Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Suffering Servant

One of the most popular Old Testament passages that supposedly predicts the life and death of Jesus is the story of the suffering servant, found in Isaiah 52:13–53:12. Although Christians try to equate this servant with Jesus, this view holds no water upon closer inspection.

As it happens, this passage is actually the fourth of four "servant songs" that are found in the book of Isaiah. Most Jewish scholars believe that the servant referred to in each of the four songs represents the nation of Israel. This makes sense, because the Bible refers to Israel as God's servant numerous times, both in Isaiah and elsewhere. In fact, just a few chapters earlier in the third servant song, God explicitly says that the servant in question is Israel:
"And He said to me, 'You are My servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.' " (Isaiah 49:3)
As far as I'm concerned, that should really be the end of the discussion. This article describes in detail how Isaiah 53 applies to Israel—I don't necessarily agree with all of it, but it's certainly worth a look. However, Christians insist on making things more complicated than they are. Here's a summary of the main parallels that Christians see between the fourth servant song and Jesus' situation:
  • "He is despised and rejected by men" (v. 3)
  • "He was wounded for our transgressions" (v. 5)
  • "He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth" (v. 7)
  • "He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth" (v. 9)
  • "They made his grave with the wicked—but with the rich at his death" (v. 9)
This passage seems fairly impressive at first glance, but let's look at it more carefully. First, does the Bible really say that Jesus was "despised and rejected by men"? Quite the contrary: the gospels repeatedly make reference to Jesus' immense popularity; it's only a small group of Jewish leaders that plots to kill him. This verse would have applied to Jesus far better had it said, "He is loved and admired by men."

At this point it's important to understand who Jewish scholars understand to be speaking in this passage: the rulers of nations rivaling Israel. Now in verse 5, the NET Bible says that the Hebrew word min would be better translated as "because of" rather than "for," as it carries a connotation of causality. This subtly changes the meaning: instead of suffering on behalf of others' sin like the vicarious atonement attributed to Jesus, the servant is merely suffering as a result of that sin. In other words, Israel is suffering as a result of the sins of rival nations.

What about verse 7? Did Jesus really not say anything while being accused and punished? If one looks only at, say, Matthew 27:12-14, one might think so. But several other verses show that this is clearly incorrect: not only did Jesus supposedly say seven different things while on the cross, but he also talks extensively with his accusers. If the goal of Isaiah 53 was to predict the circumstances of Jesus' life, it's an undeniable failure. And speaking of inaccuracies, Isaiah 53:10 says the servant "shall see his seed; he shall prolong his days"—Jesus had no children and lived to the ripe old age of 33. Apologists respond by interpreting this metaphorically, but why do so here and not for the other verses, unless one is starting with the assumption that the passage refers to Jesus?

What about verse 9? Did Jesus really never lie or do anything violent? Actually, the gospel accounts have Jesus killing a fig tree, as well as overturning the money changers' tables and driving them out with a whip. Sure, he didn't exactly murder anyone, but these were still violent acts. As for lying, look at John 7:1-10: Jesus tells his brothers he isn't going to a feast, then secretly goes anyway. (While Jesus ostensibly says "I am not yet going up to this feast," the NU-Text comprising the oldest and most reliable manuscripts omits the "yet," suggesting that some scribe likely realized Jesus' lie and tried to cover it up.) And in John 18:19-21 Jesus tells the high priest that he always spoke openly about his doctrines and said nothing in secret, yet throughout the gospels Jesus repeatedly keeps his exalted status, his imminent death, his miracles and the meanings of his parables a secret from the public.

And does Jesus' burial in the tomb of the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea fulfill the latter half of verse 9? First we should note that Jesus wasn't buried with other rich people; he was buried in a tomb provided by a rich man. All too often people excitedly overlook such details when they think they've found a fulfillment. More importantly, I've been assuming that the gospels provide accurate historical accounts of Jesus. But we already know that they altered details of Jesus' life to fulfill prophecy: I've written previously about a contradiction that resulted when the writers of Matthew and Luke concocted different birth narratives to fit a prophecy in Micah 5:2. Since the New Testament writers believed Isaiah 53 to be a messianic prophecy (based on their repeated references to it), it's quite likely that Joseph of Arimathea is a character invented for the express purpose of fulfilling that prophecy.

Finally, there are a few other relevant mistranslations in Isaiah 53 which demonstrate that Israel is the servant and not Jesus. In verse 8, which includes, "for the transgressions of my people he was stricken," the Hebrew word lamo is actually a plural pronoun. So the verse should read, "for the transgressions of my [the Gentile kings'] people they [the Israelites] were stricken." And in verse 9, the word translated "death" is a plural noun. The servant has multiple deaths, indicating that he represents multiple people (i.e. the Israelites).

At this point it should be clear not only that the fourth servant song doesn't refer to Jesus, but that it couldn't possibly do so. The servant is explicitly said to be Israel in the third servant song, the plural is used in reference to him multiple times, and several details run completely counter to the gospel accounts of Jesus' life. It's not too surprising that this passage seems to refer to Jesus at first glance; given a sufficient amount of ambiguous text, bits and pieces can be found and twisted to support virtually any view. But after nearly 2,000 years of feeble argument, it's high time for Christians to concede that this is not a prediction of the life and death of Jesus.

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