Jonathan Sacks’ What Rabbis Have Said about Isaiah 53

The passage known as “Isaiah 53” actually begins at Isaiah 52:13 and includes the entire 53rd chapter of the Book of Isaiah. This passage speaks in detail of the life, suffering, and death of Messiah. The overwhelmingly dominant Jewish view throughout history has been that this extended passage speaks of Messiah. Therefore, the Jewish view of the Messiah traditionally has included the understanding that the Messiah would suffer and die as the ultimate kaparrah (atonement) for the sins of Israel and of the world.

For over a thousand years after the death of Yeshua, this remained essentially the only Jewish view concerning Isaiah 53.  In the late 11th century, a new view that the passage spoke of Israel, was introduced, but was vehemently rejected by the vast majority of rabbis for the next 700 years. (See “Ten (10) Reasons Why Isaiah 53 Can Not Refer to Israel” for some of the reasons the rabbis overwhelmingly rejected this novel view.)

Twenty-four (24) prominent rabbis, writing from the 1st century C.E. through the 20th century C.E., are quoted chronologically in the passages that follow.   These are not selected aberrations, but clearly represent the traditional Jewish view throughout the centuries.  As Rabbi Moshe El-Sheikh (#20 below) wrote in the latter half of the 16th century,

Our Rabbis of blessed memory with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view. 

That “one voice” is the traditional view that Isaiah 53 speaks of Messiah, the suffering servant who would die as the ultimate atonement, bearing the sins of Israel and others. 

1.     Jonathan ben Uzziel’s Targums, on this passage dating from the 1st century C.E., begins Isaiah 52:13 by immediately identifying the suffering servant as the Messiah saying,

“Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper.” [2]

2.      The Babylonian Talmud states:

The Rabanan say that Messiah’s name is The Suffering Scholar of Rabbi’s House (or The Leper Scholar) for it is written, “Surely He hath born our grief and carried our sorrows, yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted.” [3]

Here, the Babylonian Talmud applies Isaiah 53:4 to the Messiah. 

3.  The Babylonian Talmud also states:

The Messiah—what is his name?…The Rabbis say, The leprous one; those of the house of Rabbi [4] say, The sick one, as it is said, “Surely he hath borne our sicknesses.” [5]

Here, the Babylonian Talmud also applies Isaiah 53:4 to the Messiah. 

4.      In Midrash Siphré, we find the following: 

R. Yosé the Galilaean said, Come forth and learn the righteousness of the King Messiah and the reward of the just from the first man who received but one commandment, a prohibition, and transgressed it:  consider how many deaths were inflicted upon himself, upon his own generations, and upon those that followed them, till the end of all generations.  Which attribute is greater, the attribute of goodness, or the attribute of vengeance?  He answered, The attribute of goodness is the greater, and the attribute of vengeance is less; how much more, then will the King Messiah, who endures affliction and pains for the transgressors (as it is written, “He was wounded,” etc.) justify all generations! And this is what is meant when it is said, “And the Lord made the iniquity of us all meet upon him.” [6]

Here, the Midrash Siphré applies Isaiah 53:5 and Isaiah 53:6 to the Messiah. The argument is: If the transgression of Adam (the first man who was given one prohibition) resulted in such consequences upon all of his descendants (“all generations”), and since the attribute of goodness is greater and more powerful than vengeance, how much more will the sufferings of the Messiah justify all generations.  This argument is strikingly similar to that made by Rav Shaul (the apostle Paul) in Romans 5:15-19.

5.      In Midrash Thanhuma, we find the following:

 R. Nahman say, The word “man” in the passage, every man a head of the house of his fathers (Num. i. 4), refers to the Messiah the son of David, as it is written, “Behold the man whose name is Zemah” (the branch); where Yonathan interprets, Behold the man Messiah (Zech. Vi. 12): and so it is said, “A man of pains and known to sickness.” [7]

Here, the Midrash Thanhuma applies Isaiah 53:3 to the Messiah.

6.      In Midrash P’siqtha, it states: 

The Holy One brought forth the soul of the Messiah, and said to him…Art thou willing to…redeem my sons…?  He replied, I am.  God replied, If so, thou must take upon thyself chastisements in order to wipe away their iniquity, as it is written, “Surely our sicknesses he hath carried.”  The Messiah answered, I will take them upon me gladly. 

Here, the Midrash P’siqtha applies Isaiah 53:4 to the Messiah, and clearly states that Messiah’s sufferings were necessary to wipe away the iniquity of all people. 

7.      In Midrash Konen, we find the following: 

The fifth mansion in Paradise…there dwell Messiah son of David, and Elijah, and Messiah son of Ephraim. There also is the “litter of the wood of Lebanon”…and within it Messiah son of David who loveth Jerusalem. Elijah takes him by the head, lays him down in his bosom, holds him, and says, “Bear thou sufferings and wounds wherewith the Almighty doth chastise thee for Israel’s sin;”  and so it is written, He was wounded for our transgression, bruised for our iniquities, until the time when the end should come. [8]

Here, the Midrash Konen applies Isaiah 53:5 to the Messiah. In this passage, we also see the concept of two Messiahs. This passage clearly distinguishes between the suffering servant (the Messiah) and Israel, stating that the Messiah would suffer for Israel’s sin.

8.  In referring to this passage, Bamidbar Rabba states: “Like Moses, Messiah will be revealed, then hidden, then revealed again.” [9]

9.  Concerning Isaiah 52:13, Yalkut II states: “Messiah…He shall be higher than Abraham. [10]

10. The Musaf prayer for Yom Kippur was written in the 7th century. Part of this prayer (the Machzor) states:

Our righteous anointed [11] is departed from us; horror hath seized us, and we have none to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities, and our transgressions, and was wounded because of our transgressions. He beareth our sins on his shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities.  We shall be healed by his wound, at the time the Eternal will create Him (the Messiah) as a new creature.  O bring Him up from the circle of the earth.  Raise him up from Seir, to assemble us the second time by the power of Yinon. [12]

Here, the Musaf prayer applies Isaiah 53 to the Messiah and states that he had departed. This presumes that he previously came, and had already suffered on behalf of the Jewish people, bearing their sins on his shoulders. The prayer asks earnestly for Messiah to return a second time.

11.  The Zohar, thought to have been written either by Shi’on ben Yohai in the 2nd century or by a Spanish rabbi in the 13th century, states:

There is in the garden of Eden a palace called the Palace of the sons of sickness: this palace the Messiah then enters, and summons every sickness, every pain, and every chastisement of Israel;  they all come and rest upon him. And were it not that he had thus lightened them off Israel and taken them upon himself, there had been no man able to bear Israel’s chastisements for transgressions of the law: and this is that which is written, “Surely our sickness he hath carried.” [13]

Here, the Zohar applies Isaiah 53:4 to the Messiah, and distinguishes Messiah from Israel.  Messiah is seen as vicariously bearing Israel’s punishment for transgressing the law.

12.  Rabbi Mosheh had-Darshan of Narbonne, a rabbi of the 11th century, in his Bereshith Rabbah, repeatedly applies Isaiah 52:13 through Isaiah 53:12 to the Messiah. [14]

This is that which is written, “I will lift mine eyes unto the hills: O whence cometh my help” (Ps. Cxxi. I)? and, “Who art thou, O great mountain” (Zech. iv. 7)?  The great mountain means the Messiah, and why does he speak of him thus?  Because he is greater than the patriarchs, as it is said, “Behold my servant shall prosper.”

I have learnt it from the words of R. Mosheh had-Darshan: The redeemer whom I shall raise up from among you will have no father, as it is written, “Behold the man whose name is Zemah [branch], and he shall branch up out of his place” (Zech. vi. 12); and so Isaiah says, “And he came up like a sucker,” etc.

Says R. B’rckhyah, The Holy One said to Israel…the redeemer whom I shall raise up out of your midst will have no father also, as it is said, “Behold the man whose name is the Branch, and he shall branch up out of his place” (Zech. vi. 12); and similarly by Isaiah, “And he came up as a sucker before him.”

The Holy One said…O Messiah, my righteousness, said he, the iniquities of those who are hidden beside thee will cause thee to enter into a hard yoke:  thine eyes shall see no light, and thine ears shall hear great reproaches from the nations of the world; thy nostrils shall smell ill savours, thy mouth taste bitterness, and thy tongue cleave to thy gums;  thy skin shall hang upon thy bones, and thy body grow weak in grief and sighing.  Art thou willing to accept this?  if so, it shall be well; but if not, behold, I drive them from me for ever. Said the Messiah, Lord of the world, I accept it joyfully and will endure these chastisements, upon the condition that thou givest life again to those who die in my days, and to those who died from the time of the first man until now; and that thou savest in my days not only these…but such as were born out of due time; nor again these only, but those also whom thou thoughtest to create but who were not created.  The Holy One replied, I will do so: and forthwith the Messiah accepted the chastisements of love, as it is written, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted.”

This is the King Messiah, who belonged to the generation of the wicked, but rejected them, and chose the Holy One and his holy name to serve him with all his heart, and applied himself to seek for mercy for Israel, and to fast and humble himself on their behalf, as it is said, “He was wounded for our transgressions,” etc. And when Israel is sinful, the Messiah seeks for mercy upon them, as it is written, “By his stripes we were healed,” and “He carried the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

In referring to Isaiah 53:7, Rabbi had-Darshan states: “Then took Messiah lovingly all the sufferings upon himself.” [15]

In these passages, Rabbi had-Darshan applies Isaiah 52:13, Isaiah 53: 1, Isaiah 53:7, Isaiah 53:5, and Isaiah 53:12 to the Messiah. It should be noted that “Branch” is a name for the Messiah who, in the second and third passages, is also referred to as the redeemer.  In these passages, it clearly states that the Messiah would not have a father.  (Interestingly, it does not state that Messiah would not have a mother.) The fourth passage applies Psalm 22:14, 15, and 17 to the Messiah, and indicates that the sufferings of the Messiah were absolutely necessary to accomplish salvation for mankind. The fifth passage clearly distinguishes between the Messiah and Israel, using Isaiah 53:5 and Isaiah 53:12 to demonstrate that the Messiah would suffer vicariously for the sins of Israel.

13.  An 11th century writing, Mysteries of R. Shi’on ben Yohai, states:

Messiah, the son of Ephraim, will die there, and Israel will mourn for him.  And afterwards the Holy One will reveal to them Messiah, the son of David, whom Israel will desire to stone, saying, Thou spakest falsely; already is the Messiah slain, and there is none other Messiah to stand up (after him): and so they will despise him, as it is written, “Despised and forlorn of men;” [16]

Here is an example of the “two Messiahs” approach.  Messiah, son of Ephraim (who was a son of Joseph), would suffer and die first.  Afterward would come the second Messiah, the son of David.  Here, Isaiah 53:1 is applied to Messiah, son of David, whom Israel would not readily accept, but instead desire to kill.

14.  Rabbi Tobiyyah ben Eliezer, a rabbi of the 11th century, in his Legah Tov, states:

“And let his kingdom be exalted,” in the days of the Messiah, of whom it is said, “Behold my servant shall prosper; he will be high and exalted, and lofty exceedingly.” [17]

Here, Rabbi ben Eliezer applies Isaiah 52:13 to the Messiah.

15.  Rashi, toward the end of the 11th century, was the first to apply Isaiah 53 to Israel.  Initially, he applied it to the Messiah.  (See Sanhedrin 93.)  Only after the Crusades began did Rashi assert that the suffering servant was Israel. [18] However, Rashi’s new view was seen as an aberration from the traditional view (that it spoke of the Messiah).

16. Maimonides (1135-1204), perhaps the most famous rabbi of all time, in a letter to Jacob Alfajumi, stated:

What is to be the manner of Messiah’s advent, and where will be the place of His first appearance? . . . And Isaiah speaks similarly of the time when he will appear…He came up as a sucker before him, and as a root out of dry earth, . . . in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which the kings will hearken to him, at him the kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them they have seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived. [19]

In this quote, Maimonides applied Isaiah 52:15 and Isaiah 53:2 to the Messiah.

17. Rabbi Moshe Kohen Ibn Crispin of Cordora and Toledo, Spain, writing about this passage in approximately 1350, stated:

I am pleased to interpret it, in accordance with the teaching of our Rabbis, of the King Messiah, and will be careful, so far as I am able, to adhere to the literal sense:  thus, possibly, I shall be free from the fancied and far fetched interpretations of which others have been guilty. [20]

18. Don Yitzhaq Abarbanel, writing in about 1500 C.E., made a statement that is particularly significant because his own view was that Isaiah was not speaking of the Messiah.  Concerning Isaiah 52:13 through Isaiah 53:12, he stated:

The first question is to ascertain to whom it refers: for the learned among the Nazarenes expound it of the man who was crucified in Jerusalem at the end of the second Temple, and who, according to them, was the Son of God, and took flesh in the virgin’s womb, as is stated in their writings. But Yonathan ben Uzziel interprets it in the Thargum of the future Messiah; but this is also the opinion of our learned men in the majority of their Midrashim…[21] (emphasis added).

In spite of his personal view, Abarbanel was honest enough to admit that the majority of the rabbis of the Midrashim took the passage to speak of the Messiah.  He thus agreed that this was the dominant Jewish view of the period of the Targumim and the Midrashim.

19. In the 16th century, we have the following words of Rabbi Sa’adyah Ibn Danan of Grenada concerning the same Isaiah passage:

One of these, R. Joseph ben Kaspi, was led so far as to say that those who expounded it of the Messiah, who is shortly to be revealed, gave occasion to the heretics to interpret it of Jesus.  May G-d, however, forgive him for not having spoken the truth!  Our Rabbis, the doctors of the Thalmud, deliver their opinions by the power of prophecy, possessing a tradition concerning the principles of interpretation…alludes covertly to the King Messiah. [22]

Thus, Rabbi Ibn Danan asserted that the dominant view of Isaiah 53 of the Talmudic period was that it referred to the sufferings of the Messiah.  In addition, Ibn Danan states that one reason Rabbi ben Kaspi was against interpreting the passage to speak of the Messiah is because the passage was being applied to Yeshua.  It appears that attempts to interpret the passage as applying to Israel were driven by anti-Yeshua motives, rather than sound principles of interpretation.

20. Rabbi Moshe El-Sheikh was a disciple of Joseph Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch. Writing in the latter half of the 16th century, Rabbi El-Sheikh stated:

Our Rabbis of blessed memory with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view. [23]

21.  Rabbi Eliyyah de Vidas, writing from the latter half of the 16th century, stated:

…and this is that which is written, But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, the meaning of which is that since the Messiah bears our iniquities which produce the effect of his being bruised, it follows that whoso will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities, must endure and suffer for them himself. [24]

Here, Rabbi de Vidas applies Isaiah 53:5 to the Messiah. By stating, “Since the Messiah bears our iniquities,” Rabbi de Vidas appears to assume that this was common knowledge (i.e. the dominant view). He goes on to state that anyone who refuses to admit (i.e. believe, accept, and possibly confess) that the Messiah would bear our iniquities, must suffer for his or her own sins.

22. In the 17th century, Rabbi Naphthali ben Asher Altschuler stated:

I will now proceed to explain these verses of our own Messiah, who, God willing, will come speedily in our days!  I am surprised that Rashi and R. David Kimchi have not, with the Targums, applied it to the Messiah likewise. [25]

Thus, Rabbi Altschuler, likewise, asserted that the dominant Jewish view of the period of the Targumim was that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is none other than the Messiah.  This 17th century rabbi was surprised that one would take any other view.

23.  Herz Holmberg in his Korem, written in 1818, wrote: 

The fact is, that it refers to the King Messiah, who will come in the latter days, when it will be the Lord’s good pleasure to redeem Israel from among the different nations of the earth. [26]

24. Before his death on June 12, 1994, Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Schneerson was considered by many in his ultra-orthodox sect to be the Messiah (Moshioch in Hebrew).  He was very ill during his last months.  His followers placed an advertisement in the Manhattan Jewish Sentinel less than two months before his death.  The advertisement stated:

MOSHIACH FACT #20

HOW CAN THE REBBE BE MOSHIOCH IF HE IS ILL?

Moshiach is described as one who is ill, “and he is wounded for our transgressions (Yeshayahu 53)”.  When his time comes G-d says:  I shall make him as a new creation.  Thus the verse says, Today I have given birth to him, his moment of healing has come. (Yalkut Shimoni, Tehillim, Ch.2)

YECHI HAMELECH!

THE LUBAVITCHER REBBE HAS DECLARED THAT THE TIME OF THE REDEMPTION HAS ARRIVED

“Yeshayahu” is “Isaiah” in Hebrew.  Here, as recently as April 1994, members of the Lubavitcher movement clearly and publicly applied Isaiah 53:5 to the Messiah.

Read their conclusion here.

Briefly adding another criticism which departs from how we interpret Isaiah is this more common attack, disbelievers in other camps like atheism etc will be quick to point out even if the Rabbi above can show Isaiah to be about the Messiah, and even if they can refute the claim that Israel is the suffering servant, it’s all irrelevant because early Christians were writing their so-called eyewitness accounts in hindsight. They merely found an arrow already set within a tree and painted their target roundabout it, case closed…..well not exactly.

We aren’t so helpless in terms of historic studies to be thrown this way and that based upon every claim found within a document, rather we can use criteria to show which portions of scripture are more likely than others to be reliable. Various events surrounding Jesus’ final hours and sacrifice such like being “pierced”,despisedor “numbered among the transgressors” are clearly applicable to the crucifixion, which is accounted for by both Christian and secular authorities. So there’s no target painting there. Being considered punished by God” was also a common belief concerning anyone hung upon a tree” in Jewish culture, another humiliating feature which would turn off a once listening Jewish ear, thus the criteria of embarrassment, multiple attestation and early attestation are all coming into play. Still there’s so much more, let’s go to verse nine for another strongly confirmed portion of Jesus’ history.

He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Clearly being crucified as a criminal covers being “assigned a grave with the wicked”, but how about being with “the rich in his death”? Showing this to have happened we have Joseph of Arimathea, an undoubtedly wealthy member of the Jewish high court who sentenced Jesus to death, Dr William Lane Craig outlines 4 arguments for why we can know this man/the burial account are to be considered accurate, though for the sake of brevity I’ll simply add my favorite:

As a member of the Jewish court that condemned Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea is unlikely to be a Christian invention. There was strong resentment against the Jewish leadership for their role in the condemnation of Jesus (I Thess. 2.15). It is therefore highly improbable that Christians would invent a member of the court that condemned Jesus who honors Jesus by giving him a proper burial instead of allowing him to be dispatched as a common criminal.

So as harmful as it is to the skeptic’s pride we really can know something about Jesus, we can retrieve reliable data about His life and even know whether or not it matches Torah material written hundreds of years before they had been born. In closing I’m going to add Isaiah 52:13 through to 53:12, showing in red everything we can confirm, either by the historic method or simply modern times, and events or assertions we can’t affirm beyond reasonable doubt I’ll cover in black. Perhaps much of what I leave black can be proven too, still I’ll be hyper skeptical.

See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. 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 likenessso 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.

Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.  After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

― T. C. M

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