A Suffering Messiah Before Christianity? — the other side of the question

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by Neil Godfrey

H. H. Rowley

Last month I posted an eight part series based on Joachim Jeremias’s 1957 book The Servant of God arguing for a pre-Christian notion among Second Temple Jews of a messiah who was expected to suffer and/or die. This view is not the prevailing one among New Testament scholars today so I want to set out some of the arguments that have been marshalled against Jeremias’s study. Statements like the following led me to think Morna Hooker’s Jesus and the Servant (1959) would be a good place to start:

Jeremias’s argument that the portrait of the messiah in Judaism of this era included the concept of vicarious suffering to expiate the sins of Israel has found little support.9

9. Among the more significant refutations are Morna Hooker, Jesus and the Servant (London: SPCK, 1959); and E. Lohse, Märtyrer und Gottesknecht (FRLANT, 64; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966).

(Broadhead, 102)

A few decades ago it had become “almost an axiom of… New Testament study that most of the New Testament writers, and probably our Lord himself, were controlled in their Christological thinking by the figure of the Suffering Servant of the Lord.” In this respect the work of J. Jeremias was very influential . . . . Today, however, many scholars are of the opinion that the importance of the idea of the suffering servant for early Christianity has been greatly overrated; moreover, it is difficult to demonstrate that Jesus himself interpreted his destiny in light of this passage from Scripture. This has been shown convincingly by C. K. Barrett in an important contribution to the memorial volume for T. W. Manson and by Μ. D. Hooker in her Jesus and the Servant.

(Jonge, 48)

13 The influence of Isaiah 53 on the NT has been contested famously by Morna D. Hooker, Jesus and the Servant: The Influence of the Servant Concept of Deutero-Isaiah in the New Testament (London: Nisbet, 1959).  

(Jipp, 257)

So I got hold of Morna Hooker’s Jesus and the Servant and very soon read this buck-passing passage:

It is impossible to consider in detail here the arguments which have been brought forward in support of a pre-Christian suffering Messiah. On this question the discussion by Η. H. Rowley in his essay ‘The Suffering Servant and the Davidic Messiah’ (published in The Servant of the Lord and Other , Essays on the Old Testament (1952)) appears to be conclusive.

(Hooker, p. 179 — Interestingly 1952 was the same year Zimmerli and Jeremias’s The Servant of God was first published.)

Accordingly I will post the arguments of H. H. Rowley as an “answer” to the Jeremias series. You can compare and evaluate and decide which case you think is the stronger.

Rowley begins with a clarification of the key terms that he sees as quite distinct from one another:

Davidic Messiah: the figure who is destined to become ruler and lord in the coming golden age

Son of Man: the figure in the Book of Daniel symbolizing the kingdom of the liberated saints who will rule at the end of days.

Suffering Servant of the Lord: “No conquering king is he, and no intervention of God in judgement elevates him to power. Instead, he is a humble sufferer, who by the organ of his suffering leads men to penitence before God, and whose power springs from his sacrifice for men, which is described as a guilt offering.” (Links are to Rowley’s supporting biblical verses.)

Rowley rejects the views of some scholars of his day who believed any of these figures were related in Jewish thought before Christianity.

On the Messiah son of Joseph and the Suffering Servant Messiah

Recall that Jeremias and others have posited that alongside a Messiah son of David there was in Second Temple times a view that another messiah was also to appear, a descendant of Joseph, who would be killed.

We have further seen the claims that before Christianity some Jews interpreted the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 messianically only to reject and oppose that view in response to Christianity.

Rowley stresses the late date of the evidence — the Targum, and the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds — for this view. As for the Septuagint translation of Isaiah, Isaiah 42:1 identifies the Servant as the nation of Israel, and Isaiah 53  informs us that the suffering of the servant is in the past.

As for the Targum, although we do find there the identification of Isaiah’s Servant and the Messiah, the Targum does not portray a suffering Messiah. The sufferings in Isaiah are “systematically transferred to Israel’s foes, or to the disloyal Israelites.”

It is gratuitous to assume that the Targum once interpreted the chapter in terms of a Suffering Messiah and that this was subsequently changed, since there is no evidence for the assumption,2 and no evidence that the Davidic Messiah was thought of as a Suffering Messiah either then or later.

2 The Suffering Messiah, Messiah ben Ephraim, appears in the Targum of pseudo-Jonathan and in the Babylonian Talmud, but not in the Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan ben Uzziel. Cf. H. Riesenfeld, Jesus transfiguré, p. 81 n.:

“La croyance en deux Messies est caracteristique du Targum de Ps.-Jonathan et du Talmud babylonien, tandis qu’elle ne se trouve pas dans les autres Targums ou dans le Talmud palestinien.”

[= The belief in two messiahs is a characteristic of the Targum of Pseudo-Jonathan and the Babylonian Talmud, while it is not found in the other Targums or in the Palestinian Talmud.]

(It may be noted that it is also found in the Targum to the Song of Songs, which is, however, late. Cf. C. C. Torrey, J.B.L., lxvi, 1947, p. 254.)

Since the Suffering Messiah does not appear at all in the Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel, there is no reason to suppose that the Targum of this passage ever contained such a conception, and if it did, it is hard to see why a Judaism which cherished the idea of a suffering Messiah should have eliminated it from the whole of this Targum, and not from this passage alone, unless it also went on to eliminate it from all its thought and ceased to cherish the idea altogether. If the suffering Messiah had never been associated with this passage, there would be every reason to impose an anti-Christian interpretation on a chapter to which the Church made such appeal.

(Rowley, 66 – bolding is mine)

Tendentious Translation

We saw in the Jeremias series that the Jewish scholar Theodotion blatantly mis-translated the Isaiah 53 passage to give it an anti-Christian meaning. (See Jewish Understandings of a Suffering Messiah before the Christian Era (4) and scroll down to the subheading #7, Theodotion’s second century translation.) Rowley does not agree with the argument that such a clear sign of bias indicates a repudiation of an earlier Jewish interpretation that favoured the Christians. In addressing another instance of a hostile anti-Christian interpretation he writes:

The hand that prepared the Targum was at pains to avoid the idea of a suffering Messiah, and as Churgin says,5 he “reverses the simple meaning of words”, and “actually rewrites ch. 53, replacing it by one bearing no resemblance to the original”. This may well have been due to the Christian use of this chapter, and the desire to repudiate it as strongly as possible.6 It offers no evidence, however, of any pre-Christian interpretation of the chapter in a messianic sense, either in connexion with a Davidic Messiah or with any other messianic figure standing beside him. (66 f.)


Broadhead, Edwin K. 1999. Naming Jesus: Titular Christology in the Gospel of Mark. Bloomsbury.

Hooker, Morna D. 2010. Jesus and the Servant: The Influence of the Servant Concept of Deutero-Isaiah in the New Testament. Previously published by SPCK, 1959. Eugene, Or: Wipf & Stock.

Jipp, Joshua W. 2010. “Luke’s Scriptural Suffering Messiah: A Search for Precedent, a Search for Identity.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 72 (2): 255–74.

Jonge, Marinus De. 1991. Jesus, the Servant-Messiah. New Haven: Yale University.

Rowley, H. H. 1952. The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testament. London: Lutterworth Press.


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5 thoughts on “A Suffering Messiah Before Christianity? — the other side of the question”

  1. Of course of there was no tradition for a suffering messiah then Jesus did not fulfil the messianic prophecy & was not the messiah. I don’t think apologies consider that.

  2. I don’t see why this should matter to us, we don’t have confessional concerns.

    Messiah is a very minor concern of the Tanakh. If we accept the various arguments that it might have been written in the Ptolemaic Era, it is a very late idea indeed. So a suffering Messiah would be a recent concern of a minority of a minority. In the last century it has become apparent that both “Judaism” and “Christianity” were (very?) heterodox affairs in the intertestamental period, not that you can actually seperate them out from one another until much later.

    There were “Christianities” without a resurrection, without a messiah, without a mortal Jesus, with a Jesus that simply appeared by the Jordan, with a docetic Jesus that suffers but the Christ laughs etc. It is similar for “Judaism”. Obviously all these sectarians originated in a Jewish milieu. Obviously Jews, whether proselyte or born, concieved all these sectarian understandings; and obviously these different understandings lie as potentials in the Tanakh; however tortuous the reasoning needed to get them out of the text.

    Rabbinic Judaism and Orthodox Christianity are the post third century survivors of a very multiple birth. They have both differentiated themselves against one another and they have both excised, either deliberately or simply by what they chose to copy and preserve, material that would have them having anything to do with one another.

    The folk in contention here are ALL well previous to the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi Codices getting into the academic wild were they could be studied by all and not just by a closeted few and their anointed. They all fall foul of the fifty year rule. There may be things of interest to be had still, but this is basically obsolete scholarship from both sides of an argument that seems arcane and not terribly relevant or significant given that we HAVE a suffering messiah; the first “Christians” were Jews in a Jewish sect that remained Jewish for centuries; and a suffering messiah is an idea only relevant in a Jewish milieu and that can only be drawn from Jewish texts and Jewish theology.

    1. The question is certainly being studied today and is hardly irrelevant to understanding origins of the core Christian belief that emerged from antiquity.

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