Following my post yesterday on the translation decisions in the NIV, the debate has continued apace. Although some of the discussion is quite technical, and the protagonists are clearly not persuaded, David Instone-Brewer has been making some interesting points. One that caught my eye was on another well-known bugbear—the translation of Is 7.14 ‘A young woman/virgin shall conceive and give birth.’ David comments as follows:
DIB: It is true that the NIV tries to make the OT match the NT quotations as often as possible within range of the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek. This is mainly to help the readers see the link. A footnote points out that this Hebrew can also mean merely a young woman.
_ If it wasn’t for the use of this verse as prophecy, the LXX translation would be unremarkable. An ‘aLMaH would normally be expected to be a virgin. Ideally we’d find an English word which means: “a girl of marriageable age who isn’t married and who is therefore almost certainly a virgin unless something terrible has happened in her life, but who isn’t specifically a virgin”. Any suggestions?
PD: The most accurate translation, since the Isaianic oracle is referring to a woman in his own day and not a miraculous virgin birth, would be to say “young woman” as the RSV and NRSV do.
Of course, I am aware of the bind this puts the NIV in, since such a change made honestly and for the sake of accuracy would nevertheless anger a large portion of its readership that *wants* the Old Testament prophecies to read like their NT quotations. I empathize with you on the difficulty of such decisions.
DIB: I’m afraid ‘young woman’ doesn’t really work in the modern world because it is no longer even vaguely overlapping with the concept of an ‘aLMaH which in OT times implied a virgin. And in the days of the RSV translators this was still just about true. But the world has changed a great deal since then. The LXX translators were not (I believe) inspired by the Holy Spirit when they translated PARTHENOS. They were just finding the word with the nearest semantic range. And we should follow the same principle today.
There are key issues in translation and interpretation at work here. Davidson is quite right that the woman’s virginity is not the issue here, at least not terms of a miraculous virgin birth, but Instone-Brewer is quite correct that, in cultural context, a ‘young woman’ would be a virgin. The NET Bible is interesting in this regard, since it is the only new translation that is completely free to use, and it includes 60,932 translators notes explaining why it has taken the translation decision that it has. On this verse it has six notes, and one of them explains:
Traditionally, “virgin.” Because this verse from Isaiah is quoted in Matt 1:23 in connection with Jesus’ birth, the Isaiah passage has been regarded since the earliest Christian times as a prophecy of Christ’s virgin birth. Much debate has taken place over the best way to translate this Hebrew term, although ultimately one’s view of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ is unaffected. Though the Hebrew word used here (almah) can sometimes refer to a woman who is a virgin (Gen 24:43), it does not carry this meaning inherently. The word is simply the feminine form of the corresponding masculine noun elem, “young man”; cf. 1 Sam 17:56; 20:22). The Aramaic and Ugaritic cognate terms are both used of women who are not virgins. The word seems to pertain to age, not sexual experience, and would normally be translated “young woman.” The LXX translator(s) who later translated the Book of Isaiah into Greek sometime between the second and first century B.C., however, rendered the Hebrew term by the more specific Greek word parthenos, which does mean “virgin” in a technical sense. This is the Greek term that also appears in the citation of Isa 7:14 in Matt 1:23. Therefore, regardless of the meaning of the term in the OT context, in the NT Matthew’s usage of the Greek term parthenos clearly indicates that from his perspective a virgin birth has taken place.
So in addition to the cultural context of the original verse, we need to consider how the Hebrew was translated into Greek, and then how NT writers made use of this verse—in quite different ways from how we would.
A further set of issues arises here: our own expectation. In one of the online discussions, someone commented ‘I always prefer the KJV for familiar passages.’ This verse will be heard by millions at Christmas services of Nine Lessons and Carols and it will certainly jar for most to hear ‘A young woman will be with child…’ That might not be a bad thing, but it illustrates the pressure to conform to expectations.
David Instone-Brewer makes another comment about the NIV which is worth remembering.
Biblica is committed to continuous updating of the NIV so the translation committee is required to meet anually, normally for one week (though occasionally more).
_ Every year the members consider hundreds (sometimes thousands) of issues and then meet to discuss the important ones in detail. We’ve been known to spend half an hour on one comma as part of the revision of a verse, and a word can take much much longer. No changes are made unless there is a 75% vote in favour – ie virtually unanimous (given that some members will abstain due to uncertainty).
_ Most of the work is based on discoveries published in research papers and commentaries, as well as issues of consistency or misleading language that have been brought up, and of course changes in English usage – eg there are now no aliens in the NIV.
_ These revisions are accumulated until there is a major reprinting, so that the text remains stable. I think the NIV is the only Bible that is kept up to date this assiduously.
This year is the NIV’s 50th anniversary of first publication, and Zondervan have made a whole heap of resources available, which would be worth looking at:
- A video “The NIV: Made to Share,” which highlights the work of Biblica, a translation ministry supported by a portion of each purchase of an NIV Bible
- Additional stories related to “Made to Share,” the history of the translation committee and the current Committee on Bible Translation:
- The free NIV 50th Anniversary Bible App (available in IOS and Android) provides free access to the NIV, additional quarterly content, and the notes from a variety of NIV Bibles for the 2015 calendar year
- A 365-day reading plan drawn from an NIV study or devotional Bible, delivered via email
- An academic-level review of the translation philosophy of the NIV by Doug Moo (presented at the 2014 ETS meetings)
- An infographic outlining the breadth and depth of NIV support materials produced for studying the Bible — more than any other English translation.
I’ll leave last word on this to Paula Gooder, who commented online:
I think the NIV is a very good translation, except for where it isn’t—like all the rest!!…My view is that we need to have a range of translation in play for different contexts. Those that aim for greater accuracy for personal study (I agree with you Ian about the TNIV by the way [which I prefer to the NIV]); those that aim for idiomatic rendering for public use. And keep the range quite wide — it is easier to see where passage are hard to translate when you have a number of translations that make different decisions.
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