Issues of Translation: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English and the Issue of the Virgin Birth

"Issues of Translation" was originally a series of articles I wrote for The Crown, the newsletter for All Saints, Sacramento published between May 2010 and March 2011. It was spured originally by an article about the King James bible which lead several members of the congregation to ask why there are so many different translations, and what makes one better then another. Rather then try to answer that question directly, I undertook to write a few articles showing why it is not obvious how to translate scripture.

Rather then allow these articles to languish on my hard drive, I have decided to repost them here. I plan to put one out each Friday. In the articles I occasionally refer to traditions common to The Episcopal Church or our parish. You should know then that for most scripture readings we use the New Revised Standard Version of the bible. Some of our liturgical sources (i.e. Rite I) still use language from the Authorized Version (now known as the King James Version or KJV). Choral Evensong services also have reading from the KJV. "Our hymnal" referers to The Hymnal 1982 of The Episcopal Church, and "our prayer book" refers to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

Note: this particular article was published in the December issue of The Crown. The reading refered to are those for Advent 4, Year A.

On the fourth Sunday of advent this year, we will hear a very strange thing in the reading of scripture. The bible will quote itself, and have a hard time doing so. The readings will be Isaiah 7:10-16 and Mathew 1:18-25. The New Revised Standard Version will translate Isa 7:14 as “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Then it will translate Matt 1:23 as “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” There are some subtle differences, and one huge change. Why did “young woman” become “Virgin” in Matthew?

To understand why this happened and why it gives translators such headaches, I want to take you through the early history of biblical translation. Our story starts with the creation of a translation of Hebrew Scriptures called the Septuagint. In the third century B.C. Greek became the common language of the Eastern Mediterranean. There was great demand for a translation of scripture from Hebrew to Greek. The story goes that King Ptolemy II gathered 70 scholars (Septuagint means 70) and asked them to independently translate the ancient scriptures. According to the story, each scholar produces an identical translation. By the time of Jesus’ birth the Septuagint was the standard version of the Hebrew Scriptures.

However, no translation is perfect. Hebrew has two words betulah, for a virgin, and a more general word, `almah, for a young woman. Greek at the time of the Septuagint only had a word for Virgin, parthenos. When the Hebrew was translated into Greek the passage changed meaning. By the time of Jesus’ birth it was commonly understood that the Messiah would have to be born of a virgin.

When the Gospel of Matthew was written, the evangelist quoted the version of Isaiah that everyone was familiar with, probably unaware that there was any difficulty. Reading the Greek Gospel next to the Greek Isaiah would have shown an exact quotation.

Early Christian theologians continued to depend on and quote extensively from the Septuagint including in the creation of the Apostles Creed. In the fourth century St. Jerome began creating an authoritative translation of the bible into Latin. This version, known as the Volgate, contains a very free, and Christocentric translation of the Old Testament based partially on the Hebrew texts but strongly influenced by the Greek Septuagint. For the next 1000 years western Christian theologians would refer almost exclusively to this translation, and more importantly, the liturgy would be derived from its words. In the Volgate, like the Septuagint, Matthew contains an exact quotation of Isaiah.

It was not until the reformation that the next historically significant attempt at a new translation came. When the scholars hired by King James came to do the English translation, they began with the original languages and often would correct translation errors in the Latin, but when it came to a passage as well known and theologically important as Isa 7:14 they let 1500 years of Christian tradition and scholarship prevail over a literal translation. Again, in the Standard (King James) Version, Matthew successfully quotes Isaiah.

In the early part of the 20th century life took one last turn. Along with a desire for a translation in modern English, scholars wanted a translation that incorporated many of the more ancient manuscripts and linguistic insights made available through modern archeology. This time when translators for the Revised Standard Version got to Isaiah they chose to give the famous verse back its more general meaning, but still translated Matthew’s Greek word from the Septuagint. The New Revised Standard Version which we read from during services has done the same. And that is why on the fourth Sunday of Advent the Gospel Matthew will not match the passage in Isaiah it is trying to quote.