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.