Isaiah 53 & the Suffering Servant

Isaiah 53

1 Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2 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.
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

It is common practice for the amateur or would-be apologist to appeal to Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant as a prophecy of Christ’s suffering on the cross. But, to do so reveals an appalling ignorance of the historical and biblical context of the passage. Even professional apologists such as Dr. Gregory Boyd (featured in The Case for Christ) and J.P. Holding (of Tektonics Ministries) realize the fallacy of this argument. To quote Holding on the false notion that “OT prophecy fulfillment is a good apologetic:”

It actually isn’t useful in the way it was at first. We need to understand (as do Skeptics) Jewish exegesis of the first century … we cannot present an apologetic on this basis as we normally have; or else we are forced into a corner of explaining ie, why the NT allegedly uses OT passages “out of context.”

There you have it from a popular and well-informed Christian apologist.

So, to what or whom does Isaiah 53 refer in its historical and biblical context?

Isaiah 53 was composed in the 6th century BC in order to express the hardship and vicarious suffering of the righteous and innocent, Israelite captives to Babylon, as well as their eventual vindication at the hands of Persian intercessors. The suffering is even presented in the past tense–not what we’d expect of a prophecy of things to come. In the preceding chapters, Isaiah abundantly tips us off as to whom the servant is:

Isaiah 41:8 But thou, Israel, [art] my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend. [9] [Thou] whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called thee from the chief men thereof, and said unto thee, Thou [art] my servant; I have chosen thee, and not cast thee away.

[44:1] Yet now hear, O Jacob my servant; and Israel, whom I have chosen: [2] Thus saith the LORD that made thee, and formed thee from the womb, [which] will help thee; Fear not, O Jacob, my servant; and thou, Jesurun, whom I have chosen.

[44:21] Remember these, O Jacob and Israel; for thou [art] my servant: I have formed thee; thou [art] my servant: O Israel, thou shalt not be forgotten of me.

[45:4]For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me.

[49:3] And said unto me, Thou [art] my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.

Of course, there are a number of reasons that one would mistake Isaiah 53 for a prophetic charade about Christ.

1) The New Testament itself spins the passage out of context in Acts 8:26-40. Already within the biblical canon, the fallacious practice of prooftexting and cherry-picking had begun. The practice has continued ever since.

2) Isaiah 53 stems from the sacrificial cult of early, Yahwistic Judaism–a tradition, by the way, rooted in the barbaric practice of scapegoating, in which the sins of the tribe were cast upon an innocent goat who was driven into the desert to starve (Leviticus 16), or hurled off a rugged cliff to its bone-crushing demise. This barbarism was not at all unique to Judaism, as it was played out in several ancient, pagan civilizations. The story of Jesus simply applies the same type of crude theology and cult practice.

3) Isaiah 53 is modeled after the dying & rising god motif of antiquity. As Dr. Robert M. Price explains in his essay, Did “Top Psychics” Predict Jesus?:

…we are dealing with a fossil of the ancient New Year’s Festival, which, like its prototype in Babylon, renewed the heavenly mandate of the monarchy by having the king undergo, in ritual drama, the fate of the ancient gods whose kingship he represented on earth. Psalm 74 and 89 preserve substantial fragments of the myth of Yahve’s primordial combat with the dragons Leviathan, Behemoth, Rahab and Tiamat, as well as the ensuing creation of the world and ascension of the young warrior god to kingship among his brethren, the sons of El Elyon. Like his analogues in Babylon and elsewhere, the king of Judah must have annually renewed his divine right to rule by ritually reenacting this combat. It is to such continued ritual use that we owe their preservation of such mythemes in the biblical canon at all.

In the same way, the kings of Babylon, Iran, etc., as part of the same ritual, would re-enact the death and resurrection of a god (Tammuz, Baal. etc.), a drama in which the king ritually assumed the burden of the fertility of the land and the sins of his people. Sometimes this entailed a mock death, sometimes the actual death of a poor surrogate chosen by lot, sometimes a mere ritual humiliation, as when the Babylonian high priest publicly removed the king’s crown, tweaked his ears, and slapped his face. Protesting his innocence, the king would don his robe and crown again and rise to full power once more, redeeming his people in a ritual atonement in which he himself had played the role of scapegoat. Isaiah 52:13-15; 53:1-12 seems to reflect the Hebrew version of the same liturgy, which gave way after the Exile (with no king on the throne any more) to the familiar Yom Kippur ritual. Another surviving vestige of the worship of Tammuz and his divine consort Ishtar Shalmith (“the Shulamite”) is the Song of Songs. Remember that Ezekiel attests explicitly the continuation of the worship of Tammuz in Jerusalem in Ezekiel 8:14.

The dying & rising god cults, or mystery religions as they became known, were originally agricultural faiths whose central deities symbolized the death and rebirth of croplife–thus the spring celebrations of popular gods like Attis. Over time, man came to believe that performing certain rituals of initiation could mystically unite him with the fate of the risen god, effecting for him a spiritual death and rebirth already in this life, and, ultimately, a blessed existence in the next. This mystical concept is explicit in Romans 6:3-5, Philippians 3:10-11, Colossians 2:12, etc., in which baptismal initiation of the Christian neophyte brings about his metaphorical death and resurrection to new life in Christ, with the implication that he will share literally in the gift of eternal life to come.

One of the most illuminating passages on the ancient mysteries comes to us from Apuleius’ work, Metamorphoses, in which the initiate into the cult of Isis had “approached the frontiers of death” in unison with Osiris and, by “a kind of voluntary death and salvation through divine grace,” they “returned … in a manner reborn … set once more upon the course of renewed life.” Likewise, the initiate into the Christian mysteries was “baptized into Christ Jesus … into his death … buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead … [they] too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:3-4).

The conceptual roots of this salvation scheme date to the 2nd millennium BC according to ancient Egyptian burial inscriptions, wherein the devotee is mystically identified with Osiris: “as Osiris died, so has [the believer] died; and as Osiris rose, so shall [the believer] rise.” The Hebrews, having been exposed to ancient Egyptian, Canaanite and Mesopotamian customs, carried forth this idea when, in Isaiah 53, the Suffering Servant is “cut off from the land of the living,” though he will subsequently “see the light of life.”

Thus, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and the story of Jesus, as well as numerous other dying & rising gods from antiquity, are all based on the same ancient religious archetype. One need not posit prophecy or psychic powers in order to explain the natural perpetuation of a long-standing tradition. Of course, early Christian prooftexters, like the author of Acts, were all too happy to appeal to Isaiah 53 in order to give Jesus’ story an air of divine providence. But, as we have seen, the passage must be understood in terms of its historical and biblical context, as well as its heritage to ancient, pagan religion.

Faced with these facts, the apologist, out of sheer desperation, may attempt to suggest that Isaiah 53 presents a “double prophecy,” in which it can serve to stand for either the Israelite captives to Babylon or the suffering of Christ. This, I must regard as pure tauruscatics, i.e. bullshit. Why on earth would God choose to be so ambiguous when the reader’s eternal well-being is on the line? And, again, why is the suffering presented in the past tense, if not for the simple fact that the passage refers exclusively to the Babylonian Exile? The claim to “double prophecy” just doesn’t add up. Alas, this is the standard nonsense that the apologist must foist if they are to maintain their bogus position. Spin-doctoring and bullshit artistry are their stock-in-trade.

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