Did 1st Century Jews Find Messiah in Isaiah 53?

Pastor Mike Winger finds Isaiah 53 to be a convincing argument for Jesus in Tanakh. He’s right about one thing. In a Christain culture, anyone reading the passage will find Jesus in it. However, I wondered if the same holds true in the time of Jesus. What did people believe then? Of course, the New Testament confirms his findings. But do they record people teaching this before the death of Jesus? Here we look at several passages.

The Road to Emmaus.

Did 1st Century Jews find Messiah in Isaiah 53?

“Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”

Luke 24:19-24 ESV

Here we see a couple of Jesus disciples after his death. Did they find hope in how the events matched the prophecy of Isaiah 53? No. On the contrary, they were discouraged. In fact, even after hearing of his resurrection they still doubted. Clearly they didn’t see Isaiah 53 as relating to Jesus.

The Ethiopian Eunuch

30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

Acts 8:30-31

Here, the Ethiopian Eunuch is reading Isaiah 53. Does he recognize that he is reading about the Messiah? Not at all. He later asks Phillip whom the prophet was talking about. Clearly, he didn’t see this as a Messianic passage. However, he was just a convert. How about a Jewish crowd? Certainly they would know, right?

Jesus tells the crowd that he must die.

34 So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”

John 12:34

Notice, the crowd believes that the Messiah will live forever. Clearly, Isaiah 53 can’t be about the Messiah. Moreover, when Jesus responds to them in verses 35-36, he doesn’t mention Isaiah 53 to defend his point. It is left to John after the fact to add this as an editorial note, that this occurrence somehow fulfilled the prophecy in Isaiah.

Peter rebukes Jesus.

29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. 31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

Mark 8:29-32

Immediately after declaring Jesus to be the Messiah, Peter rebukes Jesus for saying that he would suffer and die. Obviously, Peter didn’t see the “suffering servant” as being the Messiah.

Why does this matter?

Christians often accuse the Rabbis of reinterpreting Isaiah 53 as being about Israel because they rejected Jesus. However, it is here that we find that the Christians reinterpreted the passage because they accepted Jesus. In other words, having a dead Messiah was untenable. Unless… what if they could find a prophecy that says that the Messiah must die? And so they did. But prior to the death of Jesus, even those very disciples who would later proclaim this interpretation didn’t see it that way themselves.

Is it then reasonable for us to teach this as the correct interpretation of this passage? I would say that it is not. However, I don’t expect the practice to stop. We simply need to keep these facts in mind when we hear the teaching. and draw our conclusions on the preponderance of the evidence.


I was raised a Christian, turned atheist as a teenager, and became a Noahide in my 40's. Here I will share what I have learned, and look forward to what you can teach me. Thank you for stopping by Biblical Anarchy. Feel free to leave a comment.

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  • This is a bad argument. The Targums and several Jewish commentaries from before the time of Christ (and even a bit after) refer to Isaiah 53 as Messianic. That’s a smoking gun. Would it chanfe your mind if true? Happy to go into details if it would.

    • If it’s a bad argument, then refute my point, don’t redirect to another one. In other words, show me where the followers of Jesus saw Isaiah 53 as specifically talking about Jesus during his lifetime.

      It’s easy to say they saw it as Messianic in a generic way. That’s true of a lot of stuff. My point is that there was no consensus on this view, and they specific points of relation that were used after his death weren’t seen as relevant before his death. And, it’s worth noting how Christians intentionally mistranslate the passage to make it fit Jesus.

      Isaiah 53:9 (ESV):
      And they made his grave with the wicked
      and with a rich man in his death,
      although he had done no violence,
      and there was no deceit in his mouth.

      The word translated “death” there is plural, consistent with the reading of Israel as the servant, but not consistent with the reading of Jesus as the servant.

      They made his grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in his deaths.

      But I would steelman your point here. Even counter-missionary rabbis like Tovia Singer concede that Isaiah 53 is messianic. They say that it is talking about the righteous remnant in the last days, one of which will in fact be the Messiah. They just don’t see it as being about Jesus.

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