About whom does the prophet say this?

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In the famous “servant song” of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 the prophet describes a person who has suffered punishment because of the sins of Israel, and whose sufferings have had some sort of redemptive effect:

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Is. 53:5–6; cf. 53:11-12)

Traditionally, this has been interpreted as a prophecy about Jesus, and the language of the passage is certainly applied to Jesus in the New Testament (e.g., Matt. 8:17; Jn. 12:38; Rom. 15:21; 1 Pet. 2:22-25).

But as a reading of Isaiah there are problems with this approach. The servant is explicitly identified with Israel/Jacob elsewhere (cf. Is. 41:8; 42:1 LXX; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 49:3). The messianic interpretation ignores the narrative context: the passage is inserted between the promise of the redemption of Jerusalem and the return of the exiles (Is. 52:1-12) and the promise of the repopulation of the barren, ruined city (Is. 54). And there are details which do not fit the messianic interpretation—notably, the assurance that “he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days” (Is. 53:10).

So I suggested in this post that Isaiah’s suffering servant is a figure for the community of Jews which has grown up in exile, which has suffered because of the sins of the older generation, but which will soon be brought back to Zion to restore and repopulate the city. That seems to me to make excellent sense in context.

But what of the story about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch? Philip finds the man reading from the prophet Isaiah and asks him if he understands what he is reading. The man is presumably either a Jew or a proselyte, and perhaps a “chamberlain” rather than a castrate. He asks Philip for guidance, and Luke says that Philip began from (arxamenos apo) this scripture and proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him (Acts 8:35). The Ethiopian is baptised, and Philip is whisked away to Azotus.

At first glance you’d think that Philip has identified the suffering servant, who was like a lamb led to slaughter, who was denied justice by a lawless “generation” (cf. Is. 53:8 LXX), with Jesus. But there are various hermeneutical paths that Philip might have followed from beginning with this particular scripture to proclaiming Jesus as the risen Lord and Christ, who would judge and rule over “this crooked generation” of Israel (cf. Acts 2:36, 40; 4:11-12; 10:42).

It’s worth comparing the narrative with Luke’s account of Jesus’ conversation with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, where we find exactly the same construction:

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with (arxamenos apo) Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25–27)

We may suppose here that what Jesus does is tell the story of Israel, beginning from Moses, in such a way that it makes sense of a suffering, crucified and resurrected messiah. We have a very good, detailed example of the method in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7. Beginning from Abraham, he tells a story of Jewish disobedience that culminates in the denunciation of a “stiff-necked people”, who killed the prophets and now have murdered the “Righteous One”.

I suggest that Philip does much the same thing. He has been given the opportunity to begin from Isaiah’s portrayal of the wretched exilic community and to tell the long story of the return from exile, the renewal of oppression under the Greeks and Romans, and the dawning realisation that YHWH would finally redeem and restore and establish his people not through political-military strength, or even through devotion to the Law, but through weakness and suffering.

Daniel’s account of the vindication of persecuted Israel—the “one like a son of man”—is pertinent here. It is not referenced by Philip, but at his death Stephen sees “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”, in solidarity with his persecuted followers. It is the “great persecution” triggered by this confrontation that leads to Philip’s meeting with the Ethiopian.

So on the basis of this whole narrative Philip proclaims the crucified and resurrected Jesus as Israel’s Lord and Christ, no doubt drawing out the theological significance of the extraordinary turn of events through the analogy with—but not identification with—Isaiah’s portrayal of Israel as a suffering servant.

Good stuff, Andrew.

In rethinking some of these things over the years, I think this adds a lot of explanatory power for how the OT is used in the NT and gives us clues of how we might do the same for our context.

If we go through the whole “this is a prophecy of that” method of using the OT to talk about Jesus, about the only thing we can establish is that prophecy is pretty cool.

“Look, here, David talks about garments being divided among his enemies, and Jesus’ garments were divided among his enemies.  What an amazing prediction!”

As neat as that might be, it doesn’t really tell us anything beyond that.  At best it establishes that certain people in the Old Testament were very adept at seeing exactly what would happen centuries later and didn’t hesitate to stop whatever else they were talking about to demonstrate this ability. 

But if we understand the prophets laying down a framework of meaning that can be used to understand Jesus, then these passages become much more than cool points of detailed correspondence and much more informative.

If all the Old Testament contains are details that predict Jesus’ situation, then we well and truly don’t need it.  We have the actual Jesus and the New Testament, so all that stuff that let us know what was coming is no longer relevant.

But if the Old Testament provides the conceptual undergirding prior to Jesus that lets us understand what Jesus is saying and doing, then the Old Testament is vital.  Not as a legal administration of faith and life, and not as a necessary prerequisite for believing in what God has done in Jesus, but as key material to help us make sense of all of this and our own, ongoing experience in continuity with the people of God.  They now have the potential to become Scripture for us.

Nice photos, Randall!

That’s a good observation. If there is any basis for a doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, it has to be found within the story of Jesus’ anticipation of the wrath of God against his people. He quite literally suffered the punishment that would befall the Jews 40 years later. In the background is Isaiah 53, Danel 7-12, and the stories of the Maccabean martyrs. So there is a Jewish logic to penal substitution. It doesn’t apply in the case of the Gentiles.

Those are some very good photos, Randall.  I especially like the building ones, and “Crow” could almost be a book cover.  But I also have a soft spot for crows, so….

I understand why you said what you said, but I think PSA (as usually stated, anyway) isn’t to be found in the Old Testament, either.

No beating about the bush, let’s get to the crunch, shall we?

  • The prophet Isaiah, in his s.c. “servant songs” (identified by the German scholar Bernhard Duhm in 1892 in his “The Book of Isaiah” [Das Buch Jesaja]) seems to speak of an individual (in fact this understanding is consistently supported by the NT — not “tradition”, BTW — which identifies this individual with Jesus).

But, in fact Isaiah is speaking of the “wretched exilic community”.

  • Also the prophet Daniel, in the vision climaxing with Dan 7:13-14, seems to speak of an individual, “one like a son of man”, an image that Jesus earnestly applies to himself, in front of the High Priest Caiaphas (Matt 26:64).

But, in fact Daniel’s “son of man” is best understood as a “symbolic-corporate interpretation”.

  • In Acts 8:26-40, Philip, after reading with the Ethiopian Eunuch Isaiah 53:7-8, in reply to the Ethiopian’s question (“About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” — Acts 8:34), seems , “beginning with this Scripture”, to identify the figure depicted there as the recently suffering, died and resurrected Jesus.

But, in fact, Philip is only providing an “analogy with—but not identification with—Isaiah’s portrayal of Israel as a suffering servant.”

What can one say? What amazing performance!

Since Duhm New Testament scholarship has learnt to stop reading the Jewish scriptures through the keyhole of New Testament theology.

Thank you for the links. However interesting, none of them changes a dot in Duhm discovery (theory, if you prefer) that there are in the text of “Deutero-Isaiah” (an expression that Duhm coined for his study, BTW) four distinct “servant songs” that stand out within the text.

I wonder how familiar you are with Bernhard L. Duhm (1847 — 1928). He was a serious scholar, and most certainly did NOT depend on the (explicit or implicit) “New Testament theology” in his research on the Book of Isaiah.

Maybe you will find interesting this essay, The Book of Isaiah as Isaiah’s Book: The Latest Developments in the Research of the Prophets (Ulrich Berges, University of Bonn, 2010). You may find it even surprising.

No one’s disputing the fact that ‘there are in the text of “Deutero-Isaiah”… four distinct “servant songs” that stand out within the text’.

Thank you for the link to Berges’ essay. At first glance, he appears to support my argument about the suffering servant: “The deaf and blind servant Jacob/Israel was purified and chosen during the Babylonian exile, the furnace of misery, as the servant of God by YHWH himself (48:10)” (564).

No one’s disputing the fact that ‘there are in the text of “Deutero-Isaiah”… four distinct “servant songs” that stand out within the text’.

Let me remind you that the “servant Israel/Jacob” (Is 41:8) is not part of any of those four distinct “servant songs” …

BTW, I did not provide the link to Berges’ essay to “score points”, just to confirm that Duhm is still of scholarly interest and not contradicted.

Anna Denise Bolks | Sun, 02/10/2019 - 10:17 | Permalink

The analogy perspective certainly adds depth and richness to Philips’ response, and I thank you for drawing that out. But the text seems very suggestive towards identification. The eunuch thinks it concerns a person based on his reading, and the author decides to write down the exact reference which, taken on its own, suggests the subject is a person. Why is the suggestion left open in this way? From my cultural perspective, I expect the author of Acts to correct the identification with a person for the benefit of the reader before moving on with telling the story of Israel. But would that have been culturally appropriate? It’s unlikely. Alternatively, an indirect and circular response to redirect would have been to answer by telling a story, the story of Israel. Considering Philip’s response in that light, it seems plausible and appropriate why a suggestion of identification is not resolved in the text. Could this be an answer as to why the interpretation the eunuch provides is left hanging? Are there other possibilities why the suggestion that the text concerns a person is left hanging?

Hi Anna.

It’s a good point. We are led to expect Philip to explain to the eunuch that the passage is about someone else, and to think that this “someone else” is Jesus.

I’m not sure that this is about culture particularly. It’s a literary question. It’s about Luke’s story-telling technique. Even if we conclude that Philip directly identified the suffering servant figure with Jesus, there are reasons to think that the identification comes about within a story about first century Israel: the parallel with Jesus’ “beginning with” Moses and the prophets; the stories told by Stephen and Peter (eg. Acts 10:34-43) about Israel’s remote and recent history; and even the the quotation from Isaiah 53:7-8 reminds the reader that there was a political dimension to the suffering of YHWH’s servant.

So is the answer really left hanging? Luke does not explain how Jesus got from Moses and the prophets to the suffering and glorification of the Christ. But there’s no ambiguity in the stories of Stephen and Peter. Haven’t we simply got a very compressed summary of a longer narrative explaining how things had come about and why Jesus was YHWH’s messianic agent—something much more like Stephen’s?