Although missionaries claim that there are many "prophecies" about Jesus in the T'nach it often seems that Isaiah 53 is often the #1 missionary "go to" proof that Jesus was the messiah.
Traditionally Judaism states that Isaiah 53's suffering servant is the Jewish nation, referred to in the singular. Missionaries try to find any "proof" that some Jew somewhere pointed to Isaiah 53's servant as the messiah (or someone else) as if this "proves" that Jesus was the suffering servant.
We will discuss Isaiah 53 in my other blog, 365 Prophecies, and point out that Jesus did not have a long physical life, did not admit guilt, did not have children, etc. as the servant will. There are also places in Isaiah 53 where the servant is referred to in the plural (which doesn't fit Jesus either).
My intention here is to simply address the missionary contention about Isaiah 53 and what Jewish sources have to say about it. The internet has site after site “quoting” early Jewish sources who recognize that the suffering servant was the messiah. The only problem is that this is not the truth.
Go back to early Christianity. An early church father, Origen, in 248 CE, speaks of Jews telling him the servant was Israel and not the messiah.
"Now I remember that, on one occasion, at a disputation held with certain Jews, who were reckoned wise men, I quoted these prophecies; to which my Jewish opponent replied, that these predictions bore reference to the whole people, regarded as one individual, and as being in a state of dispersion and suffering, in order that many proselytes might be gained, on account of the dispersion of the Jews among numerous heathen nations." Origen, Contra Celsum, Book 1.Chapter 55.
Most missionaries try to claim that Jews before Rashi (1040 - 1105 CE) said the servant in Isaiah 53 was the messiah and "Rashi changed it to the Jews." How do they explain Origen's quote from the 3rd century CE? How do they explain these sources (all pre-Rashi) which all state that the servant in Isaiah 53 is the Jewish people (Israel):
Eliyahu Rabbah (3 citations)
Yalkut Shimoni II 476
Bamidbar Rabbah chapter 13.2
Zohar (numerous places)
Poems by R. Shlomo Ibn Gavriel
The answers to missionaries trying to prove that Jesus was not (and could not have been) the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 haven’t changed in the 2000 years that Jews have been trying to educate Christians. You can read the same answers (about Isaiah 53 for example) in the Disputation of Barcelona where the Ramban debated a Christian in front of the King of Spain in 1263 CE.
”Friar Paul (the Christian) claimed: “Behold the passage in Isaiah, chapter 53, tells of the death of the messiah and how he was to fall into the hands of his enemies and how he was placed alongside the wicked, as happened to Jesus. Do you believe that this section speaks of the messiah?
(The Ramban) said to him: “In terms of the true meaning of the section, it speaks only of the people of Israel, which the prophets regularly call ‘Israel My servant’ or ‘Jacob My servant.’ ”
Friar Paul said: “I shall prove from the words of your sages that it speaks of the messiah.”
(The Ramban) said to him: “It is true that the rabbis in the aggadah (stories not meant to be taken literally) explain it as referring to the messiah. However, they never said that he would be killed at the hands of his enemies. For you will find in no book of the Jews, neither in the Talmud nor in the Midrash, that the messiah, the descendant of David, would be killed or would be turned over to his enemies or would be buried among the wicked. Indeed even the messiah whom you made for yourself was not buried. I shall explain for you this section properly and clearly, if you wish. There is no indication that the messiah would be killed, as happened to your messiah. They, however, did not wish to hear.”
The truth is the truth. It doesn’t change — and it may seem “tired” when one hears the same truths over and over again.
Friar Paul, the Christian, (in the debate with the Ramban in front of the King) then cited a (Midrash) aggadah (stories not meant to be taken literally). . . The Ramban told the King
"This is analogous to the bishop standing and giving a sermon, with one of the listeners deciding to write it. In regard to this book, those who believe it well and good, but those who do not believe it do no harm.”
Midrash aggadot are like sermons — not meant to be taken literally, yet the missionaries quote from aggadot on Isaiah 53 as if it WERE literal. The 19th century book called “The Fifty-third chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters” by Driver and Neubauer (Christians) began this missionary myth which is repeated by so many missionaries. This untruth is found all over the internet, because they simply do not understand (or if they do understand, they don’t explain to their readers) what Midrash Aggadot really is about. That book also quoted Karaites (considered apostates!), obscure poets and such are quoted in that book as if they were Jewish sages. . . and no sources are given so it is very difficult to trace what is a bad mistranslation versus an outright fable. . .
As the Ramban said to the King of Spain
“We also call this book aggadah, that is, stories, meaning that these are only things which one person tells another.”
And yet these stories are repeated by missionary after missionary as “proof.”
Proof like a castle built out of sand.
My answer is the same as that of the Ramban, 800 years ago. It is old. It is tired. I dearly wish I did not have to repeat it.
But the truth does not change.
The original idea that Jews USED to say that Isaiah 52-53 was about the messiah but "changed" it to the nation of Israel because of the threat of Christianity during the time of Rashi (12th century CE) popped up in the 19th century. It was the brainchild of a Chrstian named E. B. Pusey. He came up with the idea for a book entitled The 53rd Chapter of Isaiah According to Jewish Interpreters. He wrote a VERY long introduction which in itself contains many, many errors.
Two fellow Oxford men did the translations -- which are very selective (as we will see in future posts) and often mistranslated. The translations were courtesy of Driver and Neubauer. These supposed Jewish "proofs" now rebound all over the internet. (usually uncredited).
Although the title speaks of Isaiah 53, the misquotes often ignore that chapter, and often Isaiah itself, to glean misquotes and distortions from various sources. Missionaries quote all the old standards that come from the Driver and Neubauer book and are found all over the internet. E. B. Pusey was a Christian theologian who lived in the 19th century. So he wasn't Jewish and his knowledge of "Jewish interpretation" of anything was limited (to be kind). Pusey read Hebrew, German, Aramaic and Arabic - but he was not learned in Judaism.
Read the introduction to the book itself and you will see that Neubauer DID NOT want to include the passages that appear from Martini as they are forgeries. However Pusey insisted that they appear (as he states in his introduction) and so there now appears a text that is claimed to come from the talmud Sanhedrin, which disagrees with all texts of Sanhedrin, and is IN FACT taken from Martini.
This issue of falsification and distortion is a common one. The targum Jonathan is quoted for verse 52:13 but usually not 52:14 or 53:1.
Why because that destroys the premise that the servant in Isaiah is the messiah!
The Zohar (II 212) is quoted in part but NEVER in full where it would contradict what the quoter is trying to prove. The Zohar is mysticism -- allegory not literal meaning so quoting it for "facts" is a total distortion. It shouldn't be used to "prove" anything -- but they do use it to try to prove that Jesus could be the messiah, and then they misquote it ignoring the parts that disprove their contention (dishonest at best).
The same could be said for their quotes from the Ramban (Nachmanides, who says that the simple meaning of the passage is that it is about Israel),or the Alsheich who mentions the messiah, but says that the messiah he means is King David. etc etc.
This 19th century book, then, is the source that "proves" we Jews changed the meaning of the servant from the messiah to Israel. Hardly bullet-proof and yet time and again we must refute it. Quotes from it are found all over the internet (usually without crediting the original source).
Over time I may discuss a number of the sources used by missionaries, most taken from Driver and Neubauer -- sources including Sanhedrin 98, the Zohar, Targum Yonathan (Jonathan), Sefer Gilgulim, etc. For now -- consider the source! In the meantime I suggest reading the article "The Lies and Distortions of Driver in The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters" by Rabbi Moshe Shulman.