Does the Messiah Die in Targum Jonathan After All?

A commenter on my two posts on Richard Carrier’s Dying Messiah Debacle brought up the fact that Targum Jonathan’s version of Isa 53:12 seems to say that the Messiah does in fact die. It literally reads:

Then will I divide for him the spoil of many peoples, and the possessions of strong cities shall he divide as prey, because he delivered up his soul to death, and made the rebellious subject to the Law: he shall intercede for many sins, and the rebellious for his sake shall be forgiven.

Because it says, “he delivered up his soul to death,” the commenter thought that I was mistaken when I argued that Targum Jonathan does not support the picture of a dying messiah. I responded in two ways: (1) the dating of the Targum is uncertain. It wasn’t written down in the form we now have it until the third century CE at the earliest, and it wasn’t completed until the fifth century CE. (2) Given the context of the passage in the Targum, which says that the Messiah will conquer his enemies, and given the fact that in the same breath in which it is said, “he delivered up his soul to death,” it also says that the Messiah will divide up the spoils of his conquest, I said that it is likely that the phrase here is idiomatic for a willingness to face death.

These responses did not satisfy the commenter. So perhaps the following comments from (actual) leading expert Joseph Blenkinsopp, as well as from Jostein Ådna, will suffice:

It seems that Targum Jonathan on Isaiah is the product of at least two generations of meturgeman activity before and after the Bar Kokhba war (132-135 C.E.), though the more explicitly messianic statements are more likely to have been written before than after that traumatic episode. . . . Perhaps fired by the expectations raised by the second revolt against Rome, the Targum version of the fourth of the passages (Isa 52:13-53:12) presents the fundamentally different profile of a triumphant Servant-Messiah who will scatter the nations hostile to Israel (Rome in the first place), reduce their rulers to silence, and establish the messianic kingdom. His intercession will bring about the forgiveness of sins; he will free the land of Israel from foreign rule and rebuild the temple destroyed on account of sin, activities which indicate a date after 70 C.E. The unprepossessing appearance of the Servant is transferred to Israel long deprived of its Messiah (Tg. Isa. 52:14), the sufferings of the Servant are reassigned to hostile Gentile nations (53:3, 7), and the Servant-Messiah only risks his life but does not lose it (53:12). In Tg. Isa. 53:12, “He handed over his soul to death,” the Aramaic expression mesar napsha’, “he handed over the soul (life),” is idiomatic for “he risked his life.”1

It must be concluded from the otherwise multiply attested meaning of mesar napsha’ as “to put oneself in danger” that the Targum says only that the Messiah put himself in danger of death, not that he actually died. [In a footnote, Ådna identifies the following examples where the phrase is used idiomatically for “to put oneself in danger”: Tg. Onq. Deut 24:15; Tg. Ps.-J Num 31:5; Tg. Judg. 9:17 and Tg. Ps. 99:6.]2

To sum up:

(1) Blenkinsopp dates the oral composition of this part of the Targum to sometime between 70 CE and 135 CE. On the one hand, clues in the text indicate a post-second-temple context; on the other hand, it is unlikely that such militant messianism would have been written after the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt. Thus, Blenkinsopp dates this passage to the latter part of the first century or the early part of the second century CE—decidedly after the emergence of Christianity.

(2) The phrase, “he delivered up his soul” (mesar napsha’) appears throughout several different Aramaic Targums and is idiomatic for “he risked his life.”

Thus, my guess is confirmed to be the case. In Targum Jonathan, the Messiah is depicted as a conquering warrior, who risked his life in battle, and was therefore rewarded with the spoils of his enemies after his victory. Does the Messiah die in Targum Jonathan after all? The answer is no.

  1. Joseph Blenkinsopp, Opening the Sealed Book: Interpretations of the Book of Isaiah in Late Antiquity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 266-67. [BACK]
  2. Jostein Ådna, “The Servant of Isaiah 53 as Triumphant and Interceding Messiah: The Reception of Isaiah 52:13—53:12 in the Targum of Isaiah with Special Attention to the Concept of the Messiah,” in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (ed. Janowski and Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 219. [BACK]

5 thoughts on “Does the Messiah Die in Targum Jonathan After All?

  1. But the writer’s conclusion is odd:

    “It must be concluded from the otherwise multiply attested meaning of ‘mesar napsha’ as ‘to put oneself in danger’ that the Targum says only that the Messiah put himself in danger of death, not that he actually died.”
    Regarding the Hebrew of 53:12 – “he’erah lamavet nafsho” (הערה למות נפשו) – “he poured out his soul to death” – Targum Yonatan doesn’t say “danger of death”, it reads, “he delivered up his soul to death”.  It’s hard to understand someone going “to death” and not actually going there.
    [footnote 2] “The phrase, he delivered up his soul (mesar napsha) appears throughout several different Aramaic Targums and is idiomatic for he risked his life,” citing for support various Targumim for Deut. 24:15, Num. 31:5, Judg. 9:17 and Ps. 99:6.

    Regardless of the Aramaic, the Hebrew in these verses is the final authority.  None of them uses “masar nafsho” or “he’erah nafsho”, let alone any mention of “death”.  So the writer (credentials uncertain) didn’t really give us an Aramaic parallel to Targum Yonatan, much less a Hebrew parallel to Isaiah 53:12. 

  2. mr stark, i am not the authour of that response. a messianic jew is the authour of that response. i posted it here to ask for your opinion on it.

  3. “Yonatan doesn’t say ‘danger of death,’ it reads, ‘he delivered up his soul to death.’  It’s hard to understand someone going ‘to death’ and not actually going there.”

    It’s idiomatic. Does this person know what an idiom is? It’s equally hard to understand how something can be “dead in the water” without actually being deceased in a body of water, if one doesn’t know what an idiom is. The idiom in Aramaic connotes risking one’s life; this is clear throughout the Targums. On the same token, one could ask how one could “deliver up one’s soul/life” without literally handing over one’s soul. An idiom is an idiom is an idiom. This person’s objection strikes me as obtuse. 

    “Regardless of the Aramaic, the Hebrew in these verses is the final authority.  None of them uses ‘masar nafsho’ or ‘he’erah nafsho,’ let alone any mention of ‘death.’ So the writer (credentials uncertain) didn’t really give us an Aramaic parallel to Targum Yonatan, much less a Hebrew parallel to Isaiah 53:12.”

    Let’s break this down, starting with “credentials uncertain.” The scholars I cited were Joseph Blenkinsopp and Jostein Ådna.

    Joseph Blenkinsopp is currently John A. O’Brien Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the University of Notre Dame, where he has taught since 1970. He served as Rector of the Ecumenical Institute, Tantur, Israel, in 1978, took part in excavations at Tel Dan, and coordinated the excavation at the Greek Orthodox site of Capernaum throughout the 1980s. He was born in Durham, England and was educated at the universities of London and Oxford. In addition to hundreds of journal articles, he is the author of, among others, the following scholarly volumes:

    * A History of Prophecy in Israel
    * Opening the Sealed Book: Interpretations of the Book of Isaiah in Late Antiquity
    * Anchor Bible Commentary on Isaiah (3 Volumes)
    * Interpretation Commentary on Ezekiel
    * Ezra-Nehemiah: A Commentary
    * Treasures Old and New: Essays in the Theology of the Pentateuch
    * Sage, Priest, Prophet: Religious and Intellectual Leadership in Ancient Israel
    * Creation, Un-Creation, Re-Creation: A Discursive Commentary on Genesis 1-11
    * The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible
    * Wisdom and Law in the Old Testament: The Ordering of Life in Israel and Early Judaism
    * Judaism, the First Phase: The Place of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Origins of Judaism
    * Prophecy and Canon: A Contribution to the Study of Jewish Origins
    * From Adam to Abraham: Introduction to Sacred History
    * Gibeon and Israel: The Role of Gibeon and the Gibeonites in the Political and Religous History of Early Israel

    Jostein Ådna is Professor of New Testament at the School of Mission and Theology. He did his doctoral work at Oslo. He is research associate at the Department of New Testament Studies at the Faculty of Theology, University of Pretoria. He is a member of several academic societies. He is the author and editor of dozens of books, academic journal articles, and chapter essays. 

    So, those are the relevant credentials, which are by no means “uncertain.” 

    Now, this person says, “Regardless of the Aramaic, the Hebrew in these verses is the final authority.” I think this statement exposes a misunderstanding and a very different agenda on the part of the person you quote. The phrase “the final authority” exposes that this person is concerned about what we should believe the “inspired” text says. But what is at issue is not what the Hebrew said, but what Targum Jonathan is saying, and I am not concerned at all with any argument that Jonathan was right about Isaiah. That’s not the issue. The issue isn’t who is “right.” The issue is only how the author of Targum Jonathan read Isaiah. It’s an academic, historical question, not a dogmatic one. 

    So, what the Hebrew says is irrelevant. What actually matters for our purposes is what the Aramaic says. And the Aramaic is clear, and it changes the meaning of Isaiah 52-53 on virtually every point, as is amply clear. Yes, none of the other texts cited uses mesar napsha’ in the Hebrew, but that phrase is used in the Aramaic (it’s idiomatic in Aramaic), and that’s the point. The person you quote seems fundamentally not to get the point. 

    If the person is a Messianic Jew, is it not enough that Isaiah 52-53 says the Servant will die? I see no reason why this person must conscript a non-messianic Jewish text from late antiquity into service to Yeshua’s cause, against the evidence. 

  4. I would just add that the Aramaic expression (in this case, מסר נפשו *mesar nafsho*) is significant because the question is about the content of Targum Yonatan. The meaning of the Hebrew original isn’t being discussed, but rather the interpretational spin given the text in the Targum. This is why bringing up the Aramaic idiom is important. The translator/interpreter of the Targum gave the verse this meaning, even if you might argue that this isn’t what the Hebrew originally meant (though, I would argue that this was the meaning of the Hebrew also).

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