Tuesday, March 18, 2008

As it is written . . . Mark 1:2

This is a follow-up to my previous post on Mark 1:2-3 about the 2 Old Testament passages that are quoted by Mark with the heading: “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet…” It would be a good idea to read the earlier post here before continuing with this one.

The main problem with Mark’s use of the OT is that he quotes both Malachi and Isaiah and attributes the entire quotation to Isaiah. As I see it, there are 3 possible options to explain this discrepancy, only one of which is really tenable.

1. The Majority Text (Byzantine text-type) of the New Testament is correct.

2. Malachi which could be either a proper name or a title (“my messenger”) in Hebrew was actually written by Isaiah the prophet.

3. Mark was technically wrong with his Scripture reference either by accident or by design.

I rejected the originality of other minor differences in the Majority Text in my previous post. I see no reason to accept it as original here and every reason to see it as a later minor correction of the text by a scribe dealing with this exact problem. The Majority Text reads, “As it is written in the prophets” (a phrase used only here in the NT in either manuscript tradition). The fact that earlier manuscripts exist with a variant giving a specific reference makes this more generic reference less likely to be original. However, it may be a correct interpretation of how Mark was using “Isaiah” here.

The second option is impossible, but as it is one that might occur to the average reader, I thought I should mention it. All scholars are agreed that Malachi dates to the post-exilic period, probably the 400s BCE at the earliest. No one has ever tried to connect the book with Isaiah because Isaiah dates to around 700 BCE for the most part. Traditional attempts to identify “Malachi,” which is probably not really a proper name but a title, connected him with Ezra the scribe.

This leaves the third option as the only remaining tenable one. Mark was technically wrong, but there were extenuating factors that help explain the mistake. First, Malachi directly precedes Isaiah in the Septuagint order of the books (The Minor Prophets come before the Major Prophets instead of after). So in the bible Mark was most familiar with, the verse he quoted was only 23 verses away from the book of Isaiah. Even if he was wrong, he was close.

Second, if he was quoting from memory as suggested previously, he could have easily confused the verse in Malachi as being from Isaiah because of the similarity of content (compounded with the proximity mentioned above). The two texts work together in Mark because of their similar content. Both Mal 3 and Isa 40 talk about God sending a messenger to announce his coming. This also wouldn’t be the only occurrence in the NT of a writer confusing two OT passages because of similar content. In Matt 27:9, the Scripture quoted about 30 pieces of silver is attributed to Jeremiah, but it is actually a quote referring to Zechariah 11:12-13. The confusion could have arisen through a mix-up with Jeremiah 32 where the prophet participates in a symbolic economic transaction similar to the symbolic transaction in Zech 11. It is also possible the events reminded the writer of Jeremiah 6:30 where he speaks of “rejected silver.” So, similarity of content could have led to a mistaken reference in both these instances.

To look at this question from another angle, I surveyed Mark’s use of OT passages in general (except for 1:2-3), looking for patterns. He does not quote the OT as often as the other gospels. I counted only 21 more references to OT passages. Eight were from the Pentateuch. Four were from the Psalms. Of the remaining nine, 5 were definitely Isaiah. One was indeterminable. The phrase was similar to something in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, but the wording did not match any. Two were references to Daniel, and one was Jeremiah. Considering just Mark’s use of the prophets, he has a clear preference for Isaiah. This could explain an association of any prophetic text with Isaiah. The book of Isaiah was symbolic of the Israelite prophets in general for Mark. In other words, Isaiah represented the prophetic genre of texts. In this way, the Byzantine reading “in the prophets” made this generic function explicit.

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