Does the Servant in Isaiah 53 refer to the messiah? There are two reasons I’m raising this question today. In Bart Ehrman’s new book, Did Jesus Exist?, he addresses this issue briefly. Part of what makes the story of Jesus real, Ehrman claims, is the fact that he was a “crucified messiah” and this was something that no one would have made up. He states,

“Since no one would have made up the idea of a crucified messiah, Jesus must have really existed, must really have been raised messianic expectations, and must really have been crucified. No Jew would have invented him. And it is important to remember that Jews were saying that Jesus was the crucified messiah in the early 30s.” (164)

Ehrman further states that the Jews during this time period did not expect the messiah to suffer and die. He says when he brings this up in class some of his conservative students will quote Isaiah 53 and they give him a smug smile and say, “See! The messiah was predicted to suffer!” (165) In response to this smugness Ehrman asks these students to show him “where in the passage the word messiah occurs.” (165) He continues,

“In Isaiah 53, for example, the sufferer is called not the ‘messiah’ but the ‘servant of the Lord,’ and the passage speaks about the sufferings in the past tense, as something that has already happened at the time of writing (six hundred years before Jesus). As interpreters have long noted, if read in context, the author tells us who the servant of the Lord is. In Isaiah 49:3 the prophet declares, ‘And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified. It is Israel who is God’s servant, who has suffered for the sins of the people and so brought healing. . . He is not talking about the future messiah.” (166)

But I think Ehrman moves a bit too fast here. Michael Brown responds to this very objection in his book Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus (Vol. 3). He writes,

“How do we explain the fact that the servant is called Israel in Isaiah 49:3 if, in fact, the text is speaking of an individual rather than the nation? This is actually not just a ‘Christian’ problem, since the three leading medieval Jewish commentators interpret the servant of Isaiah of Isaiah 49 as referring to an individual (namely, the prophet) rather than to the nation.” (44)

He further states,

“The ancient rabbis—traditional Judaism’s most authoritative sources—almost always interpreted Isaiah 53 with reference to an individual rather than to Israel as a whole or to the righteous within Israel, and this individual was most commonly interpreted to the Messiah.” (60)

And finally,

“Noteworthy also is the oft-quoted comment by Rabbi Moshe Alshech, writing in the sixteenth century, ‘Our rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view.’” (49)

So Ehrman is misleading his students by suggesting that a messianic interpretation is not possible simply because the word “messiah” does not appear in the text. Christians are not alone in interpreting the passage as messianic.

My second reason for raising the question is to let you know about a newly released book from Kregel, The Gospel According to Isaiah 53 edited by Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser. This is a book I’ve been anxiously awaiting and I’m so glad to see it finally reach our shelves. Michael Brown is the author of a chapter entitled The Jewish Interpretations of Isaiah 53. The 53rd chapter of Isaiah is a fascinating chapter and I’m told it is among the most difficult to translate. This volume won’t answer all our questions or even address every difficulty but I’m sure it will go a long way to answering some of our most pressing questions.  Here’s the table of contents:

Part 1: Interpretations of Isaiah 53

1. Christian Interpretations of Isaiah 53

Richard E. Averbeck

2. Jewish Interpretations of Isaiah 53

Michael L. Brown

Part 2: Isaiah 53 in Biblical Theology

3. The Identity and Mission of the “Servant of the Lord”

Walter C. Kaiser Jr.

4. Isaiah 53 in the Four Gospels

Michael J. Wilkins

5. Isaiah 53 in the Book of Acts

Darrell L. Bock

6. Isaiah 53 in the Letters of Peter, Paul, and John

Craig A. Evans

7. Substitutionary Atonement and Cultic Terminology in Isaiah 53

David L. Allen

8. Forgiveness and Salvation in Isaiah 53

Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

Part 3: Isaiah 53 and Practical Theology

9. Postmodern Themes from Isaiah 53

John S. Feinberg

10. Using Isaiah 53 in Jewish Evangelism

Mitch Glaser

11. Preaching Isaiah 53

Donald R. Sunukjian


Darrell Bock

Appendix A: Expositional Sermon on Isaiah 53

Donald R. Sunukjian

Appendix B: Dramatic-Narrative Sermon on Isaiah 53

Donald R. Sunukjian

The Gospel According to Isaiah 53 is from Kregel: Academic and Professional and is a paperback with 336 pages and sells for $27.99