The following is the addendum to a series of articles by Sam Shamoun responding to Shabir Ally on Isaiah 53. See parts 1 and 2.
In this final section we will be citing references from Jewish sources for the specific purpose of providing documentation that the Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is anchored in early Jewish tradition itself. This will be done to offset the impression that is given by the liberal critics and Jewish anti-missionary polemicists that taqiyyists like Ally and Williams are so keen to quote, namely, the view that Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is a prophecy of the Messiah is nothing more than a Christian innovation which the NT writers came up with in order to make sense out of the death of Jesus, whom they erroneously believed was the Messiah foretold by the OT prophets.
The Messiah’s Exaltation
The following references give us an idea of how some of the Jewish sources understood Isaiah 52:13:
1. Who art thou, O great Mountain? (Zech. iv. 7.) This refers to the King Messiah. And why does he call him ‘the great mountain?’ because he is greater than the patriarchs, as it is said, ‘My servant shall be high, and lifted up, and lofty exceedingly’–he will be higher than Abraham, who says, ‘I raise high my hands unto the Lord’ (Gen. xiv. 22); lifted up above Moses, to whom it is said, ‘Lift it up into they bosom’ (Num. xi. 12); loftier than the ministering angels of whom it is written, ‘Their wheels were lofty and terrible’ (Ez. i. 18). And out of whom does he come forth? Out of David.
2. I will tell of the institution (Ps. ii. 7). Already are the words [concerning my servant] told in the institution of the Pentateuch, of the book of the Prophets, and of Hagiographa: in the Pentateuch where are they told? ‘Israel is my firstborn’ (Ex. iv. 22); in the Prophets where? ‘Behold my servant will deal prudently,’ and near to it, ‘My servant whom I uphold’ (xlii. 1) in the Hagiographa, where? ‘The Lord said to my lord,’ and ‘The Lord said unto me’ (Ps. cx. 1, ii. 7). (Yalqut Shim‘oni, 2:571, as quoted in The “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters, translated by Samuel R. Driver and Adolf Neubauer, with an introduction by Edward B. Pusey [Hermon Press, New York: Reprinted in 1969], pp. 9-10; bold emphasis ours)
“I will now proceed to my exposition. 13 Behold my servant shall have understanding. From the prophet’s saying ‘understanding,’ it may be seen that all the lofty predicates which he assigns to him have their source in this attribute; in virtue of his comprehensive intelligence he will attain an elevation above that even of the most perfect men in the world. He shall be high and exalted, and lofty exceedingly. According to the Midrash of our Rabbis; he will be higher than Abraham, who was first of all a ‘high father,’ and afterwards a father of a multitude. He will be more exalted than Moses, who was ‘exalted’ above the exalted ones of Levi (cf. Num. iii. 32), who was a prophet such that ‘none arose like him in Israel,’ (Deut. xxxiv. 10), who ‘saved’ Israel ‘with a great salvation’ (cf. I Chron. xi. 14) when they came out of Egypt, and the report of whom spread into all places until ‘the dukes of Edom were confounded’ before him, and ‘trembling seized the mighty men of Moab, and all the inhabitants of Canaan melted away’ (Ex. xv. 15). But this one will be exalted far above Moses: for when he gathers together our scattered ones from the four corners of the earth, he will be exalted in the eyes of all the kings in the whole world, and all of them will serve him, and will exalt him above them, as Daniel prophesies concerning him, ‘All nations, peoples, and tongues shall serve him’ (Dan. vii. 14, 27). He will be loftier than Solomon, whose dignity was so lofty that he is said to have ‘sat on the throne of the Lord’ (I Chron. xxix. 23), and our Rabbis say that he was king over both the upper and the nether world. But the King Messiah, in his ALL-COMPREHENDING INTELLIGENCE, will be loftier than Solomon. Exceedingly above the ministering angels, because that same comprehensive intelligence will approach [God] more nearly than theirs. For it is an exceedingly high privilege, that one whose nature is compound and material should attain to a grade of intelligence more nearly Divine than that which belongs to the incorporeal; and so it is said of him that ‘his strength is greater than that of the ministering angels,’ because these have no impediment in the exercise of their intellect, whereas that which is compound is continually impeded in consequence of material element in its nature. Accordingly, the grade of his intelligence being such as this, he is said to be ‘lofty exceedingly,’ and his strength to be ‘greater than the angels.’… And when this ‘servant of the Lord’ is born, he will continue to be marked by the possession of intelligence enabling him to acquire from God what it is impossible for any to acquire until he reaches that height wither none of the sons of men, EXCEPT HIM, have ever ascended: from that day he will be counted with his people Israel, and will share their subjugation and distress; ‘in all their affliction’ (Is. lxiii. 9) he will be exceedingly afflicted; and because of their being outcasts and scattered to the ends of the world, his grief will be such that the colour of his countenance will be changed from that of a man, and pangs and sicknesses will seize him (for great grief, as physicians know, by producing melancholy, subjects a man to many diseases); and all the chastisements which come upon him in consequence of his grief will be for our sakes, and not from any deficiency or sin on his part which might bring punishment in his train, BECAUSE HE IS PERFECT, IN THE COMPLETENESS OF PERFECTION, as Isaiah says (xi. 2f.). Truly all his pains and sicknesses will be for us…” (R. Mosheh Kohen Ibn Crispin (14th century AD), as cited by Driver & Neubauer, pp. 101-103; bold and capital emphasis ours)
We not only see how Isaiah 52-53 is cited along with texts such as Psalm 2:7, 110:1 and Daniel 7:13-14 in relation to the Messiah, but we even have one authority admitting that the exalted language used for the Messiah in Isaiah 52:13 goes above and beyond what can be said of an ordinary creature.
The Messiah’s Sufferings
In these next references, the sufferings that are mentioned in Isaiah 53 are specifically said to be that of the Messiah who gladly bears them on behalf of Israel:
R. Hosha‘ya said: “In the future Jerusalem will be a lantern for the nations of the world, and they will walk in her light….”
In Thy light do we see light (Ps. 36:10). This is the light of the Messiah, as it is written, And God saw the light that it was good (Gen. 1:4). This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, saw the generation of the Messiah and its deeds prior to the creation of the world. And He hid the light for the Messiah and his generation under His Throne of Glory.
Satan said before the Holy One, blessed be He: “Master of the World! The light which is hidden under Your Throne of Glory, for whom is it [destined]?” He said to him: “For him who will turn you back and disgrace you, and shame your face.” He said to him: “Master of the world! Show him to me!” He said to him: “Come and see him!” When Satan saw the Messiah, he trembled and fell upon his face and said: “Surely this is the Messiah who in the future will cast me and all the princes of the nations of the world into Gehenna….”
In that hour the nations became awestruck and said before him: “Master of the World! Who is he into whose hand we shall fall, what is his name and what is his nature?” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: “His name is Ephraim, My True Messiah. He will raise his stature and the stature of his generation, and will light up the eyes of Israel, and will save his people, and no nation and language shall be able to stand up against him…. All his enemies and adversaries will be affrighted and will flee from him… and even the rivers will cease to flow into the sea….”
[When He created the Messiah], the Holy One, blessed be He, began to tell him the conditions [of his future mission], and said to him: “Those who are hidden with you [your generation], their sins will in the future force you into an iron yoke, and they will render you like unto a calf whose eyes have grown dim, and they will choke your spirit with the yoke, and because of their sins your tongue will cleave to the roof of your mouth. Do you accept this?”
The Messiah said before the Holy One, blessed be He, “Master of the World! Will that suffering last many years?” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: “By your life and the life of my head, it is a septenary of it that I decreed upon you. But if your soul is troubled, I shall banish them as from this moment.”
He said before Him: “Master of the Worlds! With gladness in my soul and with joy in my heart I accept it, so that not a single one of Israel should perish; and not only those who will be alive should be saved in my days, but even the dead who have died from the days of Adam the first man until now. And not only they, but even the stillborn should be saved in my days; and not only the stillborn, but even those to whose creation You gave thought but who were not created. This is what I want, this is what I accept!” (Pes. Rab. pp. 161a-b)
They said: In the septenary in which the Son of David comes they will bring iron beams and put them upon his neck until his body bends and he cries and weeps, and his voice rise up into the Heights, and he says before Him: “Master of the World! How much can my strength suffer? How much my spirit? How much my soul? And how much my limbs? Am I not but flesh and blood?...”
In that hour the Holy One, blessed be He, says to him: “Ephraim, My True Messiah, you have already accepted [this suffering] from the six days of creation. Now your suffering shall be like My suffering. For ever since the day on which wicked Nebuchadnezzar came up and destroyed My Temple and burnt My sanctuary, and I exiled My children among the nations of the world, by your life and the life of your head, I have not sat on My Throne. And if you do not believe me, see the dew that is upon My head….”
In that hour he says before Him: “Master of the World! Now my mind is at rest, for it is sufficient for the servant to be like his Master!” (Pes. Rab. pp. 162a) (Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts: Jewish Legends of Three Thousand Years [Wayne State University Press, Detroit, MI 1979], 12. The Suffering Messiah, pp. 111-113; bold emphasis ours)
The foregoing citation not only depicts the Messiah as voluntarily taking on the sins of his people in order to save them, it even portrays him as a preexistent figure who has been dwelling in God’s presence right under his glorious heavenly throne!
Noted Jewish Christian scholar Dr. Michael L. Brown cites some additional Jewish sources in support of the Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53:
“Later Jewish tradition expanded on the suffering of the Messiah. This midrash, describing one of the houses in heavenly Paradise (a Jewish oncept), is typical:
… there sit Messiah ben David and Elijah and Messiah ben Ephraim. And there is a canopy of incense trees as in the Sanctuary which Moses made in the desert. And all its vessels and pillars are of silver, its covering is gold, its seat is purple. And in it is Messiah ben David who loves Jerusalem. Elijah of blessed memory takes hold of his head, places it in his lap and holds it, and says to him, ‘Endure the sufferings and the sentence of your Master who makes you suffer because of the sin of Israel.’ And thus it is written: He was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities (Isa. 53:5)–until the time when the end comes.
And every Monday and Thursday, and every Sabbath and holiday, the Fathers of the World [i.e. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob] and Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon, and the prophets, and the pious come to visit him, and weep with him. And they gave him thanks and say to him: ‘Endure the sentence of your Master, for the end is near to come, and the chains which are on your neck will be broken, and you will go into freedom.’7
“And note that the midrash cites Isaiah 53:5–the text most commonly used by followers of Yeshua to point to his sufferings on our behalf–to explain why the Messiah suffers. It s because of the sin of Israel!...
“The Zohar, the most sacred book of Jewish mysticism, also applies Isaiah 53:5 to the Messiah’s sufferings:
In the hour in which they [i.e., the souls of the righteous sufferers] tell the Messiah about the sufferings of Israel in exile, and [about] the sinful among them who seek not the knowledge of their Master, the Messiah lifts up his voice and weeps over those sinful among them. This is what is written, He was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities (Isa. 53:5)8” (Brown, The Real Kosher Jesus: Revealing the Mysteries of the Hidden Messiah [Published by Frontline, 2012], 10. The Secret of the Suffering Messiah, pp. 140-141; bold emphasis ours)
7. Midrash Konen, from Bet HaMidrash, 2:29-30, as translated by Patai, The Messiah Texts, 114.
8. Zohar 2:212a, as translated by Patai, The Messiah Texts, 116. For Isaiah 53 cited by the Zohar in the context of the atoning power of the righteous, see chapter 11. (Ibid., p. 240)
“The Schottenstein Talmud, an extensive Orthodox commentary being published by the Artscroll-Mesorah, offers this explanation of the passage:
They [namely, those sitting with Messiah] were afflicted with tzaraas–a disease whose symptoms include discolored patches on the skin (see Leviticus ch. 13). The Messiah himself is likewise afflicted, as stated in Isaiah (53:4):… Indeed, it was our diseases that he bore and our pains that he endured, whereas we considered him plagued (i.e. suffering tzaraas [see 98b, note 39]), smitten by God, and afflicted. This verse teaches that the diseases that the people ought to have suffered because of their sins are borne by the Messiah.10” (Ibid, pp. 142-143; bold emphasis ours)
10. The Schottenstein Talmud Sanhedrin 3a (Folios 84b-99a) (Brooklyn: Artscroll Mesorah, 1995), 98a5, with reference to the leading Rabbinic commentaries. The actual text in the Schottenstein Talmud includes the Hebrew of Isaiah 53:4, represented here by my ellipsis. Nothing has been deleted from the text. (Ibid., p. 240)
“There is also an extraordinary comment about the atoning power of the death of Messiah ben Joseph made by Moshe Alshekh, the influential sixteenth-century rabbi, in his commentary to Zechariah 12:10:
I will yet do a third thing, and that is, that ‘they shall look unto me,’ for they shall lift up their eyes unto me in perfect repentance, when they see him whom they pierced, that is, Messiah, the son of Joseph; for our Rabbis, of blessed memory, have said that he will take upon himself all the guilt of Israel, and shall then be slain in the war to make atonement in such manner that it shall be accounted as if Israel had pierced him, for on account of their sin he has died; and, therefore, in order that it may be reckoned to them as a perfect atonement, they will repent and look to the blessed One, saying that there is none beside him to forgive those that mourn on account of him who died for their sins: this is the meaning ‘They shall look upon me.’21
“What extraordinary words–and they are the words of a greatly respected, traditional rabbi.
“The Zohar also painted a vivid picture of the Messiah’s sufferings on behalf of Israel. In a passage that just cited Isaiah 53:5, the Zohar relates:
The Messiah enters [the Hall of the Sons of Illness] and summons all the diseases and all the pains and all the sufferings of Israel that they should come upon him, and all of them come upon him. And would he not thus bring ease to Israel and take their sufferings upon himself, no man could endure the sufferings Israel has to undergo because they neglected the Torah.22
“Had not the Messiah taken our place, suffering our behalf, we would have perished long ago.” (Ibid, 11. The Secret of the Atoning Power of the Death of the Righteous, pp. 157-158; bold emphasis ours)
21. As cited in David Baron, The Visions and Prophecies of Zechariah (repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1972), 442, but with my own minor modifications and with my emphasis.
22. See Patai, The Messiah Texts, 116.
Brown also provides a summary of some of the various Jewish sources which have interpreted Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in relation to the Messiah:
- Targum Jonathan interprets Isaiah 53 with reference to the Messiah, but with a fairly radical reworking of the text, emphasizing the Messiah's victory rather than his suffering, and with some application of the text to the nation of Israel as a whole.4
- The Talmud refers Isaiah 53:4 to the Messiah in Sanhedrin 98b; as rendered in the Soncino translation, "His name is 'the leper scholar,' as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted."5
- Ruth Rabbah interprets 53:5 with reference to the Messiah.6
- Midrash Tanchuma applies both 52:13, speaking of the Servant's exaltation, and 53:3, "a man of pains and known to sickness," to the Messiah.7
- Yalkut Shimoni (a thirteenth [century AD] compilation of earlier midrashic writings) applies 52:13 to the Messiah, stating that the Messiah, called the great mountain according to the Yalkut's interpretation of Zechariah 4:7, is "greater than the patriarchs … higher than Abraham … lifted up above Moses … and loftier than the ministering angels" (2:571; see also 2:621). Isaiah 53:5 is applied to the sufferings of "King Messiah" (2:620).8
- Rambam (Maimonides) refers Isaiah 53:2 (along with the "Branch" prophecy in Zech. 6:12) to the Messiah in his Letter to Yemen (Iggeret Teman).9
- Ramban (Nachmanides), while stating that the text in reality referred to Israel, followed the messianic interpretation of the text found in the Midrash, beginning with the Messiah's highly exalted state based on 52:13.10
- Noteworthy also is the oft-quoted comment of Rabbi Moshe Alshech, writing in the sixteenth century, that "[o]ur 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."11
- The messianic interpretation of our passage is also found in the Zohar as well as in some later midrashich works, including Leqah Tov, which applies 52:13 to the Messiah.12… (2. Jewish Interpretations of Isaiah 53, pp. 62-64)
4. Cf. the discussion in Samson H. Levey, The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1974); see further Pinkos Churgin, Targum Jonathan to the Prophets, repr. with Leivey Smolar and Moses Aberbach, Studies in Targum Jonathan to the Prophets (New York: Ktav, 1983); More recently see Bruce D. Chilton, The Aramaic Bible: The Isaiah Targum: Introduction, Translation, Apparatus and Notes (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 1999). For the text in Aramaic and English, see S. R. Driver and Ad. Neubauer, eds. and trans., The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters (repr. New York, Ktav, 1969), 1:4-5; 2:5-6 (hereafter cited as Driver-Neubauer).
5. Driver-Neubauer, 1:6; 2:7.
6. Ibid., 1:7; 2:9; Alschech's comments seem to apply in particular to Isaiah 52:13-15.
7. Ibid., 1:9; 2:11.
8. This is the midrash to Psalm 2:6, dealing with the Hebrew word nasakti, interpreted here to mean, "I have woven him," with reference to Judges 6:14, "i.e., I have drawn him out of the chastisements. R. Huna, on the authority of R. Aha, says, 'The chastisements are divided into three parts: one for David and the fathers, one for our own generation, and one for the King Messiah; and this is that which is written, "He was wounded for our transgressions etc.".'"
9. See Douglas Pyle, comp., What the Rabbonim Say about Moshiach (n.p.: Douglas H. Pyle, 2008), 57-58, citing Abraham S. Halkin, Moses Maimonides' Epistle to Yemen, ed. from MSS, Eng. trans. Boaz Cohen (New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1952), 8. For a free online edition of Pyle's useful compilation, see www.moshiachontheweb.com.
10. See Driver-Neubauer, 1:75-82; 2:78-85.
11. Ibid., 1:231-42; 2:258-74.
12. Ibid., 1:10-16; 2:12-16. (Ibid.)
These citations should sufficiently put to rest the rather desperate anti-Christian polemic of trying to rob Isaiah 52:13-53:12 of any Messianic significance whatsoever. The fact is that this remarkable prophecy can only be pointing to the Lord Jesus, since he alone perfectly matches the description of the Servant of Yahweh who voluntarily offers his own life as a vicarious sacrifice for the salvation of his people. In the words of the Lord Jesus himself and the inspired Christian Greek Scriptures:
“She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21
“This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”” John 6:50-51
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep… I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.” John 10:10-11, 14-18
“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had: He always had the nature of God, but he did not think that by force he should try to remain equal with God. Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant. He became like a human being and appeared in human likeness. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death—his death on the cross. For this reason God raised him to the highest place above and gave him the name that is greater than any other name. And so, in honor of the name of Jesus all beings in heaven, on earth, and in the world below will fall on their knees, and all will openly proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:5-11 Good News Translation (GNT)
“For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.” 1 Timothy 2:5-6
“and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood—and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father—to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” Revelation 1:5-6
“When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.’” Revelation 5:8-10
“After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude WHICH NO ONE COULD COUNT, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, AND TO THE LAMB.’ And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.’ Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, ‘These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘My lord, you know.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason, they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will spread His tabernacle over them. They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.’” Revelation 7:9-17
Amen, come Lord Jesus! We praise and glorify you for offering your life as a ransom in order to save wretched sinners like us! May the Holy Spirit of God enable us to love you forever since you are worthy of all adoration and honor, O Risen Lord of Glory and beloved Son of God!
Unless noted otherwise, all Scriptural quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB).