Apologists argue that Isaiah chapter 53 gives an uncannily accurate summary of the crucifixion of Jesus. They make their case with verses like these.
- “There were many who were appalled at him; his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being.” Some say this refers to the beatings Jesus received, though the gospels never mention his appearance.
- “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.” This doesn’t sound like the charismatic rabbi who preached to thousands of attentive listeners and had a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
- “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 (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) agree that Jesus was silent before his accusers, though John says the opposite.
- “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death.” This is often interpreted to mean Jesus ought to have been buried with criminals though he was actually buried in the tomb of a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea.
Many verses give 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,” “for the transgression of my people he was punished,” “he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors,” and so on.
Taken individually, these verses look intriguing, but let the chapter speak for itself and the story falls apart. Now consider some of the verses in the same chapter avoided by the apologists.
- “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? Not only was Jesus not internationally famous during his lifetime, history records nothing of his life outside the gospels.
- “He will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.” That’s a nice thought—Jesus endures great trials but then, like Job, he is rewarded with children, prosperity, and long life. Unfortunately, this isn’t how the gospel story plays out.
- “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great and he will divide the spoils with the strong.” Like a warrior who shares in the spoils of the battle, the servant will be rewarded, but he’s just one among many who gets a portion. Does this sound like Jesus—one among equals, just one of the “great”?
This bears scant resemblance to the Jesus of the gospels because this chapter isn’t talking about Jesus. Considering the period when this part of Isaiah was probably written—after the conquest of Judah by Babylon in 586 BCE—this suffering servant is likely the nation of Israel, punished through the Babylonian exile. This is also the traditional Jewish interpretation. In addition, any parallels between the Isaiah 53 “suffering servant” and Jesus are easily explained by the gospel authors using the Jewish scripture to embellish the gospels.
Continue to chapter 24.
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there were many who were appalled at him: Isaiah 52:14 (the Isaiah 53 “prophecy” actually begins at Isaiah 52:13).
the charismatic rabbi who preached to thousands of attentive listeners: Matthew 5–7.
a triumphal entry into Jerusalem: John 12:12–13.
John says the opposite: John 18:34–19:11.
So will many nations be amazed at him and kings will shut their mouths because of him: Isaiah 52:15.