Isaiah 53: did Judaism always consider Israel the suffering servant?
A comprehensive summary of Jewish teaching over two millenia
Isaiah 53 is likely the most cited passage in the Hebrew Bible by Christians. Yet there are important debates on how to interpret the passage. This is the first part of a series where I will seek to address these controversies.
This article is on the common criticism that Christian interpretations do not reflect the original intention of Isaiah. It is often argued the traditional Jewish view of Isaiah 53 had nothing to do with the Messiah:
Despite strong objections from conservative Christian apologists, the prevailing rabbinic interpretation of Isaiah 53 ascribes the “servant” to the nation of Israel who silently endured unimaginable suffering at the hands of its gentile oppressors. (Rabbi Tovia Singer)
Debates on Isaiah often revolve around selective quotations supporting a particular view. I can’t claim to be neutral. But I think we can move the discussion on by transparently setting out the evidence.
To do that I’ve made clear the criteria used. So, if you wish, you can check for any potential bias. This article focuses on two main sources (freely available online):
- The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah: According to the Jewish Interpreters. This is an English translation of Jewish sources on Isaiah 53 identified by Samuel Driver (Regus Professor of Hebrew) and Adolf Nebauer (Associate Professor of Hebrew and manuscript expert) at the University of Oxford up to 1877.
- Sefaria: a Jewish website that aims to be a ‘living library of Torah texts’
These two sources have a huge collection of work on Isaiah 53 (that is, Isaiah 52:13-Isaiah 53:12). So the article will focus on the following:
- Texts commonly regarded as sacred by Rabbinic Jews (e.g. Talmud and Zohar)
- Major early and medieval Rabbinic texts (all texts available on Sefaria)
- Citations and commentaries by major Rabbis over the past two millennia. Criteria for ‘major’ is that they are identified as such by Sefaria, Chabad (a Chassidic Jewish website), or Jews for Judaism.
Whatever I found based on these criteria are included below — no matter what interpretation they reflect. If I’ve missed anything please let me know in the comments!
Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53
Figure 1 illustrates the change over time in Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53. Up to 1000 CE, no Rabbinic sources proposed the collectivist view — that the servant was Israel.
The once-dominant individual view rapidly declined at the same time as the collectivist interpretation grew. Possible explanations for these trends are discussed below.
Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53 up to 1000 CE
Table 1 shows that the Messianic interpretation was most common up to 1000 CE. But with some variability. One citation (b. Sanhedrin 98b) is particularly important as it directly addressed the identity of the servant:
Apropos the Messiah, the Gemara asks: What is his name?… And the Rabbis say: The leper of the house of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is his name, as it is stated: “Indeed our illnesses he did bear and our pains he endured; yet we did esteem him injured, stricken by God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4).
Sanhedrin 98b is commonly referenced (e.g. Nachmanides, Nahman of Breslov) by influential Rabbis when speaking of the identity of the servant.
There is also an intriguing reference to Moses in the Talmud citing Isaiah 53:12 (Sotah 14a). This may suggest a link between Moses, the servant of the Lord (e.g. Numbers 12:7–8, Deuteronomy 34:5, Joshua 1:1), and the servant of Isaiah 53, picked up in an early midrash:
This verse refers to the Messiah, the descendant of David. Why was he called a great mountain? Because he will be greater than the patriarchs, as is said: Behold, My servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high (Isa. 52:13). He shall be exalted above Abraham; lifted up above Isaac; and shall be very high above Jacob. He shall be exalted above Abraham, concerning whom it is said: I have lifted up my hand unto the Lord (Gen. 14:22); lifted up above Moses. (Tanchuma Toldot 14:1)
The other three citations relate to Rabbi Akiva (a 1st-century Jewish leader), “the one the Lord delights in”, and a citation that appears to have little to do with the original text (not uncommon in midrash!).
I did not identify any Rabbinic sources interpreting Israel as the servant in this period. Interestingly, the only source up to 1000 CE to claim Jews believed the collectivist view was a Christian one — Origen (3rd century CE).
The turning point: 1000–1500 CE
Table 2 shows a clear shift in Rabbinic interpretation during this period. Leading commentators such as Rashi, Radak, and Ibn Ezra concluded that Israel was the subject of Isaiah 53.
However, the Messianic interpretation did not disappear. The Zohar, Nahmanides, and Maimonides continued to associate Isaiah 53 with the Messiah.
In common with the Talmud and earlier midrashim, Moses continued to be associated with the servant of Isaiah 53 which may point to the servant/Messiah as the greater Moses.
What might explain this changing trend?
One explanation is the central influence of Rashi — probably the most influential scholar in Jewish history. He was pioneer of the claim that the servant of Isaiah was Israel.
The historical context likely impacted Rashi. He lived through a terrible time of Jewish persecution. Crusaders often targeted Jews both directly and as a source of income for their travels:
In 1096, Rashi witnessed the massacre of friends and family members at the hands of Crusaders en route to the Holy Land. (My Jewish Learning)
Similarly, Driver and Neubauer argued Rashi’s theological views may have been affected by:
the hideous massacre of Jews in Spire, Worms, Mainz, Cologne, by the wild profligate swarm which gathered, after the first Crusaders were gone.
Reinterpretation of Isaiah 53 had several benefits. It delegitimized the arguments of Christendom that Jesus was the Messiah of Isaiah 53. How could that be true, if the Jewish people had all along concluded the passage was about Israel?
A further benefit is that it offered comfort to the suffering Jewish people. It deliberately countered distortions of Gentile Christians who argued God had abandoned the Jews. Rashi offered comfort that Jews still belonged to God. He would rescue them from their suffering.
1501–1877 CE: Messianic interpretation still doesn’t disappear
Despite the popularity of the collectivist interpretation, Table 3 shows the Messianic view continued to exist within Judaism. In the 16th century, Rabbi Moshe Alshich was still able to state:
I may remark, then, that our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah (Driver & Neubauer, p258)
Nahman of Breslov came to a similar conclusion in the late 18th/early 19th century:
Our Sages also teach (Sanhedrin 98b): Mashiach will suffer sickness on behalf of all Israel, as it is written (Isaiah 53:5), “He was stricken because of our transgressions.” (Likutei Moharan 118:1)
Rabbi Tovia Singer’s view that Israel is the servant of Isaiah 53 held limited influence in early (and therefore most authoritative) Jewish tradition. The data shows the negligible interest in this view up to 1000 CE.
The data also shows an abrupt shift to the ‘collectivist’ view (the servant as Israel) from approximately 1100 CE. It is not hard to empathise with Rashi and those who followed him. They had to respond to the hostile environment imposed on Jewish people.
However, the Messianic interpretation never left Judaism. The early testimony of Jewish tradition was too strong. I think the Messianic interpretation endured because it best reflected the text of Isaiah 53.