Who Is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53?

Who Is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53? August 22, 2012

Who Is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53?

I don’t remember when or where it happened, but I remember the shock I felt when I first heard that many, perhaps most, Old Testament scholars, including many evangelical Christians, deny that Isaiah 53 refers to Jesus. It was a shock of bewilderment; why would they say that? Christians have generally, since the beginning (Acts 8) believed the Suffering Servant described there is Jesus.

Why is it important? Well, the debate over the atonement depends, in part, at least, on what one believes about Isaiah 53. A case for vicarious sacrifice, penal substitution, might be made without reference to it, but, generally speaking, that chapter has played a crucial role in developing and defending so-called “objective” theories of the atonement such as those.

I’m well aware now of the scholarly reasons for saying the Suffering Servant is Israel and not Jesus, but only two seem to me to carry some weight. (Notice I did not deny that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 IS Israel; I am talking here about the belief that the Suffering Servant is NOT Jesus.)

First, the Suffering Servant would not be Jesus if predictive prophecy is ruled out as untenable. Why would anyone do that? The only reason I can think of is naturalism—that no prophet can predict the future that specifically. My study of higher criticism has led me to believe that many so-called “assured results” of higher criticism are driven by naturalistic reasoning.

Second, the Suffering Servant is not identified as Jesus because to identify the Suffering Servant as Jesus is anti-Semitic. I had a German Bible professor during my doctoral studies who was, perhaps understandably, obsessed with “anti-Semitism in the Bible” and especially in Paul. As much as I despise anti-Semitism, I think it can be over used as an objection. For example, some people think any criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitic. I don’t.

Those two reasons for EXCLUDING Isaiah 53 as referring to Jesus seem untenable to me, especially if one believes in God who is able to speak through prophets about the future. And why wouldn’t he be?

I have no objection to Christian scholars saying the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 IS Israel. What I object to is saying it ISN’T Jesus. Why? My main reason is simply that Acts 8 says it IS Jesus and portions of the New Testament refer back to portions of Isaiah 53 when referring to Jesus (e.g., 1 Peter 2:24 and Matthew 8:17). Also, all the church fathers treated Isaiah 53 as referring to Jesus.

If a theologian excludes Isaiah 53 from consideration when discussing the atonement and how Jesus’ death saves, then I have serious questions about why. To me, it has to be relevant; it can’t be ruled out in advance. And no arguments I’ve encountered convince me that it should be ignored in such theological discussions.

Does that mean the vicarious sacrifice/penal substitution models of the atonement are automatically right? Not necessarily, but they certainly find support in Isaiah 53 IF the Suffering Servant is Jesus. Sometimes I wonder if some theologians who opposed those theories of the atonement rule out Isaiah 53 in advance in order to bias the discussion their way.

Now, in all this, as I have said here before, I am not endorsing any particular view of penal substitution. That model of the atonement has been stretched and misused, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame the theory itself for the ways it has been abused by preachers and some theologians (e.g., implying that the cross somehow changed God from wrathful to loving). The term “penal substitution” has been so closely identified with distortions that I would like to find some other term for the proper interpretation of the theory.

So who has presented a proper interpretation of the theory? Well, one recent example is Hans Boersma in Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross (Baker Academic, 2004).

My question (and I welcome reasonable, respectfully stated answers) is why Isaiah 53 should be ruled out of theological discussions of the atonement of Jesus Christ as irrelevant? Are there other reasons, than the ones I gave above, for denying that the Suffering Servant is Jesus (perhaps as well as Israel)?

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