John 1:23

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He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said Isaiah the prophet. (ASV)

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Pro

Edit this section if you suspect error.

This problem occurs in all four gospels, but is most acute here, because it has John the Baptist quoting Isaiah 40:3 and applying it to himself, whereas in the three synoptics it is the narrator who applies it to John. The problem is that all four gospels follow the Greek LXX, "a voice crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord". But in the Hebrew, it is clear that this should read "a voice crying, in the wilderness make straight the way of the Lord" (check modern translations such as the NASB, NIV, NRSV of Isaiah 40:3). That it should read this way is unambiguous because of the parallelism with the next phrase, "make smooth in the desert a highway for our God". Note that "in the desert" (ba`aravah) in the second phrase parallels "in the wilderness" (bammidbar) in the first. However, for some reason, the crucial word ba`aravah was omitted from the LXX translation, which destroys the parallelism, and leads to the reading apparently found in the gospels.

John the Baptist, and those he was speaking to, would have been native Aramaic/Hebrew speakers, and hence he would have quoted this verse from an Aramaic Targum or the Hebrew original, not from the Greek.

One final note: The original Greek text of the NT did not have punctuation. Hence, it would be possible to argue that the gospel writers all intended this to be read as in the Hebrew, "a voice crying, in the wilderness make straight ...". Whether this is likely, I leave to readers to decide. Historically, Christian interpreters have read the gospels as "a voice crying in the wilderness, make straight ...".

Editted by: Ichabod Crane.

Response to Neutral comments:

I agree that this is not a "slam dunk" error. But every example of a purported error will only be a matter of probability, since there will always be ways of explaining away an apparent error from an inerrantist point of view, even if they are highly contrived and implausible. Even if the Bible somewhere said in every existing manuscript, "thus says the Lord, verily, two plus two equals five", there would always be what Maxwell Smart would no doubt call "the old textual variant that has not been preserved trick", for instance. For those who are open to the evidence, however, the issue is whether the balance of probability favours this being an error or not. I think that it does. I haven't checked any Aramaic Targumim, but the Hebrew is absolutely clear here and there are no textual issues; the Dead Sea Scrolls fully support the MT. Furthermore, I have checked BHS and it doesn't list any variants in Targumim, or other translations for that matter (Syriac etc). The LXX stands completely alone with this reading as far as I am aware, and if anyone can prove otherwise, I will gladly recant and concede that this may not be an error.

It is difficult to imagine an application to John the Baptist given the sense of the Hebrew, but it is all too easy to see how someone could apply it to him given the sense of the Greek. Keep in mind that John is supposed to be answering the question "who are you?"; the Hebrew reading doesn't seem much of an answer. The way the incident is presented in the gospels suggests the intention to provide a prophetic validation of John's ministry ("look, John the Baptist fulfills this scripture!"), but that surely depends on the Greek. In addition, isn't it just a bit too convenient that a verse which originally would have only had a loose application to John at best, becomes much stronger when the LXX is employed?

Now it is possible, I suppose, that the LXX here preserves an authentic Hebrew textual tradition that John quoted from, and which has not been preserved in any Hebrew text or other translation. But that is very unlikely. Besides the intrinsic unlikelihood that the reading would not be found anywhere else, not even in texts like 1QIsa(a) which often support the LXX against the MT, the parallelism in the Hebrew strongly suggests that ba`aravah is authentic. But the possibility that the LXX reading, as found in the gospels, is an authentic textual variant cannot be excluded with 100% certainty. It's just an issue of what is more likely.

In short, the most likely explanation, by quite a long way, is that the gospel writers applied this verse from the LXX without realizing that this reading diverged in a crucial respect from the Hebrew. Maybe they couldn't read Hebrew; maybe they didn't have access to an entire Hebrew Tanakh; maybe they just didn't think to check. Perhaps this was a popular application amongst early Christians which they uncritically reflected.

The other point to make is that there are a number of instances in the gospels which suggest that the writers relied upon the LXX in ignorance of the Hebrew, and made mistakes as a result. So the explanation that this also happened here is strengthened by the cumulative case. See Matthew 1:23, Matthew 21:16.

Response to Con comments:

Um, sorry, but he's quoting from Isaiah 40:3 in the LXX. Here are the two verses in the Greek:

Is. 40:3 (LXX): FWNH BOWNTOS EN THi ERHMWi hETOIMASATE THN hODON KURIOU ...

Jn. 1:23: ... FWNH BOWNTOS EN THi ERHMWi EUQUNATE THN hODON KURIOU

The verbal parallels between these two verses cannot be a fluke. The wording of Malachi 3:1 in the LXX is quite different and has no significant verbal parallel here. Whether Malachi or who knows what else was also present in the mind of the writer is irrelevant to the point; the author has mistakenly relied on the LXX of Is. 40:3 in ignorance of the Hebrew. Not only is the wording virtually identical to the LXX, but as noted above, the application to John is only possible because of the mistranslation found only in the Greek.

Response to more Neutral comments:

Neutral> I don't see any problem other than you don't like the way he paraphrased the original.

The issue is not paraphrasing. The issue is a difference in meaning. The phrase "A voice crying, in the wilderness make straight the way of the Lord" on the one hand, and "A voice crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord" on the other, clearly each mean two different things. One is not a paraphrase of the other.

Neutral> The readers could examine the passages referenced and decided for themselves.

Only if they could read both Hebrew and Greek. But this evidence suggests that the originator of this example could only read Greek, not Hebrew. Otherwise they would have noticed the error.

Neutral> The actual word for word quote would be lenghty and superfluous.

The quote is virtually word for word - only one word difference, see above.

Neutral> Also, I don't see a problem with that one quotes him as saying this and others apply this to him. One is not exclusive of the other.

You've missed the point. Of course one is not exclusive of the other. But if it's only an observation of the narrator, then we can conclude that the narrator was mistaken, but that doesn't threaten the historicity of the actual account. But to put it in the mouth of John himself, suggests that not only was the narrator mistaken, but the underlying historical account is also fictitious. Hence, it's a bigger problem.

Con

You are overlooking the fact that this probably references Malachi 3:1 also. Consequently, he wasn't just quoting Isaiah 40, but noting that the subject of the Old Testament is the coming of the Messaiah. The message is clear. John the Baptist is the voice of the one crying in the wilderness with the message of the coming of the Lord. I see no contradiction just an effort to obscure the message and create some controversity.

Neutral

I'm not sure if I could accept this as an actual "error," or as possible post-event editorializing (which was common in Judaic and early Christian writing). We can be fairly well assured that John the Baptist was a historical character (though the picture Josephus paints of him is quite different from that of the Gospels), and we know he did work in the wilderness. I really think this could be argued either way ... just not very conclusively.

It's possible that John took this passage and applied it to himself ... after all, I could not think of a better place to declare "Make straight in the wilderness the way of the LORD: make smooth in the desert a road for our God!" But it's also possible that this was retroactively applied.

One other thing to consider--have you seen any of the Talmud or Targumim of this passage? They may provide more clarification on how the passage was interpreted at this time.

It's a well-presented argument ... I'm just not sure there's enough documentation to provide a good solid conclusion.

--JustinEiler 16:31, 26 Oct 2005 (CDT)

I don't see any problem other than you don't like the way he paraphrased the original. The readers could examine the passages referenced and decided for themselves. The actual word for word quote would be lenghty and superfluous. Also, I don't see a problem with that one quotes him as saying this and others apply this to him. One is not exclusive of the other.

Reason for Rollback

I rolled back the last Edit because it removed the observation that "John's" John the Baptist applies the quote to himself. Here "John" is Reacting to "Mark" and "Mark's" Assertian that John the Baptist was Elijah for prophetic purposes. The denial is Explicit in "John" and supported with the quote of 1:23. This is a clear and important contradiction so the related reference can not simply be Edited out.

--JoeWallack 12:48, 28 May 2008 (EDT)

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