God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Case of Mistaken Piercing in Zechariah 12:10 and John 19:37

A question on the About page concerns what appears to be a misquotation of Zechariah 12:10 in John 19:37:

Why does John, in John 19:37 CHANGE Zechariah 12:10 from “they shall look upon ME whom they have pierced: and they shall mourn for HIM” to only: “they shall look upon HIM whom they have pierced”?

It’s a great question with an important lesson behind it.

It’s hard to find an accurate printed translation of Zechariah 12:10, both because the verse is so theologically charged and because the Hebrew is complex.

The NRSV translates, “And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one* whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn” (my emphasis).

The footnote for “look on the one” in the NRSV advises that the Hebrew means “look on me.” This is the crux of the issue, because John 19:37 is clear: “And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.'”

The question is why John appears to misquote Zechariah. (Another good question is why so many translations hide this fact.)

The answer actually comes from John 19:36, where the important technical word plirow introduces two OT quotations. The first is “none of his bones shall be broken” (perhaps a rephrasing of Psalm 34:20 [aka 34:21 aka 33:21]). The second is our verse.

I’ve pointed out before (here: “What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?“) that, in spite of common translations, plirow doesn’t mean “fulfill.” Rather, that Greek verb introduces something called a “proof text” — which, despite the name, has nothing to do with what we would now call “proof.”

In this case, the proof text is a passage from the OT that matches the new text in the NT. (In the case of Jewish texts from the same time period, the proof text is also from the OT, but the new texts are usually prayers or something called “midrash,” and they are often introduced by Hebrew that means “as is written,” “as is said,” etc.)

The point of a proof text is to lend textual support to a new idea, but not in the scientific way that we now think of as “proof.” The support indicated by plirow has to do with the text itself, not what it means. That’s why I translate plirow as “match.”

Here, the point is that John 19:37 matches Zechariah 12:10. Both have to do with piercing. The details of the original meaning — who gets pierced, under what circumstances, etc. — are irrelevant.

This is a surprising way for most modern, scientific readers to look at text, but it was the norm in the period of time that gave us the NT. So the question is not “why did John misquote Zechariah?” but rather “How does John’s text match Zechariah’s?” And the answer, of course, is that they match quite closely. (I have more examples of this kind of matching in my longer explanation of pilrow, including perhaps the most famous: the non-virgin/virgin of Isaiah/Matthew.)

There’s one final interesting detail, and here we return to Hebrew grammar.

The Hebrew word for “upon me” is eilai, spelled Aleph-Lamed-Yud. That common word also spells the poetic word elei, which means just “upon.” So even though the text of Zechariah is clearly, “look upon me, whom they have pierced” it could be purposely misread as “look upon the one they have pierced.” (A similar kind of word play in English might turn “atonement” into “at-one-ment.”)

This is what originally made the text of John here so compelling: It takes an OT quotation and reinterprets it to apply to a new context.

Unfortunately, translations that change Zechariah to match John hide the ingenuity of the text, and make it all but impossible for English readers to understand how the NT quotes the OT.

November 20, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 12 Comments

Who are you calling a virgin?

The NAB’s decision to change “virgin” to “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14 has once again brought up the virgin birth, Mary, and the nature of prophesy, as well as the role of translation in accurately conveying the text of the Bible.

Most reports I’ve seen recently, though, confuse what are really three separate issues here.

Isaiah 7:14

The first issue is the text of Isaiah 7:14. The Hebrew there reads: “an alma … will bear a son and call him `Emmanuel.'” It has long been known that alma does not mean “virgin.” Rather, the Hebrew word applies to any young woman. So the English translation of that line should read along the lines of “a young woman … will bear a son…” (The evidence is widely known and readily available, including in my And God Said.)

Unfortunately, the Septuagint — the highly influential ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament — got the translation wrong here, translating the Hebrew alma as the Greek parthenos, which (probably) did mean “virgin.” It was an easy mistake to make, because most young women back then were virgins, and most virgins were young women. It would be like translating “teenager” as “high-school student” in a society where most teenagers were in fact in high school.

Based on this mistranslation, though, most modern translations — going back to the KJV and including the recently published NIV — translate “a virgin … will bear a son” here. (The NIV has a footnote, “or young woman.”) The new NAB (“NABRE”) is a notable exception. That version now has, “the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.” Their choice to go with “young woman” reflects the correct understanding of the original Hebrew (though I do have problems with their phrasing of the rest of the line).

The Virgin Birth

Importantly, though, Isaiah 7:14 is not the description of “the virgin birth” of Jesus. Rather, we find the virgin birth first in Matthew 1:18-25, which brings us to the second issue.

As part of the description of Jesus’ birth, the text in Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14, noting that Jesus’ birth “fulfilled” (plirow) the phrophet Isaiah’s words (a point I return to below).

Matthew 1:18-25 only uses “virgin” (parthenos) in quoting Isaiah 7:14. But Matthew’s description of Jesus’ birth is nonetheless clear on the matter. The text uses the euphemisms “before [Mary and Joseph] came together [sunerchomai]” and “[Joseph] did not know [ginosko] her [Mary] until after she gave birth” to indicate that Mary was a virgin, and the text twice clarifies that the pregnancy was “from the Holy Spirit” [ek pneumatos agiou].

These combine to create a clear account: Jesus was born to a virgin.

The text in Luke 1:26-38 is similar in nature. Though again “virgin” is replaced with a euphemism (“Mary asked the angel, `how [is it possible that I will conceive] since I do not know [ginosko]” any men?), the text is clear, adding for emphasis that “with God nothing is impossible.”

The actual descriptions indicate a virgin birth, regardless of what the words in Isaiah 7:14 mean.

Prophesy

The third issue is how to reconcile the virgin birth with Isaiah 7:14, which is cited in Matthew 1:23.

The most straightforward way is to note that even though Isaiah 7:14 refers to a “young woman,” not a “virgin,” the text doesn’t say that she wasn’t a virgin. She could have been. (By comparison, the text also doesn’t say that the woman had long hair, but she might have.) In other words, Isaiah 7:14, even with the better understanding of the original text, doesn’t contradict anything in the NT.

The more nuanced way to reconcile the two texts is to recognize what the verb in Matthew 1:22, plirow, really indicates. Though the word is commonly translated “fulfill” (as in, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet [Isaiah]”), better is “match,” as I describe here (“What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?”). I won’t go through the whole explanation again, but for now I think it suffices to note that Matthew knew that the details in Isaiah 7:14 differed from those he was describing. After all, the name of the child in Isaiah 7:14 was Immanuel, not Jesus.

Either way (and even though it’s not really my place to say), I don’t see a huge theological problem here. And even if there were a problem, I would still be in favor of an accurate translation.

Summary

It seems pretty clear to me that Isaiah 7:14 mentions a pregnant woman (who, at least as far as translation can take us, may or may not have been a virgin) and that the NT refers to the virgin birth of Jesus. It seems equally clear that the lack of perfect harmony between the texts is in keeping with other kinds of prophesy in the NT.

Still, from the international stage (“traditionalists may see [the NABRE’s change from “virgin” to “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14] as a step away from the original meaning”) to local communities (“If the meaning of the language is changed to reflect that Mary may not have been a virgin, you’ve just denied the divinity of Christ”) the discussion seems skewed to me. It seems to start with theology, and then ask how the translations can be doctored to match that theology, while I think an accurate translation should stand on its own.

Or to put it another way, it seems to me that basing theology on a translation designed solely to support that theology is both bad translation technique and bad theology.

March 23, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , | 45 Comments

What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?

What happens to prophecies in the New Testament?

The obvious answer is that they come true, but I think a more careful look shows otherwise.

Matthew 1:18-22 / Isaiah 7:14

As an example of a prophecy apparently coming true, we might consider the first chapter of Matthew. The text starting around Matthew 1:18 deals with the virgin birth of Jesus, fulfilling the prophecy of virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14. The text even reads (Matthew 1:22; NRSV), “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.”

John 19:24 / Psalm 22:18

Similarly, according to John 19:24, the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ tunic to fulfill the prophecy of Psalm 22:18, “…and for my clothing they cast lots.” (Matthew 27:35 has the same account, but not all manuscripts have the direct reference to Psalms there.)

Fulfillment of Prophecy

Both of these seem to be cases of prophecies coming true.

But the Greek word in each case is plirow. And while “fulfill” is one common translation of that verb, I don’t think it’s accurate.
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October 19, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments