When Jesus spoke about his future suffering it did not seem to register properly.

For example:

(Matthew 16:22) Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

This raises the question: Did the Jews push the suffering of the servant Messiah (Isaiah 53) to the background of their mind, or was there no expectation that Messiah would suffer at all?


6 Answers 6


It does seem that the Jews hadn't understood that the Messiah would have to suffer, or that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 was the Messiah. Apart from the verse you have quoted, there are other verses which suggest that the Jews didn't understand this.

They understood that the Christ would be the "King of Israel" (Matthew 15:32), they knew that he would be the one to govern the people of Israel (Matthew 2:6), but they didn't understand that his kingship was not of this world (John 18:36). They expected a political Messiah, one who would save them from their enemies in this world, not one who would "save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). This is why, King Herod was troubled and all Jerusalem with him (Matthew 2:3), for he thought that the Christ would come and take his political throne from him.

Even after having the knowledge that he was indeed the Christ (Matthew 16:16), Peter rebuked him for saying that he would have to suffer. Even after he actually suffered and died, two of his disciples seemed to have no clue what was happening and Jesus said to them,

"O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" (Luke 24:25-26)

And then Jesus had to interpret the scriptures for them, to show them all the things in the scriptures about the Christ (Luke 24:27).

So it does seem that to the Jews, it wasn't plain and clear from the scriptures that the Messiah had to suffer and in fact the evidence shows that they were expecting him to rule like a political king and not undergo suffering.

  • This is a good start but you may want to read this from a Jewish historian that proves the Jews did expect Messiah to suffer, 'in some way' and did link Isaih 53 to the Messiah. I think both sides of the history need to be included for an accepted answer, but +1 for the Biblical references. Cheers. Link: worthychristianlibrary.com/alfred-edersheim/…
    – Mike
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 4:48
  • Jesus referenced Psalm 22 on the cross, which in context, reads prophetic, biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+22
    – Aaron Hall
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 23:01

The Jews did expect Messiah to suffer but not not at all in the way in which he did. His suffering was only supposed to be a temporary set back as a King waging war against the Gentiles. He was expected to arrive and war with Gog and Magog. During that war against the Gentiles, both He and Israel would suffer, only to gain victory over the entire Gentile world. Then the Gentiles would confess the God of Israel only to later fall way and face the final judgment. His was at first supposed to come, disappear and then reappear to destroy the Gentiles once and for all. His appearance and reappearance was not supposed to be associated with the destructions of Jerusalem as Jesus had said (Mathew 23:39 – 24:2). This idea that Christ espoused would cause nothing but never ending confusion for the Jew. Neither would his suffering be from a rejection from his people, which would seem like defeat to the dream. His suffering would be in the fight with Gentiles for Israel resulting in total victory.

For anyone interested in the detail I have provided many below.

Alfred Edersheim a Jewish historian is, one of the, if not ‘the’ best resource for understanding Jewish expectations before Christ. In general Jewish writings designate a happy period that would succeed the ‘present dispensation’ or ‘world’ (Olam hazzeh). This happy period would begin with ‘the days of the Messiah’ (ימות המשיח). These would stretch into the ‘coming age’ (Aṯid laḇo), and end with ‘the world to come’ (Olam habba).

So the Jewish expectation of Messiah was under three progressive stages: ‘the days of the Messiah’, ‘coming age’ and ‘the world to come’.

The ‘days of the Messiah’:

Alfred Edresheim summarizes this from ancient Hebrew writings:

The Birth of the Messiah would be unknown to His contemporaries; that He would appear, carry on His work, then disappear – probably for forty-five days; then reappear again and destroy the hostile powers of the world, notably ‘Edom,’ ‘Armilos,’ the Roman Power – the fourth and last world-empire (sometimes it is said: through Ishmael). Ransomed Israel would now be miraculously gathered from the ends of the earth, and brought back to their own land, the ten tribes sharing in their restoration, but this only on condition of their having repented of their former sins. According to the Midrash, all circumcised Israel would then be released from Gehenna, and the dead be raised – according to some authorities, by the Messiah, to Whom God would give ‘the Key of the Resurrection of the Dead.’ This Resurrection would take place in the land of Israel, and those of Israel who had been buried elsewhere would have to roll under ground – not without suffering pain – till they reached the sacred soil. Probably the reason of this strange idea, which was supported by an appeal to the direction of Jacob and Joseph as to their last resting-place, was to induce the Jews, after the final desolation of their land, not to quit Palestine. This Resurrection, which is variously supposed to take place at the beginning or during the course of the Messianic manifestation, would be announced by the blowing of the great trumpet. It would be difficult to say how many of these strange and confused views prevailed at the time of Christ; which of them were universally entertained as real dogmas; or from what source they had been originally derived. Probably many of them were popularly entertained, and afterwards further developed – as we believe, with elements distorted from Christian teaching.

The ‘coming age’:

All the resistance to God would be concentrated in the great war of Gog and Magog, and with it the prevalence of all wickedness be conjoined. And terrible would be the straits of Israel. Three times would the enemy seek to storm, the Holy City. But each time would the assault be repelled – at the last with complete destruction of the enemy. The sacred City would now be wholly rebuilt and inhabited. But oh, how different from of old! Its Sabbath-boundaries would be strewed with pearls and precious gems. The City itself would be lifted to a height of some nine miles – nay, with realistic application of Isa_49:20, it would reach up to the throne of God, while it would extend from Joppa as far as the gates of Damascus! For, Jerusalem was to be the dwelling-place of Israel, and the, resort of all nations. But more glorious in Jerusalem would be the new Temple which the Messiah was to rear, and to which those five things were to be restored which had been wanting in the former Sanctuary; the Golden Candlestick, the Ark, the Heaven-lit fire on the Altar, the Holy Ghost and the Cherubim. And the land of Israel would then be as wide as it had been sketched in the promise which God had given to Abraham, and which had never before been fulfilled – since the largest extent of Israel’s rule had only been over seven nations, whereas the Divine promise extended it over ten, if not over the whole earth.

Interestingly, during this time some Rabbis thought that that the Law would be imposed onto the Gentiles but others thought that some things in the Law would cease and all would be brought under a new Law.

Jerusalem would be as large as, at present, all Palestine, and Palestine as all the world. Corresponding to this miraculous extension would be a miraculous elevation of Jerusalem into the air

The land would spontaneously produce the best dresses and the finest cakes; the wheat would grow as high as palm-trees, nay, as the mountains, while the wind would miraculously convert the grain into flour, cast it into the valleys. Every tree would become fruit-bearing; nay, they were to break forth, and to bear fruit every day; daily was every woman to bear child, so that ultimately every Israelitish family would number as many as all Israel at the time of the Exodus. All sickness and disease, and all that could hurt, would pass away. As regarded death, the promise of its final abolition was, with characteristic ingenuity, applied to Israel, while the statement that the child should die an hundred years old was understood as referring to the Gentiles, and as teaching that, although they would die, yet their age would be greatly prolonged, so that a centenarian would be regarded as only a child. Lastly, such physical and outward loss as Rabbinism regarded as the consequence of the Fall, would be again restored to man.

Jerusalem would, as the residence of the Messiah, become the capital of the world, and Israel take the place of the (fourth) world-monarchy, the Roman Empire. After the Roman Empire none other was to rise, for it was to be immediately followed by the reign of Messiah.

The end of the war with Gog and Magog would close the Messianic era. The nations, who had given tribute to Messiah, would then rebel against Him, when He would destroy them by the breath of His mouth. Israel alone would be left on the face of the earth. Then there would be only one Resurrection and that of Israel alone.

Then the final Judgment would then commence, to be held in the valley of Jehoshaphat by God, at the head of the Heavenly Sanhedrin, composed of the elders of Israel. At the time of Christ the punishment of the wicked was regarded as of ’eternal duration’. Although there was some belief that mere annihilation would await the ‘less guilty’, the ‘guiltiest’ were to be reserved for eternal punishment. After pleading for mercy the Gentiles would be punished.

The ‘world to come’:

After the final judgment, the renewal of heaven and earth would take place.

In the latter neither physical nor moral darkness would any longer prevail, since the yeṣer hara, or ‘Evil impulse,’ would be destroyed. And renewed earth would bring forth all without blemish and in Paradisiacal perfection, while alike physical and moral evil had ceased. Then began the ‘Olam haba,’ or ‘world to come.’ The question, whether any functions or enjoyments of the body would continue, is variously answered. The reply of the Lord to the question of the Sadducees about marriage in the other world seems to imply, that materialistic views on the subject were entertained at the time. Many Rabbinic passages, such as about the great feast upon Leviathan and Behemoth prepared for the righteous in the latter days, confirm only too painfully the impression of grossly materialistic expectations.

All quotes are from 'The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah', by Alfred Edersheim.

  • + 1 ... but Generalizations about "the Jews" believing this or that need to be unpacked. The fact that an OT text says something does not mean that the Jews generally adopted the fact (or its interpretation) into their messianic hopes. Regarding Gog and Magog for example, there is evidence that the Essenes expected it, but not necessarily the majority of Pharisees and definitely not the Sadducees. I am upvoting the answer as useful and contains decent research, but I hope the generalization can be fixed. Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 14:34

Jewish expectations for the messiah's coming were diverse, so we should be careful not to generalize or look back at the period with hindsight and project assumptions that might not apply. The OP does this when it speaks of Isaiah 53 as a prediction of the "suffering of the servant Messiah" and asks if the Jews "pushed [it} to the background of their mind." This is definitely not how Jews have seen this passage historically. (There are no 1st c. commentaries on the Servant poems except from the NT, in which the suffering messiah is a key concept.) Because the this section of Isaiah refers to the Servant as "Israel" and "Jacob" it is logical to presume that Jews at the time understood these prophecies to be about Israel's role as God's servant, rather than being about the messiah. The early passages of the Servant poems make clear that the author is speaking of the people Israel, not a specific person:

“But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, [Jesh′urun[(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeshurun) whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. (Is. 44:1-3)

An important thing to understand here is that, in the first century, messianic expectations had been building among the Jews relatively recently. This was largely due to their having lost their independence, won in the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century bce, and especially to the despotic reign of the Herods under Roman rule. The Jewish Encyclopedia article on the subject states:

Not until after the fall of the Maccabean dynasty, when the despotic government of Herod the Great and his family, and the increasing tyranny of the Roman empire had made their condition ever more unbearable, did the Jews seek refuge in the hope of a personal Messiah. They yearned for the promised deliverer of the house of David, who would free them from the yoke of the hated foreign usurper, would put an end to the impious Roman rule, and would establish His own reign of peace and justice in its place. In this way their hopes became gradually centered in the Messiah.

The above was written prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have supplemented our knowledge about Jews expectation at the time of Jesus. Particularly, the Essenes, based on the "two olive trees" passage in Zech. 4, believed in two messiahs: one priestly and one Davidic. They also expected a cataclysmic war between the Sons of Light on one side and the Sons of Darkness (gentiles with their Jewish collaborators) on the other. Naturally, such a war would involve suffering on both sides but there is no indication that the Messiah would anything other than victorious.

Among the Pharisees, opinion was divided. The most influential teacher of the age, Hillel the Elder, thought the messiah had already come in the person of king Hezekiah. But as Herodian rule became increasingly oppressive, Pharisaic hopes for the messiah increased. However, there is no evidence they believed the messiah would suffer more than nominally. The Sadducees, meanwhile, rejected the idea of a messiah, choosing instead to focus on bringing God's blessings to the people through the ministry of the Temple, which they, as a movement of priests, controlled. The Zealots represented those Jews who believed it was necessary to take matters into their own hands, either to hasten the messiah's coming, or to usher in his age themselves. Eventually, the Zealots and key elements of the Pharisees coalesced to produce the revolt of 66 c.e., but once again there is no known teaching among them of a messiah who suffers.

Biblical passages understood by Christians as referring to the messiah's suffering are interpreted with hindsight. The is no indication that Jews read these verses in the way that Christians eventually would. Even some of Jesus' own disciples did not expect him to suffer, even at the very end of his ministry, as indicated in their response to him on the road to Emmaus, (Luke 24) three days after his crucifixion:

Then one of them, named Cle′opas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. (Luke 24:18-21)

  • Your last point is refuted by the same author. Acts 17:2-3 "... it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and rise from the dead." Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 17:30
  • The OP asks what Jews expected. Luke 24 shows that two of the disciples hoped Jesus would be the Jewish messiah and were disillusioned by the crucifixion. Acts 17 expresses Christian doctrine, not Jewish expectation. Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 18:31
  • Didn't many expectant Jews become Christians at that time? Acting like the two are mutually exclusive is just sad. Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 21:04

Were the Jews expecting the Messiah to suffer at all?

There were only two people at the temple looking for him to come at all.

Luke 2:36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity;

Luke 2:25 And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.

The wise men from the East probably had access to the book of Daniel and could calculate the approximate time to Jesus.

Daniel 9:25 Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.

Even though the Jews had access to Daniel, they had little interest in awaiting his arrival much less an expectation that he would suffer. They even had a hint that there would be trouble for the Messiah.

Daniel 9:26 And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.

The disciples were specifically told that Jesus would be mistreated.

Mark 8:31 And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

Yet even after having been told by Jesus what was going to happen, they were arguing about who was going the be the greatest in the kingdom the night before the crucifixion.

Luke 22:24 And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.

The Jews were like most people, preoccupied with daily secular life. What they understood about the future was more in general about a kingdom that hearkened to the past glory of David and Solomon than to anything about the king.

We know that we would not be interested in Jesus if it were not for the work of the Father in some of us.

John 6:44 No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.

A brilliant teacher at the time of Jesus was Gamaliel.

Acts 5:34 Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the apostles forth a little space;

He had probably heard Jesus teach. Yet the best his intellect and knowledge could produce was an "if".

Acts 5:39 But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.

The lack of knowledge and even interest in the Messiah is understandable. It is sad, but without the work of the Father in us, we would also be just as disinterested in Jesus.

I would say that the Jews did not "push back" their knowledge of Isaiah 53. I consider that they were unable to make anything relate-able out of it. What was more concrete for them was a view to a restored kingdom and national preeminence.


Judaism doesn't really have a concept of the Messiah suffering. There's not really anything to quote in support of it because it's not there.

Your first thought is probably Isaiah 53 talking about the suffering servant. However this passage is clearly talking about Israel as the suffering servant. You have to read before and after the text to really get a full picture of what it's discussing.

Isaiah 41:8-9 "But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off.”

Isaiah 44:1 "But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen!"

Isaiah 44:21 "Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you; you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me."

Isaiah 49:3 And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

So Jews don't ignore Isaiah 53. It's read as a whole without a pre determined conclusion of Messiah forgiving sin.

Isaiah 53:4 "Indeed, he bore our illnesses, and our pains-he carried them, yet we accounted him as plagued, smitten by God and oppressed."

When you read it as the suffering servant being Israel you see a very different picture. This is a very accurate description of how gentiles see Jews even to this day as well as a few Jews might feel in times of great suffering, oppression, war, and exile. Although god says numerous times Jews are blessed if they follow his teachings.


First, you must define the term "the messiah". What criteria make one "the messiah"? Is the fact that there are billions of people who call him "the messiah" enough to make one a messiah?

I hope you understand that these criteria should be well defined before the days of Jesus. You don't want your criteria to sound like "If he looks like Jesus, he is probably the messiah - hence Jesus is the messiah. QED."

So for example verses that talk about "casting lots for somebody's clothes" are not a prophecy about the messiah, since if this event really happened in Jesus life (doubtful, since there are older versions of the gospels without that story, which shows that somebody tried to fabricate a "prophecy" - but let's assume it did happen) - still, 100 years before Jesus, nobody who would read that verse would say it's something that MUST happen to "the messiah" - there's nothing in that verse that actually points to "the messiah". To say that it's a messianic prophecy means that it's valid for one to say that all those many verses that Jesus did not have something similar to them happen in his life - are actually messianic prophecies that Jesus failed to fulfill.... otherwise you are clearly choosing your "messianic prophecies" post factum, according to one criterion: did it (apparently) happen in Jesus' life or not....

To answer your question: no, the Jews were not expecting the messiah to suffer, because there is not one verse in the Hebrew Bible that says that that man would suffer.

There are passages in the Hebrew Bible that talk about suffering individuals, or suffering groups of people.

There are passages in the Hebrew Bible that talk about what people later started calling "the messiah".

But all those passages never overlap. When Christians say that passages of the former category talk about the messiah, they do so on faith alone - it's not in the text at all (read those texts for yourself!) - and many times it's clearly against the text and the context.

If you carefully read the passages of the latter type - you'd see that they are not actually concerned with the man himself, but with the age that he ushers, the changes he brings. That man himself is regarded as just a tool of God. The man himself is not to be worshiped - on the contrary, many of the passages show that that man would regard God as his ruler, and would be obedient to him. God obedient to himself?!? I would say that those who missed that point are the ones who misunderstood the text, not the Jews.

  • 2
    Messiah means "anointed" by God, and God couldn't be constraint by any human definition in regards of who to send as the messiah, and misunderstood prophecy is still a prophecy even if it will be understood just at the time it fulfills itself. We, Christians, believe that Jesus as the Son of God had the authority to say: "These prophecies talk about me." It's a matter of faith, but this site is not about Truth but about faith of various Christian denominations. Plus, please add some source for "older versions of the gospels".
    – Pavel
    Commented Dec 8, 2012 at 12:59
  • @Pavel see my addition above.
    – Judah
    Commented Dec 8, 2012 at 20:53
  • For more information about Bart D. Ehrman as a critic, please my answer elsewhere. However, I think it fair to point out that he's not representative of any particularly Christian view. We would do well to listen to his scholarship in the field of textual criticism, but I wouldn't worry to much about his writings outside of the field. Commented Dec 8, 2012 at 21:01
  • 1
    I would suggest that it's very difficult to know with certainty how pre-Christianity Jews understood messianic texts. (See this excellent question on Psalm 22 that has not yet acquired a definitive answer.) Part of the problem, as is obvious from the Qumran discoveries, the Jewish understanding of the Messiah was in active development at the time of Jesus. But as you indicate, the idea of a suffering Messiah was largely foreign to Jewish listeners. (+1 for the answer, though I would prefer it be more reasoned and less impassioned.) Commented Dec 8, 2012 at 21:11
  • 2
    Judah: I'm afraid I need to reverse my vote. It's not that I disagree with you (in fact I'm very sympathetic to your argument), but because it's getting harder and harder to see how this is a helpful answer to the question. I hate to say it, but it seems like you might need a total rewrite in order to incorporate all the arguments you are attempting to include. I feel partially responsible for leading you astray by my comments. For instance, I'm not suggesting that Psalm 22 was a messianic text. I was suggesting it's very difficult to know if it was or not. Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 18:59

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