The controversial history of Isaiah 53

It happens every year: the famous prophecy from Isaiah 53 shows up everywhere on Good Friday, on which Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus:

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.

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.

I didn’t have much Bible instruction growing up, but I was taught this: Isaiah 53 is often treated like a “gotcha” verse by missionaries in their attempts to convert Jews. It’s a very effective text to use, because the average Jewish person likely doesn’t have the education to explain why this verse is traditionally not interpreted as a messianic prophecy.

According to Jewish tradition, the “suffering servant” in this passage is Israel, after being defeated by the Babylonians. In short, the gist is that the exiled Jews will still retain their identity, and eventually shall prosper. You can read more of that backstory here.

So what does this mean for me, an Episcopalian-flavored Christian with Jewish ancestry, who was basically lead to believe that all of Christianity is based on mistranslations of ancient Hebrew texts?


I could completely ignore the traditional Jewish interpretations; dismiss them all as misguided because they clearly didn’t recognize the Messiah (which many Christians have done). Or, I could take ownership of some of the ways that Christians have mistranslated these texts, and commit to understanding them in their proper historical place.

But maybe there’s a third option: a “middle way,” so to speak. And that is this: acknowledging that there are at least two lenses through which to read the Bible, a Jewish lens and a Christian one. Because Christianity was born from Judaism, both religions have ties to Old Testament texts.

Considering that I dropped out of seminary after a year, and don’t have all the time in the world to continue studying ancient Hebrew, I doubt I’ll ever be able to say with complete confidence what each Old Testament prophesy is “supposed” to mean. What I can do in the meantime is acknowledge that the life of Jesus kick-started (unintentionally, perhaps) a new religion, thus introducing a new way to read Scripture.

As a natural seeker, I have no problem with learning about the various ways in which the Bible can be understood. A cursory glance at biblical history makes it pretty obvious that a single monolithic understanding has never existed. To me, that’s further evidence of the Bible’s wonder and mystery, rather than a faith-breaker. Ultimately, we may never know who got it “right” until we meet God face to face.

That being said, the use of Isaiah 53 at Easter time remains a pet peeve. The memories attached to this verse, in which classmates and strangers preyed upon my ignorance to convert me, leave a bitter taste in my mouth. Easter in general remains a difficult holiday to process, as it’s a reminder of how much anti-semitism is tied up in Christian history.

And yet, and yet, and yet – the yearning for a personal God remains. The desire for a God who understood and felt real emotions and real pain persists. The Bible may be a difficult collection of writings to understand, but God himself is bigger than all of that.

Read more of my faith journey in my memoir, Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter.


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12 thoughts on “The controversial history of Isaiah 53”

  1. As a real Christian I do not at all remember the crucifixion of Jesus, like Catholics would do. You may not take Roman Catholics to be the full representatives of Christendom and certainly not of Christianity, for this last group of followers of Christ your sayings show clearly you seem not to know that group who respect Jesus as the sent one from God, who gave his life for the sins of many.
    You also being from the Episcopalian-flavored Christian formation perhaps also follow the tradition of many other Christian denominations who have chosen to follow the false human doctrine of the trinity.
    Hopefully when Easter rolls around next year, you shall not only be forced to address certain passages again, but shall come to see how Easter has nothing to do with Jesus his impalement, his death and his resurrection, and how real Christians and real Messianic Jews should stay far away from such false teachings and heathen festivals, but keep to the festivals given by the Most High God.


    1. To make myself more clear Ido remember the impalement of Christ in an other way than trinitarian Christians; I also celebrate his last gathering or Last evening meal, fo r which we do come together to remember that special evening. But we do that in the night it took place, namely 14 Nisan.


  2. A very intelligent and thoughtful post highlighting one of the curses of Human history, the mis-use of religious texts for political purposes or out of sheer ignorance.
    To reach a balanced conclusion on this passages and others out of the New Testament it would be necessary to have a precise history of the translations from one tongue to another with comments as to the historical nuances at each turn. The English versions are truly not the first word on the subject.
    Being something of an historical and political buff, putting the gospels in the contexts of the times, I could argue that the terms ‘Jews’ has been mis-understood and the term in English is a distorted version of a phrase which actually refers a very conservative political faction who held a great deal of influence in the area at the time. Seeing as how everyone in the area could be classed as Jewish (with the exception of the Romans of course) passages such as ‘The Jews plotted to kill him’ cannot by any rational argument refer to the entire Semitic population.
    Best wishes

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m reminded that Gregory Bateson wrote, “There is no meaning without context.”, an understanding particularly relevant to the discussion and debate around interpretation of all scriptural texts since their first recording (and likely during and before that writing down). The Bible and Torah both enjoy and suffer a particularly rich history in that way, which will continue well beyond any foreseeable future as every generation and culture that knows of them brings their own unique context to the reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I take issue with the phrase “Jews who reject Jesus.” You could have simply said “Jews” and left it at that.

      See the link referenced in the fourth paragraph of the post for the history of how it’s traditionally interpreted.

      Liked by 2 people

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