Failed Prophecy: Isaiah 53

Isaiah 53 is the other chapter that apologists point to as predicting the death of Jesus, but, like the claims for Psalm 22, we’ll see that this also falls flat.

First, give the apologists their turn. They’ll point to several phrases in Isaiah 53 (and the last few verses of the preceding chapter) that parallel the crucifixion.

Verse 52:14: “there were many who were appalled at him; his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being.” Some say that this refers to the beatings Jesus received, though his ugly appearance is never mentioned in the New Testament.

Verse 53:3: “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.” Jesus should have been recognized as the Messiah, but the gospels tell us that his own people rejected him.

On the other hand, “he was despised” doesn’t sound like the charismatic rabbi who preached to thousands of attentive listeners and had a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. And “a man of suffering … familiar with pain” might’ve been the life of an ascetic like John the Baptist, but this doesn’t describe Jesus.

Verse 53:7: “he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent.” The synoptic gospels agree that Jesus was silent before his accusers (though John 18:34–19:11 doesn’t).

Verse 53:8: in response to the trial and sentencing of Jesus, “who of his generation protested?” Jesus was on his own, and none of his disciples tried to intervene.

Verse 53:9: “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death.” This is often interpreted to mean that Jesus ought to have been buried with criminals but was actually buried with the rich. This ties in with the burial of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

Finally, from 53:5 to the end of the chapter, almost every verse gives some version of the idea of the suffering servant taking on the burdens of his people—“he was pierced for our transgressions … by his wounds we are healed” (:5), “for the transgression of my people he was punished” (:8), “he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (:12), and so on.

Taken as this collection of verse fragments, the case looks intriguing, but taken as a whole—that is, letting the chapter speak for itself—the story falls apart.

First, let’s look at some of the verses discarded by the apologists.

Verse 52:15: “so will many nations be amazed at him and kings will shut their mouths because of him.

The nations will be amazed and the kings speechless? Nope, not only was Jesus not internationally famous during his lifetime, history records nothing of his life outside the gospels. True, we have evidence of his followers from historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius, but it is curious that we have nothing about the works of Jesus himself from prolific contemporary authors such as Philo of Alexandria, Seneca, and Pliny the Elder. Apparently he wasn’t as famous as imagined prophecy would have him be.

Verse 53:10: “he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.” This is a nice thought—Jesus endures great trials but then, like Job, he is rewarded with children, prosperity, and long life. As Proverbs says, “Grandchildren are the crown of old men.”

Too bad this isn’t how the gospel story plays out.

Verse 53:11: “my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.” Let’s revisit this suffering servant thing. Jesus, a person of the Trinity and equal to God the Father, is now God’s servant?

Note that “messiah” simply means “anointed one” and that the Old Testament is fairly liberal with the title messiah. Kings and high priests were anointed as messiahs. Heck, Cyrus the Great of Persia was even a messiah (see Isaiah 45:1). But surely no Christian can accept the logic, “Well, David was a messiah, and he was a servant of God; why not Jesus as well?” Jesus was certainly not in the same category as David.

And here’s the big one: “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great [or many] and he will divide the spoils with the strong [or numerous]” (verse 53:12). Like a warrior who gets a share of the spoils of the battle, the servant will be richly rewarded. This servant is just one among many who gets a portion.

Wait a minute—Jesus has peers? He’s one among equals, just “one of the great”? What kind of nonsense is this? Again, this bears no resemblance to the Jesus of the gospels.

This all makes more sense if the “he” of this chapter is seen as Israel, not Jesus.

And, as with our analysis of Psalm 22, the point of any crucifixion story would be the resurrection, which is not present in this chapter. Only with the naïve confidence of a student of Nostradamus could this baggy sack of a “prophecy” be imagined to be a trim fit.

Religion is the diaper of humanity’s childhood;
it’s OK to grow out of it
— PZ Myers

Photo credit: Jens Cramer

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About Bob Seidensticker
  • DrewL

    Still not grasping figurative language are we? Rough life you have.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      No, I’m good, but thanks for your concern.

      Some people take Isaiah 53 as prophecy but, as you can see from this post, I don’t. It’s they who are the intended audience.

      • Dan F.

        Bob, without even making a serious study of the chapter and effects i can answer every single one of your so called discrepancies. If you approached the text with an open mind, so could you but because your agenda is to raise doubt in the minds of those whose training in Scripture study is poor (because, really, that’s who would be susceptible to your arguments) and might be on the fence about belief in God (specifically a Christian God). Every post I’ve read by you addresses a badly caricatured strawman of an apologist without ever bothering to actually engage with their substantive claims.

        Come on, you’re the atheist, you’re supposed to be the rational one. Make a substantive argument.

        • Bob Seidensticker


          Come on, you’re the atheist, you’re supposed to be the rational one. Make a substantive argument.

          Yep, I just did. If you can shred my argument, go for it. It’s your turn. Bluster doesn’t get you very far, I’m afraid–ya gotta deliver.

  • Bob Calvan

    DrewL, Give me an email got some stuff I wan’t to talk to you about,
    Bob Calvan ( )

  • smrnda

    If I approach Finnegan’s Wake with a sufficiently open mind I can argue that James Joyce predicted events in WWII and the emergence of audio and video recording technology. The trick is that if language is convoluted enough, you can find what you need in it.

    If you’re dealing in predictions, they ought to be clearly stated without metaphorical or figurative language so the reader can walk away knowing precisely what is being predicted so that it can be measured up against later events. Otherwise you can always just say “you’re reading it wrong.”

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Agreed. Another example: you’ve heard of the novel Titan? It has some spooky similarities to the Titanic, which sank 14 years later. Or the Daily Telegraph’s 1944 crossword puzzle that seemed to leak code names of the upcoming D-Day invasion.

  • smrnda

    I’ll have to look into Titan. On another book with a prediction, Exterminator! by William S Burroughs references a terrorist attack on September 14 (I think the year was 2001.) which seems pretty close, though I’m thinking that “2001″ is a pretty popular year to pick for the future back in the 1950s 1960s, and who knows why he picked September 14.

    I’ve done some interesting experiments with random word permutations and it’s amazing how topical they can seem, but if you do enough of them you notice that they all appear about equally relevant.

    But yeah, a good prediction is “The Mayor of New York will not be re-elected” or “Mike Tyson will win by knockout in round 3.”

    • Bob Seidensticker

      You’ve heard of The Bible Code? It’s an attempt to find “prophecies” in the Torah, but it’s all after the fact.


      • smrnda

        I’d heard of that one, but I think you could use its techniques and find an equal number of Bible prophecies in your local phone book.

        Though I don’t do a lot of work in the area right now, I am a computer scientist and I did a lot of work in cryptography and cryptanalysis, so to me these ‘code’ books are just utterly laughable.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Yes, agreed. What baffles me is that, since the “prophecies” are after the fact, they don’t all acknowledge that it has no practical value even if it were accurate.

        • Selah

          Bob , let me share my take on Isa.53. I believe this is a prophecy of Jesus. Isaiah is prophesying the salvation of Israel in the future when they look back and say this about the Messiah they ” rejected ” and crucified. It is a lament of Israel looking back on the Messiah they have long rejected.
          Isaiah is the most detailed OT prophecy on the sacrificial atoning death of the Messiah.
          The purpose of Isa. 53 is to say to Israel that one day you will turn from your rejesction and realize that you have repudiated your only ” hope ” and savior Messiah Jeshua.
          Bob , Jesus is your only hope and savior !! Don’t harden your heart for today is the day of salvation.

        • Bob Seidensticker


          Yeah, except that it’s an inept prophecy, as the post above shows. Why even make this argument?

          Or, if I’m missing some of the parallels, point that out.

  • Selah

    Bob , do you remember reading about Phillip and the eunuch in Acts 8 ? . Phillip is led by the Holy Spirit to this Gentile proselyte to Judaism and he is reading Isaiah.
    Phillip aks the eunuch; ” Do you know what you are reading ? ” and the eunuch responds ; ” How can
    I unless someone guides me “.
    Phillip reads right out of Isaiah 53: 7 & 8 : ” He was led as a sheep to slaughter as a lamb before its
    shearers is silent / dumb so he opens not his mouth “.
    Then Phillip asks ; ‘”Please tell me of whom does the prophet say this , of himself or someone else ?.”
    ” Who’s he talking about ? “. Bob , you gotta love this !
    Phillip opened up his mouth and beginning from this scripture he preached Jesus to him.
    Bob , it’s all about Jesus !!

    • Bob Seidensticker

      And this sidesteps the post.

      We can reinterpret anything that we choose. I can pick through War and Peace to find phrases that fit some aspect of the life of any religious or political leader you care to mention. That doesn’t mean that the book is prophetic.

      Is Isaiah a magic book that predicts the future? That someone used it for such a purpose says nothing about whether it actually is. The ball’s in your court: show me.

      • Selah

        Bob , I’m about to launch a 3 pointer and wow ! nuttin but net !!!!
        In Isaiah 66 :8 it says : ” shall a land be born in one day ? “. Never in the history of the world had such a thing happened before but God keeps His word !!.
        This is definitely foretold here and in Ezekiel 37: 21 , 22 ( read for yourself ). Israel became a recognized nation .. ” born in one day “. After being away from their homeland for almost 2000 yrs. , the Jews were given a national homeland in Palestine by the Balfour Declaration in Nov. 1917. In 1922 the League of Nations gave Great Britain the mandate over Palestine.
        On May 14 , 1948 , Great Britain withdrew her mandate and ” immediately ” Israel was declared a sovereign state and now you know ” the rest of the story “.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          My previous comment stands. I have nothing to add to that.

        • GregPeterson

          A lot of countries have a day of independence that they consider their nation’s “date of birth.” We refer to the Fourth of July as America’s birthday. There’s nothing interesting about your comment, much less surprising, even less miraculous. No there there.
          ONLY NET!

  • GregPeterson

    Bob, you made a pretty good case, and without even relying on the most obvious gambit the gospel novelists probably used, which is using passages in the Old Testament as the BASIS FOR WHAT THEY WROTE about Jesus. Say Jesus was a real person, a talented and beloved rabbi, and he was stoned to death for…blasphemy or eating a shrimp cocktail or whatever. Can’t find anything that looks like the stoning of a messiah in the OT? No prob. Because I found a reference to the cursed one hanging on a tree, something about hands being pierced (oh, cast lots for clothing…I LIKE that, I’m gonna use that!), suffering for our inequities…budda bing, details of the Christ’s life and death. Now, do I think that’s the most LIKELY way his story was written? It hardly matters because as unlikely as that might be, it’s still orders of magnitude more likely than Christian dogma is.

    But I do have a quibble. As little sense as it might seem to make, consider Philippians 2:6-8:

    “Who, being in very naturea God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
    but made himself nothing, taking the very natureb of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! ”

    Now, what you write about weirdness of Jesus, supposedly co-equal with the Father and Holy Spirit, being considered God’s SERVANT does strike me, too, as bizarre and inexplicable. But it is not unprecedented, even in the New Testament. And remember, these are the same people who swear up and down that there’s nothing sexist about their holy book, while insisting on what misogynistic dogma after another, and says that God loves everyone (but simply has to send some folks to hell because rules that He presumably made in the first place), so…logical insight isn’t exactly their strong suit.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Well said. Given that the authors of the gospels were literate, they must’ve been familiar with the Scriptures. How could they not have been tempted? Like you said, that explanation is a bazillion times more likely than the literal interpretation–which many say wasn’t even the intention of the original authors.

      But it is not unprecedented, even in the New Testament

      Isn’t this Philippians thing simply a reaction to the Jesus story of crucifixion? That is, given the widespread story within the early Christian community, Paul was giving his interpretation.

      Congregant: “Whaaa … ? Jesus was god but just died?”
      Paul: “Yes, because he was super obedient. Like you should be.”

      Just a thought.

      but simply has to send some folks to hell because rules that He presumably made in the first place

      Hey–rules are rules. God’s hands are tied. You let a few scofflaws get away with hell and chaos will ensue.

      God can create the foundations of logic itself, but getting out of bureaucratic red tape is tough for even Mr. Big himself.

      • GregPeterson

        I’m sure you’re right about the reason “Paul” (I read Ehrman’s “Forged” but can no longer remember which epistles Paul actually wrote) chose to write as he did there. In some ways this seems similar to the passages in the epistles of both “Paul” and “Peter” that make excuses for Jesus not having returned yet–in that they also attempt to promote a plausible reason for an embarrassing fact they can’t cover up. Even granting that point, it must be said that the idea of Jesus being servant to God the Father was not foreign to most of the believers of that time and place (the Gnostic obviously would reject such a notion, though).

        Your central point more than stands. Even if there were such a thing as prophecy, you would be correct that Psalm 22 and Isaiah would represent shoddy examples. To me, as so often happens, the real problem is theological. It’s like my biggest problem with the Noah’s ark story–even if I thought that one old dude could successfully create a floating zoo with two of every organism on it, to me the notion that an all-powerful god had not anticipated human evil, and then tried to use plumbing to address the problem–and admittedly failed–marks the story as utter nonsense. When it comes to prophecy, the problem is that this all-powerful god would have the eternal destiny depend on their ability to play Scattergories, Mad Libs, and Clue. I don’t pretend to know for sure how a divine being should act, but if my mind is really supposed to be a reflection of the divine (even granting that “sin nature” has weakened its powers), then why do I think that being kind and authentic are better criteria than puzzle-solving and game-playing?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          It’s hard to believe that Christians offer these examples of “prophecy” with a straight face. Do they really think that they’d be satisfied with them if the analogous claim came from another religion??

  • Selah

    Here’s one for ya boys ! : ” for the god of this world has blinded the unbeliever’s minds that they
    should not discern the truth, preventing them from seeing the ‘” illuminating “‘ light of the Gospel
    of the glory of Christ ( the Messiah ) who is the image and likeness of God.
    Have a happy judgment day !!

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Ah, good ol’ 2 Cor. 4:4–yet another sign of God’s infinite love.

      When you are a little puzzled about divine justice, this is the verse to go to. It’s truly a touchstone of divine mercy.

      Thank you for bringing this one up, my brother! Think about me frying in hell for eternity when you’re up in heaven sipping Margaritas.

  • GregPeterson

    Selah, there must be some decent, empathetic corner of your mind, some outpost of brain cells yet unpoisoned by your religion, that reminds you that holding someone who has been blinded by another responsible for not seeing something is reprehensible. And that smug triumphalism is never attractive, especially when it comes from a place of profoundly bigoted ignorance. I believe in you, Selah. I believe that you’re better than the nonsense and wickedness you’ve been taught to believe.

    I know that you can see that if the judge allowed me to be blinded and having the power to restore sight failed to do so, the blood is on the judge’s head. To hell with such a judge. Fortunatel we have less than no reason to suppose that such a being exists, and instead of some great, singular, pointless judgement when my life is over, I will continue to judge my own life by standards of excellence, empathy, and reason, and compared the examples set by my moral heroes–who include Jesus of Nazareth, although I consider much of what was written about him probably fictional.

    • Selah

      Greg , as I mentioned to Bob , Christianity encourages and commands that one have a deep , personal and intimate relationship with Jesus and not a church or rules and reg’s etc. All religions
      are ” false ” , in my opinion , because they require you to be good , to do things , and try to live a good life and all that baloney. The Bible says that ” n0 one is good ” // ” all have sinned and gone astray” // like sheep led to slaughter ”. That is why God sent His only son that whoever will believe in Him will not perish but have eternal life. Greg , whether you believe in a Hell or Heaven , you will spend eternity somewhere. The decisions you make in this life will determine your eternal destiny. Jesus talked more about ” hell ” than heaven !!. You currently are being ” blinded ” by the
      ” god ” of this world / Satan. The God of Abraham , Isaac & Jacob is not deceiving you ! God is a loving God and He is also a just God and He must punish sin. This same God also said that those who do not believe in Him are ” empty -headed fools “. // Psalm 14:1. Every other ” religious ” leader is dead and pushing up daisies while my Jesus is alive !! Greg , I am a fool for Christ ! Whose fool are you for ?
      Some day , and hope that is soon , you will come to know the ” truth ” and the ” truth ” will set you free from the bondage and slavery of the ultimate deceiver / the biggest liar the world has known and that of course is Satan. He has you right where he wants you and that’s in total unbelief in the ONE WHO HAS THE ONLY POWER TO SAVE YOU FROM THE PITS OF HELL !!

      • Bob Seidensticker


        You’re giving theology, not apologetics. This is just your worldview; it’s not an argument for why your position is correct.

        Why is all this Christian stuff not nonsense? And if you’re just going to make up a religion, I think “do your best to be good” is a lot better than “Eh–screw it. You’re never going to be good enough, so don’t focus too much on that doing-good thing. Just believe in this unbelievable thing and THAT will get you into heaven.”

  • Arkenaten

    I have always maintained a personal philosophy that as the New Testament is supposed to be fulfilment of prophecy and the inspired word of Yahweh then all one has to do is show one inconsistency in this belief and the NT falls to pieces.
    Christians’ interpretation of Alma has, for me, always been the key scriptural word that undoes every claim of divinity.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Sorry–what’s Alma?

      • Arkenaten

        Alma (Young Woman) Chapter 7, verse 14, Isaiah.
        “Behold, a young woman (alma) shall conceive and shall bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.”
        …..became the Greek term Parthenos (“Virgin”)
        This was what rise to the belief in the ‘virgin birth.’
        I mentioned this on Rebecca Hamilton’s blog – she deleted the comment. Par for the course.
        Catholics also reject the word for brother ( I forget the word off hand) as being literal, (Jesus only had ‘cousins’ apparently) whereas all other Christians accept the word as a literal rendition for brother and acknowledge that JC had siblings.
        And yet….these same ‘reformed’ Christians, including Fundamentalists I’m sure, do not acknowledge alma as being ‘young woman’.
        s’called Cherry Picking, I believe,yes? Pick your Prophecy, right?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Ah–I knew that word sounded familiar.

          Yes, I have a note to post on this virgin birth thing around Christmas.

          One other bit of trivia about Jesus’s family is that we see James, his brother, as the leader of the church. But we also see Jesus rejecting his family (who considered him crazy) in one of the gospels. They harmonize this by simply saying that the family reconciled, though it never says that. A better explanation is simply that one tradition has Jesus rejecting his family (consistently) and another had James as part of the inner circile (consistently).

        • Arkenaten

          James was apparently head of the Jerusalem Church and ’twas good ol’ Uncle Saul who sodded off, had a vision (Acts) or an actual meeting with the resurrected Lord (one of his epistles- forget which one) and started his own version of the Church sans the Jews.
          It was a bargain as the gentiles didn’t need to cut off a bit of their willies either!
          And soon we had The Universals – Catholics.
          Lucky us, hey? ;)