Is There an Error in Mark 1:2?

Frederick Duquette is a Sessional Lecturer in Philosophy at Tyndale University College. He has a B.A. in Philosophy from McMaster University, a B.Ed. from the University of Ottawa, and a Th.M. in Theology from Talbot School of Theology/Tyndale Seminary. Prof. Duquette is a great friend of the Tyndale Philosophy Department. He has taught courses in both Bioethics and Normative Ethical Theories.

This is an invited guest post on Bart Ehrman’s oft-repeated claim that Mark 1:2 contains a “mistake.” We are delighted that Prof. Duquette was willing to lend his expertise to this question.

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Considered opinion has it that Bart Ehrman lost his faith (either in inerrancy or Christianity, or both) due to an error in Mark 1:2, introducing John the Baptist via Isaiah: “…as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”. This is actually Malachi (3:1), not Isaiah. Mark then quotes Isaiah in the next verse, 1:3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

This seemingly unremarkable citation was devastating for Bart Ehrman and possibly all biblical inerrantists. Sadly for Ehrman, Mark 1:2 is not an error. Jesus himself uses a similar approach to “citation”.

Tyndale’s statement of faith affirms that scripture is “…inspired by the Holy Spirit, inerrant in all that it teaches, the one entirely trustworthy rule for faith and life. “ Talbot School of Theology adds: “They are without error or defect of any kind.”

Mark 1:2 does not appear to violate any of these statements. The problem is identifying the error or defect. Mark does quote Isaiah in 1:3, but does not enumerate Malachi in 1:2. What is the error? It is by modern standards a citation error. The best way to proceed is to examine scripture: how do the other gospels compare? Mark 1:2 may have intertextual support to understand Mark’s citation “style”.

Mt. 11:7-10, Luke 7:24-27, and Mark 1:2-8 all deal with John the Baptist. All 3 mention Mal. 3:1. Both Mathew and Luke feature Jesus himself quoting the very same Malachi 3.1 we find in Mark 1:2. Does Jesus identify Malachi?

No, Jesus simply quotes Mal 3.1 but does not mention Malachi. This is intentional, as Jesus uses the passive voice when quoting Mal 3.1. Mathew 11:10 “This is the one about whom it is written:” – passive voice, then “I will send my messenger ahead of you,  who will prepare your way before you.” – Jesus by design omits Malachi as the author.

So why use the passive voice to avoid authorship? Because John the Baptist is the focus, not who authored what. That is how the passive voice can be used. “Made In Canada” is passive, focusing on the country of origin, not a specific person. Mt. 11:9 – “Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” John the Baptist is MORE than a prophet, therefore identifying Malachi would diminish the point Christ is making about John the Baptist. This is identical in Luke 7:26. Similarly, Mark omits mention of Malachi. That was Christ’s intention.

Further, the very Isaiah 40:3 quoted in Mark 1:3 is paraphrased by Jesus both in Luke 7:24 and Mt. 11:7-8 just before Jesus quotes Mal 3.1. Again Jesus does not identify Isaiah but uses familiar tropes from Isaiah 40 and bundles them together before using the passively constructed call-out to Mal. 3.1, all of which to elevate the status of John the Baptist.

A more interesting question is why Mark bothers identifying Isaiah, as Jesus did not in the other gospels, but this is not an issue of inerrancy.

Note the hierarchy from all 3 gospels. Malachi goes unmentioned in all 3 gospel version (as John the Baptist is “greater”), Mark cites Isaiah and in particular the reference to he who appears in the “wilderness” (Isa. 40:3), thus to identify John the Baptist as that wilderness person in Isaiah: “And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness” (Mk 1:4). John the Baptist is then quoted as awaiting one greater than he: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mk 1:7-8). Christ, greater than John the Baptist; John the Baptist is “more” than a prophet. Prophets in the ancient world have very high spiritual authority. A very powerful Christological citation track, if you will.

If we are still worried about inerrancy, we have to ask about the citation style in Ancient Judea. There was no MLA. Chicago did not exist, even as a style. Citation styles exist for a reason, some sources claim it grew out of the explosion of publications from research institutions after WWII, requiring a more efficient means of tracking references and original work. Patent claims, copyright, intellectual property, royalty payments and plagiarism require very precise and complex tracking system.

Classic example is the AIDs retro-virus, who discovered it? The Nobel prize in 2008 went to the French virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (and her under-deserving boss). In 1986, a huge fight erupted between the French and the US government over American virologist Robert Gallo’s purported first-discovery (and patent right/royalties), requiring a treaty and intervention by Presidents Reagan and Chirac to smooth it over and assign joint discovery.

However, the scientific community voted with their feet: citations of Gallo’s work, commonplace in the 1980s, reduced to nil after 1990. It was clearly evident from the published material, trackable by the strict citation methods, that the French had discovered the AIDS virus in 1983, and that Gallo had plagiarized their virus from samples they had shared, claiming it to be his virus. It took time, but the truth emerged from the mass of published data via citation records.

Hence, despite the fact that Gallo had discovered the general category of “retro-virus” that AIDS fits into years prior (thus his citation influence in the early days of the virus research), he did not discover the actual virus, as desperate as he was to attach this famous disease to his obscure category. The Nobel committee judged accordingly. Thus the value of citations: researchers can track publications, reporting of results, scrutinize the nature of the results, compare to other cited works etc. None of this applies 2000 years ago.

Ehrman is being overwrought in his reaction. The claim there is a “mistake” in Mk 1:2 is a very crude and primitive reading of the gospels. Checking related gospels is always the first step before stampeding into premature conclusions.

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2 comments on “Is There an Error in Mark 1:2?

  1. […] 10.  Is There an Error in Mark 1:2? [ link ] […]

  2. […] 7.  Is There an Error in Mark 1:2? [ link ] […]

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