Is the Virgin Birth Prophecy a Mistranslation?

The media coverage of the burning of the RSV, the “Revised Satanic Version” of the Bible. From the November 25, 1952 edition of the Courier Mail, Brisbane, Australia. Luther Hux made quite a news splash all over the world.

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emman′u-el” (Matthew 1:23 RSV)

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman′u-el. (Isaiah 7:14 RSV)

Bible Burning

Luther Hux knew full well that the RSV was unholy, and accordingly he announced his intention to burn a copy of the new Bible,” so reports historian Peter Johannes Thuessen, from his In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles over Translating the Bible (p.96). Hux, a North Carolina Baptist pastor, had recently received a copy of the new “Revised Standard Version” of the Bible, published that year in 1952. In his fury over what he saw as a “mistranslation” of Isaiah 7:14, Luther Hux was determined to make a show over this “Bible burning” in front of as many press reporters as possible. Isaiah 7:14 is the famous prophecy of the virgin birth, as referenced by the Gospel writer Matthew. All previous English translations of this verse referred to a “virgin,” not a more generic “young woman,” as the new Revised Standard Version had done. Thuessen continues:

On the night of 30 November Hux delivered a two-hour oration and then led his congregation from the white-frame Temple Baptist Church into the cold autumn air, where every member received a small American flag. Climbing onto the bed of a waiting truck, Hux held aloft a copy of the RSV on which he had written the word “fraud.” Instead of burning the whole book, however he ripped out and ignited the page bearing Isaiah 7:14. “This has been the dream of modernists for centuries,” he shouted, ” to make Jesus Christ the son of a bad woman.” (p. 97)

Burning part of a Bible? It would hardly register a blip on the 24-hour news cycle at CNN today. But back in 1950s North Carolina, the “Buckle of the Bible Belt,” you just did not do things like that.

Well, at least he was being patriotic about it.

But what if Luther Hux was right? Was the Revised Standard Version (RSV) a fraud? Was the RSV, from Hux’s own word’s, “the Master Stroke of Satan?

I am not approving of “Bible burning,” but actually Luther Hux was onto something. What Hux did not know at the time is that he had stumbled upon an issue that has puzzled Bible scholars now for decades,… if not centuries.

Was the RSV Correcting a Mistranslation?
From the front page of the Brooklyn Eagle, a New York City newspaper, Sunday, November, 1952.

From the front page of the Brooklyn Eagle, a New York City newspaper, Sunday, November 30, 1952.

Luther Hux had reason to be concerned. Just about every New Testament documentary I have ever seen on TV has discussed this problem in the Bible: Did Matthew knowingly use a “mistranslation” of the prophet Isaiah to teach the doctrine of the virgin birth as fulfilled prophecy?

Many critics of the Christian faith have used this so-called “Bible contradiction” in the following manner: The Gospel writer, Matthew, was relying upon a faulty, Greek translation of the Old Testament that he had then available to him, the “Septuagint.”  Matthew thought that the prophet Isaiah had predicted a “virgin,” or “parthenos,” from the Greek, but according to the Masoretic text, the ancient Hebrew record of Scripture preserved by the Jews, Isaiah only spoke of a “young woman,” or “almah,” from the Hebrew. Matthew had thus used the faulty translation, perhaps even intentionally, as a theological motivation to read something into the Hebrew text that simply was not there. So, the modern translators of the RSV were thus finally owning up to the Christian error. Therefore, the virgin birth prophecy was merely an invention of Matthew.

Skepticism and traditional Judaism: 1.

Christianity: 0.

Well, at least, that is how the story typically goes….if you believe everything you see on the History Channel…

It turns out that the full story is far more interesting and less damaging to Christian truth than is often claimed. In other words, while there is some obvious truth to the objection, the skeptical conclusion often extrapolated by critics is not warranted.

Bible Translation Philosophy and the Old Testament Texts

The Revised Standard Version of the Bible, a project of the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization that garnered broad support across a wide array of leading Christian denominations in the United States, was intended to provide an updated translation of the Bible, reflecting the latest scholarship, as literally and accurately as possible. The idea was that the RSV would effectively replace the older, venerable, yet archaic, King James Version of the Bible in a language setting that most contemporary English readers could understand (The RSV was eventually superseded by the New Revised Standard Version in 1989).

Indeed, what the Revised Standard Version translators did was well within the translation philosophy of the day, in the 1950s: When in doubt, always go with the ancient Hebrew tradition of the Masoretic text, and resist the more faulty translation of the Septuagint. From the perspective of the Revised Standard Version translators, previous Christian translations of the Bible were, in practice, inconsistent when translating Isaiah 7:14. For example, the King James Version, going back to 1611, opted for the Septuagint-influenced rendering of “virgin.” So, the Revised Standard Version was simply trying to fix the problem found in previous translations, thereby favoring the Masoretic text, which had been preserved by the Jewish community for centuries and centuries. But is this translation philosophy supported by the currently available evidence?

The Hebrew Masoretic Text, the Greek Septuagint, and the Dead Sea Scrolls

This translation philosophy has its roots going back hundreds of years to Saint Jerome (347-420 AD), who became the translator of the Latin Vulgate. In Jerome’s day, most Christians had been using the Greek Septuagint as their Old Testament. The Septuagint was a collection of translations of ancient Jewish Scriptures into the Greek language of the day. Essentially, even before the New Testament came along, the Septuagint was really “the Bible” for the early Christian movement. But Jerome befriended some Jewish scholars when he was living in Jerusalem, who convinced him that one must go back to the original Hebrew in order to understand the original text of the Old Testament.

"Adoration of the Shepherds," by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622. (credit Wikipedia: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202)

Did Matthew simply rely on a mistranslation of the Old Testament to defend the virgin birth of Jesus? Newer research gives us a different, though more complex, answer to critics of the Bible. “Adoration of the Shepherds,” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622. (credit Wikipedia: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202)

One can see why Jerome’s Jewish mentors held to such a low view of the Septuagint. First, the Septuagint is a translation, after all, made from much older Hebrew texts. Secondly, as in the case of the “virgin birth” scandal, the Masoretic-based text worked in their favor against the Septuagint text. Jerome nevertheless followed his Jewish mentors in holding a lower view of the Septuagint. Most Bible scholars ever since have followed Jerome’s lead in advocating for a strictly Masoretic-centric view of the Old Testament. Jerome’s logic made sense in that the Masoretic tradition was indeed the oldest Hebrew text tradition for the Old Testament available at that time.

The only problem is that the Masoretic text, while having a long history going back before the time Jesus’ birth, was not entirely fixed until roughly about the fifth century A.D., when the Masoretes, a group of Jewish scribes, began collecting Hebrew scriptural texts, adding appropriate vowels and accents to the older Hebrew consonants, according to Columbia Theological Seminary’s Old Testament scholar, Breenan Breed (a mentor of one of my pastors, Travis Simone) . Furthermore, our oldest surviving copies today of the Masoretic text go back only to about the 10th century A.D.

Had the Masoretic text been preserved accurately all of those years? In contrast, we possess copies of the Septuagint that date back to at least the fourth century, based on translation work that extends back further, to the era of the early church and even before the birth of Christ.

But along came the most famous and significant archaeological discovery of modern times: the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, just a few years before the RSV was published, in 1946. Remarkably, the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating back as early as a few hundred years before Jesus, confirmed the amazing reliability and the overall essential correctness of the Masoretic text. This would appear to confirm Jerome’s judgment as being in the right.

Nevertheless, the Scrolls also raised some significant questions for the Masoretic tradition. The Scrolls, roughly of the same time period as were many parts of the  Septuagint, are mainly preserved in Hebrew. In some cases, scholars have been intrigued by observing that the Dead Sea Scrolls differ from the Masoretic texts in favor of the Septuagint!

However, to complicate matters, there are other cases where the Dead Sea Scrolls differ from both the Masoretic texts and the Septuagint. All of this means that Bible scholars have a lot of work to do in order to try to resolve some of the more thorny issues in recovering the original text of the Old Testament. For the most part, the Masoretic tradition has given us a very reliable view of what the original text looked like. However, the previously unquestioned superiority of the Masoretic text can no longer be sustained in every case.

Because of discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint has therefore emerged in a much more favorable light within the past few decades. Contrary to earlier scholarship, it appears that the Septuagint translators were not as “sloppy” as it is often claimed. Recent scholarship suggests that the Septuagint translators could have been working from Hebrew texts that were different in places from the traditional texts that preceded the Masoretic tradition.

Is it possible that the Septuagint translations , or at least parts of them, are based on earlier, more accurate Hebrew texts than the Masoretic tradition? Is there another Hebrew tradition standing behind the Septuagint that points more towards the explicit reading of “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14? Honest scholarship requires that such possibilities be entertained.

In the case of Isaiah 7:14, the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves confirm the usage of “almah” from the Masoretic texts. On that basis alone, one could easily conclude that the Septuagint was indeed in error. But it would be presumptuous to dismiss the evidence from the Septuagint out of hand, as it is often claimed from various Internet sources.

Rethinking the Importance of the Greek Septuagint

Wheaton College Old Testament scholar, John Walton, observes that both the Hebrew word transliterated as “almah” and the Greek word “parthenos” actually have more flexibility in meanings. While “almah” is generally understood to mean “young woman,” there are cases where it could mean “virgin.” Likewise, whereas “parthenos” generally means “virgin,” it could mean simply “young woman.” So, even if the Masoretic textual tradition is to be sustained in Isaiah 7:14, it does not settle the question of the meaning of that verse.

One example of the rather flexible use of the language will suffice. In Genesis 24:16 (RSV), we are told about Rebekah, who is to marry Isaac. The text is quite clear that Rebekah is truly a virgin (a “bethulah,” in Hebrew). But later in the chapter, in Genesis 24:43 (RSV), Rebekah is described in terms of the Hebrew word “almah.” In this case, the “young woman,” or “maid” is also understood to be a “virgin.” There is no contradiction here. Therefore, there is no basis for saying that “almah” can NOT also be used to speak of a “virgin.”

Baptist pastor, Luther Hux, was dismayed over what he saw as liberalism creeping into the Southern Baptist seminary he attended in Wake Forest, North Carolina. The flap over the RSV rendering of Isaiah 7:14 served as further justification for him leaving the Southern Baptist Convention and becoming an independent Baptist, earlier in 1946 (Thuessen, p. 94).

Baptist pastor, Luther Hux, was dismayed over what he saw as liberalism creeping into the Southern Baptist seminary he attended in Wake Forest, North Carolina, in his training to be a pastor. The flap over the RSV rendering of Isaiah 7:14 served as further justification for him leaving the Southern Baptist Convention and becoming an independent Baptist, earlier in 1946 (Thuessen, p. 94. Photo credit: SermonAudio.com).

Admittedly, the evidence for Isaiah 7:14 to refer specifically to a “virgin,” though currently more favorable towards the Septuagint, is in many ways inconclusive at this point. However, it does leave the question open. Depending on the context, the “almah” of Isaiah 7:14 could indeed mean “virgin,” even though the Masoretic tradition does not require it. The Septuagint translators may very well have been pointing Matthew in the right direction all along! Because “almah” is itself rather ambiguous, it is perfectly reasonable for Matthew to think that the miraculous birth of Jesus clarifies the true meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy. Therefore, Christians should challenge the overconfident critics who would so quickly dismiss Matthew’s reading in a cavalier fashion. This is far from being an open-and-shut case.

Nevertheless, Christians should be wary of using Isaiah 7:14 alone as a defense of the virgin birth, as there is no “smoking gun” evident here.  The doctrine of the virgin birth does not hang solely on the translation of one single verse. For example, the Gospel writer Luke clearly believes in the virgin birth of Jesus, even though no reference to the prophecy in Isaiah is ever made (Luke 1:26-35). With or without the aid of the Septuagint in Isaiah 7:14, the doctrine of the virgin birth still stands on good ground.

I like to think of it this way: Matthew surely must have read the prophet Isaiah and wondering what it all meant. When Matthew himself learned of the story of the virgin birth, it was a like an “ah-ha” moment, where he realized, “this must be the true meaning of what God had in mind through Isaiah’s prophecy!”

I would encourage the Veracity reader to read Joel J. Miller’s very informative and entertaining post at Patheos.com about this issue (how a Hollywood movie about a diamond heist can help teach us about the intricacies of Bible prophecy???).  As Miller points out, it is probably most reasonable to think that the Septuagint translators were correct in their translation of this disputed text, and in following the argument, I would agree.  There are other points of evidence to consider as well, so I commend Miller’s post to you.

You will observe that now in the Revised Standard Version, Isaiah 7:14 has a note associated with it, indicating that the word “almah” could also be translated as “virgin.” This is the most responsible thing to do.

Luther Hux attracted a lot of attention with his “Bible burning” media stunt. His theatrics were over the top when implying that the “RSV” really stands for “Revised Satanic Version,” but he was right to question the assertion that Matthew was categorically wrong in adopting a “mistranslation” of Isaiah 7:14. The recent scholarly debate over the Septuagint and its role in biblical interpretation should serve as some pushback against those who would otherwise attack the doctrine of the virgin birth.

A Closing Note:

Some students of the Bible might be bothered to learn that, strictly speaking, there was not a “fixed” Old Testament text used by Christians and Jews in the first century, during the era of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the following decades. Imagine, if you will, walking into the “Bibles” section of a Barnes and Noble’s bookstore, looking for the one “right” English Bible, only to be confused by the dizzying array of different Bible translations and formats. Which one do you pick? The NIV? The ESV?  The Message? The NKJV Picture Bible for Kids? In some ways, it was like that in the first century.

But interestingly enough, this diversity of translations, etc. did not appear to bother Christians or Jews during that era. The varying viewpoints of the different Scriptural traditions; such as the Septuagint, the Hebrew predecessor to the Masoretic text (what scholars call “proto-Masoretic”), etc., though not all agreeable in exact details, nevertheless were viewed, at least by the writers of the New Testament, to be mutually complementary to one another. Among the variations, there were no essential biblical doctrines at stake, even if one considers the case of Isaiah 7:14 to be the most controversial, as we have discussed above. In other words, the situation in the first century A.D. is not too much unlike the situation with readers of the Bible today who might possess multiple English translations, with the purpose of trying to help the student to better understand the Bible as a whole.

Southern Seminary Old Testament scholar, Peter Gentry put it this way: “The use of the Septuagint doesn’t imply that the NT writers thought that the original Hebrew was mistaken; rather, it means that they affirmed the truthfulness of that which they were quoting or adapting in their own writing.” In other words, the early Christians who used the Septuagint, even in the New Testament, saw no problem in using a set of Greek translations to get at the meaning of the original Hebrew texts. If the use of the Septuagint never bothered the writers of the New Testament, it need not bother Christians today either! (See a scholarly monograph by Gentry here, where he argues for a plurality of Old Testament texts during the first century A.D., prior to the fall of Jerusalem. Gentry argues that the “proto-Masoretic” tradition that gave us the Masoretic tradition today, which is the basis for nearly all English Bibles today for the Old Testament, was the most predominant of the Hebrew texts in that critical first century).

Additional Resources:

The bottom line for me regarding Isaiah’s prophecy of the virgin birth is that Matthew understands the miracle of Christmas to be a time for worship. So less anyone think that this is merely a dry, academic dispute, I would encourage you to meditate on the famous Christmas carol, Lo! How A Rose E’er Bloomingwhere the carol writer specifically recalls the prophecy of Isaiah.

Peter J. Thuesen, the inspiration for this blog post, is a great writer of church history, if you like that sort of thing (and I do!). He combines top notch insight into theological controversies while weaving it all into a compelling story of what happened. For content that otherwise can get very heady at times, I find Thuesen to be very accessible and engaging. My favorite book of his is Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine.

This blog post only scratches the surface regarding the issues surrounding Isaiah 7:14. The amount of literature written on this particular topic is vast and can be perplexing to wade through. Here is an attempt to filter out some of the best research, most of which is available on the Internet:

The question of how to properly translate Isaiah 7:14 is not a new problem. Second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho, makes several arguments in favor of the Septuagint reading (for example, see  chapters 43, 67, 71, 84). For a scholarly analysis of Justin Martyr’s argumentation, consult the following PDF document. During the Reformation, Protestant leader John Calvin made an extensive argument about Isaiah 7:14.

For a technical, scholarly approach to Isaiah 7:14, that I used for some of the research for this blog post, read this essay by Wheaton College Old Testament scholar John Walton.

Given that Jerome tended to favor the Hebrew Masoretic tradition over the Septuagint, how did Jerome then translate Isaiah 7:14 in his Latin Vulgate? According to Phoenix Seminary assistant professor of Old Testament and blogger, John Meade, Jerome translated the controversial Hebrew word, “almah,” into Latin as virgo, referring to a “cloistered girl,” which necessitated her as a being a virgin. In Jerome’s mind, the Septuagint’s translation was implied even by the original, Masoretic-based Hebrew.

For more on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the importance of getting the history right, dig into this earlier Veracity blog post.

For more on the Septuagint and its importance for understanding the history and text of our Bible, you can review this Veracity post.

For another, largely agreeable approach to Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14, you might want to read the following series of articles from Old Testament scholar Claude Mariottini and lawyer/theologian Edward Fudge, though I am not convinced that their analysis of the Septuagint’s contribution to Isaiah 7:14 is correct. Like many still today, they tend to short change the Septuagint. Nevertheless, Mariottini and Fudge emphasize that the key to understanding Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 is in the phrase that immediately introduces the prophecy: therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Mariottini and Fudge make a good case for concluding that the sign would be supernatural, which would anticipate Matthew’s understanding of the virgin birth.

I am not competent to vouch for the scholarly integrity of Jeff A. Benner, of the Ancient Hebrew Research Center, as he is somewhat of an independent Old Testament textual critic, but in the following YouTube video, Benner correctly gets at the issues surrounding some of the similarities and differences between the Masoretic text, the Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Septuagint for Isaiah 7:14. Notice the various points of agreement and disagreement between the texts.

According to Michael S. Heiser, a Bible Scholar at Logos software, the main point about the virgin birth is not the sexual status of the mother, but rather the divine identity of the child. The focus of Isaiah 7:14, in Matthew’s mind, is not on Mary. Rather, it is all about Jesus. The following presentation by Heiser goes into full detail regarding the supposed “mistranslation” controversy regarding Isaiah 7:14:

 

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

2 responses to “Is the Virgin Birth Prophecy a Mistranslation?

  • Brenda Birney

    Hi Clarke, et. al., Unable to post a comment today; but I wanted to say thank you for all the information. Quite a project that I want to explore more in depth. Brenda Birney

    Like

  • Clarke Morledge

    Brenda, Thank you for dropping by. Yes, the question of how the New Testament writers use the Old Testament in general is quite a project! This particular issue of how Matthew uses Isaiah 7:14 is just the tip of a large iceberg!…Clarke

    Like

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: