Friday, April 8, 2011

Suffering Servant, Suffering Truth

When the Centurion personally came to ask Jesus for help (according to Matthew), or when the Centurion sent many people in his place to ask Jesus for help (according to Luke), Jesus performed a long-distance healing on the Centurion's servant. Maybe next, Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree on what happens after that, to a certain extent.

Suffering Servant, Suffering Truth
Psychology tells us that, when it comes to beliefs and the discernment of truth, our own brains often work against us. We tend to remember only what aligns with our beliefs, and interpret data in such a way that we will often ignore contradictory evidence. It is called confirmation bias, and it is, perhaps, the largest hurdle we face when looking for the truth about something in cases when we already have a preconceived notion of what that truth is. For example, let us look at a classic case right from the Bible.

After healing Simon/Peter's mother-in-law, Jesus healed many sick and demon-possessed people (Matthew 8:16-17, Mark 1:32-34, Luke 4:40-41). Mark and Luke both record that Jesus forbade the demons from speaking, in order to again play the role of undercover exorcist. Matthew's account skips that silencing, and instead opts to include a different detail. In Matthew 8:17 we read:
This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
"He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases." NIV
That is what Isaiah said? And Isaiah is a prophet... Well then, it must be in a prophesy about Jesus! This quotation comes from Isaiah 53:4.

Take a moment to read through Isaiah 53. It is a short, twelve verse chapter, so it will not take you long. If you are at all familiar with the story of Jesus, you might be amazed. It does, indeed, appear to be about Jesus! However, I think this is a trick of your mind is playing on you, confirmation bias, because not everything lines up so well under closer scrutiny.

Take Isaiah 53:3, for example:
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. NIV
Men, in general, did not despise and reject Jesus. The Pharisees? Sure, they often did, but that is a pretty small subset of men. In Scripture, you find large groups of people following Jesus around (of the 171 times the Bible mentions crowds, 127 times are in the Gospels) and esteeming Jesus (such as Luke 7:6, Luke 7:45-46) much more so than men despising and hiding their faces from Jesus. Everybody wanted to be around this guy, which is quite the opposite of the Isaiah 53:3 image. Plus, Isaiah 53:3 says that this was a man of sorrows, portraying someone who lived a life of suffering, not just some climactic suffering at the end.

Even the verse Matthew quotes here is not quite applicable. Isaiah 53:4 says that this person “took up” the infirmities and diseases of the people. This is not saying that he removed these infirmities, but rather that he suffered those same infirmities and diseases, which is implicitly part of why he was called a man of sorrows in the previous verse. Yet Matthew quotes this verse as if it was intended to mean that Jesus removed the infirmities and diseases of the people. Matthew got it wrong.

There are several other clues in Isaiah 53 which suggest the Christian interpretation is wrong, but for the sake of brevity I will skip the rest unless further questioned. Yet there is one more we should cover, one which is even more condemning.

Isaiah 53:12 begins by saying that God will give this suffering servant “a portion among the great.” Yet according the Bible, God is giving Jesus the entire Kingdom, not just a portion (Matthew 28:18). You have got to pay attention to these types of details if you want to arrive at the truth.

So who is/was this suffering servant? There are other clues. This is one of (at least) four “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah 42, Isaiah 49, Isaiah 50, and Isaiah 53 all mention this unnamed servant. Often, the servant is portrayed as being loyal to God, suffering unjustly, and later receiving some reward. Obviously, Christianity views these prophesies to be about Jesus. The traditional Jewish view is that this “servant” is actually a metaphor for the Israelites themselves, which is explicitly claimed in Isaiah 49:3 in a way. Other Jewish interpretations have focused on particular prophets or rulers. I think they may all miss the mark.

Based on what I see in the servant songs, I think the traditional Jewish interpretation is closest. To me, this suffering servant was meant to specifically represent the exiled Israelites who had remained completely faithful to God. When you read the curses which were to fall on the Israelites for their falling away from God, it is clear that the relatively few innocent Israelites would have suffered right along with the guilty, including with various diseases and plagues. They would have been oppressed. Some would have been slain in war. The remainder would have been scattered in exile.

From that theory, all of the verses seem to line up into place. For example, Isaiah 42:4, where it says that the servant will not be discouraged, and in his law (which would be God's Law) the islands will put their hope. The islands being the little pockets of Israelites scattered in exile amongst the Gentiles.

God promised that He would gather the exile-scattered Israelites back to their nation. This was how these God-faithful microcosms were going to be a light for the Gentiles, showing them that the Israelite God was the real God when the Israelites returned from these Gentile nations into their homeland, which aligns perfectly with Isaiah 49:6.

This is just skimming the surface of some really deep prophesy study. Yet even at this level, it is clear that Christianity has attempted to use some of the more-vague prophesies to promote their own brand of faith. To the casual observer, it is concrete evidence for Christianity, but to those willing to do some deeper research, and to those willing and able to consider each and every detail instead of glossing over the ones which do not agree, it is just more evidence of fiction.


  1. I wonder if you can tell me, what level of cultural/religious significance was given to the suffering servant theme in 1st century judaism? Is there evidence that the passage(s) was/were commonly linked to any kind of messianic expectation?
    Given the above, do you think that Jesus (assuming he existed) might have self identified with the suffering servant? And that he might have applied/appropriate the motif and it's cultural symbolism in some way?

  2. That's a very good question, phil_style. I have not researched that aspect specifically. However, I can tell you that many of the OT prophets gave prophesies which concerned the return from exile of the Israelites, and that a subset of these prophesies said that after they got back from their exile, the Israelites would live in peace and worship God and live happily ever after.

    As you know, that's not how it worked out. ;-) Given that some of these prophesies had very vague or unclear wordings, I think it was only natural for people to start believing that there were other meanings, and that it was still possible that someday a Messiah would come. Around the time when Jesus supposedly showed up, there had already been some men who claimed to be the Messiah or who others thought them to be the Messiah.

    I'm still on the fence as to whether or not there was a real guy called Jesus who served as the initiator of this who thing, but I am leaning towards the direction that there was. If so, he was nowhere near as popular as the Gospels make him out to be, and probably most of the content ascribed to him isn't accurate.

    However, the people who supported this movement, the brains behind the operation, latched on to specific vague prophesies, like Isaiah 53, and even Scripture which was not prophesy, like Psalm 22, in order to support a case that the Jesus they preached about was the Messiah. But with the modern accessibility of the Scripture for cross-reference, it becomes obvious pretty quickly that such tie-ins are forgeries.

    1. TWF:

      On the point of the association of Isaiah 53, several Talmudic texts do link it to Messianic expectations in divergent manners. For example, one interprets the Messiah, conceived as a living individual hidden away somewhere, as literally bearing the sickness of Israel.

      That said a more germane text would be the Targum Jonathon, attributed to the 1st-century BC disciple of Hillel the Elder, Jonathon ben Uzziel. The relevant text (Is. 52:13-53:13).

      13 Behold, my servant the Messiah shall prosper, He shall be exalted and extolled, and He shall be very strong.

      14 As the house of Israel anxiously hoped5 for Him many days, (which was poor6 among the nations; their appearance and their brightness being worse than that of the sons of men:)

      » vap , which answers to the Hebrew JTip , in the Piel.

      6 The idea of "darkness," or "obscurity," both in the Hebrew and Chaldee, often expresses "misery," or "wretchedness," "poverty ; " comp. Prov. xxii. 29.

      15 Thus shall He scatter7 many nations; before Him kings shall keep silence: they shall put their hands upon their mouths, for that which had not been told them shall they see: and that which they had not heard shall they consider.

      Chapter LIII.

      1 Who hath believed this our report? and to whom is now1 the power of the arm of the Lord revealed?

      2 The righteous shall be great before Him, behold, like branches that bud; and like a tree which sends forth its roots by the streams of water, thus shall the generation of the just multiply in the land, which hath need of Him.2

      3 His visage shall not be the visage of a common person, neither His fear the fear of a plebeian ;3

      7 "Thus shall He scatter," &c; i.e., "in the same proportion as their hope for a Messiah of temporal greatness was ardent, in the same proportion shall their expectation be answered." From this paraphrase we see, how early the idea of the temporal greatness of the Messiah's kingdom obtained an ascendency over the expectation of a spiritual kingdom. Both ideas were correct according to the Word of God; only, that the latter was of necessity to precede the fulfilment of the former. As it regards the collocation of both the 14th and 15th verses, we must notice the parenthesis, inasmuch as ]3 depends upon N£3 .

      1 The Royal Polyglot reads P*!, "this.""

      2 The Biblia Magna divides the second verse in two; thus has this chapter of the paraphrase 13 verses.

      3 Literally, tsi^n, ifowrije, "an idiot," expressing a person of low birth.

      but a holy brightness shall be His brightness, that every one who seeth Him shall contemplate Him.4

      4 Although He shall be in contempt; yet He shall cut off the glory of all the wicked,5 they shall be weak and wretched. Lo, we are in contempt and not esteemed, as a man of pain and appointed to sickness, and as if He had removed the face of His Shekinah from us.

      5 Therefore He shall pray for our sins, and our iniquities for His sake shall be forgiven us; for we are considered crushed, smitten of the Lord, and afflicted.

      6 He shall build the house of the sanctuary,6 which has been profaned on account of our sins; He was delivered over on account of our iniquities, and through His doctrine peace shall be multiplied upon us, and through the teaching of His words our sins shall be forgiven us.7

      7 All we like sheep have been scattered, every one of us has turned to his own way; it pleased the Lord8 to forgive the sins of all of us for His sake.

      8 He shall pray and He shall be answered, yea, before He shall open His mouth, He shall be heard; He shall deliver over the mighty of the nations as a lamb to the slaughter, and like a

      4 Or, "consider," "meditate upon him." 8 Tho Royal Polyglot reads N/T^» , "kingdoms." • The Royal Polyglot reads "our sanctuary." 'Buxtorf and Walton read rPSa-pl., from D12, "to pray," "when we shall pray." 8 Literally, "it shall be the pleasure of the Lord."


    2. sheep before her shearers is dumb, none shall in His presence open his mouth, or speak a word.

      9 He shall gather our captives9 from affliction and pain, and who shall be able to narrate the wonderful works which shall be done for us in His days? He shall remove the rule of the nations from the land of Israel, the sins which my people have committed10 have come upon them.

      10 And He shall deliver the wicked into hell, and the riches of treasures which they got by violence unto the death of Abaddon,11 that they who commit sin shall not remain, and that they should not speak folly12 with their mouth.

      11 And it was the pleasure of the Lord to refine and to purify the remnant of His people, in order to cleanse their souls from sin, that they might see the kingdom of their Messiah, that their sons and daughters might multiply, and prolong their days, and those that keep13 the law of the Lord shall prosper through His pleasure.

      12 He shall deliver their souls from the servitude of the nations, they shall see the vengeance upon their enemies; they shall be satisfied with the spoil of their kings. By His wisdom He shall justify the righteous, in order to make many to keep u the law, and He shall pray for their sins.

      'Literally, "captivity," the abstract for the concrete.

      10 Literally, "have sinned."

      11 Literally, "destruction," compare Rev. ix. 11.

      12 Other copies read ]v?3 , " guile," as the same paraphrast renders IIB^a , in Jer. v. 27.

      13 Literally, "to do." i* Idem.

      13 Therefore I will divide to Him the spoil of many people, and the treasures of strong fortifications; He shall divide the spoil; because He has delivered His life unto death, and He shall make the rebellious to keep15 the law; He shall pray for the sins of many, and as for the transgressors, each shall be pardoned for His sake.

      And a link to a relevant text (

      There are several qualities in common with the Christian interpretation including the idea that Isaiah 53 being a broadly Messianic text, the Messiah having divine qualities (indicated by the use of the term Shekinah which is often used in reference to the presence of God), having the Messiah intercessor (albeit, only for Israel), being despised (albeit by the nations), and seeming to retain the idea that the main figure dies. The brunt of the suffering, however, is placed on the nations and on Israel (until their suffering is shifted to the nations).

      The divergences from the Christian interpretation, as well as the actual words of the text in both the Hebrew and LXX translation, are obvious. I think, however, that this demonstrates the text was understood to be Messianic with the alternative applications being explainable by impressing an alternative view of the Messiah over the text. In regards to the Israel-based interpretation, the first indication that it had some current among the Jewish people is in the Christian Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho.

      Also a wiki link with more links:

      The Targum Jonathon additionally appears to lead credence to a plural divine figure consisting of God and his Word to a greater extent than the Targum Onkelos. Thanks ahead of time for responding, and thanks for all of your prior responses. Hope all goes well with you.

    3. P.S.

      Here's a link to an essay (Christian Author) concerned with this text: Definitely too long to quote it toto although divided up into sections. Also includes some dissection of possible allusions from Dead Sea texts indicating a Messianic (or at least individual) interpretation. The LXX also may weigh towards the individual view, however, it mostly reads like a somewhat terser version of the Hebrew. A link here to the version of the LXX I typically reference for any of your future discussions as well as this one if you wished to look:

      Thanks for putting up with my multiple posts.

  3. Hello again, Felix!

    Thanks for the comments! I haven't dug much into the Talmud, so I appreciate the information.

    Unfortunately, you have impeccable timing, in that my work schedule is going to get super-hectic again starting tomorrow, and even weekends don't stop the pace. So tonight I need to spend time with my family. I hope to have considered the information in your comments, and to have a response for you sometime late Saturday, but it may lag a day or so beyond that.

    Best wishes to you.

  4. TWF:

    Sorry about my timing. May all go well with you and your family.

  5. TWF:

    Sorry, actually not sure about the Trypho thing.

  6. Hello Felix,

    Ah, the Talmudic texts. Sometimes, their even more of a mystery than the Bible itself! :-)

    I hope my reply here doesn't come off as a broad scale dismissing of the Talmudic text you've quoted, and, in general, the suggesting of the Jewish Messiah being suggested in these texts, but please allow me to explain why I don't feel that they are necessarily valid defenses to that position, regardless of the various Jewish/Christian differences.

    First, a weak point, but important to remember, is that tradition is not always right. Martin Luther had a good reason for kicking off the Protestant revolution. That naturally implies that just because it's a traditional Jewish view doesn't make it right either. Even Jesus would agree with me there. ;-)

    Next, Isaiah 53 is in a section of Isaiah which research suggests was written while in Exile (and possibly not written by Isaiah, but that's another story). While it certainly is possible that this section of the prophesy was meant to portray an event hundreds of years in the future, it may not have been read that way at that time. I would posit that if the prophesy could be read as pertaining to the given circumstances, then people would be inclined to believe that it was for them specifically. In fact, as I think you have seen in my study, Isaiah 53 - Anatomy of a Prophesy, there is a way to read the prophesy having contemporaneous meaning to that time. As such, I am inclined to believe that that is the correct, original interpretation (generally speaking, not my interpretation specifically).

    Isaiah 53 is associated with 54, and speaks of resettling Israel, and God essentially making that nation invulnerable.

    Obviously, from our vantage point, and the view of 1 BC, or even 2 or 3 BC, this never came to full fruition. That creates a problem for those who would like to believe the prophecy as coming from God. So what can one do when the words are already written? The only solution, then, is to change the interpretation. So I posit, by necessity, the prophesies were reconsidered and reinterpreted. The "Servant" metaphor was very compliant to a different interpretation, if you recast the very limited times when the Servant was explicitly defined as Israelites to being specific cases, not general cases. And, if the prophesies hadn't already happened, then, clearly the logical interpretation was that it was a promise of things still yet to come. Detached from the historical grounding, a Messiah figure is just as likely an interpretation as a small subset of the faithful, if not more so.

    Whether or not they were coming closer to the true meaning or simply fooling themselves is, of course, the crux of the debate here.

    I dare say that even Christianity has had some similar reinterpretations-by-necessity through the years as well. One of my favorites is how in Revelations, Jesus coming quickly has been interpreted as "suddenly/unexpectedly", as opposed to "soon".

    1. TWF:

      I'm fairly certain there is considerable support for that reading. Especially based on the emphasis on suddenness in various parables of Christ, even when a delay is mentioned as part of it. Plus, some of the letters reference to events that will happen in later times (e.g. "the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith" 1 Timothy 4.1) which seem to indicate a more distant end.

    2. TWF:

      On this point, I think I should link to two pages of Strong's Concordance:
      ( on the word ταχύ (tachu)
      and this one entry here: on the word ταχύς (tachus)
      It seems that the best reading based on these two would be "promptly", which I think gives some explanation why Peter states that God is not delaying:
      That is to say, he is not being prompt. While prompt can give the idea of "soon" it is not necessary. It might also be possible to argue from some "soon" texts that it is recognized the end is not yet, such as 1 John, where he states "even now" which would seem to indicate it's not quite the time for the end of the world. It might also be possible to contrast John's reference to the "last times" from the "last time".
      For what it's worth, the term "hóra" seems like it fits into the generic form of speaking of a period of time.

      It, of course, is also possible the destruction of a latter temple is had in view. Mind you I'm partially basing this on the lack of false prophets casting down fire from the heaven in the late first century. It's clear something more is had in view, especially since it's stated that "there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be" (Mark 13.19, ESV).

      May all be well with you,
      Felix Zamora

      May all be well with you,
      Felix Zamora

    3. TWF:

      I might add 2 Thessalonians:

      Sorry for all the replies,
      Felix Zamora

  7. TWF:

    "I hope my reply here doesn't come off as a broad scale dismissing of the Talmudic text you've quoted,..."

    I am fairly certain the text I quoted is believed to be pre-Talmudic, although I did refer to Talmudic interpretations in my comments.

    Thank you for responding.

  8. TWF:

    Well, a short article, I suppose, arguing for a unified Isaiah:

  9. Hi Felix,

    Thanks for the comments. You said:

    "I am fairly certain the text I quoted is believed to be pre-Talmudic, although I did refer to Talmudic interpretations in my comments."

    I don't want to get too bogged down into the specific time in which the quoted text originated. However, my point is that it originated after it would have been known that there was no divine security (per the prophesies) provided after the Israelites had returned from Exile. This lack of fruition would have been the impetus for alternate interpretations.

    In other words, I would never expect to find any Jewish (or Christian for that matter) interpretation which matches mine (except in the general sense of the alternate "servant" being people, not a person) because the timeline in my interpretation has already drawn to a close without the prophesy being fully realized.

    Furthermore, I am not surprised to see the Talmudic text (whatever its origin) support the idea that this Servant was a Messianic prophesy. I even implied that in the response I gave to phil_style above.

    Now, that does possibly make me more likely to make a mistake in interpretation, because I am not relying on other people's interpretations, but rather letting the text itself guide me. However, having examined the many prophesies in the Bible, I... well, let's just say that I am comfortable being out on my own like that. I wish I had the time to discuss it all in great detail with you!

    Oh, and thanks for the link on Isaiah. I've tried not to worry too much about the authorship and other details in my studies, preferring to just take the Biblical text at its word. So one or three or three hundred authors doesn't matter to me. By the way, the author of the article made an error; Zechariah 10:2 and 13:2 both mention idolatry.

    Best wishes.

  10. TWF:

    That the author mentioned that as a point in their favor is interesting, especially since Ezra-Nehemiah seems to imply that idolatry was still an issue at the time based on the incidence of the mass divorce.

    There is also the issue of the "improper" spelling of David in Hebrew which would seem to indicate a pre-exilic finalization. In the Persian period a differing spelling of the name overtook it.

    Dating is important, however. For example, if the book is indeed a unity written by Isaiah around the time of Hezekiah, then the prophecy where God calls out Cyrus as a coming savior to the Jews is valid and would demonstrate the prophetic nature of the text.

  11. TWF:

    Sorry, did my "Cyrus" comment go through?

  12. TWF:

    It should also be mentioned that Isaiah would have been prophesying that Babylon would be the enemy to bring destruction upon Judah would have a definite prophetic nature at the time of Hezekiah's reign as Assyria dominated the land of Babylon at the time: "Throughout the duration of the Neo Assyrian Empire (911–608 BC) Babylonia was under constant Assyrian domination or direct control." (Wikipedia)

  13. TWF:

    Sorry, did you get my extra comments? Sorry if I distracted you with other pages. Feel free to cull this comment when you get to it.

    Felix Zamora

  14. Hi Felix,

    I'm sorry if I gave you the wrong impression. Certainly dating of the Scriptures is important, especially due to the prophetic nature, as you note. My dismissing of precise dating was limited to the dating of the origins of the Targum Jonathon, as that was surely after the prophetic timeline. Sorry for the confusion! :-)

    Thanks for the note on Isaiah. Indeed, if Isaiah was penned in the appropriate time, it was a prophetic tome of some accuracy.

    I'm almost caught up!

    Best wishes to you,

  15. TWF:

    Well then, what do you think. The use of the "imperfect" spelling of David implies that the text if pre-exilic, and that the text appears to be one work based on the better lines of evidence offered in the article that Isaiah is a unity with a single composer, and also, perhaps, that when discussing authorship only individual composers appear to be in view by scholars on the prophetic books thus hinting against a composition by a collective, it appears that the naming of Cyrus in the latter portion of Isaiah is prophetic. This would appear to validate the idea of the Book of Isaiah as "divinely-inspired" in some sense.

    May all be well with you,
    Felix Zamora

  16. Hi Felix,

    Honestly, I haven't considered that question too deeply, but I'll take quick guess at it, one which will embarrass me, I'm sure! :-)

    If I were trying to forge a document to pass it off as someone else's work, I would try to copy their speech patterns, including using similar figures of speech and similar themes. I'd also try to be sure that my language matched the time frame that the emulated person was from. For example, If I was writing for a 1980's surfer, I might include "tubular", "radical", and "gnarly". And, if I was writing for a pre-Exilic prophet, I'd try to make sure that the spelling of David matched what would have been used in that time, which wouldn't have been that difficult, had I access to Scripture. Surely anyone trying to write their own Scriptures were very likely to have such access to existing Scripture. So any common language shared across all the chapters of Isaiah is easily explained simply by the subsequent author(s) "doing his homework" on Isaiah.

    When I read a comment like this from the linked article "It should be noted, though, that, in harmony with his intended purpose, Isaiah sometimes thrusts himself forward in spirit to the time of the captivity to give emphasis to his message.", I can't help think to myself that it would also be possible for an author to "thrust" himself back in time to portray events which have already happened. Without supernatural powers, that is certainly the easier option! ;-)

    I also get a kick out of a statement like "For nearly twenty-five centuries no one dreamt of doubting that Isaiah, the son of Amoz, was the author of every part of the book that goes under his name” How long was it that people were under the belief that the Earth was the center of the universe? The length of time a belief is held is not a good measure of its veracity.

    ... continued below...

  17. ... continued from above...
    The best evidence presented in that article for a single Isaiah author (in my opinion) is the fact that there are the "prophetic" verses in the early chapters which speak of a return of a remnant, suggesting that the same person (Isaiah) knew about the return from early on. Yet in reality, that doesn't provide any proof of the authenticity of the later chapters. All it offers is that Isaiah may have indeed made a valid prophesy.

    Yet, as I think of it, such a prophesy wouldn't be that hard for a faithful Israelite to make. After all, according the Scripture, God gave the Promised Land to the Israelites forever. The Exile was clearly a punishment, kicking them out of the Promised Land, but, if you believe God's promise, the Promised Land still belonged to the Israelites, despite their temporal Exile. So they were bound to come back and reclaim the land at some time. And the idea of a remnant? I think it would have been clear to Isaiah and others at the time that war was imminent, and with it would naturally come considerable loss of lives.

    So, for a thinking, God-fearing, Scripturally knowledgeable man, I don't think it would have been that hard to make such a forecast.

    Naturally, it is impossible for me to say with any level of surety that it happened just as I described it above. There could have been some kind of divine intervention which gave Isaiah all of these prophesies. All I am saying here is that the scope of Isaiah does not appear to be beyond any reasonable, non-divine explanation.

    Best wishes to you!