Remember the following:
- Targums are the Aramaic Translations of the Jewish Scriptures (The Tanakh), that were read in the synagogues on the Sabbath and on feast or fast days.
- Scholars usually assume the Targums were needed because the loss of Hebrew fluency by Jewish people growing up during the exile
- Targums are supposed to represent rabbinic Judaism after C.E. 70. Targums originated in Palestinian Judaism but later editions were done in Babylon.
- All of the extant Targums seem to date from 2nd century C.E. and later, yet a number of the translations would preserve readings that were current in the first century. (4)
Part of the passage reads this way (with italics indicating departures from the Hebrew): ( The translation is based on Bruce D. Chilton, The Isaiah Targum (ArBib 11;Wilmington: Glazier, 1987), 103–5. For Aramaic text and English translation, which at points differs somewhat, see John F. Stenning, The Targum of Isaiah (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949), 178–81).
Behold, my servant, the Messiah, shall prosper, he shall be exalted and increase, and shall be very strong. Just as the house of Israel hoped for him many days—their appearances were so dark among the peoples, and their aspect beyond that of the sons of men—So he shall scatter many peoples . . . Who has believed this our good news? . . . And the righteous shall be exalted before him . . . his appearance is not a common appearance and his fearfulness is not an ordinary fearfulness, and his brilliance will be holy brilliance, that everyone who looks at him will consider him. Then the glory of all the kingdoms will be for contempt and cease; they will be faint and mournful, behold, as a man of sorrows and appointed for sicknesses . . . Then he will beseech concerning our sins and our iniquities for his sake will be forgiven; yet we were esteemed wounded, smitten before the Lord and afflicted. 5And he will build the sanctuary . . . (if) we attach ourselves to his words our sins will be forgiven to us. He beseeches, and he is answered, and before he opens his mouth he is accepted . . . 8From bonds and retribution he will bring our exiles near . . . for he will take away the rule of the Gentiles from the land of Israel; the sins which my people sinned he will cast on to them. 9And he will hand over the wicked to Gehenna and those rich in possessions which they robbed to the death of the corruption . . .53: 10 Yet before the Lord it was a pleasure to refine and to cleanse the remnant of his people, in order to purify their soul from sins; they shall see the kingdom of their Messiah . . . .
Now let’s go back to this point: If the Targum was read this way, Craig Evans notes that this is what we should see if the Messiah has come and Israel is restored. 1. The exiles are brought home. 2. Atonement is made for the sin of the people.3.The oppressive nations are put in their place. 4. Israel is exalted and those who obey the Law will prosper, etc. (5)
But let’s get back to Collins and his comments about how a suffering Messiah shows up later in Jewish literature. The Shottenstein Talmud, a comprehensive Orthodox Jewish commentary states the following about Isaiah 53:
They [namely, those sitting with Messiah] were afflicted with tzaraas- as disease whose symptoms include discolored patches on the skin (see Leviticus ch. 13). The Messiah himself is likewise afflicted, as stated in Isaiah (53:4). Indeed, it was our diseases that he bore and our pains that he endured, whereas we considered him plagued (i.e. suffering tzaraas [see 98b, note 39], smitten by God and afflicted. This verse teaches that the diseases that the people ought to have suffered because of their sins are borne instead by the Messiah [with reference to the leading Rabbinic commentaries]. (6)
In the Zohar, which is the foundational book of Jewish mysticism, we see a text about the relationship between Isaiah 53 and atonement:
The children of the world are members of one another, and when the Holy One desires to give healing to the world, He smites one just man amongst them, and for his sakes heals the rest of the rest. Whence do we learn this? For the saying, ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities’ [Isa. 53:5].i.e., by letting of his blood- as when a man bleeds his arm- there was healing for us-for all the members of the body. In general a just person is only smitten in order to procure healing and atonement for a whole generation.” (7)
Some anti- missionaries have complained about the use of the Zohar here. In the end, I think the critique only strengthens the case for what the Zohar says about the Suffering Messiah issue.
Solomon Schechter apeaks about the issue of a righteous person atoning for sin his book Aspects of Rabbinic Theology:
Atonement of suffering and death is not limited to the suffering person. The atoning death extends to all the generation. This is especially the case with such sufferers as cannot either by reason of their righteous life or by their youth possibly have merited the afflictions which have come upon them. The death of the righteous atones just as well as certain sacrifices [with reference to b.Mo’ed Qatan 28a].‘They are caught (suffer) for their sins of the generation.’ [b Shabbat 32b]. There are also applied to Moses the Scriptural words, ‘And he bore the sins of many’ (Isaiah 53), because of his offering himself as the atonement for Israel’s sin with the golden calf, being ready to sacrifice his very soul for Israel when he said. ‘And if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of my book (that is, from the Book of the Living), which thou hast written’ (Ex. 32) [b. Sotah 14a; b Berakhoth 32a). This readiness to sacrifice oneself for Israel is characteristic of all the great men of Israel, the patriarchs, and the Prophets citing in the same way, whilst also some Rabbis would, on certain occasions, exclaim, ‘Behold I am the atonement for Israel’ [Mekhilta 2a;m. Negaim 2:1]. (8)
And Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Berel Wein says regarding the sufferings of the Jews being a means of atonement:
“Another consideration tinged the Jewish response to the slaughter of its people. It was an old Jewish tradition dating back to Biblical times that the death of the righteous and innocent served as expiation for the sins the nation or the world. The stories of Isaac and of Nadav and Avihu, the prophetic description of Israel as the long-suffering servant of the Lord, the sacrificial service in the Temple – all served to reinforce this basic concept of the death of the righteous as an atonement for the sins of other men. Jews nurtured this classic idea of the death as an atonement, and this attitude towards their own tragedies was their constant companion throughout their turbulent exile. Therefore, the wholly bleak picture of unreasoning slaughter was somewhat relieved by the fact that the innocent did not die in vain and that the betterment of Israel and humankind somehow was advanced by their “stretching their neck to be slaughtered.” What is amazing is that this abstract, sophisticated, theological thought should have become so ingrained in the psyche of the people that even the least educated and most simplistic of Jews understood the lesson and acted upon it, giving up precious life in a soaring act of belief and affirmation of the better tomorrow. This spirit of the Jews is truly reflected in the historical chronicle of the time: “Would the Holy One, Blessed is he, dispense judgment without justice? But we may say that he whom God loves will be chastised. For since the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, the righteous are seized by death for the iniquities of the generation”–Berel Wein, The Triumph of Survival: The Story of the Jews in the Modern Era 1650-1990 (Brooklyn:Shaar, 1990), 14.
We also see a case for an atoning Messiah in the Prayer Book For Day of Atonement-The Musaf Prayer:
“Messiah our righteousness is departed from us: horror hath seized us, and we have no one to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgressions. He beareth our sins on his shoulder, that He may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wounds, at the time the Eternal will create him (the Messiah) as a new creature. O bring 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.” -Written by Rabbi Eliezer Kalir around 7th century A.D (9)
4. John Rolling, The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology (Peabody Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 9-10.
5. Darell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser, The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encounering The Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregal Publications, 2012), 145-170.
6. Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Vol 2. (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books. 2000),157.
7. Driver and Neubauer, Zohar, Numbers, Pinchus 2181 (English Translation),
8. Prayer Book for the Day of Atonement (New York; Hebrew Publishing Company, 1931), 239.
9. Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology. London: 1909. Reprint. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1994, 310-311.