Missionary Misuse of Jewish Sources on Isaiah 53, Rashi "changed" the Jewish interpretation from the messiah to Israel
This is an oft repeated missionary claim: the ancient Jewish sources all agreed that the messiah (moshiach ben David) was the subject of Isaiah 53, but that רבי שלמה יצחקי / R' Solomon Isaac aka Rashi (1040 CE - 1105 CE) changed the entire Jewish view of Isaiah 53 from the messiah to Israel as a direct response against Christianity.
Jews for Jesus claims "Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105) and some of the later rabbis, though, interpreted the passage as referring to Israel. They knew that the older interpretations referred it to Messiah. However, Rashi lived at a time when a degenerate medieval distortion of Christianity was practiced. He wanted to preserve the Jewish people from accepting such a faith and, although his intentions were sincere, other prominent Jewish rabbis and leaders realized the inconsistencies of Rashi's interpretation."
This is a very interesting claim given that there is source after source after source pre-dating Rashi by nearly 1000 years which state the exact opposite of this missionary statement -- made (you will note) as if it is a factual statement and not their opinion.
In 248 CE -- 792 years before the birth of Rashi -- early church father Ὠριγένης / Origen (184 CE - 284 CE) wrote that ancient Christians knew that the literal meaning by Jews was that the servant in Isaiah 53 is the Jewish people. “bore reference to the whole [Jewish] 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, 248 C.E., Contra Celsum.
So much for the missionary claim that "the older interpretations" (of Isaiah 53) referred it to Messiah."
Did Origen miss the missionary message?
If Rashi did not invent the idea that the servant in Isaiah was Israel, why do so many missionaries claim that he did?
It all goes back to that 19th century book written by the missionary E.B. Pusey The 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) -- as mentioned even on Jews for Jesus as quoted above -- popped up in the 19th century thanks to the book The 53rd Chapter of Isaiah According to Jewish Interpreters by Driver and Neubauer.
Missionaries so often just repeat a claim made by other missionaries. Isn't it interesting that the quote in the previous post (about Midrash Tanchuma) appears in so many missionary locations? It might add credibility to the missionaries if they chose differing quotations -- but they all parrot the same misuses!
Aside from the Christian Origen (2nd century CE) do we have any other proofs that the Jewish sages noted that the servant in Isaiah 53 is the Jewish nation?
Of course we do.
The missionaries reference Targum Yonatan (Jonathan) to prove that ancient Jews spoke of the messiah in Isaiah 53 and reference the Targum for proof. Well and good, but the Targum also speaks of the servant as being Israel (the Jewish people) -- something the missionaries never seem to mention! The messiah (in this allegorical story using Isaiah 53 as its "jumping off" point) is an exalted messiah -- not the suffering Jesus concept. Nowhere in Targum Yonatan does it speak of a suffering messiah. It speaks of an EXALTED messiah. The suffering servant in the Targum is Israel -- Jews. There is a blog post on the missionary misuse of Targum Yonatan.
So much for the missionary claim that Rashi "invented" the idea that Isaiah's suffering servant is Israel rather than the messiah. It simply is not true.
We needn't rely on a Christian source or even the Targum Yonatan to show that the primary consensus among Jewish sources is that in the ps'hat (plain meaning) the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 is the Jewish people -- there are plenty of other sources pre-dating Rashi which state the same thing.
In the Babylonian Talmud, בְּרָכֹות / Berachot 5a, pre-dating Rashi by at least 500 years, states that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is the Jewish people "If the Holy One, blessed be He, is pleased with Israel or man, He crushes him with painful sufferings. For it is said: And the L-rd was pleased with [him, hence] He crushed him by disease (Isa. 53:10). Now, you might think that this is so even if he did not accept them with love. Therefore it is said: "To see if his soul would offer itself in restitution" (Isa. 53:10). Even as the trespass-offering must be brought by consent, so also the sufferings must be endured with consent. And if he did accept them, what is his reward? "He will see his seed, prolong his days" (Isa. 53:10). And more than that, his knowledge [of the Torah] will endure with him. For it is said: "The purpose of the Lord will prosper in his hand" (Isa. 53:10). It has been taught: R. Simeon b. Yohai says: The Holy One, blessed be He, gave Israel three precious gifts, and all of them were given only through sufferings.. These are: The Torah, the Land of Israel and the World To Come."
Note that Jews for Jesus and the other missionary sources somehow miss this Talmudic quote regarding Isaiah's suffering servant!
A noted scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls and early Christianity in the first century of the common era, Geza Vermes, wrote "Neither the suffering of the messiah, nor his death and resurrection, appear to be part of the faith of first century Judaism." (Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Reading of the Gospels, page 38). Vermes was a British scholar of Jewish Hungarian roots who became a Catholic priest, and even accumulated many accolades as a Christian scholar while a Roman Catholic priest. Geza Vermes was born a Jew to Hungarian parents who were Jews and were murdered by the Nazis. He was taken in by Catholics (I think nuns) and raised as a Roman Catholic. So, when he, as adult, found out about his heritage, he decided to RETURN to Judaism.
Tanna D'Bei Eliyahu Rabbah (Midrash, so not a literal interpretation), has three citations referencing that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 refers to the righteous of Israel (chapters 6, 13, 27).
Additional sources pre-dating Rashi:
Yalkut Shimoni II 476
Bamidbar Rabbah chapter 13.2
Zohar (numerous places)
Poems by R. Shlomo Ibn Gavriel
Isaiah himself often refers to the Jewish people as G-d's servant. Chapters are a Christian invention -- but even so in chapters 41, 44, 45, 48 and 49 Jacob (another name for the Jewish people) and Israel (another name for the Jewish people) are stated repeatedly to be G-d's servant.
Finally, the missionary argument that early Jewish sources referred to Isaiah's servant as the messiah and we "changed" it is false -- but it is also a straw horse. It is a diversion from the true question at hand, to whit -- can Isaiah 53 possibly be about Jesus? The answer to that question is a resounding "no." Jesus did not live a long life. He did not have children. He was not exalted in life. He did not die multiple deaths. . .
There are Jewish sources who view the servant in Isaiah 53 as the Jewish people, as the messiah, as Moses, as David -- there are many interpretations (most not meant literally). The consensus of Jewish opinion is that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is the Jewish people -- but if it can be applied to others as well it cannot be applied to Jesus -- and that is the question a Christian must ask as they read the T'nach (Jewish bible) for what it truly says -- not what taking a word or sentence out of context forces it to seem to say.
It often seems that the only passage in the T'nach a missionary ever reads is Isaiah 53. When proselytizing a Jew the very first argument from a missionary tends to be "Isaiah 53's suffering servant can't possibly be Israel (the Jews)."
Respectfully, this is the wrong question.
As a Christian the missionary should be taking a cold, hard look at Isaiah 53 and asking themselves "Can this passage possibly be about Jesus?"
To which the answer is a resounding "no."
As you might have noticed in the 365 Prophecies? section of this blog the "proofs" missionary references in the T'nach (Jewish bible) regarding Jesus tend to fall into one of four categories:
All four of these misuses of scripture are found in Christian translations and interpretations of Isaiah 53.
These are just some glaring examples showing that the servant in Isaiah 53 simply does not "fit" Jesus.
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 53:5 is not in the list above -- but it is usually badly translated in Christian versions which usually have: “He was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities." This is incorrect and conveys the wrong impression that the servant suffered FOR others (as in "Jesus died for your sins"). The correct translation is: “He (the servant) was wounded because of our transgressions (מִפְּשָׁעֵ֔נוּ / pesha), and crushed because of our iniquities (מֵעֲוֹנֹתֵ֑ינוּ / avon).” This conveys that the Servant suffered as a result of the sinfulness of others – not the opposite as Christians contend – that the Servant suffered to atone for the sins of others.
Some missionaries will state that the Great Isaiah Scroll (an ancient copy of Isaiah) bears out their mistranslation of "because of" rather than "for" -- but this is not true. The Hebrew in the Great Isaiah Scroll is the same as those in Jewish versions today -- it has a mem in all of those instances ergo those who say the Great Isaiah Scroll says "because of" are relying on yet another mistranslation.
The following is a quote from "A General Introduction to the Bible" concerning this Isaiah Scroll. "Of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, there are only 17 letters in question. Ten of these letters are simply a matter of spelling, which does not affect the sense. Four more letters are minor stylistic changes, such as conjunctions. The three remaining letters comprise the word LIGHT, which is added in verse 11 and which does not affect the meaning greatly. . . Thus, in one chapter of 166 words, there is only one word (three letters) in question after a thousand years of transmission - and this word does not significantly change the meaning of the passage." (Norman Geisler & William Nix, "A General Introduction to the Bible", Moody Press, Page 263). Now, the Great Isaiah Scroll is NOT reliable and contains scribal spelling errors. Most of the differences are simply grammatical -- it most likely was in a genizah (a "graveyard" for defective copies) -- BUT the content is the same as the Hebrew we have today (even if there are some minor variations). The missionaries who try to use it as proof that Jews have "changed" Isaiah 53 are not learned in Hebrew and most likely are repeating what they've read or heard from other missionaries.
The Torah has different methods of atonement for different types of wrongdoings. . . "Sin” is a חֵטְא / cheit -- an unintentional sin through carelessness — a “missing of the mark." If Jesus died for sin then he died for mistakes -- not for more serious wrongdoings.
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 53:5 does not speak of "sin." It speaks of far more serious wrongdoings for which no sacrifice could be brought. I wrote about the different types of wrongdoings in this post. An עוון avon (iniquity - the impulsive / lustful actions) or פֶּֽשַׁע pĕsha (transgression, willful rebellion against G-d) are mentioned in Y'shayahu / Isaiah 53:5 and neither could be atoned for with sacrifices (with the exception listed a few עוון avon that are listed in Vayikra / Leviticus 5 -- such as certain thefts or if a person was unsure if he had sinned).
Isaiah is saying that the servant was wounded because people were guilty of committing עוון avon (iniquity - the impulsive / lustful actions) and פֶּֽשַׁע pĕsha (transgression, willful rebellion against G-d) against the servant. Again -- was Jesus the victim of lustful, impulsive actions against him? How about evil deeds done in defiance of G-d -- was Jesus the victim of acts of evil done on purpose to defy G-d? A missionary might claim "yes" -- and an argument could be made that his death was an act against the evil actions of others -- but this is NOT the missionary claim that Jesus was “He was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities." Many, many people have been the victim of the evil actions of others -- including victims of crime today. Even if the correct translation "fit" Jesus it is one out of many he does not "fit."
Simply viewing the passages in the short list it is clear that Jesus does not "fit" Isaiah's suffering servant.
Quite simply, unless one ignores context, mistranslated words ("guilt" becomes "guilt sacrifice", "executions" becomes the singular" and so forth), and even complete opposites (Jesus being killed with criminals rather than among the rich) it is abundantly clear that Jesus does not "fit" the servant in Isaiah 53.
In the other section of this blog I am tackling a missionary list found on the internet in multiple locations with "365 Messianic Prophecies Jesus Fulfilled" to see, one by one, if they stand up to inspection. Having reached #100 on the list Isaiah 53 has not yet been reached. Each missionary claim for Isaiah 53 will be tackled, one by one, when it appears on the list (around 228, 229 on the list).
I leave you with one final thought. The missionary who begins by stating "Isaiah 53 can't be about Israel (the Jews) says this, normally with a comment such as "servant of Isaiah 53 is an innocent and guiltless sufferer. Israel is never described as sinless." Actually, the servant is never described as sinless. Missionaries tend to lump every Jew who ever lived into their analysis -- including apostate Jews who became atheists, or Christians. If one Jew who ever lived wasn't murdered (as the servant is said to die multiple deaths in executions) these missionaries will declare that the servant cannot be the Jews.
Does this missionary argument hold up on inspection?
Read D'varim / Deuteronomy 30. Moses tells the people that there will come a time when the Jewish people will exiled from the land, and only a remnant (a small number) will remain faithful to G-d. Even Y'shayahu / Isaiah (chapter 10:20) states "the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob."
The servant in Isaiah 53 is the righteous remnant of Jews who, throughout history, have remained faithful to G-d and His covenant with us. This is not some "excuse." Time and again the T'nach (bible) tells us that the Jews will be exiled as a punishment and that over time only a few, a "righteous remnant" will remain. It is this righteous few who are the suffering servant of Isaiah.
The missionaries should read a prophet they rarely if ever mention, Tzefaniah / Zephaniah, who wrote (chapter 3) a passage which echoes Y'shayahu / Isaiah 53 and Y'rmiyahu / Jeremiah's "new" covenant as well "And I will leave over in your midst a humble and poor people, and they shall take shelter in the name of the L-rd. The remnant of Israel shall neither commit injustice nor speak lies; neither shall deceitful speech be found in their mouth, for they shall graze and lie down, with no one to cause them to shudder. Sing, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O Israel! Rejoice and celebrate wholeheartedly, O daughter of Jerusalem!"
Tzefaniah / Zephaniah 3:13 "neither shall deceitful speech be found in their mouth"
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 53:9 "there was no deceit in his mouth."
Time and again the prophet Y'shayahu / Isaiah declares that Israel (the Jewish people) are G-d's servant. Y'shayahu / Isaiah 41:8 - 9. "But you, Israel My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham, who loved Me, Whom I grasped from the ends of the earth, and from its nobles I called you, and I said to you, "You are My servant"; I chose you and I did not despise you."
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 44:1. "And now, hearken, Jacob (Jacob's name was changed to Israel and Jews are often called "Jacob" and "Israel") My servant, and Israel whom I have chosen. 2. So said HaShem your Maker, and He Who formed you from the womb shall aid you. Fear not, My servant Jacob, and Jeshurun (the Jews) whom I have chosen."
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 44:21 "Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant; O Israel, I will not forget you."
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 45:4. "For the sake of My servant Jacob, and Israel My chosen one, and I called to you by your name; I surnamed you, yet you have not known Me."
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 49:3 - 7. "And He said to me (Isaiah), "You are My servant, Israel, about whom I will boast. . . This is what HaShem says- the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel- to him who was despised and abhorred by the nations, to the servant of rulers: "Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down, because of HaShem , who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."
Note one particular phrase in chapter 49 of Isaiah and contrast it with Isaiah 53:
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 49:7 "to him (my servant Israel) who was despised and abhorred by the nations"
Y'shayahu / Isaiah 53:3 "Despised and rejected by men."
and from Jeremiah:
Y'rmiyahu / Jeremiah 30:10 " 'So do not fear, O Jacob my servant; do not be dismayed, O Israel,' declares HaShem."
Also see Isaiah 42:19-20; 43:10 to see that Israel is the servant, nowhere is this term used for the messiah. Jeremiah 30:10 also names Israel as the servant and Jeremiah 30:17 says that the servant Israel is regarded by the nations as an outcast, forsaken by G-d, just like in Isaiah 53:4.
The purpose of this post is not to prove to missionaries that the servant in Isaiah 53 is Israel. That is immaterial to the question of whether or not the servant could possibly fit Jesus. It should be clear, having read this post, that Jesus was not Isaiah's servant. Having determined that the servant is not Jesus, the next logical question is to read Isaiah 53 in context of the entire book of Isaiah to determine whether the righteous remnant of Israel fits the description alone, or in combination with someone else.
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.
Sophiee Saguy has been countering false missionary claims about Judaism and the T'nach (Jewish bible) for nearly twenty years. You may find her on FaceBook and at the Messiah Truth forum.