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The Isaiah 53 Controversy

Did Isaiah 53 speak of Jesus?

Every Sabbath in synagogues throughout the world, a portion of Scripture is read out from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. The readings are part of a yearly cycle, ending every year at the celebration called Simchat Torah, after which the Torah scroll is re- rolled and returned to Genesis 1.

In the service, after the Torah reading there is a second reading, from other Old Testament Scriptures, mainly from the Books of the Prophets. These are the Haftarah readings. There is a Christian urban legend that speaks of an anomaly in the cycle of Haftarah readings. It asserts that, as part of the cycle, the complete Book of Isaiah is read out, but that one portion is skipped. This is the portion that includes Isaiah 53, the famous 'suffering servant' verses. The reasoning is that the Jewish religious authorities are so embarrassed that these verses speak of Jesus that they hide them away from their congregants in case they hear them and immediately get converted to Christianity!

Let's get real, because there is a measure of truth here, but it's mixed up with some wild exaggerations. Firstly, the annual cycle of Haftarah readings nowhere nearly covers all the books of the Prophets, in fact only just over a third of the Book of Isaiah is covered. What is true though is that, around September time, there are subsequent weeks when Isaiah is covered. The first week, the Shoftim Torah reading, has Isaiah 51:12 - Isaiah 52:12 as the Haftarah portion. The second week, the Ki Tetse Torah reading, has Isaiah 54:1-10 as the Haftarah portion. The verses that are skipped are Isaiah 52:13 - Isaiah 53:12, the section that is labeled The Suffering and Glory of the Servant in your NIV Bible.

So, it is true that our contentious section of Scripture is skipped over, but we could equally ask why the Haftarah readings are never taken from Isaiah Chapters 2-5, 8, 10-26, 30-39, 45-48, 59, 64, 65 or 66?

Nit-picking aside, what really is so special about the section of Scripture known as The Suffering and Glory of the Servant? Well, we are quite familiar with some of the key verses.

Here is a particularly familiar extract:

"Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Isaiah 53:1-6)

Our first task is to be absolutely clear as to who is being referred to in this passage, rather than just say, 'Oh yes, that's Jesus, isn't it?' We need to look at the context, in case we are  'conned by the text'. The passage is introduced in Isaiah 52:13, where the entity is called the  servant. I am treading carefully here and even avoiding personalization (i.e. using the word 'entity' rather than 'person') because those perceived fears of the Jewish religious establishment mentioned earlier are real fears after all. If this suffering servant could point to Jesus, as it seems to do in Christian eyes, then some open-minded Jews might start to recognize the Messiah here, Rabbis forbid!

So, who is this suffering servant? More next week.

Steve Maltz
July 2012

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book 'Jesus Man of Many Names')

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