A Christian response to Asher Norman’s claims on Isaiah 53

Asher Norman is the author of Twenty-six reasons why Jews don’t believe in Jesus* which has been widely distributed in Jewish circles. Kevin Daly answers the argument put forward by Norman that the suffering servant of Isaiah chapter 53 is not Jesus, as Christians claim, but Israel.  Some of the author’s other “reasons” (or excuses) will be dealt with in time.

Who would have believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed? For he grew up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground (וכשׁרשׁ מארץ): he had no form or comeliness, that we should look at him, and no countenance, that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected of men; a man of pains and acquainted with sickness: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. But in truth he has borne our sickness and endured our pains; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded because of our transgressions, bruised because of our iniquities: his suffering were that we might have peace, and by his injury we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all (את עון כלנו) to fall on him. He was oppressed, but he humbled himself and opened not his mouth: as a lamb which is brought to the slaughter, and a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and false judgment he was taken away; and of his generation who considered? For he was cut off from the land of the living, for the transgression of the people to whom the stroke was due. For the made his grave among the wicked, and his tomb among the rich; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. But it pleased the LORD to crush him by disease: if his soul shall consider it a recompense for guilt, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the purpose of the LORD shall prosper in his hand…

Isaiah 53:1-10, Jerusalem Bible, Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd., 1998

In an Appendix to his book Twenty-six reasons why Jews don’t believe in Jesus, Asher Norman sets out to give “nine examples of the three hundred false messianic prophecies used in the Christian Bible”1 Foremost among these examples is Isaiah’s well-known portrait of the suffering servant who dies as an atonement for sin.

Norman says about this passage –

  • Christians have erred by applying these prophecies to the Messiah,
  •  the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 and the servant throughout Isaiah’s prophecies is the Jews (Israel as a nation),
  • Christian translations have distorted the text to support their own interpretation.

While some of Norman’s arguments may seem convincing, Solomon said in his wisdom: The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him (Proverbs 18:17).

For the benefit of those who have read Twenty-six reasons, we subject each of Norman’s principal claims to scrutiny:

Have Christians erred by applying Isaiah 53 to Messiah?

Norman suggests that the Christian understanding of Isaiah 53 is untenable, but neglects to mention to his readers that Judaism also believes in a suffering Messiah who will be pierced for the sins of Israel. Norman further fails to mention that certain Jewish authorities also apply Isaiah 53 to the Messiah.

We refer Norman’s readers to a number of well-known examples.


The Talmud at Sukkot 52a, cites a prophecy from Zechariah 12:10 – They will look on Me, whom they have pierced, and they will mourn for Him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for Him as one grieves for a firstborn son – and then states this as an interpretation:

It is well according to him who explains that the cause [of the mourning] is the slaying of the Messiah the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the Scripture verse: ‘And they shall look upon me, whom they have pierced: and shall mourn for him, as one mourns for his only son.’


Chapter 36 of the Pesiqta Rabbati (Friedmann, ed.) speaks of Israel’s true Messiah as the one who suffers willingly to obtain for Israel its promised inheritance in eternity:

The Fathers of the World [Abraham, Isaac and Jacob] will in the future rise up in the month of Nissan and will speak to him: “Ephraim, our true Messiah! Even though we are your fathers, you are greater than we, for you suffered because of the sins of our children, and cruel punishments have come upon you the like of which have not come upon the early and the later generations, and you were put to ridicule and held in contempt by the nations of the world because of Israel, and you sat in darkness and blackness and your eyes saw no light, and your skin cleft to your bones, and your body dried up like wood, and your eyes grew dim from fasting, and your strength became like a potsherd. All this because of the sins of our children! Do you want that our children should enjoy the happiness that the Holy One, blessed be He, allotted to Israel, or perhaps, because of the great sufferings that have come upon you on their account, and because they imprisoned you in the jailhouse, [be it that] your mind is not reconciled to them?

And the Messiah answers them: “Fathers of the World. Everything I did, I did only for you and for your children, and for your honour and for the honour of your children, so that they should enjoy this happiness that the Holy One, blessed be He, has allotted to Israel.”


The Zohar cites Isaiah 53 with reference to Messiah.

Messiah lifts up his voice and weeps over those sinful among them. This is what is written: He was wounded because of our transgression, he was crushed because of our iniquities (Isaiah 53:5) … In the Garden of Eden there is a hall which is called the Hall of the Sons of Illness. The Messiah enters that hall and summons all the diseases and the pains and all the sufferings of Israel that they should come upon him, and all of them come upon him … As long as Israel dwelt in the Holy Land, the rituals and the sacrifices they performed [in the Temple] removed all those diseases from the world; now the Messiah removes them from the children of the world …. (Zohar 2:212a)


The Midrash Konen speaks of Messiah as the one who suffers for the sins of Israel and applies Isaiah 53 specifically to him.

Elijah of blessed memory says to him [Messiah]: “Endure the suffering and the sentence of your Master who makes you suffer because of the sin of Israel.” And thus it is written: He was wounded because of our transgression, he was crushed because of our iniquities – until the time when the end comes.2

This does not support Norman’s claim that Isaiah 53 is, from a Jewish perspective, falsely applied to messiah and thus one of “three hundred false messianic prophecies contained in the Christian Bible”. 3

Could the Jewish people (Israel as a nation) be the suffering servant of Isaiah 53?

Norman contends that “the Jewish people are the suffering servant of God” and that Isaiah 53 speaks of the nation of Israel.4 In support of this idea he suggests that:

(1) ‘servant’ in chapters 41 – 52 of Isaiah refers exclusively to the Jews –

“Isaiah identified the ‘servant’ as Jacob and Israel … the idea that the servant is the Jewish people in Chapters 41 through 49, and that Isaiah would suddenly turn the servant into the Messiah in Chapter 53 without warning defies logic.” 5

(2) the speakers (i.e. first person plural) in chapter 53 are the Gentile kings referred to in chapter 52 –

“… the speakers through-out Chapter 53 are the Gentile kings introduced at the end of Chapter 52.” 6

“Remember that in Chapter 53, the ‘we’ are these Gentiles and the ‘he’ is Israel (the Jewish People). 7

(3) God chose the Jewish people to be his servant nation.


Response to point (1)

As in the case of chapter 53, Norman ignores the fact that Jewish authorities have also applied several of the servant references of the earlier chapters of Isaiah to the Messiah. The table contains examples.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1) The Targum (Mikroath Gedoloth) ascribes this verse to Messiah, and so does the Midrash on Psalm 2, and Yalkut Shimoni, vol. 2, p.104d.
You are my witnesses, declares the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen(Isaiah 43:10a) The Targum renders “my servant” in this verse as “my servant the Messiah”
See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.(Isaiah 52:13) The Targum applies this to Messiah. So does Yalkut Shimoni, vol. 2, paragraph 338, p.53c.
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities (Isaiah 53:11b) The Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin98b, derives the messianic title “Leprous” or “Diseased” by taking the servant of this verse to be the Messiah.


Response to point (2)

If the speakers in Isaiah 53 are the Gentile kings, and Israel is the suffering servant, it means, as Norman says, that every occurrence of “we” and “our” in that chapter is a reference to the Gentiles, and every occurrence of “he” and “his” is a reference to the Jewish people. Thus –

  • The Jews were pained because of the rebellious sins of the Gentiles and oppressed because of the iniquities of the Gentiles and by the wounds of the Jews, we, the Gentiles, are healed (Isaiah 53:5, according to Norman’s interpretation 8).

  • We, the Gentiles, have all strayed from God like sheep … and Hashem inflicted upon the Jewish people the iniquity that we, the Gentiles, deserved (Isaiah 53:6, according to Norman’s interpretation 9).

While this would be truly magnanimous, such an undertaking by the Jews on behalf of their Gentile brethren has no basis in Scripture or in history.

In terms of the Sinai Covenant, God would punish the Jews for their own sins, not the sins of others (see Deuteronomy 28, verse 15 and further).

History affirms that Judah and Israel were sent into exile exactly as Hashem had warned through Isaiah and the other prophets (see 2 Chronicles 36:15-21). This was done as the punishment for its own sins (see Daniel 9:4-14).

Where the Law of Moses permits vicarious atonement, it is always for those in covenant relationship with God (namely, Israel) and always requires the substitution of a guiltless victim for the sinner. The Jews were not guiltless, but even more sinful than the Gentiles (Ezekiel 5:7) and equally in need of an atonement (Ezekiel 16:63).

The suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is taken away by oppression and false judgment (verse 8), not as the just consequence of his own sin. He had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth (verse 9), whereas Hashem accused the Jewish people: your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken lies, and your tongue mutters wicked things (Isaiah 59:3).

We must thus conclude that Norman’s idea that the Jews are the suffering servant and the Gentile nations the beneficiary of their suffering is untenable, being incongruous with both Scripture and history.

What is spoken of in Isaiah 52?

Norman refers his readers to the passage commencing at verse 13 of Isaiah 52:

See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness – so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him.

For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.

Norman suggest that Israel is the servant who will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted, and that –

… the Gentile kings ‘shut their mouths’ when they realise that they sinned by persecuting the Jews for their own benefit.10

However, theYalkut Shimoni understands Messiah as the one who will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted:

He shall be higher than Abraham, to whom applies Genesis 14:22; higher than Moses, to whom Numbers 11:12 is predicated; higher than the ministering angels, of whom Ezekiel 1:18 is said. But to him there applies this in Zechariah 4:7 – ‘who art thou, O great mountain?’ ‘And he was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities, that the punishment of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.’ Rabbi Huna says, in the name of Rabbi Acha: All sufferings are divided into three parts: one part goes to David and the Patriarchs, another to the generation of the rebellion, and a third to King Messiah … 11 .

Thus, the astonishment of the Gentile kings comes rather from the fact that God could exact such a high price for sin, and that he (Messiah) would suffer for many and sprinkle many nations with his blood.

Response to point (3)

Norman correctly states that the nation Israel is often personified as its patriarch Jacob/Israel and thus spoken of in the masculine singular pronoun “he”. It is also true that the nation Israel is often referred to in Scripture as the servant of God.

Israel’s “servant obligation” or prophetic purpose originates in God’s promise to Abraham, namely, that Abraham would become a great nation that would bring God’s blessing to all the peoples of the earth. ‘Through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed’ (Genesis 22:18).

Isaiah testifies to the fact that the nation Israel – Abraham’s seed, collectively – had failed to achieve this purpose:

We were with child, we writhed in pain, but we gave birth to wind. We have not brought salvation to the earth; we have not given birth to people of the world.   Isaiah 26:18

God could however fulfil his promises for Israel through a single Jew. This would have been the case if God had carried out his threat to destroy the entire nation in the wilderness and leave only Moses – and then to form a new nation out of him (Exodus 32:10).

Messiah is therefore ‘the hope of Israel’ – the hope being that God will fulfil all His purposes for Israel through him. Isaiah foresaw that Messiah would not only gather the lost sheep of Israel, but would also fulfil its prophetic destiny – by achieving the blessing that Israel was destined to bring to the nations, by taking the knowledge of God to the ends of the earth.

And now the LORD says – he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honoured in the eyes of the LORD and my God has been my strength – he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation (ישׁועתי) to the ends of the earth.”   Isaiah 49:5-6

The servant Messiah (seed of Abraham, in the singular) is thus the fulfilment of God’s prophetic purpose for the servant nation (the seed of Abraham, collectively). Thus Israel and Messiah form an inextricable unity in the writing of the prophets.

What is the purpose and context of Isaiah’s prophecies?

While Norman at regular intervals accuses Christians of quoting verses out of context, he neglects to tell his readers anything of the background of this important prophecy.

The prophet Isaiah is sent to Israel at the time when its sins had reached its fullness. God’s righteous punishment in terms of the Sinai Covenant would no longer be averted, but would culminate in the exile spoken of in Deuteronomy 28.

Isaiah denounces Israel as a nation with no understanding, a nation that does not know its God (Isaiah 1:3). The faithful city (Jerusalem) is compared with a prostitute, and the rulers of Israel are described as rebels and companions of thieves … who chase after gifts (Isaiah 1:23). God proclaims Israel to be His enemy (Isaiah 1:24) on whom He will pour out His wrath (Isaiah 2:12-21).

At the same time God encourages the remnant, the penitent ones of Israel, by giving the prophet visions of Israel’s golden age of restoration: Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City. Zion will be redeemed with justice, her penitent ones with righteousness. But rebels and sinners will both be broken, and those who forsake the Lord will perish(Isaiah 1:26-28).

The hope of the penitent ones is in Messiah, whose role in the redemption of Israel is pivotal to Isaiah’s prophecies. Messiah is spoken of as the Branch(Isaiah 4:1), the Shoot from the stump of Jesse, springing from his roots(Isaiah 11:1), the Root [ שׁרשׁ ] of Jesse (Isaiah 11:10), a tender Shoot and aRoot [ שׁרשׁ ] out of dry ground (Isaiah 53:2). In him (Messiah) the survivors in Israel, the remnant of Zion will be purified and called holy (Isaiah 4:3-4) and God’s presence will eternally abide with them (Isaiah 4:5-6).

At the same time, the Gentiles will stream into the House of the God of Jacob and come to know His ways (Isaiah 2:3). This will happen as they rally to Messiah (Isaiah 11:10) who is a light for the Gentiles to bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).

The manner of God’s punishment against the Jews is revealed as a siege upon the city, in which the food and water supply will be cut off (Isaiah 3:1). God would remove the hedge of protection which He had promised over Israel in return for its obedience. The city’s walls would be broken down and it would be trampled by its enemies. Judah would become a wasteland(Isaiah 4:5-6). The dead bodies would be as refuse in the streets (Isaiah 5:25). The rest would be taken into exile (Isaiah 6:12). Hostile nations are summoned by God (Isaiah 5:26) as His chosen instrument for the punishment of Israel (Isaiah 8:5-8).

The elders and leaders of Israel are identified as those chiefly responsible for its nefarious condition:

Hashem enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of the people: “it is you who have ruined my vineyard”. Isaiah 3:14

Israel is warned not to follow its sages: O my people, your guides lead you astray, they turn you from the path (Isaiah 3:12). Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. Of what account is he? (Isaiah 2:22). Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. (Isaiah 5:21)

Consequently, the same God who is the Saviour (Isaiah 62:11) and becomes Salvation (Isaiah 12:2) for the remnant, would become a trap and a snare for many in Israel.

The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread, and he will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare. Many of them will stumble; they will fall and be broken, they will be snared and captured.   Isaiah 8:13-15

The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.   Psalm 118:22

The only hope is repentance (Isaiah 59:20). Every Jew must turn to God and seek Him for himself (Isaiah 55:6-7).

Did Christian translators distort the Hebrew text to force Jesus into the text?

Finally, we must deal with Norman’s accusation of Bible tampering. Norman contends –

the New King James Christian translation … manipulated the text in Isaiah 53:3-5 by changing the tense from past to present … in order to force Jesus into the text.

Most Bible scholars are aware of the fact that the Prophets often used a tense known as the ‘prophetic past’ – thereby referring to future events in the past tense. This is to emphasise the certainty of what God has spoken, i.e. what God undertakes to do in the future is as good as done.

Norman himself is quite aware of this, as he too applies these past tense verses from Isaiah 53 to future events –

  • Norman applies verse 3 to the Jews living “in walled ghettos in Europe” – more than 2000 years after the time of the prophecy;
  • Norman suggests that verse 4 speaks of the attitude of the Gentiles arising from the fact that the Jews rejected Jesus – about 700 years after the time of the prophecy;
  • Norman applies verse 7 to the crusades in the 11th century and to the time of the Nazi death camps – long after the time of the prophecy.

Norman also suggests that Christians distorted the text by changing the plural to the singular. Norman suggests that –

Isaiah’s switch from him to them (lamo in Hebrew) is a fatal problem for the Christian claim that [verse 8 of Chapter 53] applies to one man, Jesus. Christian missionaries can plausibly claim that ‘he’ applies to Jesus but they cannot plausibly claim that ‘them’ applies to Jesus.

The most common translation of the Hebrew word lamo is either ‘to them’ or ‘for them’. The Jerusalem Bible, an accepted Jewish translation, renders Isaiah 53:8 as follows:

By oppression and false judgment was he taken away; and of his generation who considered? For he was cut off from the land of the living, for the transgression of my people for whom the stroke was due.

Even though this translates lamo as plural, the verse is easily applied to Jesus, who was cut off ‘for them’, and the “problem” is thus void of its purported “fatality”.

The following is an absolutely literal, word for word translation of Isaiah 53:8.

מעצר out of prison
וממשׁפט and out of verdict / punishment / judicial sentence
לקח he has been taken away
ואת־דורו and of his generation / contemporaries
מי who?
ישׂוחח will ponder / speak of
כי for / because
נגזר (he was) cut off / destroyed
מארץ from the land
חיים of the living
מפשׁע out of / by reason of transgression
עמי of my people
נגע infliction / plague


for them

From this literal translation it is also clear that the Stone Edition of the Jewish Bible, with its overt anti-Christ agenda, takes obvious liberties with Hebrew syntax to derive its much contorted translation of this critical verse.

For he was removed from the land of the living, an affliction upon them that was my people’s sin.  Isaiah 53:8b, Jewish Bible, Stone Edition

Norman sites the translation of lamo into the singular “on him” as evidence of Bible tampering by Christians.

Both Christian and Jewish translations render lamo as singular in certain other instances. It is clear from Isaiah 44:15, Psalm 11:7 and Job 27:23 that lamo in Hebrew sometimes denotes the singular case.

Both the Syraic and Ethiopic translations of the Jewish Scriptures render lamo in Isaiah 53:8 in the singular. (These predate the Christian era.)

For examples of Bible tampering, we should rather look to the translators of the Talmudic sect. A good example is the prophecy in Zechariah 12:10, quoted earlier –

They will look to Me, whom they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.

The Jerusalem Bible renders this as –

‘They will look toward Me, because of those whom they have stabbed. They will mourn over him as one mourns over an only child…’ (changing ‘et asher’ from the accusative case and inferring ‘those’ as the object of the adjectival clause)

The Artscroll Bible translates this verse as –

‘They shall look towards me, regarding those whom the nations have thrust through’ (inserting the phrase “the nations” which does not appear in the original text).

Such a distortion can only be motivated by a desire to obfuscate the clear and literal meaning of a prophecy, contrary to the Talmudic reading of that verse in Sukkot 52a.

We pose an open challenge to Norman or any other apologist of Judaism to explain and defend these obvious distortions.


* Black White & Read Publishing Company, Los Angeles, California.

[1] op. cit., pp. 229 – 260.

[2] Midrash Konen, Beit haMidrash, Jellinek ed., 2:29-20.

[3] op. cit., p.229.

[4] ibid.

[5] op. cit., p.233.

[6] op. cit., p.230.

[7] ibid.

[8] op. cit., p.236.

[9] ibid.

[10]op. cit., p.230.

[11]Yalkut Shimoni, vol. 2, para 338, p.53c, lines 7 and following from the bottom.