Interpreting Isaiah 53 christologically

Gerd Lüdemann is a Professor of History and Literature of Early Christianity. In an article titled, “Liberated from the Christological Madhouse,” he argues that interpretations of the Old Testament that see fulfilment in Jesus are illegitimate. His article proposes that:

  1. Early Christians looked to the Old Testament for prophecies concerning Jesus coming up with ingenious derivations;
  2. Luther confirmed this and moved away from an allegorical approach to a literal approach; and
  3. Christological interpretations by the New Testament authors and Luther are invalid because their false worldview.

Regarding item 3 Lüdemann explains,

The simple reason for this is that all of their exegeses and formulations presuppose an obsolete and mythological worldview that injects an ineradicable virus of outdated belief systems into the texts.

He then goes on to give an example based on Isaiah 7 and 52–53.

To be sure, the uncritical reader might take Isaiah 52 and 53 to be a prediction that as the Servant of the Lord Jesus would suffer and die on behalf of mankind (“Surely he has borne our infirmities and suffered our ills…” – Isaiah 53:4). Yet, because of the context and the content of the passage at hand, this thesis cannot be substantiated. The passage concludes a cycle of four songs of the Servant of the Lord, which within the second part of the book of Isaiah (chapters 40–55) constitute a separate unit. According to these songs, the task of this “Suffering Servant” was to lead the Jews from the Babylonian exile back to Palestine and to establish a cult. Obviously these songs could not have had Jesus in mind, but rather some probably mythic and surely pre-Christian figure.

The evangelist Matthew would have us believe that Isaiah 7:14 foretold the virgin birth of Jesus; but since the announcement of this forthcoming birth refers to an event during the reign of king Ahaz (741-725 BCE), Jesus cannot have the child referred to. Besides, the Hebrew original of the text reads almah (young woman), not bethulah (virgin). The inaccurate rendering resulted from Matthew’s use of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, which in Isaiah 7:14 uses a word that could be translated as “virgin.”

This is the total of his argument which is somewhat brief and has its own unjustified assumptions.

His argument against the Jesus being the Suffering Servant is that

  1. Christological interpretations of the Suffering Servant are out of context
  2. The context of the Suffering Servant is that of an exiled Jew leading the return to Judea
  3. The Suffering Servant was to set up a cult
  4. The Suffering Servant was pre-Christian and mythic

The argument against Isaiah 7 referring to Jesus is

  1. The prophecy of Isaiah 7 was to be understood only to be contemporary, i.e. the time of Ahaz
  2. The Hebrew word almah cannot mean “virgin”
  3. The Greek word can mean “virgin” and Matthew inappropriately used this meaning

The second argument is long standing as has resulted in substantial discussion. Lüdemann has merely stated which side of the argument he sides with. Many scholars dispute his claims about the meanings of almah and bethulah. All he has done is highlight the issue, not resolve it. I do not intend to discuss this debate further in this post.

Lüdemann’s first argument ignores his disputable underlying premises and betrays his own chronological arrogance. I refer to chronological arrogance because some moderns seem to believe they are more enlightened than the ignorant ancients. Sure, there is much in the modern world that was not previously known. But the ancients understood many things well, often better than us. And they are probably better interpreters of their culture and worldview than us. Paul was an educated Jew in the first century well read in the Hebrew Scriptures. He interpreted Isaiah 52 christologically (Rom 4:25; 15:21) as did others such as Peter and Philip. To dismiss others who lived much closer to the time, speaking the same language, and belonging to the same culture, in a disdainful manner is unnecessary. This does not make contemporaries correct, just worthy of detailed consideration.

The 4 Suffering Servant (Songs) are Isaiah 42:1–9; 49:1–13; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12. The surrounding context of the 4th song is not clearly that of returning from Babylon. Isaiah 51 and 52 are God speaking thru the prophet Isaiah to the people, frequently referring to Zion which implies the land of Israel, not just the people. There is mention of Jerusalem frequently. And it is not so much the return of the people to Jerusalem, rather the return of God to the people

The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;/
together they sing for joy;/
for eye to eye they see/
the return of the Lord to Zion./
Break forth together into singing,/
you waste places of Jerusalem,/
for the Lord has comforted his people;/
he has redeemed Jerusalem. (Isaiah 52)

There is mention of previous exile under Egypt and Assyria—the latter being Ephraim’s exile by Assyria or Judah’s future exile to Babylon—but this is not the focus of the passage, rather the Lord’s deliverance of the people from these kind of events. It is this divine deliverance that is mentioned in these chapters that sets the scene for a servant in a messianic vein. It is the very presence of God himself that brings deliverance. And while aspects can be interpreted narrowly around the return from Babylon, the judgment of the nations (Isa 51:5–6), the previous judgment of Egypt (Isa 51:9), knowledge of God to the world (Isa 51:4), salvation for all people (Isa 52:10), all point to a context far greater than Babylon.

The 4th Suffering Servant song itself has further contextual clues that the person was not a leader of the returning exiles, nor mythic; rather someone who brings God’s presence to the world.

This servant is referred to by singular pronouns thru-out this passage. He is also contrasted with Israel precluding an identification of the Suffering Servant as the nation of Israel.

who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? (Isaiah 53)

Also he suffered as an innocent (Isa 53:9, 11), vicariously (Isa 53:4–6, 8, 10, 12), and without complaint (Isa 53:7) to the point of death (Isa 53:8–9).

The Suffering Servant is not leading a return, he is suffering and dying. And not for himself but others. This passage very much carries a messianic theme, which Christians view as being fulfilled in Jesus whose suffering and death parallel what is already in the text of Isaiah 53.

I am not certain what to make of the pre-Christian and cult establishing claims of Lüdemann. The passage is about a future event from the time of Isaiah. How much in the future is not specified here.

Early Christianity was viewed as a new sect at the time (Acts 24). Isaiah 53 does not obviously suggest a new cult. Lüdemann may have verses 10–12 in mind, but that these postdate the death of the servant yet he sees the outcome is a stronger hint for a resurrection. And the suffering of the servant for all speaks against a limited group that a cult would involve. Further, Christianity does not see itself as a new religion as much as a response to increased revelation from God.

Contrary to Lüdeman’s claim that the songs, “could not have had Jesus in mind,” the immediate and surrounding context of Isaiah 53 points to God redeeming a people to himself by his use of a servant who would suffer and die for the transgressions of others. Not only is a Christological interpretation possible, is it doubtful any other person has laid a valid claim to this passage.

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