Did Mark Even Read Isaiah?

     The New Testament is a profoundly Jewish book.  Many variants that have arisen over time have arisen from seemingly un-clarified sections of the text.  Mark 1:2&3 are no exceptions to this rule.  It reads, “As it is written by Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way.  The voice of one crying in the wilderness:  Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” (ESV)  However, it should be noted that many translations change the passage and write, “As it is written in the prophets.”  The oldest manuscripts do ascribe the passage to Isaiah.  It should also be noted that these passages are not found in Isaiah.  The first part in the verse is found in Malachi 3:1 while the second part of the text is found in Isaiah 40:3.  So, was Mark wrong?  It is my belief that Mark originally wrote, “Isaiah the prophet” and that his Jewish audience would have understood what he meant.  It is the purpose of this article to present two valid reasons for believing such.

     To begin with, John Lightfoot, the author of the Commentary on the New Testament, from the Talmud and Hebraica, explains, “He that reads the prophets in the synagogues let him not skip from one prophet to another.  But in the lesser prophets he may skip; with this provision only, that he skip not backward; that is, not from the latter to the former.  But you see how Mark skips here from a prophet of one rank, namely from a prophet who was one of the twelve, to a prophet of another rank; and you see also how he skips backward from Malachi to Isaiah.” (1)  Thus, it would’ve been very obvious to Mark’s Jewish readers that he was not making an error but was upholding a Jewish tradition.  So, why would a later scribe change the reading to “in the prophets.”

     For the most part, scribes that changed the text sought to clarify the text that they copied. A general guideline for textual critics reads that the “strangest reading or the oddest reading, is probably the original.”  In this case, a scribe is more likely to have dropped “Isaiah” from the reading and left “ in the prophets” due to a seemingly obvious error on the part of Mark.  As Bruce Metzger writes, “The quotation in verses 2 and 3 is composite, the first part being from Malachi 3:1 and the second part from Is 40:3.  It is easy to see, therefore, why copyist would have altered the words “In Isaiah the prophet” (a reading found in the earliest representative witnesses of the Alexandrian and the Western types of text) to the more comprehensive introductory formula “in the prophets.” (2)  Because scribes who didn’t understand the Jewish tradition thought it erroneous, they changed the reading.  However, when we understand the traditions of Mark’s Jewish audience, we have no problem accepting the older and more reliable reading of “Isaiah the prophet.”

 

Endnotes

  1. 1.       Lightfoot, J.B. “Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica” Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass, vol 2;2003; page 395.
  2. 2.      Metzger, Bruce, “A textual commentary on the Greek New Testament”  United Bible Societies, U.S.A., 1971, page 62.
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