Isaiah 7:14 and the TNIV

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.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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7 Responses to Isaiah 7:14 and the TNIV

  1. >Why did the LXX translators translate it the way they did, then? Clearly it couldn’t have been theological pressupositions, since the idea of the Messiah being born of a virgin had certainly not taken on any theological weight several hundred years before Jesus was born. I admit that your view is the consensus among mainstream scholarship now, but I haven’t seen any explanation of why the LXX would translate it with a word that clearly does imply virginity if the mainstream consensus is correct that the original Hebrew term does not.Since it doesn’t really matter theologically anyway, I’m not sure why it’s a big deal. If the word does imply virginity, it obviously meant to most of its original readers that a virgin would have sex and conceive. I would think that’s what happened with the immediate referent of the prophecy. If the word does not imply virginity, that of course doesn’t mean that it doesn’t refer to a virgin. Either way it’s not a problem for inerrancy. But what strikes me as a difficulty for the mainstream view is that there seems to be no explanation for the LXX translation if the original Hebrew does not convey something very strongly signaling virginity.

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  2. Peter Kirk says:

    >I am surprised at you, Prof Mariottini, for perpetuating the elementary errors which Christopher Heard has made in discussing this verse. In fact it looks to me as if Heard did not actually read it in Hebrew before commenting. He claims that “הרה (harah), is a perfect aspect form of the verb “to conceive, to become pregnant.”” But in fact it cannot be, because the perfect form with a feminine subject would have to be הרתה (haretah), so this must in fact be the feminine adjective הרה (harah) “pregnant”. Also he claims that וְיֹלֶדֶת (weyoledet) is “the imperfect aspect”, when in fact it is clearly a participle, and cannot even be repointed as a finite verb. So what we have here is a verbless clause introduced with hinneh. As is well known, such clauses refer to the present or to the immediate future. Therefore the sense must be either “Look, the young woman is pregnant and is bearing a son…” or “Look, the young woman will be pregnant and bear a son…”. Thus the TNIV translation, apart from “virgin”, is justified, although I doubt if hinneh would have been used to introduce a prophecy for several centuries in the future.

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  3. >Jeremy,You have a good point and your question is relevant. I have a theory that may explain the reason the translators of the LXX used the word “virgin.” In a few days I hope to write a response to Peter’s comments below. At that time I will address your question. It may take a few days before I can blog again.Thank you for visiting my blog and for this very good question.Claude Mariottini

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  4. >Peter,After reading your comment, I came to the conclusion that I need to answer the objections you raised in your comment in more detail. My time is very limited this week, but in a few days I will give a detailed response to the issues you raised in your comment.Thank you for your good observations. Your astute comments deserve a reply and I will do so in a few days.Claude Mariottini

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  5. Peter Kirk says:

    >Jeremy, while we wait for Dr Mariottini’s answer to your question, I have an answer for you, which may or may not be the same as his: In Greek of the time of LXX, I have seen it argued, the word parthenos did not strictly mean “virgin”, but only “young woman”; but by the time the NT was written it had come to mean “virgin”. I must say I am slightly suspicious of that rather convenient argument, which sounds as if it might have been speculated as an answer to a question like yours and then accepted without any real evidence. So I would want to look for some real evidence of this language change before relying too much on this explanation. But LSJ does list one sense of παρθένος as “of unmarried women who are not virgins”, so it would be wrong to insist that the word strictly means only “virgin”.

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  6. fencekicker says:

    >Although it is important to convey the best translation, the difficulty with this verse does not rely on one word only. The context makes it clear that the immediate fulfillment of the prophecy is in the naturally concieved son of Isaiah. When this verse is used in the New Testament, it is to declare that Jesus fulfills that prophecy and is God because he has no earthly father. Yet, we know that it was already fulfilled by a woman who was called a virgin, yet had conceived with her human husband. Part of our creed is the declaration that Jesus was born of a virgin. From that comes the doctrine that he was 100% God and 100% man. Seeing the context of this prophecy, where the virgin wife of Isaiah bears a son whose father is Isaiah, calls this understanding into question. It also begs us to ask how such a weak ‘proof’ came to great prominence in Christianity, especially when it is never mentioned as an article of faith by Christ or in the apostolic letters.

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  7. >Dear Fencekicker,Your comments are very interesting and deserve a full answer. Read my post today on Isaiah 7:14 because I address some of those issues there. Let me say the following in response to your comments:1. You are right: the only person who meets the requirements of Isaiah’s oracle is Isaiah’s son and this is how I interpret the oracle in my post.2. In Old Testament studies there is the concept of double fulfillment of prophecies. This view has been developed by W. Zimmerli and I may address this view at a later time.3. That Jesus was born of a virgin is the view presented both in Matthew and Luke and the church was right in declaring that Jesus was born of a virgin based on these two gospels.4. Some may declare the doctrine of the virgin birth to be weak but it has a biblical foundation. There are many doctrines the church proclaims that do not have many biblical passages to support them but yet they are valid doctrines. One of them is the doctrine of the Trinity.The emphasis of Isaiah’s oracle and Matthew’s words was to tell the people that in that baby (both Isaiah’s baby and Mary’s baby), God is with us.Thank you for your comments.Claude Mariottini

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