Saadiah Goan and Isaiah 53


Saadiah Goan is not mentioned by missionaries as a proof that Isaiah 53 refers to the Messiah. However, he is used by them to indicate that ancient Rabbis looked at an individual, in his case Jeremiah, as the servant of Isaiah 53, and that therefore they excluded Israel or any other group of people as the subject. Their theory is based on a few references to his commentary in other works that say he indicates Isaiah 53 is about the prophet Jeremiah. However this is not as simple as they are making it out and an examination of the text indicates that the claim is overstated.


We need to examine his commentary this with an eye for three issues:

  1. Does it support or contradict the idea of Isaiah 53 being about a single person?
  2. Does it support or contradict the idea of Isaiah 53 being about the Messiah?
  3. Does it support or contradict the idea of Isaiah 53 being about Israel?


There are two sources that are relevant to this issue. First is his work Emunah v’Deos[1]. This work discusses the full gamut of Jewish belief[2]. The second work is a translation from Arabic to Hebrew of his commentary on the book of Isaiah.[3]


In his work Emunah v’Deos he follows the classical Jewish view that the Messiah can come in one of two ways as I explained in my article on Moshiach ben Yosef. We see no indication that the Messiah son of David will suffer at all. Because of that, we can expect that when he does speak of Isaiah 53, either the Messiah will not be mentioned as suffering, or he will speak of Moshiach ben Yosef as suffering.


When we turn to the commentary, on verse 52:13 Rabbi Saadiah starts by saying “that I attach this parshah to Jeremiah.[4]” After that he brings various verses to show how verses 52:13 to the end of the chapter can apply to Jeremiah. Following this he states “And maybe what it says there ‘Behold my servant shall prosper’ is an allusion to Moshe…”[5] He then follows these words by discussing various verses and how they can apply to Elijah, Ezekiel, and Michayahu ben Yimla[6]. Then on the next page he applies it to all the prophets like: Isaiah, Joel ben Pitiel, Nachum, Zephaniah, Zechariah, and again to Ezekiel (comparing him to Isaiah and Jeremiah.) He then turns to the words of verse 15, “What they were never told they will see” and shows how it applies to various periods in Biblical History. He applies it to Israel as a whole and to various individuals.


Following this he turns to chapter 53[7] and starts to explain it at length as applying to Jeremiah. In no instance does he indicate that Jeremiah (or the subject of Isaiah 53) was to die. Unfortunately at the end of his discussion the text is missing a few lines.[8] He then changes the subject and says that we can say that perhaps it refers “to one of the righteous.” After which he starts to mention Avraham, but the text ends, and we do not know which other righteous people he meant, or whether he discusses other classes of people, or returns to a discussion of Israel. We have no idea who else he applied Isaiah 53 to.


From what we have of his commentary there are two issues about this commentary that seem to be clear. 1. If we compare it to later styles of commentary, and Midrashim, we see that this is much closer in style to a Midrash then to a commentary. 2. While his main subject is an individual Jeremiah[9], he is far from exclusive on that issue. Parts apply to the prophets, the righteous and even to all of Israel.


I think we can state that the missionary’s usage of Rabbi Saadiah is invalid for a few reasons:


  1. He does not make Isaiah 53 exclusively about an individual, but includes classes of people and also all of Israel.
  2. He cannot be used to support the idea of the Messiah being the subject, as he conspicuously does not mention him at all.[10]
  3. He cannot be used to exclude the idea that Isaiah 53 is about Israel, as he mentions them at least once.


© Moshe Shulman 2010

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[1]  There is an English translation of the Arabic by Samuel Rosenblatt called ‘The Book of Beliefs and Opinions’ published by Yale University Press, 1976.

[2]  It is interesting to note that all of Maimonides 13 fundamentals can be found there, although not in the exact order as Maimonides states them.

[3]  Tafsir Yeshayahu lRav Saadiah by Yehudah Ratzavi published by Machon Mishnas HaRambam, 1994.

[4]  Ibid page 333

[5]  Ibid

[6]  See 2 Chronicles 18.

[7]  Op cit page 335

[8]  Ibid page 337

[9]  It is clear that later Jewish commentators mentioned the association to Jeremiah as that is the most developed subject. Others appear as alternatives, but lack the full development that is given to Jeremiah. One obvious reason was that there were a lot more verses about the live of Jeremiah then of almost any other prophet (except Moshe).

[10]  This is significant because if there was any place he could have mention the Messiah it would have been in the end of chapter 52, which we have the full text of. There would have been no contradiction to his view in his other work, if he applied one of the verses dealing with the success of the servant to the Messiah. By not mentioning it there, he shows that he rejects the association of Isaiah 53 with the Messiah.