Since I was a young boy, I have loved Isaiah 53. There are three reasons that I like to call it the “crown jewel” of the Old Testament:
- Its literary beauty—both in the original, sometimes obscure, Hebrew text and in its magnificent King James Bible translation—the latter best experienced musically in listening to Handel’s Messiah;
- its key role within the writings of Isaiah—the most important and widely cited prophet in the New Testament and in modern scripture—as the last of his four “Servant Songs”; and
- its unparalleled clarity and poignancy as an ancient witness of Jesus Christ long before His birth.
So much has been written and so much can be said about this chapter that I’ll need to be selective. So, in this article, I’ll just talk about four things:
- Why, in contrast to many who study this chapter, can Latter-day Saints be confident that the Isaiah’s description of the Righteous Servant refers to Jesus Christ?
- Apart from the vivid word pictures in individual verses, what is the big picture being painted by Isaiah 53 (and its preface at the end of Isaiah 52)?
- How might we understand some of the difficult-to-comprehend verses?
- How has this chapter come to change the lives of some Latter-day Saints?
In part one of this article, I’ll discuss the first two questions. Later, in a second part, I’ll discuss questions three and four.
1. Who is the Righteous Servant in Isaiah 53?
Why is it so hard to pinpoint the identity of the Servant?
John W. Welch has mentioned some of the reasons that readers differ on the identity of the “righteous servant” in Isaiah 53.  His thoughts on these difficulties can be summarized in the following three points:
- The servant is never specifically identified. The pronoun “he” as well as the “we” and “our” and “thou” have all been variously interpreted. Fortunately, the Book of Mormon makes it clear that the “he” refers to Christ. Abinadi says plainly: “I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men and shall redeem his people.” 
- The time-frame—past, present, or future—is unclear. Again, the Book of Mormon helps us out, making it clear that the passage is written in the “prophetic past tense.” In other words, it is speaking “of things to come as though they have already come.” 
- The nature of the suffering of the servant is difficult to understand. At first the people despise him, but later they conclude that He has borne their griefs. Again, Abinadi’s plain prose removes the mystery from the meaning of these verses when he says that the servant “shall be led, crucified, and slain. … Thus God breaketh the bands of death, … giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men.” 
In addition to the witness of the Book of Mormon, “modern apostles of the restored Church of Jesus Christ, such as James E. Talmage, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Bruce R. McConkie, have also stated that Jesus is the subject of Isaiah 53.”  And, more recently, President Russell M. Nelson has taught the same truth. 
It may be surprising to some to learn that the New Testament attests a climate of uncertainty and speculation at the time of Jesus regarding several prophetic figures whose comings were anticipated by His people. For example, the gospel of John reported that “priests and Levites from Jerusalem” were sent to ask John the Baptist which one of three such figures he was:  the Messiah,  Elijah,  or “that prophet” — the latter usually either associated with the “Prophet … like unto [Moses]” mentioned in Deuteronomy 18:15  or else with Moses himself. After Herod beheaded John the Baptist, he feared that Jesus might be John “risen from the dead.”  Then, as now, mapping biblical prophecy to precise timeframes, circumstances, and individuals is a notoriously risky business. As a Danish parliamentarian once obtusely opined: “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” 
With specific respect to Isaiah 53, the lack of a settled interpretation at the time of Jesus for the identity of the righteous servant is witnessed in the question the Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip: “I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?”  Even Jesus’ disciples, to whom He explained that He must needs “suffer many things …, and be killed, and be raised again the third day,”  failed to recognize these events as Messianic necessities. When a horrified Peter rebuked Jesus, saying: “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee,”  the Lord was obliged to forcefully disavow His chief apostle’s error with these words: “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me.” 
What were the different guesses about the identity of the Servant of Isaiah 53 in Jesus’ day and afterward? Below we summarize some of the common identifications in three roughly chronological phases.
Common Identifications for the Servant in History
The Servant as the Messiah. Scholars have brought forth impressive pre-Christian evidence about a suffering and atoning Messiah. However, the most impressive examples of the servant of Isaiah 53 being understood in Jewish tradition messianically come from the Targum, the Talmud, and the later rabbinic literature.  Some examples include:
- The Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel  (composed between 70 and 135 AD) for Isaiah 52:13 reads: “Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper; he shall be high, and increase and be exceedingly strong”;
- The Babylonian Talmud  (codified in the 6th century AD) asks: “The Messiah — what is his name? … The Rabbis say, ‘the leprous one’: Those of the house of Rabbi say, ‘the sick one,’ as it is said, ‘surely he hath borne our sickness’” ;
- Midrash Rabbah,  speaking with reference to Ruth 2:14, explains: “He is speaking of the King Messiah: ‘Come hither draw near to the Throne; and eat the bread,’ that is the bread of the kingdom: ‘and dip thy morsel in the vinegar.’ This refers to his chastisements, as it is said, ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities’” ”;
- Midrash Tanhuma  applies Isaiah 52:13 and 53:3 to the Messiah;
- In the Yalkut Shimoni, a thirteenth-century compilation of earlier commentary, it reads: “‘Who art thou, O great mountain?’  This refers to the King Messiah. And why does he call him ‘the great mountain?’ Because He is greater than the patriarchs. As it is said, ‘My servant shall be high and lifted up and lofty exceedingly.’ He will be higher than Abraham, who says, ‘I raise high my hand unto the Lord.’  Lifted up above Moses, to whom it is said, ‘Lift it up into thy bosom.’  Loftier than the ministering angels, of whom it is written, ‘Their wheels were lofty and terrible.’” 
The Servant as Jesus Christ. Though, as mentioned previously, mapping scriptural prophecies to specific events typically carries risks, both ancient and modern Christians affirm with confidence that Jesus Christ is the Servant of Isaiah 53.  When the Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip, “Of whom speaketh the prophet? ”the reply was unequivocal: “Philip … began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.”
Moreover, as Mikeal Parsons insightfully argues, Luke’s account of Philip’s reply to the eunuch in Acts 8, “is given content by the precursor text in Luke 24.” When the resurrected Jesus spoke to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, He was doubtless alluding in part to Isaiah 53 when He said: “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?”  Likewise, when the Lord spoke to the apostles, He said: “All things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to risefrom the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name.” 
Figure 2 shows how Matthew, John, Peter, and Paul each apply various verses of Isaiah 53 to Christ. 
One significant note about the table in figure 2: though Isaiah 52:13-15 is rightfully seen as a single piece with chapter 53, there is also a good reason to consider the two passages separately: Unlike Isaiah 53, Isaiah 52:13-15 has a wider application to other individuals besides Jesus Christ alone. For more details, see the discussion of the end of Isaiah 52 below.
The Servant as the People of Israel. Although the identification of the Servant as the people of Israel is attested in one account from the early third century,  there is currently no evidence that this identification took hold firmly (and, eventually, decisively) among authoritative commentators until much later. Indeed, Walther Zimmerli and Joachim Jeremias go so far as to say that “there is not to be found a definitely non-messianic exegesis of Isaiah 53 in the rabbinic literature of the first millennium.”  Victor Buksbazen explains the historical context for the change from an individual (typically messianic) identity to a corporate identity of the Servant in Isaiah 53 as follows:
Behind this change lies the tragic Jewish experience during the Crusades. During the First Crusade in AD 1096, when the Crusaders, in their misguided zeal, attempted to wrest the Holy Sepulchre from the Muslims, they became aware that the infidels were not only “the pagan Muslims” in faraway Palestine, but also “the Christ-killing Jews” who were living in their very midst, in so-called Christian Europe. Encouraged by their fanatical leader and frequently incited by high-ranking clerics, the Crusaders committed massacres of the Jews, especially of those who lived in France, Italy, and Germany. Thousands were butchered, their synagogues burned, and their possessions pillaged.
This horrible experience, which lasted for almost two centuries, left a traumatic impact on the Jews comparable only to their later experience under Hitler. From that time on, their revulsion against everything that the Christians believed or represented became more violent and hostile than ever before.
Since that time, the question of Isaiah 53 took on a heated polemical and emotional character. And since the Christians in their frequent disputes with the Jews used Isaiah 53 as one of their main arguments for the Messiahship of Jesus, the Jews felt impelled to reinterpret this prophecy in such a way as to blunt the Christian argument. Since that time, the question of Isaiah 53 took on a heated polemical and emotional character.
Another compelling reason for the abandonment of the Messianic interpretation of the controversial passage was the fact that many Jews themselves became convinced that there is a cogent and strong argument for the Christian position. In fact, many Jews actually converted to the Christian faith as a result of the Christian-Jewish disputations of the Middle Ages.
During that period the outstanding Jewish scholar Joseph Ben Kaspi (1280–1340) warned the rabbis that “those who expounded this section of the Messiah give occasion to the heretics [Christians] to interpret it of Jesus.” About this statement Rabbi Saadia ibn Danan observed, “May God forgive him for not having spoken the truth.” 
In any case, since AD 1096 Jewish interpreters began to teach that Isaiah’s suffering servant was not the Messiah but persecuted and suffering Israel, “who was led to the slaughter like a sheep and opened not his mouth.” 
In the light of the Crusaders’ atrocities, this interpretation took on a semblance of [truth] and found much favor among the majority of Jews, but not among all of them. Still the original Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 persisted and survived even to the present day. It is preserved in Jewish liturgy for the Day of Atonement in a prayer attributed to Eliezer Ha-Kallir (eighth century AD): 
We are shrunk up in our misery even until now! Our rock hath not come to us; Messiah, our righteousness, hath turned from us; we are in terror, and there is none to justify us! Our iniquities and the yoke of our transgressions he will bear, for he was wounded for our transgressions: he will carry our sins upon his shoulder that we may find forgiveness for our iniquities, and by his stripes we are healed. O eternal One, the time is come to make a new creation, from the vault of heaven bring him up, out of Seir draw him forth that he may make his voice heard to us in Lebanon, a second time by the hand of Yinnon.
From the prayer it is obvious that the Jews of that era believed that the Messiah had already come and were praying that He may come “a second time.” Some of the medieval scholars who interpreted this passage in an individual sense applied it either to Jeremiah or to Isaiah, others to Hezekiah, and some to any righteous person who suffers innocently.
Many of the ancient rabbis were aware of the seemingly divergent elements in the Messianic prophecies. One stream of thought spoke of the suffering Messiah.  The other described a triumphant Messiah who will subdue the rebellious nations and establish His kingdom.  To resolve this problem the rabbis have resorted to the theory of the two Messiahs, the suffering one, called Messiah ben Joseph, who died in battle against Edom (Rome). He is followed by the triumphant Messiah, Messiah ben David, who establishes His kingdom of righteousness after defeating the Gentile nations. 
Another attempt to resolve the seeming contradiction of a suffering and triumphant Messiah is mentioned in Pesikta Rabbati.  According to this, the Messiah ben David suffers in every generation for the sins of each generation. Other rabbinical authorities sought to find a solution to this puzzle in various ingenious ways, which did not commend themselves to most Jewish people.
Some rabbinical authorities have postponed the solution of this and all other perplexing questions to the coming of the prophet Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah, who will make all things clear. 
In the New Testament this problem is solved by the doctrine concerning the first advent of the suffering Christ, followed by His triumphant Second Coming. 
Not coincidentally, debate with Christians seems to have been an important factor in leading an increasing number of Jewish scholars (starting as early as the third century) to disavow previous traditions that had supported the idea that selected mortals, notably including Jacob,  Moses,  Elijah,  and Enoch,  had ascended to heaven. Gordon Tucker and Leonard Levin explain that the intensified rabbinical opposition was: 
with good reason, for a safe ascent to heaven, it would seem, could be successfully accomplished by someone who is, at least in part, of heaven. Thus it is that the idea of the ascent of a human to heaven brings close on its heels the idea of a descent to earth of a heavenly being. The latter, of course, is the central tenet of Christianity, This is not the first time we have seen parallels between Akivan ideas in the second century and roughly contemporaneous ideas characteristic of early Christians (and especially Jewish Christians). Nor is this the first (or the last) time we see controversy over Akivan views being raised and energized by that very parallelism.
Importance of appreciating the ongoing diversity of viewpoints in Jewish scholarship. Of course, the brief overview of identifications for the Servant of Isaiah 53 given above, with its overly sharp demarcations of Jewish historical interpretive trends, does not do justice to the spirit of the Jewish exegetical tradition. Unlike traditional ways of Western thinking with which most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are most familiar and comfortable—ways that usually hunger to find single, correct, unambiguous, and authoritative answers for complex doctrinal questions—generations of Jewish scholars are usually not “troubled by a multiplicity of rabbinic views on central theological questions; on the contrary, [they are] pleased to find differing viewpoints.”  It would mischaracterize the rabbinic tradition to say merely that such differences, including details of debates on questions such as the interpretation of Isaiah, are carefully documented, when the more complete truth is that they are, in addition, lovingly cherished and preserved so that future generations can appreciate the wrestle as much as the results. Speaking of the ability of the great 20th century Jewish scholar and teacher Abraham Joshua Herschel to appreciate the richness made available through diverse rabbinic views, his daughter Susannah Heschel, herself a professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, wrote:
For him, the school of Akiva was mystical, apocalyptic, radical, uncompromising, enthusiastic, strong, militant, deep, paradoxical, and sweeping, whereas the school of Ishmael was critical, rationalistic, self-limited, clear, dry, measured, balanced, careful, and patient. …
A [Latter-day Saint] philosopher I came to know twenty years ago was very taken with Heschel’s work. In a letter he sent me after he began integrating some of Heschel’s theology into his teaching at Brigham Young University, he noted that “Heschel sings rather than argues”—intending that assessment not pejoratively but descriptively.
2. What Is the Big Picture Being Painted in Isaiah 53?
Rhetorical structure. The material in chapter 53 is classed by scholars as part of Isaiah’s four “servant songs.” S. Kurt Neumiller has described the larger rhetorical structure that both surrounds and is found within Isaiah 53:
Using the theme from the preceding 49-52 block, which [in turn is] built upon the theme from chapters 40-48, Isaiah now summarizes and terminates the line of thought and symbolism of the intercessory servant with a block of four chapters which forcefully present the Lord as the epitome of Israel’s savior and [describe] what He will do to redeem Israel. The four-chapter block is presented in an alternating A-B-C fashion based upon general subject:
A-The condescending intercessory servant (Grace, Mercy) (53:1-12) B-Redeemed Israel, bride of the Lord (Natural Israel) (54:1-13) C-Fight against Zion and [failure] (Enemies outside) (54:14-17) A-The exalted saving Lord (Justice) (55:1-13) B-All righteous brought to His House (All nations) (56:1-8) C-Wicked among Israel consumed (Enemies within) (56:9-12)
The parallelism informs us of the unity of the Lord’s experience and mission [as well as the planning that took place long before]. He is both the lowly suffering servant and the exalted powerful Lord. He saves both Israel and the Gentiles who worship Him, and he destroys His enemies both inside and outside of Zion.
The textual structure of this chapter can be structured as a chiasm starting with the last three verses from the preceding chapter. The structure is robust enough to be spotted and commented on by the author of the Westminster Bible commentary, which normally does not give much regard to rhetorical structures.
A – (v. 52:13-15) Lord speaks of exalting His servant
because of his actions
B – (v. 1) Who can believe the arm of the Lord is revealed? C – (v. 2-3) Servant was not appealing to man and is rejected D – (v. 4-5) We thought he was cursed,
he took upon himself our sins
E – (v. 6a-b) We have gone astray like sheep do F – (v. 6c) And the Lord visited upon him, F – (v. 6d) the iniquity of us all E – (v. 7) Servant is meek and submissive as sheep are D – (v. 8) Servant is judged and killed,
by the sins of His people
C – (v. 9) Servant is counted among wicked
though he was not wicked
B – (v. 10-11b) Lord chose him that His purposes are achieved A – (v. 11c-12) Lord speaks of exalting His servant
because of his actions
Parallels with Isaiah 14. Avraham Gileadi found specific parallels and contrasts between Isaiah’s descriptions of the righteous servant in chapter 53 and the wicked servant in chapter 14, the former tracing a path from humiliation to exaltation and the latter following precisely the opposite course:
|Isaiah 14||Isaiah 53|
|13. The Tyrant ascends (‘lh) the heavens.||1-2. The Servant grows up (‘lh) out of the earth|
|14. The Tyrant aspires to be like the Most High.||3. The Servant submits to being the lowliest of men.|
|15. The Tyrant’s ignominy is irrevocable.||4-5b. The Servant’s ignominy is redemptive.|
|16-17b. The Tyrant causes havoc and destruction.||5cd. The Servant causes peace and healing.|
|17c. The Tyrant keeps men in bondage.||6. The Servant atones [frees men from the bondage of sin].|
|18. The kings of the nations are honorable in death.||7. The Servant goes like a lamb to the slaughter.|
|19. The Tyrant is slain for his own crimes.||8. The Servant is slain for the crimes of his people.|
|20ab. The Tyrant is unburied because he did violence.||9. The Servant buried because he did no violence.|
|20c-21. The Tyrant’s offspring are wiped out.||10. The Servant’s offspring continue.|
|22. All in Babylon are condemned.||11. The Servant vindicates many.|
|23. Babylon is an inheritance for noxious birds.||12. The Lord’s great ones inherit with the Servant.”|
Overview of the four-part structure of Isaiah 52:13-53:12. As mentioned previously, Isaiah 52:13-15, which contains God’s proclamation of the Servant’s exaltation, is of a piece with the chapter that follows. When reading chapters 52 and 53 together, I find S. Kurt Neumiller’s suggestion for the structure of these passages to be helpful in understanding the big picture:
- The Servant’s success and eventual exaltation, a summarizing preface to chapter 53 (52:13-15). These verses assure the reader up front that God’s intent “from the beginning” is to end the suffering of the Servant with a glorious finish. From the Book of Mormon we learn that these verses apply not only to Jesus Christ, but also to “the Lord’s prophetic servants (i.e., types of Christ),” with “their vindication being concurrent with the Second Advent.” Specifically, Moses is both a type of the Messiah and also of Joseph Smith.
- The people’s confessional, describing the events of Christ’s mortal life and atonement (53:1-6). “Here [Israel] is speaking in something of a confessional. They admit they [wrongfully judged] the Servant and [rebelled] against [God’s] will.” Now sorrowful for having despised and rejected the Servant, they openly declare that His sufferings included not only their derision but also, more poignantly, His atoning sacrifice on their behalf.
- The Servant’s suffering, describing Christ’s trial and crucifixion (53:7-9). The suffering that leads to the Servant’s death is here described in a poignant series of images: He was “oppressed” and “afflicted” and at last “brought as a lamb to the slaughter” and “cut off from the land of the living,” in company with “the wicked.” Notwithstanding all this, and in pointed contrast to the evil tyrant, God assures the righteous Servant a burial (v. 9) and the ultimate preservation of His spiritual offspring (v. 10).
- The Servant’s reward, describing Christ’s post-mortal glory (53:10-12). Verses 10-12 present an answer to the question of why God would allow “an innocent Servant [to be] mercilessly and unjustly killed at the hands of oppressors. [We learn] that the Lord chose to [bruise] the Servant [as an offering for sin to] redeem His offspring, grant life, and ultimately prosper [the Servant, thus revealing] the arm of the Lord … in the act of salvation.”
In part two of our discussion of Isaiah 53, I’ll address the following questions:
- How might we understand some of the difficult-to-comprehend verses?
- How has this chapter come to change the lives of some Latter-day Saints?
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Neumiller, S. Kurt. 1998. Comments on Isaiah 53. In Latter-day Saint Seminar. https://www.ldsgospeldoctrine.net/kn/ot/isaiah53.txt. (accessed December 16, 2018).
Parsons, Mikeal C. 1999. "Isaiah 53 in Acts 8: A reply to professor Morna Hooker." In Jesus and the Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 and Christian Origins, edited by William H. Bellinger and William R. Farmer, 104-19. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009.
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Wilkins, Michael J. "Isaiah 53 and the message of slavation in the Gospels." In The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, edited by Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser, 133-44. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2012.
Zimmerli, Walther, and Joachim Jeremias. The Servant of God. Studies in Biblical Theology 20. London, England: SCM Press, 1965.
The recent discovery at Qumran of the Manual of Discipline (Rule of the Community) in which three eschatological figures are mentioned—“a prophet and the messiahs of Aaron and Israel” (1 QS 9:11) — has led to speculation that the three figures mentioned here in the Johannine Gospel and in the Manual may be similar. The implication of such speculation might argue that Elijah could then be the Messiah of Aaron, but actually there is no hard evidence that the Dead Sea community ever linked Elijah with the Zadokite priesthood. …
Each of these three figures seems to be viewed as calling Israel to readiness and by implication calling the Jewish establishment to account. If, therefore, the Baptizer would have fit any of these predetermined eschatological categories, the leadership of the Jews would certainly have wanted to know. Dealing with such persons was accordingly a crucial matter for the Jewish leadership. The evangelist showed that he was very much aware of such social dimensions in the story. The same awareness of social and political power struggles is evident in the Johannine account of the plot by the high priest’s executive committee to condemn Jesus (John 11:47–53). Nevertheless, the evangelist concentrated more on the theological dimensions of his stories than on the political perspectives (e.g., John 11:51–52). Sometimes contemporary students and readers miss these points and consider the Gospel writer to have been naive about such issues. But this evangelist was not unaware of social and political concerns in the coming of Jesus. Rather, his purpose in writing the Gospel was his agenda, and the reader who wants to understand the Gospel must never forget to account for that life-altering purpose in analyzing the Johannine stories (see John 20:30–31).
The Messiah figure may seem to be the easiest one for most Christian readers to understand, but it should be recalled that speculations concerning the coming Messiah were not clear in the Judaism of that time. In Qumran, for instance, speculation ran high about the possibility of two messiahs [cf. 1 QS 9:11; see also J. Klausner, Messianic Idea, pp. 483-501] — a Davidic [king and warrior Messiah (e.g., Philo, Contemplative Life, 95-97, pp. 371-373)] and a priestly [spiritual and ethical] Messiah [e.g., Isaiah 11:1-9; Zechariah 12:10-14; 13:6-7; Psalms of Solomon; 4 Ezra]. Some scholars have noted that if the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions are any indication, then post-first century devotees of the Baptist may have argued that John was the Messiah. But there is no direct evidence from the first century that such was actually the case.
There are two distinct ways this term was used in the NT: (1) as an eschatological figure distinct from the Messiah (cf. 7:40–41) or (2) as a figure identified with the Messiah (cf. Acts 3:22)./
In the English translation of Florentino García Martínez, Qumran Dead Sea Scroll 4Q541, fragment 9, column 1 reads: “They will utter many words against him, and an abundance of lies; they will fabricate fables against him. His generation will change the evil, and […] established in deceit and violence”( F. G. Martinez, Messianic Hopes, pp. 136-137, cited in J. W. Welch, Isaiah 53, p. 308). The translator “sees in this text an important confirmation that the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 ‘not an innovation of purely Christian origin,’ but rather was already ‘the result of previous developments’” (ibid., p. 308. See F. G. Martinez, Messianic Hopes, p. 137).
from the possible identification of the Lord’s Servant with the Messiah (cf., e.g., Zechariah 3:8; Targum Jonathan Zechariah 3:8)” and “becomes convinced that the prosperous and exalted figure in Isaiah 52:13 can be none other than the Messiah. The change in the Hebrew text from the third person singular in 52:13 to the second person singular in verse 14 (“many were astonished at you”) further persuades him that all statements of suffering and death in 52:14 and 53:3-9 must apply to others than the Servant-Messiah (the Gentiles, the wicked in Israel, etc.). Hence, he is able to render Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in keeping with the typical Jewish view of a triumphant Messiah, who judges the people and the wicked and rules over God-fearing and law-keeping Israel. …
Inasmuch as it takes up all the eschatological mediator functions in itself [e.g., temple building, instruction in the law, intercession], the picture of the Messiah in Targum of Isaiah 53 presents an analogy to that of the New Testament, though it must immediately be added that the New Testament description of the Messiahship of Jesus Christ places the accent on very different features.
At this the Jew said that these prophecies referred to the whole people as though of a single individual, since they were scattered in the dispersion and smitten, that as a result of the scattering of the Jews among the other nations many might become proselytes. In this way he explained the text: “Thy form shall be inglorious among men” (Isaiah 52:14); and “those to whom he was not proclaimed shall see him” (Isaiah 52:15); and “Being a man in calamity” (Isaiah 53:3).
Zimmerli and Jeremias (W. Zimmerli et al., Servant of God, pp. 53-55) attribute the rise of the identification of the Servant as a collective people rather than as an individual to grammatical deviations (plural vs. singular) in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible. Consequently, they “assume that the informants of Origin were Hellenistic Jews.
The patriarch Jacob sees in his dream “a ladder set on the ground and its top reaching the heavens,” but only “the angels of God were going up and down on it” (Genesis 28:12).
For Latter-day Saint perspectives on this event and on related ideas concerning the ladder of heavenly ascent, see J. M. Bradshaw, Faith, Hope, and Charity, especially pp. 62-77; J. M. Bradshaw, Now That We Have the Words, especially pp. 61-70; J. M. Bradshaw, God’s Image 1, p. 34, caption to Figures 1-2 and 1-3; p. 39, caption to Figure 1-8; pp. 43-44, commentary 1:1c; p. 351, caption to Figure 5-13; p. 479, commentary 6:5a; Excursus 11, p. 548; Excursus 50, p. 654; J. M. Bradshaw et al., God’s Image 2, pp. 382-388; p. 395, caption to Figure G11-12.
Though the belief in Moses’ ascent had some currency in Israel, it did not bring about a transformation in the doctrine of “Torah from Heaven” until Rabbi Akiva added an additional element: Moses ascended to heaven, and brought down the Torah from there. [Before Akiva, the idea of a Torah from Heaven had simply signified “the Torah (i.e., teaching) that Moses heard from the Heavenly One” rather than “the Torah (i.e., document) that Moses brought down from heaven.”] …
In the Torah we find no explicit statement that Moses ascended to heaven. On the verse “And Moses went up to God” (Exodus 19:3), the Aramaic translation by Onkelos renders, “Moses went up before God.” The Jerusalem Targum renders, “Moses went up to receive instruction from the Presence,” and the Targum attributed to Jonathan ben Uzziel states, “Moses went up to the top of the mountain.” Similarly, the Septuagint reads, “Moses ascended the mountain of God.”
For Latter-day Saint perspectives on heavenly ascents of Moses, in particular the ascent described in Moses 1, see J. M. Bradshaw, Truth and Beauty; J. M. Bradshaw, Moses Temple Themes (2014), pp. 23-50.
It was commonly held among the Rabbis that Elijah did not taste death but entered Paradise alive, based on the scriptural verse “Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:11). Nevertheless, Rabbi Yose was not alone in the opinion that Elijah did not ascend to heaven. The Septuagint and Targum render, “went up toward heaven.” Josephus wrote of Enoch and Elijah: “They are gone, and no one knows anything about their deaths” (F. Josephus, Antiquities, 9:2:2).
D&C 110:13 speaks of “Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death.”
When the Sages engaged in debate with the early Christians, they found it necessary to refute one of their major dogmas by insisting that Enoch as a repentant sinner who did not ascend to heaven. The Christians formulated two basic articles of faith: (1) God or the Logos descended from heaven, took on flesh, and became human; (2) Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. The second dogma served as a basis for and as proof of the first. As John put it, “No one ever ascended to heaven except the one who came down from heaven” (John 3:13). Rabbi Abbahu, who lived in Caesarea in the third century and frequently debated with Christian sectarians, said about these dogmas, “If one tells you, ‘I am God,’ he is a deceiver; ‘I am the Son of Man’ — he will live to regret it; ‘I shall ascend heaven’ — he says it but will not fulfill it” (Palestinian Talmud, Ta’anit 2:1 (65b)).
For Latter-day perspectives on the eavenly ascent of Moses translation and ascent of Enoch and his city, see J. M. Bradshaw et al., Moses 1 and the Apocalypse of Abraham (journal); J. M. Bradshaw, Moses 6–7 and the Book of Giants; J. M. Bradshaw, Enoch and the Gathering of Zion.