Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center/Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority

“A man of suffering…wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:3, 5), described in four passages in the Book of Isaiah (42:1–7, 49:1–6, 50:4–9 and 52:13–53:12), came to be viewed by Christians as a prophecy of Jesus’ passion. Fragments 9 (shown here) and 24 (see next photo) of the Dead Sea Scroll known as 4Q541 contain tantalizing suggestions of a parallel with this “suffering servant” from Isaiah according to scholar Emile Puech. The leather fragments date to about 100 B.C.E. The language is Aramaic, the Semitic vernacular in Judea at the turn of the era. If these fragments refer to a suffering messiah, this would suggest that the suffering servant of the Isaiah passages was understood to be a messianic figure at least a century before Jesus.

Professor John Collins, however, presents an alternative interpretation. Although characterized as a sage and a priest, the subject of these fragments, observes Collins, does not experience the personal violence and death described in Isaiah and suffered by Jesus. It seems instead that this eschatological priest may have been modeled on the Teacher of Righteousness, the leader of the Dead Sea Scroll sect. The Teacher of Righteousness also suffered lies from opponents who led the people astray. Without any hint of a messiah, the references to “hanging” (crucifixion) and “the nail” in fragment 24 lack special significance, because crucifixion was a common punishment of the time.