Review: The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology

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I am not opposed to reading books such as this one. It is more difficult for those who are more academically inclined than they are evangelically inclined, but if we separate the Church from the Academy, both will perish. Bock’s book is a collection of essays by those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and more, that Jesus is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Most, if not all, come from a more evangelical approach to Scripture than I am used to (Isaiah was written by one author, prophecies are about future events), but where this remains controversial for some, the scholarship rarely fails to satisfy.

The book is the child of a campaign created by Christians and Jews believing in Christ to teach the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53. A conference was held in 2009, with a summer 2010 campaign devoted to Isaiah 53 Explained, a traditional print media campaign including booklets, newspaper ads, and one on one communication. The book follows that. It is Evangelical, evangelistic, and apologetic in focus. One important point is that the essayists make an effort to discover the Jewish interpretation of the passage, even if they disagree with it. It is divided into three parts. Part I includes Christian and Jewish interpretations. Part II places Isaiah 53 in biblical theology, examining the chapter first in Isaiah and then in the New Testament. The final two chapters in Part II deal with the role of salvation in Isaiah 53 – how salvation is accomplished, and if that method is in line with the view of substitutionary atonement. Part III is evangelistic. It aims to convert the postmoderns, the Jews, and the Mainlines, it appears. The appendix includes two sermons to show the reader how to preach Isaiah 53.

While this book is unashamedly Evangelical, it could have helped itself by first defining some of the key terms, such as prophecy. The concept of prophecy is, understandably, one that causes controversy. Depending on where the reader falls on the spectrum, prophecy is either an explanation of a past event or the forecasting of a future action, albeit rather unclearly. Yes, all of the essayists, and even this reviewer, agree that Isaiah 53 does include the clearest prophecy of Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures, but the issue here then becomes what is prophecy. To the credit, and this is important to Christians, Evangelical and Mainline alike, the Jewish interpretation is examined almost independent of the Christian interpretation. I say almost because it is still examined alongside the Christian interpretation. Instead of simply pointing to Jesus and saying “See,” the essayists get into the underbelly of Isaiah 53. They examine the context, the various uses of “Servant of the Lord,” and the Hebrew terminology. They also examine what the great Rabbis of the past ages have said. Some of them lean to a Christian interpretation, while some do not. This should be appreciated. The only unpalatable part of the book, however, is the evangelistic message to the Jews. Not to the Evangelicals but to Jews and the Mainlines. The book is essentially valuable because of the Jewish interpretations and the Christian interpretations given without polemical pogroms, but it may turn off some readers due to the evangelistic nature of the book.

Let me recommend this book, but with a few caveats. First, the scholarship if terrific. The essayists include Darrell Bock and Craig A. Evans. Other names like Averbeck, Chisholm, Feinberg, Wilkins, and Sunukjian appear as well. These are well known and trustworthy scholars providing what their students have come to expect, solid and competent scholarship. Second, the Evangelical side of some of the authors do make an appearance, especially when discussion the historical critical approach to Isaiah. Third, the evangelistic aim of the book will be disconcerting to some; however, all academic, theological, or mundane pursuits aim to convert. That is the human nature of conversation. When God told the human species to go and rule, to have dominion, this was the first order of conversion. Simply put, do not be offended if you read Christians attempting to convert Jews to Jesus. Do not be offended if Jews use this same work to convert Christians to Jews. The scholarship is itself converting, in one way or other.

Post By Joel L. Watts (10,125 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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