Summing Up a Case for Pre-Christian Exegesis of Dying and Suffering Messiahs by J. Jeremias (8)

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by Neil Godfrey

To sum up:

(1) messianic interpretation of the Deutero-Isaianic servant in Palestinian Judaism was limited to Isa. 42.1 ff.,332 43.10;333 49.1 f., 6 f.,334 and 52.13 ff.,335; with this New Testament data agree.336

(2) For Isa. 42.1 ff. and 52.13 ff. messianic interpretation is constant from pre-Christian times. Isa. 52.13 ff. is in this connexion regarded as a last judgement scene.337

(3) As far as the messianic interpretation of the passages about suffering in Isa. 53.1-12 is concerned, this can again be traced back with great probability to pre-Christian times.338 Here the suffering of the Messiah is thought of without exception up to the talmudic period as taking place before the final victorious establishment of his rule.339 When the meaning of messianic suffering is considered, the answer is that the Messiah suffers vicariously to expiate the sins of Israel.340

(pp. 77-78, my line breaks)

I have converted the footnote references to the relevant blog post below:


Isaiah 42.1 ff.

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
    or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
    he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
    In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”




Only in the Targ. ad loc. See

(Messianic exegesis of Isa. 43:10 is not found in the N.T.)

Isaiah 43:10

“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord,
    “and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
    and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
    nor will there be one after me.




For pre-Christian messianic interpretations of Isa.49 see Posts:

Isaiah 49:1f, 6f

Listen to me, you islands;
    hear this, you distant nations:
Before I was born the Lord called me;
    from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.
He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me into a polished arrow
    and concealed me in his quiver. [or, “hid me in the shadow of his hand”] 

. . . . . 

he says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
    to restore the tribes of Jacob
    and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
    that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

This is what the Lord says—
    the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel—
to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation,
    to the servant of rulers:
“Kings will see you and stand up,
    princes will see and bow down,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”


Isaiah 52:13 ff.

See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him —
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
    and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
    and what they have not heard, they will understand.



Cf. p. 93. Only the messianic exegesis of Isa. 43.10 is not to be found in the N.T.

Page 93 reads as follows:

(f) Paul; Matthew; Epistle to the Hebrews. In Paul, apart from the richly extant traditional material (cf. pp. 88 f.), there is to be found only one christologically interpreted ‘ebed quotation— Rom. 15.21 (=Isa. 52.15 LXX). But it is characteristic that here the emphasis lies not on the christological interpretation (περί αύτοϋ) but on the missionary task, which Paul finds pro- phesied in this passage from Isa. The position is quite similar in the synoptic gospels. Apart from the rich traditional material which is to be found in them too (pp. 89 f.) and with the exception of the supplement Matt. 12.21 (p. 80), we may attribute with certainty to one of the synoptic evangelists personally only the general scriptural allusion, Matt. 26.54, which is stamped by the characteristic style of Matt. Otherwise there is only a formal allusion (cf. p. 96) to Isa. 53 in the Epistle to the Hebrews (9.28; Isa. 53.12 LXX).

The absence of allusions to the ‘ebed in James, II and III John, in Jude, II Peter, and Rev. as well as their remarkable scarcity in Paul, Hebrews, and the Gospel of John and, finally, the cir- cumstance that the very numerous references are to be found almost without exception in the stock of old tradition and formulae — all this leads to the same conclusion as in the investigation of the phrase παϊς θεοϋ (p. 85): the christological interpretation of the Deutero-Isaiah servant belongs to the earliest period of the Christian community and at a very early stage became fixed in form. This result is confirmed and made precise by a further observation. A survey of all the Isaiah texts so far mentioned yields the conclusion that of the ‘ebed texts of Deut. Isa. only Isa. 42.1-4, 6; 49.6; and Isa. 52.13-53.12 were interpreted messianically in the N.T. But those are the precise texts which Palestinian Judaism — as opposed to Hellenistic (pp. 52 f.) — interpreted messianically (pp. 77 f.). Hence it must be concluded that the christological interpretation of these passages flows from the Palestinian pre-Hellenistic stage of the early church.

(I have removed footnotes from the above passage. Note that here Jeremias falls back on his view of the difference between Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism that I think is far less certain since further studies on the Dead Sea Scrolls.)



Hellenistic and Palestinian Judaism agree in relating Isa. 52.13 ff. to the last judgement (Wisd. 5.1 f.; Eth. En. 46.4 f.; 48.8; 55.4; 62.1-9; 63.1-11. J. Jeremias ‘Das Losegeld für Viele’, Judaica 3, 1948, 263 f.).


338 (see side box for conversion of references to Vridar post locations)

Outside LXX it is to be found in Test. B. (cf. p. 57), in the Peshitta (see p. 60), in Aquila (p. 62), in R. Jose (?see p. 72) and R. Tryphon (see p. 73), in Theodotion (p. 64) and in other rabbinic texts (see p. 74) and traces of it probably in Targ. Isa. 53 (see p. 70). Against the idea that the messianic interpretation of Isa. 53 in Judaism belongs only to the second century A.D. . . . .



S.-B., II, 291.

(S.-B. = H. L. Strack-Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Talmud und Midrasch, I, 1922 II, 1924)



Test. B. 3.8, see p. 37; Siphre Lev., see p. 72; B. Sank. 98b, and B. Sanh. 98a, see p. 63 (cf. in addition S.-B., II, 286); Ruth R. 3 on 2.14, see n. 321 ; Midr. Sam. 19 § 1, see n. 322; Pesiqt. R. 31 (S.-B., II, 287); Pesiqt. R. 36 (S.-B., II, 288); Midr. Konen (S.-B., Π, 290). Cf. S.-B., II, 291 f. — but note that only according to the Peshitta the Messiah suffers for the sins of many peoples (see Hegermann, 96 f. on Isa. 52.15).

See p. 37 =

Evidence of a Suffering Messiah Concept before Christianity (1)

See p. 72 =

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

See p. 63 =

Jewish Understandings of a Suffering Messiah before the Christian Era (4)

See n. 321 =

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

See n. 322 =

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


  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
  9. Rabbinic traditions
    • a case for an early rabbinic tradition of interpreting the suffering passages Isaiah 53 messianically
  10. Anti-Christian bias in relation to Isaiah 53
    • Jeremias interpreted an apparent anti-Christian bias particularly in relation to Isa. 53 pointed to evidence that rabbis had changed or denied their earlier messianic or atoning interpretations of the passage. Such a bias has been disputed in some subsequent scholarship.

I look forward to posting further on Jeremias’s views in the coming months as I catch up with more recent scholarship addressing his work.

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

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Summing Up a Case for Pre-Christian Exegesis of Dying and Suffering Messiahs by J. Jeremias (8)”

  1. Thanks. But I know people will read critically. I look forward to addressing some of the criticisms of Jeremias’s arguments, especially when an interlibrary loan I have requested eventually finds its way to me over continental distance and the Christmas-New Year holiday season.

  2. Thanks. And I know people will read critically. I look forward to addressing some of the criticisms of Jeremias’s arguments, especially when an interlibrary loan I have requested eventually finds its way to me over continental distance and the Christmas-New Year holiday season.

  3. Reading the Gospel of John’s Christology as Jewish Messianism, Brill, July 2018.

    The essays in Reading the Gospel of John’s Christology as Jewish Messianism: Royal, Prophetic, and Divine Messiahs seek to interpret John’s Jesus as part of Second Temple Jewish messianic expectations. The Fourth Gospel is rarely considered part of the world of early Judaism. While many have noted John’s Jewishness, most have not understood John’s Messiah as a Jewish messiah. The Johannine Jesus, who descends from heaven, is declared the Word made flesh, and claims oneness with the Father, is no less Jewish than other messiahs depicted in early Judaism. John’s Jesus is at home on the spectrum of early Judaism’s royal, prophetic, and divine messiahs.

    (thanks Neil (and Tim); a great series of web-posts, as usual)

    1. Thanks for the reference. I have put it on my “to access and read” list. Looks like it coheres with the understanding of messianic views of Second Temple Judaism set out by Novenson in his book that I posted a series on.

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