Isaiah? Really? Was Mark Mistaken at the Beginning of His Gospel?

At the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, there is a verse that bothers people: Mark 1:2. Mark writes:

as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

If you read this in an older translation (like the New King James Version), it reads: “as it is written in the Prophets”. The newer translations use the wording based on more reliable manuscripts. That is, Mark really wrote Isaiah, not Prophets.

What’s the problem? A very simple one. Mark quotes from Malachi and Isaiah, and the first quotation is from Malachi.

Some people alledge that the writer of Mark’s Gospel simply misattributed the quote. In other words, Mark simply got it wrong.

But there are good reasons for thinking otherwise. And the reasons are not simply the desperate maneuvers of evangelicals trying to defend a high view of Scripture. They are reasons based on the literary conventions of the time.

A nice summary of the reasons to think that Mark was not making a mistake in Mark 1:2 is given here. It’s written by Rikk E. Watts, a New Testament scholar at Regent College in Vancouver.

Here’s a brief sketch of his reasons for thinking that Mark didn’t make a mistake:

  1. Throughout Mark’s Gospel, we see Old Testament passages being combined into one quotation, with each passage being used to interpret the other passage.
  2. When using a composite quotations, it was common practice to cite the most important passage. The most important passage would be the one that was being used to shed light on the other passage(s).
  3. Why, then, was Malachi quoted first? Why not first quote the more important passage? The Malachi passage has a more prominent use of “messenger.” Also, the Malachi passage has the “Behold…” statement, which fits best at the beginning of the quotation.

I encourage you to read Watts’ more detailed explanation.

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