The misuse of Hebrew Scriptures to “prove” Christian claims, and the Jewish response to ISAIAH CHAPTER 53
Isaiah 52:13-15, 53:1-12
52:13) 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. 53:1) 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 born our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten 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 everyone 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 judgement 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.
To missionary Christians, Isaiah 53 is the perfect description of the life and death of Jesus. Because it is so perfect a description, they feel that Jesus must have been the Messiah because he seems to have fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 53.
Some of these Fundamentalist Christians are told that this is so perfect a description of Jesus that the Jews are forbidden to read it! Furthermore, they are told that the Jews read from the Prophets every week in their religious services, but the 53rd chapter of Isaiah was intentionally left out of those readings because it is so obviously a description of Jesus.
No part of the Jewish Bible was ever censored by the Jewish people; at no time were Jews forbidden by Jewish authorities to read certain parts of the Bible. Had the Jews wanted to censor any part of the TaNaCH (the Hebrew Bible), they simply would have removed it from the TaNaCH to begin with, or not included it in the Canon. It was, after all, the Jews, specifically the Rabbis of the post second-Temple period that determined what would, and what would not, be in the Bible.
Of course, it is a matter of history that Christians were not allowed to read the Bible on their own. Translators of the Bible were killed by the Church because they made the Bible accessible to the common people.
The reason that Jews do not read Isaiah 53 at any time of the year during a weekly service is that there are no parallels to Isaiah 53 in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). Remember that the portion from the Prophets (the ‘Haftarah’) is read because there was a certain time when Jews were forbidden by non-Jews to read from the Torah on pain of death. In order to remind the people what the Torah portion would have been, sections of the Prophets were chosen which were parallel to — or contained references to — the actual Torah portion. After the Jews were once again allowed to read from the Torah, the custom of reading the Haftarah remained because it enhanced the meaning of the Torah.
An example of this can be shown from the Haftarah reading for Genesis 1:1, the Creation story. On the Sabbath morning when this portion is read, the parallel reading from the Prophets is Isaiah 42:5-12, ‘Thus says God, the Lord, Who created the Heavens and stretched them out…’
Isaiah 53 does not parallel anything in the Torah, and therefore it was not chosen to be read as a Haftarah portion.
The only reason Christians believe that the Jews are forbidden to read Isaiah 53 is that they cannot understand how the Jews can read Isaiah 53 and not immediately admit that Jesus was its fulfillment and therefore the Messiah. Of course, as we shall see, there are quite a few reasons why the Jews do not view the prophecy of Isaiah 53 as being fulfilled in Jesus.
Despite what we have just stated, as you read the text of Isaiah 53, you may indeed see within the verses what seems to be a description of Jesus. There is a reason for this which we shall discuss below.
Please understand and keep in mind that the quote from Isaiah 53 shown above is, indeed, a mistranslation of the original Hebrew. However, we are using it here because it is the (mis)translation most often used by Christian missionaries.
Let’s look at just two of the many mistranslations in the quote.
In verse 5, the text is translated as ‘But he was wounded FOR our transgressions, he was bruised FOR our iniquities.’ The mistake is that the prefix to the words meaning ‘our transgressions’ and ‘our iniquities’ is the Hebrew letter mem. This is a prepositional prefix meaning ‘from’ and not ‘for.’ A more accurate translation would be, ‘But he was wounded FROM our transgressions, he was bruised FROM our iniquities.’ This means that Isaiah 53 is not talking about a man who died ‘for our sins,’ but rather it is about a man who died ‘BECAUSE of our sins,’ or ‘AS A RESULT of our sins.’ In other words, they died because we sinned against them by murdering them. This, indeed, is the Jewish understanding of Isaiah 53: the nations of the earth will finally understand that the Jews have been right all along, and the sins committed against the Jews by the nations of the earth resulted in the death of countless innocent Jews.
In verse 9, the text is translated as, ‘And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death.’ However, this last word in the Hebrew should be translated as ‘in his deaths,’ because the word appears in the Hebrew in the plural. The text reads, ‘b’mo-taYv.’ The Hebrew letter, Yod, indicated by the capital Y in the transliterated word, indicates the plural, as anyone who knows Hebrew would know. To read, ‘in his death,’ the text would have to read ‘b’moto.’ Since the word ‘b’mo-taYv’ actually means ‘in his deaths,’ then for Jesus to fulfill this verse, he must therefore come back to earth and die at least another time. The Jews, personified as the servant as we shall see below, have fulfilled this verse time and time again, because countless millions have died an undeserved death.
As you read the above verses, you may have been reminded of the image of Jesus, how he lived and how he died. You may be wondering why Isaiah 53 is not a prophecy concerning the Messiah which Jesus fulfilled, according to the Jewish understanding of the passage.
According to Jewish tradition, Isaiah was writing about the People of Israel personified as The Suffering Servant of the Lord. There are no less than 8 quotations that show this to be the case. Please note that in the following four quotations, all from the Book of Isaiah, it is the People of Israel who are called the Servant of Gd:
But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend. [Isaiah 41:8]
Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me. [Isaiah 44:21]
For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. [Isaiah 45:4]
And He said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ [Isaiah 49:3]
And see also Isaiah 43:10; 44:1; 48:20, 49:7
Isaiah 43:10 is a very interesting verse.
Ye are my witnesses, saith the Etrnl, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no Gd formed, neither shall there be after me. [Isaiah 43:10]
The above verse tells us that the Jewish People are plural when Gd uses the term ‘witnesses,’ but the People of Israel are also referred to in this same verse in the singular in the word, ‘servant,’ the very same word that we find in Isaiah 53.
Furthermore, Isaiah 43:10 states that there will be ‘no Gd formed,’ which means that Jesus, who was formed in Mary’s womb well after Gd spoke these words in Isaiah 43:10, cannot be Gd.
From the many above quotations we can see that Isaiah 53 was referring to the People of Israel as a Suffering Servant of the Etrnl, just as in all of the quotations which came before Isaiah 53.
Christian missionaries will claim that the Jewish Biblical commentator Rashi made up the association of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 with the People of Israel personified. This is simply untrue, which can be proven from the writings of Christians themselves well before Rashi was born. In ‘Contra Celsum,’ written in 248 C.E. (some 800 years before Rashi), the Christian Church Father Origen records that Jews contemporary with him interpreted this passage as referring to the entire nation of Israel. He wrote:
‘I remember that once in a discussion with some whom the Jews regard as learned I used these prophecies [Isaiah 52:13-53:8]. At this the Jew said that these prophecies referred to the whole people as though of a single individual, since they were scattered in the dispersion and smitten, that as a result of the scattering of the Jews among the other nations many might become proselytes.’ (Origen, Contra Celsum, trans. Henry Chadwick, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Book 1.55, 1965, p. 50)
This can also be found on the internet at Early Christian Writings. Scroll down to Chapter LV.
This shows that Jews subscribed to the belief that the people of Israel were the suffering servant spoken of throughout the entire passage, and this pre-dates Rashi by many centuries.
Before we look directly at Isaiah 53, we must first ask a question. The Bible is explicitly clear, as we read in Deuteronomy:
Every one is to be put to death for his own sin. [Deuteronomy 24:16]
This is also found in Exodus Chapter 32:
And the Etrnl said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book [Exodus 32:30-35]
and again in Ezekiel Chapter 18:
Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.’ [Ezekiel 18:1-4; 20-24; 26-27]
Please note that in Ezekiel 18:20 it does not say that the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon the righteous, but rather the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon the wicked.
Repeatedly, consistently, and without any need of interpretation, the text literally and clearly states that the person who sins is the person who gets the punishment for the sin. The question we must ask in light of the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53 is, When did Gd change His mind? If, indeed, ‘every man is to be put to death for his own sin,’ then the only way one can interpret Isaiah 53 to mean the opposite, that Jesus died for your sins, is if Gd changed His mind, or He did not mean what He said when He said, ‘every man is to be put to death for his own sin.’ Understand that the interpretation Christians give to Isaiah 53 is exactly that, an interpretation, and an erroneous one, as we can see when we examine it in light of other verses from Scripture.
Read the passage from Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12 again. Certainly, if one does not read carefully, it does sound a lot like a description of a man who dies for the sins of others. How do Jews explain that the life and death of Jesus is not reflected in these verses?
First of all, it should not surprise you that the life and death of Jesus seems to be reflected within the verses of Isaiah 53. This is no coincidence. Remember that the Hebrew Scriptures came before Jesus. The authors of the Christians’ New Testament could use images they found in the Hebrew Scriptures and create stories about Jesus to fit those images.
The Hebrew Scriptures served as blueprints do to an architect. But instead of constructing a building, the authors of the New Testament constructed stories about Jesus. This is not only true for Isaiah 53, but is also true for many of the other biblical texts that stories of Jesus seem to fulfill. Whenever a story seems to fit biblical prophecy, the story of Jesus was probably accommodated to the images found in the Hebrew Scriptures. By comparing different renditions of the same story in two different Gospels, one can easily see that stories were written about Jesus to make it appear that Jesus fulfilled prophecy.
Let us look, for example, at two versions of the story of the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. Please note that Matthew describes Jesus riding upon two animals while Mark describes Jesus riding upon one.
‘And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethpage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass.’ The disciples went and did as Jesus directed them; they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon.’ [Matthew 21:1-7]
‘And when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethpage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, and said to them, ‘Go into the village opposite you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘the Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’ And they went away, and found a colt tied at the door out in the open street; and they untied it. And those who stood there said to them, ‘What are you doing untying the colt?’ And they told them what Jesus had said; and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus, and threw their garments on it; and he sat upon it.’ [Mark 11:1-7]
Why is it that the two stories, supposedly describing eyewitness reports of the same event, are so different? Of course one might respond by saying that eyewitnesses will describe the same event differently. But these stories are supposed to be ‘Gospel Truth’ and inspired by Gd. Matthew again makes it seem as though Jesus were fulfilling a prophecy concerning the Messiah by riding upon two animals. If this is indeed a prophecy, then according to Mark, Jesus did not fulfill the prophecy, because according to Mark, Jesus entered Jerusalem while riding on only one animal.
Why then is there a difference between the two stories? To understand this you must examine the source of the prophecy concerning the Messiah, Zechariah 9:9-10:
Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. [Zechariah 9:9-10]
Was Zechariah talking about one ass or was he talking about two asses? Matthew understood Zechariah to be talking about two animals, so he wrote his story about Jesus riding on two. Mark understood Zechariah to be talking about one animal, so he wrote his story about Jesus riding on one. Zechariah was talking about only one animal. He was using the ancient form of Hebrew poetry which involves a rhyming by repetition of idea not of sounds. Look at almost any Psalm and you will see this clearly. By the way please note that the Zechariah quotation also tells us that the Messiah‘commands peace to the nations,’ (compare this with Jesus’ own statement in Matthew 10:34) and that the Messiah shall rule ‘from sea to sea,’ which of course Jesus never did.
Many of the passages in the Christians’ New Testament contradict the image described in Isaiah 53. No matter how hard the authors tried to create stories about Jesus that would fit images found in the Hebrew Scriptures, the factual stories about the man Jesus were also recorded by them, and it is these stories that deny any messiah-ship of Jesus, as well as contradict the image of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. Let us take a closer look at what Isaiah 53 says, and then compare it with other passages from the Christians’ New Testament.
Two verses in the Isaiah passage describe the servant of the Lord as having been either too ugly to be human in appearance, or too plain-looking to make us notice him:
…his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men. [Isaiah 52:14]
…he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. [Isaiah 53:2]
But every single picture painted of Jesus shows a man who was both handsome and tall and generally muscular, as any carpenter would be. These texts from Isaiah are not referring to The Servant at only a single time and place, like after a scourging, or crucifixion, but rather it refers to the way The Servant looks, in general, to the non-Jewish world.
There is also evidence in the Christians’ New Testament that Jesus was a handsome man, whose company was desired by others:
‘And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.’ [Luke 2:52]
This is not what we read in Isaiah. One verse in Isaiah 53 describes the servant as a loner, without anyone to call a friend:
He was despised and rejected by men. [Isaiah 53:3]
Isaiah 53:3 is not describing a man who, at one point in his life, is rejected by some, but rather one who has known rejection throughout his life. But in many places within the Christians’ New Testament, like the above quotation from Luke 2:52, Jesus is described as having a huge following, from the beginning of his ministry all the way to the scene at the crucifixion:
But when they tried to arrest him, they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet. [Matthew 21:46]
And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. And there followed him a great multitude of the people, and of women who bewailed and lamented him. [Luke 23:26-27]
See also Mark 14:1-2; Matthew 4:24-25; 21:9,11; Luke 4:14-15; 7:11,12,16-17; 8:4,19,45; and John 12:11, 42
So we see that unlike the servant described in Isaiah 53:3, Jesus was neither despised nor rejected by all men, and instead, he maintained a large following even up until he was crucified.
Two quotations from the Isaiah passage describe someone who remains silent when accused by his captors, one who is innocent of any wrongdoing:
…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. [Isaiah 53:7]
…and there was no deceit in his mouth. [Isaiah 53:9]
But there is one quotation in the Christian’s New Testament that states that Jesus did rebuke his captors and in so doing did in fact ‘open his mouth.’
When he had said this, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’ [John 18:22-23]
In the above quotation, Jesus rebukes his captors for what he considers mistreatment. He demanded an explanation of why he had been struck. In ‘opening up his mouth’ to rebuke his captors, he contradicts his own idea of ‘turning the other cheek,’ found in Matthew 5:39. This makes Jesus a hypocrite, and hypocrisy is a form of deceit because it deceives people in to doing what the deceiver himself does not do.
One of the verses in the Isaiah passage describes an innocent man of peace:
…although he had done no violence… [Isaiah 53:9]
But most people are familiar with at least one of the many acts of violence that Jesus did: the ‘cleansing of the Temple:’
And Jesus entered the Temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the Temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.’ [Matthew 21:12]
Furthermore, in the version of this act of violence in John 2:15, it states that Jesus made for himself a scourge or whip, with which to beat the people in the Temple:
And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables… [John 2:15]
Although a Christian might say that the violence done by Jesus in the Temple might have been justified, the verse in Isaiah describes one who had done ‘no violence’ at all to make him deserving of the persecution he received. Jesus was seen by Rome as an insurrectionist, and that is why they crucified him. The Christians’ New Testament states that the accusation placed above his head by Rome read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews,’ as we see in Matthew 27:37 as well as in Mark 15:26. His crime, according to the accusation for which he was crucified, was in trying to be the King of the Jews in place of the Emperor in Rome. The violence he perpetrated brought attention to him, and for that violence he was seen as an insurrectionist, and so he was crucified.
Above, it was stated that the Jews were the servant of Isaiah 53. Some may argue that the Jews certainly did violence over the millennia, and that is true, but the Jews did no violence to deserve their persecutions. What violence did the Jews of Europe perpetrate to deserve the Holocaust?
Furthermore, those who ‘bought and sold in the Temple’ were there because of Gd’s command. In Deuteronomy 14:24-26, Gd told the Jews to sell the animal they wanted to sacrifice for money, take the money to Jerusalem, and then after changing the money to the local CURRENCY, to buy the same type of animal and sacrifice it. Therefore the money changers and sellers of sacrificial animals were supposed to be there, as commanded by Gd:
And if the way be too long for thee, so that thou art not able to carry it; or if the place be too far from thee, which the Etrnl thy Gd shall choose to set his name there, when the Etrnl thy Gd hath blessed thee: 25 Then shalt thou turn it into money, and bind up the money in thine hand, and shalt go unto the place which the Etrnl thy Gd shall choose: 26 And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the Etrnl thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household. [Deuteronomy 14:24-26]
There are other places in the New Testament that describe Jesus’s violence. Here are a few more examples.
In Mark 11:12, Jesus condemns an innocent fruit tree to death because it did not have any figs on it for Jesus to eat, even though it was not even the fruit season:
And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter forever. And his disciples heard it. And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away. [Mark 11:12-14; 20-21]
Jesus also stated that his purpose in coming to earth was not for the sake of peace:
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. [Matthew 10:34-36]
Jesus states in the following that those who won’t accept him should be slain. In almost all Christian interpretations of the parable in which the following verse is found, Jesus is understood to have been the ruler who speaks:
But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me. [Luke 19:27]
Perhaps the verse above from Luke 19 has been the Christian justification for the slaying of so many Jews throughout the centuries, simply because we still reject Jesus.
And in Luke 22:36, Jesus tells his disciples to go and buy swords.
So we see that here again, Jesus, a violent man, could not have been the peace-loving servant who did ‘no violence,’ as described in Isaiah 53.
Finally, there is one verse in the Isaiah passage which describes the servant as living a long life and having children:
…he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; [Isaiah 53:10]
But quite obviously, Jesus was never married and had no children. He also died in his thirties, at a young age. Christians may respond by saying that Isaiah meant Jesus’ disciples by the word, ‘offspring,’ or that the Christians themselves are like his children, but the word in the Hebrew is ‘zerah,’ which means seed, and can only refer to one’s blood-line descendants, his children. One can see this clearly in the following passage from Genesis 15:2-4. Abram is afraid that he has no biological heirs, the only one to inherit him is his servant, Eliezer, whom Abram calls his ‘ben,’ his son. However, Gd tells him that it will not be his ben, his son, to inherit from him, but rather his seed, his ‘zerah..’
And Abram said, ‘Etrnl Gd what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the son (ben) of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?’ Then Abram said, ‘see to me you have given no seed (zerah = biological child), and see the son (‘ben’) of my house is my heir.’ Suddenly the word of Gd came to him, saying, ‘that one will not inherit you. None but him that shall come forth from within your bowels shall be your heir.’ [Genesis 15:2-4]
So again we see that Jesus did not fulfill the description of the servant in Isaiah 53 because he had no seed, which means no children, no offspring.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that Isaiah was making a prophecy of his future, rather than interpreting his past as the past-tenses of his speech indicate. In that case, Isaiah 53 could be applied not only to the People of Israel in the days of Isaiah, but also throughout history. Try re-reading the Isaiah passage, but think of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, the pogroms, the Inquisition, the Crusades, or other Christian persecutions of Jews, as you read it. Ask yourself, what violence did these Jews do to deserve the fate they endured at the hands of Christians?
Jesus did not fulfill this ‘prophecy’ of Isaiah 53, nor did he fulfill any of the real and important prophecies concerning the true Messiah.