This post cites the tenth and final witness called by Joachim Jeremias in a 1957 book, The Servant of God. Thanks to helpful comments left by some readers I can say that the testimony of this particular #10 witness is disputed by scholars who argue that the rabbis of “Late Antiquity” responsible for interpreting Isaiah 53 were not influenced by any sort of anti-Christian bias. Maybe those critics are right. I hope to address in detail their arguments, either for or against, before the end of January 2019. Jeremias has been numbering his witnesses by the Greek alphabet and this final one therefore is the tenth letter of the Greek alphabet, kappa, or κ.
(κ) From the second century A.D. the history of Jewish exegesis of Isa. 53 is shaped increasingly by the opposition to Christianity.325
325 The rich material concerning the anti-Christian apologetic and polemic of Judaism in the first centuries has not yet been exhaustively dealt with.
In other studies of Jewish writings among biblical scholars (especially since 1967) there appears to have been a trend to undo negative perceptions of the Jewish past (the “rehabilitation of Judas” being one of the more distinctive examples) so I wonder if the “anti-Christian apologetic and polemic of Judaism” in the past has ever been “exhaustively dealt with”. If readers know what I don’t then I trust someone will inform me.
Jeremias outlines what he saw as Jewish efforts to remove earlier messianic associations from Isaiah 53:
This process begins by the avoidance of the description of the Messiah as ‘servant of God’ and ‘the chosen’, which the pseudepigraphic writers had used without embarrassment (cf. p. 50 and n. 262), and also of the title ‘son of man’,326 and ‘Jesus’, which had become a nomen odiosum (cf. TWNT, III, 287,20 ff.). From the end of the second century the apologetic method of changing the text327 and of tendentious interpretation was seized upon in translating Isa. 53, in order to dispose of passages which were of use to Christians in their text proofs. This polemical method is used especially in Targ. Isa. 53 (cf. pp. 66 ff.).
326 As distinct from Eth. En. it is lacking in Slav, and Heb. En. and in the whole of rabbinic literature (S.-B., I, 959; there is also the apparent exception J. Taan. 2, 1 [65b], 60).
327 For an example of the change in the Greek text see p. 65 and for an example of the change of the Aramaic text see n. 296; by the change of יפסיק (Targ. Isa. 53.3) into יפסוק , a statement about suffering is transformed into one about glory.
328 Fischel, 66, n. 67: *Probably the not very frequent use of 42.1 ff.; 50.4 ff., and 52.13 ff. in the Midrash is occasioned by the great significance of these texts in Christian exegesis.’
A similar mode of apologetic is used by R. Simlai (circa A.D. 250), who applies Isa. 53.12 to Moses (see n. 329). As far as possible, however, Isa. 42.1 ff. and 53 are not used at all.328 Indeed, it seems that messianic interpretations of Isa. 53 were excised whenever occasion served; in several instances there is at least a suspicion of this sort (cf. n. 313). These observations are very important for our judgement of late Jewish exegesis of Isa. 53. The widespread conclusion, that the relative infrequency of messianic interpretations of Isa. 53 in late Judaism shows that the latter was not acquainted with the idea of the suffering Messiah, does not do justice to the sources; for it ignores the great part which — very understandably — the debate with Christianity played in this question.
There is a certain silence in the rabbinic literature that Jeremais finds especially telling. In all biblical references to death — whether of an executed criminal, a high priest, the martyrs, the righteous, even children — rabbinic literature in the first thousand years finds a space to associate the death with an atoning power; there is only one exception, Jeremias claims, and that is the death of the servant in Isaiah 53. Such special treatment of Isa. 53 (in contrast to other atoning death interpretations) appears to suggest an effort to suppress or deny earlier understandings that may have been partly responsible for Christian views.
The slender amount of evidence is counterbalanced by the fact that there is not to be found a definitely non-messianic exegesis of Isa. 53 in the rabbinic literature of the first millennium A.D.329 This is especially striking when we examine rabbinic statements about the atoning power of death. This idea gains ground extraordinarily in late Judaism. The execution has atoning effect if the criminal has made the expiatory vow (‘May my death expiate all my sins’, see n. 475); every dying person is entreated to say this expiatory vow. Furthermore, late Judaism from pre-Christian times realizes the vicarious expiatory power inherent in the death of the high priest, of martyrs, of the righteous, of the patriarchs, of innocent children. It is astonishing that in this rich material there is no reference to Isa. 53.330 Of this there is only one possible explanation: the connexion of Isa. 53 with the Messiah was from pre-Christian days so firmly and exclusively held by Palestinian Judaism that the application of this chapter to the expiatory death of the righteous was automatically excluded from consideration.331
329 It is very questionable whether in Palestinian Judaism of the first millennium there existed any other exegesis of Isa. 53 except the messianic one (unlike Hellenistic Judaism; cf. p. 53), if one leaves out of account B. Sotah, 14a, where Isa. 53.12 is referred by R. Simlai (circa 250) to Moses’ intercession; for here it is a question of a distortion for apologetic motives (see pp. 56 f.). The passages collected by S.-B. in ‘Isa. 53 in the Older Literature’ (I, 481-5), under the heading B.‘Allusions to the Righteous’ (I, 483, 485), are references to isolated texts torn from their context (see pp. 54 f., 65). The one Midrash text quoted by S.-B. under ‘C. Allusions to the people of Israel’ (1,48 5), Num. R., 13 on 13.2 (anonymous), comes from a Midrash composed in the twelfth century.
330 The sole exception, R. Simlai (circa a.d. 250) is apparent only; seen. 329.
331 I owe this important observation to E. Lohse. In passing we must deal with two objections to our conclusion.
First: is it not implied by the repeated remark of the evangelists that the disciples did not understand the predictions of the passion that the conception of a suffering Messiah was completely unknown to them ? Mark only adds the information about the failure of the disciples to understand to the second account of the prediction of the passion (9.32: οἱ δέ ήγνόουν τό ρήμα, καί έφοβοϋντο αύτον έπερωτησαι). Here it is a question of a more recent variant of the quite different remark of Peter (8.52, in connexion with the first prediction of the passion), the antiquity of which is assured by the sharpness of the rebuke of Jesus denouncing Peter as Satan. But the point is that the disciples’ failure to understand is by no means, in Mark, related solely to the passion of Jesus, but runs like a motif through the whole of Mark’s Gospel (4.13, 40 f.; 6.52:7.18; 8.16-21; 9.32; 10.38);cf. Wrede, Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien, 1901, 93-114. In Mark 6.52 the disciples’ lack of understanding occurs in a remark of the evangelist; 8.16-21 is, quite plainly, by its reference to the doublet of the feeding miracle, recognizable as a piece of literary composition. In Luke the motif is still more distinct (cf. 9.45 with Mark 9.32); he has added 18.34 without the Marcan parallel. Finally, the Gospel of John broadens the motif into a constant misunderstanding of the most far-reaching extent. Parallels in comparative religion make it probable that we have here an epiphany motif (J. Ebeling: ‘Das Messiasgeheimnis und die Botschaft des Marcus-Evangelisten’, ZNW, Beiheft 19,1939, 167 f., 170). If that is correct then historical deductions are illegitimate. But even apart from that the misunderstanding would be intelligible (άγνοεΐν, Mark 9.32, can also mean ‘fail to recognize’), for the passion and death of the Messiah completely contradicted popular expectations.
On this second point Jeremias repeats another argument of his that I have not addressed in these posts: that Hellenistic Judaism was in certain teachings significantly different from Palestinian Judaism. However, my understanding is that publications on the Dead Sea Scrolls since 1957 have undermined that hypothesis of difference between the two Judaisms.
Second: is it not implied in the offence which the Jews found in the preaching of the cross (I Cor. 1.23) that the conception of a suffering Messiah was alien to them? In fact the messianic interpretation of Isa. 53 must have been foreign to Hellenistic Judaism (cf. p. 53). So much more must the manner of the death of Jesus have been offensive and even for Palestinian Judaism this was the real scandal: death on the cross is accursed (Gal. 3.13; Justin, Dial., 90).
(pp. 75 f. my highlighting and linebreaks)
In the next and final post we will sum up the evidence we have seen set out in this last seven posts.
Zimmerli, Walther and Joachim Jeremias. 1957. The Servant of God. London : SCM Press.
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