by Nick Gier

excerpted from N. F. Gier, God, Reason, and the Evangelicals (University Press of America, 1987), chapter 8.

The identity of the Servant in Second Isaiah has occupied scores of scholars for many decades.  The proposed candidates are legion:  the Servant is Israel as a whole, a saintly remnant, an ideal nation of the future, a past historical figure (Moses, Cyrus, Isaiah himself), a future historical figure (Jesus favored here of course), and finally, an ideal figure.  Again we find our­selves in the precarious position of drawing theological implica­tions from ancient and obscure poetry.  In his Anchor Bible commentary John L. McKenzie summarily rejects the Christian interpretation of the Servant Songs and favors the ideal figure with a corporate personality.  Such a view would include the ideas of individual and group as well as past, present, and future events.  McKenzie admits that his theory does not explain the references to the vicarious atonement and resurrection of the Servant; but as far as I know, no other theory does this either, not even the Christian view.

If one reads Isaiah 52-53 in context, the first conclusion one must draw is that the Suffering Servant is not the Messiah. The author has already declared that Cyrus is the Lord’s “anointed” (45:1).  (Nowhere do we read that the Servant is “anointed.”)  Even though this messiahship is different in crucial respects–Cyrus is a non-Israelite and he does not “know” Yahweh–it would seem strange for Deutero-Isaiah to have proclaimed two messiahs. Later Jewish prophets and the tradition as a whole did not link the Servant with the Messiah.  Indeed, later prophets without exception ignored the Servant.  As John McKenzie states:  “The Servant is clearly not the King-Messiah; his mission is not conceived in this way, and the images are not the same.  Whether Isaiah meant to replace the King-Messiah by the Servant is not explicit, but it is hinted.”30

            There is one Jewish commentary on Isaiah which does link the Servant and the Messiah.  This is the Targum of Jonathan, which, although the MS. dates from the 5th Century C.E., may reflect a much earlier tradition.  The Targum does identify the Servant with the Messiah, but imputes all suffering to either Israel or the Gentiles:

Then shall the glory of all the kingdoms be despised

and come to an end; they shall be infirm and sick

even as a man of sorrows and as one destined for

sicknesses…they shall be despised and of no account. 

Then he shall pray on behalf of our transgressions

and our iniquities shall be pardoned for his sake,

though we were accounted smitten, stricken

before the Lord, and afflicted.31

It is clear that it is the people as a whole who suffer–they are the Suffering Servant–not the Messiah.

Close scrutiny of the Servant passages reveals that the Servant cannot be Jesus, if we are to read scripture as the evangelicals want us to.  Jesus was not disfigured beyond human recognition (52:14).  Jesus was not “one from whom men hide their faces” (53:3).  Jesus was not “stricken, smitten by God” (53:4), unless we accept Green’s untraditional notion that God was crushed in the Crucifixion.  Jesus did open his mouth; the servant does not (53:7).  Jesus answered, albeit briefly, questions at his trial.  During his passion he spoke to the “daughters of Jerusa­lem” (Lk. 23:28), to the good robber, to his mother, to John, and the people in general.  Jesus was not buried in a felon’s grave (53:9), but allegedly in a rich man’s tomb.32  The Servant’s days are prolonged (53:10), but Jesus’ days are not.  If this means earthly days, as the phrase is commonly taken, then it cannot apply to Jesus.

In her book Jesus and the Servant Morna Hooker has shown that vicarious atonement by a single individual for all people was alien to the Hebrew mind.  The idea of the corporate personality was embedded in the Hebrew mentality.  The Old Testament writers switch from the singular to the plural and vice versa with the greatest of ease, even within the space of two verses (e.g., Hos. 11:1-2).  Hooker’s comparative study of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Deutero-Isaiah shows similar themes and a theology that tends to support the corporate understanding of redemption.  The suffering appears to be in the past and therefore represents the suffering of Israel, not some future suffering figure.  Within the context of Isaiah’s universalism (the nations are speaking at the be­ginning of Is. 53), Hooker identifies the Servant as suffering Israel, atoning for the sins of all.  (The Targum of Jonathan mentioned above confirms that this was a general Jewish belief.)

Like most biblical interpretations, there are certain weak­nesses in both Hooker’s and McKenzie’s accounts.  The principal one is that the people of Israel could not serve as a literal sacrifice (‘asham).  First, the ‘asham had to be spotless and without blemish; and second, the ‘asham, at least according to Hebrew practices, could not be a human being or group of human beings.  This is a serious hermeneutical problem, but it also poses a challenge, at least on the point of human sacrifice, to the orthodox interpretation of the Servant.  Conservative commentators do have grounds to speak of the resurrection of the Servant (cf. 53:9*10), but this again might be seen as the revival of Israel itself.

In this section I have shown that the traditional interpretation that the Suffering Servant foreshadows Jesus, let alone the Messiah, is not supported.  As we look back at the entire discussion of christological titles, we find that none of them are compatible with Old Testament understanding or expectation, except perhaps the adoptionistic reading of “Son of God.”  Evangelical D. H. Wallace honestly recognizes that messianic expectations were “diffuse”; that there were no clear connections between Messiah, Suffering Servant, and Son of Man; and that Jesus avoided the title Messiah because of its political implications.33  The traditional connections between the Old and New Testaments are therefore considerably jeopardized.

I have shown that orthodox Christology not only has shaky New Testament foundations but that there is a significant theological gap between Jewish and Christian understanding of salvation.  (Only the tenuous ad hoc axiom of “progressive” revelation can begin to bridge this gap.)  The Jews, then, had every reason to reject Jesus as the Messiah, and if Jesus indeed claimed to be the divine son of God, then the Jews were justified in their charges of blasphemy (Jn. 10:34).  As J. M. Ford states:  “There is no Jewish tradition of a divine-human Messiah.”34 Early Christians joined world paganism, and betrayed traditional Judaism, by making a preexistent man-God the center of their religion.


1. Kee, Howard C., Jesus in History (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 2nd ed., 1977).

2. Vermes, Geza, “The Gospels without Christology,” God Incarnate: Story and Belief, ed. A.E. Harvey (London, SPCK, 1981).

3. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “Jesus and the Law.”  Paper presented at “Jesus in History and Myth” (University of Michigan, April, 1985).

4. Stott, John R.W., Basic Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972).

5. Perrin, Norman, The New Testament: An Introduction (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1974).

6.  Pontifical Biblical Commission (April 21, 1964), quoted in Raymond E. Brown, Jesus:  God and Man (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1967).

7.  Pannenberg, Wolfhart, “A Liberal Logos Christology,” John Cobb’s Theology in Process, eds. Altizer and Griffin.  He clearly rejects “the old dogmatic view of an immediate divine presence in [Jesus]” (p. 143).

8.  Green, Michael, The Truth of God Incarnate (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977).

9.  The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. G.A. Buttrick, vol. 2 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1962).

10. Isaiah uses the Hebrew word for virgin (betulah) five times but chooses ‘almah, meaning a young woman of marriageable age, for this verse.  Marvin H. Pope refers to a privately printed paper by W. S. La Sor which makes it “abundantly clear that the term ‘almah does not mean ‘virgin'” (The Anchor Bible:  Job, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973).  Evangelical Michael Green again concedes the point:  “Virgin births did not figure in the religious concept of a Jew.  He knew that the word translated ‘virgin’ in that Isaiah passage, ‘almah, meant merely ‘young woman'” (The Truth of God Incarnate, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977).

11. Dahood, Mitchell, The Anchor Psalms, vol. 1 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1966).

12. Arnheim, Michael, Is Christianity True? (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1984).  Even conservatives Keil and Delitzsch have to admit that their own traditional interpretation of this passage “appears to go beyond the bounds of the Old Testament horizon” (Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 7, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976).

13. Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966).

14. Curiously enough, Jesus does refer to Psalm 82 in answering the charges of the Jewish mob which attempts to stone him for blasphemy (Jn. 10:34).  Jesus, like all Jews who knew the scripture well, should have interpreted the ‘elohim in Psalm 82 as men, but then, oddly enough, used the phrase “You are gods” (v. 6) as a way of proving that men can also be gods.  Modern scholarship has confirmed that the ‘elohim are deities whom Yahweh has dethroned for misadministration of their nations (see Dt. 32:8) and has punished by making them into men.  See Gerald Cooke, “The Sons of (the) God(s)”, Zeitschrift fur Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 76 (1964); The Anchor Judges, p. 27f.; Julian Morgenstern, “The Mythological Background of Ps. 82”, (Hebrew Union College Annual 14, 1939); and The Anchor Psalms, vol. 2, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1968).  For more on Hebrew henotheism see ngier/henotheism.htm

15. Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966).

16. Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966).

17. Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966).  Brown supports Jeremiahs’ theory that the famous “No one knows the Son except the Father…” (Mt. 11:27; Lk. 10:22) was originally a parable, so it cannot be confidently taken as an instance of self-designation unless Jesus meant it as an allegory about himself.

18. See Frederick C. Grant, The Gospels:  Their Origin and Growth (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1957) for a reconstruction of Luke’s original baptism story.  Brown believes that an adoptionistic Christology based on obedience and some special revelation at Jesus’ baptism has, at least in the Gospels, insufficient and unconvincing support.

     19.  Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984).

20.  Buchanan, G.W., The Anchor Bible: To the Hebrews (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Co., 1972).

21. Young, Francis, “A Cloud of Witness,” The Myth of God Incarnate.

22. See Robert C. Grant, Early Christian Doctrine of God (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1966). John Cobb gives this rationale for the angel Christology: “In the context of the two-story view the angel Christology was conceptually quite clear.  First, the existence of heavenly created beings among whom one was superior to the others was perfectly acceptable.  Second, it was understandable that these beings could take human form and appear on earth and then subsequently return to their heavenly place.  The language used, of God’s sending his Son into the world and then exalting him, expresses this understanding” (Christ in a Pluralistic Age, Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1975).

23.  Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966).  “Jesus is never called God in the Synoptic Gospels, and a passage like Mk. 10:18 would seem to preclude the possibility that Jesus used the title of himself” (p. 30).

24.  Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966). Brown assumes that the earliest Christians remained committed to the strict separation of God and humans:  “The New Testament does not predicate ‘God’ of Jesus with any frequency…For the Jews ‘God’ meant the heavenly Father; and until a wider understanding of the term was reached it could not be readily applied to Jesus” (ibid.).  Bruce Vawter agrees:  “Here ‘God’ is used predicatively, without the article:  the Word, whom he has just distinguished from the Person of God, is nevertheless a divine being in his own right” (The Four Gospels: An Introduction, vol. 1, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969).  Protestant Howard Kee also agrees that there is no identity between the Johannine logos and God (op. cit., p. 244).  Brown argues that Moffatt’s translation “the Word was divine” is too weak.  If the author intended this, then the word theios would have been used instead (Jesus:  God and Man, p. 26).

25.  Hackett, Stuart, The Reconstruction of Theism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984).

26. Hooker, Morna, The Son of Man in Mark (Montreal, Canada: McGill University Press, 1971).  Hooker is another example of admirable scholarly integrity.  In this book she goes against her liberal colleagues, but in her Jesus and the Servant she follows the historical-grammatical method to a very radical conclusion.

27.  Hartman, Louis F. and Alexander A. Di Lella, The Anchor Bible: The Book of Daniel (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1978).  Evangelical Dewey Beegle is quite correct in concluding that this prediction, like all other Old Testament prophecies, was “short-range” in its intent (Scripture, Authority, and Infallibility [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, rev. ed., 1973]).

28.  T. W. Manson, “Son of Man in Daniel, Enoch, and the Gospels,” p. 174.  Hartman and Di Lella observe that “the Son of Man did not descend or come from God…but rather he ascended or came to God and was brought into his presence” (op. cit., p. 102).  Dennis C. Duling concurs:  “The apocalyptic son of man, though sometimes pictured as preexistent by late Judaism, was never considered in Jewish texts to descend to earth”  (Jesus Christ Through History, New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1979).  Incidentally, Norman Geisler’s view that God and the Son of Man are identified in v. 22 has no exegetical basis whatever (Christian Apologetics, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1976).

29.  Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984).

30.  McKenzie, John L, The Anchor Bible:  Second Isaiah (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968).   J. B. Payne’s attempt to prove that the Jewish Messiah was connected with suffering and humiliation is an unfortunate display of rationalist harmonizing.  I simply do not understand his use of Is. 7:15; the “anointed one…cut off” in Dan. 9:26 “refers almost certainly to the murder of high priest Onias III in 171 B.C.E.”  (The Anchor Daniel, p. 252); and the “triumphant and victorious” Messiah of Zech. 9:9 is “humble” not humiliated.  See Payne’s entry in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 1007, first column.

31. Quoted in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3, ed. G.A. Buttrick (Nashville. TN: Abingdon, 1962).  Evangelical D. H. Wallace concedes that because of the late date of the Targums one cannot assume that the Servant was made Messiah in the intertestamental period. (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984]).

32. The RSV has an ambiguous “grave with the wicked and with a rich man…,” which Payne of course exploits; but McKenzie believes that “rich man” was a conjectural emendation (op. cit., p. 130).

33. See Wallace’s entry in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 711, first column.

34. Ford, J. Massynberde, The Anchor Bible:  Revelation (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975).

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