God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

What’s This Leaping in Luke 1:41?

According to the NRSV translation of Luke 1:41, Elizabeth’s “child leaped in her womb.”

The Greek here for “womb” (koilia) means “belly” or “stomach.” It’s the same word used of the snake in Genesis, for instance, which is punished to walk on its belly. Because snakes don’t have wombs, contexts like this show us that the Greek word is more general than “womb.” But “womb” is still a reasonable translation. And certainly we know that the “child” was in the womb, not some other part of Elizabeth’s anatomy, even if the original text was less clear.

The “child” here (brefos) probably refers literally to what we might now call an infant. But, like the (well accepted) shift from “stomach” to “womb,” I think we should translate this as “fetus.” Even if I’m wrong, though, I don’t think this word has much to do with the status of a fetus, for reasons I’ve already pointed out — in particular, the general way in which words are disconnected from the time at which they apply. (This is why the “child” in a woman’s womb in Leviticus similarly doesn’t tell us about the status of a fetus.)

What about the leaping? What was this child or infant or fetus doing?

The Greek is skirtao, and here we find a surprise. That Greek verb is used elsewhere almost entirely in two (related?) contexts: figuratively, and of fetuses.

In Genesis 25:22, Rebekka’s twin children “struggled together within her.” That’s skirtao.

In Psalm 114 (verses 4 and 6), mountains “skip”; in Wisdom 17:19, animals whose running is invisible “leap”; in Malachi 3:20, those who revere God’s name shall “leap” like calves; in Jeremiah, plunderers “frisk about” like a cow; and in Luke 6:23, God’s chosen should rejoice and “leap for joy.” All of those are skirtao in Greek. (Joel 1:17 uses the verb, too, but in a translation that doesn’t accord perfectly with the original text.)

So it looks like “leap” is only one possible translation, and probably not even the best. Perhaps “moved in the way that fetuses do” would be better. Or maybe “leaped for joy” in the same metaphoric sense of the English phrase, which indicates joy but not necessarily actual leaping.

One thing is certain, though. If we go with the NRSV translation of “leap,” we must understand the language figuratively. While fetuses can shift, kick, and otherwise move, actual physical leaping is beyond their ability.

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September 24, 2015 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , ,

10 Comments »

  1. “Stirred”?

    Comment by Burr Schall | September 24, 2015 | Reply

  2. Dr. Hoffman,

    I would agree completely that the baby in Elizabeth’s womb did not “leap” in the technical sense as a man would leap from the ground. It is certainly a figure of speech in that sense. But this figure of speech is still very different from the metaphors and similes used in poetic Scripture, such as when the Psalms speak of mountains leaping. Regardless of what the baby inside Elizabeth’s womb was doing, the baby was reacting in a physical way (such that Elizabeth could notice it), to a specific situation or experience (the presence of the unborn Messiah in the room). It is impossible to avoid this basic fact that is depicted in Scriptural narrative, not poetry.

    Eric

    Comment by eric luppold | September 24, 2015 | Reply

    • I don’t agree that your reading is the only possible one, but even granting that the fetus reacted in a physical way, couldn’t Elizabeth’s heart react in a physical way, too, without the heart being a person?

      Comment by Joel H. | September 24, 2015 | Reply

      • So are you suggesting that Elizabeth was mistaken when she declared that the baby inside of her did something physical? Here is the passage from the NASB:

        Luke 1:41-44 (NASB)
        41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
        42 And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!
        43 “And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me?
        44 “For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.

        So if we are saying that the baby did not actually move, but that something else physically was happening (indigestion, stomach ache, bad gas, etc.), then there are two things that we are suggesting:

        1) The narrator is either lying to us or is plainly wrong in his facts. This is because in verse 41, the narrator is describing what happened. So if we suggest that the baby was not reacting to Mary and Jesus in the way that was described, then the narrator messed that up in his recounting of the story and drew some bad conclusions.

        2) Elizabeth is either lying or is sadly mistaken about what is happening to her. She attributes the physical experience to the baby moving, but in reality is could be her own heart fluttering or just indigestion.

        The above two situations are the only options open to us if we are going to say that the baby is not, and could not have been, the one who physically responded to the situation.

        Again, it seems as if you are trying to engage in hermeneutical “gymnastics” to try to get around this passage. I pray that you are not trying to get Scripture to fit into something that you believe, but that you are letting Scripture conform your mind to God’s word. So far though, it seems as if you are trying to make Scripture fit a preconceived plan or conclusion.

        Comment by Eric Luppold | September 24, 2015

      • To finish answering your question, if the baby did react physically to external stimuli, we have evidence of personhood, since persons are ones who respond in that way (a form of communication taking place).

        Furthermore, we have Elizabeth labeling Mary as “the mother of my Lord.” So immediately we see that Elizabeth is already addressing the unborn Messiah as her “Lord.” That is a very personal term, and would not be a metaphor or simile in this narrative dialogue.

        Comment by Eric Luppold | September 24, 2015

  3. By the way, I didn’t actually get around to answering your question about how if Elizabeth’s heart had leaped, we would not consider that to be a person. My apologies for that. Allow me to address that issue at this point. I would simply say that the reason we should view the unborn John and the unborn Jesus as “persons” is because Elizabeth actually describes Mary as “the mother of my Lord.” I think it is fair to say that the implication here is that Elizabeth honestly thinks of the unborn Jesus as her “Lord” not something that was less than human or not fully in the image of God. Again, this is using the language of “persons”, and is indicative of Elizabeth’s mindset. It would seem that the language used by both the narrator and Elizabeth indicates that they understood the unborn baby to be a person, as opposed to a body part like a heart.

    Comment by Eric L. | September 27, 2015 | Reply

    • This is entirely separate from the issue of leaping.

      I’ve already pointed out how language disconnects words from the time at which they apply. A couple might put money into an education fund for their children even before those children are born. Here, “their children” means “their future children.” That’s just how language works.

      So again, the text is consistent with a fetus being a child, but it’s also consistent with a fetus being something that isn’t a child yet.

      Comment by Joel H. | September 29, 2015 | Reply

      • I respectfully disagree with you, and I believe that you are importing modern concepts into the text itself, rather than letting the text of Scripture speak for itself. Would 1st century Palestinian Jews think that an unborn child is not made in the image of God? The language of both Elizabeth and angels of the Lord imply that they understood unborn children as persons. This is very evident when Elizabeth refers to the unborn Messiah as “my Lord.” She didn’t say “my future Lord” or “my potential Lord”. I think this is something that you need to consider.

        Again, the crux of the issue falls upon the image of God and the concept of “personhood”. The image of God is where we derive our value of human life, and so we need to discern when the image of God “begins” in a person. When we look at Scripture, we look at the good and natural consequences of Scripture. So even if specific things are not explicitly set forth before us (such as the Trinity), we let Scripture interpret Scripture and look at what all of God’s word has to say. We also incorporate General Revelation into our systematic worldview. Simply put, I think that you miss the forest for the trees in an effort to have the text of Scripture say (or not say) what you want.

        Comment by Eric L. | September 29, 2015

  4. Interesting take, but as a woman who has had babies in her belly they can indeed leap. They can be so boisterous as to wake a mother up. They can knock tea cups off of bellies and such. Google babies moving in bellies. I believe the babe actually leap.

    Comment by Kara | April 22, 2016 | Reply

  5. “One thing is certain, though. If we go with the NRSV translation of ‘leap,’ we must understand the language figuratively. While fetuses can shift, kick, and otherwise move, actual physical leaping is beyond their ability.”

    LOL. LOL. LOL. LOL.

    Isnt that precisely the point? Luke is obviously claiming a miracle here. Why did thr child leap in the womb? Because he recognized Jesus as the Messiah in the other womb in the room. So obviously leap here means “lesp for joy” but also IS MEANT TO BE UNDERSTOOD LITERALLY. Otherwise it wouldn’t mske a very good miracle.

    Either that or Luke had never seen a pregnsnt womsn before, never spoken with a woman sbout ehat pregnancy is like, etc. (so much for being a physician) and thought s child kicking is rare enough to be a miracle!

    Comment by davidbrainerd2 | February 14, 2017 | Reply


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