If not to Jesus, to whom does Isaiah 53 refer? My Christian friends insist that it's a reference to Jesus, and I would like to respond. Thank you.
The prophet Second Isaiah, who lived during the Exilic times (c. 550 BCE), wrote four songs referring to the “servant” of God (42: 1-4; 49: 1-6; 50: 4-9; and 52-13-53:12). The identity of this figure has been contested for centuries. Some people think that the prophet had in mind a religious leader in the past, like Jeremiah (Saadia Gaon) or Moses (in the Talmud); others argue that it referred to a political figure such as Cyrus, the king of Persia, or Zerubabel, the governor of Judea after the return from Babylonia. There are some scholars who say that the servant is a pagan god who dies and is resurrected periodically, like the Mesopotamian god Tammuz or Adonis-Baal. One biblical critic argued that the servant is the cultic center of Zion-Jerusalem. So, as one commentator put it, “Modern scholarship has reached an impasse in regard to the identity of the “Servant of the Lord” in the servant songs in Deutero [Second]-Isaiah” (Wilshire, JBL, 9/1975, #3).
The New Testament states that the image of the servant is fulfilled in the personality of Jesus (e.g., Luke, 4: 21; Matt. 12: 18-21; Acts 8: 29-35). This does not mean that Isaiah was thinking of Jesus who lived centuries after him, but that early Christians simply identified the image of the servant with Jesus, who was considered by them as the long-awaited Messiah. However, it is unlikely that the servant refers to a messianic figure because the author of Second Isaiah, who wrote Isa. 53, never mentions a Jewish Messiah in other parts of his book, except for a reference to Cyrus, king of Persia, who was not even Jewish” “Thus said the Lord to Cyrus, His anointed one [limshiho] (Isa.45: 1).
Most Jewish commentators and many Christian scholars today believe that the servant is the people of Israel, based on many references in Second Isaiah where Israel is a called a “servant” (e.g., Isa. 41: 8; 44: 1; 49: 3).
[For further reading: Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament (Oxford University, 2006), pp. 411-412; John McKenzie, Second Isaiah (The Anchor Bible, 1967), pp. xxxviii-lv; “Isaiah,” in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed. 2007, Vol. 10, pp.71-72)].
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D