Does Roman 9:27-28 Misquote Isaiah 10:22-23?

Critics of the New Testament often point to alleged problems in how its authors utilized the Old Testament. In some cases, the New Testament is said to have ignorantly misquoted or even deceitfully altered the words of the Law and the Prophets, misleading their readers to suit their own ends. Such skeptics most often point to well-known examples like the Book of Hebrews’ use of Psalm 40 or Jesus’ citation of Isaiah 61 in Luke, but Paul doesn’t escape their crosshairs either. Did he bungle a quote from Isaiah in Romans 9?

The alleged misquote

Paul relies heavily on the Old Covenant Scriptures throughout his letters, and the Book of Romans is no exception. In the ninth chapter, he explicitly draws on the words of Isaiah, and it is here that we are told he is guilty of a “misquote”:

“Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, ‘Though the number of the sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved; for the Lord will execute His word on the earth, thoroughly and quickly,” (Romans 9:27-28).

Here, Paul is referencing Isaiah 10, where we read:

“For though your people, O Israel, may be like the sand of the sea, Only a remnant within them will return; A destruction is determined, overflowing with righteousness. For a complete destruction, one that is decreed, the Lord God of hosts will execute in the midst of the whole land” (Isaiah 10:22-23).

While the wording between the two is close enough to be sure the one is quoting the other, Paul’s citation differs in several key ways:

 It is notably shorter than Isaiah’s original words.
 It refers to “the number of the sons of Israel” rather than “your people, O Israel.”
 It says the remnant will be “saved” rather than saying they will “return.”
 It leaves out Isaiah’s entire middle clause about a destruction being determined, overflowing with righteousness
 The final clause refers to the Lord executing “His word” rather than “a complete destruction.”
 The title “the Lord God of Hosts” is reduced to simply “the Lord.”

As far as alleged misquotes go, this one is pretty mundane. None of these supposed “changes” or “errors” alters the meaning of the text. Paul’s concise version of Isaiah still carries the full thrust of the original and is obviously similar enough even in wording for us to know exactly what text he is citing. Still, the differences are significant enough to require an explanation. Is this is a misquote? How are we to explain it?

Paul and the Septuagint

Many of the apparent differences between Paul’s wording and Isaiah’s stem not from Paul himself but from the existing Greek translation of Isaiah already present in Paul’s day and familiar to Paul’s readers. Paul wrote the Book of Romans, in part, to Gentile Christians who would not have spoken any Hebrew and would have known only the Greek translations of the Old Testament books (known today as the Septuagint). Even many of Paul’s Jewish readers in the city of Rome may have been ignorant of the Hebrew language (indeed, these Greek translations of the Old Testament prophets were likely originally made for Greek-speaking Jewish readers!) Thus, it is only reasonable that Paul would often use the translation his audience already knew, and so he did! Quoting a known translation is not a misquote.

In this case, Paul’s wording does not perfectly match the Septuagint (or, at least, not the form of the Septuagint found in the manuscripts we have today). But it is clear that his citation depends on the Septuagint rather than directly on the Hebrew:

“ἐὰν ᾖ ὁ ἀριθμὸς τῶν υἱῶν Ἰσραὴλ ὡς ἡ ἄμμος τῆς θαλάσσης τὸ ὑπόλειμμα σωθήσεται λόγον γὰρ συντελῶν καὶ συντέμνων ποιήσει κύριος ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς” (Romans 9:27-28).

“ἐὰν γένηται ὁ λαὸς Ισραηλ ὡς ἡ ἄμμος τῆς θαλάσσης τὸ κατάλειμμα αὐτῶν σωθήσεται λόγον γὰρ συντελῶν καὶ συντέμνων ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ ὅτι λόγον συντετμημένον ποιήσει ὁ θεὸς ἐν τῇ οἰκουμένῃ ὅλῃ” (Isaiah 10:22-23, LXX).

One does not need to read Greek to see that there are large areas of the verse where these are word-for-word identical. When we remove the differences, we see:

“ἐὰν…Ισραηλ ὡς ἡ ἄμμος τῆς θαλάσσης τὸ…σωθήσεται λόγον γὰρ συντελῶν καὶ συντέμνων ποιήσει…” (Romans 9:27-28, NA/UBS).

“ἐὰν…Ισραηλ ὡς ἡ ἄμμος τῆς θαλάσσης τὸ…σωθήσεται λόγον γὰρ συντελῶν καὶ συντέμνων…ποιήσει…” (Isaiah 10:22-23, LXX).

Even the differences are often insignificant. Paul uses the word ὑπόλειμμα while the Septuagint uses κατάλειμμα, but these are not only synonyms but are, in fact, variant forms of the same word, both meaning “remnant.” Likewise, the Septuagint summarizes the title “Lord God of Hosts” as “God” while Paul summarizes it as “Lord,” but this is hardly a significant difference. Indeed, some manuscripts of the Septuagint read “Lord” here rather than “God,” so this difference may simply reflect the wording of the version of the Septuagint with which Paul was familiar. Again, hardly a misquote.

It is also worth noting that Paul’s use of “execute His word” and of “saved” both come straight from the Septuagint, so these are, in fact, accurate quotations of the Greek translation that Paul and his readers were using. Thus, most of the supposed differences between Paul and Isaiah are simply translation choices made by the Jewish community of the day rather than changes mistakenly or maliciously introduced by Paul. They may be somewhat paraphrastic, but they are not “wrong,” and Paul was not in error to use a well-known translation with which his readers were already familiar.

The number of the sons of Israel…a misquote?

This still leaves a few questions. The first is the beginning of Paul’s citation, “Though the number of the sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea…” (Romans 9:27). While this does not differ in meaning from Isaiah’s “For though your people, O Israel, may be like the sand of the sea…” (Isaiah 10:22), it certainly differs notably in wording. And the Septuagint is no help to us here. It, likewise, reads, “And though the people of Israel be as the sand of the sea…” (Isaiah 10:22, LXX).1 This part is undoubtedly a misquote, right? No, not at all.

In reality, it was not uncommon for early Jewish writers (of which Paul is one) to render this passage in a way that explained the analogy. Isaiah says that the people of Israel are “as the sand of the sea.” But in what way are they like sea sand? We are so familiar with the analogy that we take its meaning for granted, but many ancient authors wanted to ensure that their readers understood the reference. For example, the Targum of Isaiah (a Jewish translation of the Hebrew text into Aramaic) reads:

“For though your people, Israel, be many as the sand of the sea,” (Targum Isaiah 10:22)2

This is not a misquote. The translator spelled out that the people would be many as the sand of the sea. Likewise, the famed Jewish sage Ibn Ezra paraphrases the passage as:

“Although Israel should in those days be as numerous as the sand of the sea, only those that will return to God will remain.”3

These versions are not so different from Paul’s “Though the number of the sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea…” Paul was not misquoting. He simply cited the passage in the explanatory fashion that other Jewish teachers sometimes did.

The missing middle

This leaves us with the most significant difference between Paul’s citation and Isaiah’s original wording, the seemingly missing middle clause:

“Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, ‘Though the number of the sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved; for the Lord will execute His word on the earth, thoroughly and quickly,” (Romans 9:27-28).

“For though your people, O Israel, may be like the sand of the sea, Only a remnant within them will return; A destruction is determined, overflowing with righteousness. For a complete destruction, one that is decreed, the Lord God of hosts will execute in the midst of the whole land” (Isaiah 10:22-23).

It is worth noting that this apparent discrepancy exists only in certain manuscripts. The majority of Greek copies of the Book of Romans, including some as early as the fifth century AD, contain the middle clause from Isaiah in a form identical to the Septuagint. If these manuscripts are correct, the alleged “misquote” disappears. The Latin versions and some other ancient translations likewise have this longer, “fuller” version of the passage. This can be seen even in some English translations, such as:

“Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, The remnant will be saved. For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness, Because the Lord will make a short work upon the earth.’”  (Romans 9:27-28, NKJV)

Thus, it is possible that the shorter version was a copying mistake by certain early scribes rather than Paul’s original wording. Still, the shorter version is all of the earliest manuscripts, such as P46 (late Second/early third century), Codex ‭א and B (fourth century), and Codex A (fifth century), and continued to be copied in a small number of later Greek manuscripts. It is also the version seen in the ancient Coptic versions, the earliest Syriac copies, and the Ethiopic translation, so we can’t simply dismiss the reading. It is strongly attested in very early and widespread sources, which is why most modern scholars favor it.

So then, assuming that the short version is the original, is that a problem? Not at all! The middle clause is little more than a further elaboration on the same idea as the rest of the verse. It does not contain anything that changes the passage’s meaning or alters Paul’s point. Thus, Paul did not leave it out to try to twist or misrepresent the passage. It seems that he was simply being concise. He highlighted the beginning and end of the passage to summarize the point rather than quoting it fully.

Many people do this today in passages like John 1:1-14. They quote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” This is, of course, only verse 1 and part of verse 14. It leaves out a lengthy portion in the middle and some concluding words at the end, but it nicely summarizes the point: the eternal, divine Word took on flesh and became the man, Jesus. The person using the abbreviated citation is not denying the rest of the passage. They are often more than happy to walk through every word of it with you if you have the time and really want them to. The rest of the words only further support the point! Yet, they quote this abbreviated form to highlight the central idea and move on without bogging the whole conversation down in the details.

Obviously, Isaiah 10:22-23 is not nearly as long a passage as John 1:1-14, but the principle here seems to be the same. Paul offers an accurate abbreviation of a section of Isaiah that highlights the central theme without having to necessarily quote every word. This is a perfectly legitimate way to reference a passage of Scripture. It is no grounds for charging Paul with error.

Conclusion: Not a misquote

The differences in wording between Romans 9:27-28 and Isaiah 10:22-23 are easily explained through Paul’s use of the Septuagint, his application of standard Jewish explanatory practices, and simple abbreviation. There is absolutely no foundation to accuse Paul of a mistake or deceit based on his use of this verse. Indeed, he quotes the text in a way that fits perfectly with his being an educated, first-century Jewish teacher writing to a mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles from various walks of life to whom he wants to accurately present the thrust of this text without distracting from his central point. In other words, precisely what the New Testament says!

References[+]

References

1 Benton Translation, https://studybible.info/Brenton/Isaiah%2010:22-23 (Accessed 4/1/2022)

2 Translation of the Aramaic Targum given here is from Bruce D. Chilton, “The Aramaic Bible, Volume 11: The Isaiah Targum” (The Liturgical Press, 1987)

3 https://www.sefaria.org/Isaiah.10.22?ven=Tanakh:_The_Holy_Scriptures,_published_by_JPS&vhe=Miqra_according_to_the_Masorah&lang=bi&with=Ibn%20Ezra&lang2=en (Accessed 10:22)

The post Does Roman 9:27-28 Misquote Isaiah 10:22-23? appeared first on Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry.


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