May 29, 2014

Masoretic Accents and Structural Analysis: A Test-case from Isa. 40:3 and Mark 1:3

[Some edits for precision 5/30/14]

In the Fall (2014), we will see another class of students enroll in Hebrew Exegesis.  One of the most interesting components of this course (to me) is when the students learn to do structural analyses based on the masoretic accents.  The
"Masoretes placed accents into the Hebrew text in order to preserve the proper reading and meaningful interpretation of the Scriptures, especially the mode of cantillation in their public reading . . . . The vowel pointings preserve the traditional pronunciation and the accents preserve the traditional modulation based upon logical divisions of the text" (Barrick and Busenitz, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Grammar, p. 45).
The system of accents is analogous to a highly developed system of punctuation that includes direction on how to stress words and syllables.  One reason (among many) that these are interesting is that as suggested in the 2nd line of the quote above, they indicate views on interpretation of the text.  In other words, the system of accents show not merely how to read the text, but give some indication as to how the text ought to be interpreted, or at least how the Masoretes thought the text ought to be interpreted.  Consider, though, one clear cut example of this in the case of Isaiah 40:3.

Observe the wording of Isa. 40:3 in the translations below:
  • ESV "A voice cries: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'"
  • NAS "A voice is calling, 'Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.'"
Notice that according to the punctuation, the clearing/preparing of the way is: 1.) for the LORD (LORD in all caps is the translation of Hebrew יהוה/YHWH), i.e. Yahweh, our God, 2.) in the wilderness, and 3.) such that a way/path is to be prepared. I.e. Yahweh our God is coming, and He is coming in the wilderness/desert, and a way is to be prepared for Him in advance.  For those interested in the arrival of the Messiah, this is quite an exciting prospect.  However, observe the punctuation of the KJV:
  • KJV  "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'."
Based on the punctuation of the KJV, the prophet seems to be the one located in the wilderness in connection to his prophetic ministry, rather than this verse being a clear reference to place of the inauguration of Messiah's ministry.  The significance is one of emphasis and clarity.  

Later in the NT, Mark 1 begins by identifying John the Baptist as the forerunner to the Messiah who is preparing the way, and quotes Isaiah 40:3 (cf. Mar 1:3) to make this point.  The narrative goes on to present Jesus as the fulfillment of this prophecy as He goes out to John in the wilderness, is baptized by John in the Jordan River, and is then confirmed as the Son of God by the symbolic presence of the Spirit accompanied by the affirming voice from Heaven.  Prior to these actions, Mark 1:5 shows that the people had been going out to John in the wilderness and were repenting of their sins, i.e. they were experiencing a moral straightening prior to Jesus' arrival.  Notice, though, the punctuation of the KJV, ESV, and NAS for this NT verse:  
  • KJV  "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'." --Mark 1:3
  • NAS The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight.'" --Mark 1:3
  • ESV "the voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'" --Mark 1:3
The punctuation of the ESV and NAS shift in the NT to that of the KJV.  Before looking at the Hebrew text, consider the following questions: Who was in the wilderness, the prophet, or the Messiah, or both?  What difference does it make?  The punctuation of the ESV and NAS in Isa. 40:3 suggest the Messiah would inaugurate His ministry in the wilderness--a highly unusual prospect in view of his royal lineage.  What would be the nature of the preparatory work in anticipation of Messiah's arrival, and what are the implications if this work occurs in the wilderness?    

Early Greek texts did not employ much in the way of punctuation.  Rather, the punctuation in English for the most part represents the opinion of modern editors.  However, the masoretic accents provide some assistance, especially when combined with a fuller structural analysis.  The Hebrew text reads: 

  ק֣וֹל קוֹרֵ֔א בַּמִּדְבָּ֕ר פַּנּ֖וּ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהוָ֑ה יַשְּׁרוּ֙ בָּעֲרָבָ֔ה מְסִלָּ֖ה לֵאלֹהֵֽינוּ׃ 

If we diagram the verse based on the accents, we see something rather significant--the presence of a parallelism featuring a chiastic structure, a structure clearly intended by Isaiah.  Observe the following structure:

Notice when we diagram the verse according to the accents, we see a clear parallelism containing a chiastic structure highlighting the verbs “prepare”/“make smooth” as well as the prepositional phrases “in the wilderness”/“in the desert,” which identify the location of the Messiah's arrival.  (The phrase “make smooth” (ישר) often communicates the idea of moral straightening.) This suggests that Isaiah intended to indicate the incredible idea that Yahweh/God himself would be in the wilderness/desert upon the inauguration of a new era (Isa. 40:3ff).  Or, at the least, the chiastic structure draws attention to: 1.) the place of action, and 2.) the kind of action. 

Even more, the masoretes apparently also considered this verse extraordinary and intentionally set off the verse as indicated by the unusual space in the right margin.  This can be verified by a simple glance at Codex Leningradensis.  Notice the significant indentation:

Codex L, Isa 40:3,4-5a

The arrival and presentation of Jesus as Messiah seems to be an even clearer fulfillment of this OT prophecy when the accents of Isa. 40:3 are taken into consideration.  Even more striking, is that this interpretation seems to be corroborated by Codex Alexandrinus (A) in Mark 1:3.  The Greek text of A here employs the large (majascule) Φ for Φωνὴ ("voice") and Ε for ἐν ("in"), but no majascule for ἐτοιμάσατε ("prepare," see below) as is found in LXX and NT Byzantine text.  Observe the clear majascules of Codex A below:

Again, this reading produces: "A voice (Φωνὴ) of one crying, 'In (Εν) the wilderness, make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight.'"  This understanding agrees with the accents and structure of the Hebrew of Isa. 40:3.

So, why did the alternate punctuation of the KJV develop to begin with?  It follows the Septuagint's (LXX) less than precise rendering of the Hebrew, which, as presented by Ralfh, capitalizes "E" on ἑτοιμάσατε in Isa 40:3, yielding "Ἑτοιμάσατε" instead of ἑτοιμάσατε, i.e. "...'Prepare....'"  Observe the circled capital "E" in the photo-text below:

Again, this renders something like "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'."  This is also the form of the Byzantine/Majority text as may also be seen below. Observe the highlighted capital letters:

So, in this case, there seems to be a clear, although unintentional, obfuscation of the intention of Isaiah by both the LXX, Byzantine Text, and subsequently the KJV, as well as NAS, ESV, and others in the NT. 

Note: The snip of Alexandrinus and BYZ are possible thanks to BibleWorks Software's manuscript project. 

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