Isaiah 7:14B in New Major Christian Bible Translations

By Durousseau, Clifford Hubert | Jewish Bible Quarterly, July-September 2013 | Go to article overview

Isaiah 7:14B in New Major Christian Bible Translations


Durousseau, Clifford Hubert, Jewish Bible Quarterly


Recent major Christian Bible translations have finally admitted after nearly 2,000 years that Isaiah did not prophesy a virgin birth or, more precisely, a supernatural virginal conception of the Messiah. Beginning with The Revised Standard Version in 1952, followed by The Jerusalem Bible in 1966, The New English Bible in 1970, The New Jerusalem Bible in 1985, The Revised English Bible, The Good News Bible and The New Revised Standard Version in 1989, and, just recently, The New American Bible Revised Edition (2011), translators have decided that the time is right to reveal that Aquila, Theodotion, and Symmachus--Jewish and Judaeo-Christian translators of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek in the second century--were right in translating almah in Isaiah 7:14b as neanis ("young woman") rather than parthenos ("virgin"), and that Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, who opposed the use of "young woman", were wrong.

An examination of the complete text and context of Isaiah 7:14b in the original Hebrew rather than the Greek of the Septuagint that not only confirms that ha-almah has been mistranslated as "the virgin" or "a virgin" but that harah has been mistranslated as well. Furthermore, it is clear that it is part of a neartime prophecy delivered ca. 734 BCE about the imminent birth of a son to a then-pregnant mother, who would call him (karat) Immanuel ("With-us-is-El"), who would be a sign to Ahaz and the house of Judah that Rezin and Pekah would be soon defeated, rather than a far-term prophecy of the birth of the Messiah non-metaphorically-God-fathered and betulah-born.

As these new translations read it, Isaiah 7:14b is partly in implied present time. The first part of the first clause consists of a demonstrative particle, a definite article, a noun, and an adjective: 'Look, the young woman pregnant.' This is a common construction in Hebrew. In English, we supply a context-dependent form of the linking verb "to be," in this case "Look, the young woman is pregnant." If the almah pointed out was already pregnant (harah), this automatically rules out the claim that Isaiah was prophesying a distant, future virginal conception. Jewish tradition unanimously agrees that Immanuel was a contemporary of Isaiah, and this is clearly indicated by Isaiah 7:16.

"Young woman" and "virgin" were not synonyms in ancient Judaism, when it was common for twelve-year-old girls to be married and become pregnant. There is no indication in the oracle that this young woman is not pregnant through normal intercourse with a man.

Harah, too, has been translated imprecisely. There is in fact no verb in the first clause. It does not say the almah "shall conceive." The RSV, which translated almah correctly in 1952, mistranslated the adjective harah ("pregnant") as "shall conceive" and, moreover, failed to translate the definite article and used the indefinite article instead: "Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, ..." This translation of the adjective harah, the fourth word in the first clause, as the verb "conceive" began in the Vulgate. Jerome, despite the fact that he learned Hebrew from a Jewish teacher and made his translation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin from the Hebrew text (not the Greek Septuagint), translated thus: Ecce virgo concipiet, et pariet filium, et vocabitur nomen ejus Emmanuel ("Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel"). The NRSV corrected these items in 1989: "Look, the young woman is with child ...." "With child" an archaic prepositional phrase, renders harah, the present tense copula is supplied, and the definite article is restored after being overlooked for centuries.

The NRSV has the sixth word of this compound clause in the Hebrew in the future tense: "Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, ..." The word yoledet is an active participle and can be translated "is bearing/giving birth to." It signifies in this case a very near-term event and thus can also be rendered "about to give birth to.

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