Did Jesus fail to meet Isaiah's conditions?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question: One of the many reasons given to believe Jesus is who He says He was, is the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. One of which says that He will be silent before His accusers. But when He was being questioned by the Sanhedrin, He said "I Am". Does that mean He wasn't silent before His accusers?

“He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7–9, NIV)

“The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree. Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’ ” Yet even then their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked.”
(Mark 14:55–63, NIV)

Answer: Greetings friend — and thank you for touching-down with us at Mainsail Ministries. This is an important question because we Christians cannot have it both ways. We cannot say that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies on one hand if he did not fulfill them on the other! But the difference you noted between the prophecy and fulfillment is not a contradiction, and I’ll share four reasons why I believe this is so.

First, the language in Isaiah 53… although a stunning portrait of Jesus from a post-cross perspective… was ancient — written 700 + years before the events it prophesied. Furthermore, it wasn’t even translated into Greek for over 500 years… and we had to wait about 2300 years before being translated into English! As culture and language go, that’s a long long time.

Now, we have done extremely well by our translations, but the nature of translation is that there will be changes… although not in a way that affects a reasonable view of biblical inerrancy. But one cannot bring language across the millennia and across cultures without change. So part of our Christian responsibility (and this is part of today’s exercise) is to continually bore down to the fullest historical, grammatical and contextual meaning of the original texts and to bring that into the contemporary idiom… which itself is a moving target.

Since we aver that God inspired the original autographs and that he protected the transmission of his word through the ages, we can say that we have what God wants us to have! But we cannot say that we have an exact representation of every nuance of the original documents. One major difference is that the ancient Hebrew language had many fewer words than does contemporary English. So, since English has more linguistic resources, it is usually more precise than the Hebrew. But our large number of words hints at an additional problem: today’s people “read” differently than did the ancients (which is point number three).

Second, not only are you referencing a section of Isaiah that was written about 700 BC, it was written in poetic form. Is that a problem? It could be. In this case, you are comparing it to a section of the New Testament, written in 50 AD, written in Greek… but written in the historical narrative form. These are dissimilar types of writing. So, although we have God’s true communication transmitted reliably across the centuries, we should not expect such dissimilar writings to connect details with linguistic precision.

Third, we read differently today than did people of the Ancient Near East… or even people 300 years ago! You see, along with the Industrial Revolution (which is the basis for our high-tech world) came the need for a different kind of reading — technical reading — and that helped turn our language toward literalism and away from the softer tones of its former centuries. This change has made it more difficult for today’s English reader to perform good exegesis. You see, a contemporary reader wants precision. But the ancients did not deliver that… and we must be careful not to look for it. Let me give you an example of how “soft” the ancient languages were compared to ours.

“News about [Jesus] spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them.” (Matthew 4:24, NIV, emphasis mine)

Consider the word all in the above verse. Are we to believe that every sick person in Syria was brought to Jesus? No… none of Matthew’s contemporary readers would have understood the word all to be used in the sense that every single person in the category of persons-who-are-sick was brought to Jesus… although today’s English reader might indeed think that. But the ancient writers were not communicating mathematical or logical precision. They were speaking more of scope.

In the above verse, the news of Jesus “got around” …by whatever methods and into every geography that would be natural to the ancient world… and this yielded the natural result: “all” people came — but this did not mean that “every person” came. This is why we should not press ancient documents for modern precision. (Also see the use of all in 2 Chronicles 9:23; Matthew 2:3; 3:5-6; 4:8; 26:52; Luke 2:1)

In like manner, Isaiah used a simile that compared Jesus to a sheep. Now, this is a very effective way to communicate Jesus’ attitude… but this is a decidedly imprecise literary vehicle. It speaks to Jesus’ submission to his Father’s will — that’s what’s important here. He went to the cross without complaint. But requiring Jesus to remain mute in every moment of the ordeal (and regardless of concurrent storylines) places and unrealistic burden on the language of this prophecy. Similes are ethereal communicators; they are not equations and they are not restrictive.

Fourth, we have two storylines playing out during Jesus’ trial… but one is nearly eclipsed by the other. The main story is terminal. Jesus will sacrifice his body and die on the cross. He will do this in silence, that is, he will not speak a word in his own defense. That’s the story in Isaiah 53:7–9. But there is another story running concurrently to the main — the messiahship of Jesus Christ. This storyline is not terminal; it runs through the cross. And since Isaiah 53:7–9 does not address his ongoing messiahship, the prophesied silence is not binding here. Let’s let Pilate tell the tale.

 “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate. “You have said so,” Jesus replied. The chief priests accused him of many things. So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.” But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.” (Mark 15:2–5, NIV)

The first thing to note is that Jesus talked… but then he didn’t talk… and both reports are in close proximity… and the author did not flinch in their telling. This shows us that Mark saw no contradiction — and the gospel authors were knowledgeable about the prophecies… both through their culture and through God’s special empowerment. So, the fact that Mark 15:2-5 affirms the two things that you see as contradictions — that Jesus talked and that he didn’t talk — this tells us that they are congruent. To see how this is so, let’s examine the story’s action.

Pilate’s dialogue with Jesus about his messiahship yielded an audible response. But what was it that amazed Pilate? His silence! But Jesus was not silent about his messiahship… in fact, he was rather vocal about that… but he was indeed silent about the Sanhedrin’s false accusations; he made no defense for himself — and that was the silence that fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy.

Isaiah 53:7–9 was about how Jesus would comport himself through his imminent sacrifice. Jesus speaking would only have militated against the giving up of his life — a plan which was in place before the foundations of the world… so he was silent. But he was not giving up his messiahship… so he was not silent. He spoke, as he often did, to defend it.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20161003 Did Jesus fail to fulfill Isaiah's prophecy of silence?).

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