do also admit that the name of Jesus, by which the son of Nave (Nun) was called, has inclined me very strongly to adopt this view. But whether Christ should be so shamefully crucified, this we are in doubt about. For whosoever is crucified is said in the law to be accursed, so that I am exceedingly incredulous on this point. It is quite clear, indeed, that the Scriptures announce that Christ had to suffer; but we wish to learn if you can prove it to us whether it was by the suffering cursed in the law.
(Dial. 89.1-2)

“Bring us on, then,” said [Trypho], “by the Scriptures, that we may also be persuaded by you; for we know that He should suffer and be led as a sheep. (παθεΐν μεν γάρ και ώς πρόβατον άχθήσεσθαι [= Isa. 53-7] θϊδαμεν) But prove to us whether He must be crucified and die so disgracefully and so dishonourably by the death cursed in the law. For we cannot bring ourselves even to think of this.”
(Dial. 90.1)

Is Justin’s Dialogue Tryphon the same as the historical rabbi Tarphon from the early and mid second century. R. Tarphon was a pupil of Rabbi Akiba, the famous rabbi from the Bar Kochba war (ca 130 CE). But Jeremias also cites scholars who doubt the identification of Tarphon and Justin’s Tryphon so we cannot be certain that they are the one and same.

Rabbi Akiba’s school (R. Tarphon, R. Jose the Galilean, Aquila)

All of these names are connected with the preservation and development of the “tradition of the messianic exegesis of the passages about suffering in Isa. 53.”

Another pupil of R. Akiba was Aquila. This is the same Aquila who translated the Jewish Scriptures early in the second century, translating Isaiah 53:4 as meaning that the messiah was to be a leper and a sick man. (See #6 at the introduction to this post.)

Rabbi Akiba

It can hardly have been an accident that both R. Jose and R. Tarphon, who likewise referred Isa. 53 to the suffering Messiah . . .  were also pupils of Akiba. This coincidence gains increased significance from the fact that R. Akiba himself taught a suffering of the Messiah317 and that R. Dosa (circa A.D. 180), who for the first time in rabbinic literature explains Zech. 12.12 with reference to the slaying of the Messiah b. Joseph,318 was a disciple with Akiba’s pupil Jehuda b. El’ai.319 R. Akiba, the most influential biblical scholar of the first two centuries A.D., lived circa A.D. 50-135.320 It was his school, represented by R. Tarphon (circa A.D. 60-140), R. Jose the Galilaean and Aquila (both working circa A.D. 100) which, above all, preserved and developed the tradition of the messianic exegesis of the passages about suffering in Isa. 53.

(p. 74)

Let’s fill in the footnote details, but with a copied image because of difficulties I have with Hebrew characters here:

S.-B. = H. L. Strack-Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Talmud und Midrasch, I, 1922 II, 1924
TWNT = Theologisches Wörterbuch zum N.T.
RB = Revue Biblique

And beyond the second century, . . . .

In the third century R. Jochanan (circa A.D. 200-279),321 and in the fourth R. Acha (circa A.D. 320),322applied Isa. 53.5: ‘He was wounded for our transgressions’, to the sorrows of the Messiah. R. Berechiah (circa A.D. 340) follows with the messianic explanation of Isa. 53.2.323 In the post-talmudic period examples multiply,324 yet on the whole are not numerous. This fact is to be explained by the contradiction between such a conception of the Messiah and the customary one, but especially by the opposition to Christianity.

321Ruth R. 5 on 2.14 (H. L. Strack, ‘Zur altjudischen Theologie’, TB, 2, 1881, 10 f.; S.-B., I, 27; II, 285). As the name of the author we should read with Yalqut Shim’oni ad loc. 603 R. Jochanan instead of R. Jonathan (S.-B., I, 27; II 285; I, 312). cf. Fischel, 62; the correct reading can be found already in Bacher, op. cit. in n. 236, 312.

322Midr. Sam. 19 §1 (S.-B., Π, 287). Cf. Dalman, I, 52, n. 1 for the v.l. citing R. Idi (circa a.d. 250) as author.

323 S.-B., 1,50 f., cf. n. 313.

(pp. 74 f. TB = Theologische Blätter)



One, perhaps two, more posts to complete this series. 

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


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