Theology

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?

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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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