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Is the Virgin Birth a Mistranslation?

Is the Virgin Birth a Mistranslation?

Mark Goodacre has an excellent podcast on this question.

What I’d want to get across in a brief answer to this question is:

1) Greek parthenos is not necessarily a bad translation of Hebrew almah. The semantic ranges do overlap substantially, though (as Mark points out) parthenos tends more toward “virginity.”

2) For reasons that do not involved the translation of almah (in my opinion), Isaiah 7:14 is not intended as a Messianic prophecy.

3) I have heard people claim that Matthew was not asserting a virgin birth, but one has only to read the whole text to see that he clearly is doing so. Again, in my view, the correct translation in Matthew is “virgin” irrespective of one’s view of how almah should be translated in Isaiah 7:14. I would translate almah as young woman and also “is pregnant” rather than “shall conceive.”

4) This provides an interesting case for discussing Matthew’s use of Hebrew scripture. Dr. Goodacre also mentions Matthew 2:15/Hosea 11:1 which is even more interesting.*

Listen to the podcast!

(In my notes here I’m speaking for myself, not attempting to summarize Goodacre’s arguments.)

* While I find Matthew 2:15 / Hosea 11:1 interesting, it is not the one mentioned by Dr. Goodacre. He references Matthew 2:23. This was an error in my original post.

17th Sunday After Pentecost, 2003

17th Sunday After Pentecost, 2003

September 14, 2003

17th Sunday after Pentecost

The following are the suggested passages:

 

Proverbs 1:20-33 and Psalm 19 or Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1

            Or

Isaiah 50:4-9a and Psalm 116:1-9

 

James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

Proverbs 1:20-33

This hymn to Wisdom personified is both beautiful and very important to the balance of the church.  Wisdom is personified as a woman, and so the references are feminine.  Much has been made of this in church debates.  On the one extreme we have people creating liturgies to ?Sophia? the Greek equivalent of Hebrew wisdom (chokma), also feminine.  On the other hand we have people who complain about any feminine references to God.

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Easter Evening, 2005

Easter Evening, 2005

Easter Evening, Year A


March 27, 2005

I didn’t manage to restart these notes before Lent as I had planned and stated on the web page, but they are restarted now. I am no longer including my working translation so I can focus more on the interpretive process. Where I have worked such translations over enough, they will be found on my Totally Free Bible Version page, a project to work on Bible translation in public with input from anybody and everybody and the result free to anybody. Whether there is an entry there or not, I will include a link to a translation of the passage on the Bible Gateway, normally from the Contemporary English Version (CEV). I apologize for the long break in posting these notes, and hope the new style will be helpful.

At the bottom of the page is a form for posting response notes. This will allow readers to add their own comments and thoughts.

  • Isaiah 25:6-9
    Isaiah’s prophecy of the whole world coming to know the Lord.
  • Psalm 114
    A song of passover celebration.
  • 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8
    Response in our lives to Christ’s passover sacrifice–unleavened bread is equated to purity.
  • Luke 24:13-49
    The walk to Emmaus–What do you do when events confuse you?

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Thinking about the Servant – Isaiah 50:4-9a

Thinking about the Servant – Isaiah 50:4-9a

I made a mental connection this morning while reading the lectionary passages for Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday. I’m not certain just how valid this is, but I thought I’d write about it. There are multiple views of the servant passages in 2nd Isaiah. Some see each passage separately, with some being prophecies of the Messiah, and others not. Others see a collective Israel that occasionally gets specified down to one individual.

This passage, seen as Messianic by many Christians, is one that is frequently identified with the voice of the prophet himself, the writer of 2nd Isaiah. He has a message to give, it comes from God, and he is to present it in spite of opposition. (As an example, see Joseph Blenkinsopp, Anchor Bible: Isaiah 40-55, pp. 319-323.)

Earlier in the day I wrote a devotional emphasizing that Philippians 2:5-11 addresses us collectively as a church (“you” is plural) and not merely as individuals. It seems to me that the collective and the individual commands are much less distinguished in scripture, i.e. the tasks to be performed by God’s people and those performed by God’s person tend to blend into one another. Thus an extremely “clean” interpretation is not particularly desirable. The focus can shift freely.

I should note that I am already quite invested in a collective interpretation of the servant passages, with Jesus Christ presented in the New Testament as the ideal Israelite, not to mention ideal person, but I think this connection kind of gives me a better feel for how this works.

Isaiah 49:5 – An Insignificant Variant

Isaiah 49:5 – An Insignificant Variant

So why do I want to talk about an insignificant variant? The answer is simple. In many cases the reliability of Biblical texts is stated simply in terms of the number of variants that exist in the manuscripts. This number is quite high, but most of these variants are not significant. They may involve identical meanings, orthography or spelling, or be so unlikely to be the original text that nobody would claim they were.

I’m sometimes asked just what such insignificant variants might look like. This is an example. First, however, let me mention the range of variants, in this case working from Hebrew scripture.

  1. Variant spellings; no matter what text you choose the meaning is the same.
  2. Variants in vowel pointing only. At least most Christian scholars place less emphasis on the vocalization than on the consonantal text. Some translations will alter the vocalization without a footnote, but require a note if they use something other than the Hebrew Masoretic consonantal text.
  3. Ketib / Qere variants. The Masoretes included notes in some cases indicating that a word included in the consonantal text (ketib) should be read (qere) as something else. Different scholars judge the value of these variants differently.
  4. Variants in the consonantal text over one or two words.
  5. Variants in whole passages.

At some later date I may provide examples of each of these, but right now I just want to establish the range. Examples of each one do exist.

Once someone hears that the vast majority of the textual variants are insignificant, they are sometimes tempted to believe that textual variants really aren’t important. But some of the variants are very significant.

In this case, we have the Hebrew phrase, consonants only, WYSR’L L’ Y’SF,* in Isaiah 49:5. Now if I rendered this literally, without other considerations, it would read “and Israel not will-be-gathered.” A glance at the context will indicate that this is precisely the opposite of the intended meaning. If I then look in the margin, where the Masoretes provided me with a very useful note, I will find LW instead of L’. (For those not used to transliteration that’s lamedh-waw insteand of lamedh-aleph.)

Now generally first year Hebrew students could translate the two words. LW means “to him,” and L’ means “not.” What is less clear, unless you know Hebrew, is that both are pronounced the same. The probability is so high that the intended meaning is “to him” (And Israel will be gathered to him), that normally that is simply translated without any note. I checked all the translations in which I expect to find notes, and there was none. And that is as it should be.

Nobody makes a case for the alternate rendering because the evidence is so strong. Besides the logic of the passage, ancient versions also translated this as do modern versions. Translators should not convey every such instance, and they don’t.

*I am not distinguishing samekh from sin, as that does not impact this point.

Isaiah 49:2 – Mouths and Sharp Swords

Isaiah 49:2 – Mouths and Sharp Swords

One basis I use for comparing Bible translations is the way in which idioms are handled. It’s difficult to measure this precisely, because you have to consider several things:

  • Is the idiom as used comprehensible to modern readers?
  • Does it mean the same thing to modern as to ancient readers?
  • Is there a reasonable English (or other target language) equivalent?
  • How good is the equivalent that was selected by the translation?

Simply noting that an idiom in one language is translated by an idiom in another is not sufficient. Figures of speech work in essentially the same way and require that one ask the same questions.

In Isaiah 49:2 we have a fairly simple figure of speech. In Hebrew, this very literally reads:

He set my mouth like a sharp sword.

Now I don’t know how natural that sounds in English to others, and I’m already running another poll, but to me “sharp” and “words” do go together in a figure of speech, and using mouth for the words spoken is also pretty standard. For example, I don’t think anyone has trouble understanding “potty mouth.” I have only rarely heard that combination with “sharp,” however. There I think we more commonly use “tongue” with “sharp” than “mouth.”

So I classify the translations of the figure of speech in three categories. First would be those that translate the figure of speech or idiom completely literally. (I’d ignore the idiom if the figure of speech is common also in the target language.) The second group adjusts it somewhat to make it more comprehensible. The third translates the figure into natural, but not necessarily idiomatic language. The fourth group (of which I have no examples in this case) would provide an alternate idiom. The following list is not exhaustive:

Translating the words and not the figure

“He made my mouth like a sharpened blade;” (NJPS)

“He made my mouth like a sharp sword,” (NRSV)

Adjusted slightly

In this case, the adjustment is generally “mouth” replaced with “tongue.”

“He made my tongue a sharp sword” (REB)

Translated into clear language (drop figure of speech)

“He made my words as sharp as a sword.” (TEV) [Note here that one figure (mouth for words) is replaced, while the second (sharp) is retained.]

“He made my words of judgment as sharp as a sword.” (NLT)

“He made my words pierce like a sharp sword” (CEV) [In a sense another figure of speech is added, or perhaps “sharp” is merely enhanced, by the addition of the word “pierce.”]

“He made my words like a sharp sword;” (HCSB) [The HCSB regularly surprises me, sometimes with incredibly obscure translations, and sometimes with exceptionally clear ones.]

This comparison also raises a question with the NLT text. Should the words “of judgment” be added here? Is it perfectly clear that it is words of judgment alone that pierce like a sharp sword? On first reading, I am not happy with the NLT addition there. It makes plain something that is not plain in the text, and may even be incorrect. My mind could be changed, however.

Textual Emendation in Isaiah 49:7

Textual Emendation in Isaiah 49:7

The JPS Tanakh of Isaiah 49:7 reads, in part:

Thus said the LORD,
The Redeemer of Israel, his Holy One,
b-To the despised one,
To the abhorred nations,-b . . .

Note b reads: Meaning of Heb. uncertain. Emendation yields “Whose being is despised / Whose body is detested”; cf. 51.23.

I noticed this first when I read this in Hebrew, and found that I was not able to produce a translation that I found satisfactory. I remained in doubt. So I looked it up in a few translations. Note also that the reading adopted in the JPS text is itself an emendation.

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A Common Theme for the Epiphany 2 Lectionary

A Common Theme for the Epiphany 2 Lectionary

I’m probably going to talk about common themes later, but I noticed something interesting that might not be the first thing one would notice in these passages, and that’s a combined sense of inadequacy without God’s Spirit, and the adequacy given by the presence of God’s Spirit. In Isaiah 49, the servant is taken as an infant, and equipped by God. This parallels John 1, I think, where we do not have an expression of inadequacy, but we have the giving of the Spirit at baptism, and ministry that follows it.

Inadequacy is specifically expressed in Psalm 40:1-11 “pulled me up from the seething chasm” and “from the mud of the mire” (v. 2, NJB), and in Paul’s letters frequently, but demonstrated in our passage again through the focus on “called by the will of God (v. 1), and “relying on God” (v. 9).

Whether or not the inadequacy is expressed, in each case the preparation and the giving of the Spirit is the launching point for ministry. We talk about the baptism of Jesus as demonstrating the path that each Christian must follow. Jesus is obedient to God, even though he has not sinned and doesn’t require baptism for forgiveness of sins. But note also that Jesus is not inadequate, as we would normally think of inadequacy, but he also launches his ministry when he receives the Spirit.

There is a pattern there for modern ministry (clergy or lay) as well.

Capitalization as a Translation Issue in the Hebrew Scriptures

Capitalization as a Translation Issue in the Hebrew Scriptures

In my ratings for the Bible Version Selection Tool, one of the areas on which I compare translations is capitalization of pronouns referring to God or to Jesus. The interesting thing about this is that the Hebrew text has no analog to capitalization of any kind, while edited Greek texts and some late manuscripts can mix majuscule and miniscule forms, the rules are hardly the same, and such capitalization cannot derive from the autographs which, like the Hebrew, did not use capitalization rules.

There are two reasons I rate this. The first is practical. I regularly encounter people who consider it disrespectful to write a pronoun referring to God in all lower case. This is a peculiarity, I think, and I certainly don’t capitalize pronouns referring to God any more than any other pronouns in my own writing. A number of modern versions, such as the NRSV, ESV, and CEV don’t use such capitalization.

Recently, while reading some texts in the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), I noted this capitalization in Isaiah 42, which illustrates some of the potential problems with this practice. (For those interested, Psalm 22 presents similar issues in the NKJV, but the HCSB does not follow the same practice there as in Isaiah 42.)

This is My Servant; I strengthen Him,
this is My Chosen One; I delight in Him;
He will bring justice to the nations. — Isaiah 42:1 (HCSB)

Notice that pronouns referring both to God and to the servant are capitalized. I found this practice in the NKJV and NASB as well for this passage. “Spirit” is a special case, which I have discussed elsewhere. Should the word “spirit” be capitalized in the Hebrew scriptures which do not teach the doctrine of the trinity? My personal answer would be “no,” and the REB and the NRSV follow that practice. The NLT and CEV, which do not capitalize the pronouns in this passage do capitalize the word “Spirit.”

The potential problem here is that the nature of the servant is somewhat controversial. Elsewhere (Isaiah 49:1-6 for example) the servant is identified as Israel. In Isaiah 53, Christians generally identify the servant with Jesus. There are those who would identify the servant as Jesus throughout the servant songs, dealing variously with passages identifying Israel in that role, while others would view Israel as the servant throughout. One option describes the servant as the remnant of Israel, taken into exile, and then redeemed, and sees Jesus as the ultimate representative of Israel, and thus the servant can be properly read as both Israel as a whole and the one individual, Jesus. Some would hold that different servant songs require a different identification of the servant.

I am in no way trying to cover all the options on interpreting the servant songs. I’m simply pointing out that there are a variety of views. I would say that the scholarly consensus is Israel (see notes in the Oxford Study Bible and the New Interpreter’s Study Bible for good summaries of the consensus view). Thus with something as simple as the choice to capitalize or not capitalize certain pronouns, the translators tip their hand as to how they would interpret the passages in question.

I doubt that most readers would notice this detail and make anything of it. The impression would be relatively subtle. And I would not automatically condemn translators for doing so. If the dialect into which they are translating the passage requires that pronouns referring to deity be capitalized, then they are subtly passing on their interpretation whether they capitalize or not. For what it’s worth, I believe that modern American usage tends against capitalizing. Readers who do not expect capitalization will probably simply think the text looks a bit odd.

Another Interesting Lectionary Omission

Another Interesting Lectionary Omission

Since I’ve been attending a lectionary discussion group during Wednesday lunch, and therefore spending more time on the lectionary texts, I’ve been interested in the way the texts are selected. For this coming Sunday, Epiphany, one of the texts is Isaiah 60:1-6. “Now what could possibly be interesting about that?” you might ask.

I’m glad you asked! In this case what’s interesting is the cut-off point. In general, this is a prophecy of restoration, given to Israel during the time of the exile, or perhaps afterward. (It would fall in trito-Isaiah, assuming one accepts that division.) More specifically it is a prophecy of Israel becoming a religious center, and other nations supporting them.

I found it interesting that the Learning Bible (CEV), in its note on Isaiah 60:7 specifically says that the temple referenced there is the rebuilt temple, dedicated about 515 B.C. This suggests that in the view of those interpreters this passage was fulfilled with the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple following the Babylonian exile. Yet a brief reading of the chapter suggests there are a number of things which were not fulfilled at that time, such as the sun no longer being their light (verse 19) but YHWH serving that function (cf. Revelation 21:23-24), all its people being righteous (v. 21), to name just a couple. I note also that the Jewish Study Bible refers this to a future age when God will rule the nation directly.

So again why do I find the cutoff at verse 6 interesting? Well, in that verse we have a reference to the continuation of the sacrificial services of the temple, something that most Christian interpreters do not include in any future age. Quoting from the JPS Tanakh:

All the flocks of Kedar shall be assembled for you,
The rams of Nebaioth shall serve your needs;
They shall be welcome offerings on My altar,
And I will add glory to My glorious House.

Now Christian interpreters are not unaware of these texts, but many people in the pews are, and thus when they start studying eschatological prophecies they can become very confused.

Let me make a couple of quick observations. First, Christian eschatology, insofar as it works from the prophecies of Hebrew scripture has divided prophecies between a first and second coming of Jesus. No such division is known here in the text. Salvation from sin and salvation from physical oppression are closely intertwined.

Second, while both Ezekiel and Isaiah speak of a future time when the temple will be restored and sacrifices will be offered, Christian interpreters find that very hard to fit into any prophetic scheme. There are those who believe there will be a period of sacrifice in a restored temple during the time of the tribulation. I won’t go into the details of how this is supported from the text here. Suffice it to say that it can get complicated quite quickly. But in general, Christian theology has a problem with restored sacrifices seen in a positive sense, since the sacrificial system is commonly seen as unnecessary following the death of Jesus.

One has to wonder whether the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary didn’t want to avoid having these questions raised by a reading of verse 7 on Epiphany.