Monday, September 3, 2012
"The Gospel According to Isaiah 53" Book Review
Isaiah 53 (or more technically Isaiah 52:13-53:12) has long been held up by Christians as the clearest picture of the suffering and penal atonement of Jesus Christ. However, this interpretation of Isaiah 53 has long been rejected by Jewish scholars and, more recently, modern-critical scholarship. In defense of the traditional Christian view of Isaiah 53, Kregel Academic has published a collection of essays from prominent Evangelical scholars and has entitled this collection The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology. While not quite flawless, The Gospel According to Isaiah 53 is the best recent articulation of what Christians believe concerning Isaiah 53.
The introduction by Mitch Glaser orients the reader about the recent discussion of Isaiah 53. Glaser makes plain that this book, "...was written to help readers to utilize the truths of this magnificent chapter in bringing the Good News to those who do not yet know Jesus. It is designed to enable pastors and lay leaders to deepen their understanding of Isaiah 53 and to better equip the saints for ministry among the Jewish people." . This chapter is helpful in getting the reader up-to-date on the current discussion.
Richard Averbeck writes chapter one which deals with "Christian Interpretation of Isaiah 53". Averbeck notes the shift from the other "Servant Songs": in Isaiah 53, the prophet, who previously identified himself as the servant in 49:1-13 and 50:4-11, now includes himself with the people (the "we, us, our"). Averbeck argues that the prophet and the people are recipients of Suffering Servant's ministry and offering.
In chapter two, Michael L. Brown deals with "Jewish Interpretations of Isaiah 53". After outlining many Jewish interpreters who clearly did see the Messiah as a sufferer, he notes that there is a clear shift away from such an interpretation later, in light of Christian testimony. He notes that the common interpretation among the Jewish people now is that the Suffering Servant is Israel. Israel suffered through exile and mistreatment and Isaiah 53 deals specifically with that. However, as Brown clearly notes, "...Israel's sufferings in exile did not bring healing to the nations, while, conversely, it is impossible to read the text fairly while eliminating the concept of effectual, vicarious suffering." . Thus, despite those who seek to reinterpret the text, Brown sees that the traditional Christian reading is the most fair to the actual meaning of Isaiah 53.
Chapter three, authored by Walter C. Kaiser Jr., seeks to identify the "The Identity and Mission of 'Servant of the Lord'". Kaiser argues that the clearest identification of the Servant is found in Isaiah 53 and that the success of the mission of the Servant was never in doubt--Yeshua would succeed in rescuing the lost of Israel AND subsequently, bring rescue the nations from their transgressions.
Michael J. Wilkins tackles "Isaiah 53 and The Message of Salvation in the Gospels" in chapter four. Wilkins helpfully traces various echoes and outright quotations of Isaiah 53 in the Gospels. He argues (against critical scholarship) that Jesus was self-aware of his mission and that the early church simply taught what Jesus himself knew. In this way, the early church did not foist Jesus' death upon Isaiah 53 but rather, Jesus himself handed such a teaching down to the disciples.
In chapter five, Darrell Bock deals specifically with Isaiah 53's use in Acts 8. Bock's summary is worth quoting: "Our text is significant because it highlights a point Luke loves to make about Jesus. Not only is Jesus a figure described and predicted centuries in advance, but even the seeming incongruity of his death is
a part of of that description. Juxtaposing Jesus' humiliation in an unjust crucifixion with God's vindication of Jesus in resurrection shows where God's vote lies in disputes about who Jesus is." . Thus Bock argues that Isaiah 53 is Gospel driven and evangelistically centered, as can be seen in Acts 8.
"Isaiah 53 in the Letters of Peter, Paul, Hebrews and John" is the topic of chapter six and is taken up by scholar Craig A. Evans. Evans chapter is particularly helpful because he includes in his chapter an entire listing of echoes and outright quotations of Isaiah 53 in all of the epistles and John's Gospel. Evans concludes, after a lengthy discussion of the usage of Isaiah 53 in letters outside of the Gospels, "The suffering and death of Jesus do not prove that he was not the Messiah; they in fact prove it, for they fulfill the Scriptures, including the Scripture that spoke of the Suffering Servant Messiah." . He believes that Isaiah 53 "makes a significant contribution to the theologies of Peter, Paul, Hebrews and John." Further, it "is especially intriguing [that] the famous Suffering Servant hymn apparently lay at the heart of an evangelism and apologetic primarily intended for the synagogue." 
Chapter seven, written by David L. Allen, focuses on "Substitutionary Atonement and Cultic terminology in Isaiah 53." Allen goes back to Leviticus to show how the NT authors are at pains to show how the old Levitical system was inadequate to deal with sins. However, by using Isaiah 53, the NT displays that a greater sacrifice has arrived.
Robert B. Chisholm Jr., handles "Forgiveness and Salvation in Isaiah 53" in chapter eight. He opens by stating to the reader that, "Isaiah's fourth so-called Servant Song is a rags-to-riches-story."  Chisholm outlines what exactly this means and concludes four things. First, those who benefit from the Servant's suffering are those who wittnessed the Servant's suffering--the nations and Israel. Second, the illness and pain listed in Isaiah 53 are the consequences of sin. Third, the reason for the consequences was a breach of covenant. Fourth, the Servant accomplishes a) release from exile and restoration to the Promised Land b) opens up the possibility of covenant renewal and c) bears the sins of the nation and so allows the nations to enter into a covenant with God.
The book then turns its attention from biblical theology to practical theology. In chapter nine, John S. Feinberg deals with "Postmodern Themes from Isaiah 53." Feinberg finds many themes that will resound with today's postmodern culture--a love for story, the possibility for open dialogue between Jews and Christians, a Creator who cares about genuine relationship. These themes can all be found in Isaiah 53, argues Feinberg, before drawing his very thoughtful chapter to a close.
Chapter ten, penned by Mitch Glaser, approaches how to use Isaiah 53 in Jewish Evangelism. This immensely practical chapter serves, not only as a primer for Jewish evangelism, but as a primer for evangelism in general. Essentially, Glaser boils down the entire discussion of the exegesis of Isaiah 53 into talking points. His essential point is clear--Isaiah 53 MUST be used in Jewish evangelism.
Finally, chapter eleven, written by Donald R. Sunukjian, applies Isaiah 53 to the realm of preaching. His chapter essentially asks, "How are you going to preach Isaiah 53?" He then provides another exegesis of Isaiah 53 as well as a structural breakdown of the passage and some practical tips on how to present the material. He also adds to appendices to the book which are two different sermons he personally preached on Isaiah 53.
Darrell Bock offers a summary of the book and reminds the reader, again, of the important of Isaiah 53.
The question remains: is The Gospel According to Isaiah 53 worth the hefty-almost-$20-pricetag. A few things would lead me to shy away from this book. First, as with almost any compilation of essays, you get some good ones and you get some bad ones. Most of the biblical theology chapters are good. Feinberg's chapter was pretty weak, however. Consider that you are paying about $2 per chapter and then consider if each essay is worth that. I will say, however, that Robert Chisholm's chapter was great--not just good. That, to me, might influence the purchase of this work.
Second, despite what the original purpose of the book states (to train pastors and informed laypersons), this book is technical. Seriously technical. I am talking that you need to know Greek and Hebrew (seldom is it transliterated) and the grammar of both languages to really appreciate this work. Having taken both languages, it was still tough to keep up. The entire time I thought to myself, "I can't think of too many churches where this would be on the docket for reading." This is not bedside reading. This is intense, ground-and-pound exegesis. It is good--just tough to wade through.
Third, because of the nature of the book (composed of essays), you get repetition. Further, since you are dealing with such a narrow slice of Scripture, you get A LOT of repetition. I think the point was made at least four times that Israel is NOT the Suffering Servant. While that is a helpful reminder, each chapter felt like it was rehashing the same basic thing after awhile. I almost wanted to scream when I saw that there would be yet another exegesis of the text in chapter eleven (on preaching Isaiah 53). Don't get me wrong, the essays are good, but you get essentially seven to eight expositions of the same text. I will say this to every pastor and teacher--if you can't exegete and interpret Isaiah 53 by the time you finish The Gospel According to Isaiah 53, you need to find a new profession.
So is it a buy, check-out, or pass? It is definitely not a pass. There are a handful of essays in here that are worth reading (such as almost everything in the biblical theology section). For pastors on a budget, the price of the book is steep for what you get so I think that that makes it a check-out. If you are insistent on buying, I would recommend waiting till you find a good used copy. Overall, though, it is a solid work and I think it is one that you will go back to again and again for help in exegeting the text.
*Following FTC guidlines, I received this copy from Kregel Academics in exchange for a fair, unbiased review.*