Jesus and the Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 and Christian Origins

By William H. Bellinger, Jr., and William R. Farmer, eds.
Harrisburg, PA : Trinity Press International (1998). ix + 325 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
13.1 (Spring 2002) : 103-105

 Two questions are the driving force behind this collection of essays: “Did the influence of Isaiah 52:13–53:12 upon Christian faith begin with Jesus?” and “Did Jesus interpret God’s will for Israel, and therefore for himself and for his disciples, in terms of the suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13–53:12?” (1). The essays are the product of a conference convened in February 1996 at Baylor University on “Isaiah 53 and Christian Origins.” The essays are “The World of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 40–55” by Paul D. Hanson; “Basic Issues in the Interpretation of Isaiah 53” by Henning Graf Reventlow; “Isaiah 53 and the Restoration of Israel” by R. E. Clements; “On Reading Isaiah 53 as Christian Scripture” by Roy F. Melugin; “Jesus and Isaiah 53” by Otto Betz; “Did the Use of Isaiah 53 to Interpret His Mission Begin with Jesus?” by M1orna D. Hooker; “Isaiah 53 in Acts 8: A Reply to Professor Morna Hooker” by Mikeal C. Parsons;“Response to Mikeal Parsons” by Morna D. Hooker; “Jesus’ Death, Isaiah 53, and M ark 10:45: A Crux Revisited” by Rikki E. Watts; “Isaiah and Matthew : The Prophetic Influence in the First Gospel—A Report on Current Research” by Adrian M. Leske; “The LXX, 1QIsa, and MT Versions of Isaiah 53 and the Christian Doctrine of Atonement” by David A. Sapp; “The Heralds of Isaiah and the Mission of Paul: An Investigation of Paul’s Use of Isaiah 51–55 in Romans” by J. Ross Wagner; “Concepts of Stellvertretung in the Interpretation of Isaiah 53” and “The Suffering Servant: Recent Tübingen Scholarship on Isaiah 53” by Daniel P. Bailey; “Reflections on Isaiah 53 and Christian Origins” by William R. Farmer; and “The Servant and Jesus: The Relevancy of the Colloquy for the Current Quest for Jesus” by N . T. W right. (Bailey explains that Stellvertretung is a rough equivalent to “vicariousness” that speaks of substitution in which the one for whom the substitution is made has been excluded from involvement in the Servant’s sacrifice [cf. 238].)

In scanning the index of modern authors in the back of the book, this reviewer was struck by the fact that 16 essays by 14 scholars could discuss Isaiah 53 without a single reference to any of the works of David Baron, Robert D. Culver, Charles Feinberg, Edward J. Young, John Oswalt, and Walter Kaiser. Why is it that such a gathering could ignore the work of so many evangelical scholars on this significant text? Rikki Watts (Regent College) mentions Douglas Moo’s The Old Testament in the Gospel Passion (Almond, 1983) in footnotes (133, 135, 139). J. Ross Wagner (Duke University Divinity School) refers to J. A. Motyer’s The Prophecy of Isaiah (InterVarsity, 1993) in regard to the structure of Isaiah 40–55 (212).

In this reviewer’s opinion, the essay by Sapp (170-92) is worth the price of the whole volume. He points out that the Septuagint is but a translation and that it does exhibit theological bias. By means of a detailed comparison of the texts of Isaiah 53 in the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint, and the Qumran readings, he develops a side-by-side charting of the Septuagint and Hebrew texts in English translation (183) to let every reader see the results. He concludes that the “‘punch line’ for the Christian gospel—the description of the Servant’s divinely intended sacrificial death, his justification of the many, and allusions to his resurrection— occurs only in the Hebrew texts” (188-89). The absence of NT citations of Isaiah 53:10-11, for example, are due to the fact that the Septuagint was the accepted Bible of the early church and was employed for approximately three-quarters (or more) of all OT citations in the NT.

The essay by Betz (70-87) examines the Hebrew text as well as the translations of the Septuagint and the Aramaic Targum of Isaiah 52:13–53:12 in a detailed and fascinating demonstration of the influence that passage had on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Focusing on M ark 10:45’s relationship to Isaiah 53, Watts (125-51) concludes that Jesus clearly identified His role in terms of Isaiah 53. As for the relative absence of the connection until First Peter, “the full implications of his characteristically enigmatic instruction were not appreciated by his uncomprehending disciples until after a period of subsequent reflection” (151). Farmer (260-80) develops the full progress of the influence of Isaiah 53 on the NT from Jesus to His disciples to Paul.

Hanson (9-22) attempts to identify the historical setting for Isaiah 52:13–53:12. He assumes post-exilic authorship by an anonymous Second Isaiah and concludes with a corporate interpretation referring to the ongoing witness of God’s people (21-22). Reventlow (23-38) emphasizes multiple authors and redactors for the Servant passages (a view held by not a few contributors to his volume), takes 52:13–53:12 as a commentary on 50:4-9 (26), and identifies the Servant as a persecuted individual known to those in the post-exilic period (33). Clements (39- 54) maintains a unified authorship for Isaiah 40–55 (40) and suggests that Moses is the most likely candidate for the historical personage depicted in those chapters. In a different vein, Melugin (55-69) takes a reader-oriented approach, claiming that a “text from scripture cannot be confined to its ‘original meaning(s)’” (57) and that such an approach is more preachable for pastors and more understandable for parishioners. Paul’s missiological use of the Servant passages of Isaiah based on thematic coherence occupies Wagner’s contribution to this volume (193-222).

Overall, this collection of essays reveals the various avenues of research being applied to a study of the relationship of Isaiah 53 to what we read in the NT, as well as to the issues of Christian doctrine and practice (primarily Christology, soteriology, and missiology). It is a valuable window on current trends, debates, and interpretations—even touching upon recent studies and conflicts in Jesus studies.