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PRE-CHRISTIAN EXEGESIS OF ISAIAH 52:13-53:12

With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) in 1947, we have now found what many believe is the oldest extant interpretation of Isaiah 52:13-53:12. This is due to some of the fragments that were found, which scholars have named the “Self-Glorification Hymn”.Photos of these fragments can be seen by clicking on the following links:

4Q Self-Glorification Hymn – The Dead Sea Scrolls

4Q Self-Glorification Hymn – The Dead Sea Scrolls

In these fragments, the unnamed Jewish author employs the language of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 to describe his heavenly enthronement where he becomes greater than the angels and is made like God himself.

I provide two English translations of these fragments in order to highlight the impact and significance these scrolls have on our understanding of how Isaiah 52:13-53:12 was interpreted by specific Jews both before and during the time of Christ. All emphasis shall be mine:

This manuscript, mistakenly as a copy of the War Scroll and attributed to the archangel Michael, is instead a version of a hymn that is also found in the Thanksgiving Hymn col. 26 (text 12). The author’s description of his office–seated “on a mighty throne in the congregation of the angels”–and his personal standing–“no one shall be exalted besides me”–has earned the piece the title “Self-Glorification Hymn.” Is the speaker styling himself as the messiah? As a reflection of the clear note of suffering–“Who has been considered contemptible like me?”–some scholars have provocatively suggested that this hymn is evidence that some ancient Jews were expecting a suffering messiah before the time of Jesus. Or, as could be argued based on the placement of the psalm in the Thanksgiving Hymns, is this rather a communal experience that might find an echo in 4Q181 (text 30), in which the community is also described as being reckoned with the “gods as a holy congregation”? The debate has only just begun.

4Q491 Manuscript C Frag. 11 Col. 1 8[…] marvelous, wondrous deeds[…] 9[… in the pow]er of His might let the a[ng]e[l]s rejoice and the holy ones shout in exaltation […] justly 10[… I]rael. He established His truth from of old, and the mysteries of His cunning in eve[ry …] might 11[…] and the company of the oppressed shall become an eternal congregation[…] blameless of 12[…] eternal, a mighty throne in the congregation of the angels. None of the ancient kings shall sit on it, and their nobles [shall] not [… There are no]ne comparable 13[to me in] my glory, no one shall be exalted besides me; none shall come against me. For I have dwelt on [high, …] in the heavens, and there is no one 14[…]  I am reckoned with the angels and my abode is in the holy congregation. [My] desi[re] is not according to the flesh, […] everything precious to me is in the glory 15[of] the holy habitation. [Wh]o has been considered contemptible like me? Who is comparable to me in my glory? Who of those who sail the seas (?) shall return telling (?) 16[of] my [equal]? Who has born[e] troubles like me? And who like me [has refrain]ed from evil? I have never been taught, but no teaching compares 17[with my teaching.] Who then shall assault me when [I] ope[n my mouth?] Who can endure the utterance of my lips? Who shall challenge me and compare with my judgment? 18[… For] I am reck[oned] with the angels, [and] my glory with that of the sons of the King. Neither [pure go]ld, nor the renowned gold of Ophir 19[…]

To 20[… rejoice, you] righteous among the angels of […] in the holy habitation. Praise Him in song […] 21[… P]roclaim with heartfelt joy […] 22[…] to raise up the horn on h[igh …] 23[…] to make known His power in might […] (The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, Translated and with Commentary by Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr., and Edward Cook [HarperSanFrancisco, 2005], pp. 168-169)

And:

Hymn of Glorification A and B

(4Q491, fr. 11—4Q471b)

Two different versions of the same poem have been preserved. The first was originally thought to be part of the War Scroll (M a , 4Q491, fr. 11) and was identified as ‘The Song of Michael and the Just’ by its editor, M. Baillet. The editor of the second text, Esther Eshel, proposes the more likely interpretation that the speaker of the hymn is the eschatological high priest, first humiliated by his opponents before sharing the glory of the ‘gods’ or ‘holy ones’. The troubled career of the last priest is also alluded to in the Aramaic Testament of Levi (4Q541, fr. 9).

For the editio princeps, see M. Baillet, DJD, VII, 26-30 (4Q491) and E. Eshel, DJD, XXI, 421-32 (4Q471b).

Glorification Hymn A (4Q491, fr. 11)

… the righ[teo]us exult [in the streng]th of His might and the holy ones rejoice in … in righteousness … He has established it in Israel Since ancient times His truth and the mysteries of His wisdom (have been) in al[l] … power … and the council of the poor into an eternal congregation … the perfect… [et]ernity a throne of strength in the congregation of ‘gods’ so that not a single king of old shall sit on it, neither shall their noble men…

My glory is incomparable, and apart from me none is exalted.

None shall come to me for I dwell in … in heaven, and there is no

I am reckoned with the ‘gods’ and my dwelling-place is in the congregation of holiness.

[My] des[ire] is not according to the flesh, [and] all that I value is in the glory of… [… the pl]ace of holiness.

Who is counted despicable on my account, and who is comparable to me in my glory?

Who is like… the young (?) like me?

Is there a companion who resembles me? There is none!

I have been taught and no instruction resembles [my instruction] … Who shall attack me when [I] op[en my mouth]? And who can contain the issue of my lips?

Who shall summon me to be destroyed by my judgement? …

[F]or I am reckoned with the ‘gods’, and my glory is with the sons of the King.

No pure gold or gold of Ophir …

Glorification Hymn B (4Q471b)

I am reckoned with the ‘gods’ and my dwelling-place is in the congregation of holiness.

Who is counted as me to be despised and who is despised as me? And who is like me, forsaken [by men (Isa. liii, 3), and is there] a companion who resembles me?

And no instruction resembles my instruction. [For] I sit…

Who is like me among the ‘gods’?

[And who shall attack me when I open my mouth]?

And who can contain the issue of my lips?

And who [shall summon me to be destroyed by my judgement]?

[For I am] the beloved of the King and the friend of the ho[ly ones]. [No-one] … and no-one is comparable [to my glory].

For I [have my station with the ‘gods’, and my glory is with the sons of the King]. I will not be cr[owned with pure gold nor with the gold of Ophir] … Sing… (Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English [Penguin Books, Revised Edition 2004], pp. 396-398)

Remarkably, the author not only alludes to Isaiah 53:3-4 to describe the contempt and griefs he has experienced,

“He was despised (nivzeh) and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised (nivzeh), and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

But he also likens himself to God by claiming that there is none like him among the gods/angels, in wording that is virtually identical to what the Hebrew Bible says of YHVH!

Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?” Exodus 15:11 NRSV

“Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones. For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings (bi’bne elim) is like the Lord, a God feared in the council of the holy ones, great and awesome above all that are around him? O Lord God of hosts, who is as mighty as you, O Lord? Your faithfulness surrounds you.” Psalm 89:5-8

Peter Schäfer, considered the leading scholar of rabbinic Judaism and early Jewish mysticism in the world today, helps bring out the ramifications of these statements:

AMONG THE MANY WRITINGS of the community that had withdrawn from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea to dedicate itself to apocalyptic fantasies of the end of days is the so-called Self-Glorification Hymn from Qumran. The author of this enigmatic and, among scholars, disputed hymn was is unknown written, and only fragments of it are extant.  It was written in the late Hasmonaean or early Herodian period–that is, the second half of the first century BCE. In it, an unidentified hero boasts that he was elevated among and even above the angels in heaven:

(3) He established his truth of old, and the secrets of his devising (razei ‘ormato) throughout all [generations

(4) [] and the council of the humble (‘asat evyonim) for an everlasting congregation.

(5) [for]ever a mighty throne (kiss ‘oz) in the congregation of the gods (elim). None of the ancient kings shall sit in it, and their nobles shall not [

(6) [] shall not be like my glory (kevodi), and none shall be exalted save me, nor shall come against me. For I have taken my seat in a/the [throne] in the heavens (ki any yashavti be … be-shamayyim) and none [

(7) [] I shall be reckoned with the gods (ani ‘im elim et-hashev), and my dwelling place is in the holy congregation (u-mekhoni be-‘adat qodesh). [I] do not de[sire] as would a man of flesh [] everything precious to me is in the glory of

(8) [the gods in the] holy dwelling place (bi-me‘on ha-qodesh). Who has been despised on my account (mi la-vuz nehshav bi)? And who can be compared with me in my glory (u-mi bi-khvodi yiddameh li)? Who [

(9) [] who be[ars all] griefs as I do? And who [suff]ers evil like me? No one! I was instructed and (any) teaching (horayah) will not be equal to my

(10) [teaching]. And who will stop me from speaking when [I] op[en my mouth]? And who shall measure the flow of my speech, and who shall be my equal, and be like (me) in my judgment?

(11) [Friend of the King (yedid ha-melekh), companion of holy ones (I am named)], for I shall be reckoned with the gods (elim), and my glory (kevodi) with [that of] the King’s sons (bene ha-melekh).

Two parallel fragments of the hymn that take the superior, angel-like status of its author yet further. There the speaker asks explicitly, “Who is like me among the divine beings?” (mi kamoni ba-‘elim); this is a rhetorical question that evidently means, Who else is like me among the angels? Is there anyone else who is as elevated as I am among the angels or above them? And the answer is of course, No! The question, though, is by no means as innocent as it sounds, as it alludes to Exodus 15:11, where the question refers to God: “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods/angels?” (mi kamokha ba-‘elim YHWH). This definitely means, Is there anyone among the gods/angels, who is like you, God, who could be compared with you? And again the answer is, No! There is reason to suspect that the speaker not only boldly compares himself with the angels BUT ALSO WITH GOD, EVEN TAKING THE PLACE OF GOD; he is not merely a particularly high angel among the angels BUT RATHER LIKE GOD unique among the angels. Yet this special status bordering on hubris is only implied. When he later refers to himself as a “friend of the King” and one of many “King’s sons,” then he modestly steps back behind the king (God) and once again takes his place among the angels… Juxtaposed with the statement on glory in line 8 is the odd expression mi la-vuz nehshav bi, which was translated above as “Who has been despised on my account?” and literally might mean, “Who has been attributed to me, to be despised?”–that is, Who is despised and thus associated with me? The answer here too is probably, No one! The speaker is despised, and with respect to this particular contempt, no one is like him. This refers DIRECTLY to the suffering, servant of God in Isaiah, about whom it is also said that he is “despised” (nizvah), a “man of suffering,” who “has borne our infirmities” (Isa. 53:3-4). It is fitting that the speaker “bears all griefs” and “suffers all evil” like no one (line 9). The author thus models himself at the same time AS THE SUFFERING SERVANT OF GOD IN ISAIAH 53, thereby presumably placing himself in the messianic interpretative tradition of the Suffering Servant Songs. As a suffering Messiah, he is raised up in an unparalleled manner onto a throne in heaven, which even the Israelite kings cannot claim for themselves… Whoever the hero of the Self-Glorification Hymn is, and whatever his function at the end of days, he is a human being who in a unique manner is exalted unto heaven and enthroned there. We do not hear of anything comparable regarding any other human–with the exception of Enoch, who becomes the Son of Man in the Similitudes of the Ethiopic Book of Enoch. Our hero is not just one angel among many angels, and it is not said that he will be transformed into an angel. Rather, he is and remains a human being who is elevated TO THE STATUS OF A god, and as such WILL RETURN TO EARTH. Certainly, “in no case does this ‘divinization’ impinge on the supremacy of the Most High, the God of Israel” and the distance between our hero and God remains intact. And yet the divinization of a human being can hardly be driven any further. Israel Knohl therefore sees our hero not simply as another Qumran Messiah, but instead as a real, direct precursor to Jesus, who then influenced Jesus and the Christian notion of the Messiah. (Schäfer, Two Gods in Heaven: Jewish Concepts of God in Antiquity [Princeton University Press, 2020], 3. The Divinized Human in the Self-Glorification Hymn from Qumran, pp. 33-37; bold and capital emphasis mine)

It is evident that the composer of these fragments derived the notion of his heavenly exaltation to god-like status from the following verse:

“Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up (yarum wa’nissa), and shall be exalted.” Isaiah 52:13 English translations (ESV)

Isaiah employed the very same terms to refer to the Servant’s being lifted up on high, after first experiencing horrendous suffering and dying vicariously, which he used elsewhere to describe YHVH’S enthronement over all creation:

“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up (ram wa’nissa); and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’ And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’” Isaiah 6:1-5 ESV

“The LORD is exalted, for he dwells on high (marom); he will fill Zion with justice and righteousness… ‘Now I will arise,’ says the LORD, ‘now I will lift myself up (eromam);now I will be exalted (ennase).’” Isaiah 33:5, 10 ESV

“For thus says the One who is high and lifted up (ram wa’nissa), who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high (marom) and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” Isaiah 57:15 ESV

And since the Hebrew Bible clearly attests that there is none that is enthroned on high in the heavens above,

“Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven.” Psalm 148:13 ESV

“Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high,” Psalm 113:5 ESV

The heavens are the LORD’s heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man.” Psalm 115:16 ESV

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the author of these fragments realized that Isaiah’s inspired language meant that YHVH would exalt his servant to share in God’s unique sovereignty over all created beings.

The author also seems to have Isaiah 11 in mind, when he speaks of there being no one comparable to him in the way he teaches or instructs:

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins… In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.” Isaiah 11:1-5, 10 ESV

Seeing that the root of Jesse, who is clearly a messianic figure, is imbued with YHVH’S Spirit just like YHVH’s servant,

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” Isaiah 42:1 NRSV

It only makes sense that he would then assert that there is no other mortal who comes close to matching his instruction.

We, thus, have pre-Christian Jewish texts showing that certain Jews understood from the plain language of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 that the human servant of YHVH would both suffer and then be exalted to the heavenly status and glory of God, thereby becoming higher and greater than all angelic beings. These Jews further perceived from their reading of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 that the Servant was destined to return to the earth to judge.

These aren’t the only Jews that interpreted Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in such a manner, since even later medieval rabbis saw that Isaiah’s language placed YHVH’s servant on a level that transcends the highest of God’s creatures, including the angels:

  1. Yalqut.
  2. Who art thou, O great Mountain?(Zech. iv. 7.) This refers to the King Messiah. And why does he call him ‘the great mountain?’ because he is greater than the patriarchs, as it is said, ‘My servant shall be high, and lifted up, and lofty exceedingly’–he will be higher than Abraham, who says, ‘I raise high my hands unto the Lord’ (Gen. xiv. 22); lifted up above Moses, to whom it is said, ‘Lift it up into they bosom’ (Num. xi. 12); loftier than the ministering angels of whom it is written, ‘Their wheels were lofty and terrible’ (Ez. i. 18). And out of whom does he come forth? Out of David.
  3. I will tell of the institution(Ps. ii. 7). Already are the words [concerning my servant] told in the institution of the Pentateuch, of the book of the Prophets, and of Hagiographa: in the Pentateuch where are they told? ‘Israel is my firstborn’ (Ex. iv. 22); in the Prophets where? ‘Behold my servant will deal prudently,’ and near to it, ‘My servant whom I uphold’ (xlii. 1) in the Hagiographa, where? ‘The Lord said to my lord,’ and ‘The Lord said unto me’ (Ps. cx. 1, ii. 7). (Yalqut Shim‘oni, 2:571, as quoted in The “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters, translated by Samuel R. Driver and Adolf Neubauer, with an introduction by Edward B. Pusey [Hermon Press, New York: Reprinted in 1969], pp. 9-10; bold emphasis mine)

And:

“I will now proceed to my exposition. 13 Behold my servant shall have understanding. From the prophet’s saying ‘understanding,’ it may be seen that all the lofty predicates which he assigns to him have their source in this attribute; in virtue of his comprehensive intelligence he will attain an elevation above that even of the most perfect men in the world. He shall be high and exalted, and lofty exceedingly. According to the Midrash of our Rabbis; he will be higher than Abraham, who was first of all a ‘high father,’ and afterwards a father of a multitude. He will be more exalted than Moses, who was ‘exalted’ above the exalted ones of Levi (cf. Num. iii. 32), who was a prophet such that ‘none arose like him in Israel,’ (Deut. xxxiv. 10), who ‘saved’ Israel ‘with a great salvation’ (cf. I Chron. xi. 14) when they came out of Egypt, and the report of whom spread into all places until ‘the dukes of Edom were confounded’ before him, and ‘trembling seized the mighty men of Moab, and all the inhabitants of Canaan melted away’ (Ex. xv. 15). But this one will be exalted far above Moses: for when he gathers together our scattered ones from the four corners of the earth, he will be exalted in the eyes of all the kings in the whole world, and all of them will serve him, and will exalt him above them, as Daniel prophesies concerning him, ‘All nations, peoples, and tongues shall serve him’ (Dan. vii. 14, 27)He will be loftier than Solomon, whose dignity was so lofty that he is said to have ‘sat on the throne of the Lord’ (I Chron. xxix. 23), and our Rabbis say that he was king over both the upper and the nether world. But the King Messiah, in his ALL-COMPREHENDING INTELLIGENCE, will be loftier than Solomon. Exceedingly above the ministering angels, because that same comprehensive intelligence will approach [God] more nearly than theirs. For it is an exceedingly high privilege, that one whose nature is compound and material should attain to a grade of intelligence more nearly Divine than that which belongs to the incorporeal; and so it is said of him that ‘his strength is greater than that of the ministering angels,’ because these have no impediment in the exercise of their intellect, whereas that which is compound is continually impeded in consequence of material element in its nature. Accordingly, the grade of his intelligence being such as this, he is said to be ‘lofty exceedingly,’ and his strength to be ‘greater than the angels.’… And when this ‘servant of the Lord’ is born, he will continue to be marked by the possession of intelligence enabling him to acquire from God what it is impossible for any to acquire until he reaches that height wither none of the sons of men, EXCEPT HIM, have ever ascended: from that day he will be counted with his people Israel, and will share their subjugation and distress; ‘in all their affliction’ (Is. lxiii. 9) he will be exceedingly afflicted; and because of their being outcasts and scattered to the ends of the world, his grief will be such that the colour of his countenance will be changed from that of a man, and pangs and sicknesses will seize him (for great grief, as physicians know, by producing melancholy, subjects a man to many diseases); and all the chastisements which come upon him in consequence of his grief will be for our sakes, and not from any deficiency or sin on his part which might bring punishment in his train, BECAUSE HE IS PERFECT, IN THE COMPLETENESS OF PERFECTION, as Isaiah says (xi. 2f.). Truly all his pains and sicknesses will be for us…” (R. Mosheh Kohen Ibn Crispin (14th century AD), as cited by Driver & Neubauer, pp. 101-103; bold and capital emphasis mine)

The foregoing puts to rest the objection made by both Muhammadan and rabbinic Jewish opponents of Christianity that Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is not a Messianic prophecy, which prophesies the coming of a divine Messiah that would suffer for the sins of others and whom God would then exalt to share in his unique sovereign rule over all creatures.

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