God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

BBC: “Virgin Birth a Mistranslation”

In a recent piece on the BBC, interviewer Nicky Campbell spoke with Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter. Responding to a question about the virgin birth, Dr. Stavrakopoulou said that, “basically, the virgin birth idea is a mistranslation.”

I think she’s wrong.

She has some of the facts right, though. Isaiah 7:14 was originally about a “young woman” (alma in Hebrew), not a “virgin.” The Greek translation known as the Septuagint (and abbreviated LXX) mistranslated the Hebrew word as the Greek parthenos, which does mean “virgin,” so the Greek text of Isaiah talks about a virgin even though the Hebrew doesn’t. And she’s right that the authors of the Gospels were using the OT as “proof texts,” which is why Matthew quotes Isaiah.

But (1) at the very least, Dr. Stavrakopoulou has failed to mention that the rest of Matthew is clear about the virgin birth; (2) she apparently hasn’t noticed that even though Isaiah speaks of a young woman, the text doesn’t say that she’s not a virgin; and most importantly, (3) she has either misunderstood or misrepresented what a proof text is, and, therefore, how the NT quotes the OT.

The virgin birth is described in Matthew (and Luke, for that matter) in clear, unmistakable terms. Whether or not a reader chooses to believe it, the text is unambiguous in its reference to a virgin birth. So whatever Isaiah 7:14 means, the virgin birth is not a mistranslation.

As it happens, Isaiah 7:14 is compatible with a virgin birth, because a young woman could be (and often was) a virgin. But, more interestingly, I don’t think it matters.

The reason it doesn’t matter is that a “proof text” — that is, a scriptural citation that reinforces some particular point — isn’t meant to prove something in the modern, scientific way that we usually now consider proof. Rather, the proof text just has to match.

Certainly, the parthenos (“virgin”) of the LXX translation of Isaiah matches the virgin birth in Matthew. And, almost as certainly, Matthew knew that his proof text only worked in Greek. He didn’t care. A proof text isn’t scientific. It’s religious.

This matching of text is, in fact, the normal way that the NT quotes the OT (I have much more here: “What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?“), so we shouldn’t be surprised to find it here.

One of my goals in trying to translate the Bible more accurately is to reveal its original beauty. As we so often find, a closer look at Matthew 1:23 and Isaiah 7:14 demonstrates a complexity and a subtlety that are missing from most translations. In this case, the mistranslation in Matthew is part of what makes the writing great.

December 24, 2012 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , ,


  1. Joel,

    A similar ‘proof text’ is Zechariah 13:7. In Zech.11:1 is a poetic doublet, “Open your doors, O Lebanon … — Wail, O Cypress…”, and I think 13:7 is the same: “Arise, O sword…” — “Strike, O Shepherd …” The mystic meaning calls for this , in my opinion, as the good shepherd that the Lord is “raising up” is to “refine” the “shattered” (not ‘scattered’) sheep so He can call them his own. Brown-Driver-Briggs (page 85) allows for the accusative ‘et’ in a case like this to be used as “added emphasis in a change of subject” instead of the received, “Strike THE shepherd”, which is exactly how I see it: sword to shepherd, new subject. What do you think? All translations I have seen are Christianized. Isn’t the Masoretic the usual source text and isn’t that Christian-era? Are there no PRE-Christian translations? The Dead Sea Zechariah has a lacuna at the critical chapter.

    Comment by Robert Wahler | December 24, 2012

    • Words definitely change…even within the biblical text from book to book. Each word has a dyachronic and synchronic meaning- either isolated in time or it’s evolved meaning over a given period of time. It’s a great point you make no doubt and frequently missing from criticism aimed at debunking biblical prophecy.

      Comment by thkpic | November 4, 2014

  2. I’m not a Greek scholar but was recently told (by a Greek scholar) that although Parthenos often means virgin, it didn’t always but only came to mean that later on. The comparison was made with the English word “maid”. Today a maid is somebody who helps clean up around the house without any connection to a young women or virgin. Originally it had the connotation of both – as in, for example, the Maid of Orleans (referring to Joan of Arc) or Maid Marian. Words change – and it makes sense that Parthenos could have meant a young woman without the connotation of being a virgin. As such, Parthenos would be a good translation for Alma – and there were other words in Greek that had a connotation of virgin other than Parthenos.

    Comment by awareci | December 31, 2012

  3. —As you note, the virgin birth in the gospels is not due to mistranslation. In the spiritual writing of biblical times, virginity was associated with spiritual wisdom in a number of different spiritual traditions. The gospels were going to associate virginity with that which gives birth to spiritual consciousness, regardless of how the OT allegorized that same event.
    —Matthew did not quote a passage in existing scripture simply because it had some similarity in wording. Matthew quoted an OT passage that was describing the same spiritual event that he was describing, namely, spiritual wisdom leading to the birth of spiritual consciousness. All gospel and every other biblical writer that quotes any earlier writing, is quoting something which is relevant to the spiritual truth that he is writing about. No biblical writer did anything so juvenile as to refer to earlier writing simply based on some similarity of wording. No modern philosopher would get away with that sort of writing, and spiritual understanding is more than philosophy. If the Bible was that sort of writing it would be practically worthless.
    —Biblical writers were philosophers/prophets par excellence, they were not primitive. There aren’t any surviving cases of such poor biblical writing technique, because their peers and successors wouldn’t have preserved writings of such a low quality. Composition likely did not occur in solitary sessions at a writing table. The themes and metaphors of a work would have been part of teachings in the community first, and thus had somewhat of a peer review and refinement period before ever being committed to writing.
    —Don’t think that Bible books were written in isolation or outside of a community of spiritual thinkers, that is very unlikely. The bible does not discuss this community (except obliquely), but neither does it discuss the preparation of writing materials, and surely those must have existed. Except for a few mentions that have metaphorical meanings, the creation, maintenance/preservation of libraries of texts, is almost unmentioned in the bible, but obviously occurred.

    —Although writers of the OT may have been aware of the traditions which represented spiritual wisdom as a virgin, for whatever reasons, most of the OT represents spiritual wisdom with a different metaphor. Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, as representations of spiritual wisdom, were barren until giving birth to a figure representing spiritual thinking/understanding. In the OT, being barren, is a pretty reliable indicator that the woman represents wisdom. (Tamar, not necessarily medically barren, is nevertheless wisdom, or at least uprightness) In the Song of Solomon wisdom is “black and comely.” If you understand the wisdom-virgin metaphor, seeing wisdom as “black and comely” or seeing the reason for the black Madonnas will not present much of a challenge.

    —We all eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge; we grow up to see good and evil according to our particular earthly culture. Some of us will later acquire spiritual understanding (be “born again”) and go beyond the good and evil of earthly society. OT metaphor for this earthly-then-spiritual sequence, often has an earthly brother born before a spiritual brother. (Cain before Abel, Ishmael before Isaac, Esau before Jacob, etc, etc). To accommodate this metaphor and yet keep Sarah barren until Isaac is born, the Bible has Ishmael born to Hagar, an Egyptian woman, before Isaac comes along. “Egypt,” of course, is a very frequently used metaphor, for the earthly intellect/thinking. This is why so many spiritual figures spend some time in Egypt before they blossom spiritually.
    —With Esau and Jacob, two modes/sides of human intellect (earthly and spiritual) are represented as twin brothers. So, technically Rebekah is not barren when Jacob is born. Solomon’s older brother dies very young (the spiritual rules early), not even named in the Bible, maybe so that the story could focus on Solomon, the spiritual aspect. With Elijah and Elisha the pair are not even brothers. Although Elijah does not represent spiritual nature, he does represent an earthly nature that is diligently seeking spiritual understanding. The moment spiritual birth is achieved, the story (and mantle) passes to Elisha. In some stories only a name changes instead of the person. In some stories three phases of the spiritual path are indicated. Esau/Jacob/Israel is one example of that. That trilogy roughly corresponds to Egypt/wilderness/Canaan, another Bible metaphor for the spiritual path.
    —All of the Bible’s writers were aware of and understood the metaphor/allegory that had been used before them. Not only metaphors from the Judeo-Christian tradition, but some other spiritual traditions as well. The idea that the gospel writers did not understand or properly translate Isaiah 7:14 comes from minds that do not know what the gospels or Isaiah is talking about. Translating the literal meaning is less than half of the battle, without correct spiritual meaning, scripture is of little value. Gospel writers properly looked after the spiritual meaning first and then did a good job of making the literal meaning look plausible.
    —The gospel writers expressed spiritual truths, that they personally understood, in the new metaphorical language they were using and perfecting. Then, they very helpfully pointed to the same spiritual truths in the existing metaphors. Perhaps they were easing the transition to the new metaphors or maybe providing a key for later generations that might try to determine the meaning of the earlier texts.
    —The deeper level, the spiritual level of meaning, was written for future minds with intellects as great as that of the writer; such minds would not be swayed by rhetorical tricks and would likely not continue reading if they encountered them. Mathematics is not taught by persuasion, peer pressure, deception, trickery, etc, and neither are spiritual truths.
    —Bible authors realized that their words would likely reach many that would not be able to grasp more than the literal meaning. They carefully crafted their metaphor/allegory so that it would have meaning on both literal and spiritual levels. Spiritual truths are true for all time. At that level, the Bible is as good as the moment each part was written. The literal level is still being used, but obviously culture has changed dramatically since biblical times and the churches have an ongoing struggle to make the literal meaning useful for today’s laity.

    Comment by Caleb J. | December 31, 2012

  4. […] study from? The Lord isn’t the Shepherd You Think (or: Don’t Mess with the Shepherds) BBC: “Virgin Birth a Mistranslation” How to Love the Lord Your God — Part 1, “Heart” How to Love the Lord Your God […]

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