Christopher Heard has published a post in Higgaion in which he shows several problems with the TNIV translation. Several months ago, I wrote an article, “The NIV and the TNIV: Two Bibles with Contradictory Views” In which I studied the way the TNIV translated 2 Samuel 21:19.
In his post, Christ studies three passages: Jeremiah 7:22-23, Isaiah 7:14, and Isaiah 56:5-5. Below is Chris’ discussion of Isaiah 7:14:
(2) Isaiah 7:14
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the TNIV treats this one no better than the original NIV, but it’s still a pain when you’re trying to get your students into the mindset of the Syro-Ephraimite crisis (c. 735-732 BCE) and their translation makes them think of Christmas. The Hebrew text reads:
הנה העלמה הרה וילדת בן וקראת שמו עמנו אל
I should say that I have no objection to the evangelist Matthew (or “Matthew” if you prefer the “scare quotes”) quoting Isaiah 7:14 from the Septaugint and applying it to the birth of Jesus, but I do have a problem with translators acting as if the Hebrew text read the same as Matthew’s quotation. Again I will offer a more literalistic translation:
Look, the young woman has conceived and she will bear a son and she will call his name Immanu-El.
The TNIV reads:
The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
There are two issues here. One is the translation of עלמה (‘almah), my “young woman,” TNIV’s “virgin.” I don’t want to be too dogmatic about the semantics of עלמה; whether or not the word actually had the sense “virgin” is debatable, although in some of the very few cases where the word is actually used in biblical Hebrew, the term applies to young women who are arguably virgins. You can probably make that argument in at least four of the seven instances where the term actually occurs in the Tanakh. I suspect that such a sense cannot really be sustained in the two instances where the Song of Songs uses the word עלמה, but maybe an argument could be made. Biblical Hebrew has another word, בתולה (bethulah), that specifically means “virgin” and draws attention to the virginity; in fact, בתולה is related to the abstract noun in Hebrew for virginity, בתולים. Certainly, by using the word עלמה instead of בתולה, Isaiah (or the author of the book who crafts Isaiah’s dialogue) declines to specifically emphasize a virginal state on the part of the young woman to whom Isaiah refers. An עלמה is not definitely or clearly a virgin simply by virtue of the term, but she is definitely and clearly a young woman, according to the semantics of עלמה.
But the noun עלמה by itself is not really the key to seeing that this particular עלמה is not a virgin; that key, rather, is the verb form הרה. To oversimplify matters a bit for those of you who don’t read Hebrew, Hebrew verbs have two “aspects,” perfect and imperfect. Perfect aspect is generally used for actions that are completed from the point of view of the narration, and imperfect for those that are not yet completed from the point of view of the narration. Each of these can be “converted” into the other by the use of the conjunction ו, a usage called the “waw consecutive” (it also goes by other names). There are much more sophisticated ways of explaining all this, but that’ll do for the moment. In this sentence, we have three key verbs. The first, הרה (harah), is a perfect aspect form of the verb “to conceive, to become pregnant.” Since the verb is in the perfect aspect, with no waw consecutive affixed, this indicates that the young woman in question is already pregnant—and hence, no doubt, not a virgin. She has not delivered the child yet, as indicated by the use of ילד (yalad, “to bear, to give birth”) in the imperfect aspect (the affixed ו, for those of you wondering, is not pointed in the Masoretic Text as a waw consecutive, but as a simple conjunctive waw). Thus, the young non-virginal woman is already pregnant but has not yet delivered. But the TNIV obscures all this—screwing up the entire point of the sign in the context of the Syro-Ephraimite crisis and making students think that the real point is about Jesus.
I strongly recommend that you visit Chris’ blog and read his post. After reading Chris’ post, you will discover the reason it is so important for translators not to allow their theological presuppositions influence the way a text is translated. To read Chris’ post, click here.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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