A close study of the Talmud and midrashim reveals much confusion and contradiction in the various interpretations of Isaiah 53.
Jonathan ben Uzziel (1st century CE) begins his Targum: "Behold, My Servant Messiah shall prosper; He shall be high and increase, and be exceeding strong." However, in order to reconcile the interpretation of this Scripture of the Messiah with the idea of a Deliverer Who must suffer and die for the sins of the nation, he applies all references of exaltation and glory to the Messiah, while assigning all references to the suffering and tribulations to Israel. His paraphrase of Isaiah 52:14 reads: "As the House of Israel looked to Him during many days, because their countenance was darkened among the peoples, and their complexion beyond the sons of men."
In Sanhedrin 98b, we read the following: "The Messiah - what is His name? The Rabbis say the 'leprous one'; those of the house of Rabbi say, 'the sick one,' as it is said, 'Surely He has borne our sicknesses.'"
Abrabanel, who admitted the prophecy was Messianic, nonetheless in a long polemic against the Nazarenes, interpreted it of the Jewish nation. He begins: "The first question is to ascertain to whom this Scripture refers: for the learned among the Nazarenes expound it of the man who was crucified in Jerusalem at the end of the Second Temple, and who according to them was the Son of G-d and took flesh in the virgin's womb, as is stated in their writings. Jonathan ben Uzziel interprets it of the future Messiah, and this is also the opinion of our learned men in the majority of their Midrashim."
Rabbi Moshe el Sheikh (the Alshech, 16th century CE) testifies that "our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah." In fact, until Rashi (Rabbi Solomon Yizchaki, 1040-1105.) applied it to the Jewish nation, the Messianic interpretation of this chapter was almost universally adopted by Jews and Rashi's view was rejected as unsatisfactory by many respected and influential authorities.
One of those authorities, Rabbi Moshe Kohen Iben Crispin of Cordova, (14th century) argues that the interpretation adopted by Rashi "distorts the passage from its natural meaning" (i.e. the p'shat) and that in truth "it was given of G-d as a description of the Messiah, whereby, when anyone should claim to be the Messiah, to judge by the resemblance or non-resemblance to it whether he were the Messiah or no."
Rabbi Crispin continues and says of those who applied this prophecy to Israel that "the doors of the literal interpretation of this Parashah were shut in their face, and that they wearied themselves to find the entrance, having forsaken the knowledge of our teachers, and inclined after the stubbornness of their own hearts and their own opinions."
Rabbi Eliyya de Vidas, 1575 CE, says, "The meaning of 'He was wounded for our transgressions . . . bruised for our iniquities,' is that since the Messiah bears our iniquities, which produces the effect of His being bruised, it follows that whoso will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities must endure and suffer for them himself."
Let us consider two more examples of the ancient Messianic interpretation which are found in the Jewish liturgy, liturgy which is sealed with the authority and usage of the whole Synagogue. The first is from the Liturgy for the Day of Atonement and reads as follows:
We are shrunk up in our misery even until now! Our Rock has not come nigh to us; Messiah our righteousness (or, 'our Righteous Messiah) has departed from us; horror has seized upon us, and we have none to justify us. He has borne the yoke of our iniquities and our transgressions, and is wounded because of our transgression. He bears our sins on His shoulder, that He may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by His wound at the time the Eternal will create Him (Messiah) as a new creature. O bring Him up from the circle of the earth, raise Him up from Seir to assemble us the second time on Mount Lebanon, by the hand of Yinnon."
This prayer comprises part of the Musaph service for the Day of Atonement. The author was Eliezar ben Kalir, who lived in the 9th century CE. Yinnon was one of the names given by the Rabbis to the Messiah and is derived from Psalm 72:17, which the Talmud renders, "Before the sun was, His Name" - a rendering and explanation which implies a belief in the pre-existence of the Messiah.
The second example is also from the liturgy for the festival services and is found among the prayers recited during the Feast of Passover. It reads:
Flee, my beloved, until the end of the vision shall speak; hasten, and the shadows shall take their flight hence: high and exalted and lofty shall be the despised One; He shall be prudent in judgment, and shall sprinkle many! Lay bare Thine arm! Cry out, and say: 'The voice of my beloved; behold He comes!
The question is not so much, "What is the picture?", but "Whose image or likeness does the picture bear?"
To be continued . . .
Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch