Does Luke 4:18 misquote Isaiah 61:1?

by Luke Wayne
09/09/2019

An accusation frequently trotted out against the New Testament is that it allegedly "misquotes" or even "deceitfully alters" the Old Testament. A common example used is the citation of Isaiah 61:1 found in Luke 4:18. Jesus quotes the passage as containing a reference to giving sight to the blind, but if you look the verse up in your own English Old Testament, you won't find any such reference. This seems, at first glance, like an error in the New Testament. The fact of the matter is, however, that there is no mistake or deception going on here. Jesus simply cited an interpretive paraphrase familiar to His audience.

The Verses

The key passages involved here read as follows:

"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, Because the Lord has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to captives And freedom to prisoners," (Isaiah 61:1).

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are oppressed," (Luke 4:18).

As you can see, the clause "recovery of sight to the blind" is noticeably absent. So, where did Jesus and Luke get the idea that this verse predicted blind people receiving sight? The answer, it turns out, is rather instructive.

The LXX and the New Testament

The New Testament authors, writing in Greek rather than Hebrew, often (though not always) quoted from the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX). Thus, when a question like this comes up, the LXX is generally the first place to look. In this case, the LXX reads:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind," (Isaiah 61:1, LXX).1

Notice that the reference to "recovery of sight to the blind" is present. Thus, neither Jesus nor the New Testament writers invented this reference. It was already in a popular Jewish version of Isaiah from before the time of Christ. Based on just this information alone, Luke 4:18 makes perfect sense. Jesus could have been reading from something like the Septuagint (or, far more likely, a Hebrew version similar to the one from which the Septuagint was translated) simply because that happened to be the version present at that particular synagogue. He was reading the scroll in front of Him. Such a scenario does not involve any error or deception on the part of Jesus (or Luke) and fits the historical context rather well. Thus, based on the LXX alone, we can already conclude that this is not a flaw in the New Testament.

Digging a Little Deeper

Yet, this does leave us with another question. Why does the Septuagint contain this clause? Where did this understanding of Isaiah 61:1 come from? The answer is fascinating and, again, fits well with the historical narrative in Luke 4.

The Dead Sea Scrolls contained multiple copies of Isaiah. Among them, we find a Hebrew version of Isaiah 61:1 that, instead of "freedom to prisoners" refers instead to the “release from darkness” or “opening the eyes” of the prisoners.2 This version does not appear to have been limited to the Qumran community. The later Aramaic translation (or "Targum") of Isaiah states similarly that “those who are bound will be revealed to light."3 This wording could refer to prisoners locked up in a dark dungeon and then set free to come out into the light, but it could also be understood to describe the literal opening of blind eyes to see (as the LXX translators obviously took it).

The Qumran community seem to have read it this way as well. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls known as the "Messianic Apocalypse" (or 4Q521) overtly combines Isaiah 61:1 with the miracle of giving sight to the blind4 and takes it to be a messianic prophecy. This interpretation may have also been reinforced by similarities between Isaiah 61 and Isaiah 42. Just as Isaiah 61:1 begins "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, Because the Lord has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted...," Isaiah 42 begins:

"Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations," (Isaiah 42:1).

Just a few verses later we read:

"To open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the dungeon And those who dwell in darkness from the prison," (Isaiah 42:7).

Thus, in a very similar context, the "opening of blind eyes" is directly connected to the liberation of prisoners. This parallel may have informed early Jewish readings of Isaiah 61. At any rate, there was a version of Isaiah 61 in Hebrew that spoke of "release from darkness" or the "opening of eyes," and many ancient Jews understood this to refer to the blind receiving sight. This is, no doubt, what led to the LXX version's explicit reference to this. It is likely what produced the version that Jesus read as well. Thus. the story in Luke 4 fits extremely well in the historical context of the era. We have every reason to trust it.

  • 1. Translation of Septuagint given here is from "A New Translation of the Septuagint" (Oxford University Press, 2007).
  • 2. Translations of the variant reading in the Dead Sea Scrolls given here are from Martin Abegg Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich, "The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible" (HarperCollins Books, 1999)
  • 3. Translation of the Aramaic Targum given here is from Bruce D. Chilton, "The Aramaic Bible, Volume 11: The Isaiah Targum" (The Liturgical Press, 1987)
  • 4. Geza Vermes, "The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English" (Penguin Books, 2004) 412-413