In Acts 8, Philip the Evangelist is recorded as sharing the Gospel with a man from Ethiopia. His starting point? A question about Isaiah 53, posed by that same man. Given that event, Isaiah 53 has long been a major text cited by Christians about Jesus. It's viewed as a prophetic message that finds its fulfillment in Him.
Far too often, though, this text is taken without serious consideration. First, the assumption is made that the only interpretation is that this passage refers to the Messiah. Second, the assumption is made that there is no additional meaning to be considered.
These assumptions cause Christianity some problems. It appears obvious to Christians that Isaiah is speaking of Jesus, so we wonder why no one else sees that? This especially hinders our interactions with people of the Jewish faith and heritage. After all, Isaiah is truly a Jewish prophet--why, then, do current Jewish understandings of the passage differ so much from Christian ones?
Further, we miss out in Christianity on understanding how Isaiah may have been speaking of others as the "Suffering Servant." Is it simply a dodge to claim that Israel themselves or Isaiah himself are the Servant? Or could that be a valid interpretation?
Into this discussion comes this book, The Gospel According to Isaiah 53. The subtitle spells it out: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology. This book is intended to present a full, scholarly look at the chapter in the title. Well, actually starting with Isaiah 52:13. The book is guided by two editors, Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser, and is written by 11 contributors. These authors represent some of the strongest scholars in Christian theology.
That is an important note: while a concerted effort is made to present the current and historical Jewish interpretations of Isaiah 53, all of the contributors are believers in Christ. There are contributors who are Christians with Jewish heritage, and Mitch Glaser who co-edits the book is deeply involved with the Jewish community, but this book is intended to come out as a Christian viewpoint. I think that's a good thing, personally--but if you want something that leaves the question open, you're looking in the wrong place.
Each chapter develops a slightly different theme, and Bock's conclusion draws the work together. I found the chapter on Jewish interpretations of Isaiah 53, by Michael Brown, eye-opening. His chapter was the most helpful to me, while Mitch Glaser's chapter on the practical aspects of using Isaiah 53 in evangelism was the least directly helpful. That is likely because his focus was on evangelism in areas with a strong Jewish heritage, and rural Redneckia, where I live, is not exactly one of those places. His points sound excellent: the idea of using the Suffering Servant passages to center discussion on theology among people you have a relationship with is a good one.
All in all, I found this to be a helpful volume. I would be hopeful that this team, or a similar one, will come out with 65 more to cover the remainder of Isaiah, but I have my doubts.
One thing to recognize here: this is a theological commentary, not a textual/historical one. It does not delve deeply into the historical issues about the book of Isaiah as a whole or really deal much with authorship or textual issues. You'll want a good Isaiah commentary for that. This book does not claim to be an textual/historical commentary, so that's not a problem. Just an observation.
I did receive a free copy of this book from Kregel Publishers in exchange for the review.