23 Isaiah 53 Prophecy: It’s Talking about Israel, Not Jesus

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.

22 Thought Experiment on Bible Reliability: The Bible’s Dark Ages

Christian apologists argue that the gospel story is historically accurate. One part of that argument claims our modern copy of the New Testament is effectively identical to the original.

This claim fails, and a thought experiment will show why. Suppose I tell you I’m thinking of one specific verse in the New Testament. A few decades after the original manuscript was written, a copyist created a variant version that changed the meaning of the verse. It doesn’t matter how the error got there—maybe he misread the original or omitted something or tried to correct what he honestly thought was an error or tried to “improve” the text to make it align with what he believed. All that matters is that we have a fork in the road, after which point we have two versions—the original and the variant. Let’s further imagine that this is a significant change, not a spelling mistake or other trivial error.

Here’s the twist: one of these traditions is lost to history. I won’t tell you which one. This is almost surely true. (Indeed, how could you prove it wasn’t true that there had been two versions of some New Testament verse, the meaning was significantly different between the two versions, and one version was lost?)

Now I hand you a Bible and demand that you find the verse. Next, tell me if that verse is the variant or the original. Finally, if it’s the incorrect version, tell me the correct reading.

You’d say that’s an impossible challenge. Yes, it is, and that’s the point. For how many verses in the Bible is it true that there was a variant tradition, the change was significant, and one of the traditions (maybe the original or maybe the erroneous one—you can’t tell) has been lost? Zero verses? A thousand? We simply don’t know.

New Testament scholars do impressive work in weighing several variants and judging which one is most likely to be authentic. But what can they do when there were several variants, but history gives us copies of only one? They wouldn’t even know which verses to question.

The time between when Matthew was written and our best copies, averaging the gap chapter by chapter, is two hundred years. It’s a little less for Luke and John and a little more for Mark. How do we know those books made it through that obscure dark period without significant change? Keep in mind that the first Christians thought of the books of the New Testament as merely important works, not sacred scripture, and so they may have been comfortable “improving” them.

While we have plenty of examples of known New Testament errors, apologists will say there is no proof of unknown errors. That’s obviously true, and the modern New Testament could be identical to the original, but that’s very unlikely. The evidence is not there, and apologists are left with just “Our Bible might be an accurate copy of the original.” This is a meager foundation on which to support supernatural claims.

Continue to chapter 23.

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14 God Supports Slavery: And it Was the Same as American Slavery


In the Bible, God defined rules for slavery that made biblical slavery basically identical to American slavery.

The United States had two kinds of servitude. With indentured servitude, Europeans would come to America to work for fellow Europeans. Masters paid for their servants’ transportation, and they provided food, clothes, shelter, and training. In return, the servants were usually obliged to work for five years. Roughly half of the European immigrants to the thirteen colonies came as indentured servants.

The other form of servitude was chattel (ownership) slavery. These slaves were rarely Europeans, and they remained slaves for life, as did any children.

The Old Testament defined the same two categories. Fellow Jews could be slaves, but only for a limited time. God said, “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free.”

Many Christians have heard that this indentured servitude is the extent of biblical slavery. This ignores the other kind, about which God says, “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you. . . . You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life.”

God approved of slavery in the same way he approved of commerce—by regulation. The book of Proverbs admonishes merchants to use fair weights and measures. God’s regulation of commerce makes clear that he approves of it when honestly done, and his many rules about slavery make clear that he approves of that, too. For example, “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.”

Again, this sounds very much like slavery in America, which also had rules to “civilize” it. For example, the 1833 Alabama law code stated, “Any person who shall maliciously dismember or deprive a slave of life, shall suffer such punishment as would be inflicted in case the like offence had been committed on a free white person.”

Christians may defend God by saying that social conditions of the time constrained him, though God didn’t feel bound by the status quo when he imposed the Ten Commandments. They weren’t the Ten Suggestions, and the death penalty backed most of them. If God had room for “Don’t covet,” surely he could find room for “Don’t enslave anyone.” Slavery clearly wasn’t a problem to God in the Bible.

Another response is that Christians helped abolish slavery in the West. That’s true, but the Bible was a tool for Christians on both sides of the issue. During the American Civil War, some in the South argued that abolitionists were apostates for denying the clear meaning of the Bible.

Granted, slavery was common in the Ancient Near East, but surely an all-wise god can rise above manmade customs. That God sanctioned slavery that was as degrading as American slavery makes God look no wiser than a character in a manmade myth.

Continue to chapter 15.

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Ancient Near East: the region that roughly corresponds to the modern Middle East from the beginning of civilization in Sumer through the Bronze and Iron Ages. It includes the Egyptian, Akkadian, Phoenician, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Israelite civilizations and more.

“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years”: Exodus 21:2.

“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you”: Leviticus 25:44–6.

The book of Proverbs admonishes merchants to use fair weights and measures: Proverbs makes this demand four times: in verses 11:1, 16:11, 20:10, and 20:23.

“Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod”: Exodus 21:20–21.

“Any person who shall maliciously dismember or deprive a slave of life”: Alabama slave code of 1833, http://www.archives.state.al.us/teacher/slavery/lesson1/doc1-3.html, section 3.

the death penalty backed most of them: For breaking the first commandment against worshipping another god, see Exodus 22:20. For idols, Exodus 32:27. For blasphemy, Leviticus 24:16. For not keeping the sabbath day holy, Exodus. 31:15. For dishonoring parents, Leviticus 20:9. For killing, Exodus 21:12. For adultery, Leviticus 20:10. For lying, Proverbs 19:9. Stealing and coveting did not always have a death penalty.

“Don’t covet”: Exodus 20:17.

abolitionists were infidels for denying the clear meaning of the Bible: Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press: 2002), 640.