Scriptures in Question: Isaiah 61:1-2 and Luke 4:18-19
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God...” (Isaiah 61:1-2).
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
Did Jesus misquote an important prophecy in the book of Isaiah, as is sometimes claimed? Luke’s Gospel tells us that early in his ministry Jesus went back to his hometown of Nazareth and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue and began to read from Isaiah. Luke records the words that Jesus read out, and it is clear that they were the opening verses of Isaiah Chapter 61. But when we compare the words of Isaiah in our Bibles with Jesus’ words recorded in Luke, we see some important differences. Jesus apparently:
1) Omitted the words “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted” in Isaiah.
2) Omitted the words “to set the oppressed free” in Isaiah.
3) Appears to have changed the words “release from darkness for the prisoners” in Isaiah to “recovery of sight for the blind.”
4) Stopped reading halfway through Isaiah’s sentence and omitted the words “and the day of vengeance of our God.”
The first of these points is the simplest to explain. The words “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted” may not have appeared in the manuscript from which Christ read. It is known that versions of the Hebrew Bible existed that were slightly different from the Masoretic text that our modern translations are usually based on. As there is no apparent reason why Jesus would omit these words, we can presume they were not present in the text from which he read.
Everything we have said about the first point of difference also applies to the second point.
The third point of difference is an interesting one. What we said about the first point could also apply to the small difference between “release from darkness for the prisoners” in Isaiah and “recovery of sight for the blind” in Luke. This is especially true as the ancient Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek has the same words found in Luke – indicating that Jesus could have used a Hebrew text similar to that used by the Septuagint, or that Luke could possibly have quoted the verse from the Septuagint as he himself was writing in Greek.
Yet another possibility also exists for this difference. It is known that the ancient rabbis often gave interpretive commentary on the scriptures when they recited or read them out and Jesus, as a visiting rabbi, could have done the same here. The words “to open eyes that are blind” do occur elsewhere in Isaiah (42:7) in the context of the release of prisoners, so Jesus may have brought the two scriptures together – especially in tying Isaiah’s words to the healing of the blind that would occur in his own ministry (Luke 18:35-43, etc.).
But why did Jesus stop reading halfway through what we now call the second verse in Isaiah 61 – a sentence which all the ancient versions seem to have had? Luke tells us that after Jesus stopped reading: “The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him” (Luke 4:20). It was no wonder that Jesus had captured the attention of everyone in the synagogue that day, not just for what he said, but because of what he did not say.
The passage in Isaiah ends with the words: “and the day of vengeance of our God.” When we compare these words with the ones that come before them – that Jesus did read out – we see a stark contrast between God’s mercy and his justice. These two aspects of God’s dealing with us are juxtaposed throughout the whole book of Isaiah, but perhaps nowhere more noticeably than in these verses.
We know that during the time of Jesus, the Jews were expecting and longing for a messianic figure who would free them from Roman occupation and restore their national independence. All those of his hometown who had heard the rumors of the miraculous signs accompanying Jesus would have been listening to him intently to see if he would proclaim himself the agent of God’s vengeance on their enemies. When Jesus did not read out Isaiah’s words “to proclaim … the day of vengeance of our God,” he made it clear that such was not his purpose at that time.
The people of Jesus’ day did not understand, of course, that Isaiah seems to telescope time in this and many other passages by juxtaposing events that would occur separately – the great manifestation of God’s mercy at the Messiah’s first coming, and the expression of God’s judgment at his second coming. Sadly, many in Jesus’ day were more interested in the possibility of judgment on their enemies than mercy for all, though that is what Jesus offered in his sermon to all who would accept it.
So there is no reason to believe that Jesus “misquoted” Scripture in his reading from Isaiah 61. It is probable that he quoted a version of the prophet’s writings extant at that time – which would account for the small differences we see between his words and those of Isaiah in modern Bibles. The reason Jesus stopped reading where he did is equally clear.