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Annual Spring Breakfast Dialogue 2009 with Rabbi Jordan Ofseyer and Professor Paul Spilsbury

Here the presentation of Paul Spilsbury, Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins
Ambrose University College

A Christian Perspective on Isaiah 53

Thank you for the kind invitation to participate in your annual spring breakfast dialogue.

It’s an honour to be invited, and it’s a joy for me to share a few brief thoughts on our shared challenge of understanding Scripture, with special reference to Isaiah 53. In times when Scripture knowledge is at an all time low in our culture we do well to engage in conversations of this kind.

Now, it would be presumptuous of me to suggest that what I have to offer this morning is the Christian perspective on any of these matters. In Christianity, as in all major faiths, there are innumerable interpretive traditions dating back many centuries, not all of which are always in perfect harmony with each other. Instead, what I have to offer are some thoughts on the earliest Christians’ views as we find them represented in the pages of the New Testament.

One thing that has characterized biblical studies in recent times has been the development of scores of perspectival hermeneutics: Liberation hermeneutics, feminist hermeneutics, post-colonial hermeneutics, gay hermeneutics, African hermeneutics, Asian hermeneutics, etc. Any number of these approaches might claim also to be a Christian hermeneutics.

So, what is it about a perspective that differentiates it from other perspectives or that marks it out as a specifically Christian one? I suggest that for the early church, a Christian perspective on Scripture is one that takes as its starting point the datum, or “fact” of Jesus. That is to say, a Christian perspective, according to this definition, takes seriously the claim that Jesus Christ is the logos of God, and that all divine revelation finds its ultimate expression or point of reference in the person, teachings, and life/death/resurrection of Jesus. From this it follows that all of Scripture contributes in some way to the enunciation or the clarification of what it is that God is revealing in Jesus. This approach assumes the integration of the Old and New Testaments as a highly textured, nuanced, and, ultimately, unified witness.

Here’s an illustration from the New Testament of what I am saying: In a well known story in the Gospel of Luke Jesus appears to two of his disciples as they are walking from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus. The disciples, we are told, had been discussing the troubling events of the death and reported resurrection of Jesus when Jesus himself, unrecognized by the two, joins them on the way and strikes up a conversation with them. After listening to their description of recent events, and their disappointment that things had not gone the way they had hoped, Jesus says to them:
“‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:25- 27).

Here we have an example of the kind of Christ-oriented reading that I have in mind. Jesus, we are told, “interpreted … all the things about himself in all the scriptures.” This kind of reading became a hallmark of Christian appropriations of the Hebrew Bible in the first centuries of the Christian movement. This was not just a matter of looking for evidences to Jesus in the Bible. Rather, early Christian readers assumed that all of Scripture could be subsumed under the heading of Christ. There are numerous other examples of this kind of outlook throughout the New Testament such as when the apostle Paul identifies the rock, from which Moses caused water to flow in the wilderness, as none other than Christ himself (1 Cor 10:4). Or, when Jesus compares himself to the bronze serpent raised up on a pole in the time of Moses (John 3:14//Num 21:9). In another place Paul engages in an allegorical exegesis of the book of Genesis that finds the Christian message about Jesus already presupposed in the story of Hagar and Sarah (Gal 4:21- 5:1//Gen 21)

Modern Christians may hesitate to follow the example of these early readers, but there is no escaping the influence of such readings on the development of Christian theology. And before anyone objects that such interpretations are illegitimate manipulations of the true meaning of Scripture, let me remind us all that such reading strategies were thoroughly Jewish in nature. Indeed, one of the most important gains in the scholarship of Christian origins in the last several decades has been the recognition of Christianity’s Jewish roots. Jesus, Paul, Peter and the rest were all Jews after all, and the Bible they read was the Jewish Bible. And their ways of reading were essentially Jewish ways. What made early Christian approaches to scripture unique was not their willingness to find hidden meanings, or their propensity to find intertextual connections between different passages or between the text of scripture and the “text” of life, but rather their instinctual conviction that the messiah Jesus was the key to all of Scripture’s treasures. And so it is not surprising that when faced with the most perplexing mystery of all, the death and resurrection of Jesus, the early Christians turned to Scripture for answers. One famous scene from the Book of Acts has an Ethiopian court official reading from the Book of Isaiah and being overheard by the evangelist Philip. This is how the story runs in Acts 8:28-35:
“… and [the Ethiopian] was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 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, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.’ The [Ethiopian] asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.”

And so here we see an example of the early Christian exegetical practice of interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ death not only in relation to the scriptures or the prophets in general, but to the figure of the Suffering Servant of the Lord in Isaiah in particular. Note also the unabashed assumption that the reader requires a guide. Without Philip’s assistance, the author implies, the reader is lost. But with his exegetical expertise the message is clarified. And the focus of that expertise is in the matter of identifying the identity of the servant in the Isaiah passage. Another example of this kind of reading can be found in 1 Peter 2:20-25:
“If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”

Note that this passage not only quotes directly from Isaiah 53, but it also echoes the passage in places where it is not quoting directly by using terms and phrases that evoke or suggest the passage. These kinds of echoes, resonances and allusions occur on practically every page of the New Testament and remind us that the Hebrew Bible forms the narrative substratum or conceptual foundation of the worldview of the early Christian movement. When faced with the paradox of Jesus, his followers very naturally turned to the Scriptures not only to find meaning, but also to give form and structure to the emerging Christian message.

Even more than that, and a little more controversially, I would add that during his own life and public work Jesus himself drew his own sense of identity and vocation from the pages of Scripture, including the Book of Isaiah. N.T. Wright has argued that Jesus saw his mission as a fulfilment of the manifesto in Isaiah 52:7–12:
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’ Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the LORD to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of it, purify yourselves, you who carry the vessels of the LORD. For you shall not go out in haste, and you shall not go in flight; for the LORD will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.”

Jesus’ conception of the coming Kingdom of God was deeply rooted in the promises of a return of the exiles to Zion found in Isaiah. More than being a simple messenger, Jesus saw himself as the embodiment of the Servant’s mission who would lead the people of Israel out of exile in a new exodus of God’s people (Brueggemann). In Luke 4:16-21 Jesus dramatically interprets his own ministry as the fulfilment of Isaiah 61:1-2a:
“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 broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn ….”

Much to the consternation of his disciples, Jesus’ understanding of his purpose in the Father’s plan was shaped not only by the Servant’s exaltation, but even more fundamentally by the Servant of the Lord’s humiliation and act of sacrificial self-giving. The vocation of the servant entails humiliation before exaltation and it is this movement that has always suggested itself to Christian interpreters as a narrative framework within which to view the death of Jesus (Brueggemann). Some thirty years after the death of Jesus, the apostle Paul would write:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death &emdash; even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2: 5–11)

Here, in distilled form, is the Christian appropriation of Isaiah’s pattern of humiliation and exaltation. For Paul, this went beyond Christological speculation to the ethical imperative of the imitation of Christ: “… let the same mind be in you.” For Paul, union with Christ meant a fellowship of suffering, a participation in the humiliation of Jesus that would lead ultimately to vindication. He ends his letter to the Galatians with the startling assertion that “I carry the marks (stigmata) of Jesus branded on my body” (Galatians 6:17). In another place Paul states that his prayers for deliverance from suffering were answered by the divine response: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness,” (2 Cor 12:9) from which Paul concludes: “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” Thus, Isaiah’s Servant shaped not only Christian meditations on Jesus, but on the nature of discipleship as well.

Now, while it might be protested that these kinds of readings usurp Jewish claims to the Servant, I think that the Christian claim, rightly understood, need not be seen to exclude other interpretations. Rather, the Christian reading finds in the Servant’s sufferings the divine affirmation that God is able to bring good out of suffering or, as Brueggemann puts it, “to do something new through suffering.” For Christians the paradigmatic expression of this truth is in the sufferings of Jesus who in his death took on himself the sins of the whole world. As Paul puts it: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21).

The profundity of such a statement lies at the heart of the Christian proliferation of theories of the atonement: attempts to enunciate or to explain how the death of One might be beneficial to the world. That mystery is already there in Isaiah 53 and it is there again in Jesus’ affirmation to his disconcerted disciples that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). When Christians come to the Scriptures we come with a spirit of expectancy and with our ears open to the voice of the Spirit. The New Testament has taught us to read and to apply the truth of the Bible in the light of Jesus, whose light continues to shine in our darkness and to show us the path that we must walk.