Search Bible
Click for Help   Click for QuickNav   Click for Advanced Search Options
Search KJV
Your Bible Version is the KJV
Go to Top
Link to This Page Cite This Page
Share this page Follow the BLB
Printable Page
Left Contextbar EdgeLeft Contextbar Edge BackgroundRight Contextbar Edge2Prior SectionReturn to CommentariesReturn to Author BiographyNext SectionRight Contextbar Edge2Right Contextbar Edge BackgroundRight Contextbar Edge1
The Blue Letter Bible
BLB Searches
Search the Bible
Search KJV

Advanced Options

Other Searches

Multi-Verse Retrieval
Search KJV

Let's Connect
Daily Devotionals

Blue Letter Bible offers several daily devotional readings in order to help you refocus on Christ and the Gospel of His peace and righteousness.

Daily Bible Reading Plans

Recognizing the value of consistent reflection upon the Word of God in order to refocus one's mind and heart upon Christ and His Gospel of peace, we provide several reading plans designed to cover the entire Bible in a year.

One-Year Plans

Two-Year Plan

Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Mark Eastman :: The Search for the Messiah

Mark Eastman :: Chapter Two: The Suffering Servant

toggle collapse
Choose a new font size and typeface

Throughout the Hebrew Bible there are passages about a righteous servant who would suffer physical abuse, mockery, derision, rejection and finally death. This suffering servant, though pure from sin himself, is wounded on account of the sins of the people and through suffering and death, the people of God would be healed.[1] The identity of this suffering servant is, however, a serious point of controversy between Christian and Jewish scholars.

From the first days of the church, Christians have claimed that the suffering servant passages were references to the Messiah and that the rejection, suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth were evidences for his Messiahship. Peter the Apostle points to the suffering and death of Jesus as a God ordained plan rather than an unforeseen consequence of a failed ministry;

"For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow his steps: Who committed no sin, nor was guile found in His mouth, who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously, who himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness; by whose stripes you were healed." (1 Peter 2:21-24)

Here Peter paraphrases Isaiah 53, one of the most famous of the suffering servant passages and declares its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

Many Old Testament prophecies of a suffering, rejected individual are quoted in the New Testament as Messianic and fulfilled in the life of Jesus. The New Testament records that after his resurrection Jesus even declared that the Messiah must suffer:

"Then He said to them, 'O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into his glory?' And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded to them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself."(Luke 24:25-27)

Modern rabbis contend that the suffering servant is not the Messiah. Rather, they claim, he is either an unknown temple priest, perhaps King Hezekiah,[2] or even the nation of Israel itself.

Again, 20th century Jewish author Samuel Levine regarding the suffering servant in Isaiah 53:

"Many Jewish commentators feel that it [Isaiah 53] refers to the Jewish people on the whole. We find many instances in the Bible where the Jewish people on the whole are addressed to, or are described, in the singulary....Thus, Isaiah 53 could very well be describing the history of the Jewish people - despised by the world, persecuted by the crusaders and the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazis, while the world silently watched...The verses therefore do not point exclusively to Jesus, or to a Messiah."[3]

However popular this belief has become in modern Jewish scholarship, it has not been held throughout the history of rabbinical thought. There is abundant written evidence, from ancient rabbinical sources, that the suffering servant is indeed the Messiah.[4] In fact, by the time of the writing of the Mishna and the Talmud, the paradoxical destiny of the Messiah had created a struggle in the minds of the rabbis. In addition to the suffering servant prophecies, the Bible had woven throughout its text the prophecies of a triumphant, ruling and reigning king who would bring everlasting righteousness to the earth and restore Israel to its place of prominence among the nations. This contradiction was too much for the rabbis to unite into one person. So, they began to speculate that there were to be two or possibly three Messiahs!

According to their speculations, the suffering servant, called Messiah Ben Joseph, would be killed in the war of Gog and Magog. The triumphant, ruling and reigning servant, called Messiah Ben David, would rebuild the temple and rule and reign in Jerusalem. This belief eventually became firmly rooted in the Talmud.[5]

There is great disagreement between Jewish and Christian scholars as to whether the suffering servant passages are indeed Messianic. From the Jewish perspective scholars argue, "If any people should have recognized the Messiah, the one who was the focus of their national existence, wouldn't it have been the Jews?" From the Christian perspective, others respond "But how could God have made the birth, lineage, character, mission and destiny of the Messiah any more obvious?"

Let's look at some of the suffering servant passages from the Hebrew Bible and their ancient interpretations to find the true identity of the one called the "suffering servant."

The Suffering Servant Songs

In the book of Isaiah there are a group passages called "The Suffering Servant Songs." These four vignettes are found in Isaiah 42:1-7, Isaiah 49:1-6, Isaiah 50:4-9, Isaiah 52:13-53:12. We will focus on the fourth suffering servant song since it is the most disputed portion of Isaiah.[6]

"Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently, He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high. Just as many were astonished at you, so his visage was marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men; so shall He sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths at Him; for what had not been told them they shall see, and what they had not heard they shall consider. Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem him. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by His stripes 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. He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare his generation? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people he was stricken. And they made his grave with the wicked; but with the rich at his death, because he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he has put Him to grief. When you make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see the travail of his soul, and be satisfied. By his knowledge My righteous servant shall justify many, for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will divide Him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul unto death, and he was numbered with the transgressors, and he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."

From the time of the development of the written Talmud (200 - 500 C.E.) this portion of scripture was believed to be Messianic. In fact, it was not until the 11th century C.E. that it was seriously proposed otherwise. At that time Rabbi Rashi began to interpret the suffering servant in these passages as reference to the nation of Israel.[7]

One of the oldest translations of the Hebrew scriptures are known as the Targums. These are aramaic translations of very ancient Hebrew manuscripts that also included commentary on the scriptures. They were translated in the first or second century B.C.E. In the Targum of Isaiah, we read this incredible quote regarding the suffering servant in Isaiah 53:

"Behold, my servant the Messiah shall prosper; he shall be exalted and great and very powerful. The righteous one shall grow up before him, lo, like sprouting plants; and like a tree that sends its roots by the water-courses, so shall the exploits of the Holy One multiply in the land which was desperate for him. His appearance shall not be a profane appearance, nor shall the awe of an ignorant person, but his countenance shall radiate with holiness, so that all who see him shall become wise through him. All of us were scattered like sheep... but it is the will of God to pardon the sins of all of us on his account...Then I will apportion unto him the spoil of great nations...because he was ready to suffer martyrdom that the rebellious he might subjugate to the Torah. And he might seek pardon for the sins of many."[8]

According to this commentary, the Messiah would suffer martyrdom, he would be, "The Righteous One" and would provide a way for God to forgive our sins. This forgiveness would be accomplished, not because of our goodness, but on account of the righteousness of Messiah. As we shall see, this is the very message of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament!

A reading from a Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah prayer book contains this passage:

"Our righteous anointed is departed from us: horror has seized us, and we have none to justify us. He has borne the yoke of our iniquities, and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgression. He bears our sins on his shoulders, that we may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wound, at the time that the eternal will create the Messiah as a new creature. O bring him up from the circle of the earth. Raise him up from Seir, to assemble us the second time on mount Lebanon, by the hand of Yinon."[9],[10]

In this beautiful prayer, a commentary on Isaiah 53, we discover several of the ancient beliefs on the mission of God's righteous Messiah:

1) He would apparently depart after an initial appearance: "Our righteous anointed is departed."

2) The Messiah would be the one who justifies the people:[11]

"Horror has seized us, and we have none to justify us."

3) The Messiah would be wounded because of our transgressions and would take upon himself the yoke or punishment of our iniquities.[12]

"He has borne the yoke of our iniquities, and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgression."

4) By his wound we would be healed when he reappears as a "new creature."

"We shall be healed by his wound, at the time that the eternal will create the Messiah as a new creature."

In the Babylonian Talmud there are a number of commentaries on the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. In a discussion of the suffering inflicted upon this servant we find the following statement:

"This teaches us that God will burden the Messiah with commandments and sufferings as with millstones."[13]

In another chapter of Sanhedrin we find a discussion on the name of the Messiah. In this remarkable portion of the Talmud we read:

"There is a whole discussion in the Talmud about Messiah's name. The several discussants suggested various names and cited scriptural references in support of these names. The disciples of the school of Rabbi Yehuda Ha' Nasi said 'The sick one is his name,' for it is written, 'Surely he has borne our sicknesses and carried our sorrows and pains, yet we considered him stricken, smitten, and afflicted of God.'"[14]

In the Midrash we again find reference to the "Suffering Servant" of Isaiah 53. In characteristic fashion we read one Rabbi quoting another in a discussion of the Messiah's suffering:

"Rabbi Huna in the name of Rabbi Acha says: 'The sufferings are divided into three parts: one for David and the fathers, one for our own generation, and one for the King Messiah, and this is what is written, 'he was wounded for our transgressions.'"[15]

In a portion of the Midrash, called the Haggadah (a portion which expounds on the non-legal parts of scripture) in the tractate Pesiqta Rabbati [Compiled in the ninth century, but based on writings from Talmudic times from 200 B.C.E.-400 C.E.] we read an interesting discussion of the suffering of the Messiah:

"And the Holy One made an agreement with the Messiah and said to him, 'The sins of those which are forgiven for your sake will cause you to be put under an iron yoke, and they will make you like this calf whose eyes are dim, and they will choke your spirit under the yoke, and on account of their sins your tongue shall cleave to your mouth. Are you willing to do this?' Said Messiah before the Holy One: 'perhaps this agony will last many years?' And the Holy One said to him: 'by your life and by the life of my head, one week only have I decreed for you; but if your soul is grieved I shall destroy them even now.' But the Messiah said to him: 'Sovereign of the world, with the gladness of my soul and the joy of my heart I take it upon me, on condition that not one of Israel shall perish, and not only those alone should be saved who are in my days, but also those who are hid in the dust; and not only should the dead of my own time be saved, but all the dead from the first man until now; also, the unborn and those whom thou hast intended to create. Thus I agree, and on this condition I will take it upon myself.'"(Pesiqta Rabbati. chapter 36)

Another section of chapter 37, Pesiqta Rabbati, says the following:

"The Patriarchs will one day rise again in the month of Nisan and will say to the Messiah: 'Ephraim, our righteous Messiah, although we are your ancestors, you are nevertheless greater than we, for you have borne the sins of our children, as it is written: 'Surely he has borne our diseases and carried our sorrows; yet we regarded him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our sins, bruised for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that makes us well, and through his wounds we are healed.[16] Heavy oppressions have been imposed upon you, as it is written: 'As a result of oppression and judgment he was taken away[17]; but in his day, who considered that he was torn from the land of the living because of the transgressions of my people?' You have been a laughing stock and a derision among the peoples of the world, and because of you they jeered at Israel, as it is written, You have dwelt in darkness and in gloominess, and your eyes have not seen light, your skin was cleaving to your bones, and your body withered like wood. Your eyes became hollow from fasting, and your strength was dried-up like a potsherd, as it is written.[18] All this happened because of the sins of our children, as it is written: 'And Jehovah laid on him the iniquities of us all.'" (Isaiah 53:6)

In these fascinating portions of the Midrash we see language which closely parallels Psalm 22.[19] The writer specifically ties together the sufferings of the pierced servant in Psalm 22 (tongue shall cleave to your mouth...dried up like a potsherd) with the servant in Isaiah 53, whose sufferings provide a way for the children of Israel to be saved. The fact that the writer of this portion of the Midrash would tie the sufferings of the servant in Psalm 22 (the pierced one) and Isaiah 53, the despised and rejected one, is nothing less than astonishing. Clearly at least some of the rabbis of the ancient Midrashim believed that the Messiah would suffer and that the sufferings found in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 belong to the same person.

In the eleventh century C.E. the rabbinical interpretation of Isaiah 52-53 began to change. Rabbi Rashi, a well-respected member of the Midrashim, began to interpret this portion of scripture as a reference to the sufferings of the nation of Israel. However, even after this interpretation took root, there remained many dissenters who still held onto its original, Messianic view.

In the fourteenth century Rabbi Moshe Cohen Crispin, a strong adherent to the ancient opinion stated that applying the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 to the nation of Israel:

"distort[s] the verses of their natural meaning…As then it seemed to me that the doors of the literal interpretation [of Isaiah 53] were shut in their face, and that 'they wearied themselves to find the entrance', having forsaken the knowledge of our Teachers, and inclined after the stubbornness of their own hearts' and of their own opinion, I am pleased to interpret it, in accordance with the teaching of our Rabbis, of the King Messiah, and will be careful, so far as I am able, to adhere to the literal sense: thus possibly, I shall be free from the forced and farfetched interpretations of which others have been guilty. This prophecy was delivered by Isaiah at the divine command for the purpose of making known to us something about the nature of the future Messiah, who is to come and to deliver Israel,"[20]

Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel (1437-1508), a member of the Midrashim, made the following remarkable declaration regarding the suffering servant of Isaiah 53:

"The first question is to ascertain to whom this prophecy refers, for the learned among the Nazarenes expound it of the man who was crucified in Jerusalem at the end of the Second Temple, and, who according to them, was the Son of God and took flesh in the virgin's womb, as is stated in their writings. Jonathan Ben Uzziel interprets it in the Targum of the future Messiah; and this is also the opinion of our learned men in the majority of their Midrashim."[21]

Two centuries later we find the comments of another member of the Midrashim, Rabbi Elijah de Vidas, a Cabalistic scholar in 16th century. In his comments of Isaiah 53 we read:

"The meaning of 'He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities,' is, that since the Messiah bears our iniquities, which produce the effect of his being bruised, it follows that who so will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities must endure and suffer them for himself."[22]

We have also the writings of the 16th century Rabbi Moshe El Sheikh, who declares in his work "Commentaries of the Earlier Prophets," regarding the suffering servant in Isaiah 53:

"Our rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the king Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view."[23]

These remarkable references from the ancient rabbis leave no doubt that the suffering servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 was indeed believed to be the Messiah. Even more remarkable is the fact that the suffering servant of Isaiah is connected with the suffering servant of Psalm 22. Finally, we find the ancient rabbis claiming that the suffering and death of the Messiah would have the effect of freeing us from our sins. This is in complete agreement with the Christian concept of the Messiah!

Even without these ancient references, there are several other reasons why the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 could not be the nation of Israel.

First, the suffering servant is an innocent person without sin:

"And they made his grave with the wicked; but with the rich at his death, because he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth." Isaiah 53:9

Israel has an admittedly sinful past, the Hebrew scriptures even admit this fact. Psalm 14:2-3 says:

"There is none that does good, no not one."

I Kings 8:46 says:

"...for there is no one who does not sin."

Ecclesiastes 7:20 says:

"For there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin."

Secondly, the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 suffers on account of the sins of others.

"Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes 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."(Isaiah 53:4)

Thirdly, the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is willing to suffer.

"He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth." (Isaiah 53:7)

In the entire history of their nation, the Jews have never suffered willingly.

Finally, the suffering servant's end was death.

"Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul unto death, and he was numbered with the transgressors, and he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors." (Isaiah 53:12)

The nation of Israel has suffered much, but she has never died. In fact, the nation of Israel was re-gathered back into the land after nearly 1900 years of world wide dispersion, an event unprecedented in world history.

"Let Israel now say; many a time they have afflicted me from my youth; yet they have not prevailed against me." (Psalm 129:1)

Finally, listen to the words of 19th century Jewish scholar Herz Homberg;

"This prophecy is disconnected with what precedes it. According to the opinion of Rashi and Ibn Ezra, it relates to Israel at the end of their captivity; the term "servant" and the use of the singular number referring to the individual members of the nation. But if so, what can be the meaning of the passage, 'He was wounded for our transgressions.' Who was wounded? Who are the transgressors? Who carried the sickness and bear the pains? And where are the sick? Are they not the same as those who are smitten and who bear? And if each turned to his own way, upon whom did the Lord lay the iniquity of them all? The Ga'on, Rabbi Sa'adyah, explains the whole Parashah of Jeremiah: and there are indeed numerous parts of scripture in which we can trace a great resemblance to what befell Jeremiah while persecuted by the false prophets. But the commencement of the prophecy, 'He shall be high and exalted and lofty exceedingly', and similarly the words with the mighty he shall divide the spoil', will not admit of being applied to him. The fact is that it refers to the king Messiah, who will come in the latter days, when it will be the Lord's good pleasure to redeem Israel from among the different nations of the earth...and even the Israelites themselves will only regard him as 'one of the vain fellows', believing none of the announcements which will be made by him in God's name, but being contumacious against him, and averring that all the reproaches and persecutions which fall to his lot are sent from heaven, for that he is 'smitten of God' for his own sin. For they will not at first perceive that whatever he underwent was in consequence of their own transgression, the Lord having chosen him to be a trespass-offering, like the scapegoat which bore all the iniquities of the house of Israel. Being, however, himself aware that through his pains and revilings the promised redemption will eventually come at the appointed time, he will endure with a willing soul, neither complaining nor opening his mouth 'in the siege and distress wherewith the enemies of Israel will oppress him' (as is pointed out from the passage here in the Haggadah)"[24]

Here we have in the clearest term possible the belief that the prophet was speaking of King Messiah. Furthermore, Homberg states that the Messiah, when he comes, will be rejected "as one of the vain fellows, believing none of the announcements which will be made by him in God's name." Finally, he sees the rejection and death of the Messiah accomplishing the role of the trespass-offering for the sins of the people. The Messiah suffers not because of the sins of himself, but on account of the sins of the people. Through Messiah's suffering and death "the promised redemption will eventually come!"

As we will see, in his understanding of Isaiah 53, Herzog has pointed out the very heart of the Christian message!

Psalm 22 "The Pierced One"

One of the most graphic and controversial portions of scripture is Psalm 22. The passage is disputed because of the nature of the sufferings it describes and because of the two different interpretations applied by Christian and Jewish Bible scholars. As we have already seen in the above discussion, the rabbis of the ancient Midrashim tied the sufferings of the Messiah figure in Isaiah 53 to those of the suffering servant of Psalm 22. However, today most modern rabbis deny the Messianic application of Psalm 22.

"My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Why are You so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning?... They cried to You, and were delivered; they trusted in You, and were not ashamed. But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. All those who see me laugh me to scorn; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, he trusted in the LORD, let him rescue him; Let him deliver him, since he delights in him! Many bulls have surrounded me; Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me. They gape at me with their mouths, as a raging and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it has melted within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, And my tongue clings to my jaws; You have brought me to the dust of death. For dogs have surrounded me; The assembly of the wicked has enclosed me. They pierced my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones. They look and stare at me. They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots...For he has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has he hidden his face from him; But when he cried to him, he heard...All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You...They will come and declare his righteousness to a people who will be born, that he has done this." (Psalm 22:1, 5-8, 12-18, 24, 27, 31)

In these verses we find the rejection, mocking and death of a righteous servant of God, one "who trusted in the Lord" from the time of his birth, and did not despise the affliction he endured. Yet this Righteous One was a reproach to the people, a "worm," "scorned," one whose hands and feet were pierced and one so overcome with thirst that his tongue cleaved to his mouth.

The identity of this suffering servant is, to say the least, a point of great contention. The description of his physical suffering bears a striking resemblance to crucifixion, including the bleeding ("poured out like water"), the dehydration ("tongue cleaves to my mouth") and the disarticulation (dislocation of the joints) that occurs in crucifixion ("all my bones are out of joint"). Of course, Christians claim that this is a prophecy of the crucifixion of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

Perhaps the most controversial portion of the scripture is the interpretation of the word translated as "pierced." The most ancient translations of the Hebrew texts are the Greek Septuagint,[25] the Aramaic Targums [26]and Latin vulgate versions. These versions of the Bible were translated using very ancient Hebrew manuscripts that were extant in the period 400 B.C.E.-300 C.E. At that time the Hebrew language was diminishing in use, however it was still well understood by the ancient rabbis who translated the Tanakh. The seventy scholars that were chosen to translate the Hebrew manuscripts into Greek were certainly chosen because of their expertise in languages and understanding of scripture.[27]

When we examine these ancient translations of the Tanakh we find that in each case the word in question is translated from Hebrew into the Greek, Syriac or Latin word equivalent to "pierced." The ancient rabbis commissioned to translate the Tanakh into the Septuagint and the ancient Targums were apparently convinced that the word in question was indeed "pierced!" The fact that Christian translators (who translated the Hebrew Tanakh into the Latin vulgate) translated the same word as pierced, was not an issue at the time! They were simply following what the rabbis had done hundreds of years previously. However, since the "piercing" of Jesus of Nazareth, the translation of this word has become a major point of controversy.

Not only do most contemporary rabbis deny the Messianic application of this verse, some have even stated that Christians fabricated the translation themselves!

According to Samuel Levine:[28]

"That verse of 'they pierced my hands and feet,' which seems to point to Jesus, is a mistranslation, according to all of the classical Jewish scholars, who knew Hebrew perfectly. In fact, the Christians have invented a new word in the process, which is still not in the Hebrew dictionary"

Mr. Levine is correct about one thing here. The ancient rabbis knew Hebrew perfectly well. But there is no doubt that the word translated as "pierced" was in their dictionaries because they rendered it that way in the Septuagint and the Targums! Both of these documents were translated some two hundred years before the birth of Jesus.

The Hebrew word which translates as "pierced" is the word "karv", , and was certainly the word those ancient scholars translated. Modern Jewish Bibles translate the word in question as "like a lion." Obviously these are two very different meanings for what should be the same word in the biblical text. So where does this radical difference in rendering come from?

The Jewish Publication Society relies on the Massoretic Hebrew text for the translation of their version of the Bible.[29] However, this text is dated to approximately 800-1000 C.E. The writers of the Septuagint, the Targums and the early Christian Bibles relied on much more ancient texts.

The massoretic text has a completely different word, "kari" (like a lion), instead of the word "karv" (pierced) most likely found in the much more ancient texts.

Obviously when you look at the two Hebrew words, and , we see that they are structurally very similar. The Hebrew letter vav () found in "karv" (pierced) is very similar to the letter yod () found in the word "kari" (like a lion). Clearly a mistake in copying was possible, but was this change from the ancient text a simple copyist' error or the deliberate changing of the text of the book of Psalms?

Was the rejection of Jesus' Messianic claims by the first century rabbis the motive behind the changing of the text as well as its interpretation? We may never know.

Even without this dilemma we find that the ancient rabbinical interpretation of the word in question varies dramatically from modern rabbinical sources. The rabbis who wrote the Talmud and the Midrash interpreted this entire Psalm as Messianic.

In the Yakult Shimoni (#687), a commentary on Psalm 22 we read:

"'Many dogs have surrounded me', this refers to Haman's sons. 'The assembly of the wicked have enclosed me. They pierced (karv) my hands and feet'. Rabbi Nehemiah says;'They pierced my hands and feet in the presence of Ahasuerus.'"

This commentary shows that the reading "pierced" was accepted by rabbis of that time.

Psalm 22 is also applied to the Messiah in the Midrash Pesikta Rabbati, (Piska chapter 36:1-2) as we saw in our discussion of Isaiah 52 & 53.

They Will Look Upon Me Whom They Have Pierced!

In the book of Zechariah we find a fascinating prophecy regarding the response of the nation of Israel when they are returned to their land and finally see and recognize their Messiah. God speaking through Zechariah stated:

"And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on me whom they have pierced; they will mourn for him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for him as one grieves for a firstborn." (Zechariah 12:10-12)

Modern rabbis claim that the person spoken of here is not the Messiah, rather a king or priest of either the past or future. However, this very passage is applied to the suffering servant, Messiah Ben Joseph in the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 52a. The rabbi asks:

"What is the cause of the mourning [of Zech. 12:10]. It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah, the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the scriptural verse, 'And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son.'"

In this amazing quote we see that the ancient rabbis believed that the Messiah would not only be "pierced" or "thrust through," but that he would also suffer martrydom ("the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph").

Again we see how the interpretation of prophecy has changed over the last 1600 years. Was the piercing of the hands and feet of Jesus of Nazareth, and the thrusting through of his side by the Roman guard, the reason for the change of interpretation of these prophecies? If we are to argue that the ancient rabbis had a more thorough understanding of the ancient Hebrew language, we must accept the ancient views as closest to the true prophetic meaning.

The Messiah Will Suffer and Die for the People!

The evidence speaks for itself. Throughout most of the history of Jewish scholarship many of the highly respected writers of the Talmud and the Midrash (most of whom were leaders of Rabbinical academies), shared a common belief. The Messiah would be despised, rejected, suffer by being pierced and ultimately die for the sins of the people!

Consequently, if the 20th century rabbi or Bible scholar chooses to cling to the belief that the Messiah will simply be a man who will not be despised, rejected or pierced, he will do so in stark contrast to ancient rabbinical thought and in the face of overwhelming and mounting evidence to the contrary.


[1] Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Sandedrin 98-99b.

[3] You Take Jesus, I'll Take God, Samuel Levine, pg 24-25 Hamoroh Press.1980.

[4] See appendix IV, Rabbinical Quotes on Isaiah 53.

[5] The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim, Appendix IX.

[6]. Messianically applied in Targum of Jonathan, written between first and second century C.E.

[7]. See The Messianic Hope, Arthur Kac.

[8] See comments on Isaiah 53 in Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Appendix IX.

[9] Yinon is one of the ancient rabbinical names of the Messiah.

[10] See The Messianic Hope, Arthur Kac, The Chapter of the Suffering Servent.

[11] To justify is to make one acceptable and righteous in the sight of God.

[12] i.e. Our individual sins.

[13] Talmud, Sanhedrin 93b.

[14] Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b.

[15] The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim, Appendix IX.

[16] A reference to Isaiah 53.

[17] A reference to the death of the Messiah

[18] A reference to Psalm 22:15-16

[19] In fact, there is no other portion of scripture that parallels the language in Presiqta Rabbati chapter 37 as closely as does Psalm 22.

[20] A Commentary of Rabbi Mosheh Kohen Ibn Crispin of Cordova. Fora detailed discussion of this reference see The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah According to Jewish Interpreters,preface pg x, S.R. Driver, A.D. Neubauer, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., New York, 1969.

[21] "The Messianic Hope", by Arthur Kac, pg. 75.

[22] ibid, pg. 76.

[23] ibid, pg. 76.

[24] From the exposition of the entire Old Testament, called Korem, by Herz Homberg (Wein, 1818).

[25] The Septuagint; seventy Hebrew and Greek scholars translated the Hebrew Tanakh into Greek beginning in 285 B.C.

[26] Targums: Translated in 200 B.C.

[27] Some Jewish legends say seventy-two scholars, six from each tribe of Israel, translated it in 285 B.C. The exact amount of time it took to translate the Tanakh (Genesis-Malachi) is not known. Some scholars feel that the Septuagint is flawed in some of its translations. However, it was accepted during the first century C.E.. as a bonafide translation and was used extensively in synagogues and by the common man.

[28] You Take Jesus, I'll Take God, Samuel Levine, pg. 34, Hamoroh Press, 1980.

[29] This is one of the major publishers of Bibles for the Conservative and Orthodox Jews.

Chapter One: The Hope for Messiah ← Prior Section
Chapter Three: Birth, Lineage and Mission of Messiah Next Section →

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

Donate Contact

Blue Letter Bible study tools make reading, searching and studying the Bible easy and rewarding.

Blue Letter Bible is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization