Tag Archives: Suffering Servant

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

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:

332

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.”

 

333

333

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.

 

334

334

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.”

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Jewish Pre-Christian Prophecies of Suffering Servant Messiah (5)

So far we have presented the following seven witnesses to a Jewish, pre-Christian, belief in a Suffering Messiah:

  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

The eighth piece of evidence is the Aramaic translation of Isaiah per the Targum on Isaiah. I quote Jeremias in full.

(θ) The Aramaic translation of Isaiah must be considered here from a chronological point of view, although the Targ. on Isaiah289 in its present form is not older than the fifth century A.D., for the text was fixed much earlier. The history of the oral tradition of translation, the result of which the Targ, represents, goes back to pre-Christian times.290 In particular it can be shown that the messianic exegesis of the servant texts Isa. 42.1 and Isa. 52.13 in the Targ, Isa. is old. Of the nineteen servant passages in the Heb. text (cf. p. 50) only three are messianically interpreted in the Targ, Isa.: 42.1; 43.10; 52.13;291 in all three texts the Heb. עבדי is rendered עבדי משיחא by the Targ.292 Our conclusions so far make it certain that the messianic interpretation of Isa. 42.1 and 52.13 rests upon ancient tradition (cf. pp. 57 ff.).293 The observation that the description of the Messiah as servant of God is to be found only in the pre-rabbinic layer of late Jewish literature (II Esd. [IV Ezra], Syr. Bar., cf. p. 49) but nowhere in rabbinic literature outside the Targ. (cf. p. 50), points to the same conclusion. Above all, the ancient date of the messianic exegesis of Isa. 52.13 in the Targ. is clear from the fact that Targ. Isa. explains the whole context Isa. 52.13-53.12 uniformly in a messianic sense; for the messianic interpretation of 53.1-12 cannot, as we saw (p. 64), have first arisen in the Christian era.

The Targ. Isa. 52.13-53.12 runs:

(52.13) ‘Behold my servant, the Messiah, will have success, will become exalted, great and strong.’

(14) ‘As the house of Israel have hoped in him many days when their appearance was overcast in the midst of the peoples and their brightness less than that of the sons of men;’

(15) ‘so will he scatter many peoples; for his sake kings will be silent, will lay their hand on their mouth; for they see what they had never been told and perceive what they had never heard of.’

(53.1) ‘Who hath believed this our message ? and to whom hath the strength of the mighty arm of the Lord thus294 been revealed ?’

(2) ‘And the righteous295 shall be great before him, yea, as sprouting branches and as a tree which sends out its roots beside water brooks, so will the holy generations increase in the land which was in need of him. His appearance is not like that of worldly things and the fear which he inspires is not an ordinary fear, but his brightness will be holy so that all who see him will gaze (fascinated) upon him.’

(3) ‘Then (he) will be despised and will (make to) cease the glory of all kingdoms.296 They will become weak and pitiable—behold, like a man of sorrows and as one destined to ills and as if the shekina had turned its face from us—despised and disregarded’.

(4) ‘Then he will make intercession for our transgressions and for his sake our iniquities shall be forgiven, though we were accounted bruised, smitten by Yahweh and afflicted.’

(5) ‘But he will build up the sanctuary which was desecrated because of our transgressions and surrendered because of our iniquities, and by his teaching his peace297 will be richly upon us, and when we gather to listen to him our transgressions will be forgiven us.’

(6) ‘We were all scattered as sheep, each one had gone his own way into exile; but it was Yahweh’s will to forgive the transgressions of us all for his sake.’

(7) ‘When he prays he receives an answer and hardly does he open his mouth, but he finds a hearing. He will deliver the strong from among the peoples to be slaughtered as a lamb, and as a ewe that is dumb before its shearers, and no one will (dare) to open his mouth and plead.’

(8) ‘He will bring our exiles home from their suffering and chastisement. Who can tell the wonders which will come upon us in his days? For he will remove the dominion298of the peoples from the land of Israel; he will lay to their charge299 the sins of which my people were guilty.’

(9) ‘And he will deliver over to hell the godless and those who have enriched themselves by robbery unto the death of (eternal) destruction, so that they who commit sin may not be preserved and may no longer speak cunningly with their mouth.’

(10) ‘And it pleases Yahweh to refine and purify the remnant of his people in order to cleanse their soul from transgressions. They shall see the kingdom of their Messiah; they will have many sons and daughters;300 they will live long, and those who fulfil the law of Yahweh will by his good pleasure have success.’

(11) ‘From subjugation by the peoples he will deliver their soul; they will see the punishment of them that hate them; they will be satiated by the plunder of their kings. By his wisdom he will acquit the innocent to make many servants of the law. And he will make intercession for their transgressions.’

(12) ‘Hereafter will I apportion to him the plunder of many peoples and he will distribute strong towns as booty, because he surrendered301 himself to death and brought the rebels under the yoke of the law. And he will make intercession for many transgressions and for his sake the rebellious will be forgiven.

It can be seen how, step by step, in Targ. Isa. 52.13-53.12 is depicted the glorious establishment of the messianic kingdom over Israel. The statements about the passion of the servant have been so radically and consistently removed by artificial contrivances that faint traces remain only in two places.302 Even allowing for the targumic translation technique, the section Targ. Isa. 52.13-53.12 stands out by the unusual freedom of its paraphrase in the context of Targ. Isa. 40-66,303 which elsewhere keeps more closely to the Heb. text. For this violent reinterpretation of the text there is only one possible explanation: we have here a piece of anti-Christian polemic.304 From the second century at the latest, Judaism was concerned in various ways to wrest Isa. 53 from its use by Christians as a christological scriptural text proof (cf. p. 75). The curious form of Isa. 53 in the Targ. shows to what extremes this attempt was carried through. The whole section was indeed messianically explained because the messianic interpretation of Isa. 52.13-53.12 was so firmly rooted that Targ. Isa. could not escape it, but the passages about suffering, in brusque contradiction to the original, are replaced by the current view of the Messiah. The fact that this thoroughgoing process of reinterpretation of Isa. 52.13-53.12 was applied to both the Greek (see pp. 65 ff.) and the Aramaic texts of Isa. 53 shows how firmly rooted in Palestinian Judaism was the messianic exegesis.

(pp. 66-71)

I would very much love to locate scholarly publications addressing Jeremias’s presentations, not only for, but especially against the thrust of his interpretation of the evidence. Any reader who can direct me in this quest please do so. read more »

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

A free Vridar plug for a Rob Levinson book

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 “leper messiah” translation of the OT

Aquila’s agenda was to replace the Septuagint that was seen as allowing too much room for Christian interpretations of the messiah. We must accept that Aquila was drawing upon pre-Christian interpretations of the messiah “bearing our sicknesses” to justify his translation.

At the beginning of the second century A.D.263 Aquila completed in Palestine a new translation of the O.T. into Greek, designed to replace the LXX, as the latter offered Christians too much scope for the production of christological proof-texts.264 Aquila’s interpretation of the servant in Isa. 53 is to be inferred, inter alia, from his agreement with Test. B. 3.8 in the understanding of Isa. 53.5,265 and from his exegesis of 53.9 as referring to the judgement which the servant holds; messianism is implicit at both points.266 Further, Aquila translates (according to Jerome) נגיע (Isa. 53.4) by άφημένον267 (leprous, cf. Vulgate: quasi leprosum), a translation which is explained by the fact that the past participle of נגע in postbiblical Hebrew (Pu’al) and Aramaic (Pa’el) has the meaning ‘leprous’. For our question this translation is very illuminating because the exegesis ‘leper’ for Isa. 53.4 is met with also in rabbinic literature and is here referred to the Messiah.268

We are thinking of two places in B. Sanh. 98 which alone in the Talmud, along with a late Midrash text,269 have preserved the curious conception of a leprous Messiah.270 One text is B. Sanh. 98b, from circa A.D. 200.271 In an enumeration of messianic titles it is here said ‘And the teachers said “the leprous one”, those of the House of Rabbi272 said “the sick man” is his name, for it is written: “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, but we thought him stricken with leprosy (? גגו ), smitten and tormented by God” (Isa. 53.4)’.273 The other text is B. Sanh. 98a (alleged experience of R. Jehoshua’ ben Levi, circa A.D. 250), where it is described how the Messiah sits outside the gates of Rome among the wretched people who ‘bear pain’ (cf. Isa. 53-4),274 and alone among them unbinds and binds just one wound at a time, so that without delay he may fulfil the summons to save Israel.

Aquila’s translation of Isa. 53 permits us to trace back this reference of Isa. 53.4 to the leprous Messiah as far as A.D. 100.275 But we must go back yet a step further; the messianic interpretation of Isa. 53.4 cannot have arisen first circa A.D. 100, for quite apart from the messianic exegesis of Isa. 53 in Test. B. (cf. p. 57) and Peshitta (cf. p. 60), it is completely out of the question that the Jews should have begun to interpret messianically the passion texts of Isa. 53 only at a time when Christians were already using Isa. 53 as the decisive christological proof text.276

(Jeremias, 63 f.)

To see how Aquila’s translation is dated to the beginning of the second century scroll down to the end of the this post where you will see the footnote #263. read more »

Evidence for Belief in a Suffering Messiah Before Christianity (3)

So far we have seen evidence for a pre-Christian belief that the “suffering servant” passages in the Book of Isaiah spoke of a future Messiah in three sources:

  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.

We have dusted off a 1957 book with yellowing pages, The Servant of God, and are following the trail of evidence according to the book’s co-author J. Jeremias. Where I can I have been supplementing the posts with critical information from more recent scholarship.

4. Peshitta

Next witness to take the stand, the Peshitta. The Peshitta is a Syrian translation of the Bible but we are interested in its translation of the Suffering Servant passages in the Book of Isaiah, probably dating from the of)early second century. Jeremias:

The next source which gives us information about the exegesis of ‘ebed texts in late Judaism is the Peshitta; it is probably of pre-Christian origin.257 Peshitta explains Isa. 53 — including the passages about suffering — in a messianic sense.258 This is clear from the passages where Peshitta discloses its understanding of Isa. 53 by deviations from the Heb. text. Thus Peshitta saw in the servant

  • a figure awaited in the future (52.14)
  • who shall ‘cleanse’ many peoples (52.15);
  • this figure is denied (53.2),
  • despised (53.3)
  • and slain (53.5)
  • but exalted by God
  • and (at the last judgement) will convey forgiveness (53.5: healing).

These statements can only refer to the Messiah.259

(Jeremias, 60 f. My formatting and highlighting)

The devil is usually found in the detail so here are the relevant footnotes:

257 P. Kahle, The Cairo Geniza, 1947, 184, 186; also Hegermann, 22-27.
258 Hegermann, 127.
269 Hegermann, ibid.

Unfortunately I have no further information on the “pre-Christian origin” of the Peshitta’s translation of the ‘ebed (Servant) texts in Isaiah. I present Jeremias’s statement “as is”. If anyone has more up to date corrective or confirming information feel free to add it to the comments.

5. The Gospel of Luke 

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A Pre-Christian Jewish Suffering Messiah (2)

Can anything good come out of such an old and dowdy looking book, one retrieved from an off-site library stack, and with no more than 100 yellowing pages of text?

In the previous post we saw the first two items of evidence for a belief among pre-Christian Jews in a suffering messiah to come. This post looks at a third item, the Parables of Enoch. Follow up posts will address several more.

I begin by presenting Jeremias’s argument in his own words but in the next section of the post I update his terminology and the state of the discussion to accord with current terms and scholarly views concerning the dating of the key passage.

Joachim Jeremias’s third item of evidence is a section from the Ethiopic Book of Enoch. His references to Deut. Isa are to the second (deutero) part of Isaiah, chapters 40 to 55. I have reformatted Jeremias’s text to allow for easier following of each of the points where Enoch draws upon an Isaiah servant passage:

(γ) The next relevant source from the point of view of time is the so-called Visionary Discourses of the Ethiopian Enoch (chs. 37-71) which are certainly pre-Christian. Here the Messiah is depicted to a quite striking extent by means of traits drawn from Deut. Isa. Apart from the titles ‘son of man’ and ‘Messiah’ he bears constantly the name ‘the chosen one’ but only occasionally that of ‘the righteous one’. ‘The chosen one’ is, however (Isa. 42.1), the title of the servant of God and the same applies to ‘the righteous one’ (Isa. 53.11). Thus we are led straight away to those two sections of Deut. Isa. which, also in the subsequent periods, are the ones interpreted messianically: Isa. 42.1 if., 52.13 ff.

In En. 48.4 the son of man is called ‘the light of the peoples’; this is an attribute of God’s servant (Isa. 42.6; 49.6).

It is said further that his name was named before creation ‘in the presence of the Lord of spirits’ (En. 48.3); this is an amplification of Isa. 49.1: ‘my name he named when I was not yet born’.

Then he was ‘hidden before God’ (En. 48.6, cf. 62.7) which is a reference to Isa. 49.2 (‘He hid me in the shadow of his hand’).

Again, in the description of the revelation of the son of man the Visionary Discourses constantly depict the humiliation of kings and the mighty before him with a reminiscence of Isa. 49.7; 5 2.15. It is said that they will see him in his glory (En. 55.4; 62.1, 3), rise before him (En. 46.4; 62.3), and cast themselves down (48.10 v.l.; 62.9; cf. 48.5), thus with an allusion to Isa. 49.7; ‘Princes and kings will see it and arise and cast themselves down’.

It is said further that their countenance will be fallen (En. 46.6; 48.8) alluding to Isa. 52.15: ‘Kings will shut their mouths before him’.

In particular in En. 62.1 ff. the conduct of kings, the mighty and those who possess the earth, is depicted in close connexion with Isa. 52.13 ff.; thus En. 62.5 f.: ‘They will be afraid (cf. Isa. 52.14), they will lower their eyes (cf. Isa. 52.15), and pain will seize them when they see the Son of Man sitting on the throne of his glory; kings (cf. Isa. 52.15), the mighty and all who possess the earth will glorify, praise and exalt him who rules over all (cf. Isa. 52.13), who was hidden (cf. Isa. 52.15)’.

Again it is the passages Isa. 42.1 ff.; 52.13 ff. (cf. p. 59) which are messianically interpreted; together with 49.1-2, 6-7.

Finally there are the following statements which have a loose connexion with Deut. Isa. The chosen has the spirit of righteousness (En. 62.1 f; cf. [besides lsa. 11.2,4] 42.1: ‘My chosen . . . I have laid my spirit upon him’). He executes judgement (En. 41.9; 45-3; 49.4; 55.4; 61.9; 62.2 f.; 69.27; cf. Isa. 42.4 Ά, Θ, Targ.). En. 48.4b: ‘He will be the light of the peoples and the hope of the sad’ combines Isa. 42.6 (‘fight of the peoples’) with its context (42.7: salvation of the blind and wretched).

The son of man of the Visionary Discourses is thus to a large extent depicted with traits which are borrowed from servant passages of Deut. Isa. (42.1-7; 49.1 f., 6 f; 52.13-15; 53.11).

The author of the Parables of Enoch interpreted Isaiah’s servant passages, including those passages announcing a suffering servant, as references to a future messiah.
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Evidence of a Suffering Messiah Concept before Christianity (1)

When I recently posted Further Evidence of a Pre-Christian Concept of a Suffering Davidic Messiah I was patiently waiting for a certain book to be collected from an off-site library stack. I had two reasons for wanting to read that particular work. The first was from a Mormon scholar, hence slightly dubious, but nonetheless I was curious . . .

Robinson, Stephen E. 1977. “The Apocalypse of Adam.” Brigham Young University Studies 17 (2): 131–53.
Pre-Christian Judaism had a doctrine of a suffering Messiah as Jeremias has shown 21

21 Walter Zimmerli and Joachim Jeremias, The Servant of God, Studies in Biblical Theology, no. 20, (London: SCM Press, 1957), pp. 57ff

And again, this time from an article that seemed somewhat of a turning point in discussions of the Apocalypse of Adam:

MacRae, George W. 1965. “The Coptic Gnostic Apocalypse of Adam.” The Heythrop Journal 6 (1): 27–35.
Böhlig has suggested that in the redeemer-myth that appears here we have a confrontation of Iranian notions of a redeemer and the Jewish idea of the suffering Servant-Messiah which J. Jeremias has shown to have been accepted in pre-Christian Judaism.2

2 Cf. W. Zimmerli and J. Jeremias, The Servant of God, Studies in Biblical Theology 20 (London, 1957), pp. 57 ff. . . .

That settled it. I had to locate Zimmerli and Jeremias’s The Servant of God.

Now that I have it, it is clear that there is too much content for a single post so I’ll write it up here one, maybe two, arguments at a time.

The first piece of evidence given for a pre-Christian Jewish concept of a suffering messiah is found in Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach).

(c) Messianic exegesis (Isa. 42.1; 43.10; 49.6; 52.13; 53.11.) Messianic interpretations of certain Deut. Isa. servant passages can most probably be traced back to pre-Christian times (cf. p. 41).

(α) In Ecclus 48.10 one of the three tasks of the returning Elijah (cf. TWNT, II, 93 3,12 ff.) is described as להכין שבטי ישראל; the expression comes from Isa. 49.6 where the ‘ebed receives the mission of להקים ואת־שבטי ןעקב. The restoration of the twelve tribes is a messianic task and its assignment to Elijah must have marked the latter as the coming saviour. But since only a broad allusion to Isa. 49.6 is in question, conclusions about a messianic interpretation of Isa. 49.6 from Ecclus 48.10 alone are not quite secure (but cf. n. 305). In any case it is significant that Ecclus. explained the servant in Isa. 49.6 in an individual sense.

And here is Isaiah 49:6

And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.

For anyone like me who is not familiar with Ecclesiasticus 48:10 here it is in context

1 Then stood up Elijah the prophet as fire, and his word burned like a lamp.
2 He brought a sore famine upon them, and by his zeal he diminished their number.
3 By the word of the Lord he shut up the heaven, and also three times brought down fire.
4 O Elijah, how wast thou honored in thy wondrous deeds! and who may glory like unto thee!
5 Who didst raise up a dead man from death, and his soul from the place of the dead, by the word of the most High:
6 who broughtest kings to destruction, and honorable men from their bed:
7 who heardest the rebuke of the Lord in Sinai, and in Horeb the judgment of vengeance:
8 who anointedst kings to take revenge, and prophets to succeed after him:
9 who wast taken up in a whirlwind of fire, and in a chariot of fiery horses:
10 who wast ordained for reproofs in their times, to pacify the wrath of the Lord’s judgment, before it brake forth into fury, and to turn the heart of the father unto the son,and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

But note the next point:

The pre-Christian Testament of Benjamin is said to draw upon the “suffering servant” passage in Isaiah when it speaks of the future Messiah. And for those readers who (like me) are quick to claim that the Testament of Benjamin is riddled with much later Christian interpolations, do read on….

(β) In the Testament of Benjamin (second or first century B.C.) the patriarch at the beginning puts forward his brother Joseph as a model because he made intercession for his brothers with his father Jacob. In this connexion it is said in Test. B. 3.8 (Armenian):

In thee (Joseph) will the heavenly prophecy be fulfilled which says that the innocent one will be defiled for the sake of the guilty and the sinless one will die for the impious.

The heavenly prophecy must mean Isa. 53. The possibility that Test.B. 3.8 (Armenian) is a Christian interpolation does not come into the question, for nowhere is there ascribed to Jesus descent from the tribe Joseph-Ephraim, but always Davidic descent (cf. υίος Δαυίδ) from the tribe of Judah (Heb. 7.14). Since further the idea of a vicarious atoning death of the patriarch Joseph himself is nowhere else attested, the phrase

‘in thee will the heavenly prophecy be fulfilled’,

probably refers not to Joseph himself but to his posterity (cf. for this type of phrase I Sam. 3.12-14), i.e., the Messiah from the house of Joseph.

In Test. B. 3.8 we have probably the oldest testimony to the expectation of a Messiah from the tribe of Joseph. This passage should therefore be regarded as the oldest witness to the messianic exegesis of Isa. 53 (next to LXX, cf. p. 41).

In summary

We know that many Christians have always interpreted the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah as prophecies of the suffering messiah Jesus. Jeremias’s chapter offers several lines of evidence that before Christianity some Jews likewise interpreted those Isaiah passages messianically. The first two of those arguments are

  1. Ecclesiasticus, a pre-Christian text, suggests that at least one messianic function of an Isaiah servant passage applies to a future appearance of Elijah, presumably as the messiah;
  2. The Testament of Benjamin, another text believed to be pre-Christian in its original form in one surviving manuscript line (Armenian) applies a suffering servant passage in Isaiah to a coming messiah descended from Joseph.

(Two down, eight to go. Then I will need to locate and dig out scholarship that has since, presumably, shown Jeremias’s case to be flawed.)


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


 

Suffering and Dying Messiahs: Typically Jewish Beliefs

So Easter is here again and everybody is mourning the death of Tammuz and rejoicing in the new life to hatch from digested easter bunny eggs. But let’s be serious and respect the meaning of the season. Let’s talk about messiahs, especially suffering and dying ones.

Daniel Boyarin

There’s much to write about but I’ll try to keep to just a few highlights. They have a common theme: the idea of a suffering and dying messiah was not uniquely Christian; it was very much a Jewish idea. Let’s begin with the opening lines of Jack Miles‘ Foreword to a little book by Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ:

“Daniel Boyarin,” a prominent conservative rabbi confided to me not long ago, “is one of the two or three greatest rabbinic scholars in the world,” and — dropping his voice a notch — “possibly even the greatest.” The observation was given in confidence because, quite clearly, it troubled the rabbi to think that someone with Boyarin’s views might have truly learned Talmudic grounds for them. As a Christian, let me confide that his views can be equally troubling for Christians who appreciate the equally grounded originality of his reading of our New Testament. . . . .

His achievement is . . . a bold rereading of the rabbis and the evangelists alike, the results of which are so startling that once you — you, Jew, or you, Christian — get what he is up to, you suddenly read even the most familiar passages of your home scripture in a new light. (p. ix)

Now read what Boyarin has to say about the commonplace idea that Christians reinterpreted Jewish scriptures to find in them their suffering messiah, supposedly an idea highly offensive to Jews. He is discussing that famous Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 (my own formatting and emphasis):

10Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.  11Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. 

If these verses do indeed refer to the Messiah, they clearly predict his suffering and death to atone for the sins of humans, but the Jews allegedly always interpreted these verses as referring to the suffering of Israel herself and not the Messiah, who would only triumph. To sum up this generally held view: The theology of the suffering of the Messiah was an after-the-fact apologetic response to explain the suffering and ignominy Jesus suffered, since he was deemed by “Christians” to be the Messiah. Christianity, on this view, was initiated by the fact of the crucifixion, which is seen as setting into motion the new religion. Moreover, many who hold this view hold also that Isaiah 53 was distorted by the Christians from its allegedly original meaning, in which it referred to the suffering of the People of Israel, to explain and account for the shocking fact that the Messiah had been crucified.

This commonplace view has to be rejected

This commonplace view has to be rejected completely. The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent, and it remained current among Jews well into the future following that—indeed, well into the early modern period.4 The fascinating (and to some, no doubt, uncomfortable) fact is that this tradition was well documented by modern Messianic Jews, who are concerned to demonstrate that their belief in Jesus does not make them un-Jewish. Whether or not one accepts their theology, it remains the case that they have a very strong textual base for the view that the suffering Messiah is based in deeply rooted Jewish texts early and late. Jews, it seems, had no difficulty whatever with understanding a Messiah who would vicariously suffer to redeem the world. Once again, what has been allegedly ascribed to Jesus after the fact is, in fact, a piece of entrenched messianic speculation and expectation that was current before Jesus came into the world at all. That the Messiah would suffer and be humiliated was something Jews learned from close reading of the biblical texts, a close reading in precisely the style of classically rabbinic interpretation that has become known as midrash, the concordance of verses and passages from different places in Scripture to derive new narratives, images, and theological ideas. (pp. 132-33)

But notice that little detail of an endnote reference in there. What does that say? It’s a call for support from Martin Hengel (whose applicable work I have discussed in How Did Daniel Understand Isaiah’s Suffering Servant?):

Martin Hengel

4. See Martin Hengel, “The Effective History of Isaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period,” in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources, ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher, trans. Daniel P. Bailey (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), 137-45, for good arguments to this effect. Hengel concludes, “The expectation of an eschatological suffering savior figure connected with Isaiah 53 cannot therefore be proven to exist with absolute certainty and in a clearly outlined form in pre-Christian Judaism. Nevertheless, a lot of indices that must be taken seriously in texts of very different provenance suggest that these types of expectations could also have existed at the margins, next to many others. This would then explain how a suffering or dying Messiah surfaces in various forms with the Tannaim of the second century c.e., and why Isaiah 53 is clearly interpreted messianically in the Targum and rabbinic texts” (140). While there are some points in Hengel’s statement that require revision, the Targum is more a counterexample than a supporting text, and for the most part he is spot on.

So the argument rests on its explanatory power. I won’t repeat here the rabbinic texts Boyarin has in mind since they can be found in my earlier post, Suffering Messiah is a Very Jewish Idea. In that earlier post I also look at the evidence for the developing idea of a suffering messiah, one who identifies with martyrs, in Second Temple era books attributed to Daniel and Enoch.

But don’t think you’re wasting your time by reading a repeat post here. There is much more to add. read more »

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 Influence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

The Suffering Servant

13 Behold, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
14 As many were astonished at him—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the sons of men—
15 so shall he startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which has not been told them they shall see,
and that which they have not heard they shall understand.

53 Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him;
he has put him to grief;
when he makes himself an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand;
11 he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous;
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

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?

Martin Hengel brings us a little closer to answering these questions when he offers insights into the influence this text had on various ideas in Second Temple Judaism:

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.

Scholarship is used to thinking of the book of Isaiah as a collation of works originally by a number of authors (e.g. chapters 1-39 labelled Proto-Isaiah; 40-55 Deutero-Isaian; 56-66 Trito-Isaiah) but in the context Hengel is addressing the book was understood to be the unity we know today. Not only a unity but of prophetic significance as a whole. Hengel establishes early in his essay the point that from the Hellenistic period on the book of Isaiah (as a whole) was often treated in Judaism as work prophetic of the last days. So in Sirach (composed around 200 BCE — prior to the Maccabean era) we read of Isaiah the prophet:

24 He comforted the mourners in Jerusalem. His powerful spirit looked into the future, 25 and he predicted what was to happen before the end of time, hidden things that had not yet occurred. (Sirach 48:24-25 GNT)

Ben Sirach interprets Isaiah’s Servant — and prepares for the Gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark opens with a blend of prophetic passages from Isaiah and Malachi and allusions to the Exodus that lead directly into an Elijah scene. Two centuries earlier Ben Sirach similarly linked Isaiah, Malachi and Elijah in a pivotal prophetic time. Hengel does not draw the comparison with the Gospel of Mark (a comparison enriched by Elijah’s own association with Exodus and wilderness motifs) but I’m sure someone has:

Mark 1:2-4

Even as it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, Who shall prepare thy wayThe voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight;

John came . . . clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist . . . [i.e., in role of Elijah]

Malachi 3:1
Isaiah 40:3
Exodus 23:20

Sirach 48:1, 7, 10

Then the prophet Elijah arose like a fire . . . who heard rebuke at Sinai and judgments of vengeance at Horeb . . .

You [=Elijah] who are ready at the appointed time, it is written,

to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury, to turn the heart of the father to the son, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

Malachi 4:5-6
Isaiah 49:6

Hengel cautiously expresses some doubt as to whether Sirach “wished to identify the Servant [of Isaiah] directly with Elijah redivivus.” He does, however, along with other scholars he cites recognize that Sirach has given Isaiah 49:6 “a messianic or at least an individual interpretation”. (The significance of an “individual” interpretation lies in the various interpretations of the Servant passages: some reading the Servant as an individual but others at the time viewing the Servant as a literary figure representing Israel. Compare how the “son of man” in Daniel 7 was originally composed as a representative of the nation of Israel — in contrast to gentile nations represented by wild beasts — yet came to be interpreted by some as a literal, heavenly individual.)

Was the author of the Gospel of Mark writing in the context of a long-known intellectual tradition that played with piecing Isaiah’s Servant, Malachi’s Messenger, Exodus liberation and adoption tropes, and Elijah into scenarios of messianic end times?

The Book of Zechariah interprets Isaiah 53?

Martin Hengel takes us further back than the Book of Sirach and to the period of the immediate successors of Alexander the Great, the Diadochi. read more »

For fundamentalists only: Isaiah 53 in context

read more »