Highways in Isaiah and the Gospels

Day Twenty of “Through Advent with Isaiah”


As is well known, the synoptic gospels quote Isaiah 40 in reference to John the Baptist. In Isaiah 40 we read:

1 Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

3 A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

The anonymous author of the Gospel according to Mark begins his gospel this way:

1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Verse 3 is clearly a quotation from Isaiah 40.3, but the first bit is actually from  Malachi 3.1:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.

The consensus of most scholars is that the gospels of Matthew and Luke incorporated Mark in their versions of the good news. The anonymous author of Luke edits out the quotation from Malachi, but Matthew keeps it and the misattribution to Isaiah. So much for inerrancy.

The important point is that Mark and then Luke and Matthew reuse the prophecy. What did they think they were doing?

A recent article by Edward Meadors of Taylor University in Upland IN (“Isaiah 40.3 and the Synoptic Gospels’ Parody of the Roman Road System”, New Testament Studies (2020), vol. 66, pp. 106-124), suggests that the use of the passage from Isaiah is a parody. For modern readers a parody is a type of college humour that sometimes funny and often not, but it has roots in ancient times. Meadors writes:

I use the term ‘parody’ in reference to ‘any cultural practice which provides a relatively polemical allusive imitation of another cultural production or practice’ (S. Dentith, Parody (London: Routledge, 2000, 9). The terms παρῳδία, παρῳδός and παρῳδή share a complex, dynamic semantic history with origins as early as Aristotle 384 -322 BCE and as contemporary as post-modernism. The early Christian usage we envision constructs its message upon corrective polemical comparison but without the comic nuances that characterise most literature that has been classified as parody throughout literary history.

The New Testament uses parody in this sense quite a bit, and the polemic – its argument – is with the pretensions of the imperial cult. There is a broad consensus across evangelical and main stream biblical lines of scholarship that there is a subversive political undercurrent in the New Testament. Jesus, after all, was an indigenous man put to death by a colonizing empire. Meadors begins:

This article builds on scholarship that identifies Matthew, Mark and Luke as each replacing Roman imperial propaganda with gospel correctives. Each promoted Jesus as σωτήρ, ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ , ὁ κύριος, inaugurator of τὸ εὐαγγέλιον and herald of ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ , each honours setting right the false pretentions of the Roman emperor cult. The practice was not so much of redefining previously unconsidered Roman categories but of asserting that these shared categories had their epistemologically valid conceptual backgrounds in Israel’s sacred scriptures, which had now been fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Words that we have become so used to that we automatically associate them with Jesus were, at that time, primarily used by the empire in its promotion of the cult of its leader.The chart below shows six Greek words or phrases that were used extensively in the Eastern Mediterranean to do so – and all of them are also used extensively in the New Testament in reference to Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament, then, is a counter-imperial narrative.

Greek term Transliteration Meaning
σωτήρ sotēr “saviour”
ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ o yios tou theou “the son of God”]
ὁ κύριος o kyrios “the lord”
τὸ εὐαγγέλιον to evangelion “good news”
ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ē vasileia tou theou “the kingdom of God”],
παρουσία parousia “coming, advent”

An example of the parody is the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Whereas the emperor or a governor would enter riding a horse with soldiers, staff, and a large baggage train, Jesus enters with his impoverished disciples, he himself riding not a horse but a donkey.

In Second Isaiah the highway being proclaimed is a highway for God’s people to return from Babylon to Jerusalem and Judea. Now, the problem with travel between those two places is that there is a large inhospitable desert between them. The exiles, when deported forty or fifty years earlier, would not have travelled directly east, but they would have been forced to march north through Syria into the former kingdom of Assyriah, to the northern sections of the Tigris and Euphrates, and then southeast down the rivers. There were royal roads built and rebuilt by successive empires, and used for the rapid movement of troops and tribute. But there was no road across the desert between what is now eastern Jordan and eastern Iraq. There may have been caravans that went between oases, but these would have been unsuitable for large numbers of people. Isaiah’s vision is that God creates this highway, and ensures that there is water and food along the way – a recreation of the exodus from Egypt, in a way.

I doubt that the gospel writers knew that they were taking this passage out of its original context. They would have seen the Hebrew scriptures as allusive and pregnant with meaning. They also would have had in their face the mileage markers of the Roman imperial highway system, which proclaimed its builders and was part of the imperial propaganda. When they came across a passage in the Prophets that mentioned a highway, they associated it with the highways they knew.

Meadors refers to any number of milestones to make his point, but now that I live in Crete, I have a local example.

Screenshot 2019-12-20 at 16.49.02

From Martha W. Baldwin Bowsky and Vanna Niniou-Kindeli, “On The Road Again A Trajanic Milestone and the Road Connections of Aptera, Crete” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Vol.75, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 2006), pp. 405-433; p.417.

The picture above is from a milestone that was recovered no far from here. While severely weathered, traces of paint are to be found in the lettering. The inscription reads, with abbreviations expanded:

Imp(erator) N(erv)a Traianus Caesar Aug(ustus) Germ(anicus) divi Nervae f(ilius) pontif(ex) max(imus) trib(unicia) pot(estate) III pater patriae co(n)s(ul) II. dedit. VI.

or, in English: “Given by the Emperor Nerva Trajan Caesar Augustus Germanicus, son of the divine Nerva, greatest priest (pontifex),  tribune for the third time, consul for a second time. Mile 6”. Thus the mile marker dates from the time of Trajan, emperor from 98 CE to 117 CE, just as the canon of the New Testament was being completed;Bowsky and Niniou-Kindeli date it to before December 102 CE.

The milestone describes the road as given by the emperor, who is the son of his divine predecessor Nerva. Trajan was actually adopted by Nerva, but as he was deified after his death, this makes Trajan the son of  a god. He is also described as the greatest priest in the empire (pontifex maximus). While not verbose, the claims to divinity and religious power are there, and would have been considered blasphemous by Jews and Christians.

When John the Baptist appears he is identified as the one who tells people that the real road builder is coming, the real son of God and the real high priest.

Meadors concludes:

Read in the first-century context of the Roman Empire, Isaiah 40.3, when applied to John the Baptist, asserted that John’s message of repentance was the exclusive entry ramp to the glory of God’s salvation, which had arrived in the person of Jesus, the true Son of God. For their gospel to be true, Greco-Roman ideology had to be false, as the author of Luke-Acts made explicit through the preaching of Stephen and Paul – the true God (singular) ‘does not dwell in houses made by human hands’ (Acts 7.48; 17.24).




About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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1 Response to Highways in Isaiah and the Gospels

  1. Pingback: Resources for Worship on Advent II 2020 | The Island Parson

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