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John 12:37-41 reads:

Although [Jesus] had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
    "Lord, who has believed our message,
          and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?"

And so they could not believe, because Isaiah also said,
   "He has blinded their eyes
         and hardened their heart,
    so that they might not look with their eyes,
         and understand with their heart and turn—
         and I would heal them."

Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him. (NRSV)

My question is whether "this" includes both of the preceding quotes or only the second. The NRSV is quoted as one of the few translations that uses "this" rather than "these things" to translate the neuter plural ταῦτα, for reasons that are unclear to me.

Is there grammatical or exegetical warrant to include only the second citation as being related to the prophet Isaiah's vision of glory?


Background and disclosure of motivation
The impetus for and potential implications of this otherwise perhaps trivial question may as well be stated. This arose in my reading of an article in the IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets article on "Isaiah, Book of", which argues that Isaiah is best understood, for hermeneutical reasons, as having developed over a period of several centuries. The author (H.G.M. Williamson, who is well-respected for his work on the authorship and redaction of Isaiah) goes on to say:

Those [NT references to "Isaiah"] may be perfectly well understood as a reference to the book, not the author. The only passage where the prophet himself is involved in action rather than as speaker or author in the argument is at John 12:41 ("Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him" [NRSV]), and there the citation from Isaiah 6 poses no difficulty.


The "hardening" saying of verse 40 is, of course, (adapted) from Isaiah 6, as is the prophet's vision of Yhwh's glory; on the other hand, "who has believed...?" is a direct quote of (LXX) Isaiah 53:1 — Deutero-Isaiah as far as Williamson is concerned. I'm trying to piece together how he was thinking about this.

  • I'm not seeing "Lord" as a preface in Isaiah 53. Codex Sinaiticus has "these things," not "this." – Daisy Apr 15 '16 at 20:17
  • @Daisy κύριε (=Lord) is from LXX Isaiah 53. And yes, the fact that ταῦτα is grammatically plural is not contested. In Greek (and various languages), neuter plurals can behave as if singular in some respects and contexts, but whether the RSV's decision to take it this way is justified is the content of the question. – Susan Apr 15 '16 at 20:31
  • I'm seeing: "Who has believed our report and to whom has the arm of The Lord been revealed," not "Lord, who has believed our report..." If he was talking to YHWH, it's not clear to me. Doesn't seem like it but I don't want to infuse my Greek way of thinking into his non-Greek way of thinking. You are the Grammar Queen. – Daisy Apr 15 '16 at 22:43
  • @Daisy It's the Greek text (the Septuagint) which includes the vocative κύριε. – Susan Apr 16 '16 at 10:58
  • I'm looking at the actual oldest manuscript (Septuagint) from the Codex SInaiticus (online, photographed) and I'm not seeing "Lord." I'm seeing "The Lord" once, which is referenced later in the verse. The only place I'm seeing "Lord" added to the front of the text is in bible tools of the Septuagint that seem to have been placed there incorrectly. Here's how it's translated there: κε τιϲ επιϲτευϲεν τη ακοη ημων · κ(αι) ο βραχιων κυ · τινι απεκαλυφη · – Daisy Apr 16 '16 at 14:02
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In John 12:37-41 the author explained that though Jesus performed many miracles, the people did not believe in him, thus fulfilling Isaiah’s lament for the ‘suffering servant’ (Is.53:1). This (τοῦτο, singular), John wrote in v.39, is why the people could not believe, for Isaiah also said (paraphrasing) that God prevented them from believing (Is.6:10). Isaiah said this (ταῦτα, plural) “because he saw his glory and spoke about him” (v.41).

The plural form of οὗτος in the last phrase is traditionally rendered “these things” in most translations but “this” in the NRSV, NIV, and NLT. The question of whether ταῦτα refers to both Isaiah quotations or just the last one is not resolved by the logic of John’s rationale alone: Isaiah’s ‘vision of his glory’ could easily describe either text. So we’re forced to consider the logic of John’s grammar.

As Prof. Williamson suggests, the insertion of v.39 between the two quotations does separate them, so v.41’s this, though plural, could be understood to refer only to the immediately preceding quote. On the other hand, the first quote was followed by a singular οὗτος and the second quote by a plural οὗτος. If John meant to treat the quotations separately, wouldn’t he have constructed parallel phrases, using the singular this at the end of each?

His choice to switch to the plural this in v.41 – better, these [things] -- suggests to me that John intended his concluding remark to apply more widely to both of these Isaiah quotations: Isaiah ‘saw the glory’ of the suffering servant, which was fulfilled in the disbelief of those for whom he performed many signs (v:37), and he also ‘saw the glory’ of God hardening their hearts, which John may have been attributing to Jesus himself, another example of Jesus hiding himself from them (v:36).

Why 'this' rather than 'these [things]' in some translations?

As to why some Bible translators choose this for the plural ταῦτα, I offer two possibilities. While the English these [things] would be more technically correct, this has the advantage of allowing the ambiguity of the Greek – albeit less well than the traditional plural rendering – while avoiding the addition of a word ('thing') not found in the actual Greek text.

I wonder, however, whether @Susan’s quotation of Williamson points to another reason. His suggestion – that NT mentions of Isaiah are "perfectly well understood as a reference to the book, not the author,” in all cases BUT Jn.12:41 – is a solution to a “difficulty” only experienced by evangelical exegetes.

Jn.12:38, for example, states that "Isaiah the prophet said" the quotation of Is.53:1. The vast preponderance of critical scholarship holds, however, that ch.53 was not authored by Isaiah but a later writer. This poses no problem for non-evangelicals but a serious challenge to those who believe in biblical inerrancy. Williamson’s suggested interpretation contradicts a plain reading of the text and the meaning likely intended by the original Johannine author, but it gives evangelical readers a way to interpret the text without contradicting their theology. (I’m curious if Williamson offers the same advice for books traditionally credited to Moses.)

By extension, I wonder if new translations that render the plural ταῦτα as this are attempting to steer readers away from the same difficulty. That is, are they hinting by their possibly-singular word choice that the active person 'Isaiah' of v.41 is only associated with v.40 singularly, not the ‘Book of Isaiah’ quoted in v.38? N.T. Wright, no less, accused NIV translators of ensuring their work conformed to “Protestant and evangelical tradition” rather than only “translat[ing] exactly what was there, and inject[ing] no extra paraphrasing or interpretative glosses." If so, a little theologically-motivated word choice – a this for these – wouldn’t be the least surprising.

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Because the question asked the original author's intent it seemed that only the author himself could provide an authoritative answer so I took the liberty of writing to the author and asking him to respond. Here is his response:

Writing on John 12.41 it seemed to me clear that the language about seeing his glory and speaking of him was a reference to Isaiah's vision in Isaiah 6, so that I took the verse as a reference to v. 40 alone and not also to v. 38. The rubric in 39 suggests that it is legitimate to distinguish between the two citations. Both deal with failure to believe and this is introduced for each citation separately; see vv. 37 and 39. So the way the passage is written implies that the author was consciously dealing with them separately.

Yours,

Hugh

It is my opinion that the ISV's "this" is inappropriate for ταῦτα and that the reading "these" then best relates to the pair of citations rather than just the latter.

  • Thank you! I admit I'm not sure what the "rubric" comment about v. 39 is intended to capture ("διὰ τοῦτο....ὅτι πάλιν" [v. 39] is about as closely as I can imagine bundling those two citations), nor how this deals with the plural ταῦτα in v. 41 (I suppose there's more than one clause in v. 40, but given that we have two introductions to quotations presented as Isaiah's, it's still hard for me to avoid these together as the referent), but I'll think on it. The NRSV apparently agrees. – Susan Apr 12 '16 at 10:43
  • (BTW, although the motivation for the question did come from Williamson's comments, it wasn't intended to be a question about his intent -- rather, about the intent of John's gospel as he cited the Isaianic texts -- hence the relegation of that "motivation disclosure" to the footnote.) – Susan Apr 12 '16 at 11:48
  • Yes, I fixated on "I'm trying to piece together how he was thinking about this." Now that I have the author's response and more detail on your concerns I think I may finally understand the question! I'll edit my answer to weigh in on the alternatives if/when I have had time to consider the passage. – user10231 Apr 12 '16 at 13:33
  • Did you ever write back to Williamson about the "rubric" thing? – Mr. Bultitude May 23 '16 at 20:11
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    @Mr.Bultitude No, I did not. However, I did consider the passage enough to have formed an opinion that the "rubric" (heading) doesn't persuade me to render ταῦτα as singular. – user10231 May 23 '16 at 20:16

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