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.
- Joseph Blenkinsopp, Opening the Sealed Book: Interpretations of the Book of Isaiah in Late Antiquity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 266-67. [BACK]
- 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]