God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How old was the pregnant woman in Isaiah 7:14?

It has long been known that the KJV translation “virgin” for the pregnant woman in Isaiah 7:14 is inaccurate, and many modern translations opt instead for “young woman” or at least a footnote along those lines. The NRSV, for example, translates: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” And though the NIV 2011 translates “virgin,” it also offers the footnote “or young woman.”

But how old was this “young woman”? Was she really young? Younger than whom?

In this case, the Hebrew word here — alma — probably referred to what we would now call a teenager. (The Greek translation in the Septuagint, parthenos, probably did mean “virgin,” but the Greek here is widely regarded as a translation mistake.)

Teenagers

“Teenager” is the wrong translation, though. For one thing, in antiquity there were no teenagers as we think of them now, because people generally only lived until about age 40. As I explain in And God Said:

Accordingly, people didn’t have time as they do now to spend their first decade as care-free children, then find themselves in their teen years, explore the world as twenty-somethings and settle down as thirty-somethings. They’d be dead before they ever really started living.

Rather, people [in antiquity] were “children” and then they were “adults.” (And then they were dead.)

For another thing, “a pregnant teenager” in English carries connotations that the Hebrew did not. (Also, we don’t have a word in English for a “female teenager.”)

Young Women

So what about “young woman” as a translation?

There’s an old adage in linguistics that even a big mouse is smaller than a small elephant. In our current case, we want to keep in mind that “young” is relative, too.

As I personally use the phrase, “young woman” usually applies to a woman in her 20s or even older. By this reckoning, “young woman,” at least in my dialect, is — surprisingly — too old for alma.

There’s also another aspect to consider. Did alma refer to age, or to stage in life? I think it’s the latter, and I think the stage in life was the one at which a woman normally got married.

In other words, Isaiah 7:14 is about a woman getting pregnant just at the age one might expect. Does “young woman” in English convey that? I don’t think so, both because it may convey the wrong chronological age, and because it emphasizes “young” in a way that the Hebrew does not.

Accordingly, I think “woman” is a better translation: “A pregnant woman will give birth to a son, and call him Immanuel.”

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January 31, 2011 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , ,

13 Comments »

  1. Didn’t girls marry around 13 years old in Isaiah’s time?

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 31, 2011 | Reply

    • It’s hard to know for sure — and there’s some evidence that the age of marriage among the Israelites was higher than in surrounding cultures — but 13 is not a bad guess.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 31, 2011 | Reply

      • Interesting. But why do you suppose that “almah” is used as opposed to “ishah” or “betulah”. Also how would you convey to the English reader the uniqueness of the word “almah”?
        Leshalom, Y

        Comment by Yitz Zlotnik | January 31, 2011

  2. Is LXX such a mistranslation? Perhaps there are connotations of a “no longer a child” “able to conceive” “not yet bedded” which are implicit in the text.

    Comment by Doug Chaplin | January 31, 2011 | Reply

    • Hi Doug.

      Yes, the LXX is almost certainly a mistranslation, and it’s exactly the sort of error we frequently find in the LXX.

      In antiquity, 12/13/14-year old girls were virgins (I’m guessing about the exact ages), and most virgins were girls of that same age.

      The situation was similar to “teenager” and “high-school student” here in the U.S. Most high-school students are teenagers, and vice versa (disregarding, for the sake of the point, older teenagers). So in most cases, it wouldn’t be a terrible mistake to translate “teenager” as “high-school student.”

      Similarly, in most cases it was a mistake, but not a terrible one, for the LXX to translate the Hebrew na’arah (which refers to an age) into Greek as parthenos (which refers to status). In fact, Isaiah 7:14 is not the only place we we find this mistake. For example, in Genesis 24:16 the Hebrew reads “the na’arah was a virgin [b’tulah],” while the Greek in the LXX offers the fairly silly “the virgin [parthenos] was a virgin [parthenos],” using the same word twice where the Hebrew has two different words. (Incidentally, Genesis 24:16 also shows us that a na’arah did not have to be a virgin.)

      But, of course, there is one time when it is a terrible mistake to confuse na’arah (“young woman”) and b’tulah (“virgin”), and that is when she is pregnant.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 1, 2011 | Reply

  3. “Woman” is obviously preferable to “virgin” which seems to go beyond the range of meaning of the Hebrew word being translated.

    But, while archaic, how about the word “maiden” as a translation? Maiden means “unmarried girl or woman” which is pretty close to the meaning of alma, isn’t it? Also, would simply using “girl” work?

    Comment by BradK | February 2, 2011 | Reply

  4. Actually, it’s never been established that almah did not have the meaning “virgin” when this was written. So there is no compelling reason for Christians to change the traditional rendering.

    Comment by Michael Marlowe | February 27, 2011 | Reply

    • I’m not sure why you say that, Michael. There’s extensive evidence that b’tulah meant “virgin” and alma did not. (I go through all the details in And God Said, but most of the information is fairly widely known.)

      What part of the modern reconstruction of the Hebrew don’t you find compelling?

      Comment by Joel H. | February 27, 2011 | Reply

  5. It’s unconvincing because it assumes, without warrant, that Hebrew could have only one word that means “virgin” at the time. Proving that b’tulah means this is not equivalent to proving that almah does not. Consider Shakespeare’s use of “virgin” and “maid” in his plays, where both words obviously refer to, and mean, a “virgin.” Why can’t Hebrew prophets do the same?

    Comment by Michael Marlowe | February 27, 2011 | Reply

    • I don’t make that assumption.

      Rather, my point is that when alma is used elsewhere, we don’t find any evidence that it was used to mean “virgin.”

      I suppose it’s possible that Isaiah 7:14 is the only place the word means “virgin,” but, again, we don’t see any evidence to point in that direction.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 27, 2011 | Reply

  6. Do we have any evidence that it was not used to mean “virgin”? It’s only reasonable to entertain the idea that this was one of the senses of the word at the time. A word that refers to a “young woman” might be expected to acquire the sense “virgin,” and vice versa. The same is true of the Greek parthenos. Language is not such a fixed and neat system that we can allow only one word per concept.

    Comment by Michael Marlowe | February 27, 2011 | Reply

    • Michael, the question is whether it always acquires the sense of ‘virgin’.

      Firstly, it makes no sense to expect someone to demonstrate a negative (that it does not mean ‘virgin’) when it is claimed it means something else. In fact, you can only prove a negative if you can show that two things are mutually exclusive, however I’m not sure that this methodology is ever applied in the realm of semantics.

      Secondly, whilst you are right in pointing out that ‘alma’ could refer to a virgin, the burden of proof is actually on you to show that this is indeed *always* the meaning of the word. If one cannot do this, it is sensible that a translation represents only the most general and fundamental meaning of the word.

      You could however add weight to your argument if you can show that there are other aspects from the context that supports the meaning you are suggesting. But in performing contextual analysis, the root meaning of any word should still be preserved.

      Comment by Robert Kan | February 28, 2011 | Reply

  7. Interestingly, I’ve read that the the NAB (which I haven’t had a chance to look at yet) drops “virgin” here, going with the widely accepted “young woman.”

    Comment by Joel H. | March 3, 2011 | Reply


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