Isaiah 40:1-2 — LXX, Masoretic Text, Links to the Synoptics

I read part of Isaiah 40 in a wedding today, and while I was at the rehearsal, I got bored and started comparing the versions of the text contained in the Septuagint (LXX) and the Masoretic Text (MT). And, unlike my last text criticism/commentary on Ezekiel, I did a little research before I wrote this. My main sources are:

Hans Debel, “Greek ‘Variant Literary Editions’ to the Hebrew Bible?”, Journal for the Study of Judaism 41 (2010): 161-190.

Wilfred G. E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to Its Techniques, 177-185.

I only really had time to look at Isaiah 40:1-2, but verse 2 provides plenty of fodder for consideration. Here are the two texts, followed by my own English translations.

1 Παρακαλεῖτε παρακαλεῖτε τὸν λαόν μου, λέγει ὁ θεός.
2 ἱερεῖς, λαλήσατε εἰς τὴν καρδίαν Ιερουσαλημ, παρακαλέσατε αὐτήν·
ὅτι ἐπλήσθη ἡ ταπείνωσις αὐτῆς, λέλυται αὐτῆς ἡ ἁμαρτία·
ὅτι ἐδέξατο ἐκ χειρὸς κυρίου διπλᾶ τὰ ἁμαρτήματα αὐτῆς.

1 “Comfort, comfort my people,” says God.
2 “Priests, speak to the heart of Jerusalem, comfort her,
Because her humiliation has been completed, her sin has been removed,
Because she has received from the Lord’s hand double her sins.”

נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם1
2 דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ
כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ
כִּי נִרְצָה עֲוֹנָהּ
כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְהוָה כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל-חַטֹּאתֶיהָ

1 “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God.
2 “Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and proclaim to her
That her servitude has been completed,
That her guilt has been satisfied,
That she has received from YHWH’s hand double for all her sins.”

Verse-by-Verse Comparison

Verse 1 only merits brief mention, because the difference between the two texts is so slight — the LXX simply has “God,” while the MT has “your God.” These different readings do not change the meaning of the text in the slightest.

Verse 2, however, is where the fun begins. Here’s my analysis.

Analysis of Vocabulary

The imperatives of vv. 1-2 are plural in both texts — they are second plural in the LXX and masculine plural in the MT; that is, they are functionally equivalent. The original reading seems to have been simple imperatives with no explicit subject, with the LXX’s addition of “priests” serving to make the subject explicit. References to priests in Isaiah are infrequent enough; ἱερεύς appears only in LXX 24:2; 28:7; 37:2; 40:2; 61:6; 66:22, and כהן only appears in MT 8:2; 24:2; 28:7; 37:2; 61:6; 66:22, which means that “priest” is likely only original in 24:2; 28:7; 37:2; 61:6; 66:22 — three times in 1 Isaiah and twice in 3 Isaiah, but none in 2 Isaiah, where ch. 40 is located. Thus, it’s likely that the original version of this text contains only the plural imperatives, with “priests” being an interpretive addition.

The “proclaim” of the MT (קִרְאוּ) is more original, with the LXX making the shift from καλέσατε (“call,” “proclaim”) to παρακαλέσατε (“exhort,” “comfort”) based on the presence of παρακαλέω twice in verse 1 and the similarity of παρακαλέω to καλέω. Likewise, the MT’s “servitude” is more original than the LXX’s “humiliation.” It is easy to see how the specific “servitude” shifted to the more abstract “humiliation,” while the move from abstract to specific is not as likely. Finally, the LXX’s “double her sins” is more original than the MT’s “double for all her sins.” The LXX’s reading is far more difficult to interpret than that of the MT, which makes it more likely to be original than the MT’s reading.

Analysis of Structure

Let’s look at the structure of the comforting message in the two different texts.

LXX:
“Priests, speak to the heart of Jerusalem, comfort her,
Because her humiliation has been completed, her sin has been removed,
Because she has received from the Lord’s hand double her sins.”

MT:
“Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and proclaim to her
That her servitude has been completed,
That her guilt has been satisfied,
That she has received from YHWH’s hand double for all her sins.”

The LXX structures the priests’ consolation as a set of nested parallelisms in a bicolon — that is, the two ὅτι clauses are parallel, and the contents of the first ὅτι clause are also parallel — while the MT arranges the proclamation in a tricolon. I cannot tell at this point which version is more original; even though parallelism is a classic feature of biblical Hebrew poetry, tricola are by no means unknown (cf. Watson, 177-185).

I can say for sure, though, that the LXX has revised the Hebrew text it reflects. Since the MT’s וְקִרְאוּ (“and proclaim”) is more original, we can say with certainty that the LXX has dropped the conjunction in favor of juxtaposing the two clauses in the parallelism; that is, it reads “speak to the heart of Jerusalem, comfort her” instead of “speak to the heart of Jerusalemand comfort her.” We may thus assume by analogy that “Because her humiliation has been completed, her sin has been removed” reflects an older “Because her humiliation has been completed and her sin has been removed.” (This reading, of course, is different than that of the MT, which has כִּי (“that”) where the LXX’s source has וְ (“and”).) With the vocabulary of the MT as a guide, we may reconstruct the LXX’s source as follows:

דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ
כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ וְנִרְצָה עֲוֹנָהּ
כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְהוָה כִּפְלַיִם הַחַטֹּאתֶיהָ

“Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and proclaim to her
That her servitude has been completed and her guilt has been satisfied,
That she has received from YHWH’s hand double her sins.”

As I said, though, I’m not certain whether the LXX’s bicolon or the MT’s tricolon is more original, though the two structures definitely reflect two different text-types.

Analysis of Meaning

As they stand, the texts of the LXX and MT here provide two pretty different meanings. The MT has unnamed heralds — the most obvious group is the prophets — making a threefold proclamation directly to Jerusalem, that she no longer will suffer servitude, that her guilt is absolved, and that God has repayed her sin in full. In other words, these heralds must proclaim to Jerusalem that God, of his own accord, has forgiven her sins. The LXX, on the other hand, has the priests comforting Jerusalem because her guilt had been absolved; that is, it implies that Jerusalem’s absolution has come by means of the Temple sacrifices.

If we assume that the text recorded in the MT is more original — an assumption that most of the linguistic features support — the MT thus reflects a prophecy made during the time of the Babylonian exile (i.e. the time 2 Isaiah was written), that God had forgiven Jerusalem because he had exhausted his wrath against her, and he would soon return the Jerusalemites home. The LXX, it seems, reflects a later, post-exilic tradition, which took root at a time when the Temple sacrifices occurred regularly. In this tradition, God has still forgiven Jerusalem for her sins, but because she has offered acceptable sacrifices at the Temple.

Interaction with the New Testament

The tradition of the LXX’s text is not very friendly to the traditional understanding of the prophets (e.g. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” Hosea 6:6) or of the NT (e.g. the Temple sacrifices being insufficient for salvation, which is something only Jesus’ death can bring about).

Interestingly, it is quite probable that at least three of the NT authors knew of this second tradition. Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:2-3, and Luke 3:4-6 all quote this passage (specifically, Isa 40:3, the verse immediately after the one we are currently considering) with wording identical to that of our LXX. Thus, it is highly likely that their version of Isa 40:2 refers to priests, not prophets, as does our LXX. While we cannot say for certain how exactly these authors would have treated the pro-sacrifice tradition in Isa 40:2 in the LXX, it is certainly a question worth considering.

Conclusion

In sum, we may reconstruct two different text-types of Isaiah 40:2 — one reflected by the LXX (LXX-source) and one reflected by the MT (MT-source):

LXX-source:
דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ
כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ וְנִרְצָה עֲוֹנָהּ
כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְהוָה כִּפְלַיִם הַחַטֹּאתֶיהָ

“Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and proclaim to her
That her servitude has been completed and her guilt has been satisfied,
That she has received from YHWH’s hand double her sins.”

MT-source:
דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ
כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ
כִּי נִרְצָה עֲוֹנָהּ
כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְהוָה כִּפְלַיִם הַחַטֹּאתֶיהָ

“Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and proclaim to her
That her servitude has been completed,
That her guilt has been satisfied,
That she has received from YHWH’s hand double her sins.”

The MT reflects a more original tradition, one in which the Judean population, held captive in Babylon and longing to escape their servitude and return to their homeland, receives a prophecy that God has forgiven them — not from anything they themselves had done, but simply because had exhausted his wrath against them.

The LXX is a later tradition, one that roots itself in the efficacy of the Temple sacrifices; in this tradition, God still has forgiven Jerusalem her sins, but because the priests have offered acceptable sacrifices to atone for their sin. Matthew, Mark, and Luke likely knew this tradition, since their quotations of the next verse (Isa 40:3) are identical to the text of our LXX, and it is worth considering what effect, if any, this tradition had on their thought.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Isaiah 40:1-2 — LXX, Masoretic Text, Links to the Synoptics

  1. It would make more sense God is forgiving them for a reason, not just because He is exhausted being angry with them, (there is the fact God is outside of our idea of time). I think the Temple Sacrifices need to be understood here symbolically, i.e we are that temple, the sacrifice happens within us. I would say as always the LXX is right.

  2. From a text-critical standpoint, I’d have to disagree. It’s pretty obvious that the reference to “priests” — the only explicit reference to the Temple system — is an expansion/explanation that was added to the text at some later time, in order to make it clear who exactly should be comforting Jerusalem.

    Also, remember that Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) comes from the time of the exile, a time when the Temple sacrifices weren’t being performed. So, it makes more sense in context that YHWH’s anger had simply run its course (YHWH being a just god, after all, who thus can’t be angry forever) and that he was returning the exiles to Jerusalem simply because their time in exile had been finished.

  3. You are probably right on the “priests” bit, but the MT says “Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and proclaim to her”, who should speak to the heart of Jerusalem? So the LXX translator thought priests should be speaking to them this good news, I think it should read, ‘Be comforted, be comforted, my people, saith your God.’ The priest bit is definately an insertion. Also the idea is Jerusalem represents the heart, so someones got mixed up with the idea of speaking to the heart of the heart/Jerusalem. I am a Theist but I dont believe YHWH is doing any of this exile punishment stuff, He is just playing along with it, God just sees the future and so fits warnings around whats going to happen anyway so lessons can be learnt while pretending to be within our concept of space/time so not to confuse the Jews too much. Yes it looks to me like the LXX tried to make sense of an already bad MT job and your justification for it sounds about right. I generally have a problem with the MT since the dead sea scrolls proved the LXX was more reliable, atleast when it comes to not being bias IMO.

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