Jesus’ Reading of Isaiah 61v.1

(Listed under Speculations)

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22 Feb 2021

N.B. This page does not yet have a “Simplified English” version. Automated translations are based on the original English text. They may include significant errors.

The Incident in Nazareth, as described by Luke

Luke’s Gospel indicates that, very early in his ministry, Jesus visited his home town of Nazareth and was invited to read the scriptures in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. Nothing particularly surprising about that — until Jesus shocked the congregation by reading Isaiah 61:1 and effectively claiming that he was its fulfilment. But what has puzzled many people ever since is the apparent discrepancy between the version of the prophecy that Luke cites in Lk 4:18 and the actual Hebrew text of Isaiah.

What makes this even more confusing is that there appear to be two versions of Luke 4:18 — and neither of them are an exact match for the Hebrew, which reads:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath (a) anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; (b) he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, (c) to proclaim liberty to the captives, and (d) the opening of the prison to them that are bound; (e) To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD … (Isa 61:1-2 KJV, and most other Hebrew-English translations.)

In the text above, I have marked each of the key points with a bracketed letter. Now the corresponding verse in the KJV version of Luke reads:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath (a) anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; (b) he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, (c) to preach deliverance to the captives, and (d1) recovering of sight to the blind, (d2) to set at liberty them that are bruised, (e) To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. (Lk 4:18-19 KJV)

This is a near match, except that (d) has been replaced by (d1) and (d2), so we have one additional point. But many modern translations read something like this:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has (a) anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me (c) to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and (d1) recovery of sight for the blind, (d2) to set the oppressed free, (e) to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18-19 NIV)

These versions have the same number of key points as Isaiah: but this has been achieved by dropping point (b). So what are we to make of this? Did Jesus get it wrong, or did Luke misquote him?

Did Jesus get it wrong?

In short, no. Jesus was reading directly from the copy of the Isaiah scroll kept in the synagogue at Nazareth. The listeners were Jews who normally spoke Aramaic, a language closely related to the Hebrew of the Old Testament. The scroll is therefore most likely to have been in Hebrew; although the reading of the Hebrew scriptures was sometimes followed by an explanatory paraphrase in Aramaic, known as a Targum. But there is no mention of a Targum reading on this particular occasion.

So Did Luke Misquote Jesus?

Again, probably not: although the explanation is more complex. New Testament evidence shows that Luke was a Greek-speaking Jew. Jews living elsewhere in the Greek-speaking world typically used the Greek ‘Septuagint’ translations of the Hebrew scriptures1. And in Isaiah 61:1 the Greek reads:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has (a) anointed me; he has sent me to preach glad tidings to the poor, (b) to heal the broken in heart, (c) to proclaim liberty to the captives, and (d1) recovery of sight to the blind; (e) to declare the acceptable year of the Lord … (Isa 61:1-2 Brenton)

What’s the difference?

As can be seen, the Septuagint version has all the same points as the Hebrew; except that (d) ‘the opening of the prison to them that are bound’ in the Hebrew has been translated as (d1) ‘recovery of sight to the blind.’

In fact, point (d) in the Hebrew comprises just two words: “aw-sar’ pek-akh-ko’akh”. The first (Strongs reference H631) means ‘to yoke or hitch; by analogy to fasten in any sense, to join battle: – bind, fast, gird, harness, hold, keep, make ready, order, prepare, prison (-er), put in bonds, set in array, tie.’ The second (Strongs reference H6495) is a doubled form of H6491, (where H6491 means ‘to open (the senses, especially the eyes); figuratively to be observant: – open’). According to Strongs, H6495 means ‘opening (of a dungeon), that is, jail delivery (figuratively salvation from sin): – opening of the prison’: but according to Brown-Driver-Briggs it means, ‘opening (of eyes), wide’.

Thus, this particular phrase has a double meaning; and (d), (d1) & (d2) are all potentially valid renderings, depending upon whether one interprets the opening wide as referring to release from some form of circumstantial or visual bondage.2 Luke, as a highly-educated Greek speaker and travelling-companion of Paul (who had studied under Gamaliel, one of the period’s finest Hebrew scholars), would have been well aware of this. So it is easy to understand why, in describing this passage, Luke would have chosen to reference both principal meanings of this particular phrase.

If we only had to account for the differences in The King James and similar versions of Luke 4:18, we could consider the question solved and end the discussion at this point: but then we have the puzzle of the divergent rendering in so many modern translations.

Manuscript Variations of the New Testament

No document of ancient times has even remotely near as many preserved manuscripts, whether mostly complete, fragmentary, or preserved in translations or citations by other authors, as the New Testament. In fact, it can boast over 20 times more than its nearest rivals. But all of these were made by hand on perishable materials; so that all are copies of copies, and incorporate the textual errors, corrections and clarifications of their predecessors.

The abundance of copies necessarily means an abundance of variants: but the upside of this is that it is possible to use these variations to construct a ‘family tree’ of these copies and thereby arrive at a much higher level of certainty as to the precise wording of the original text and the likely manner in which these variations came about. Centuries of research has led to the recognition of several key branches of this family tree: but the sharing of knowledge between scholars over the centuries also introduces its own problems. The cross-pollination of ideas also means that variations in one branch may later appear in a different branch, having been accepted as a better or more probable rendering of the text: so attempting to determine the most reliable text by pedigree alone is not always the best approach.

Byzantine or Alexandrian?

If we examine the Greek texts of Luke 4:18, we find that the King James and similar versions are based on the Byzantine and ‘Textus Receptus’ family of manuscripts. But most modern translations are based upon the Alexandrian family, which omit point (b), about healing the broken in heart. This is because, among other considerations, there are more early extant manuscripts belonging to the Alexandrian family, including the earliest complete texts of the New Testament. Scholars these days are inclined to attach more importance to documentary evidence of age and inheritance and are reluctant to ‘correct’ a text purely to gloss over an apparent textual anomaly. However, errors can occur at any time in any branch. The Byzantine family of texts are mostly from the East; whereas the Alexandrian texts are mostly from the West; and it has been suggested that the lack of earlier Byzantine texts may have been because environmental conditions in the east were less favourable for long-term preservation of ancient manuscripts, resulting in a need for more frequent copying. In later centuries Byzantine texts predominate; so the lack of a demonstrably earlier copy than the Alexandrian, when the actual numbers of such earlier texts is relatively small, does not preclude its existence. This is particularly probable given that both Isaiah itself, and the ‘Septuagint’ (which also predates the New Testament), lend clear support to the Byzantine version.

Omission or Addition?

The question now is, ‘Was point (b) missing from Luke’s original text, and subsequently ‘corrected?’ Or was it originally present and omitted? There is no apparent reason why anyone would want to delete this point, especially as it is present in Isaiah: so we should assume that any omission was an accident.

Of course, had Luke (or any subsequent copyist) accidentally omitted point (b); then it is not inconceivable that an observant scribe might take it upon himself to correct the error; although most scribes would be very wary of making any direct alteration to a sacred text. However, we have already noted that the duplication of point (d) is easily explained as a conscious decision by Luke, due to the double meaning of that phrase. But that makes it highly improbable that, being well acquainted with both versions of the text, Luke would at the same time as deliberately amplifying point (d) have deliberately or accidentally omitted point (b).

But now consider the situation of an early copyist; who if directly familiar with the Isaiah text would likely be familiar with only one version. The Hebrew makes 5 points (a,b,c,d,e) and the Greek also makes 5 points (a,b,c,d1,e): but Luke makes 6 points (a,b,c,d1,d2,e). The scribe would naturally expect 5 points: so if his gaze were to skip momentarily from (a) to (c) he could easily fail to notice his mistake.

Conclusion

Given the textual evidence of the pre-existing Hebrew and Septuagint texts of Isaiah 61:1 and the known ambiguity of point (d), there is no good reason for challenging the validity of the Byzantine rendering of Luke 4:18. Its phrasing is entirely consistent with the deliberate, informed comment of one who was familiar with both renderings of Isaiah. On the other hand, the Alexandrian rendering is clearly at odds with the Isaiah text; yet presents no apparent reason for the omission of point (b) other than that of a simple scribal error. Moreover, Luke’s deliberate duplication of point (d) effectively increases the risk of just such an error in later years. The only argument in favour of the Alexandrian rendering is the absence of a surviving example of the Byzantine text that predates the handful of Alexandrian texts from this period. Thus, in this particular case at least, the evidence is strongly indicative of the ‘Textus Receptus’/Byzantine version being Luke’s original rendering of Jesus’ text.

Footnotes

  1. Strictly speaking, the term ‘Septuagint’ (meaning 70) refers to the Greek translation of the Torah (the first 5 books of the Old Testament), that was reputed to have been produced by team of 70 (or 72) scholars in the 3rd century BC, at the request of Ptolemy II of Egypt. The remaining books of the Old Testament may have been translated up to a century later: but the name is now generally applied to the entire translation.↩
  2. Indeed, the Targum Jonathan on Isaiah offers yet another rendering: “The prophet said, the spirit of prophecy from before the presence of the Lord God is upon me; because that the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings to the meek; He hath sent me to strengthen the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and to the prisoners! Appear in light! To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord …” (From ‘The Chaldee Paraphrase on The Prophet Isaiah’ Tr. Rev. C.W.H. Pauli. London Society’s House, 1871, pg 206; https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/The_Chaldee_paraphrase_on_the_prophet_Is/_boCAAAAQAAJ )↩

Page creation by Kevin King

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