by J. Luis Dizon

Recently, Orthodox Jewish apologist Tovia Singer wrote an article on why the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 must be understood as the people of Israel, rather than the Messiah. The article has subsequently been reposted by various Muslim apologetics blogs as evidence against the Christian concept of atonement, although they, like Christians, accept that Jesus is the Messiah—which makes their use of arguments by Jewish counter-missionaries against the Messiahship of Jesus all that more baffling. As others have pointed out, if the Rabbinic Jewish argument holds, then it is just as damning of Islam as it is of Christianity.

That being said, I want to concentrate on one specific aspect of Rabbi Singer’s argument regarding Isaiah 52:13-53:12, and this concerns the Christian appeal to rabbinic sources in support of the Messianic interpretation of the passage in question, with a particular focus on the targum of Jonathan b. Uzziel. The exegesis of the Isaiah passage itself, while relevant, is the subject of another article.

At the outset, I find Rabbi Singer’s accusation of selective quoting by Christian missionaries to be somewhat disingenuous. The reason for this is that Rabbinic Judaism has a massive body of literature, with many conflicting opinions by rabbis and sages throughout history. One need only read through the Talmud to see how many opinions exist among the rabbinic sages on any given issue. Because of this, no orthodox Jew is expected to adhere to every single opinion put forward by any given rabbi or set of rabbis. The general rule is to follow the opinion of the majority, and even then there are cases where the majority rule isn’t necessarily the one that holds. So to the rabbi’s charge that we are affirming parts of the Rabbinic writings and not others, I would say that yes, we do indeed do that. But so does he. I may affirm some things in those writings and reject others, and he will reject those parts that I affirm and affirm those that I reject. And that’s fine, because we all have the right to agree on some points and dissent on others. If adherents of Rabbinic Judaism are not expected to adhere to every single rabbinic opinion, how much more with Christians who do not regard such opinions as authorities.

But if Christians don’t hold to the rabbinic sources as authoritative, then why quote them? The reason for this is simple: Any religious group, when dialoguing with any other religious group, will inevitably have to contend with the contents of that other group’s religious texts. This is why Muslims will quote the Bible in debates with Christians, even though they don’t regard the Bible as authoritative, and why Christians do the same with the Qur’an. On the Jewish side, it isn’t unusual for a Jew who is familiar with the New Testament to appeal to passages from it in dialogues with Christians. Doing so doesn’t mean they accept its message about the messiahship of Jesus.

Furthermore, it is perfectly reasonable to affirm something from a source one normally wouldn’t agree with without being expected to affirm everything that source says. For example, Richard Dawkins is a militant atheist who expresses nothing but contempt for Christianity, so naturally I disagree with him when he speaks about it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t agree with him on other issues, such as when he speaks about Feminism, or Radical Islam (as much as I dislike him for his militant Atheism, someone who draws the ire of can’t be all that bad). I can reasonably dissociate his statements about Christianity from his statements on Islam and Feminism without being inconsistent.

That being said, we can now examine Targum Jonathan and the Christian appeal to it. Having read through the Targum’s entire section on the Suffering Servant passage, I can say that there is a very good reason why Christians affirm a part of it but not the rest, and it is this: Targum Jonathan is internally inconsistent. Let me explain: If one looks at his gloss on Isaiah 52:13, he explicitly affirms, as Rabbi Singer quotes in his article, that Jonathan regarded the Servant as the Messiah. The original text of the verse says:

הִנֵּ֥ה יַשְׂכִּ֖יל עַבְדִּ֑י יָר֧וּם וְנִשָּׂ֛א וְגָבַ֖הּ מְאֹֽד

Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. (ESV)

Jonathan renders the same verse thus:

Behold, my servant the Messiah shall prosper; he shall be exalted and great and very powerful.[1]

Having affirmed the Messiahship of the Servant, however, Jonathan is now caught in the horns of a dilemma: He rejects the notion of a suffering Messiah, yet the Servant in question suffers. How does he reconcile these two things? If one looks at the rest of his Targum on Isaiah, one finds that he has a tendency to rework the text to make it say what he wants it to say. As Samson Levey notes in his comments to the Targum on Isaiah:

This is an excellent example of Targumic paraphrase at its best. It is not translation, nor is it loose and meaningless commentary, but a reworking of the text to yield what the Targumist desires it to give forth. He snatches at words and phrases in the Hebrew, usually the key word or phrase in the verse, and on the basis of these he structures his interpretation. The mechanics of derivation in this instance, in detail, may easily be detected by comparing the Targumic version with the text.[2]

One of the main examples of this kind of reworking is how he handles the text of Isaiah 53:4-6. The text as it is found in the Bible states:

אָכֵ֤ן חֳלָיֵ֙נוּ֙ ה֣וּא נָשָׂ֔א וּמַכְאֹבֵ֖ינוּ סְבָלָ֑ם וַאֲנַ֣חְנוּ חֲשַׁבְנֻ֔הוּ נָג֛וּעַ מֻכֵּ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים וּמְעֻנֶּֽה׃ וְהוּא֙ מְחֹלָ֣ל מִפְּשָׁעֵ֔נוּ מְדֻכָּ֖א מֵעֲוֺנֹתֵ֑ינוּ מוּסַ֤ר שְׁלוֹמֵ֙נוּ֙ עָלָ֔יו וּבַחֲבֻרָת֖וֹ נִרְפָּא־לָֽנוּ׃ כֻּלָּ֙נוּ֙ כַּצֹּ֣אן תָּעִ֔ינוּ אִ֥ישׁ לְדַרְכּ֖וֹ פָּנִ֑ינוּ וַֽיהוָה֙ הִפְגִּ֣יעַ בּ֔וֹ אֵ֖ת עֲוֺ֥ן כֻּלָּֽנוּ

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (ESV)

Now here is the text as it has been reworked by Jonathan in his Targum. Note what kinds of changes he makes to the text:

Then he shall seek pardon for our sins, and our iniquities shall be forgiven for his sake, though we are considered stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. And he shall rebuild the Temple, which was profaned because of our sins, and which was surrendered because of our iniquities; through his instruction, his peace shall abound for us, and when we teach his words our sins shall be forgiven us. All of us were scattered like sheep, we were exiled, each in his own direction, but it is the will of God to pardon the sins of all of us on his account.[3]

It should be clear why Jonathan does what he does with the text: Because he wants to have his Messianic cake and eat it too. He wants to affirm that the Servant is the Messiah, because for him the Messiahship of the Servant is crystal clear. But he doesn’t want to affirm that the Messiah is a Suffering Servant, so he ingeniously transfers the sufferings from the servant onto the people (ie. The Nation of Israel). The targum also omits references to atonement: Through the Messiah’s work, his people’s sins are forgiven, but the mechanism that is stated in the Bible (ie. The Messiah’s sufferings) is removed.

This presents numerous problem with Rabbi Singer’s argument regarding Isaiah 52:13-53:12, because according to him, the Suffering Servant (a.k.a. the people of Israel) intercedes for the sins of the Gentile peoples through their sufferings. Yet according to the Jonathan:

  1. The Servant is the Messiah, not the people of Israel, or even a righteous remnant therein.[4]
  2. The Servant does not suffer, which contradicts both the Christian and Orthodox Jewish views regarding the passage.
  3. The people for whom the Servant makes intercession are the people of Israel, not the Gentiles.

This phenomenon exists not only with Targum Jonathan’s gloss on Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Jonathan does the same with Isaiah 9:6 (9:5 in the Hebrew). In agreement with Christians, but contrary to most Orthodox Jews, Jonathan accepts the Messianic interpretation of this verse. But this presents a problem for Jonathan, because in the biblical text, the child is explicitly called God:

כִּי־יֶ֣לֶד יֻלַּד־לָ֗נוּ בֵּ֚ן נִתַּן־לָ֔נוּ וַתְּהִ֥י הַמִּשְׂרָ֖ה עַל־שִׁכְמ֑וֹ וַיִּקְרָ֨א שְׁמ֜וֹ פֶּ֠לֶא יוֹעֵץ֙ אֵ֣ל גִּבּ֔וֹר אֲבִיעַ֖ד שַׂר־שָׁלֽוֹם

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (ESV)

Jonathan gets around this conundrum by reworking the text so that the divine titles belong not to the child but to the one who names the child:

The prophet announced to the house of David that: “A boy has been born unto us, a son has been given unto us, who has taken the Torah upon himself to guard it; and his name has been called by the One who gives wonderful counsel, the Mighty God, He who lives forever: ‘Messiah,’ in whose day peace shall abound for us.”[5]

Just as with Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Jonathan tries to have it both ways. He tries to affirm the Messianic interpretation of the passage, without having to affirm all that a Messianic interpretation of this passage entails. To do so, he must make the text say other than what it naturally says.[6] Also, we see that this Targum does not fit neatly into either the Christian or Orthodox Jewish paradigms. Both sides must of necessity affirm only a portion of what it says and discard the rest, and to impugn the other side for doing so is hypocritical.

This concludes our evaluation of Targum Jonathan. Clearly, Jonathan rejects the concept of a suffering Messiah, but this is should not be taken to mean that none of the targumim affirm a suffering Messiah. We can look at, for example, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, which comments on the Torah. Pseudo-Jonathan belongs to a school of Second Temple Period expositors of the Hebrew Bible that see in it two Messiahs: A suffering Messiah, and a victorious Messiah. In Pseudo-Jonathan, the former is called the Ephraimite Messiah, and the latter is called the Davidic King Messiah. We see this in his targum on Exodus 40:9-11. The biblical text states:

וְלָקַחְתָּ֙ אֶת־שֶׁ֣מֶן הַמִּשְׁחָ֔ה וּמָשַׁחְתָּ֥ אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּ֖ן וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בּ֑וֹ וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ֥ אֹת֛וֹ וְאֶת־כָּל־כֵּלָ֖יו וְהָ֥יָה קֹֽדֶשׁ׃ וּמָשַׁחְתָּ֛ אֶת־מִזְבַּ֥ח הָעֹלָ֖ה וְאֶת־כָּל־כֵּלָ֑יו וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ֙ אֶת־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ וְהָיָ֥ה הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ קֹ֥דֶשׁ קָֽדָשִֽׁים׃ וּמָשַׁחְתָּ֥ אֶת־הַכִּיֹּ֖ר וְאֶת־כַּנּ֑וֹ וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ֖ אֹתֽוֹ

Then you shall take the anointing oil and anoint the tabernacle and all that is in it, and consecrate it and all its furniture, so that it may become holy. You shall also anoint the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and consecrate the altar, so that the altar may become most holy. You shall also anoint the basin and its stand, and consecrate it. (ESV)

Pseudo-Jonathan renders the same text in this way:

Then you shall take the anointing oil and anoint the tabernacle and all that is in it, and consecrate it for the crown of the kingdom of the house of Judah and the King Messiah, who is destined to redeem Israel at the end of days. And you shall anoint the sacrificial altar and all its vessels, and consecrate it as an altar of the Holy of Holies, for the crown of the priesthood of Aaron and his sons, and of Elijah the High Priest, who is to be sent at the end of the Dispersions. And you shall anoint the laver and its base, and consecrate it for Joshua your servant, chief of the Sanhedrin of his people, by whose hand the land of Israel is to be divided, and from whom is to descend the Messiah son of Ephraim, by whose hand the house of Israel is to vanquish Gog and his confederates at the end of days.[7]

Note that the gloss on Exodus 40:9 speaks of a Messiah that comes out of Judah, whereas the gloss on Exodus 40:11 speaks of a Messiah that comes out of Ephraim. Levey’s commentary on this passage states:

The Ephraimite Messiah does not figure too prominently or clearly in rabbinic thought. Such a personality was probably built up as a psychological reaction to the death of Bar Kokhba; he will be a conquering hero who will actually lead in the final battle, and will be slain and mourned. The implication of PsJ is that the Ephraimite Messiah will do the fighting and vanquish Gog, while the Davidic King Messiah will be the symbol of deliverance.[8]

Why does Pseudo-Jonathan feel the need to posit two Messiahs? Because if one reads the Hebrew Bible carefully, one will find two pictures of the Messiah: A Messiah who suffers and dies, and a Messiah who conquers all of his enemies. Orthodox Judaism affirms the latter picture of the Messiah, and denies the former by reinterpreting the passages that refer to the suffering Messiah as referring to the people of Israel (see above). Some strands of Second Temple Judaism (including the one from which Pseudo-Jonathan comes) affirm both pictures, and posit that the two pictures point to two separate Messiahs. Christianity also affirms both pictures, but argues that there is only one Messiah, who fulfills both pictures at different stages of his ministry.

Finally, going back to Isaiah 52:13-53:12, it must be noted that Targum Jonathan is not the only rabbinic source that interpret this passage as a Messianic prophecy. Other passages do so as well. For example, Rabbi Singer quotes Tractate Sanhedrin 98b from the Babylonian Talmud in his article. This exact same section of the Talmud contains a quote applying Isaiah 53:5 to the Messiah:

What is his [the Messiah’s] name? . . . The Rabbis said: His name is ‘the leper scholar,’ as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted.

There are other such quotes that can be presented, but this should suffice to show that there is nothing unique or innovative about the Christian interpretation that Isaiah 52:13-53:12 refers to the Messiah.

There are many other questions that can asked regarding the exegesis of this passage from Isaiah. For example, who are “my people” (עַמִּ֖י) in 53:8—Israel or the Gentiles? If it is Israel, how can their sins be laid upon the Servant (ie. Israel, according to Orthodox Jewish interpretation)? Why is the Servant lifted up and exalted in 52:13, when Isaiah says elsewhere that only God is lifted up and exalted (cf. 2:11-17, 6:1, 33:5, 10, 57:15)? And how can the Servant intercede for the sins of others in 53:12, when Isaiah elsewhere says that God alone makes intercession (cf. 59:15-16, 63:5)? And how, if this Servant is actually Israel, can he also be the one who redeems Israel (cf. 49:5-6)? These are all relevant questions to ask, but they are outside the scope of this article, and must be addressed another time. For now, it is hoped that this article will clarify the Rabbinic interpretations of the Servant passage, and how to properly put them in perspective, as well as debunk any misconceptions about the relevance of these interpretations to the Christian interpretation of the same passages.


[1] Samson H. Levey, The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation (Hebrew Union College Press, 1974), 63.

[2] Ibid., 66. Emphasis mine.

[3] Ibid., 64.

[4] Rabbi Singer points to Rabbi Jonathan’s gloss on Isaiah 52:14 as evidence that he accepted the interpretation that the people of Israel are collectively the Servant. But this is anomalous, as everywhere else Jonathan speaks of the Servant as an individual. This could be more easily explained as another example of Jonathan reworking the text so that passages that are supposed to refer to the Servant are re-applied to those to whom the Servant makes intercession.

[5] Levey, The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation, 45.

[6] I say “naturally” because one can argue that the Hebrew text of Isaiah 9:6 could possibly be interpreted such that the first three titles belong to the subject of the naming (ie. God) while only the last title belongs to the object of the naming (ie. The child). My reply to this is that there is a difference between what is possible and what is reasonable. One could render the text this way, but this rendering is unnatural and syntactically awkward. The most natural reading of the verse is that all the titles belong to the child, and apart from an a priori denial that the divine titles in Isaiah 9:6 could be applied to the child, any other interpretation is unnecessary.

[7] Levey, The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation, 15. Emphasis mine.

[8] Ibid., 16.


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