Was the Virgin Birth a ‘mistranslation’? If Stavrakopoulou had read the LXX…

Virgin Mary and Jesus, old Persian miniature. ...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 [1991], 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.

τῆς δ’ ἑτέρης Εὔδωρος ἀρήϊος ἡγεμόνευε
{2>}2 παρθένιος, τὸν ἔτικτε χορῷ καλὴ Πολυμήλη (180)
Φύλαντος θυγάτηρ· τῆς δὲ κρατὺς Ἀργειφόντης
ἠράσατ’, ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ἰδὼν μετὰ μελπομένῃσιν
ἐν χορῷ Ἀρτέμιδος χρυσηλακάτου κελαδεινῆς.
And of the next company warlike Eudorus was captain, the son of a girl unwed, and him did Polymele, fair in the dance, daughter of Phylas, bear. Of her the strong Argeiphontes became enamoured, when his eyes had sight of her amid the singing maidens, in the dancing-floor of Artemis, huntress of the golden arrows and the echoing chase.


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  • http://nearemmaus.wordpress.com Brian LePort

    Thanks for this post. I was unaware of the use of the word in Gen LXX. This does seem to place the interpretation on the shoulders of Matthew alone.

    • timothymichaellaw

      Maybe. But if it was already a tradition, there could have already been this translation too, just not written.

  • http://www.septuagintstudies.wordpress.com John Meade

    Hi Michael,

    What do you make of the Three’s revision of παρθενος to νεανις in Isa 7:14? I am even more interested in your opinion on the date of Theodotion since he is also listed as having this reading.

    I place him in the first century CE world, but he is probably picking up on earlier rescensional activity. If this conclusion is correct, then the reading of νεανις for Isa 7:14 is quite a bit earlier than Matthew’s Gospel. And if this reading is earlier than Matthew’s Gospel, then it does appear that his choice of the LXX is theologically motivated, even if the original LXX translation was not.

    I guess this revision would also provide early evidence to the semantic shift of the word παρθενος since the revisers wanted to maintain the meaning “young woman” through νεανις. Clearly by the time of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, παρθενος had one meaning, “virgin.”

    Thanks for this very informed post. A lot of confusion about these issues this time of year :).

    • timothymichaellaw

      I haven’t looked into what the Three are doing, but I’ve published a number of things on Th being part of a tradition stretching back to before the Common Era, so no telling when his reading comes about. Do you have a better idea?

      • http://www.septuagintstudies.wordpress.com John Meade

        I am speculating about his dependence on an earlier tradition. We have the Nahal Hever scroll, which indicates revision was happening before the Common Era but that is about it. But the Three do not work in a vacuum. We can see dependence between Th and Aq in the many double attributions that are extant. One of them was probably borrowing from the other.

        I have become convinced that Th is more at home in the pre 70 CE world as a result of my work on Job. He was the only one out of the Three who revised the longer ending of LXX-Job. We have fragments and external testimony that only he and the LXX have the longer ending. Aq and Sym stop with the MT. It is also the case with Daniel 13-14 and the longer chapter 3 that Th contains these popular expansions, while the other two do not.

        The Th evidence (I am leaning towards simply calling this historical Theodotion from the first century) is at home in a context where the Jews were revising/updating and preserving the text. This explains the asterisked lined in Job (Th revision towards proto MT) and the popular revisions as we see in the LXX and Th endings of Job. But after 70 CE the Jews no longer updated the text in Hebrew (enter Tagums) but simply preserved the standard text as evidenced by Aq and Sym and the DSS evidence from that time. These sources all align with MT with very little variation.

        Back to Isa 7:14. If Th is dated before 70 CE, then his revision of νεανις is at least contemporary with Matthew. If he is dependent on prior tradition, then this reading is even older. Does this make sense? I am still working on a few details but this view would also account for the “Proto-Theodotionic” readings we find in the NT such as 1 Cor 15:56.

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  • Mark DelCogliano

    Even church fathers like Origen and Basil recognized that “almah” and the Three’s “neanis” do not necessarily mean virgin. Both argued that these terms could mean virgin (parthenos) — and did in Is 7.14 — based on other parallel usages. Origen gives Deuteronomy 22:28-29 and Basil Deuteronomy 22:23-24 and 22:25-26.

    • timothymichaellaw

      Mark thanks for this. Indeed I have a few other places where Origen does better than moderns on lexicography.

    • http://www.septuagintstudies.wordpress.com John Meade


      Did Basil actually comment on “almah”? Or did he simply try to connect the dots from the LXX and the revisions? Just curious.

      I thought Jerome was the first to put the pieces together for Origen does not seem to reason from the Hebrew text on this particular point. Adam Kamesar has a good article on this whole matter here: Kamesar, Adam. “The Virgin of Isaiah 7:14: The Philological Argument from the Second to the Fifth Century.” Journal of Theological Studies NS 41.1 (1990): 51-75.

    • Ken M. Penner

      Mark, did Origen and Basil think “almah” appeared in Deut. 22?

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  • Ken M. Penner

    I haven’t read Rodrigo’s article, so bear with me if this has already been made clear. I understand you to be saying that Matthew’s interpretation of parthenos as virgin resulted not from a LXX mistranslation, but from a semantic shift. Could you define what you mean by mistranslation; it seems that you rebuttal depends on the fact that this translation was precedented. But perhaps that’s all all the evidence from Gen 24 indicates: that this mistranslation was in good company. Remember that the translator of Isaiah also had the precedent in Ex 2:8 for neanis. My other question is whether Matthew knew of the semantic shift. Could we say that Matthew’s interpretation of parthenos as virgin resulted not from a mistranslation but from a misunderstanding (whether that misunderstanding was on the part of the translator or Matthew or his later readers)?

    • timothymichaellaw

      Ken, if I was unclear it wouldn’t be unusual! I do not think Matthew’s translation is necessarily the result of a semantic shift, because parthenos could already have meant virgin even earlier. I meant that his readers would no doubt have run with the meaning ‘virgin’, since that’s the obvious intention of Matthew’s citation. But the translation is precedented in Genesis, and even if that only proves that the Gen translator also mistranslated, how would we explain the use of parthenos and its related terms in broader Greek literature where it certainly refers to ‘young woman’ or ‘child of an unmarried woman’? In other words, I don’t see how we prove it’s a mistranslation if parthenos could already have meant ‘young woman’?

  • Glenn Wooden

    Alison Salvesen’s reference to παρθένιος should be the cue for those interested in such things to go through the various articles in LSJ with the παρθεν- element, to see the range of uses. To add to Alison’s example, please note:
    “παρθεν-ίας, ου, ὁ, son of a concubine : οἱ Π. the youths born at Sparta during the Messenian War, Arist.Pol.1306b29, Str.6.3.2.”
    “παρθέν-ευμα, ατος, τό, … 2 νόθον π. child of an unmarried woman, ib. [E.Ph.] 1472.”
    It seems to me that it has nothing to do specifically with virginity, but rather with the age and married state of a female. Especially in Hebrew culture, the assumption / hope / expectation was that an unmarried female was a virgin. But, as various uses of the παρθεν- element demonstrate (both when it used for women with children, but also when used of men), virginity should not be assumed to be what the παρθεν- element necessarily conveys.

    • timothymichaellaw

      thank you Glenn!

  • http://www.septuagintstudies.wordpress.com John Meade

    Great discussion so far.

    Regarding the usage of παρθενος in the LXX, how should we understand its usage for נערה in Genesis 34:3? Shechem has already raped Dinah in verse 2, and yet she is still called παρθενος in verse 3. She could not be considered a virgin in the strictest sense (could she?), but she could still be considered an unmarried/young woman in the context. It appears that LXX-Gen is well aware of the wider semantic range of this word, since Dinah is no longer a virgin in the narrow sense of the word.

    Does this make sense? If so, the Isa translator was probably working with a similar sense of the word.

  • John Flanagan

    Hi Michael,

    Nice post. I appreciate your contribution. Hope you are doing well.
    Best wishes,

    • timothymichaellaw

      John, how lovely to hear from you. I hope you’re well. Still in Leiden?

  • Tracy McKenzie

    I’d be interested in what your readers have to say about the possibility of a wordplay in the MT of Is 7:14. A colleague once pointed out that Ahaz is instructed to ask for a sign as deep as sheol or to the “height above” (Hebrew מעלה). He suggested the possibility that the reason for the Hebrew term עלמה was its correspondence to the term מעלה. Of course, it would also be possible for the LXX translator to exploit the similarities. Just curious… Tracy

    • timothymichaellaw

      Tracy, I think Nathan MacDonald mentions something along these lines in an email to me today. We should discuss since we live four houses down from each other!

  • Ken M. Penner

    It seems to me that if we’re considering a semantic shift in the meaning of parthenos, then our treatment of the LSJ data (thanks for this, Glenn) will have to be nuanced chronologically, as the BDAG entry does: “παρθένος, ου, ἡ (s. prec. entry; Hom.+, gener. of a young woman of marriageable age, w. or without focus on virginity; s. esp. PKöln VI, 245, 12 and ASP 31, ’91 p. 39) and ὁ (s. reff. in b) in our lit. one who has never engaged in sexual intercourse, virgin, chaste person.”
    Here’s the problem: in the 8th century BCE (Isaiah), almah did not denote sexual inexperience. In the 2nd century CE (Justin), parthenos did. Just for clarity’s sake: Where do you propose the discrepancy originated?

    • timothymichaellaw

      We actually don’t know enough about Hebrew lexicography to be too strong there, especially enough to be precise about 8th cent. BCE Hebrew semantics. But I’d be happy with your point for now, based on the evidence we do have. I don’t have a guess where the discrepancy arose, if one could call it a ‘discrepancy’. I guess my only dog in this fight is to say parthenos doesn’t have to mean virgin, and therefore we can’t prove the LXX-Isa translator ‘mistranslated’. How would you propose to prove this?

      • Ken M. Penner

        Returning to this just now because I was just reading Philo The Special Laws, I 107 λέγω δὲ παρθένον οὐ μόνον ᾖ μὴ ἕτερος ὡμίλησεν, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐφʼ ᾗ μηδεὶς ἄλλος ἀνὴρ ὠνομάσθη διά τινων ὁμολογιῶν, κἂν ἁγνεύῃ τὸ σῶμα. I say παρθένος not only [meaning] one with whom no-one else has consorted, but also in reference to whom no other man has been named in certain contracts, even if [her] body be pure.
        FWIW, another instance of παρθένοις ὁμιλεῖν, presumably in a sexual sense: ἀλλὰ γὰρ δέδοικα μή, ἂν ἅπαξ μάθωμεν ἀργοὶ ζῆν καὶ ἐν ἀφθόνοις βιοτεύειν, καὶ Μήδων δὲ καὶ Περσῶν καλαῖς καὶ μεγάλαις γυναιξὶ καὶ παρθένοις ὁμιλεῖν, μὴ ὥσπερ οἱ λωτοφάγοι ἐπιλαθώμεθα τῆς οἴκαδε ὁδοῦ (Xen., Anab. 3.2.25).

  • Ed Gallagher

    Very helpful discussion. I just wanted to point out that at the beginning of this year Andrew Lincoln published an article on Matthew’s use of Isa. 7:14 (more-or-less). See here: http://jnt.sagepub.com/content/34/3/211.abstract?rss=1.

    He affirms somewhere in there that Matthew’s primary purpose for quoting Isa. 7;14 is not to show that a “virgin birth” was predicted aforetime, but rather to affirm that this Jesus is the long-awaited Immanuel, “which is translated God With Us.” I think it’s worth considering.

    • timothymichaellaw

      Bingo, Ed!

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  • Tracy McKenzie

    Sounds great! Are you guys here over break?

  • Tony Costa

    While I would agree that Matthew emphasizes the Immanuel “God with us” theme which runs through his gospel (1:23; 18:20; 28:20), Matthew does emphasize Mary’s virginity in showing that she was already pregnant before she and Joseph “came together” (Matt 1:18) and that the pregnancy came by the agency of the Holy Spirit. Matthew’s reference to Joseph not “knowing” Mary (an idiom for intimate sexual relations) until she gave birth to Jesus (Matt 1:25), also highlight’s Mary’s virginity. So while I think Matthew does emphasize the “God with us” theme of Immanuel, he safeguards Mary’s virginity at the same time.

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  • Jrook

    To get caught up in the translation of the term used in Isa is to miss the context of the chapter which does not at face value related to a prophecy regarding the birth of Jesus. In fact it seems to speak of a situation that would occur within a number of years of the time frame being referenced. To that end many have found a need to label it as a “double” prophecy. Which seems like a situation where people start with the answer they are seeking and interpret things to fit with that answer. This is also the case with the chapters in Mathew where Jesus indicates he will return during the lifetime of the generations he is preaching to. It has always troubled me that so many of the criteria or characteristics identified for the messiah in the Old Testament, will conveniently be fulfilled by Jesus when he comes again. However, Jesus clearly indicates he will come again during the lifetime of his contemporaries.