The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources

Bernd Janowski, Peter Stuhlmacher, editors Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids November 15, 2004
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Isaiah 53, the fourth of the prophet’s so-called servant songs, has long fascinated readers of the Bible and stirred debate among them. If the traditional Christian interpretation of the song is correct (cf. Acts 8:32–35), then the passage is central to biblical theology and its redemptive message. Because of the controversy it has spawned and its important place in Christian tradition, it deserves careful attention from biblical interpreters. The ten essays in this volume discuss the antecedents, original meaning, and later Jewish and Christian uses of the passage. This volume is especially helpful for those interested in the history of interpretation of the song. The essays are technical and amply footnoted. Each essay is prefaced with a summary of its contents, an especially helpful feature that facilitates the accessibility of the volume to nonspecialists.

In the volume’s initial chapter Hermann Spieckermann addresses “The Conception and Prehistory of the Idea of Vicarious Suffering in the Old Testament.” As the title suggests, he is concerned with the roots of the concept of vicarious suffering present in this song. He focuses on the theme of prophetic intercession (as seen in Amos, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) as an important seedbed for the idea.

The next two essays investigate the meaning of the song in its original setting. Hans-Jürgen Hermisson considers “The Fourth Servant Song in the Context of Second Isaiah.” According to Hermisson, so-called Second Isaiah is the servant in all four songs, but he “cannot fulfill his worldwide mission of being a light to the nations without God’s Servant Israel, whom he calls back to God and prepares to be the prime exhibit before the world of God’s saving power” (p. 16). For this reason he says purely individual or corporate identifications of the servant are simplistic. In the essay “He Bore Our Sins” Bernd Janowski focuses on the dramatic dimension of the song. Israel did not recognize “the Servant’s representative, vicarious suffering” until after his “innocent death” (p. 48). Jankowski identifies the servant as the prophet Second Isaiah.

Martin Hengel, in collaboration with Daniel Bailey, examines “The Effective History of Isaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period.” Awareness of Isaiah 53 is evident in “a wide variety of pre-Christian Jewish writings.” The authors state that “the widespread assumption that Isaiah 53 was without much influence therefore needs modification.” They say there is even some indication that the passage was read “messianically,” though “its influence in early Judaism” varies (p. 75). Nevertheless the evidence is sufficient “to suggest that traditions of suffering and atoning eschatological messianic figures were current in Palestinian Judaism, and that Jesus and the earliest Church could have known and appealed to them” (p. 76, italics theirs).

The next two essays discuss the use of Isaiah 53 in the New Testament. Peter Stuhlmacher writes on “Isaiah 53 in the Gospels and Acts,” and Otfried Hofius examines “The Fourth Servant Song in the New Testament Letters.” The remaining four essays focus on the use of Isaiah 53 in later literature, including Jostein Adna’s “The Servant of Isaiah 53 as Triumphant and Interceding Messiah: The Reception of Isaiah 52:13—53:12 in the Targum of Isaiah with Special Attention to the Concept of the Messiah”; Christoph Markschies’s “Jesus Christ as a Man before God: Two Interpretive Models for Isaiah 53 in the Patristic Literature and Their Development”; Daniel Bailey’s “‘Our Suffering and Crucified Messiah’ (Dial. 111.2): Justin Martyr’s Allusions to Isaiah 53 in His Dialogue with Trypho with Special Reference to the New Edition of M. Marcovich”; and Stefan Schreiner’s “Isaiah 53 in the Sefer Hizzuk Emunah (‘Faith Strengthened’) of Rabbi Isaac ben Abraham of Troki.”

The thirty-page bibliography lists works under the headings of (a) Old Testament, (b) Ancient Judaism, Ancient Versions, Jewish Interpretation, and (c) New Testament and Early Christianity. Also included is a section updating the bibliography of the original Dutch edition of the book, which was published in 1996.

—Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

April 1, 2006
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2006 vol. 163 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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