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The Virgin Birth
by Rabbi Tovia Singer
Why did you say Christians mistranslate the Scripture by saying “almah” doesn’t mean “virgin,” when their translation of virgin comes from the Septuagint’s “parthenos,” not the Hebrew “almah”? “Parthenos” does mean “virgin.”
They didn’t mistranslate but used a different text. This is pretty well known. Did you not know? I don’t think this is a very good thing to have on your page.
Your inquiry will undoubtedly make an enormous contribution to this work. Your question contains some of the most commonly held misconceptions regarding Matthew’s rendering the Hebrew word alma as virgin in Matthew 1:23. Highlighting your question will, no doubt, benefit countless others who are confused by the same mistaken presuppositions imbedded in your question.
Your assertion that Matthew quoted from the Septuagint is the most repeated argument missionaries use in their attempt to explain away Matthew’s stunning mistranslation of the Hebrew word alma. This well-worn response, however, raises far more problems than it answers.
Your contention that “parthenos does mean virgin” is incorrect. The Greek word Παρθένου (parthenos) can mean either a young woman or a virgin. Therefore, Παρθένου can be found in the Septuagint to describe a woman who is clearly not a virgin. For example, in Genesis 34:2-4, Shechem raped Dinah, the daughter of the patriarch Jacob, yet the Septuagint refers to her as a parthenos after she had been defiled. The Bible reports that after Shechem had violated her, “his heart desired Dinah, and he loved the damsel (Sept. parthenos) and he spoke tenderly to the damsel (Sept. parthenos).” Clearly, Dinah was not a virgin after having been raped, and yet she was referred to as a parthenos, the very same word the Septuagint used to translate the Hebrew word alma in Isaiah 7:14.
Moreover, the Septuagint in our hands is not a Jewish document, but rather a Christian recension. The original Septuagint, translated some 2,200 years ago by 72 Jewish scholars, was a Greek translation of the Five Books of Moses alone, and is no longer in our hands. It therefore did not contain the Books of the Prophets or Writings of the Hebrew Bible such as Isaiah, from which you asserted Matthew quoted. The Septuagint as we have it today, which includes the Prophets and Writings as well, is a product of the Church, not the Jewish people. In fact, the Septuagint remains the official Old Testament of the Greek Orthodox Church, and the manuscripts that consist of our Septuagint today date to the third century C.E. The fact that additional books known as the Apocrypha, which are uniquely sacred to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church, are found in the Septuagint should raise a red flag to those inquiring into the Jewishness of the Septuagint.
Christians such as Origin and Lucian (third and fourth century C.E.) edited and shaped the Septuagint that missionaries use to advance their untenable arguments against Judaism. In essence, the present Septuagint is largely a post-second century Christian translation of the Bible, used zealously by the Church throughout its history as an indispensable apologetic instrument to defend and sustain Christological alterations of the Jewish Scriptures.
For example, in his preface to the Book of Chronicles, the Church father Jerome, who was the primary translator of the Vulgate, concedes that in his day there were at least three variant Greek translations of the Bible: the edition of the third century Christian theologian Origen, as well as the Egyptian recension of Hesychius and the Syrian recension of Lucian.1 In essence, there were numerous Greek renditions of the Jewish Scriptures which were revised and edited by Christian hands. All Septuagints in our hands are derived from the revisions of Hesychius, as well as the Christian theologians Origen and Lucian
Accordingly, the Jewish people never use the Septuagint in their worship or religious studies because it is recognized as a corrupt text.
The ancient Letter of Aristeas, which is the earliest attestation to the existence of the Septuagint, confirms that the original Septuagint translated by rabbis more than 22 centuries ago was of the Pentateuch alone, and not the Books of the Prophets such as Isaiah. The Talmud also states this explicitly in Tractate Megillah (9a), and Josephus as well affirms that the Septuagint was a translation only of the Law of Moses in his preface to Antiquities of the Jews.2
Therefore, St. Jerome, a Church father and Bible translator who could hardly be construed as friendly to Judaism, affirms Josephus’ statement regarding the authorship of theSeptuagint in his preface to The Book of Hebrew Questions.3 Likewise, the Anchor Bible Dictionary reports precisely this point in the opening sentence of its article on the Septuagint which states, “The word ‘Septuagint,’ (from Lat. septuaginta = 70; hence the abbreviation LXX) derives from a story that 72 elders translated the Pentateuch into Greek; the term therefore applied originally only to those five books.”4
In fact, Dr. F.F. Bruce, a preeminent professor of Biblical exegesis, keenly points out that, strictly speaking, theSeptuagint deals only with the Pentateuch and not the whole Old Testament. Bruce writes,
The Jews might have gone on at a later time to authorize a standard text of the rest of the Septuagint, but . . . lost interest in the Septuagint altogether. With but few exceptions, every manuscript of the Septuagint which has come down to our day was copied and preserved in Christian, not Jewish, circles.5
Regarding your assertion that Matthew was quoting from the Septuagint, nowhere in the Book of Matthew does the word Septuagint appear, or, for that matter, is there any reference to a Greek translation of the Bible ever mentioned in all of the New Testament; and there is good reason for this silence. The first century Church was well aware that a Jewish audience would be thoroughly unimpressed by a claim that Jesus’ virgin birth could only be supported by a Greek translation of the Bible. They understood that if Jews were to find their Christian message convincing, they had to assert that the Hebrew words of the prophet Isaiah clearly foretold Mary’s virgin conception. Matthew could not suggest that only a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures supported his claim. Therefore, in Matthew 1:22-23, the author of the first Gospel insists that it was “spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child…’” Matthew loudly makes the point that it was specifically the prophet’s own words that proclaimed the virgin birth, not the words of any translator.
Isaiah, of course, did not preach or write in Greek, and therefore throughout his life the word parthenos never emerged from the lips of the prophet. All sixty-six chapters of the Book of Isaiah were spoken and then recorded in the Hebrew language. Matthew, however, claimed that Isaiah – not a translator – declared that the messiah would be born of a virgin. No such prophecy was ever uttered by the prophet.
Furthermore, this contention becomes even more preposterous when we consider that the same missionaries who attempt toexplain away Matthew’s mistranslation of the Hebrew word alma by claiming that Matthew used a Septuagint when he quoted Isaiah 7:14 also steadfastly maintain that the entire first Gospel was divinely inspired. That is to say, these same Christian missionaries insist that every word of the New Testament, Matthew included, was authored through the Holy Spirit and is therefore the living word of God. Are these evangelical apologists therefore claiming that God had to rely on a Greek translation of the Bible? Are they suggesting that God quoted from the Septuagint? Did the passing of five centuries since His last book cause God to forget how to read Hebrew that He would need to rely on a translation? Why would God need to quote from the Septuagint?
Although Matthew’s mistranslation of the Hebrew wordalma was recklessly crafted, it was deliberate endeavor. It was not the result of a clumsy decision to quote from a corrupt Greek translation of the Bible. The most casual reader of the seventh chapter of Isaiah recognizes that Isaiah 7:14 is not discussing the birth of a messiah at all.6
The Christian editors of the Septuagint retrofitted and shaped this Greek recension so that it would comport with Matthew’s mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14; not the other way around.
The prophet’s original intent regarding the young woman in Isaiah 7:14 was unimportant to the author of the first Gospel. Matthew was driven only by his fervid desire to somehow prove to his readers that the virgin birth was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. Bear in mind that the author of the first Gospel — more than any other writer in the New Testament — deliberately shaped and contoured his treatise to promote Christianity among the Jews. In essence, Matthew was writing with a Jewish audience in mind. He understood that in order to convince the Jewish people to embrace Jesus as their messiah, it was essential to demonstrate his claim of the virgin birth from the Jewish Scriptures. Luke, in contrast, was writing for a non-Jewish, Greek audience and therefore makes no attempt to support his version of the virgin birth from the Hebrew Bible.
In his attempt to promote numerous Christian creeds amongst the Jews, Matthew was faced with a serious quandary. How would he prove that Jesus was the messiah from the Jewish Scriptures when there is no relationship between the Jesus of Nazareth of the New Testament and the messianic prophecies of the Jewish Scriptures? How was he going to merge newly inculcated pagan myths, such as the virgin birth, into Christianity with a Hebrew Bible in which a belief in a virgin birth was unknown?
In order to accomplish this daunting task, verses in the Hebrew Scriptures were altered, misquoted, taken out of context, and mistranslated by the author of the Book of Matthew in order to make Jesus’ life fit traditional Jewish messianic parameters, and to make traditional Jewish messianic parameters fit the life of Jesus. In essence, he felt compelled to claim that the Hebrew prophets themselves foretold that Jesus was the messiah. It is therefore no coincidence that, with the exception of Paul, no writer of the New Testament mistranslated the Jewish Scriptures to the extent that Matthew does throughout his Gospel. Paul’s famed misquotations from the Jewish Scriptures, on the other hand, went largely unnoticed because his audiences were, for the most part, unlettered gentiles.
Ironically, the widespread Bible tampering found in the first Gospel was sparked by Matthew’s desire to convince Jews that Jesus was their promised messiah. Yet strangely, if the Book of Matthew had never been written, the Church, no doubt, would have been far more successful in its effort to evangelize the Jews. In essence, had promoters of Christianity avoided the wild Scripture tampering that clutters almost every chapter in the Book of Matthew, the Church might have enjoyed far more success among the Jews as did previous religions that targeted the Jewish people for conversion.
For example, the priests of Baal did not attempt to bolster the validity of their idol worship by misquoting the texts of the Hebrew Bible, as Matthew did. As a result, the Bible reports that the idol Baal gained enormous popularity among the Jewish people. In contrast, once the nation of Israel was confronted with a corruption of their sacred Scriptures by authors and apologists of the New Testament, their apostasy to Christianity for the most part became untenable. Therefore, throughout history the Jewish people remained the most difficult nation for the Church to sway. Consequently, whereas the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John enjoyed overwhelming success among their gentile audiences, the Gospel of Matthew played an enormous role in the ultimate failure of the Church to effectively convert the Jews to Christianity, at least the knowledgeable ones. Jerome repeats this statement in his Apology Against Rufinus ii, 27 (Migne, P.L. 23, 471). ↩
- Josephus, preface to Antiquities of the Jews, section 3. For Josephus’ detailed description of events surrounding the original authorship of the Septuagint, see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XII, ii, 1-4. ↩
- St. Jerome, preface to The Book of Hebrew Questions, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 6. Pg. 487. Hendrickson. ↩
- The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Excerpt from “Septuagint,” New York: Vol. 5, pg. 1093. ↩
- F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, p.150. ↩
- The seventh chapter of the Book of Isaiah begins by describing the unfolding Syro-Ephraimite War, a military crisis that was confronting King Ahaz of the Kingdom Judah. In about the year 732 B.C.E. the House of David was facing imminent destruction at the hands of two warring kingdoms: the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Syrian Kingdom. These two armies had laid siege to Jerusalem. The Bible relates that the House of David and King Ahaz were gripped with fear. In response these two warring armies, God sent the prophet Isaiah to reassure King Ahaz that divine protection was at hand — the Almighty would protect him, their deliverance was assured, and these two hostile armies would fail in their attempt to subjugate Jerusalem.
It is clear from this chapter that Isaiah’s declaration was a prophecy of the unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem by the two armies of the Kingdoms of Israel and Syria, not a virgin birth more than 700 years later. If we interpret this chapter as referring to Jesus’ birth, what possible comfort and assurance would Ahaz, who was surrounded by two overwhelming military forces, have found in the birth of a child seven centuries later? Both he and his people would be long dead and buried. Such a sign would make little sense. ↩