The Suffering Servant and the New Testament by Elizabeth E. Shively

Christians traditionally claim that the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus is prefigured in Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. This interpretation originates in the New Testament. Some may wonder if the New Testament writers invented the idea, but it is based on a tradition of interpretation stretching back to Isaiah itself.

Where does the Suffering Servant appear in Isaiah and Jewish tradition?

The Suffering Servant appears in Isa 50, Isa 52, Isa 53. These chapters are part of a section of Isaiah written to a community in exile, devastated by the loss of their national and covenant identity (Isa 40-55). The speaker announces that the debt of Israel’s sin leading to their exile in Babylon has been paid and that God is coming to redeem the people with a fresh manifestation of power. God’s chosen Servant plays a role in this redemption (Isa 42, Isa 49). That role culminates in the image of the Suffering Servant, whose suffering, vindication, and exaltation accomplish Israel’s redemption and the Lord’s universal reign (Isa 50, Isa 52, Isa 53).

For centuries afterwards, biblical and extrabiblical writers read these chapters and reimagined them for their own times. First, the postexilic writer of Isa 54, Isa 56-66 applied what was said in Isa 40-55 to an unnamed individual of his own time and to a group of mourners, or “servants,” who were to extend the Servant’s mission in the face of opposition as they waited for God’s coming (e.g., Isa 61:1-66:24). Then, later communities seeking to explain experiences of trauma in spite of their covenant obedience followed this lead. The Suffering Servant provided a pattern for describing the suffering of righteous individuals and groups in Daniel (Dan 11:32-33; Dan 12:1-2), the Wisdom of Solomon (Wis 3:1-9), 2Macc 7, and the Dead Sea scrolls (1QHa 12.23; 1QHa 15.5–6; 16.26–27; 4Q427 7.2.7–9). The Suffering Servant thus proved to be a powerful and lasting image for Second Temple Jews seeking to explain their experiences in light of their scriptures: just as the Suffering Servant was vindicated and exalted, so would the suffering righteous be.

How do the New Testament Writers interpret the Suffering Servant?

Following this interpretive tradition, New Testament writers look to the Suffering Servant to explain the mission and suffering of Jesus and his followers. For instance, the gospels explicitly say that Jesus’s ministry fulfils the description of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah: Jesus’s acts of healing (Matt 8:17 // Isa 53:4); peoples’ persistent unbelief in him (John 12:38 // Isa 53:1; also Rom 10:16-17 // Isa 53:1); his arrest (Luke 22:37 // Isa 53:12); and his humiliation (Acts 8:32-35 // Isa 53:7-8). The New Testament also uses language from Isa 52, Isa 53 implicitly. For instance, the gospels present Jesus as the one who has come to “serve” and give his life as a ransom for “many” and describes Jesus’s disciples as “servants” who imitate his example (Matt 20:25-28; Mark 10:41-45 // Isa 53:10-11). Elsewhere, writers cloak their description of Jesus’s suffering, death, and exaltation in language about the Suffering Servant, as an example for believers to follow (1Pet 2:21-25// Isa 53:4-6, Isa 53:9; Phil 2:5-11 / /Isa 52, Isa 53).

New Testament writers seeking to understand both Jesus’s suffering and their own saw the Suffering Servant not only as a pattern but also the fulfilment of God’s promises. This presentation has fuelled the Christian imagination ever since.

Elizabeth E. Shively, "The Suffering Servant and the New Testament", n.p. [cited 7 Dec 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/related-articles/suffering-servant-and-the-new-testament

Contributors

shively-elizabeth-2

Elizabeth E. Shively
Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies , University of St. Andrews

Elizabeth E. Shively is Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews and is the author of “The Servant(s) in the Gospel of Mark and the Exegetical Formation of Early Christian Identity” in M. Lyons and J. Stromberg eds., Isaiah’s Servants in Early Judaism and Christianity (Mohr Siebeck, 2021).

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

Service or a religious vocation to help others.

A program of good works—or the calling to such a program—performed by a person or organization.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Relating to the period in Judean history following the Babylonian exile (587–539 B.C.E.), also known as the Persian period, during which the exiles were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

A figure in the biblical book of Isaiah, seen by Christians as a prefiguration of Jesus Christ.

A Wisdom book located in the Apocrypha.

Isa 50

Thus says the Lord:
Where is your mother’s bill of divorce
    with which I put her away?
Or which of my creditors is it
    to whom I have sold you?
No, becaus ... View more

Isa 52

Let Zion Rejoice
1Awake, awake,
put on your strength, O Zion!
Put on your beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city;
for the uncircumcised and the unclean
... View more

Isa 53

1Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?2For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dr ... View more

Isa 40-55

God's People Are Comforted
1Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her pena ... View more

Isa 42


Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He ... View more

Isa 49

The Servant's Mission
1Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother's wo ... View more

Isa 50

Thus says the Lord:
Where is your mother’s bill of divorce
    with which I put her away?
Or which of my creditors is it
    to whom I have sold you?
No, becaus ... View more

Isa 52

Let Zion Rejoice
1Awake, awake,
put on your strength, O Zion!
Put on your beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city;
for the uncircumcised and the unclean
... View more

Isa 53

1Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?2For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dr ... View more

Isa 54

The Eternal Covenant of Peace
1Sing, O barren one who did not bear;
burst into song and shout,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate ... View more

Isa 56-66

The Covenant Extended to All Who Obey
1Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be reveal ... View more

Isa 40-55

God's People Are Comforted
1Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her pena ... View more

Isa 61:1-66:24

61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhea ... View more

Dan 11:32-33

32 He shall seduce with intrigue those who violate the covenant; but the people who are loyal to their God shall stand firm and take action. 33 The wise among t ... View more

Dan 12:1-2

The Resurrection of the Dead
1“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has ... View more

Wis 3:1-9

3 But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
2 In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their d ... View more

2Macc 7

The Martyrdom of Seven Brothers
1It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with wh ... View more

Matt 8:17

17This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Isa 53:4

4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
    and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
    struck down by God, and afflicted.

John 12:38

38 This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

“Lord, who has believed our message,
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

Isa 53:1

53 Who has believed what we have heard?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

Rom 10:16-17

16 But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” 17 So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes t ... View more

Isa 53:1

53 Who has believed what we have heard?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

Luke 22:37

37For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.”

Isa 53:12

12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
    and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
    and was n ... View more

Acts 8:32-35

32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
    and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
    ... View more

Isa 53:7-8

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its sheare ... View more

Isa 52

Let Zion Rejoice
1Awake, awake,
put on your strength, O Zion!
Put on your beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city;
for the uncircumcised and the unclean
... View more

Isa 53

1Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?2For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dr ... View more

Matt 20:25-28

25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will no ... View more

Mark 10:41-45

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom t ... View more

Isa 53:10-11

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.[a]
When you make his life an offering for sin,[b]
    he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong h ... View more

1Pet 2:21-25

21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.22“He committed no sin, ... View more

Isa 53:4-6

4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
    and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
    struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded f ... View more

Isa 53:9

9 They made his grave with the wicked
    and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Phil 2:5-11

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,6who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,7but ... View more

Isa 52

Let Zion Rejoice
1Awake, awake,
put on your strength, O Zion!
Put on your beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city;
for the uncircumcised and the unclean
... View more

Isa 53

1Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?2For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dr ... View more

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