Bock, Darrell L. and Mitch Glaser (eds), The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregal Publications, 2012).
I received a free review copy of this book courtesy of Kregal Publications (therefore, I hope to give an unbiased review). It is unlike any book I have read. Honestly, I avoid books on evangelism, especially those that emphasize technique and strategy. In part, this book has those aims. What makes it different from other books like it would be the scholarly essays. In other words, this book is a mixture of scholarly thinking on the Fourth Servant Song (technically Isaiah 52.13-53.12) mixed with discussion on how this chapter is relevant for evangelism, most specifically evangelizing Jews who do not accept Jesus as their messiah.
Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser are the editors of this collection. Glaser is the President of Chosen People Ministries–an organization aimed at evangelizing Jews. He writes the Introduction stating that this book, “…grows out of the desire of Chosen People Ministries….to equip fellow believers for the task of Jewish evangelism (p. 21).” If you thought this book was primarily about exegesis and theology you’d be partially correct, but the central aim is far more “practical” (for lack of a better word). This book is part of something Chosen People Ministries calls the “Isaiah 53” campaign (you can learn more at Isaiah53.com). Glaser confesses that for the most part most Jews are secular and many are not familiar with the Book of Isaiah, but his group has had some success in using this chapter to show fellow Jews why Jesus is the messiah. He ends the introduction touting the uniqueness of this book: evangelical scholarship, apologetical message, accessibility, and an informed presentation of how Jews have interpreted this passage.
The book splits into three parts. Part I: Interpretations of Isaiah 53, Part II: Isaiah 53 in Biblical Theology, and Part III: Isaiah 53 and Practical Theology. In Part I Richard E. Averbeck’s Chapter One: Christian Interpretations of Isaiah 53 partners with Michael L. Brown’s Chapter Two: Jewish Interpretations of Isaiah 53. Both chapters provide surveys of the reception history of this passage from the perspectives of the Christian and Jewish communities. Averbeck’s chapter provides a helpful discussion of Franz Delitzsch’s interpretation of a three level pyramid where the servant songs in Isaiah have broad reference to Israel as an elect nation, a more specific allusion to the remnant within Israel, and then the most precise referent being the Suffering Servant who embodies the task of the remnant for Israel and Israel for the nations. Those who are familiar with N.T. Wright’s interpretation of this passage will understand the one presented by Averbeck. (This is the interpretation I have adopted as a Christian. It doesn’t deny the presence of the nation or the remnant in the Servant Songs, but it does emphasize that it is Jesus who, in the words of Wright, “does for Israel what Israel could not do for herself.”) I thought this chapter would be an essay on historical theology, but it isn’t. It is a presentation of how Averbeck understands Isaiah 53 to be interpreted by Christians. He interacts with modern authors more than ancient ones.
Brown’s chapter discusses various rabbinic readings of this passage. He observes that some Jewish readings have focused upon a singular messianic figure. Most readings see the Servant as Israel, the collective, suffering people. The three figures given the most attention are Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak.
Part II begins with Walter C. Kaiser, Jr’s Chapter Three: The Identity and Mission of the “Servant of the Lord”, which I found to be difficult to read. It is a fine piece if written to (1) fellow evangelicals who (2) share his approach to the “inerrant” Bible, but it is poor apologetics and convolutes biblical theology with proof-texting at times. Kaiser explains the background of “servant” language. He gives “evidence” for how the servant should be read as a messiah (this part felt like it could have been written by Josh McDowell). I couldn’t buy it. For example, he tries to brush away the plural references (“you”, pl) in some of the earlier Servant Songs. He makes arguments about this passage by trying to intertwine it with parts of Zechariah. When trying to prove later in the chapter than Jesus is the Servant he synthesizes the Gospel accounts as if a skeptical reader would never think to ask, “How do we know the Gospels presented what Jesus said and did in actuality?” Kaiser does acknowledge that there have been different views of the Servant over time, but his attempt to make every Servant reference to be about Jesus without giving serious thought to the problems of his exegesis makes his reading far inferior to the aforementioned approach of Delitzsch. His exegesis of the Fourth Song is better than the earlier part of the chapter, but it doesn’t redeem it nor does it contribute anything unique. I think this book could have done without the chapter, at least if this is a book aimed at convincing skeptics rather than an evangelical chatting with fellow evangelicals who share his presuppositions.
Chapter Four: Isaiah 52 and the Message of Salvation in the Gospels by Michael J. Wilkins attempts to answer two questions: (1) Did Jesus see himself as the prophesied servant of Isaiah 53? and (2) What was the evangelists’ perspective of Jesus in light of their understanding of the servant of Isaiah 53? Wilkins addresses the question about corporate v. individual readings of the Servant noting how varied are the many interpretations of this passage. He notes how the early church (as seen in our New Testament) saw Jesus as the Servant by examining the Gospels.
The chapter focuses mostly on the Gospel of Matthew. Wilkins’ argument depends on whether or not the reader sees the same allusions to Isaiah 53 (or relevant surrounding chapters) in Matthew that he sees. He finds Isaiah 53.2 in Matthew 2.23; 52.11 in 3.15; 42.1 in 3.17; 53.4 in 8:16-17 and 11.4-6; 42.1-4 in 12.15-21; 53.10-12 in 20.28; 53 in 26.24; 53.12 in 26.28; 53.7 in 26.63 and 27.12-14; 53.9 in 27.57-60; and 53.10 in 28.1-17. Overall, I liked this chapter. I think Wilkins presents a solid case that Isaiah 53 influenced the language of Matthew and that there is good reason to think that the evangelists use of the Servant may have gone back to Jesus’ self-identification with the mission of the Servant.
Chapter Five: Isaiah 53 in Acts 8 by Darrell Bock is a fine chapter on intertextual exegesis and the examination of how Luke-Acts uses the Old Testament as part of its message. Bock examines Isaiah 53 in the MT and LXX to see how these “versions” may have influenced Acts 8. He deals fairly with interpretive problems and textual matters making it one of the truly scholarly chapters of the book.
Craig A. Evans’ Chapter Six: Isaiah 53 in the Letters of Peter, Paul, Hebrews, and John is like Bock’s in that it is scholarly, well-written, and does a fine job of exploring the use of the Old Testament in the New. Evans focuses on how Isaiah 53’s message influenced the sections mentioned in the title, but he writes about how Isaiah 53 appears in the presentation of Peter in Acts as well. I found this to be the most informative chapter (and no, it’s not only because I think Evans is awesome). He shows readers how Isaiah 52.7-12 may be a singular section in 1QIsa col. 43, in the MT, and in Codex Leningrad (see pp. 147-148). He discusses how this section introduces Isaiah 53 and how New Testament writers would have understood this section to have something to say about their own mission as proclaimers of the Servant.
The chapter moves from Isaiah 52.13-53.12 in “the teachings of Peter” (i.e., Peter in Acts and the Petrine Epistles) to the teachings of Paul to the teachings of Hebrews and John. Over and over again Evans shows how various phrases from Isaiah 52.13-53.12 appear and reappear in these books. It is by far the most in-depth chapter of the book.
Chapter Seven: Substitutionary Atonement and Cultic Terminology in Isaiah 53 by David L. Allen covers a lot of the same topics presented in the other chapters (this may be one of the annoying flaws of the book is that it feels like there is one exegesis of this passage after another after another, ad nauseum). This chapter’s primary contribution is to ask if the suffering sacrifice of the Servant is framed using language of atonement. He investigates the wording as it relates to passage like Leviticus 5-7, 16, concluding that Isaiah 53 does present Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice for the people.
Chapter Eight: Forgiveness and Salvation in Isaiah 53 by Robert B. Chisholm expands on this atonement/sin/sacrifice/forgiveness motif. The author asks whether language about “lifting up” and “taking away” illness, sin, and so forth is atonement language. He provides his own in-depth translation of Isaiah 53.4-12, which are the most important verses for this argument and then explores the themes of forgiveness and salvation.
Part III attempts to provide a “practical theology” of Isaiah 53. John S. Feinberg’s Chapter Nine: Postmodern Themes from Isaiah 53 was the hardest to read. It overgeneralized to the point that it was painful. It sounded like an essay on evangelizing “Gen Xers” who are “postmodern” and therefore scared of truth. As someone who is part of the age group that I think Feinberg aims to address (or guide others in addressing) I couldn’t have been more annoyed. He talks about “postmoderns” as if there is this large group of people who fit under one large label–oddly enough, this attempt at universalizing a mass of people under one ideologically umbrella may run contrary to the very claims of philosophical postmodernism that he aims to “address.” Postmoderns like narratives/stories, not propositional truth (pp. 214-216). Postmoderns are “skeptical about reason’s ability to prove or disprove anything,” but postmoderns are “spiritual” he says (pp. 216-22). Postmoderns like their individualism to be respected, but “in ways that affirm community” he argues (pp. 222-224). “Postmoderns are very sensitive to the likelihood that societies and social structures have been constructed to keep various people and institutions in power (p. 224).” That last one may be the closest to the truth, even then, it depends on the institution. For example, Republicans my age are skeptical of the institution of “Big Government” while Democrats my age are skeptical of institution of “Rogue Capitalism”. The chapter reads like Feinberg is trying to “soften” the message of Isaiah 53 by rewriting it in some sort of narrative, but I think this ignores the reality that whether you label someone modern or postmodern the offense of one person being beaten to death to please God remains. I know this may seem excessively harsh, but I didn’t resonate this chapter.
Chapter Ten: Using Isaiah 53 in Jewish Evangelism by Mitch Glaser is interesting. He writes about how it impacted his conversion, how he sees the messiah in the passage, how this reading of Isaiah 53 has impacted Jewish evangelism in the past, and he explores how it has been used, e.g. tracts and booklets, books, the internet, etc. There are section on the polemical use of Isaiah 53 and some major points of contention as well as contemporary objections to the Christian reading of Isaiah 53. Then he writes about how to overcome those objections before saying a bit about how individuals and churches can use Isaiah 53 to evangelize Jews.
Chapter Eleven: Preaching Isaiah 53 by Donald R. Sunukjian is a short primer of moving from exegesis to sermon structure to presentation.
Darrell Bock writes the Conclusion summarizing the argument of the book while adding more useful observations.
The end of the book has two appendixes that are attached to Chapter Eleven: Appendix A: Expositional Sermon on Isaiah 53 and Appendix B: Dramatic-Narrative Sermon on Isaiah 53 are example sermon from Sunukjian. Then there is a Scripture Index and a Subject Index to assist you in navigating the book.
Overall, it is a decent book. It wasn’t something I would have bought, but if you are a fairly traditional evangelical aiming to spread the Gospel to Jews you know it is a helpful resource. Therefore, the value is relative to whether the reader shares the aims of the book. (This is not to say that I don’t want to spread the Gospel to Jews, but rather I don’t know that I would try to argue from Isaiah 53 with someone to do it, and I don’t live in a community with a strong Jewish presence.)