Since ancient times, Christians have interpreted Isaiah 53 as a prophecy about Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 8:30-35). However, Judaism insists the passage is not about Jesus, but about the nation of Israel itself.
In the article “Isaiah 53 - A Jewish Perspective,” Jews for Judaism argues against the Christian interpretation. It is the same argument Rabi Tovia Singer uses in the video below. However, although many points are made in that article and that video, in this article I want to offer an alternate Christian interpretation of the passage.
How Did Philip Interpret Isaiah 53?
According to the author of the book of Acts (chapter 8, verses 26-39), a eunuch was trying to determine whether the passage spoke about the prophet Isaiah himself or someone else (Acts 8:34), and Philip used the passage to tell the eunuch about Jesus of Nazareth, who we Christians believe is the Messiah. However, we do not know how Philip arrived at this interpretation of Isaiah 53. Had he meticulously studied the passage before and concluded that Isaiah was predicting a future event in the Messiah’s life, or did he only see a symbol that reminded him of events in Jesus’ life? The passage does directly state how Philip interpreted the passage.
Symbols in The Tanach
The New Testament often sees symbols of Jesus in the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament). For example, in 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul calls Jesus “our Passover Lamb.” It would be silly to think that Paul meant that Exodus 12 was a direct prediction of events in the Messiah’s life. Logically, Paul simply saw a symbol that reminded him of the significance of Jesus’ death.
Similarly, the author of the Gospel according to Matthew saw, in events of Jesus’ life, the fulfillment of a symbol presented in Hosea 11:1, but not a fulfillment of a direct prediction made by the passage. In context, Hosea was indeed talking about Israel, but the author of the gospel saw, in the life of our Lord Jesus, patterns that reminded him of the symbol used by Hosea: a son called from Egypt.
If this is the way in which Philip interpreted Isaiah 53, then we could say that Isaiah 53 is directly talking about Israel, but Jesus is the fulfillment of the symbol presented in Isaiah 53.
Symbols Are Valid
In my article on the number 40, I already explained that, throughout the Tanach, God established patterns to help people recognize His works on Earth. For this reason, it is valid for Paul to see the Passover lamb as a symbol of Christ, for the author of Matthew to see Israel called from Egypt as a symbol of Christ, and for the author of Hebrews to see Moses’ tabernacle as a symbol of the heavenly tabernacle where Christ serves (Hebrews 8:1-5).
Not The Only Way
In conclusion, it is possible that Philip was not necessarily interpreting Isaiah 53 in context, but as a symbol fulfilled by Christ. Nevertheless, I believe there are good reasons to interpret the prophecy not only as a symbol, but also as a direct prediction of events in the life of Jesus. I have written about these reasons in another article.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.