1 Peter 2: 6 and Isaiah 28:16 – Sorry for the Wordy, Technical Analysis

A few weeks ago, I preached on 1 Peter 2:6-12 and my preparation raised two controversial issues.  Incidentally, I decided to address these issues in my sermon.  In hindsight, I think my sermon got bogged down in answering these difficult questions and perhaps suffered as a consequence.  You can listen to the sermon here, if you’re interested.

Anyway, here are the two controversial issues: 1 Peter 2:8 raises the question of predestination in relation to the reprobate, while 1 Peter 2:6, quoting Isaiah 28:16, poses a difficulty in how New Testament writers quote the Old Testament.  This blog is all about 1 Peter 2:6, Isaiah 28:16, the Septuagint, the Masoretic Text and how New Testament writers quoted the Old Testament.  If that doesn’t whet your appetite, nothing will.

The Issue

In 1 Peter 2:6, Peter quotes Isaiah 28:16, writing:

“Behold, I lay in Zion

A chief cornerstone, elect, precious,

And he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame.” (New King James Version)

But if I read the same quote in Isaiah 28:16, in Isaiah, it says:

“Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation,

A tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation;

Whoever believes will not act hastily.” (Also New King James Version)


You can see immediate differences.  Has Peter made a mistake in his quote?!


A Start to the Solution – The Septuagint

The most obvious difference is in line 3, where “whoever believes will not act hastily” becomes “he who believes on him will by no means be put to shame”.  The source for this change is easy enough to find – Peter is quoting from the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), rather than translating the Masoretic Text from Hebrew to Greek himself.  Around 70% of New Testament quotes from the Old Testament are quotes from the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Masoretic Text. 

This is unsurprising.  The New Testament writers were simply quoting from the most readily available Old Testament scriptures available to the Greek speakers they were writing to.  If I were going to write a letter to Christ Church Fareham, I would write it in English and I would quote the Bible using the English ESV version, because that’s what we and most of our members use.

The Septuagint was a Greek translation of the Hebrew text written in the 3rd century BC.  Supposedly, the Septuagint translation was completed by 72 Jewish translators, 6 from each tribe in Israel.  One later edit to the story says that each of the translators were locked in their own private cells and miraculously all came up with the exact same translation, proving it was a divinely inspired translation.  This edit was undoubtedly falsified and Protestant Christians today do not consider the Septuagint to be the inspired word of God, but a translation of the inspired word of God.  However, since we believe the Greek New Testament is the inerrant word of God, when a New Testament writer quotes the Septuagint translation, we must believe that the translation work was accurate.

In that case, how did “whoever believes will not act hastily” become “he who believes on him will not be put to shame”?  The Septuagint translator has not translated word for word, but has made some fairly significant interpretive decisions.  The first decision the Septuagint translator has made is where belief is to be directed.  When you read the Hebrew Masoretic Text of Isaiah 28:16, the reader might well ask “What should I believe?”  The Septuagint Translator answers the question.  The reader should believe on him.  The him is the cornerstone spoken about earlier in the verse.  This translation is completely uncontroversial.  For centuries, Jewish writers had considered Isaiah 28:16 to be a Messianic text.  The cornerstone spoken of was considered to be the Messiah, a king. 

The second interpretive decision made is to define what “not act hastily” really means.  Here is how I understand the Septuagint translator thought process.  The context of Isaiah 28 is describing impending invasion that will come upon Israel for her disobedience towards God.  To act hastily then would be to panic and flee, much earlier than necessary.  To flee is a shameful act.  So, the one who acts hastily is one who is put to shame for their hasty fleeing.  Consequently, “the one who believes on him will not be put to shame” is definitely more like The Message translation of the Bible, rather than the ESV, but it is a fair rendering of the verse.

More Problems – Peter changes the Septuagint Translation as well

Having accepted that Peter quotes the Septuagint, rather than the Masoretic text, you’d think our problems were solved.  However, when you line up the full verse in Peter against the verse in the Septuagint, you realise Peter hasn’t quoted the Septuagint exactly.  Here’s the Greek:

ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἐμβαλῶ εἰς τὰ θεμέλια Σιων λίθον πολυτελῆ ἐκλεκτὸν ἀκρογωνιαῖον ἔντιμον εἰς τὰ θεμέλια αὐτῆς καὶ ὁ πιστεύων ἐπ᾽ αὐτῷ οὐ μὴ καταισχυνθῇ. (Septuagint)

Ἰδοὺ τίθημι ἐν Σιὼν λίθον ἀκρογωνιαῖον ἐκλεκτὸν ἔντιμον, καὶ ὁ πιστεύων ἐπ’ αὐτῷ οὐ μὴ καταισχυνθῇ. (1 Peter)

And here’s my own word for word translation of 1 Peter, the Septuagint and the Masoretic text.

1 Peter 2:6 Septuagint Masoretic Text
Behold, I establish in Zion a stone Behold, I lay for the foundations of Sion a costly stone Behold, I establish in Zion a stone
Chosen, cornerstone, precious chosen, cornerstone, precious, for its foundations; Tried, precious, corner(stone), a sure foundation
and he that believes on him shall by no means be ashamed and he that believes on him shall by no means be ashamed whoever believes will not act hastily

Peter has made two changes to Septuagint.  Firstly, he’s used a different Greek word for “lay”.  Peter has used τίθημι, whereas the Septuagint used ἐμβαλῶ.  Τίθημι seems like a better translation of the Hebrew – it means place, set or establish, as opposed to ἐμβαλῶ, which literally means to throw down.  It feels like Peter is correcting the Septuagint’s translation in this first phrase.  Interestingly, Peter uses the same verb in verse 8 – “they stumble at the word, being disobedient, unto which they were appointed (established or placed)”.  So, as well as correcting the Septuagint’s translation, Peter could also be establishing a link between the establishing of the cornerstone and the establishing of the reprobate in disobedience (get excited for the controversial blog on predestination of the reprobate, coming soon).

Secondly, Peter removed all references to “foundation” in his translation.  This change is particularly baffling.  The Hebrew certainly includes the word “foundation”.  In fact, if we were literally translating the Hebrew into English, instead of writing “sure foundation”, we would write “foundation foundation”.  The Septuagint also uses “foundation” several times in its translation.  It’s clearly an important part of the verse in the Old Testament.  Peter must have decided to remove the word foundation, believing it to be implicit in the word cornerstone and also recognizing that he’s not specifically referencing the “foundation” part of the verse in any of preceding verses.

So, here we have a picture of Peter using the Septuagint and his Hebrew Masoretic Text and also tailoring the quotes to focus attention on his particular theological points.  Peter the fisherman has truly in the Spirit’s power become a master scholar.

One Final Thought – Romans 9:33

Now, have a look at Romans 9:33.  There, too, Isaiah 28:16 has been quoted, this time by Paul. 

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence;

    and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

Paul has mashed together Isaiah 28:16 and Psalm 118:22!  This is interesting because these are the two passages Peter chooses to quote in 1 Peter 2:6-8.  Peter’s translation is near identical to Paul’s, so it’s likely one was dependent on the other.  Most scholars have Paul writing Romans before Peter writes 1 Peter, so assume Peter is quoting Paul.  I’m not so sure.  Logically, it seems more likely that Peter chose several passages where the Messiah is spoken of as a stone.  Then, Paul read Peter and decided to merge the quotes.  As opposed to Paul collecting all the quotes, then merging them and Peter reading Paul, quoting Paul’s translations but also separating the quotes and adjusting the Septuagint’s and the Masoretic Text’s versions of the part of the verses he’s inserted.  Simply based on reading 1 Peter 2 and Romans 9 it seems more natural to assume Paul was quoting Peter.

That throws up dating issues because most scholars think Romans was written before 58AD, because Paul wrote from Corinth and he left Corinth in 57AD, and 1 Peter was written between 64AD (when Peter arrived in Rome) and 68AD (when Peter was killed).  The chronology of Peter being in Rome is highly disputed and based on 1 Peter 5:13 where Peter says he was in Babylon (a Revelation reference to Rome).  I need to investigate more fully the argument that Peter means Rome when he says Babylon, but why would Peter write a whole letter in plain English, only to use symbolic, apocalyptic language to describe where he is.  Is it possible that Peter wrote 1 Peter before 57AD while he was on mission in the actual Babylon (or in a small town in Egypt called Babylon)?

Some Concluding Thoughts

It’s possible that this stream of consciousness on Peter, the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint Text and Paul has raised more questions than it’s answered.  I certainly haven’t answered definitively all the questions surrounding how Peter arrives at his quotations in the letter.

However, one thing it does do for me, is make Peter’s letter writing feel more real.  I really can picture him writing his letter, with his Hebrew Old Testament text and his Greek Old Testament text in front of him, considering how best to phrase his letter for the people of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.  In the evangelical world of believing in the Holy Spirit-breathed, inerrant word of God (of which I am whole-heartedly a part), sometimes we can lose the reality of a man Peter sitting and writing this letter to help a specific group of Christians whom he loved.

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