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Escaping the Tyranny of Certainty: Text Criticism in Isaiah 40:3

text critic 2 smallA few posts back, I began a discussion on the contrast between the scholarly handling of Isaiah 40:3 in the Hebrew and its appearance in both the Greek versions and each of the gospel accounts—Mark 1:3, Matthew 3:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23.

By the way, both texts appear differently in the King James Version, so there is no cheap safety to be found from this issue by hiding in a King James Only position.

In the Hebrew text, we have a clear division in which a voice cries out “”In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The parallel is plain:

(A) a voice calling      (B) in the wilderness (C) clear (D) a path (E) YHWH[1]

(C) make straight (B) in the desert (D) a roadway (E) for our God.

The first is ABCDE, the 2nd is CBDE. The voice which is (A) calls “BCDE,” then “CBDE.” In the 1st line we have a path being cleared in the wilderness. In the 2nd line, we have a roadway being made straight in the desert.

In the Greek text of the LXX, however, the phrase “in the dessert” in line two is missing, causing most scholars (Justly or unjustly) to rearrange the poetry so that the voice is in the wilderness crying, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God.”

Thus, here, they have “AB” preaching “CDE” then “CDE” again.

Based on the principles established by Hort and Westcott which I briefly discussed in “How to Think Like a Text Critic” here is my thinking on Isaiah 40:3 in Greek and Hebrew and the use of the Greek in the New Testament.

  1. Trying to work with a principle like “The New Testament is always ‘right’’ does not even begin to deal with the complexity of Old Testament quotation in the New Testament.
    • We need to get any notion that perfect quotation of a perfect source is a pre-requisite for upholding the inspiration of the New Testament.
    • Jesus often paraphrases texts sometime borrowing elements from the Greek and other times from the Hebrew or even from the Aramaic Targumim used in the synagogues.
    • Paul quotes from standing Greek texts and makes his own on the spot translations from known Hebrew texts and plays at times with elements found in the Aramaic Targumim.
    • Some texts that have significantly different traditions in the Greek and Hebrew are both quoted in the New Testament, though the points of distinction do not seem to be a deciding factor in the choice.
  2. Both the Greek and Hebrew readings of Isaiah 40:3 have equal claim to antiquity.
    • The Latin vulgate (AD 382) is translated from the Hebrew and contains “in the desert” which is “missing” in the Greek.
    • The great Isaiah Scroll from Qumran also contains “in the desert” and this text dates to 125 BCE.
    • The Greek text of Isaiah, according to Emanuel Tov, shows evidence of being translated after 150 BCE, making it a rival chronologically with the Masoretic Hebrew reading… which has “in the desert.”
  3. When assessing the likelihood that a scribe goofed by accidentally overlooking “in the desert” in the second line, I find no intuitive reason why such a mistake would be made in the Aramaic script which most Hebrew students learn… BUT the older Script, the paleo-Hebraic script used by many until the 1st century AD does suggest a possibility. One could see accidentally skipping in one’s reading from the beginning of “in the dessert” (B) to “a highway” (M). Texts were small and tightly spaced.
    • An eye slip could easily cause a “leap over” from the one to the other.
    • A scribe looks at the original and finds his place in the line of poetry, looks back to his copy and records part, then looks back to the original to find his place and focuses on the beginning of the word AFTER “in the desert” (M) rather than on the beginning of “in the desert” (B).
    • Then, viola! “in the desert” disappears from the text altogether, being copied again and again without it until one of its children is used by the Greek translator to make the first of the Greek manuscripts.
    • I’m not saying that this IS what happened but I could imagine it given their similarity and the size of print in manuscripts.
    • There are other closer lookalikes (R p N) but the forward sweeping stroke on the front (M) could easily draw the eye.
  4. The principle of hardest reading favors the Hebrew text. The Hebrew initiation of a quote with “In the wilderness” feels awkward and would most naturally be attached to “a voice cries” if it were not for the inclusion of “in the desert” in the second and parallel line. In this sense the Greek text seems to smooth out the A—BCDE/CBDE into a good clean AB—CDE/CDE.
  5. The Isaiah Scroll of the Masoretic text has proven highly reliable and well preserved when measured by those vowel-less predecessors whose antiquity is well established among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In my own encounters with the Greek text of Isaiah, however, I’ve found that while LXX is a fantastic record for other texts like Pentateuch or Samuel, LXX Isaiah is frequently altered in unexplainable ways, and is often deliberately altered to reflect the theological biases of the translators. Isaiah’s vocabulary (which was astounding) seemed at times to cause them some trouble.

This is the point in the discussion where I don’t conclude with a gavel hammer. I merely point out that the Hebrew reading has a lot going for it as the original. I can explain how the mistake might have been made, that the Hebrew reading is dated back to the best manuscripts, is only contradicted by a Greek text that has a lot of problems, is the more awkward and so the more likely to be fixed by the smoother Greek rendering. In fact, the only thing that the Greek reading has going for it is that it gets quoted “as is” in the New Testament… and that IS NOT a principle of text criticism on any level.

[1] It is common in Hebrew to place a noun in this position without prepositions which takes on adverbial implications. So, here, YHWH sitting alone suggests “for YHWH.” We do the same thing with what we call indirect objects.

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