This supposed contradiction falls into the category of those which are an issue only because of the poor textual basis of the modern English versions of the Bible. In this verse, the modern versions follow the Alexandrian textual set and speak of the prophet Isaiah, which results in the above claim of contradiction by disbelievers in the Bible. The short and simple answer to this contradiction is that there is no contradiction, if one follows the reading of the King James which says, "As it is written in the prophets....". Essentially, the poor quality, corrupt manuscripts underlying the English Bibles based upon the Critical Text set are the cause of this unwarranted attack on the Bible's integrity. If one follows the reading presented in the vast majority of the Greek manuscripts bearing on this passage, one finds no contradiction at all.
However, there are many Critical Text supporters who choose to retain their faith in the superiority of the Alexandrian set, and who thus would reject this resolution to the claimed contradiction, preferring instead to rely on contorted arguments about Mark referring to Isaiah because he was the more major of the two prophets. Of course, that attempt presents the difficulty of interjecting a human estimation about the relative importance of different prophets into the revelation given by God, who says that He is no respecter of persons. In other words, the argument presents God as implicitly saying that He referred to only Isaiah by name because He felt that Isaiah was "the major" of the two prophets. Both Isaiah and Malachi were faithful men of God, and it is against the revealed nature of God to suppose that He would undercut the one in preference to the other, simply because the one (Isaiah) was used to write a longer book or was quoted more often by the New Testament writers.
Rather, the issue behind this "contradiction" really does have to do with the modern use of inferior Greek manuscripts to translate the Bible. Let us look at the basis of the support for both readings1:
Note: For the Greek manuscripts given above, where no textual family is indicated, they are Alexandrian.
Note: For the Greek manuscripts given above, where no textual family is indicated, they are Byzantine.
From the above, we see that the reading of "Isaiah" is supported primarily by the Alexandrian texts and those versions which generally were translated from that set, these being the Latin Vulgate, the Coptics, and most of the Syraics. Conversely, the reading "the prophets" is supported by the Byzantine textual set (comprising roughly 90% of all extant Greek manuscriptd), including some of the very old Greek uncials representative of that tradition in the Gospels. The other "odds and ends" textual families seem to split their support.
While the Critical reading would seem to have the weight of antiquity behind it, it bears repeating that these supposedly "oldest and best" Alexandrian exemplars are notoriously corrupt and, as a group, internally inconsistent. It is actually somewhat surprising that three of the four would agree at this point. Lest one be tempted to make too much of this (happenstance?) agreement and the age of these texts, we should note that the Byzantine textual set has as much antiquity as the Alexandrians. Textual scholars are being increasingly forced to concede that the Byzantine tradition has greater antiquity than was previously thought. Whereas a cardinal point of faith with modernistic textual critics had been that the Byzantine textual set was established as a conflated and official "ecclesial" text for use in the Church around the time of John Chrysostom, we are finding that this is not the case, and there there are indeed "Syrian" or "Byzantine" readings far preceding the latter half of the 4th century.
The evidences of the early patristic writers put the nail in the coffin for the "late recension" argument against the Byzantine textual set. In the monumental (and as yet, unequaled) survey of 86,489 patristic New Testament quotations, Burgon and his posthumous editor Miller decisively demonstrated that early Christian writers, many far pre-dating the Nicene synod, knew of and even preferentially used Byzantine readings in their scriptural citations. It was noted that patristics predating Chrysostom, from Justin Martyr (late 1st-early 2nd century) to Hilary of Poitiers (mid 4th century) show equal to preferential use of the Byzantine text as opposed to other textual types, such as the Western or Alexandrian.2. Hoskier, further adds that Hippolytus (early 3rd century) generally prefers the Traditional text for his Scriptural citations3. Even Metzger is forced to concede that,
"Origen knows of the existence of variant readings which represent each of the main families of manuscripts that modern scholars have isolated." 4
These main families, of course, include the Byzantine textual family. All in all, the evidence from the patristic writers weighs strongly in favour of the early existence of the Traditional, Byzantine textual family, with support from:5
Thus, we can see that many of the early patristic writers demonstrate a knowledge and use of the Byzantine textual type, this before Chrysostom and the supposed recension to create the "official" text. The arguments in favour of Byzantine readings as "late" continue to dwindle, as Hills notes,
"The second accusation commonly urged against the Byzantine text is that it contains so many late readings. A text with all these late readings, it is said, must be a late text. But it is remarkable how few actually were the Byzantine readings which Westcott and Hort designated as late. In his Notes on Select Readings Hort discusses about 240 instances of variation among the manuscripts of the Gospels, and in only about twenty of these instances was he willing to characterize the Byzantine reading as a late reading. Thus it would seem that even on Hort's own admission only about ten percent of the readings of the Byzantine text are late readings, and since Hort's day the number of these allegedly late Byzantine readings has been gradually dwindling."6
Pickering, further, has presented a detailed analysis of supposed conflations found in the Byzantine textual set, and demonstrated that most are not conflations, and that at many points, the Alexandrian texts contain conflated readings instead7.
Even more damaging to the claim that the Alexandrian readings are more authentic because they are older is the fact that many of the papyri which have come to light in the past century contain many Byzantine readings, some even being preponderantly Byzantine in charactre8. These both ante-date Sinaiticus and Vaticanus by at least a century, yet contain predominantly Byzantine charactre. Textual scholars have recognised this fact, too, however reluctantly perhaps. In his study of p46, Zuntz concludes,
"To sum up, a number of Byzantine readings, most of them genuine, which previously were discarded as 'late', are anticipated by P46....How then - so one is tempted to go on asking - where no Chester Beatty papyrus happens to vouch for the early existence of a Byzantine reading? Are all Byzantine readings ancient? In the cognate case of the Homeric tradition G. Pasquali answers the same question in the affirmative."9
Colwell further states, based upon the evidence of the papyri, that evidence for most of the readings of the Byzantine New Testament exists even into the 2nd century10. As if to finalise the issue, Sturz's analysis of "all the available papyri" found evidence for over 150 distinctively Byzantine readings in pre-300 AD papyri, as well as another 345 readings with mixed Byzantine readings11. As Pickering remarks, this vindication of the Traditional text is all the more remarkable when one considers that the extant papyri evidence only covers roughly 30% of the New Testament12.
From all this evidence, we can understand that claims concerning the greater antiquity of the Alexandrian texts as over the Byzantine manuscript type, based solely on the presence of a very few (most likely unused) manuscripts, are not as strong as many Critical Text supporters generally put them across to be. Thus, there is no really good reason to presume, as some of these do, that the reading of "the prophets" in Mark 1:2 is a scribal clarification. Evidence as to what Mark 1:2 says in the papyri is currently lacking. However, it can be seen that Byzantine readings bear good attestation even in the papyri of the 2nd-3rd centuries, so it is indeed quite possible that the Traditional reading is correct. When we consider the additional point that the Traditional reading is also simply logically correct (after all, two prophets are quoted, not one), it seems very reasonable to discount the Critical claims about this verse, and thus freely resolve the "contradiction" which modernistic obstinancy gives the illusion of creating in the Bible.
(1) - See B. Terry, A Student's Guide to New Testament Textual Variants, entry for Mark 1:2
(2) - J.W. Burgon, The Traditional Text of the Holy Gospels Vindicated and Established, p. 117
(3) - H.C. Hoskier, Codex B and It's Allies, Vol. I, pp.426-7
(4) - B.M. Metzger, "Explicit References in the Works of Origen to Variant Readings in N.T. MSS", Biblical and Patristic Studies in Memory of Robert Pierce Casey, ed. J.N. Birdsall and R.W. Thomson, p. 94
(5) - W.N. Pickering, The Identity of the New Testament Text, p. 75-76
(6) - E.F. Hills, The King James Version Defended!, p. 73
(7) - W.N. Pickering, The Identity of the New Testament Text, p. 171-202, Appendix D
(8) - such as p64 and p67, both of which are conventionally dated to the 2nd-3rd centuries, though controversial arguments have been advanced for their dating to the 1st century, see C.P. Theide and M. D'Ancona, Eyewitness to Jesus
(9) - G. Zuntz, The Text of the Epistles, p. 55
(10) - E.C. Colwell, What is the Best New Testament?, p. 70
(11) - H.A. Sturz, The Byzantine Text-Type and New Testament Textual Criticism, pp. 189-212
(12) - W.N. Pickering, The Identity of the New Testament Text, p. 77
(1) - See B. Terry, A Student's Guide to New Testament Textual Variants, entry for Mark 1:2