Comfort My People

December 6, 2020

Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 40:1-11

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Mark 1:1-8

Psalm 85:1-13

Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is overJSB

The opening words of chapter 40 begin with hope and comfort. In effect, they describe the end of the Babylonian captivity. That comes after 39 chapters of gloom and doom.

We all need to understand that this division does exist, though we can agree to disagree on why it exists. The idea of a Deutero Isaiah has been around for almost 250 years. There are some good reasons to side with the idea that Isaiah wrote 1-39 and someone else wrote 40-66 in the style of Isaiah. We won’t go into the reasons here. There are also good reasons why Isaiah wrote all 66 chapters.

What is important is that all the chapters represent the Word of God regardless of who wrote them. For that matter, the author of the Second Letter from Peter is widely disputed even though it opens with his name. It was common in ancient times to use the name of a famous person to lend gravitas to the unknown author’s work. We really have no reason to stick the name of Mark of the Gospel except that some Second Century church Bishop heard from someone else that Peter thought Mark wrote it, but which Mark? And forget Psalm 85. There is no way David wrote it and it was probably written only a century or two before Jesus’ birth. Does that make it any less the Word of God? Have you ever wondered how Moses, who was eighty when they crossed the Red Sea, found time to write the first five books of the OT, especially when he died at the end of the second one?

In verse 3 we read the Word of God regarding preparation for the Coming One—the Messiah. A voice rings out: “Clear in the desert a road for the Lord! Level in the wilderness a highway for our God! Let every valley be raised, every hill and mount made low. Let the rugged ground become level and the ridges become a plain. The Presence of the Lord shall appear, and all flesh, as one, shall behold—for the Lord Himself has spoken.” JSB

The quote in Mark is a bit misleading because he does a mash up of two prophets. Here are the first three verses of Mark. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God begins with the fulfilment of this prophecy of Isaiah—‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you’. ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’Phillips

The underlined verse 2 comes from Malachi. Behold, I am sending My messenger to clear the way before Me, and the Lord whom you seek shall come to His Temple suddenlyJSB

You may notice that neither the Malachi nor the Isaiah bits are accurate quotes. Why not? It is the sort of thing that confuses many Christians and serves as attack points by non-Christians. We can’t prevent the problems, but we can explain them.

In the First Century, the only Scripture among Christians was what we now call the Old Testament. The process of the 27 books of the New Testament being accepted as Scripture took five centuries, though it was mostly settled by the third.

However, the first writings—Paul’s letters—were accepted by most churches as authoritative, if not Scriptural. Likewise, the Gospels were quickly accepted. Still, four hundred years later, some of the books were not considered as Scripture. Some were ignored by some churches and others were elevated to Scripture only to be rejected a decade later.

But back to the First Century. The OT was found in three written forms as Jesus was walking the land. The first was Hebrew. The oldest copies were written using only consonants, no vowels; like this: NTHBGNNNG. In reading it, you had to know where the vowels belonged: INTHEBENINNING, and then where the spaces belonged: IN THE BEGINNING. By the Fifth Century the new copies used the vowels and spacing but had no lower case letters.

Only a small fraction of people could read, and few could speak Hebrew because their recent ancestors had spent several generations in captivity in Babylon where they learned the language of Aramaic. In Jesus’ day, Aramaic translations were used in synagogues, but only after the formal reading was done in Hebrew.

It would be as if our church today would read the Greek text of Mark, and follow it with the English translation and sermon, etc.

The interesting thing about the Aramaic translations—called Targumim, plural, Targum, singular—is that additional material was added to the actual text. It would be somewhat like Eugene Petersons’ The Message today—what we call a paraphrase, not a literal translation.

Christian scholars are realizing today that the authors of the NT made use of the Targumim, at least in part.

A third source, used more widely by Christian authors, was the Greek translation of the OT know as the Septuagint, so called because 70 Hebrew scholars who were also fluent in Greek worked together to make a near perfect copy of the Word of God. For Jews who lived in Greek speaking lands, this was their Scripture instead of the Targumim which they could not read.

What all that means is that Mark wrote the Isaiah quote using either the Targum or the Greek (more likely because he was writing in Greek), and he was writing it down from memory because he had no copy of the text in front of him. A copy of Isaiah would easily cost a working man two years wages. Even most synagogues could not afford any but the Hebrew texts.  In fact, the poorer synagogues often had hand-me-down scrolls. As a result, synagogue leaders visited the wealthier synagogues and tried to memorize as much of a Targum as possible before going back to share with the congregants.

Is it any wonder the authors of the NT messed up quotes?

After all this, the lesson today is that John prepared the way for Jesus, the Promised Messiah.

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

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