Arnold Fructenbaum and Isaiah 53 before Rashi


Arnold Fructenbaum. in his work, Messianic Christology we find these two passages:

“All the ancient Jewish writings – the Mishnah[1], the Gemara, (the talmud), the Midrashim and many others – all regard this portion of Scripture as relating to the Messianic Person. The first rabbi to suggest otherwise was Rashi, around 1050 A.D. Every rabbi prior to Rashi, without exception, viewed this passage as describing Messiah. When Rashi first proposed that this passage spoke of the nation of Israel, he sparked a fierce debate with his contemporaries. The most famous of these was the Rambam[2], perhaps better known as Maimonides. Rambam stated very clearly that Rashi was completely wrong in going contrary to the traditional Jewish viewpoint. “[3]


“To interpret Isaiah 53 as speaking of Messiah is not non-Jewish. In fact, if we are to speak of the traditional Jewish interpretation, it would be that the passage speaks of the Messiah. The first one to expound the view that this referred to Israel rather then the Messiah was Shlomoh Yizchaki, better known as Rashi (c. 1040-1105). He was followed by David Kimchi (1160-1235). But this was to go contrary to all rabbinic teaching of that day and of the preceding one thousand years. Today, Rashi’s view has become dominant in Jewish and rabbinic theology. But that is not the Jewish view. Nor is it the traditional Jewish view. Those closer to the time of the original writings, and who had less contact with the Christian apologists, interpreted it as speaking of the Messiah.”[4]


Let’s summarize what he is saying: The original Jewish view of over 2000 years ago was that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 was the Messiah. And further, that until Rashi in the 11th century, it was the ONLY Jewish view, with no exceptions.


My purpose here is NOT to show why Rashi’s view is the correct one and the one based on the Tenach. It is not even to prove that it is really the more ancient one (although it is.) That is for other articles. What I will address here, are three issues:


1.      Did everyone, without exception, as claimed by Fructenbaum, before Rashi apply it to the Messiah?

2.      Was Rashi the first to present his view that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 applied to Israel and did not apply to the Messiah?

3.      If this is not the case, then were these sources showing this available to Fructenbaum, and he just ignored those which would contradict his thesis or were they too obscure for him to know of them?


When one looks at the sources for Fructenbaum’s quotations[5] we see that they all come from a work by Driver and Neubauer called “The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters.”[6] This has been reprinted under the name “The Suffering Servant of Isaiah.”[7] I shall use that work, exclusively, to prove my point. All quotes from rabbinic works appearing here will be their translation.[8]


Let us first see what Rashi has taught on Isaiah 52:13: [9]


Behold in the later days my servant Jacob, i. e. the righteous who are in him, will prosper.”


Rashi goes on to explain all the verses in the context that it refers to the suffering of the righteous and their eventual exaltation in the Messianic Age. What are the proofs brought by Fructenbaum that this view was invented by Rashi? Being the oldest, the first source that Fructenbaum brings is the Targum[10]. He states:


“Among the earliest Targums are those of  Jonathan ben Uzziel dating from the first century A. D. His Targum on this passage of Isaiah begin with these words: ‘Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper…’”


His quote from the Targum is fine as far as it goes, but we need to see what the whole Targum states to understand his view. When we do we see a different picture. Here is the translation according to his source, Driver and Neubauer[11]. (I have added in bold the original verses from Isaiah that the Targum is referring to.)


52:13 Behold, My servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.

52:13. Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper; he shall be high, and increase, and be exceeding strong:


52:14 According as many were appalled at thee—so marred was his visage unlike that of a man, and his form unlike that of the sons of men—

52:14. 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,


52:15 So shall he startle many nations, kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them shall they see, and that which they had not heard shall they perceive.

52:15. so will he scatter many peoples; at him kings shall be silent, and put their hands upon their mouth, because that which was not told  them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have observed.


53:1 ‘Who would have believed our report? And to whom hath the arm of the LORD been revealed?

53:1. Who hath believed this our glad tidings? and the strength of the mighty arm of the Lord, upon whom as thus hath it been revealed?


53:2 For he shot up right forth as a sapling, and as a root out of a dry ground; he had no form nor comeliness, that we should look upon him, nor beauty that we should delight in him.

53:2. The righteous will grow up before him, yeah, like blooming shoots, and like a tree which sends forth its roots to streams of water will they increase - a holy generation in the land that was in need of him; his countenance no profane countenance, and the terror at him not the terror at an ordinary man; his complexion shall be a holy complexion, and all who see him will look wistfully upon him.


53:3 He was despised, and forsaken of men, a man of pains, and acquainted with disease, and as one from whom men hide their face: he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

53:3. Then he will become despised, and will cut off the glory of all the kingdoms; they will be prostrate and mourning, like a man of pains and like one destined for sicknesses; and as though the presence of the Shekhinah had been withdrawn from us, they will be despised, and esteemed not.


53:4 Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; whereas we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

53:4. Then for our sins he will pray, and our iniquities will for his sake be forgiven, although we were accounted stricken, smitten from before the Lord, and afflicted.


53:5 But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed.

53:5. But he will build up the Holy Place, which has been polluted for our sins, and delivered to the enemy for our iniquities; and by his instruction peace shall be increased upon us, and by devotion to his words, our sins will be forgiven us.


53:6 All we like sheep did go astray, we turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath made to light on him the iniquity of us all.

53:6. All we like sheep had been scattered, we had each wandered off on his own way; but it was the Lord's good pleasure to forgive the sins of all of us for his sake.


53:7 He was oppressed, though he humbled himself and opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before her shearers is dumb; yea, he opened not his mouth.

53:7. He prayed, and he was answered, and ere even he had opened his mouth he was accepted; the mighty of the peoples he will deliver up like a sheep to the slaughter and like a lamb dumb before her shearers; there shall be none before him opening his mouth or saying a word


53:8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and with his generation who did reason? for he was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due.

53:8. Out of chastisements and punishment he will bring our captives near; the wondrous things done to us in his days who shall be able to tell? For he will cause the dominion of the Gentiles to pass away from the land of Israel and transfer to them the sins which my people have committed.


53:9 And they made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich his tomb; although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.’

53:9. He will deliver the wicked into Gehinnom, and those that are rich in possessions into the death of utter destruction, in order that those who commit sin may not be established, nor speak deceits with their mouth.


53:10 Yet it pleased the LORD to crush him by disease; to see if his soul would offer itself in restitution, that he might see his seed, prolong his days, and that the purpose of the LORD might prosper by his hand:

53:10. But it is the Lord's good pleasure to try and to purify the remnant of his people, so as to cleanse their souls from sin; these shall look on the Kingdom of their Messiah, their sons and their daughters shall be multiplied, they shall prolong their days, and those who perform the Law of the Lord shall prosper in his good pleasure.


53:11 Of the travail of his soul he shall see to the full, even My servant, who by his knowledge did justify the Righteous One to the many, and their iniquities he did bear.

53:11. From the subjection of the nations he will deliver their souls, they shall look upon the punishment of those that hate them, and be satisfied with the spoil of their kings; by his wisdom he will hold the guiltless free from guilt, in order to bring many into subjection to the law; and for their sins he will intercede.


53:12 Therefore will I divide him a portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty; because he bared his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

53:12. Then will I divide for him the spoil of many peoples, and the possessions of strong cities shall he divide as prey, because he delivered up his soul to death, and made the rebellious subject to the Law: he shall intercede for many sins, and the rebellious for his sake shall be forgiven



I have explained this source in detail in another article[12]. Here we need only look at a few of the Targum’s comments and we will see that the picture is different. The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 IS NOT the Messiah.


52:14. 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,

53:1. Who hath believed this our glad tidings? and the strength of the mighty arm of the Lord, upon whom as thus hath it been revealed?

53:2. The righteous will grow up before him, yeah, like blooming shoots, and like a tree which sends forth its roots to streams of water will they increase - a holy generation in the land that was in need of him; his countenance no profane countenance, and the terror at him not the terror at an ordinary man; his complexion shall be a holy complexion, and all who see him will look wistfully upon him.


Here we see that the suffering servant is Israel, and eventually the righteous of Israel become exalted. But this is exactly what Rashi is saying!!! While there are Biblical sources for this, Rashi’s primary rabbinic source appears to be the Targum on these verses.


If you think I am misunderstanding the Targum look at what the Christian missionary scholar Dr. Louis Goldberg writes in his pamphlet ‘A Jewish Christian response’[13] where he summarizes what appears in the Targum.[14] He states that “all the verses which relate to exaltation were applied to a (sic) personal Messiah, while the remainder of the passage relating to suffering was applied to the nation”. Obviously he disagrees with Fructenbaum about the Targum.


This is pretty devastating to his argument, but there is really much more. While he selectively quotes from rabbinic sources, he ignores those that show him wrong. Let me quote only those in his source[15] where Isaiah 53 is stated as referring to either Israel or the Righteous of Israel.[16]


The Talmud, Brachos 5a, is one a significant passages in that it uses multiple verses from Isaiah 53, as opposed to a single verse.[17] Here we see that the righteous are meant:


“”Rabba states on the authority of R. S’horah that R. Huna said, The Holy One bruises with chastisement every one in whom he has pleasure, as it is written, ‘And the Lord was pleased to bruise him, he made him sick.’ It might however be thought, that this was the case even with those who do not accept the chastisement willingly; the words thereafter added, ‘If his soul makes a trespass-offering,’ for as the ‘trespass-offering’ implies a knowledge of the sin, so the chastisement to come by the pleasure of G-d ought to be known by the person who has to receive it. When, then, he had received them so, what is his reward? ‘He shall see seed, and lengthen days;’ and moreover that the study of the law shall be established by his hands, as it is written, ‘And the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hands.’”[18]


Then we have the Midrash Rabbah on Deuteronomy:


I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey (Cant. V. I): because the Israelites poured out their soul to die in the captivity, as it is said, ‘Because he poured out his soul to die.’”[19]


He mentions a single passage in the Zohar[20], but leaves out those many passages which disagree totally with his view.


“He began and said, Behold my servant, etc. Happy is the portion of the just, to whom the Holy One reveals the paths of the law for them to walk in…”[21]


“The children of the world are members one of another. When the Holy One desires to give healing to the world, he smites one just man amongst them, and for his sake heals all the rest. Whence do we learn this? From the saying, ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised of our iniquities.’”[22]


“At the time when the Holy One desires to atone for the sins of the world, like a physician who to save the other limbs, bleeds the arm, he smites their arm and heals their whole person: as it is write, ‘He was wounded for our iniquities,’ etc”[23]


“Come, consider the congregation of Israel, how it is called a lamb, as it is said, ‘Like a lamb that before her shearers is dumb.’ Why was it dumb? Because while the other nations ruled over it, it was deprived of speech and made dumb.”[24]


I could go through many of the sources he has used and whether under examination they really prove his point. I will just make one comment about a single one.  He states:


“Also from the second half of the sixteenth century are the writings of Rabbi Moshe Le Sheich or Al Shech, who was a disciple of Joseph Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch. He, too, demanded that all Jewish interpreters return to the more traditional interpretation when he wrote: ‘…our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view…’”[25]


However, the words that follow DIRECTLY after what he has quoted state: “for the Messiah is of course, David, who was ‘anointed’ as is well known…”[26] He then discusses how it applies to David. Later he explains verses 53:9-12 as applying to Moses!!![27] We see that here he has misused this source. A source which actually provides an alternate view to the one he claims.


Actually Fructenbaum ignored many sources where Isaiah 53 is applied to others besides Israel and the righteous. For example Moses appears in a number of sources like the Talmud[28], Yalqut[29] and Zohar[30]. Saadiah Gaon applied it to Jeremiah[31].


Some of the sources that he uses can not be used because they do not reflect authentic Rabbinic belief. Yepheth ben ‘Ali[32] was a Karaite and not a follower of the Rabbis!!! ‘Rabbi’ Moshe Kohen Ibn Crispin[33] was not even a Rabbi!!![34]


With almost every Rabbi quoted, and with all those he leaves out we see a different picture then the one he is claiming. While this selective ignoring of sources is disturbing the following quote from his book raises some disturbing questions.


“The Gospels make it very clear that Jesus’ death took the apostles by surprise. Their confusion arose largely because of their lack of knowledge concerning the full program of the Messiah. They had fully expected Jesus to overthrow their enemies and establish His Kingdom on earth. They were very familiar with the prophecies concerning this aspect of the messianic program. What they had failed to grasp was that the Messiah had to come twice: first to suffer, and, then, later to come in victory.”[35]



From whom did the apostles learn their ‘erroneous’ views of the Messiah? Was it not from the teachers of their times, the Pharisees?? They apparently were not teaching of a Messiah who first suffered and then died. (This can be seen from Bar Kochbah who died and no one ever posited that he was fulfilling the first part of his messianic job by dying.) The gospels themselves don’t hide this fact. If that is the case how could the Rabbis have taught that Isaiah 53 is about the first coming of a Messiah who comes and suffers, when they did not teach that the Messiah had to die in the first place? It seems that according to Fructenbaum, this belief was not taught at first, and then the Rabbis started teaching it. Then we have Rashi coming and rejecting this newer teaching of the Rabbis? I think he is very confused here.


To conclude, is it true as Fructenbaum claimed that, “All the ancient Jewish writings – the Mishnah, the Gemara, (the talmud), the Midrashim and many others – all regard this portion of Scripture as relating to the Messianic Person.” NO. We see it applied to Israel and others.


Is it true as Fructenbaum claimed that: “Every rabbi prior to Rashi, without exception, viewed this passage as describing Messiah.” NO. We see that the Targum, the Talmud and Midrash have other subjects for this passage.


Is it true as Fructenbaum claimed that: “The first rabbi to suggest otherwise was Rashi, around 1050 A. D.” NO.


It is not only false what he has claimed but it can be shown to be false from the very source that he used and quoted from!!!


© Moshe Shulman 2010

For more information, questions answered, or help with missionaries you can reach Moshe Shulman at

[1]   Isaiah 53 is never mentioned in the Mishnah.

[2]   This is absolutely false. There is no place in the writings of Maimonides that he criticizes Rashi about Isaiah 53. In fact anyone familiar with the explicitly stated views of Maimonides knows that he NEVER acknowledged that the Messiah was to die until his physical kingdom was set up. This is the case in his introduction to the chapter 10 of Sanhedrin where he states his 13 fundamentals of the Jewish faith. Likewise it does not appear in his magnum opus, the Mishnah Torah in chapter 11 and 12 of the laws of Kings when he discusses the Messiah and the Messianic age.

[3]   Fructenbaum, Messianic Christology, 1998, page 55

[4]   Ibid page 128

[5]   Ibid

[6]   KTAV Publishing, 1969

[7]  Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999

[8]  Any adjustments I feel needed will appear in the footnotes. I will also not use many of the sources that do not appear in Driver, Neubauer like Eliyahu Rabbah.

[9]   Samuel R. Driver and Adolf Neubauer , The Suffering Servant of Isaiah, According to the Jewish Interpreters” Originally published in 1877 and off copyright, (reprinted 1999 Wipf and Stock Publishers), page 37

[10]   Fructenbaum, op cit p. 124

[11]   Driver, Neubauer, op cit page 5-6


[13]   This is a response to the counter missionary book by Gerald Sigel.

[14]   Page 4.

[15]   There are more that do not appear in Driver, Neubauer.

[16]   Sources like Rashi use both interchangeably as they understand Israel as referring to the righteous only as opposed to the word ‘Jacob’ which can apply to all of the people.

[17]   The use of more then one verse in a commentary is a greater indicator that the simple meaning of these verses are understood to refer to the subject.

[18]   Driver, Neubauer page 8.

[19]   Ibid page 9.

[20]   See my article where we see that this passage has been edited to leave out the point that it is not just the Messiah, but every righteous person who can suffer so that the whole Jewish people should not have suffering in this world.

[21]  Driver Neubauer page 12. This passage continues almost 3 pages discussing the greatness of the just.

[22]  Ibid page 15.

[23]  Ibid page 16

[24]  Ibid

[25]  Fructenbaum op cit page 127

[26]  Driver Neubauer page 258

[27]  See Ibid pages 267-274

[28]   Ibid page 8

[29]   Ibid page 10

[30]   Ibid pages 15 and 16.

[31]   Ibid page 17

[32]   Quoted in Fructenbaum op cit page 125

[33]   Quoted Ibid page 127

[34]   See my article on him:

[35]   Fructenbaum, op cit Page 8