The Ramban on Isaiah 53


CLAIM: The Ramban (Nachmonides) believed that Isaiah 53 refers to the Messiah.


The Ramban (Nachmonides) is one of the most popular Rabbis for missionaries. What makes his popularity so strange is that he is quite famous because of his taking part in a forced debate. He was the protagonist in the famous debate at Barcelona. At that debate his antagonist, Father Paul, a converted Jew, quoted many passages from the Talmud and Midrash to try and convince those listening (and the Ramban) that the ancient Rabbis agreed with the Christians and that the Jews should therefore convert. In a famous retort, the Ramban asked how these Rabbis could have believed as the Christians did and still remain Jews all these years, Father Paul ignored his question. We can then restate the question: if the Ramban believed that Isaiah 53 was about the Messiah dying etc, then why did he not convert?? The answer is that there is something wrong with the argument.


The missionary’s knowledge of this commentary is because it appears in Driver[1] page 78 – 85. However what is missing is the history of this commentary. When we have it, the whole picture is different. We need to go back to his debate in Barcelona where the issue came up. There we read:[2]:


(25) That person (Master Gillam) argued: Behold in the chapter of ‘Behold My Servant will prosper”[3] it relates about the death of the Messiah, and how he was given to his enemies and how he was placed with the wicked just as it was done with Jesus. Do you believe that this speaks about the Messiah?


(26) I said to him: According to the truthful meaning it is only speaking of the Jewish people in general. The prophet continually calls them ‘Israel My servant’[4] ‘Jacob My servant’[5]


(27) Father Paul said: I will show from the words of their sages that it speaks of the Messiah.


(28) I said to him: It is true that our Rabbis, their memory is for a blessing, in their works of Haggadah[6], have a Drash[7] that it is about the Messiah; however they don’t ever say that he is killed by his enemies. We do not find anywhere in the books, the Jewish books, neither the Talmud nor the Haggadah that Messiah the son of David will be killed, never. Nor that he would be given into the hands of his enemies, or buried with the wicked. Even the Messiah that you have made for yourselves was not buried. I will explain this chapter (according to the Midrash) if you wish, with a good explanation. There is no indication there at all that he will be killed as was done with your Messiah. However they did not want to listen to me.


From this we see a few things:


  1. The Ramban’s view is that the truthful interpretation of Isaiah 53 is that it refers to all of Israel and NOT to the Messiah.
  2. There are Midrashim that do state that it refers to the Messiah, but the Ramban makes clear they are not the true understanding, i.e. pshat.
  3. The Ramban can provide an explanation according to Midrashic view, but was not allowed to at Barcelona.


Later he did, in fact, produce such an explanation, and that is the one that missionaries refer to. Here is what he says:[8]


Behold My servant shall prosper. The proper way to understand this parsha is that it refers to the whole Jewish people according to the language, ‘Do not fear My servant Jacob’[9], ‘And He said to me, you are My servant, Israel, through whom I will be glorified,’[10] and so in many places. However according to the Midrash it is applied to the Messiah. I am forced to explain it according to the words of the books (Midrashim). With total agreement they say that the Messiah the son of David, about whom these words are written, will not be defeated, will not die in the hands of his enemies, and so the writings show this explanation.


We see that the Ramban did not change his view at all. He still maintains that the true meaning of Isaiah 53 is that it refers to Israel. All he is doing is showing that the Christians use of this Midrash was not a proof of their view. The Midrash does not give support to the Christian view of Isaiah 53. He is not changing his mind as to the real meaning of the passage.


Let’s say that based on a few comments of the Christians, I decide to write an explanation of Psalm 22, and show how the Christians can understand that the whole Psalm refers to Jesus, even though I believe the truth is that the whole Psalm is about King David. If someone would then say that I believed Psalm 22 was about Jesus that would be a lie and a distortion of fact. I am just showing how Psalm 22 could be understood so that the subject was Jesus.


The same is with the Ramban and Isaiah 53. He does NOT believe Isaiah 53 is about the Messiah. He said that explicitly on more then one occasion. He was confronted with a Midrash, which he personally held was not pshat. He wished to show how one could use the view of that Midrash to explain Isaiah 53 without contradiction to what Judaism teaches, and in contradiction to the Christian assertions. It is not relevant to the view of the Ramban. It is not HIS view. He does not believe Isaiah 53 is about the Messiah.


© Moshe Shulman 2010

For more information, questions answered, or help with missionaries you can reach Moshe Shulman at

[1]  The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, Driver & Neubauer, reprinted by Wipf and Stock Publishers 1999.

[2]  Paragraph numbers come from the Hebrew edition of this printed in The Writings of the Ramban of Chaim Dov Chavell volume 1 published by Mosod HaRAv Kook, pages  302 – 320. The Commentary itself appears after the debate on pages 321 – 326. There is an English translation in the Judaism on Trial by Hyam Maccoby published by the Littman Library of Jewish Literature 1996, on pages 102 – 146. The translation here is mine.

[3]  He is referring to Isaiah 53, and this is from verse 52:13.

[4]  Isaiah 41:8

[5]  Isaiah 44:1

[6]  This refers to the non-legal works of the Rabbis as he states later in paragraph 39, where he states that these are sermons and we are not required to accept them as literal.

[7]  He later explains a Drash as a sermon.

[8]  I am translating directly from the Hebrew.

[9]  Isaiah 44:2

[10]  Isaiah 49:3