The prophet Isaiah and the Suffering Servant

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This series is intended to serve as an introduction to some of the figures in the history of monotheism who prepared the way for the coming of the Lord, not only among the Jewish people (though that special relationship will be explored in detail), but as Saint Justin Martyr pointed out, also among other ancient peoples, in whose cultures and worldviews were planted seeds of the Word (logoi spermatikoi).

The first of these is perhaps the most recognizable and important, whose influence is so great that the early patristic church sources often referred to his work as the “fifth Gospel,” namely, the prophet Isaiah. 

Isaiah, the son of a man named Amoz (usually spelled with a “z” to distinguish him from the distinct prophet Amos), was a citizen of ancient Jerusalem. The historical Isaiah was likely an educated and cultured Jew living about 800 years before Jesus. Contrasting the tendency to view the figures of Scripture through clerical and celibate lenses, Isaiah was married to a woman referred to as “the prophetess,” though it’s unclear whether or not that moniker signified her own charismatic gifts, or simply her association with her husband. The two conceived and raised children, and rooted their entire family life in God’s unsettling vocation to speak truth to power.

Most historians believe the book that we now call that of Isaiah is actually a collection of traditions collated from a variety of sources. Chief among these is the Suffering Servant motif, which would come to play a central role in the entire Judeo-Christian interpretation of reality. It is one of the ways that Christians and Jews find a fraternal relationship in their witness to an unbelieving society, and the violence that is wrought upon those who critique the darkness in the world. Jews see in the Servant a reference to the collective Chosen People, alongside whom God has borne innumerable sorrows and injustices throughout history, from the Egyptian enslavement to the Babylonian Exile to the death camps of the Second World War. Christians connect the prophecies explicitly with Jesus of Nazareth, “who was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our sins … and by whose stripes we have been healed” (cf. Is 53:5).

In these waning days of the Christmas season, it’s all worthwhile to note that the evangelists were reading (and telling) the life of Jesus through the eyes of a profound familiarity with the texts of Isaiah. There we find such recognizable and memorable phrases:

— “The Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” (7:14).

— “The people who dwelt in darkness have seen a great light” (9:2).

— “I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to set the captive free, and to release from prison those who sit in darkness” (42:6).

Sadly, a rich appreciation for the inextricability of the Hebrew origins of Christianity has been occluded by waves of virulent and despicable anti-Semitism, often at the hands of those claiming faith in a religion founded by practicing Jews. Today the searing heat of that perennial reality seems to be frighteningly intensifying once again. It is imperative that we remember and respect the elder siblings of our faith, including Isaiah, who are vital and living parts of our theological family tree. Christians are unceasingly called to appreciate this reality and stand in solidarity with the Jewish people against a return to that dwelling in darkness and spiritual blindness which the prophet saw, named and combatted.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.