Was Isaiah talking about Jesus?
What follows is an informal debate that took place some months ago between John Loftus and myself (with "Rob," a thoughtful guy whose last name I do not recall, also participating) over the "Suffering Servant" passage in Isaiah. Is Isaiah talking about Jesus? Jeremiah? Israel? Someone else?
The informality of the conversation will be evident. I feel inclined to apologize for that -- we do meander a bit, and it takes a while to get to the point. Probably the heart of my argument for Jesus as the Servant Isaiah forsaw comes in posts 2, 4, 10, 11 and 14, if you're in a skimming mood. It might even be a good idea to read #14 first; I wish I had posted it first. But you may also enjoy the informality of the conversation: Plato's Dialogues it's not, and I overlook John's main argument for a while, but the format may be more interesting than monologue, in spite of its occasional failings in sequential reasoning. -
John's challenge originally had to do with "background" reasons to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. I responded to some of his other objections, then the debate focused, in what I found an enlightening way, on Isaiah. - DM
John Loftus #1: "I defy anyone to provide for us a clear and unequivocal non-self-fulfilling prophetic text in the OT that singles Jesus out as the only person who could fulfill it using the historical grammatical method of interpretation."
"It cannot be done."
David Marshall #1: I think your argument fails in several ways, John . . .
(Fifth) What passage(s) single Jesus out as the One? I'm not sure why we have to pick just one passage -- where does that demand come from? But some of the best are obviously Psalm 22 and Isaiah 52-3, if for some arbitrary reason you have to pick just one or two.
I'm also inclined to argue that the Sage in ancient Chinese literature, especially the Analects and Dao De Jing, maybe with the Book of Poetry and Yi Jing included, may be a portrait of Christ. I can't think of anyone who fulfills that portrait more fully. But it's a collage portrait, not a single passage that you can take out of context.
John #2: David, just a comment. Isaiah 49:1-3 helps provide the context for Isaiah 42-53. The servant is Israel. Surely if anyone in today's pulpit interpreted the Bible out of context you would not like it. Why here?
Psalm 22 is not predictive prophecy! It is a prayer for deliverance and a hope that God will deliver. A prayer is not a prediction and neither is an expressed hope. A prediction, since it has escaped you must involve more than that. To take it as prophecy takes it out of context. Surely if anyone in today's pulpit interpreted the Bible out of context you would not like it. Why here?
Is this the best you got?
David #2: John: No, the servant clearly is not Israel.
How could Israel, which is consistently portrayed as sinful, be described as having done no violence and practiced no deceit? The whole OT is filled with evidence to the contrary, including Isaiah 53.
And how can Israel die for itself? ("pierced through for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities . . . ?")
Sure, Isaiah 52-3 belongs in the context of the Servant Hymns, and of the last half of Isaiah in general. Personally, I don't see how anyone can read those chapters and not see Jesus.
Nor do I see any reason to set up hard-and-fast boundaries between prayer and prediction. Let me recommend to you Nicholas Wolterstorff's Divine Discourse, if you haven't read it. An easier source to find, that makes a similiar suggestion more briefly, is C. S. Lewis' Reflections on the Psalms.
Rob #1: N.T. Wright takes an interesting middle ground, that Isaiah 53 is of Israel, but Jesus embodies Israel. Which leads us back to what I mentioned. God choose the Jews through Abraham to bless the world. And it is particularly through the message of Jesus that the book of the Jews has spread.
John #3: Marshall asserted: "No, the servant clearly is not Israel."
Whew, glad we got that one figured out.
Thanks David! I thought 49:1-3 should have been clear, and if not then either 42:18–24; or 44:1–2 would do the trick, or all of them together.
I guess not. I must be misreading them all. You must have it right despite what it says. Any Jew would quickly see the error of his ways on that one and convert to Christianity, easily. Sheesh what idiots for them not to have done so en masse.
But wait, Catholic scholar Joseph Fitzmyer in The One who is to Come argued “there is no passage in the book of Isaiah that mentions a “‘Messiah’ in the narrow sense, and all attempts to speak of Isaiah’s ‘messianic prophecies’ are still-born.” (pp. 42-43). He claims that the Servant Song of Isaiah 53 “has no messianic connotation” per se. (p. 141). And “The idea of a suffering Messiah . . . is found nowhere in the Old Testament or in any Jewish literature prior to or contemporaneous with the New Testament. It is a Christian conception that goes beyond the Jewish messianic tradition.” (p. 142).
How can a Christian conclude other than what any Jew shouldn't known according to you?
According to Christian scholarship, Isaiah’s servant is “almost certainly to be identified with Israel.” (Anchor Bible Dictionary: “Lamb.”)
Do more work on this David, for the identification of Isaiah’s servant with Jesus was based upon the Christian recasting of Isaiah 52–53 in light of the apocryphal book of The Wisdom of Solomon (chapters 1–6).
David #3: Scholars interpret Isaiah 53 in a variety of ways. Some like to think the Suffering Servant is Israel, others point out the obvious problems with that view, which I mentioned. Doing an end-around the literary evidence with appeals to authority won't work: the textual evidence is primary.
Nor is the word "Messiah" at the heart of the matter. That term has a specialized sense, and also a broader sense. You didn't even use the term in your original post. Why make a big deal about it now?
The point is, Isaiah 52-3 fits Jesus a lot closer than it fits anyone else you can name.
John #4: David: The point is, Isaiah 52-3 fits Jesus a lot closer than it fits anyone else you can name.
Not at all! The point is, Isaiah 52-3 fits Israel a lot closer than it fits anyone else you can name.
You do know about their history don't you?
Now here's the rub. If you read what I had initially said you see quite plainly that there is doubt about this. Come on and be reasonable. No hedging, fudging or making stuff up. An impartial reading of this passage in its context (did you read it?) would not lead anyone to see it as a prophecy about the Messiah, much less Jesus. Nor any of the Psalms.
David #4: "The point is, Isaiah 52-3 fits Israel a lot closer than it fits anyone else you can name."
I've already rebutted that, and you have not even tried to show where I'm wrong.
Again. First, almost nothing is more emphatic in the OT than that the Jewish people have gone away from God. This is even true of Isaiah, and even in this passage. But the Servant in this passage is "without deceit," and had "done no violence." That is the opposite of what the OT consistently says about Israel.
Second, the servant bares "our sins" and "our sorrows." Who is "us" if not Israel? How can Israel be depicted as a hero for baring its own sins? This makes no sense.
Third, not only is the Servant described in the singular -- which might, in theory, be considered allegorical -- but specific actions are ascribed to him that make no sense ascribed to the whole nation of Israel.
How can Israel "be with a rich man in his death?"
But really, the whole passage reads that way -- all of it sounds like it's talking about exactly one human being.
"An impartial reading of this passage in its context (did you read it?) would not lead anyone to see it as a prophecy about the Messiah, much less Jesus."
That's plainly untrue. Here, from Vera Schlamm, a Jewish Holocaust survivor:
"When I came to the chapter 53, it seemed so obvious that it was talking about Jesus that I thought, 'Well, this is a Christian translation, and they have slanted the text to sound that way.' So the following Friday night at Temple Emmanuel . . . I took the Scriptures from the pew . . . The wording was a little different -- but it still sounded like Jesus!"
I think anyone whose head has not been filled with contrary propaganda, will recognize Jesus in this passage immediately.
John #5: DM said "I've already rebutted that."
With an attitude like that it's no use arguing with you.
Read the relevant literature for yourself then. You will not listen to me.
David #5 (to Rob): That interpretation makes sense from Tom Wright's Hebrew-filial POV, but not from the text. Wright himself points out, in Jesus and the Victory of God, 590-591, that Jews generally found the text very confusing until Jesus made sense of it for the first Christians. They could only explain parts of it. "Indeed, the use of Isaiah 40-55 as a whole, and in its parts, seldom if ever in pre-Christian Judaism includes all those elements which later Christian theology brought together . . . "
David #6 (to John): I've read enough of the commentaries; they're all over the map. I'm surprised that you seem to want to make this an argument from authority, rather than talking about the actual text. Well, maybe not that surprised.
John #6: David, become informed. Think. Question. You have some spectacle on that I cannot remove. You don't believe me when I say this. You think it's about an argument over these texts. And you're confident you see these texts correctly. There is nothing I can say. Read Fitzmeyer. Read the Anchor Bible Dictionary entry and the relevant literature.
But most of all think. It's really not hard to do. The reason you defend these so-called prophecies is because you do not want to think the NT writers were wrong. That guides your thinking process. You cannot even entertain that they could be wrong.
I know enough to know I cannot convince you. Listen to the scholars on your side of the fence and see what happens. Do a serious investigation of all of the prophecies about Jesus.
The weight of the evidence will crush your faith eventually. But not now, not here not with me. I have better things to do.Let someone educate you whom you trust.
Rob #2: Let me say that I know of Wright's interpretation of this passage. I have read parts of his work and intend to get back to it. But let me say that this makes a lot of sense with the hybrid view:
But the Servant in this passage is "without deceit," and had "done no violence." That is the opposite of what the OT consistently says about Israel.
So let us grant that yes, this is indeed about Israel, and yet, this really doesn't match Israel. Thus Jesus does what Israel couldn't do. He fulfilled the role in Israel's place.
John, You're a religious scholar, David M is a religious scholar, It would make sense for you to tell a guy like me to go read the anchor bible commentary and then some, but it doesn't make sense to me for you to tell someone who, if he is not a biblical exegete may at least be as capable of you at analyzing the text to do the same when you could get into the details.
So why appeal to the authorities when you can dig into the thing itself?
John (to Rob) #7: Rob, the text says in three specific places that the servant is Israel. If that doesn't convince a "religious scholar" like David then nothing will. Why? Because the NT writers say differently, that's why.
What else is there to say here?
But the Servant in this passage is "without deceit," and had "done no violence." That is the opposite of what the OT consistently says about Israel.
So it surprises you that the Bible is inconsistent? Is such a thing a revelation you had never considered before?
And have you ever read some free verse poetry or listened to a pop song in today's world to make sense of every phrase in it? Sometimes it cannot be done.
In any case, it also says he did not "open his mouth" but was "silent" and talks of "his descendants" and "offspring" and that he went to "the grave" of the wicked.
Figurative or literal, eh? And why? Jesus was emphatically NOT silent at his trials.
Given the fact that the Israelites did not accept a general resurrection from the dead this could not refer to an individual. It was speaking metaphorically about a nation who had become a scapegoat, or a lesson to the other nations not to sin against Yahweh (and here we must consider the fact that the Babylonians were the scum of the earth compared to the Israelites such that compared to them the Jews were still a righteous chosen nation in the author's eyes). Surely the concept of a scapegoat was nothing new to you or to them. Only instead of a goat on the Day or Atonement is was the nation of Israel itself.
The text doesn't make complete sense but one thing I know is that it was about Israel.
The story of the crucifixion of Jesus was tailor made to fit the details of this prophecy not the other way around, anyway. THAT'S why is has the ring of truth to it. It's called prophecy historicized, and we see plenty evidence of this in the NT itself, especially from Matthew's gospel. Check out the story of Zechariah's prophecy about the Triumphant entry into Jerusalem by Jesus which is clearly a story made up given the way the four gospels treat it.
David #7 (to John #6): You've hardly answered an argument I've made in this thread. Telling me to read commentaries, when I've already read them, and found something different than you, rather than respond to the actual evidence in the actual text that undermines your interpretation, is not an answer. Scoffing at my intelligence, open-mindedness, or education, is not an answer.
I know this is largely what you do, and everyone has to have their gig. But that sort of response is like a hothouse flower: it may resonate with skeptics who flourish in a protected environment, but doesn't look healthy out in the cold, cruel world.
Get back to me when you want to respond to the textual evidence.
John #8: I did David. If you cannot see that I did then there is no way in hell you will see my points.
I was responding to Rob anyway since you are too far gone to see the nose on your face. I could point it out, take a picture of it, have you touch it, and you would still deny it exists even though you still use it to breathe.
Rob, however, even though we disagree is at least trying to be fair-minded about what is to be seen.
John #9: In other words David, you are brainwashed. I am smart enough to see the signs of it. It's written all over your face. I cannot reach you. So I'm not gonna try. It's a waste of time trying with some people. You are one such person. Wave your hand around all you want to. Claim victory. But you're losing the argument in front of fair-minded people. It's like the emperor who had no clothes on. You think you're dressed. You think you win debates and arguments. You boast about them. And you'll do so here as well.
Only you think so. You're naked as a jaybird.
So please, link here all you want to. Tell everyone to come read this. Please. It won't do your cause any good.
David #8: OK, John is finally trying to support his argument, at least to Rob.
"Rob, the text says in three specific places that the servant is Israel."
Where does it say that in Isaiah 52-53?
"If that doesn't convince a "religious scholar" like David then nothing will. Why? Because the NT writers say differently, that's why."
I have said nothing at all about NT interpretations. I've said repeatedly that it's Isaiah 53 itself that strikes me as being obviously about Jesus.
"So it surprises you that the Bible is inconsistent?"
But the issue here is whether Isaiah 52-3 is more consistent with (a) the "Israel" interpretation or (b) the "Jesus" interpretation. You can't throw out evidence that undermines your model because you argue, post hoc, that the whole Bible is inconsistent.
"In any case, it also says he did not "open his mouth" but was "silent" and talks of "his descendants" and "offspring" and that he went to "the grave" of the wicked."
Yes, and the Gospels say Jesus refused to answer his critics. His initial refusal to answer charges "amazed" Pilate (Mt. 27:12-15; Mk. 15:3-5).
It's true Isaiah is writing poetically, and a couple details do not precisely match the Gospel story. My claim was that it fits Jesus better than anyone else, not that the fit is perfect.
Of course one favored poetic device in the OT is parallelism, which may make the "grave with the wicked, death with the rich" reversal more apparent than real. But I concede it's not a perfect fit.
As resurrection, see Resurrection of the Son of God, especially the 3rd paragraph on 117, speaking of Isaiah 26. "The original Hebrew refers literally to bodily resurrection, and this is certainly how the verse is taken in the LXX and at Qumram."
In any case, of course by hypothesis, a prophet can transcend what his culture knows.
"The story of the crucifixion of Jesus was tailor made to fit the details of this prophecy not the other way around, anyway. THAT'S why is has the ring of truth to it."
Heh. That's the inevitable fallback position. I don't think it's very plausible, but it implicitly admits my original point, which is good enough for now.
David #9 (quoting Loftus)"You are too far gone to see the nose on your face . . . you are brainwashed. I am smart enough to see the signs of it . . . It's a waste of time trying with some people. You are one such person . . . like the emperor who had no clothes on . . . You're naked as a jaybird."
ROFL! That's why we keep you on the payroll, John.
Little secret: I answer posts sequentially. I hadn't gotten to the post where you finally tried to offer a little evidence, still less could I be deluding myself by pretending to ignore the supposed cogency and overwhelming intellectual force of that evidence.
Nice try, though. Just out of curiosity: when you do debates, do you all your arguments in your closing statement?
David #10: Let's consider further John's claim that the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-3 is Israel.
John offered two arguments for this view: the context of the Suffering Servant passages, from which he cited Isaiah 49, and an argument from the authority of OT scholars.
(1) Isaiah 49:3 does, at first glance, seem to affirm John's interpretation:
"He said to me, 'You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
Seems pretty straightforward, right? Read on, and not so:
"5. But now the Lord, who formed me from my birth to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to Him and that Israel might be gathered for Him . . . He says, 'It is too light a thing that you should be My servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
If this servant IS Israel, how can the servant be called to "raise up" and "preserve" the people of Judah and Israel? (And then the world?)
One can suppose, as Loftus suggests, that the poet is simply clumsy, and can't help contradicting himself. But the most obvious thing about this poet is that he is a genius. This is some of the most magnificant poetry in all literature. It's not likely he just can't keep his story straight. What is far more likely that just as the name "Israel" was a person given to a nation, here again it refers to some representative Person.
In any case, "Israel" doesn't fit, both for reasons already given, and for reasons I'll mention below.
I'll deal with John's other argument, his argument from authority, in the next post.
David #11: John cites two authorities in the attempt to support his claim that Isaiah 52-3 refers to Israel, not to Jesus. He also tells me to "listen to scholars on your side of the fence," and warns that when I do, my faith will eventually be "crushed."
The odd thing about his two appeals to authority, is that one of his sources doesn't seem to support him! Nothing he quotes from Joseph Fitzmyer actually says either than this passage refers to Israel, or that it is not in some sense a prophecy about Jesus. He appears instead to be making a technical point about whether it speaks of the "Messiah."
John's second source is the Anchor Bible Dictionary, scholar unspecified, and what looks like a pretty loose comment.
I've gone through this argument before, with a philosophy prof from the Midwest, so I had a pretty good idea what commentators say about this passage. But to refresh my memory, I followed John's advice, and looked through commentaries on Isaiah in the main library at a major West coast university.
In the time I had available, I dug out opinions on this issue from eight commentaries: four Medeival Jews, one modern liberal or skeptic, two evangelicals, and one probable Christian. (Publishers: Peter Lang, Cambridge U, New Century, IVP, Moody)
Of those eight scholars, not a single one agree with the Loftus-Anchor interpretation.
The most skeptical was by RN Whybray, who seemed offended by the idea the Suffering Servant was Jesus, and argued the author was writing about himself. He argued in his commentary on earlier passages already "that the servant . . . cannot be Israel."
The Medieval Jews were quite conflicted over how to interpret the passage. One, Saadia, said it was Jeremiah, or perhaps the prophets collectively, or perhaps Abraham. It was all rather vague. A Jew belonging to another school dismissed that view with contempt, but with no real argument. Obviously Jeremiah doesn't fit, though. A couple Jewish scholars of another school therefore claimed the Servant will come in the future -- obviously very much connecting him to the Messiah -- but simply flipping the stuff about sacrificial atonement on its head, and having the Messiah kill rich criminals.
This also is interesting because it treats "the rich" and "criminals" as parallelism, as I noted above.
The two evangelicals see Jesus writ large not only in 52-53, but in that whole section of Isaiah. I didn't have time to read too much, but they seem to give excellent reasons. Their books are called "Songs of Servant" (Henri Blocher) and "The Servant Songs: A Study in Isaiah;" will have to read more later.
So thanks, John, for the stimulating challenges.
These passages amaze me every time I read them, and fair reading of the scholarship doesn't seem to lessen the effect one whit. Certainly scholarship seems, so far, to help the "Jesus hypothesis" more than the "Israel hypothesis."
John #10: David Marshall, I agree with Arizona Atheist who wrote about you saying, "Never one to concede defeat even when all the evidence is against him, Marshall appears to be eager to be made a fool of again...[and again, and again].
Authorities? What are they? Who are they? Who knows? Who cares? I did not use them as authorities but scholars in their own right who make the case for me. Why should I have to make that case here? Is it people cannot do the requisite amount of research...that I must spend an hour typing in their arguments here? Bullshit. I already di so anyway.
Here's the problem. If the evidence does not convince Jews nor at least some Christians, then would you be so kind O wise one to tell me why the evidence should convince non-believers,including Buddhists, Hindu's?
Since I agree with Arizona Atheist about you and since I have already spent more time on you than you deserve, and since I have more productive things to do than argue with a person like you who will never concede even the smallest of detail, I'm not bothering.
David #12 (to John): Heh. (A) I pointed out three fatal exegetical flaws in your interpretation of Isaiah 52-3.
(B) I then showed that the way you presented the state of the scholarly argument is phony. Most scholars do NOT seem to agree with your interpretation of Isaiah 52-3. At least, I offered a larger sample than you did, NONE of whom agreed with you.
(C) I also showed that in context, your main defeater, 49:3, cannot refer to Israel -- as even many non-Christian scholars seem to recognize for the passage as a whole.
You respond by pretending (against B) that scholars are really all on your side, and by citing -- get this -- Arizona Atheist? (aka "Gifted Writer" aka "Angry Atheist" aka Ken?) A guy who, when confronted (not just by me) with the absurdity of his arguments, those he is willing to show, that is, laspses into fantasies about the death of his opponent, pornographical posts, and obscurity of the kind we all know and love -- I'm right because no one is going to follow me to THIS web site and prove me wrong?
Brilliant, John. I wasn't honestly expecting a great argument from you, but your response still kind of surprises me.
David #13: By the way, your claim that I "will not concede even the smallest detail" is also nakedly and plainly false.
In one of my last posts, for instance, I conceded that on the face of it, 49:3 seems to support your reading of the Servant Songs.
I also conceded that some passages in Isaiah 52-3 do not easily fit my model.
You seem to be projecting your own unwillingness to see or admit the gaping holes in your argument.
John #12: Rob, what more need I say?
Really? What is there about my response that I left out and needs further explanation?
And where did David say anything about the Psalms as prophecy? They are clearly not prophetic! So rather than say anything about that all I got was silence.
Silence. Crickets chirping.
Oh but wait, here comes David now, and without even attempting to answer why anyone who is not already a believer should think Isaiah 52-53 is about Jesus maybe he'll proof text and proclaim victory again.
This is not the kind of person that can be reached by reason and evidence.
Imagine this scenario: David is evangelizing and the potential convert asks me what I think. I share it. On this issue is there any doubt but that the potential convert will not be persuaded by David?
That's the point. That's why we need an Outsider Test.
David #14: Here's a brief account of elements in Isaiah 52-53 that fit or do not fit Jesus.
(1) The context (52:7) is "good news" announcing peace.
(2) This is a universal peace, "the Lord has bared his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, that all the ends of the earth may see the salvation of our God." (52:10)
(3) The servant will be "greatly exalted." (52:13)
(4) Paradoxically, his appearance wil also be "marred more than any man." (52:14) (One should take this as OT hyperbole, meaning, "really messed up.")
(5) He will "sprinkle many nations," referring to some sort of redemptive activity, like substitutionary sacrifice in which blood was sprinkled on the tribes. (52:15)
(6) Because of the servant, "kings" will learn something they didn't know before, presumably about the work of God. (52:15)
(7) The Servant was "despised and rejected," and "we" (presumably the Jewish people) did not esteem him. (53:3)
(8) He would thought to be punished by God. (53:4)
(9) But in reality he would bare "our" griefs and sorrows. (Note the parallelism, relevent to below.) This is the main theme of the passage, and is repeated many times, in striking rhetoric. Some overlap with (5).
(10) He was "pierced" and "crushed for sin . . . some commentators say this implies a violent death. (53:5) "He was cut off from the land of the living." (53: 8) Makes it clear that the violence did in fact end in death.
(11) He "did not open his mouth." (53:7) (Again, this is not a perfect parallel -- Jesus refused to answer at one stage of his trial, but later talked to Pilate.)
(12) "He had done no violence, nor was their any deceit in his mouth." (53:9) Both literally and in an expanded, figurative sense, true of Jesus. Aside from chasing money-changers from the temple, Jesus refused to take up arms -- unlike most OT heroes. He was truthful. He was also "innocent" and "holy" in a deeper sense.
(13) The pair "His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet he was with a rich man in his death" may count either way. Isaiah is using a lot of parallelism, and it is probably fair to take this enigmatic pair in the same way -- his death involved both a rich man and wicked men. Some commentators put the two together -- a rich, wicked man. Of course the exact wording reverses the NT description. Which makes one wonder: if the Gospel writers were making up facts to force parallels, why didn't they make Joseph a rich sinner? Anyway, a strong but imperfect parallel.
(14) "He will see the light of life." (Dead Sea Scrolls.) Clearly suggests resurrection after death.
Does not quite fit:
(1) Rich man, sinner, see above.
(2) Booty with the strong? (53:12) Sounds like a tribal warlord after a battle. Probably just a poetic way of saying, "He will be richly rewarded for his suffering." As the NT says, "For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross."
All in all, the parallels are deep, unique, and astounding. The differences are trivial and poetic. Again, I challenge anyone to find someone whom this passage describes better than Jesus. Israel obviously won't do, nor will Jeremiah.