The Power of a Pronoun

I was sitting in a class on biblical interpretation offered at the RTS Washington D.C. campus in the summer of 2012 when I essentially stumbled upon what would later become the genesis of my dissertation topic. The professor, Dr. Tommy Keene, had provided some direction on our writing assignment that morning, and during a short break I was poking around Accordance (Mac Bible software) thinking about what I might want to research for the paper.

I had recently been working through 1 Peter in my personal studies, and our lecture that morning had revolved around the various views of the structure and flow of argument in Romans. Pretty soon I recognized that both letters at key junctures quote the same verse of the book of Isaiah: the stone placed in Zion. What I did not know then but later discovered as I fleshed out my paper[1] and, ultimately, landed on my “stone” thesis idea, was that much of the debate about how Romans and 1 Peter are quoting Isaiah revolves around one key grammatical feature of the sentence: a single pronoun. This one pronoun provides great insight into how NT authors reflect upon and quote from the OT.

Examining the Data

In Romans 9:30–33, we find Paul at a significant inflection point in his elaborate argument of Romans 9–11 dealing with election, righteousness (by faith vs. by works of law), the ingrafting of Gentiles, the future of the Jews, and much more. By all accounts, those chapters are hugely important to understanding Romans and the basic outlines of the NT teaching on salvation. As Paul explains why the Jews, at least for a time, have failed at obtaining the righteousness they sought, he asks, “Why?” Why have they failed to do so? Then he quotes Isaiah 28:16 (and 8:14).

Move a few NT books to the right, and you will find that 1 Peter 2:6 quotes the same verse. His argument is quite different than Paul’s in a lot of ways, but he is nevertheless writing about the same basic idea: the relationship of Gentile believers to the Jews. In fact, he is describing his Gentile audience using OT language that was characteristically used to describe Israel, which, I have argued elsewhere,[1] casts a similar vision as Paul does for the new covenant people of God.

Here are the relevant verses, so the parallelism can be observed:

(Rom 9:33 ESV) Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.

(1 Pet 2:6 ESV) Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.

(Isa 28:16 ESV) Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: Whoever believes will not be in haste.

The portions that match up among all three passages are underlined.

Let us clarify a few quick points. First, to suit his argument Paul substitutes part of Isaiah 8:14 in the middle of his quotation of 28:16 (“of stumbling, and a rock of offense”) in place of “a cornerstone chosen and precious.” 1 Peter 2:8 actually references Isaiah 8:14 as well, so the overlap between Romans 9:33 and 1 Peter 2:6–8 is extensive. Second, the difference between the NT passages’ “will not be put to shame” and the OT passage’s “will not be in haste” is not too problematic: (a) solid arguments have been made by commentators that the underlying Hebrew of “be in haste” carries a similar sense of “put to shame” in the broader context of Isaiah 28, and, more notably, (b) Romans and 1 Peter are actually quoting the Septuagint/LXX, not the Hebrew.

The use of the Septuagint actually explains a lot about the relationship between Romans/1 Peter and the Isaiah text.

And that is precisely where the plot thickens.

A Pronoun, a Precious Pronoun

An all-too-important pronoun has surfaced in the NT passages that is not there in the Hebrew of Isaiah 28. Did you catch that? Here are the latter portions of the English passages again, with the dative pronoun “in him” underlined in the NT verses:

(Rom 9:33 ESV) Whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.

(1 Pet 2:6 ESV) Whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.

(Isa 28:16 ESV) Whoever believes will not be in haste.

If you were to look at the Hebrew underlying the Isaiah 28 reading, you would confirm that there is indeed no personal pronoun acting as the object of “believe” as there is in the NT passages. The Hebrew MT has simply a substantival participle (lay terms: a verb acting as a noun) that could be translated woodenly, “The believing one will not hasten.”[2] So where did the pronoun come from? Did Paul and Peter just add it?

That is where things get interesting. Several manuscripts (an apparently the one used by both Paul and Peter) of the Greek Septuagint for Isaiah 28 insert this pronoun as part of the translation from the Hebrew. Here are the NT passages in Greek, along with the Septuagint from Codex Sinaiticus[3] and a scholarly English translation of the Septuagint. The pronoun “in him” is underlined in each (even non-Greek readers can still see the repetition of the words underlined).

Isaiah 28.16
Snapshot of Sinaiticus, with the “ep auto” highlighted

(Rom 9:33 Greek) καὶ ὁ πιστεύων ἐπ᾽ αὐτῷ οὐ καταισχυνθήσεται

(1 Pet 2:6 Greek) καὶ ὁ πιστεύων ἐπ᾽ αὐτῷ οὐ μὴ καταισχυνθῇ

(Isa 28:16 LXX) καὶ ὁ πιστεύων ἐπ᾿ αὐτῷ οὐ μὴ καταισχυνθῇ

(Isa 28:16 NETS) and the one who believes in him will not be put to shame.

There we have it. The Septuagint includes the dative pronoun “in/upon him,” and the NT authors follow suit.[4] But it is not there in the original Hebrew, and that is what makes this passage so intriguing. What accounts for this phenomenon?

A Personified Stone

In the NT passages, it is plain that the authors are associating this stone of stumbling / cornerstone (from Isaiah 28:16 as well as Isaiah 8:14 and Psalm 118:22) with none other than Jesus himself. The stone, in other words, is a “he.” It is a metaphor taking the person of Jesus as its referent. Put differently, from the perspective of Romans and 1 Peter, Isaiah 28 has in mind a person, namely the Messiah, Jesus Christ, when he speaks of the stone that God is placing in Zion. This is a fairly straightforward analysis of the NT passages.

In the Hebrew “stone” passage of Isaiah 28, however, the question of what exactly the stone is referring to is left unexplained. It is a stone and a cornerstone of something, but it is not directly spelled out in the passage. As I have addressed in a different paper (see Writings page), “stone” in Hebrew can refer to a lot of things, ranging from bricks in a building to memorial stones to the future Davidic King to Yahweh himself. The text of Isa 28:16 simply reads “The believing one” (my translation), and that’s it. Interestingly, the verb used is precisely the same as that which shows up in the massively important Gen 15:6, “[Abraham] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

The Septuagint, however, is making a profound statement by including “in him.” Two basic explanatory options are possible.

The less likely option is that the Septuagint is using a manuscript of the Hebrew Bible for this verse that actually had the personal pronoun, but which was eventually lost in the standard Hebrew text we use today. In other words, the Hebrew we have today does not have the pronoun, but the one back in the 300s/200s BC did, and along the way the pronoun was removed for some reason. This possibility lacks explanatory power on two accounts.

  • First, a standard rule within the world of textual criticism (the study of how manuscripts are copied and passed down) is that scribes rarely remove words from what they are translating unless they have a VERY VERY good reason. In this case, it is hard to imagine a Hebrew scribe removing such a theologically loaded pronoun from an earlier Hebrew manuscript that contained it.
  • Second, and more substantively, the Great Isaiah Scroll discovered as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran does not contain the pronoun. This is notable because (a) the Isaiah scroll dates to roughly 150 BC, which is roughly contemporaneous with time frame in which the LXX was developed, and (b) other examples from Qumran DO in fact indicate that the LXX on occasion appears to have access to a version of the Hebrew that does not match the one we use today, but this is not one of those examples. The Qumran reading exactly matches the Hebrew Masoretic for Isaiah 28:16.
Great Isaiah Scroll, portion of Isaiah 28:16 that reads "מוּסָד מוּסָּד הַֽמַּאֲמִין לֹא יָחִֽישׁ" (sans vowels), same as MT.
Great Isaiah Scroll, portion of Isaiah 28:16 that reads “מוּסָד מוּסָּד הַֽמַּאֲמִין לֹא יָחִֽישׁ” (sans vowels), same as MT.

The more plausible option is that the Septuagint author inserted “in him” to reflect a belief contemporary at that time that the stone was, in fact, referring to some person to come. This would not be surprising given the role Isaiah plays in announcing the coming of a future figure, variously seen as the anointed Messiah, the king from the line of David, the Suffering Servant, and so forth. Hundreds of years after Isaiah wrote, it would not be a stretch to imagine that the post-exilic Jews (or at least those involved in the LXX translation) would have begun associating the Isaiah stone with some future “him” who would be the object of all their belief and hopes for deliverance and restoration. And, thus, the translator reflected this belief by inserting a pronoun to clarify what Isaiah himself had in mind when he simply wrote “He who believes” in the original Hebrew. Belief must have an object, and in this case it is the Messiah-King-Stone.

This is, in fact, what we see elsewhere in Jewish literature. The Jewish Targum of Isaiah (a targum is an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible) translates the Hebrew “stone” not as “stone” at all, but as a King figure: “Behold, I appoint a King in Zion; a King mighty, powerful, and terrible: I will make Him powerful, and I will strengthen him.[5] – much like the NT and the LXX.

[Technical side note: Though the written targums to which we have access today post-date the New Testament, they reflect an oral tradition dating back at least to the first century BC, as evidenced by the discovery of three Aramaic targums among the Dead Sea Scrolls. It would be odd, in fact, that later rabbis would add personification to the Isaiah 28:16 stone passage (since it is not there in the original Hebrew) after the advent of the Christian church, which clearly saw the stone as the person of Jesus; we would, rather, expect precisely the opposite – that they would remove that pronoun in an attempt to de-Christianize their reading. Therefore, I would argue the Isaiah targum, though written down later than the NT, is reflecting an earlier tradition that was already associating the Isaiah stone with a person, namely a King who was to come.]

This means that the translators of the LXX and, arguably, segments of the Jewish community already associated the Isaiah “stone” with some personal figure (King/Messiah) who was to come long before the Christians came on the scene.[6] This may seem like a bit of a “no duh” conclusion in Evangelicalia, but in the scholarly world, it is significant: it is common to consign every possible Messianic prophecy in the OT to the wastebin of “second century AD Christian interpolation” (in lay terms: “the early church came up with it and retroactively wrote it into the NT to make it look like it was there in the OT but really wasn’t”), but that is incredibly difficult to do in this case. Paul and Peter were not innovators who interpolated a later Christian belief that the “stone” of Isaiah refers to a person (as they are often accused), but rather they were simply drawing on an existing belief within Judaism, as evidenced by the LXX manuscripts and the targums, but demonstrating that the fulfillment of this “in him” had arrived in the person of Jesus Christ.

So what? Connecting to the pew

If you have made it thus far, I commend you, as this has all been about a single pronoun! That said, I want to draw out a couple implications from this brief study:

  • The NT writers are not haphazardly quoting the OT. It is common among skeptics to make the claim that the NT authors were misusing, misquoting, using and abusing the OT to fit whatever agenda they are pushing. This criticism has been around awhile but is always dusted off and put forth as shocking and revolutionary. While our study here was necessarily oversimplified and focused on one OT verse, the general principles can be extended. When we think through how a particular OT quote shows up in the NT, we need to remember a few things.
    1. First, the NT author could be quoting and translating from Hebrew (which alone could account for surface discrepancies, since translation always involves interpretation as you move from one language to another). But the author could instead be using the Septuagint. Or the author could be incorporating a little of both, or be recalling a verse from memory, or using an oral tradition of a Bible verse (not at all uncommon pre-Gutenberg), and so forth. The least likely option is a conspiracy theory; in any case, the burden of proof is on the person doubting the quotation’s integrity, not the other way around.
    2. Second, the NT author DOES have an agenda! And that is okay. Not even the gospel writers were purporting to be simply offering objective observations of events (no one does that today, either; cf., FoxNews vs. CNN vs. BBC). They had a theological agenda, and it was the Lord’s. Third, the NT authors were immersed in a rich literary culture (both Jewish and Greek) in which they used sources and manuscripts and oral witnesses and so forth (note Luke’s prologue in Lk 1:1–4). They were, in other words, authors, under the inspiration of the divine author. So were the OT writers. In conservative Christian circles it is not uncommon to have a quasi-Mormon (or Islamic) view of how the Scriptures were delivered to the church: that is, God dictated the words from some original on golden tablets, without involving the writers themselves. This is emphatically not the historical Reformed view of inspiration at all. Space does not permit delving into this here, but suffice it to say that this study of the stone pronoun shows that inspiration is far more complex  – and that’s actually a good thing, for a brittle understanding of what we mean by “inspiration” is easily ruptured when you run into something like “in him” showing up somewhere.
  • Faith must have an object. This “pronoun of stumbling” also provides a little glimpse into an important spiritual truth. The neo-paganism that is culturally en vogue today maintains that you “just need to have a little faith.” Just believe. There is never an actual object of belief. Just the warm fuzzy feeling of believing, even if you know not what in. The inclusion of “ep auto” by the LXX writers, which is later given approval by Paul and Peter in their letters, shows that belief must have an object. It does not just dangle out there in coffee shop poetry readings, O! magazine, or Facebook memes. And that object is a person. The one who believes “in him” shall not be ashamed.[7]



[1] I have posted this paper on the Writings page, listed under Unpublished works as “The Stumbling Stone in Romans and 1 Peter: A Shared Vision of New Israel.”

[2] The Hebrew reads, הַֽמַּאֲמִין לֹא יָחִֽישׁ. If Paul or Peter were indeed directly quoting the MT, we would expect something like בֹו (in him) to appear after the participle.

[3] Codex Sinaiticus is one of the most important ancient manuscripts of all time. Dating from the 300s AD, it is one of the best complete copies of the Greek New Testament and a partially complete copy of the Septuagint. It can be viewed online at

[4] The Greek student might ask why it must be a masculine pronoun and not a neuter pronoun, since this form of αὐτῷ could play either role. In other words, could a valid English translation be “whoever believes in IT,” that is, “the stone,” without any personification in view? I do not think that option works grammatically. In Greek, we would expect the gender of a pronoun to match the gender of its referent; in this case, the obvious referent is the accusative noun λίθον, which is a masculine noun (λιθος). Thus, αὐτῷ must be masculine. Technically, a grammatically masculine (but in reality non-gendered) noun could still be an “it” when translated into English. Thus, we must look for clues elsewhere than the grammar to understand the nature of the pronoun’s referent.

[5] The Chaldee Paraphrase on the Prophet Isaiah, trans. C.W.H. Pauli (1871), from the targum by Jonathan ben Uzziel. (link)

[6] See Norman Hillyer, “Rock-Stone Imagery in 1 Peter,” TynBul 22/1 (1971) 58–59. (link)

[7] It should be obvious that I am not saying that Isaiah was a neo-pagan for not having an object of his verb “to believe” in the original Hebrew. I believe in this case the object is implied (which is not uncommon in Hebrew) rather than explicitly stated. For Hebrew readers, the Hiphil of the root אָמֵֽן can take ל or ב as indicators of direct objects (“to believe in X”), but it can also stand alone (see BDB). The LXX author was, in my view, making the implicit explicit.

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