You Asked: Did Mark Fumble His Opening Quotation?

Editors’ note: 

Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to [email protected] along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Dave L. from Dunbar, Virginia, asks:

The Gospel of Mark begins, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Behold I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way.’” Only problem: that quote is from Malachi, not Isaiah. Did Mark just fumble the ball here? How do we make sense of this apparent error in Scripture?

We posed this question to Rikk E. Watts, professor of New Testament studies at Regent College in Vancouver.

This apparent discrepancy was noted as far back as the fourth century by Jerome, who respectfully observed: “O Apostle Peter, your son Mark, not in the flesh but in the Spirit, has made a mistake.” He was not alone. Two early manuscripts and all the later Byzantine ones also saw the problem, rescuing (presumably) Mark’s credibility by changing “in Isaiah” to “in the prophets.” Interestingly, the most reliable and earliest manuscripts and their earliest translations did not make that adjustment. Although it is possible that no one else saw the difficulty, it seems more likely that they left “Isaiah” unchanged because they either felt it inappropriate to tamper with the text or did not in fact see a problem. And if the latter, why not?

As is most often the case, awareness of first-century culture helps. First, Mark is accustomed to composite citations and includes several of Jesus’ own making in his Gospel (e.g., Mark 11:17; 13:24-25; 14:62). In such cases, following common practice, two separate texts are brought together to mutually inform and interpret one another. What makes the instance in view more significant, of course, is that it belongs to Mark’s own editorial introduction. According to ancient literary conventions, opening sentences played a vital role in introducing a book’s content and the greatness of its theme. Mark’s Gospel, then, concerns the good news about Jesus, particularly as it relates to what Isaiah and Malachi had to say about God’s return to his people.

Second, as Robert Gundry noted some time ago, it was common practice when dealing with composite quotations, if a source was to be cited, to name only the most important author (The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew’s Gospel, 125). Mark is simply informing the reader that his primary interpretative horizon is Isaiah. And as is well recognized, Isaiah and in particular his vision of new exodus salvation do indeed play a fundamental role in his Gospel (see my Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark).

So why put Malachi first? Dick France suggests that it would be odd to have Malachi’s “See!” (idou) halfway through the citation, and the idea of a “messenger” is more explicit in his citation than in Isaiah 40:3, which instead offers an appropriate comment on the messenger’s role (The Gospel of Mark, 63). Another suggestion is that the resulting Isaiah-Malachi-Isaiah pattern reflects something of Mark’s well-known sandwiching technique (e.g. Mark 3:20-35; 11:12-25; Watts, Exodus, 89-90). In such structures the central element, in this case Malachi, provides the key to the theological purpose of the sandwich (see J. R. Edwards’s “Markan Sandwiches: The Significance of Interpolations in Markan Narratives,” NovT 31 [1989], 196).

Mark inserts Malachi as the middle term to alert the reader to the fact that Isaiah’s message of salvation was not a foregone conclusion. As Malachi’s Elijah, John was to prepare for God’s coming by purifying Israel’s worship (Mal. 3:3) lest the land be cursed (Mal 4:5-6). Tragically, Israel’s authorities did not listen to John (Mark 1:14; 9:13; 11:27-33) and, unprepared for God’s coming in Jesus to redeem his people in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies, they rejected him and so came under the covenantal curse (Mark 3:28-30; 4:12; 7:6-13; 11:12-24; 13:1-37).

So what initially looks like an error turns out, when viewed in the light of ancient literary practice, to be a highly informative summary of Mark’s Gospel.