The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

The final Old Testament passage that will be examined in this series is the famous Servant passage of Isaiah 52:13-53:12. It is the fourth of the so-called “Servant Songs” in Deutero-Isaiah (chaps. 40-55), with the previous three occurring in 42:1-4ff; 49:1-6f, and 50:1-9ff. The Servant-motif¬† (“Servant of YHWH”) is a theme that runs throughout Deutero-Isaiah¬† (cf. 41:8-9; 42:19; 43:10; 44:1-2, 21, 26; 45:4; 48:20; 50:10). For the historical background of the Deutero-Isaian poems, see the previous articles on Isa 40:3 and 42:1ff.

The importance of the Servant Song in 52:13-53:12 for early Christianity could hardly be overstated. Even though direct quotations in the New Testament are relatively few, there can be no doubt that it played a major role in the shaping of the Gospel Tradition. Indeed, it was one of the key Scriptures recognized by early Christians in support of the view that Jesus’ death (and resurrection) was prophesied in the Old Testament, and for the idea that the Anointed One (the royal/Davidic Messiah) would suffer and be put to death.

Because of its importance in this regard, and in view of the difficulties of interpretation that have surrounded this passage, I have decided to treat it through a series of detailed exegetical notes. This will allow us to study the passage carefully, verse by verse and phrase by phrase. Through these notes (presented as daily notes for the remainder of April) we can hope to build up a sound line of interpretation regarding the original context and meaning of the poem, and to examine, at the same time, how it came to be applied to the person of Jesus by early Christians.

The long history of interpretation of Isa 52:13-53:12, along with the critical questions and issues related to it, can be epitomized by the question posed by the Ethiopian official in Acts 8:34:

“…about whom does the Foreteller say this? (is it) about himself or about some other (person)?”

This pointed query, anticipating centuries of critical analysis and scholarship on the poem, serves as the basis for the missionary Philip’s proclamation of the Gospel message (v. 35). We may hope and trust that our critical study will likewise lead to new insight and a strengthening of faith.

The opening verse of the poem (52:13) will be discussed in the first daily note.

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