In Defense of Mark 1:2’s “In the Prophets”

The following is taken from James E. Snapp Jr.’s blog (

How many times did Mark, as he narrated events, cite an Old Testament prophet by name? The answer is either “Never” or “Once, in 1:2.” The Byzantine Text in Mark 1:2 reads “in the prophets” (EN TOIS PROΦHTAIΣ), but the reading “in Isaiah the prophet” (EN TW HSAIA TW PROΦHTH) in 1:2 is attested by a formidable combination of witnesses. B, Aleph, L, D, 892, and the Sahidic version show that it was the reading in the earliest stratum of the Alexandrian Text. The bulk of the Old Latin copies and D and show its popularity in the “Western” Text (D does not have the first Τω). Origen, f 1, Eusebius, Theta, and the Georgian version attest to its presence in the “Caesarean” Text. And even two ancient versional witnesses with a propensity to agree with the Byzantine Text disagree with the Byzantine Text here: the Peshitta and the Gothic version both support “in Isaiah the prophet,” and so does the Vulgate.

So, when Dr. Daniel Wallace, in the online article Mark 1:2 and New Testament Textual Criticism (at ), states that modern translations adopt in Isaiah the prophet” because the earliest and best witnesses have such wording, he is basically correct. It is easy to imagine that a group of scholars heavily influenced by Hort could decide against “in the prophets” entirely on the basis of the external attestation. Hort’s view was that with a smattering of exceptions, “(1) that readings of Aleph+B should be accepted as the true readings until strong internal evidence is found to the contrary, and (2) that no readings of Aleph+B can be safely rejected absolutely, though it is sometimes right to place them only on an alternate footing.”

However, a simple appeal to the “best” witnesses should never be decisive. What matters is not the general excellence of any witness or group of witnesses, but their excellence at a particular point, which is an aspect of the question at hand. The idea that the best witnesses can fall short at certain points is acknowledged by the NET in a footnote to Mark 1:1. The NET reads “Son of God” in Mark 1:1, and its footnote states, “Even though Aleph is in general one of the best NT mss, its testimony is not quite as preeminent in this situation.” And at Mt. 27:49, the reading of Aleph+B is rejected in the NET; a footnote acknowledges that Aleph, B, C, L, and other witnesses have a reading that was not adopted in the NET’s text and affirms that the “internal considerations” for the non-Alexandrian reading are “compelling.” Metzger likewise regarded the Aleph+B reading in Mt. 27:49 as “an early intrusion from a similar account in Jn 19.34.” If a reading shared by Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, C, and L (and other witnesses) in Matthew 27:49 can be incorrect, then it is not a great leap to suppose that this can be true of the witnesses that support “in Isaiah the prophet” in Mark 1:2. Internal considerations must be carefully considered.

We should also pause to consider something that Dr. Wallace stated about the scholars who have adopted “in Isaiah the prophet.” He said that they “are functioning at the level of the deepest integrity.” Why? “Because they are arguing for wording that seems to communicate a mistake.” I propose, however, two alternatives. First, some scholars who favor a reading that looks like a mistake may sincerely believe that the original reading is a mistake. Second, some scholars who favor a reading that looks like a mistake may have been intimidated, consciously or unconsciously, by anti-apologetic pressure from secular academia; to defend the non-problematic reading would be to risk being accused of favoring the easier readings on the basis of an agenda to maintain inerrancy. In other words, one’s integrity might be called into question. And what else is going on when Dr. Wallace says that the scholars who endorse the erroneous-looking reading “are functioning at the level of the deepest integrity,” as if the other scholars are not doing so, and that “We simply need to be honest with the evidence,” as if it is impossible to be honest with the evidence while disagreeing with him about the text of Mark 1:2.

Let’s take an unintimidated look at the external evidence for the reading “in the prophets.” Maurice Robinson, citing UBS-4, has stated that this reading “is supported by the Greek mss A W f 13 28, the mass of minuscules (Byz) and Lectionaries (Lect), as well as by the significant Byzantine uncials E F G H P Sigma, along with a manuscript of the Vulgate, the syr-h, a marginal reading of a Bohairic MS, the Ethiopic and Slavic versions, and the church fathers Irenaeus (Latin text 2/3) and Asterius.” (Faith & Mission, Spring 1996, p. 69)

Dr. Wallace described the Bohairic evidence for “in the prophets” differently, as “a few scattered Bohairic MSS.” To help sort things out I consulted Horner’s 1898 presentation of the Bohairic version, which, as its title says, was edited from MS Huntington 17 (a Coptic-Arabic Gospels-MS produced in 1174). The Bohairic evidence is interesting. The Bohairic version supports “in Isaiah the prophet,” but there is a little more to the story. On page 283, Horner provides the English translation of the Bohairic text (which is on the adjacent page), and includes an apparatus-footnote, which I will attempt to unravel:

· C1 is a copy described by Horner on pages xlvi and ff. It is a Coptic-Arabic Gospels-MS, produced in 1196. In this copy’s preface to Mark the number of chapters is given as 48 large and 235 small. In C1, the Arabic word for “Malachi” appears after verse 2, and the Arabic word for “Isaiah” appears after verse 3.

· D1 is a copy described by Horner on pages lviii and ff. It is a Coptic-Arabic Gospels-MS, produced in 1205. An Arabic note says that it belongs to the monastery of St. Anthony in the desert of Al Arabah, and that it is to be used for public reading. In D1, an Arabic note after Mark 1:3 says, “Greek has, ‘in the prophets.’”

· E1 is a copy described by Horner on pages lxxii and ff. It is a Coptic-Arabic Gospels-MS, produced in 1208. It includes To Carpian and the Eusebian Canons. In the margin of Mark 1:2 it has the Bohairic words for “Exodus” and for “Malachi,” and an Arabic note says, “A copy has ‘the prophets.’”

· O1 is a copy described by Horner on pages cxv and ff. It is a Coptic Gospels-MS from the 1300’s. It has a gloss in Arabic that says, “Isaiah prophesied with the voice of one crying, and Moses and Malachi prophesied with the sending of the messenger.”

So two things seem clear: (1) Although the critical edition of the Bohairic Version, based mainly on MS Huntington 17 (produced in 1174), supports “in Isaiah the prophet,” another Bohairic MS made 31 years after MS Huntington 17 has an Arabic note that mentions that “in the prophets” is in a Greek copy or copies. (2) Unless some additional evidence can be cited to the contrary (which is quite possible), no Bohairic MSS actually read “in the prophets” as the text of Mark 1:2.

We should also ensure that the reference to f 1 be understood, as usual, to represent unusual readings among its leading members, not necessarily all of them; MS 118 supports “in the prophets.”

The evidence of the Harklean Syriac merits a note. The Philoxenian Version goes back to 508. The Harklean Version goes back to 616. According to White’s 1778 edition of the Philoxenian Version, Mark 1:2 has “in the prophets” in the text, and a marginal reading, “in Isaiah the prophet.” Whether this marginal note was a feature of the Philoxenian Version or was added later by Thomas of Heraklea may be an open question. But the thing to see is that it looks like someone thought that he had grounds to uproot the reading normally found in the Peshitta – “in Isaiah the prophet” – and replace it with “in the prophets.” What was the source of this “in the prophets” reading? Its latest possible date, it seems, must be 616. (Perhaps an investigation into the contents of MS. Vat. Syr 268 at Mk. 1:2 could turn up something interesting, as might an examination of the copies of the Harklean Syriac in the Mingana Collection.)

Although Dr. Wallace affirms that Asterius used Mark 1:2 with “in the prophets,” I would like to see the citation. Until then, I will set Asterius aside as an unknown quantity.

We should also note that there is a distigme (i.e., umlaut) in B beside the line where “in Isaiah the prophet” begins. There is some debate about the significance of B’s umlauts. They might be medieval. But they might be ancient, too – even contemporary with the production of B. At any rate, Dr. Wallace has used umlaut-evidence as if it is ancient testimony, so if we do the same, then B’s distigme should be placed on the scales as evidence of an ancient reading other than “in Isaiah the prophet,” and the only likely alternative is “in the prophets.”

Let’s turn now to Irenaeus, the earliest patristic evidence. He wrote the third book of Against Heresies in about 184. Dr. Wallace raised a question about Irenaeus’ testimony: “He wrote in Greek but has been preserved largely in Latin. His Greek remains have “in Isaiah the prophet.” Only the later Latin translation has “in the prophets.”” This is true but it’s not the whole truth. First we should ask about the date of the Latin translation. Waltz states that it is from the 300’s or possibly the 200’s; this clarifies Dr. Wallace’s description of it as “the later Latin translation.” The Latin translation is actually quite early (possibly contemporary with À and/or B). It is later in the sense that it is later than Irenaeus’ Greek text, but that is a superfluous observation.

Second, we should notice that the Latin translation is extremely literal. Third, we should notice that the Old Latin and the Vulgate firmly support “in Isaiah the prophet,” so, if Dr. Wallace is suggesting that the Latin translator conformed Irenaeus’ Greek citations to some Latin standard, one may justifiably wonder what Latin text that was. Fourth, we should notice that we do not face a contradiction between the Latin text of Irenaeus and the Greek text of Irenaeus; rather, we face an abundance of Latin text and a scarcity of the Greek text. And fifth, we should notice the surrounding comments that Irenaeus made when he quoted Mark 1:2.

In Against Heresies III:10:5, Irenaeus wrote, “Wherefore also Mark, the interpreter and follower of Peter, does thus commence his Gospel narrative: ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send My messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make the paths straight before our God.’ Plainly does the commencement of the Gospel quote the words of the holy prophets, and point out him at once, whom they confessed as God and Lord; him, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who had also made promise to him, that he would send his messenger before his face, who was John, crying in the wilderness, in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight paths before our God.’ For the prophets did not announce one and another God, but one and the same, though under various aspects and many titles.”

It is practically self-evident that Irenaeus’ comments in III:10:5 echo his text of Mark. Here Irenaeus does not say that Mark quotes Isaiah; he says that Mark’s account commences by quoting the words of “the holy prophets.” Irenaeus does not say that he (i.e., Isaiah, an individual prophet) confessed; Irenaeus says that “they” confessed him as God and Lord.

Further along in Against Heresies, Irenaeus again refers to Mark 1:2, in III:16:3. He expressly quotes from Mark: “Wherefore Mark also says, ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as it is written in the prophets,’ knowing one and the same Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was announced by the prophets, who from the fruit of David’s body was Emmanuel . . . .”

In Against Heresies III:11:8, Irenaeus departs from the “in the prophets” reading of Mark 1:2, and uses the “in Isaiah the prophet” reading. This occurs in the middle of a somewhat allegorical profile of the four Gospels in which Irenaeus connects each Gospel to an angelic face, whether that of a man, lion, ox, or eagle. It would be worthwhile to read the whole paragraph to get the gist of what Irenaeus is trying to say. But I will just present excerpts.

Irenaeus first uses Revelation 4:7: “‘The first living creature was like a lion,’ symbolizing his effectual working, his leadership, and royal power; the second was like a calf, signifying sacrificial and sacerdotal order, but ‘the third had, as it were, the face as of a man,’ – an evident description of His advent as a human being; ‘the fourth was like a flying eagle.’”

He connects Matthew to the face-as-of-a-man: “Matthew, again, relates His generation as a man, saying, ‘The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham;’ and also, ‘The birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise.’ This, then, is the gospel of his humanity; for which reason it is, too, that [the portrayal of] a humble and meek man is kept up through the whole Gospel.” And then: “Mark, on the other hand, commences with the prophetical spirit coming down from on high to men, saying, ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet,’ – pointing to the winged aspect of the gospel; and on this account he made a compendious and cursory narrative, for such is the prophetical character.”

(Before proceeding further, we should notice that Irenaeus connects the Gospels to the cherubim in an arrangement that may seen unusual to those who are used to the Matthew=man, Mark=lion, Luke=ox, John=eagle arrangement. Matthew is the man, yes, and Luke is the ox, but Irenaeus sees John as the confident lion, and Mark as the flying eagle.)

I don’t think any of these extant readings can be plausibly considered a corruption in the text of Against Heresies. It looks like Irenaeus accessed at least one copy of Mark in which 1:2 read “in the prophets,” and at least one copy of Mark in which 1:2 read “in Isaiah the prophet.”

So, figuring that Irenaeus’ copies were not altogether unique, it looks like “in Isaiah the prophet” and “in the prophets” were both in circulation in Gaul in the 180’s.

This evidence should be added to the testimony of Codex A, which shows that “in the prophets” was in circulation in the early 400’s, somewhere. Then the testimony of Codex W must also be added, showing that “in the prophets” was in circulation c. 400 somewhere else. The textual character of the opening chapters of Mark in W is distinct from the textual character of the opening chapters of Mark in A.

Dr. Wallace, sparing his readers the burden of realizing that the earliest evidence for “in the prophets” is as old as the earliest evidence for “in Isaiah the prophet,” and that “in the prophets” is attested in three transmission-streams by the mid-400’s, accents the lateness of most of the evidence for “in the prophets,” as if agreement with late witnesses makes early evidence less trustworthy: the reading “in the prophets” in Against Heresies is “in harmony with the majority of late manuscripts,” whereas, “On the other hand, the witnesses for “in Isaiah the prophet” (either with the article before Isaiah or not) are early.”

Among the MSS and versional witnesses that Dr. Wallace included among these “early” manuscripts are 1243 (from the 1000’s), 1071 and 1241 (from the 1100’s), 205 (from the 1400’s), 2427 (from the 1900’s), and Old Latin c, that is, Colbertinus, from c. 1200. He also included “Armenian” in the list, although the Armenian evidence is divided. (UBS-2 listed the Armenian version as a witness for “in the prophets.”)

Although the oldest MS cited by Dr. Wallace for “in Isaiah the prophet” is Vaticanus (c. 325), and the only second-century evidence for “in Isaiah the prophet” is Irenaeus’ citation in Against Heresies II:11:8, he stated, “This evidence runs deep into the second century.” In terms of the actual pieces of evidence, that is not the case, with the exception of Irenaeus’ citations. If we were to posit a single ancestor-MS as the source of “in Isaiah the prophet,” it would have to be that ancient in order to account for its descendants in the Old Latin, in the Gothic version, in the Alexandrian text, in the Caesarean text, in the Peshitta, and in quotations by Origen, Epiphanius, Jerome, etc.

But what if a recurring mechanism elicited the “in Isaiah the prophet” reading? There is a saying: nature abhors a vacuum. So did copyists. Copyists in diverse locales had a propensity to fill perceived vacuums when it came to unnamed individuals. One very early example of this is in Papyrus 75, where, in Luke 16:19, the rich man is called Neuhs, which is a parableptic misreading of the exemplar; the name “Nineveh” is meant. (“Nineveh” is read in Lk. 16:19 in CSA (Codex Sinaiticus Arabicus), one of the documents discovered at St. Catherine’s Monastery in 1975, as collated by Hikmat Kachouh in NovTest 2008. Cf. the textualcriticism Yahoo discussion-list, message #4381.) Other examples are found in Metzger’s essay Names for the Nameless in the New Testament which serves as chapter 2 of New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic. When, as we read Metzger’s data, we discover that Old Latin c (Colbertinus, c. 1200), one of the early copies cited by Dr. Wallace, includes the names of those crucified with Jesus – Zoathan and Chammatha – in Mark 15:27, should this fill us with confidence in its testimony for “Isaiah the prophet” in Mark 1:2?

But Colbertinus is just one copy; what about the Old Latin evidence in general? Consider its treatment of Matthew 1:22, where we all know that the original text is “through the prophet.” Which prophet?? Codex Bezae tells us in Greek: Isaiah. And Codex Bezae also tells us in Latin: Isaiah. And Old Latin b (Veronensis, from the 400’s) also tells us: Isaiah. So do the Old Latin codices f (Brixianus) and g1 (Sangermanensis) and a (Vercellensis, probably from c. 370). (Metzger puts a question-mark beside “a” in TCotGNT, p. 8, but “ESEIAM PROPHETAM” is shown clearly in Irici’s 1748 presentation of Codex Vercellensis.) “Isaiah” is practically the normal Old Latin reading in Mt. 1:22. And, surprisingly enough, Irenaeus quotes Mt. 1:22 twice and one of those times, specifically in Against Heresies III:21:4, he does so with the name “Isaiah,” referring to Isaiah in his comments in the same sentence.

The Syriac evidence shows the same scribal tendency at work. In Matthew 1:22, “Isaiah” is attested by the Sinaitic Syriac, the Curetonian Syriac, the Harklean Syriac, and by the Palestinian Syriac (now known as the Palestinian Aramaic).

And what about f 1? 1582, the real leading member of this group, is mentioned by Metzger in his Textual Commentary as an apparent witness for “Isaiah” in Matthew 1:22, although it is qualified by “vid.” (Perhaps the MS is mutilated or an erasure occurs here.) There is no doubt, however, about the reading of f 1 in Matthew 13:35.

Matthew 13:35 has an interesting variant. Matthew prefaced a quotation from Psalm 78:2 by saying that it “was spoken by the prophet.” Which prophet? The individuals responsible for the ancestral text of f 1 and f 13 could not tolerate Matthew’s non-specificity. So they added the name “Isaiah” even though the quotation is from Psalm 78. This reading, attested by 1, 543, 788, 230, 983, and 1582 (and some others), and by Codex Q, is ancient. Eusebius, in his Commentary on the Psalms, mentions that some copies read “in Isaiah the prophet” here. Jerome, in his Homily 11 on Psalm 77 (our Psalm 78), cited Matthew 13:35 and claimed that “through the prophet Asaph” is a reading supported by “all the ancient copies” (“IN OMNIBUS UETERIBUS CODICIBUS,” see Donaldson II, p. 369), and he states that Porphyry, who wrote c. 270, had made an accusation against Matthew that can only be accounted for by Porphyry’s use of a copy of Matthew with the reading “in Isaiah the prophet” in 13:35:

“Porphyry, that unbeliever . . . says, ‘Your evangelist, Matthew, was so ignorant that he said: ‘What is written in Isaiah the prophet: I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter mysteries from of old.’” . . . Now, just as this was the scribes’ error, it was, likewise, their error to write Isaiah instead of Asaph.” Jerome proceeds to offer a theory that some early copyist, reading “Asaph the prophet” in his exemplar, did not recognize the name “Asaph,” and replaced it with “Isaiah.” He offers the same line of reasoning in his Commentary on Matthew.

“Isaiah the prophet” is also the first-hand reading of Codex Aleph at Mt. 13:35.

To Dr. Wallace’s question, “If this reading” – that is, “in Isaiah the prophet” in Mark 1:2 – “is not original, where did it come from?”, the copyists of the witnesses just cited provide a loud and clear answer: like the reading “in Isaiah the prophet” in 13:35, the reading “in Isaiah the prophet” in Mark 1:2 came from the propensity of copyists to make non-specific references more specific.

What about Dr. Wallace’s claim, “Scribes surely knew that the first part of the quotation was from Malachi – after all, not a few of these same scribes had copied out the OT. They knew their Scriptures well.” That blanket cannot cover all the copyists. How well could the person who invented the “Isaiah” reading in Matthew 13:35 have known the Old Testament?

Plus, if these copyists had copied the Old Testament a little, they had copied the Gospels a lot, and in the Gospels, “Isaiah the prophet” is cited by name repeatedly. This inculcated a tendency to harmonize non-specific references to “the prophet” by adding “Isaiah” – even in passages where “Isaiah” did not belong. Besides the instances already presented, some versional copies (a few Vulgate copies, Bohairic copies, and Ethiopic copies, according to Metzger in TCotGNT, p. 54) display this tendency by adding “Isaiah” in Matthew 21:4, where the quotation is from Zechariah.

Codex Sinaiticus reveals this tendency not just in Matthew 13:35 but also in Matthew 2:15. Here we have a snapshot of the first half of a textual adjustment-step that was never fully taken. Matthew 2:15 states that it was spoken “by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Out of Egypt I called My Son.’” This was question-raising. Who was that prophet? It did not occur to a copyist that the quotation is from Hosea 11:1, probably because in the Septuagint, Hosea 11:1 says, “When Israel was a child then I loved him, and called his sons out of Egypt.” He thought of a passage in Numbers – maybe 15:41 or 20:16 – and, in the margin, in small vertically stacked lettering, he wrote a note: “In Numbers” (EN ARιΘΜΟIS). Something has to fill the vacuum, even if it doesn’t quite fit. (Codex D displays a different adjustment: ΤΟυ is omitted, so that instead of referring to the prophet, Matthew refers to a prophet.)

Precisely the same pressure that caused the marginal note at Matthew 2:15 in Sinaiticus explains the shift from “in the prophets” to “in Isaiah the prophet” in Mark 1:2. Something must fill the vacuum. The effect of this pressure is seen in Acts 13:40 in the Middle Egyptian Glazier codex (from the 300’s or 400’s); instead of stating, “in the prophets,” G67 reads, “In Habakkuk the prophet.”

Dr. Wallace charged that advocates of “in the prophets” in Mark 1:2 must attribute the rise of “in Isaiah the prophet” to a “conspiracy,” and he repeatedly used this loaded term, as if to suggest that the individuals who advocate the reading “in the prophets” are akin to irrational “conspiracy theorists.” He even described their view as a “conspiracy theory,” and gave the impression that John Burgon attributed the reading “in Isaiah the prophet” to a conspiracy. However, a consultation of pages 111ff. of the 1896 book The Causes of the Corruption of the Traditional Text of the Holy Gospels (which consists of Burgon’s statements organized and partly re-expressed by Edward Miller) will show that such a description is grossly inaccurate. Burgon proposed that “in Isaiah the prophet” originated and became popular via a process of assimilation, i.e., by harmonization to the parallels in Matthew 3:3, Luke 3:3-6, and John 1:23, where “Isaiah the prophet” is specifically named as the source of Isaiah 40:3. (Burgon also proposed that the reading “in Isaiah the prophet” is embedded in a few patristic writings (those of Serapion, Titus, Basil, and Epiphanius) because their authors have relied upon an excerpt from Origen’s Against Celsus in which he quoted Mark 1:2 with “in Isaiah the prophet.”)

Let’s turn to Dr. Wallace’s questions/objections to the “in the prophets” reading, rephrasing them so as to avoid his rhetorically charged language. I will answer the objections, working from the premise that “in the prophets” is the original reading.

(1) If “in Isaiah the prophet” is not original, how could it have been adopted in so many early and diverse witnesses?

By being early – as early as a copy known to Irenaeus – and by being inherently preferable to copyists to whom a lack of specificity invited expansion. Copyists who did not adjust Matthew 27:9 would not feel substantial pressure to adjust Mark 1:2, but the copyists who adjusted Matthew 1:22 and 13:35, as displayed in early and diverse witnesses, clearly felt pressure to change non-specific references into specific references, and Mark 1:2 was one such case.

(2) If copyists deliberately replaced “in the prophets” with “in Isaiah the prophet,” they must have worked together, in order to affect all the witnesses that support “in Isaiah the prophet” in Mark 1:2. Isn’t this unrealistic?

No collusion is necessary; the non-specificity of the reading “in the prophets” was inherently dissatisfactory to copyists. It raised a question that demanded an answer, so they answered it. The early and diverse evidence for “Isaiah the prophet” in Matthew 1:22 shows that this could happen in such a way – either via two or more independent copyists making the same adjustment, or via an extremely early corruption, or both – as to have a strong effect upon different transmission-streams. The adjustment to “Isaiah the prophet” was a very natural step to take, not only because it focuses the reference, but because of copyists’ familiarity with the parallel-passages in Matthew, Luke, and John where Isaiah 40:3 is used and Isaiah is cited by name.

(3) If someone was creating problematic readings like “in Isaiah the prophet” to consciously create an errant text, the effort seems inept, because the text is not similarly corrupt elsewhere.

Nobody was consciously conspiring to create an errant text. The “in Isaiah the prophet” reading was created, and was subsequently preferred, not because it seemed problematic, but because it seemed to resolve a question. None of the patristic writers who used “in Isaiah the prophet” seem to have thought that it posed an apologetic difficulty that demanded correction. The only acknowledgement that the reading “in Isaiah the prophet” is so problematic that it must be erroneous occurs in a scholium about this passage (noted by Legg, and provided in Wieland Willker’s commentary) that states, “This prophetic utterance is of Malachi, not Isaiah; to the copyist belongs the error, as Eusebius of Caesarea says in Ad Marinum concerning the apparent discrepancy among the resurrection accounts in the Gospels.” This does not mean (contrary to what Burgon apparently thought) that Eusebius commented about Mark 1:2; it means that the writer thought that “in Isaiah the prophet” had originated with copyists in the same way that another reading originated; this other reading is mentioned by Eusebius in Ad Marinum where he discusses a discrepancy in the parallel-passages about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances.

Jerome, in his Epistle 57 (To Pammochius) ~ a fascinating letter in which Jerome’s erudition shines, and which resembles part of his Defense Against Rufinus ~ lists several passages in the Gospels that cite OT passages in forms that disagree with the Septuagint, and then states the following in paragraph 9: “Mark, the disciple of Peter, begins his gospel thus: ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in the prophet Isaiah: Behold I send my messenger before your face which shall prepare your way before you. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ This quotation is made up from two prophets, that is to say, Malachi and Isaiah. For the first part, ‘Behold I send my messenger before your face which shall prepare your way before you,’ occurs at the close of Malachi. But the second part, ‘The voice of one crying,’ and so forth, we read in Isaiah. On what grounds, then, has Mark in the very beginning of his book set the words, ‘As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, Behold I send my messenger,’ when, as we have said, it is not written in Isaiah at all, but in Malachi, the last of the twelve prophets? Let ignorant presumption solve this nice question if it can, and I will ask pardon for being in the wrong.” Despite perceiving a difficulty (and without sharing his view about how to resolve it), Jerome consistently used the reading “in Isaiah the prophet.” He did not resort to removing the difficulty here by adjusting the text.

In his Commentary on Matthew (written in 398 in Bethlehem), Jerome makes a comment about Mark 1:2-3 in which he is more forthcoming. As he commented on Matthew 3:3 (“For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight”), he briefly diverges to comment about Mark 1:2. (Perhaps he was nudged to do so by a consideration of the Eusebian Canons, in which section 8 of Matthew is cross-referenced with section 2 of Mark – and with section 7 of Luke and section 10 of John – because they all quote Isaiah 40:3). In this comment, he mentions Porphyry, as he did in his comment about Matthew 13:35. Here is Jerome’s comment from his Commentary on Matthew:

Porphyry compares this passage to the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, in which is written, ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, just as it is written in the prophet Isaiah: Behold, I am sending my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, a voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ For since the testimony has been intertwined from Malachi and Isaiah, he asks how we can imagine that the citation has been taken from Isaiah only. Men of the church have responded to him in great detail. My opinion is either that the name of Isaiah was added by a mistake of the copyists, which we can prove has also happened in other passages, or, as an alternative, one piece has been made out of diverse Scriptural testimonies. Read the thirteenth psalm [our Psalm 14] and you shall discover this very thing.” (See p. 68 of Thomas P. Scheck’s 2008 English translation, Saint Jerome – Commentary on Matthew, #177 in the Fathers of the Church series.)

Facing Porphyry’s criticism, Jerome notes that earlier writers have made full replies. He probably had in mind, as the detailed responses by “men of the church,” the lost 30-volume work Against Porphyry by Apollinaris of Laodicea, another refutation by Methodius of Olympus, and another one by Eusebius of Caesarea. But rather than leave it at that, Jerome expressed his suspicion that “Isaiah” is a scribal error. Nevertheless, since a plausible alternative exists – namely, the theory that Mark has combined two references, in the same way that Paul combined thematically related passages in Romans 3:10-18, beginning with snippets from Psalm 14 – Jerome does not forcibly insist that the text should be altered so as to remove Isaiah’s name.

The Syriac writer Isho’dad of Merv, c. 850, utilized the works of earlier writers (including Eusebius of Caesarea) in his Commentary on the Gospels. Isho’dad acknowledged a difficulty in the Syriac text of Mark 1:2 (“in Isaiah the prophet”) and mentioned five proposals about how to resolve it: (1) Isaiah originally had the passage that Mark cites. (2) Mark used thematically related material from Malachi to frame the main quotation from Isaiah. (3) The reading “Isaiah” is a translator’s error in Syriac; Mark originally wrote “Malachi.” (4) Mark rendered the quotation loosely, as other authors in the Scriptures do. (5) An ancient authority, the Diatessaron (which was widely used in Syria until the 430’s, and which Isho’dad described as the work of Justin’s student Tatian a few pages before this), did not name Isaiah the prophet but said, instead, “by the prophets.” Yet Isho’dad did not express a preference for any of these proposals.

He wrote as follows: “It is asked, ‘Why did Mark say, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Thy face,’ etc., when it is written in Malachi? Some say that it was in Isaiah and was lost. Others say that he put to the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way,’ etc., this sign as an answer. Others say that because it was translated from Roman [i.e., Latin; this reflects a tradition that Mark originally wrote in Latin] to Greek, and from that to Syriac, the interpreters made a mistake, and put ‘Isaiah’ instead of ‘Malachi.’ Others say that he [i.e., Mark] is not concerned to be meticulously precise about the reference, as is the custom of the Scriptures. Others say that the Diatessaron-book, which was composed in Alexandria, instead of this ‘As it is written by Isaiah the prophet,’ says, ‘by the prophets.’” (See Margaret Gibson, The Commentaries of Isho’dad of Merv, 1911, Vol. 1, p. 126.)

Even equipped with the building-blocks with which one could build a case to reject “in Isaiah the prophet,” Isho’dad did not endorse adjusting the text, and except for the Harklean Syriac’s inclusion of “in the prophets” there seems to be no evidence that any Syriac copyists pursued the course of action mapped out by proposals #3 and #5. An interpretive solution seems to have been consistently preferred to a conjectural emendation.

There are four passages in Matthew where “in the prophet” or “by the prophet” appears unaccompanied by a proper name: Mt. 1:22, 2:5, 2:15, 21:4, and, in the Textus Receptus (but not the Byzantine/Majority Text), 27:35. Why would the proclivity toward specificity affect Mark 1:2, but not these passages? As we have seen, it has affected 1:22 (in the Old Latin and Old Syriac witnesses especially) and 2:15 (in Sinaiticus’ margin-note). In 2:15, where Micah 5:2 is quoted, four copies of the Harklean Syriac mention Micah’s name in the margin. So does the Bohairic copy E1. Old Latin Codex Vercellensis reads, at 2:5, “through Isaiah the prophet saying.” Regarding 21:4, see Metzger’s textual commentary: “Several witnesses” add “Zachariah,” and other witnesses have “Isaiah.” Fortunately Metzger provided precise lists alongside these vague descriptions. One of those other witnesses is a margin-note in Bohairic MS E1. As for 27:35, we cannot expect copyists to expand a non-specific reading that was not in their exemplars. With the understandable exception of Mt. 27:35, every time in the Gospels when an OT quotation is attributed to “the prophet,” some copyist interpolated the prophet’s name – or tried to do so, but named the wrong prophet or cited the wrong passage.

Nevertheless the greater quantity of the witnesses with “in Isaiah the prophet” in Mark 1:2, compared with similar readings in other passages, requires an explanation. Here, at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, copyists felt most free to make adjustments. Likewise in Matthew the most widespread name-interpolations occur near the beginning of the book. In the case of Mark, this may simply be because there are no other non-specific citations of “the prophet” in the book. In Matthew, we may be observing the phenomenon of fatigue. When first encountering a non-specified citation of “the prophet,” copyists most readily felt that it would be worthwhile to include the name of the unnamed prophet. But after encountering the next non-specified citation of “the prophet,” or after encountering a non-specified citation of “the prophet” that they were at a loss to specify (in Mt. 2:23), they simply gave up the effort.

(4) How can such divergent witnesses such as B and D, which clearly descend from separate transmission-streams, agree on the reading “in Isaiah the prophet,” unless it is original?

The extant witnesses with “in Isaiah the prophet” did not necessarily descend from a single ancestral copy. As a harmonization, this reading is capable of independent recurrence. It could also originate as the insertion of a margin-note, such as the -note at Mt. 2:15 in Sinaiticus that refers to Numbers. It is not surprising that the “Western” witnesses, so demonstrably predisposed to harmonization, contain one here. And this reading could originate via copyists’ natural tendency to name the unnamed, and to replace non-specific references with specific references, if it did not seem to materially affect the meaning of the text.

Let’s revisit Dr. Wallace’s list of witnesses for “in Isaiah the prophet,” eliminating from the list any witnesses that insert the name “Isaiah” in another place where it is not original. There go Aleph, Theta, f 1, 33, the Old Latin evidence, and the Palestinian Syriac/Aramaic. When we consider things in terms of textual groups, we see that a tendency to name the nameless affected the early Alexandrian transmission-stream represented by B, L, D, 892, 1241, and the Sahidic version. A very similar tendency to replace non-specific references with specific references affected the Caesarean transmission-stream represented by Origen, the patristic writers who relied on Origen’s composition in which he cited Mark 1:2, and MSS 1243, 565, 700, 205, 788, 983, and by parts of the Georgian and Armenian evidence. The same tendency, as well as a strong tendency to harmonize, is displayed in D and in the Old Latin evidence, which was inherited by Jerome and Ambrosiaster and Augustine.

As for Chromatius of Aquileia, I think that those who compare paragraphs 1-7 of his Prologue to Sermons on Matthew where he quotes Mark 1:2 with “in Isaiah the prophet” (an English translation by Stephen C. Carlson is online) to Irenaeus’ Against Heresies III:11:8 (also online) will not be able to avoid the deduction that Chromatius based this part of his composition upon Irenaeus’ earlier work, and in his citation of Mark 1:2 he is echoing Irenaeus.

This still leaves some manuscripts (such as 1071) and some versional evidence (the Peshitta and the Gothic version), and some patristic writers (such as Cyril of Jerusalem and Hesychius and Severian) which support “in Isaiah the prophet” but do not descend from transmission-streams in which the text was affected by a scribal proclivity to insert names of unnamed individuals. (Perhaps a closer investigation could whittle down the list even more.) But I do not think these survivors are anything like overwhelming evidence; they are not a match for Irenaeus’ two uses of “in the prophets” combined with Codex A, Codex W, Codex P, the Harklean Syriac, all the uncials and minuscules that support the Majority Text, and the lectionaries (and the distigme in B).

Dr. Wallace proposed that a change from “in Isaiah the prophet” to “in the prophets” is something that “smells much like a predictable variant that could have occurred in several regions without any kind of collusion or genetic connection.” That is a fine theory, but when we look at the actual evidence in the manuscripts and versions, the proclivity on display is in the opposite direction: away from non-specificity and toward specificity, even in passages such as Mt. 13:35 where the specific name does not belong. (We also see that although Jerome perceived that “in Isaiah the prophet” posed a difficulty, and although he suspected that a copyist had inserted Isaiah’s name into Mark 1:2, he did not change the text.) The widespread evidence of this proclivity justifies the submission of a new critical canon: prefer the less specific reading.

Two more things should be considered in the case for “in the prophets.”

First, Mark very seldom cites Old Testament prophets by name in his narrative. He presents Jesus’ explicit reference to Isaiah 29:13 in 7:6-7, and, in the Byzantine Text, he presents Jesus’ explicit reference to Daniel 11:31 in 13:14. But that’s about it. The reading “in the prophets” is thus more consistent with Mark’s style, while “in Isaiah the prophet” is unique. This impressed J. K. Elliott so much that he has theorized that all of Mark 1:1-3 may have been added by someone other than Mark. What it really indicates, though, is that the reading “in Isaiah the prophet” originated with someone other than Mark.

Second, no part of the case presented here rests on a premise of inerrancy. Dr. Wallace’s observation that it is problematic to engage in textual criticism with a presumption of inerrancy weighing down the scales is well-received. But it would not be realistic to claim that all the proponents of the reading “in the prophets” in Mark 1:2 are screeching, “Our variant is original, and yours is not, because if your variant is original, then God is the author of confusion.” A strong, honest, and theologically neutral case can be made for “in the prophets,” without the involvement of a “dogmatic method” that automatically favors the less theologically problematic variant. In Mark 1:2, the non-specific reading explains the rise of the specific reading, as a question precedes its answer.



Here is a description of an additional piece of evidence that testifies to the solidity of “in Isaiah the prophet” in the Latin texts, and to resistance to changing it for apologetic purposes.

In Jerome’s Letter to Pammochius (57), he mentions the difficulty in Mk. 1:2 but offers no solution. In his Commentary on Matthew, he mentions it again, and offers two possible solutions: (a) the name of Isaiah was added by a mistake of the copyists, or (b) Mark has made one citation out of diverse Scriptural testimonies, as Paul does in Romans 3.

There is a third place where Jerome comments about this passage: Homily 75, On the Beginning of the Gospel of St. Mark. This homily was one of a group of homilies that were embedded in a collection of works of Chrysostom, but the assiduous researcher Morin made a case that they are actually works of Jerome.

So, working on the premise that Jerome produced this homily, let’s take a look at its contents, relying on pages 121ff. of The Homilies of St. Jerome – Volume 2 (60-96) translated by Sister Marie Liguori Ewald, I. H. M. in the Fathers of the Church series. (I adjusted the text a little.)

“‘The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ –
And therefore, not the son of Joseph. The beginning of the Gospel is the end of the Law; the Law is ended and the Gospel begins.
‘As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, Behold, I send My messenger before you, who shall who shall prepare your way.’ –
‘As it is written in Isaiah.’ Now as far as I recall by going back in my mind and sifting carefully the Septuagint, as well as the Hebrew scrolls [how many people besides Jerome could say this?!], I have never been able to locate in Isaiah the prophet the words ‘Behold, I send My messenger before you.’ But I do find them written near the end of the prophecy of Malachi. Inasmuch as this statement is written at the end of Malachi’s prophecy, on what basis does Mark the Evangelist assert here ‘As it is written in Isaiah the prophet’?
This author Mark is not to be lightly esteemed. In fact, the apostle Peter says in his letter, ‘The church chosen together with you, greets you, and so does my son Mark.’ O Apostle Peter, Mark, your son — son not by the flesh but by the Spirit — though informed in spiritual matters, is uninformed here, and credits to one prophet of Holy Scripture what is written by another: ‘As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, Behold I send My messenger before you.’
This is the very passage that the impious Porphyry, who has barfed out poison in his many writings against us, attacks in his fourteenth book. ‘The Gospel-writers,’ he claims, ‘were men so ignorant, not only in secular matters but even regarding divine writings, that they cited the testimony of one prophet and attributed it to another.’ That is what he hurls at us. Now, what shall we answer to him?
I think, inspired by your prayers, that this is the answer:
‘As it is written in Isaiah.’ – What is written in Isaiah the prophet? ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ready the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’ That is written in Isaiah; but there is a clearer explanation of this text in another prophet, and the evangelist is really saying that this is John the Baptist, of whom Malachi has also said, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before you, who shall prepare your way.’ The phrase, ‘It is written’ refers only to the following verse, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’ To prove, furthermore, that John the Baptist was the messenger who was sent, Mark did not choose to recommend his own word, but to offer proof from the word of a prophet.'”

So, if this Homily is genuinely the work of Jerome, it looks as if he was capable of expressing sometimes one view, and sometimes another. Here he does not mention his suspicion that Isaiah’s name might be an interpolation by copyists; he mentions the interpretive option exclusively.

3 thoughts on “In Defense of Mark 1:2’s “In the Prophets”

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