Friday, March 7, 2008

The Use of the OT in the NT -- Mark 1:2-3

One of my primary research interests is looking at how the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament was interpreted in antiquity by the various religious groups that accepted it as sacred scripture. The groups that I am most fascinated with include the Qumran community, the early Christians, and the Rabbis. Recently, I came across an interesting New Testament usage of the Old Testament that I believe highlights the nature of the difficulties in looking at how the OT is represented in the NT. The passage is Mark 1:2-3 where both Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 are quoted. A detailed look at how Isaiah 40:3 is used in the NT and at Qumran would be worthwhile in its own right, but for now I am interested in the textual details of how these two verses are represented and put to use in Mark’s gospel. For a textual comparison, I used two representative Greek NT versions – one a representative of the earliest manuscripts (Nestle-Aland, 27th ed.) and the other a representative of the Majority Text (Robinson-Pierpont Byzantine text). For the source of their quotations, I looked at the Greek Septuagint (LXX) in Rahlff’s edition and the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS). So as not to burden the reader with the original languages, I have the text provided in fairly-literal English translations that represent the major differences between the versions. An important point to remember is that the NT is written in Greek. The first place we look for the source of a NT quote of the OT is the LXX because it is also in Greek. However, there were later Greek translations that were more literal in their representation of the Hebrew text (MT) which is why we must also compare with BHS. The example of Mark 1:2-3 shows that the quoted text in the NT often does not exactly match our OT text in either Greek or Hebrew.

Mark 1:2-3

Nestle-Aland Gk NT (ESV):

As it is written in 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,'"

Byz Gk NT (KJV):

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

Quoted Passages


Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me (Mal 3:1a). A voice cries: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isa 40:3).

LXX (Brenton):

Behold, I send forth my messenger, and he shall survey the way before me (Mal 3:1a). The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God (Isa 40:3).

Italics = inner-Gk differences

Bold = differences w/ LXX and/or MT

Types of differences:

  1. Inner-Greek differences in NT mss
  2. Inner-Greek differences between LXX and NT mss
  3. Greek differences with MT

Textual differences:

  1. Different word for “as” between Gk NT versions. (A)
    1. The earliest manuscripts (mss) use the more common way to phrase “as it is written.” 25x in NT vs. 2x for the Byzantine phrase.
    2. This is the only passage where Byz differs in this particular phrase. 24x as above vs. 3x for the alternative way.
    3. Best explanation – scribal error in Byz because it differs from the earlier mss. Byz phrase was influenced by the use of the same phrase for “as it is written” in Luke 3:4 before quoting Isa 40:3. (But, some will say that the earlier mss have the error and that Byz preserves the original in Mark 1:2 precisely because it uses the less common way of phrasing it. The earlier mss have a scribal error – changing to the more common phrase. The fact that this phrase occurs in all Gk mss in Luke argues against that explanation.)
  2. Earliest Greek versions read “in Isaiah” vs. the Byzantine text-type’s “in the prophets.” (A)
  3. The Nestle-Aland Gk omits the pronoun “I” quoting Mal 3:1 which is written in LXX and Byz. It is grammatically unnecessary because of the verb form. (B)
  4. The NT quotes of Mal 3:1 use the verb “to send” but LXX has a modified form of the same verb meaning “send forth.”
  5. The phrase “before your face” is not in MT or LXX but is present in both NT text-types. (B, C)
  6. The Gk versions use different verbs for “prepare” between Malachi and Isaiah. In the MT, both are the same verb. The LXX uses a verb which means “to look upon” in Malachi. The NT versions use a verb for “to prepare” in their quote, more like MT. (B, C)
  7. The syntax of the Greek NT versions differs for the “prepare” phrase from Malachi as well. LXX and MT have an independent clause with a coordinating conjunction, “he will prepare/look upon.” The NT quote makes it a relative clause, “who will prepare.” (B, C)
  8. The wording “your way” is different from both MT and LXX which read “the way before me.” (B, C)
  9. The Byzantine text quoting Mal 3:1a adds two additional words at the end, “before you.”
  10. NT versions of Isa 40:3 are nearly identical to LXX except for very end. LXX ends with “paths of our God” but NT says “his paths.” No evidence of correction/modification of this verse in NT versions back toward MT.
  11. LXX and NT versions of Isa 40:3 have read the phrase “in the wilderness” as connected to the “voice of one crying.” Later in the verse, they omit the parallel phrase “in the desert.” The phrase should be connected to what follows based on an examination of the Hebrew parallelism – “the voice of one crying, ‘In the wilderness, prepare . . .”

The Minor Differences with Mal 3:1a & Isa 40:3

The NT versions show the most variation from the MT Hebrew of Mal 3:1a. The only significant difference in the LXX is reading the verb as “to look” which likely does not reflect a different Vorlage. The Heb verb in question “PNH” usually means “to turn” in the Qal stem and can take the meaning “to look” in context, usually in Late Biblical Hebrew. The less common Piel stem has the derived meaning “to clear away, prepare” from “to turn away, put out of the way.” The LXX translator probably just read the verb as a more common Qal and missed the idiom “to prepare,” reading instead the idiom “to look upon.”

For the other NT differences, there are three possible explanations. The first is that there were other Greek mss of the Old Testament that contained a version of Mal 3:1 similar to the NT versions. The best place to look to check this is Field’s Hexapla which I have not done yet. The second possibility is that the verse was being quoted or paraphrased from memory. The nature of the variations makes this second possibility very likely. The important content of the verse is present, and the differences are minor enough to have been unintentional changes. On the other hand, a third possibility is that a few of these minor changes were intentional and theologically motivated. For example, the shift to “before your face” or “prepare your way” for Malachi’s “before me” changes the nature of the action. Instead of only two participants – the speaker (YHWH) and the messenger (preparing the way for the speaker), Mark’s version introduces a third participant – the “you” being addressed. YHWH’s messenger is preparing the way for the person addressed, not YHWH himself. In the context of Mark’s gospel, this works out to be God the Father sending John the Baptist to prepare the way for Jesus. This theological interpretation also explains the minor change in all the synoptic gospels’ use of Isa 40:3 – “his paths” for “paths of our God” in Mark 1:3, Matt 3:3, and Luke 3:4. The verse can more easily be applied to Jesus – preparing his path (= Jesus) instead of the paths of our God (= the Father).

Reading “in Isaiah” versus “in the prophets”

The most fascinating difference in the use of the Old Testament in Mark 1:2-3 is that a verse from Malachi is attributed to Isaiah in the earliest manuscripts. The implications of this will be explored further in a future post.

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