Francesca Stavrakopoulou has earned every bit of attention she’s gained in recent years as the UK’s new public face of Religion. She’s extremely intelligent, articulate, and comfortable behind a microphone or in front of a camera lens. This morning she was on the BBC explaining that the Virgin Birth was founded on a ‘mistranslation’. This is, as might be expected, the headline for the BBC: ‘Hebrew Expert: “Virgin Birth a mistranslation”‘. The presenter asked Stavrakopoulou what she would say to biblical literalists who would no doubt object to her comment. She replied, ‘They should learn to read Hebrew.’ In fact, to sort out this problem, they should know more about the Greek Old Testament than the Hebrew.
The issue to which she was referring is found in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation of Isa. 7:14, which was later used by Matthew. Citing this verse from the Old Testament, the Gospel writer sets in stone the Christian belief that Jesus was born of a virgin. In the Hebrew Bible, the word עלמה appears, and its simple meaning is ‘young woman’. The LXX translator has rendered this word parthenos, a Greek term which has usually been taken to mean ‘virgin’. According to Stavrakopoulou, who is not alone by any means, this is a ‘mistranslation’, a mistake made by a Greek translator who should have or could have chosen a different Greek word for ‘young maid’ or ‘young woman’ to translate עלמה. But is it?
No, it is not a mistranslation. Elsewhere in the Septuagint we find the use of parthenos for ‘young woman’, having no connotation of virginity. To give just one example, in Gen. 24 parthenos is used five times to translate three different Hebrew nouns for Rebekah, one of which is עלמה. James Barr noted long ago in his Typology of Literalism (1979) that the Greek translator of Genesis simply used parthenos to translate the rare word עלמה, but that parthenos is a suitable word for ‘young woman’ and does not necessarily imply virginity. It may be unusual both in Genesis and Isaiah, but it has a broader semantic range than it is often given credit for. The Greek term has also meant a young woman who has just come of age, and only later, perhaps due to Christian use, did the term become almost exclusively connected to virginity.
The use of parthenos by Matthew is unquestionably a claim that Jesus was born of a virgin. But the claim is not based on a mistranslation, as Stavrakopoulou suggests. The Greek translator of Isaiah used a perfectly acceptable rendering for עלמה. It is more likely that there was already a virgin birth oral tradition, related to other Greek myths in the Greco-Roman world like that of the birth of Aeo (see e.g., Rösel, ‘Die Jungfrauengeburt des endzeitlichen Immanuel’, JBTh 6 , 135–51). The Gospel writer was able to refer to the citation of Isa. 7:14 when he gave his narration of the birth of Jesus, because his readers, whether or not they were aware of the semantic shift that had occurred in the short history of this little Greek word, knew that in the first century parthenos indeed meant ‘virgin’.
This problem with the Greek translation in Isaiah has been discussed by several Septuagint scholars like Arie van der Kooij and Johann Lust, but a recent summary of past research can now be found in R. de Sousa, ‘Is the Choice of parthenos in LXX Isa. 7:14 Theologically Motivated?’, JSS 53.2 (2008): 211-232. De Sousa’s aim is not to take up this question of Matthew’s use, but to ask whether the Greek translator was theologically motivated to use parthenos. De Sousa concludes, convincingly, that he was not.
UPDATE: Alison Salvesen sends this:
LSJ says parthenios can refer to a ‘son of an unmarried girl’, as in Homer Iliad 16.180.