A very interesting post at The Lesser of Two Weevils, discussing a discrepancy I’d noticed myself but never looked into:

This passage caught my eye last night. We heard it twice; the first reading from Isaiah 40:3,

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

…and again in the Gospel of Mark 1:3 (both passages NRSV),

the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,”

There is a clear difference in meaning here. Was the voice crying in the wilderness? Or was the way prepared in the wilderness?

The blogger, Talmida, gives the Hebrew with a word-for-word translation and quotes a bunch of versions with different readings; commenters add the Vulgate (vox clamantis in deserto parate viam Domini) and Septuagint (φωνη βοωντος εν τη ερημω ετοιμασατε την οδον κυριου), both ambiguous.
Update. See now the discussion of the Hebrew at Sauvage Noble.


  1. Well, it would hardly be the first time that someone in the NT misquoted something from the Old, trying to shoehorn a fit.

  2. Hopefully this will be resolved by December 25 😉 Or by Passover, or Easter.

  3. I don’t think the issue is so much the version in the NT as the difficulty in telling what the OT is actually saying.

  4. According to the cantillations, the first translation is correct. “a voice cries out, ‘in the wilderness prepare…'”
    This is not necessarily a slam-dunk, because the cantillations occasionally reflect commentary and not simple meaning, but usually are pretty simple. Also, sometimes musical considerations take precedence, but again, I don’t think that is happening here.
    In fact, I think this very verse is used as an example in Breuer’s book on the cantillations. I’ll check into it.

  5. This is a great example of how punctuation is the colostomy bag of syntax. It used to be fashionable to think free wor drder was so wondrous, and to run little tests to see if this or that language truly had this wondrous feature. Well, this is what you get.

  6. But Jim no matter where you draw the clause boundaries, Latin still has a heap of subject/object asymmetries.
    On my local radio station yesterday: “foreign to us a child is born”.

  7. bamidbar actually should be translated ‘in the desert’, and ‘baarava’ in the wilderness, thus “a voice cries out in the desert prepare the way, etc”. Not sure about her edition’s lines, there are of course no such lines in the MSs, though the syntactic parallelism is quite telling – the way is to be prepared in the wilderness/desert. The more interesting question for interpretation is what is ‘kol kore'(the voice cries out). Is it like the talmudic ‘yats’a bat-kol'(the daughter of the voice came out) which is a standard way of expressing that a message has been sent from heaven? Or is ‘kol kore’ a different kind of voice?

  8. I don’t read Hebrew, but I always thought that the Greek was intentionally ambiguous here. The voice cries in the wilderness to make a path in the wilderness. It’s like those translations of what the angels say to the shepherds. The Latin, if I remember right, reads “Peace on earth to men of good will,” (in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis – I can’t quote the Greek), but we often hear “Peace on earth, good will to men.”

  9. I think Clint has it; the ambiguity is intentional or else inconsequential. Renee’s parsing makes perfect sense, and yet the ambiguity remains. This ambiguity would be part of a larger pattern. Think of Jesus’ genealogy traced back to David and beyond – “Son of David” -ie. through Joseph. Strictly speaking, it is completely beside the point, yet there it is, in the first verses of the first chapter of the first Gospel. How’s that for ambiguity? Perhaps the inconsequentiality of the ambiguity is the point.

  10. YOu’re right, clint. Well said.

  11. Maybe it’s offtopic, but i just wanted to say, that it’s really interesting to read everything this with comments… You discuss here a lot of interesting things on different themes. Thanks for that =)

Speak Your Mind