Tag Archives: Isaiah 53

How Did Daniel Understand Isaiah’s Suffering Servant?

Martin Hengel
Martin Hengel (1926-2009)

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant has been co-opted by Christians as a prophecy of Jesus Christ but how did pre-Christian Jews understand this figure? My last post in a series examining Martin Hengel’s scholarly work on this question was From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel). Here is the long overdue follow up post. So far we have

  • surveyed the evidence Hengel finds for how the authors of the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira interpreted the Suffering Servant we read about in Isaiah 53;
  • noted related developments in the period of the Maccabean martyrs (around 165/164 BCE) when the book of Daniel appears to have been written.

Though we sometimes read dogmatic assertions by scholars who don’t keep themselves up to date across their field of research to the effect that no pre-Christian era Jew could ever have thought that the Messiah was destined to suffer and be killed, Martin Hengel has no qualms arguing on the basis of early Jewish writings that pre-Christian Jews really do appear to have done just that. And why not? How better to make sense of a persecuted and often martyred community? We must keep in mind that there was no fixed idea of any other kind of Messiah (“anointed one”, “Christ”) in this period.

Yet we must remember that in the second century B.C.E., we do not yet possess any fixed Jewish doctrine of the Messiah – there basically never was one – but must rather deal with various ideas of anointing and the Anointed One. In Qumran, not only the Davidic Messiah but also the eschatological high priest and the prophets are considered “anointed ones.”

— Hengel, Martin, ‘The Effective History of lsaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period’, in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p103. (Bailey is responsible for translating Hengel’s essay into English and updating it in consultation with the author.)

Hengel warns us not to expect an author to introduce the new ideas or interpretations emerging in the Maccabean period with an unambiguous supporting citation to an earlier text.

Because the ideas introduced are new, they are at first only cautiously hinted at. Isaiah 53, as a unique text in the Old Testament, may have helped this development along, though at first the collective understanding [i.e. that the Suffering Servant represented Israel] stood in the foreground, and only certain aspects of the whole text exerted an influence. It also needs to be remembered, as already said, that the pre-Christian Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha contain almost no literal scriptural citations. We can therefore conduct only a very cautious search for traces. (p. 96)

So the argument is suggestive rather than conclusive. We might further consider the interpretative power of the argument: Does it explain the emergence of earliest Christian interpretations more directly than a radical revision of Jewish thought being sparked by a belief in a crucified leader’s resurrection from the dead?

Let’s get started. read more »

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

A bibliography of a few Vridar posts taking an in-depth look at the Suffering Servant figure in Isaiah and how it was understood before Christianity. . . .

The Influence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant is a major text for Christianity (in the New Testament it is used to interpret Christ’s death) but what did it mean to adherents of Judaism before Christianity?

Did any Jewish interpretations anticipate the meaning it held for later Christians?

To what extent were the authors of the gospels innovative in their use of Isaiah 53 (and Isaiah as a whole)? To what extent were they simply employing ideas they absorbed from their surroundings?

Is it possible that Christianity itself evolved in part from earlier sectarian understandings of Isaiah 53?

This post looks at some work by Martin Hengel and demonstrates the way other pre-Christian texts — Sirach and Zechariah  — interpreted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant figure.

From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel)

The previous post showed the apparent influence of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 upon the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira. This post pauses to look at some background before resuming with the way the Book of Daniel adapted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant idea in the light of contemporary events — around 165/164 BCE.

A chapter by Martin Hengel is the basis for the posts.

It appears that at the end of this post I anticipated writing one more to conclude the series. I must complete that as soon.

Other posts: read more »

From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel)

Maccabean martyrs
Maccabean martyrs

These posts trace the evolution of Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” from a poetic symbol for the nation of Israel into a dying and rising Messiah even before Christianity emerged on the scene. (See the Wikipedia article for background on the Servant Songs in Isaiah.) The previous post showed the apparent influence of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 upon the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira. This post pauses to look at some background before resuming with the way the Book of Daniel adapted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant idea in the light of contemporary events — around 165/164 BCE. My source for these posts is

Hengel, Martin, ‘The Effective History of lsaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period’, in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 75-146. (Bailey is responsible for translating Hengel’s essay into English and updating it in consultation with the author.)

Just as the author of the Book of Zechariah looked for fulfilment of prophecies in his own day so did the author of the Book of Daniel and the chaotic times of Antiochus IV Epiphanes — armed struggle, persecution, temple defilement — supplied much material to fuel imaginations for this sort of thing. The events of 165/4 and the Maccabean revolt changed the way that unique passage in Isaiah 53 came to be interpreted by many. New ideas about the glorification of martyrs and even the ability of the blood of martyr heroes to take the place of atoning sacrifices entered the world of Judaism and its various sects. The Greeks had long held comparable ideas about human sacrifice and suffering. From the archaic period we encounter in Greek literature the pharmakos motif (see also the EB article). Many of us are aware of the sacrifice of the virgin Iphigenia bringing about the favour of the gods on the eve of the Trojan War. We see a new stage of heroizing fallen warriors with the Persian Wars. Those who died for their city-state and its holy laws came to be glorified as martyr saviours of their people. The closest to anything like these practices and cultural attitudes in the Old Testament are the stories of Jephthah’s daughter, Samson and the song of Deborah. The Old Testament condemned the child sacrifice of neighbouring Canaanites and Phoenicians. Those who died died because of their own sin — that was the dominant message in the OT. Prophets were slain but their deaths were not glorified or studied in any great detail as we might expect among their Greek counterparts. The Maccabean revolt changed everything. read more »

The Dying Messiah Before Christianity

Nicholas Covington has posted a worth-reading article on SkepticinkThe Dying Messiah: A Problem for Jesus Myth Theory?  Nicholas is responding to a regular argument of Professor McGrath’s for the existence of a historical Jesus. McGrath, as many of us know, and as Nicholas sums up, argues as follows:

(1) There is no evidence of a belief in a dying messiah prior to Christianity, therefore

(2) Before Christianity emerged, no one believed in a dying messiah.

(3) Out of all the possible explanations we might offer for this apparent innovation of the early Christians, the best explanation is that Christians came up with the idea as a response to the unexpected pre-mature death of Jesus, because a belief in a dying messiah looks like an ad-hoc rationalization (no one had expected a dying messiah previously and it otherwise seems precluded by Jewish beliefs).

Therefore, Jesus existed. 

Nicholas Covington’s response:

In this post, I will demonstrate that there are credible, recent, non-mythicist scholars who believe McGrath’s first premise is false. I will follow this with some other considerations that render McGrath’s argument doubtful in other respects.

read more »

A mythical Jesus, or a “nobody” Jesus

A mythical Jesus, or a “nobody” Jesus.

I would like to know why the second would be so much preferable and acceptable to so many here than the first. I would like to have someone who so prefers to present us with the actual evidence for the second which is so much superior to the actual evidence for the first.

I would like to know just how one defines a “nobody” Jesus. Obviously, such a Jesus can be assigned virtually nothing that is portrayed of him in the Gospels, not just because it is now recognized that there is no history remembered in the Gospels, but if he were assigned anything remotely like we find in the Gospels, he wouldn’t be a “nobody.” If he is a “nobody” then he does not constitute the Jesus of Christianity, and would serve no purpose for it.

So why does everyone seem to get all warm and fuzzy for a “nobody” Jesus (at least, that’s what they convey), and foaming at the mouth against those who would postulate a mythical Jesus?

Or is this all a smokescreen? Will James McGrath tells us openly whether he subscribes to and finds acceptable the idea of a “nobody” Jesus? Will Mike Wilson? Tim O’Neill? Anyone else who regularly craps all over mythicism?

Earl Doherty

And by way of rejoinder to McGrath who wrote: read more »

For fundamentalists only: Isaiah 53 in context

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