Isaiah 53: It's Not Who You Think
For Christian believers, the Old Testament book of Isaiah is a treasure-trove of Jesus prophecies, and chapter 53 (including the last three verses of chapter 52) is perhaps the most popular of all. At first glance, the verses -- which describe someone who has been punished for others' offenses and who will later be exalted -- do appear to mesh with the Jesus story.
However, to believe that Isaiah's narrative refers specifically to Jesus requires a number of accommodations. First, one must downplay the reality that the New Testament was composed and compiled hundreds of years after the Old Testament, and years or decades after the events it supposedly describes, giving its authors free reign to fashion its narrative to agree with the older books.
Second, one must ignore that Jesus is never referred to by name ANYWHERE in the Old Testament. For someone so monumentally important in the hierarchy of Heaven, this seems an ominous oversight!*
*(I address this issue more fully in my hub, "The Missing Messiah")
A Past Event
Lastly, a prophecy is, by definition, a prediction of a future event. Yet the bulk of this particular narrative (when corrected with the original Hebrew) is in the PAST tense, and Isaiah is obviously speaking of someone who has already existed and interacted with humanity. In Isaiah's time, Jesus was still more than 700 years in the future. To interpret references expressed in the PAST tense as predictions of a future that is centuries away requires stretching poetic license to its limit:
(note: Unless otherwise stated, all verses quoted in this hub are verbatim from the King James version. Where there is significant conflict with the original source material represented in the Isaiah scroll, changes have been noted. All emphasis is mine):
52:14 -- "...many WERE astonied (sic) at thee; his visage WAS so marred..."
53:2 (Isaiah scroll) -- "...he SHOT up right forth as a sapling...he HAD no form nor comliness, that we should look upon him..."
53:3 (Isaiah scroll) -- "He WAS despised...he WAS despised, and we ESTEEMED him not."
53:4 -- "...he HATH borne our griefs, and CARRIED our sorrows: yet we DID esteem him stricken..."
53:5 -- "...he WAS wounded for our transgressions, he WAS bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace WAS upon him..."
53:6 -- "...the Lord HATH laid on him the iniquity of us all."
53:7 -- "He WAS oppressed, though he HUMBLED himself and OPENED not his mouth...yea, he OPENED not his mouth."
53:8 -- "He WAS taken...he WAS cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people WAS he stricken."
53:9 -- "...he MADE his grave...he HAD DONE no violence, neither WAS any deceit in his mouth."
53:10 -- "...it PLEASED the Lord to bruise him; he HATH put him to grief..."
There are other specifics within the text of the prophecy that are incompatible with the notion of Jesus. For example, in the beginning and end of the narrative, God refers to "my servant":
52:13 -- "...my servant shall deal prudently..."
53:11 -- "...by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many..."
However, nowhere in the Bible is Jesus referred to by name as "my servant" -- by God or by anyone else (Jesus makes one such reference to himself in Matthew 12, but he is actually quoting Isaiah!).
There is another verse from Isaiah's narrative that directly contradicts the full New Testament account of Jesus' crucifiction:
53:7 -- "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth."
Twice, Isaiah declares that the "afflicted" person "opened not his mouth." However, only in the book of Mark is Jesus completely silent during his trial and punishment (in Matthew, he speaks only two words). In Luke, he speaks multiple verses to the weeping crowd following him to Calvary. And in John, Jesus has TWO conversations with Pilate (including the "My kingdom is not of this world" speech). If the books of Luke and John are true, Jesus certainly DID "open his mouth," repeatedly.
Another segment that is incompatible with Jesus is near the end of the narrative:
53:10 -- "...he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand."
This clearly refers to someone who will both have children and live a long life. Obviously, Jesus had neither children nor a long life.
The end of the prophecy is also problematic with regard to Jesus:
53:12 -- "Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong..."
It is repeatedly made clear in the New Testament that, in the end, Jesus will be the lord of ALL. There will be no "portion" nor "spoil" divided with anyone.
It should also be noted that, in verse 5 of the King James version, there is a mistranslation that lends itself more to the notion of Jesus: "...he was wounded FOR our transgressions..." However, the original Hebrew reads: "...he was wounded BECAUSE of our transgressions..."
The KJV interpretation is more compatible with the notion of redemption -- that Jesus was wounded for ALL sins: past, present and future. However, the original version merely suggests a cause and effect relationship, in which a person was punished AS THE RESULT of someone else's specific transgressions.
In the end, we have a prophecy that never mentions Jesus by name, but instead repeats a reference ("servant") that is NEVER used with regard to Jesus. It is 'fulfilled' by New Testament authors hundreds of years later, who had free reign to compose their story to match any Old Testament quote they chose. It clearly describes events that have already happened (yet in the case of Jesus are supposed to occur far in the future). Finally, it directly contradicts -- in detail -- the New Testament account of Jesus' trial, death and lack of progeny.
So, if Jesus is not the subject of Isaiah's prophecy in chapters 52 and 53, to whom is he actually referring? I'm still exploring a number of possibilities, and I'll be very interested to see what theories others may propose...