Blog Menu

Should I choose the NIV?

Image 1Following 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:


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.


Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

, , , , , , ,

38 Responses to Should I choose the NIV?

  1. Thomas Renz July 17, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

    As it happens, I do not entirely agree with either David Instant-Brewer (almah = unmarried) or the NET Bible (almah = young). In my view, the word pertains neither to age nor sexual experience but refers to a woman of childbearing age who is not yet a mother, i.e. distinct from na’arah on the one hand (the term for a female person between girlhood and womanhood, largely identical in that culture to what we would think of as a girl who is not yet of childbearing age) and ’em (mother) on the other. Most of these women would be young and unmarried and virgins but not all of them because the issue at hand is motherhood, not sexual experience or married status

    Where the focus is on sexual activity rather than motherhood the relevant terms are yeled (not yet sexually mature child of either sex), bethulah (sexually mature but inexperienced, i.e. the closest to English “virgin”), and ishah (woman, cf. Deut. 24:5 for a newly wed woman otherwise referred to as kallah – bride).

    The verbal adjective in Isa 7 (‘be with child’) likely refers to the present (so NRSV), either actual or visionary, as in Gen. 16:11 and 2 Sam. 11:5. While Judg. 13:5 is often interpreted as referring to the (immediate) future, there too a present reference is possible (cf. LXX; Boling ‘Actually, you are already pregnant and bearing a son’). The sign in Isa 7 is the birth, not the pregnancy.

    The Greek text does not obviously predict a virgin birth any more than the Hebrew text, even if one understands parthenos as “virgin” (not entirely uncontested) because it takes the verbal adjective as future. The prediction that one who is now a virgin will be with child, however, does not require the assumption that by the time she bears a son she will still be a virgin. The Greek translator may well have avoided exactly this by rendering the verbal adjective as future.

    I think the NIV here is a good translation of the LXX but inadequate as a translation of the Hebrew.It is not a case of deliberate mistranslation, I think, because the issues are genuinely complex and NIV at least offers a footnote to indicate that lack of sexual experience may not be the point at issue.

    In sum, the trouble is that, against NIV, I think the verbal adjective should be translated with the present tense “is with child” which, however, makes it impossible to translate ‘almah as “virgin” without committing the English reader to a virginal conception – a commitment which neither Hebrew nor Greek text require or even invite.

    • Ian Paul July 17, 2015 at 12:45 pm #

      Thomas thanks for your usual expert perspective.

      Your comment about translating the LXX rather than the MT raises another question, which I hinted at in the previous post. Does believing in ‘verbal inerrancy’ require us to believe in a single text?

      There is a paradox, in that the NIV does go for inerrancy, but then is happy to engage with LXX whereas the logic of inerrancy surely requires us to stick with MT. By contrast, the NIV detractors don’t believe in inerrancy…but do want to insist on a single text. I found David’s defence of the LXX (as a tradition of interpretation in these cases) intriguing.

      On the other hand, the reception of the LXX suggested that the process of translation was also inspired, to we end up with two inspired texts…which at times do not agree.

      We then need to factor in first century hermeneutical principles, which focus on the words themselves and not necessarily the meaning (in the way that we would). So the *word* ‘parthenos’ becomes the hook for Matthew’s nativity account, and the sense of ‘fulfilment’.

      I think the detractors of the NIV do have a point in highlighting its choice to harmonise the OT with NT citations, which is surely a bare ideological commitment, rather than a good principle of translation. But for me it raises the deeper question of whether we should assume a text is coherent or incoherent in our translation decisions.

  2. Thomas Renz July 17, 2015 at 1:22 pm #

    Inerrancy in twentieth century evangelical debate was very much shaped by the Chicago declarations according to which inerrancy can be fully predicated only of “the original manuscripts” which is to say that neither MT nor LXX, let alone any English translation of the Bible is inerrant. Chicago-style inerrancy applies to MT only to the degree that it reflects the “original text” and the same would go for any translation, Greek or otherwise. So it is for textual critics to tell us what “the most inerrant text” is. (One problem that had not been anticipated in the first Chicago declaration, I suspect, is that many textual crticis now wonder whether each biblical book can be neatly traced to exactly one “original” text, e.g. in the case of Jeremiah where MT and LXX differ significantly and we now know that LXX reflects a different Hebrew edition of the book.)

    The more traditional view of inerrancy (as, e.g., affirmed in the Roman Catholic catechism) is not tied to original manuscripts and so it is easier to contemplate the possibility of two inspired and even inerrant textual traditions.

    What seems to have been overlooked in many discussions is that Chicaco-style inerrancy is easily compromised not only by the fact that it applies to “original manuscripts” only (i.e., we do not have an inerrant Bible in this sense and there never was one because the “originals” of the earlier biblical books would have long been decomposed before the later books were composed) but also by the fact that a Bible which is inerrant in every detail is of limited use without an inerrant interpretation.

    At the end of the day, the books of the Bible “firmly, faithfully, and without error” teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to communicate to us. To access this inerrant, infallible truth we need to read the Scriptures as a coherent whole which is what the church has tried to do for a good few years

    The fact that manuscripts contain errors, translators make bad decisions, interpreters get things wrong is truly worrying only for those who believe that they have to construct “what is to be believed and obeyed” from scratch. Those who have received the Bible within a tradition of interpretation can relax – the big picture is secure and none of us will ever get it 100% inerrantly right and God can deal with it.

    I might now go as far as to say that even the question which books belong to the Canon need not be divisive and worrying. It seems perfectly possible for a church to flourish without paying much if any attention to the apocryphal/deutero-canonical books. Conversely, if those books are interpreted in such a way as to agree with the (proto-)canonical books, little if any harm is done.

    In other words, interpreting all of the Bible in a way that accepts the Bible’s coherence is more important than the decision whether your Bible is MT+NT or LXX.

    But we need to be careful not to impose our sense of coherence on the text. I believe that the author of the book of Genesis composed it as a coherent work but I am not convinced that this requires us to read Gen 1-2 as if it were *one* chronological narrative (requiring the pluperfect in Gen 2:19). In the same way one can accept that Isaiah’s prophecy was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus who was born of a virgin without assuming that Isaiah predicted that a virgin would give birth while remaining a virgin.

  3. Clive July 17, 2015 at 9:46 pm #

    This is a classic example of academics wandering off on a bizarre tangent.

    Academics have forgotten that the reality at the time that the prophecy was made to say that “A young woman shall give birth” isn’t actually a prophecy at all, it’s a daily occurrence. If we said “A virgin shall give birth” then that is actually a prophecy.
    The LXX was Jews themselves translating the Hebrew 200 years before Christ and they translated it as ” A virgin shall give birth” which ought to tell us what the Hebrew meant at 200BC and today.

    • Thomas Renz July 20, 2015 at 12:01 pm #

      It is a daily occurence that women give birth but even if, for the moment, we ignore the fact that this is the opening statement of the prophecy, not its full extent, there is a predictive element here. The NRSV translation may be the best we can do with English at the moment:

      “Look the young woman is with child and shall bear a son…”

      The most likely interpretation is that the prophet points to a woman of child-bearing age who has not yet given birth to a child (this is implied in the Hebrew word used, I believe) and probably shows no signs of pregnancy and states that (a) this woman is in fact pregnant, (b) she will successfully deliver a baby, (c) the baby will be a male child, to which he adds in the folloing sentence that (d) the woman will name the child Immanuel (and not, e.g., Ben-Oni; the name given arguably implies that the woman will survive the delivery).

      None of this is stupendously miraculous (few prophecies are) but neither can any of it be taken for granted – that the woman was pregnant and would successfully deliver a child, that the child was going to be male, that the woman would survive the child-birth. But all this is just the beginning of the clock ticking, as the prophecy is offering a time-frame and interpretation of political events in the very near future.

      NB: the Greek word “parthenos” (“virgin”) is used in Genesis 34:3 to refer to Dinah – after she has been raped. If the translators wanted to make sure that we understood that Isa 7:14 predicts that a woman will give birth to a child while still being a virgin, they would have had to phrase differently.

  4. Ollie James July 17, 2015 at 11:11 pm #

    Clive,

    Your comment makes more sense than anything else I have written – thank you!

    Ian,

    Thank you for keeping the debate alive, even if I don’t fully understand it all! Because of this, I think I will side with Paula – I like the NIV, but I keep a few different translations, to help me see how passage could be interpreted differently. I just get excited by reading the Bible and think (in the first instance) it is more important to read a translation which you can make some sense of, praying that the Holy Spirit will bring the word of God alive.

  5. Thomas Renz July 20, 2015 at 10:38 am #

    Clive, in fact it is a classic example of biblical scholars reading biblical texts. You seem to have overlooked that “Look the young woman is with child and shall bear a son” are the first few words of the prophecy, not the prophecy. The prophecy is Isaiah 7:14-25.

    As I indicated above, the Greek translators did not predict that a woman will give birth ot a child while still being a virgin. In any case, this would hardly constitute a “sign” (Isaiah 7:14), unless maybe you expect the woman’s virginity to be put on public display just prior to birth.

    • Thomas Renz July 20, 2015 at 10:41 am #

      “…just prior to giving birth”, obviously.

  6. Clive July 20, 2015 at 7:34 pm #

    Sorry Thomas, I respect your views but a woman giving birth to a boy is not a prophecy at all, not even close. Worryingly the LXX is being overlooked rather than studied.

    We do not properly understand Hebrew.
    Before Jesus Christ was born the dots and pronunciation marks were added so that the one giving the reading knew how to pronounce the words. So the original Hebrew is hard to translate accurately. It’s not that we can’t do it, but it is that we can’t be precise and certain.

    • Thomas Renz July 24, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

      Clive, with all due respect I do not think you have quite understood what I said, e.g. about the extent of the prophecy and the Greek rendering of Isa. 7:14. The Hebrew text of the Bible is sometimes difficult to translate accurately but in this case and many others this has nothing to do wth the fact that the writing of accents and vowels is later than of consonants.

  7. David Shepherd July 20, 2015 at 10:57 pm #

    Clive,

    I’m not asking to weigh in on this debate, but is there not such a thing as unwitting prophecy, whereby a prophet might express an insight in one sense that takes on a different meaning in a future context.

    For instance, Christ sees the acknowledgement of His messiahship by little children as fulfilment as prophetic, quoting Psalm 8:
    ‘Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” (ESV)

    The prophetic words in psalm 8:2 are actually: ‘Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength’ (ESV)

    Christ’s use of ‘praise’ is consonant with the LXX which translated the Hebrew word for strength, oz, into Greek, ainon meaning praise.

    Yes, as Christians, we can make a moral connection between spiritual strength and praise.

    Nevertheless, in terms of the translation Hebrew to Greek, how do you make sense of the difference?

    Do you believe, based on the gospel, that the LXX is the better guide, so that ‘praise’, instead of ‘strength’, would yield a better rendering of Psalm 8:2?

    • Clive July 21, 2015 at 8:01 pm #

      Dear David,

      My point was about the lack of certainty about what the Hebrew actually was in precise terms. Therefore, I don’t actually disagree with your point at all – I am simply saying that when we translate “the Hebrew word for strength, oz” we don’t actually know the vowel. All we really know is the “z”. Therefore we are assuming that the Hebrew was “oz”. The addition of phonetic symbol was at the same era as the LXX so one is not necessarily more accurate than the other.

      I do not take the view that the LXX, being old, was less intelligent or “up to date” than our own translations as many modernists seem to do. I do worry when people seem to talk about recent modern translations as accurate – we don’t actually know that they are accurate, we can simply accept that they have tried to be accurate.

      • Thomas Renz July 24, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

        Again the difference between Hebrew and Greek here does not seem to be a matter of vocalisation. The Hebrew word translated “strength” here (“rampart” might be better) consist of two consonants which one could also vocalise to read “goat”. I don’t know of a way to vocalise this which would result in a word for “praise”.

  8. Bernard Randall July 21, 2015 at 10:17 am #

    I’ve often wondered whether “maiden” would capture the sense of “almah” – unmarried female of marriageable age. It’s slightly old-fashioned, true, but that at least leaves the modern reader uncertain about whether it strictly means a virginal young woman or not. My Oxford dictionary gives virgin as second after “girl or unmarried young woman.” That seems to fit the bill, as in the OT beyond Isaiah 7.14 it is always, as far as I can see, used to mean young women who are in fact virgins.

    Of course the Bible tends to use words in various metaphorical ways, and not just for their technical meanings – Genesis 34.3 LXX of Dinah uses “parthenos” after her rape (the Hebrew isn’t “almah” here anyway), but rather ironically: this is how Shechem should have treated her, but only does so when he falls in love with her after he has defiled her. Interestingly AV rather nicely translates it as “damsel” here – she was certainly in distress. But damsel is definitely too old-fashioned.

    • Thomas Renz July 24, 2015 at 2:28 pm #

      I do not think that it makes a lot of sense to read parthenos as ironic in Gen. 34:3. Liddell-Scott-Jones claims that parrthenos is used of unmarried women who are not virgins also in Homer, Iliad 2, 514; Pindar, Pythian Ode 3, line 34 (for Coronis who is sleeping around), Sophocles, The Women of Trachis, line 1219 (towards the end of the play when Heracles asks his son to marry Iole, whom Heracles seems to have had as a concubine), and Aristophanes, Clouds, line 530.

      As I indicated above, “the virgin will give birth” is defensible as a translation of the LXX but even then this need not imply that the woman will give birth without prior sexual intercourse.

  9. Phill July 21, 2015 at 9:23 pm #

    A little off topic but related to the above discussion – on the subject of the ‘virgin’ giving birth – I found Jim Hamilton’s article on typological fulfilment quite helpful:

    http://jimhamilton.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/The-Virgin-Will-Conceive-Formatted.pdf

    He speaks a lot of sense, I think.

  10. Stephen Barber July 22, 2015 at 3:06 pm #

    This issue is as old as Justin Martyr’s ‘s Dialogue with Trypho in the second century. It is quite possible that the LXX is a better version of the original Hebrew than the MT, whose text was settled after the rise of Christianity and by Jewish scholars who wanted to eliminate readings which Christians took as prophecies. I gather the Qumran text of Isaiah supports this. This has been consistently argued by Margaret Barker. Has anyone successfully refuted this?

    • Ian Paul July 22, 2015 at 9:59 pm #

      Stephen, that is a very interesting comment. Is this question discussed anywhere by modern commentators?

    • Thomas Renz July 24, 2015 at 12:44 pm #

      Broadly speaking, the Qumran scrolls have shown us both that the medieval Masoretic manuscripts preserve pretty faithfully a much older text and that the Old Greek renderings were often made from alternative Hebrew versions, i.e. that some of the differences between MT and LXX go back to different Hebrew base texts rather than translation choices. Thus, e.g., the book of Jeremiah, if I remember right, is attested at Qumran in versions close to the later MT and in versions close to LXX (and in mixed versions!).

      The Great Isaiah scroll can be read at http://dss.collections.imj.org.il/isaiah and http://www.ao.net/~fmoeller/qumdir.htm.

  11. Clive July 25, 2015 at 7:40 am #

    Dear Thomas,

    You have managed to prove everything I said.

    Your response:
    24 July at 12:27pm
    “Hebrew text of the Bible is sometimes difficult to translate accurately but in this case and many others this has nothing to do wth the fact that the writing of accents and vowels is later than of consonants.”

    24 July at 12:35 pm
    “Again the difference between Hebrew and Greek here does not seem to be a matter of vocalisation. The Hebrew word translated “strength” here (“rampart” might be better) consist of two consonants which one could also vocalise to read “goat”. I don’t know of a way to vocalise this which would result in a word for “praise”.”

    24 July at 2:27 pm
    “As I indicated above, “the virgin will give birth” is defensible as a translation of the LXX but even then this need not imply that the woman will give birth without prior sexual intercourse.”

    So there you have it – If the Hebrew word ‘*z’ is ‘oz’ then it can mean rampart or strength – but if we change the vowel it could mean goat!
    The translation in LXX at 200BC can still be taken as “the virgin will give birth”

    As I said, translating the Hebrew is imprecise but LXX translates the text as Virgin so when considering Hebrew we should take into account LXX as well.

    This is taking everything you said seriously and I acknowledge your last point that the prophecy says nothing about the pre-birth event of the starting point (i.e. sexual intercourse or not).

  12. Thomas Renz July 25, 2015 at 9:12 am #

    Dear Clive,

    The issue here is that Hebrew, Greek and English words do not correspond to each other exactly and maybe not least because of broader cultural issues. If “virgin” is the best we can do (and I agree with an earlier comment that “maiden” might be better, arguably even for parthenos), it nevertheless skews our reading because in contemporary English “virgin” is all about not having had sex, while the focus of Hebrew almah is arguably on not being a mother and of Greek parthenos on not being married.

    In other words, this is not a case of the Greek translators having known better what the Hebrew word meant than we do (let alone supplying different accents and vowels) but of the translators having to make do with what they had just as we do. Greek does not have a word that designates “a woman of child-bearing age that is not yet a mother”. So a word that designates “a woman who is not yet married” had to do the job. Ideally (by traditional standards maybe more than contemporary ones) such a woman is in fact (in classical Greece more so than in contemporary Britain) a virgin and hence “virgin” can serve as a translation of parthenos.

    This is to say, to take the Old Greek of Isaiah into account also requires us to understand the translation choices its makers had available. As pointed out above, the translators may well have been aware of a potential issue with using “parthenos” which maybe prompted them to switch to a future verb form (“will give birth”). We would have to do the same, if we used “Miss” because “this Miss is with child” would draw attention to her unmarried status which is not in fact the focus or even implied in the Hebrew.

  13. Thomas Renz July 25, 2015 at 11:21 am #

    A postscript:

    (1) I assume that the use of a future verb form was the translator’s decision. I do not know of any Hebrew manuscript which would support it. See, e.g., the Great Isaiah Scroll linked to above which confirms MT.

    (2) The gloss “a woman of child-bearing age who is not yet a mother” for almah remains of course a guess and is not meant to suggest that almah was a precise, technical term. The word is too rare for us to be sure of its precise connotations.

    In Gen. 24:43 almah seems to refer to a (reputably unmarried) woman available for marriage (her virginity has been referenced earlier, in v. 24, without use of almah). LXX uses parthenos, KJV virgin and NASB maiden.

    In Exod. 2:8 almah refers to Moses’ older sister who was still at home, hence unmarried and one may assume a virgin. LXX uses neanis, KJV maid, NASB maiden.

    In Psalm 68:25 (English verse numbering) the reference is to young women playing tambourines. LXX uses neanis, KJV damsel, NASB maiden.

    in Prov. 30:19 the way of a man with an almah is usually thought to include sex but maybe sex for the first time. Greek has nestes, KJV and NASB maid.

    Song of Songs 1:3 presumably refers to young, unmarried women of marriageable age. LXX has neanins. KJV opts for virgins, NASB for maidens

    Song of Songs 6:8 uses almah to rfer to the lowest status women in a harem. .LXX has neanis. Again KJV opts for virgins, NASB for maidens.

    As you can probably see from the pop-up, the NIV has maiden in Gen. 24:43; Ps. 68:25 and Prov. 30:19 but prefers virgin for the Song of Song references and of course Isa. 7:14.

    Only in two places must the virginity of the women to which reference is made be assumed (Gen. 24:43; Exod. 2:8) and in both this is clear from the context. In other places this is at best possible but hardly an issue and LXX regularly uses what seems to be a general word for a “young woman” to render almah.

    We can only guess at a more precise meaning by taking into account other factors, namely

    (1) where virginity is the precise issue it is expressed with a verbal phrase in Hebrew (Gen. 19:8; 24:16; Num 31:18, 35; Judg. 21:12);

    (2) the Hebrew noun most closely corresponding to “virgin” seems to be betulah (e.g., Gen. 24:16; Exod. 22:15-16; Deut. 22:19; Judg. 19:24; Est. 2:2);

    (3) most women in ancient Israel were likely virgins before getting married (at a comparatively young age) and probably most would soon after marriage be pregnant most of the time for the next fifteen years or so (with high incidence of infant and child-birth mortality); becoming a mother would have been a major transition point for women and hence it is plausible that a word was used to refer to young women prior to this transition point.

    Among contemporary translations, NASB uses “virgin” for almah only in Isa. 7:14. It uses virgin in all but one of the 30+ occurrences of betulah (Ezek. 9:8 NASB has maidens). This distinction between almah and betulah is entirely defensible but rather gives the game away as far as Isa. 7:14 is concerned (if we should think of a virgin here, why does the text not use betulah?) which may be a reason why NIV abandons the distinction, re-introducing “virgins” to the Song of Song passages (to avoid the accusation that “virgin” is used only in Isa. 7:14?). The ESV translators go to even greater lengths. Uniquely within the history of English translations of the Bible, I believe, they use “virgin” for every occurrence of almah except for Exod. 2:8. The accusation that this is ideologically more than linguistically motivated is maybe harder to refute in this case, not least because ESV does not offer any footnotes.

    • Thomas Renz July 25, 2015 at 11:25 am #

      Ezek. 9:8 above should read Ezek. 9:6.

  14. Thomas Renz July 25, 2015 at 11:24 am #

    PS to postscript. The NIV 1984 “maiden” has become “young woman” and the use of “virgins” in Song of Songs was given up in the latest revision. Thus the latest NIV is in the same position as the NASB, using “virgin” for almah only in Isa. 7:14.

    • Ian Paul July 25, 2015 at 5:28 pm #

      That inconsistency is perhaps a key to this, and I would say is problematic. Does the LXX do the same? (Don’t have mine to hand…)

  15. Thomas Renz July 25, 2015 at 1:13 pm #

    I’ll throw in a couple of additional observations (you can probably tell that I used to run seminars on this passage):

    (1) The narrower meaning I have followed for almah namely that a woman ceases to be an almah when she becomes a mother is from John Walton (see NIDOTTE 3:415-419). The main alternative is to see in almah merely a reference to young age. Isa 54:4 (where the related abstract noun is used and the shame of widowhood -loss of husband- is paired with the shame of being an almah – lack of children rather than being a virgin, one would think) edged me towards this but I accept that it is perfectly possible that almah merely meant “young woman”.

    (2) It is also entirely possible, as argued by Peter Wegner, that the usage of parthenos changed from the time that the LXX was written to the time of the NT from a more general reference to “young [unmarried] woman” to the more specific “virgin” (see http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/54/54-3/JETS_54-3_467-484_Wegner.pdf). (This probably assumes that the writer who used the related adjective in a second century papyrus (see http://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.ryl;2;435) to refer to the children of a parthenios did not quite know what he was doing which seems possible.)

    • Ian Paul July 25, 2015 at 5:22 pm #

      This is all useful stuff, and I suspect we are all agree that the OT text is not ‘predicting’ a miraculous virgin birth (aren’t we?)> But there are two central questions:

      1. It is a reasonable translational decision to render the ET of Is 7.14 ‘virgin’ on the basis of the LXX rather than the MT?

      2. In the light of this question, it is fair to call the NIV biased?

      • Thomas Renz July 25, 2015 at 6:27 pm #

        I am not fully qualified to answer the first question; it would require a detailed study of parthenos. If Wegner is right, “maiden” may be better for “parthenos” if the aim of the translation is to render what the LXX translator conveyed at the time of writing but “virgin” may be better to render what the text sounded like in the first century AD to someone unaware of the history of the word — this raises interesting hermeneutical questions! The use of the future tense (“will conceive”) definitely seems to me a better translation of LXX than MT.

        As for the second question, it is not clear why NIV would here translate LXX rather than MT and do so without a footnote. A certain bias to bridging any gap between renderings of OT texts and their use in the NT seems likely. It is a little ironic that almah is translated “virgin” in the one text that to some scholars most clearly indicates that virginity is not a necessary entailment of the word.

        • Clive July 25, 2015 at 7:30 pm #

          Dear Thomas

          I have never said that you aren’t right to ask the questions.

          My concern is, and remains, that you seem to assert a certainty that simply doesn’t exist.

          Ian’s response is correct.

          • Thomas Renz July 25, 2015 at 8:20 pm #

            Dear Clive,

            i have no problem with Ian’s response; I don’t get yours. I think I have outlined in more detail than is probably warranted in comments to a blog post what I reckon we can and cannot know. There are some uncertainties but there are also things one can be pretty certain about.

            It is not difficult to establish how NIV translates almah in other places. One only has to look up the references.It is also clear that the LXX has a verb form in Isa. 7:14 which would be typically rendered as a future active and that the Hebrew text doesn’t. These are just facts.

            The same form that is found in the Hebrew of Isa. 7:14 is found in Gen. 16:11 where the NIV has “You are now with child” (cf. ESV: Behold, you are pregnant) and in Gen. 38:24 (“she is now pregnant,” cf. ESV); see also Gen. 38:25; Exod. 21:22 1 Sam. 4:19; 2 Sam. 11:5; Isa. 26:17; Jer. 31:8. I did not claim that this is a clear-and-shut case because many believe that following hinneh the verbal adjective may refer to a future event and translate Judg. 13:5, 7 accordingly. But as I have said above even there a present reference is perfectly possible and is in fact the reading in the LXX! If a prophet or an angel from the Lord wants to say “look, this woman is pregnant!” or “look, you are pregnant!” there is hardly another way of doing so in Hebrew than in the way we find in Gen. 16:11; Judg. 13:5 and Isa. 7:14. The meaning “you will conceive” could easily be conveyed with a yiqtol form or even – to stress the immediate future – a participle.

            The New English Translation of the Septuagint has “Look, the virgin shall be with child” (cf. “the virgin shall conceive” in the St Athanasius Academy Septuagint and in Nicholas King’s translation of the Septuagint). I have said from the start that this is an acceptable translation of the LXX, while adding later that there are reasons for querying it. NIV fits with these translations of the LXX – better than with accurate translations of the MT.

            As for claiming certainty, it is if anything the other way round. What we can all agree on is that almah is a young woman and that the verbal adjective or qal qatal form harah means “to be pregnant”. It is those who insist that the almah is a virgin and that the pregnancy is in the future who claim some extra knowledge and the fact (!) that elsewhere they do not necessarily translate almah as “virgin” and harah as future proves it.

  16. Thomas Renz July 25, 2015 at 9:22 pm #

    Rodrigo de Susa in the Journal of Semitic Studies LIII/2 (Autumn 2008) asked whether the choice of parthenos (“virgin”) in LXX Isa. 7:14 for almah (“young woman”) was theologically motivated. The situation is similar to NIV because parthenos usually (43 times) translates betulah, not almah. The only other instance where the LXX uses parthenos for almah is Gen. 24:43. (Genesis is unusual also in that parthenos is used for a’arah a few times.) In Isaiah parthenos elsewhere renders betulah (Isa. 23:4; 37:22; 47:1; 62:5).

    “Our main thesis is that definite borders between the meanings ‘young woman’ and Virgin’ are difficult to ascertain both in Hebrew and in Greek, so that determining whether the LXX translation has a special theological significance is a difficult, if not impossible, task.” (from the abstract)

    De Susa establishes that “???????? is a term with diverse usages and connotations, and it can be used to refer simply to a young woman, who is not a virgo intacta. But, while it is clear that Virgin’ is not the exclusive meaning of the word, it is a prominent one. My point is, however, that, in the term, notions of virginity, purity, and youth are closely intertwined, and in some cases it can be impossible to discern which precise hues of meaning are being evoked. This is also true for the Hebrew term [betulah], with which ???????? is so often identified in the LXX.” (p. 223)

    Thus parthenos fits betulah pretty well. But almah is a very rare word (which is maybe the main drawback with the very general translation “young woman”) and de Susa, if I read him correctly, in effect argues that the translator had little choice but to use one of the standard Greek terms, in this case the one normally reserved for betulah. He argues that the term used more often (neanis) had connotations of servanthood. Maybe the translator felt this was inappropriate in context (de Susa does not make this specific point.) Sadly, the article does not address the fact that in the LXX the pregnancy is still future. Others have suggested that this is to emphasise a (further) fulfilment of the prophecy in the future , beyond the time of Ahaz.

  17. Clive July 26, 2015 at 3:01 am #

    In 2011, for the 400th anniversary of the Authorized version of the Bible I gave an original print of the Critica Sacra that I have to be put on display. It is from 1639 and shows the extent of knowledge scholars of the time had of Greek and in a separate volume of Hebrew. The Greek to English is the version displayed and it was open at the page giving the greek for woman / wife.

    Now I’m not sure I can get this computer to do greek letters but greek doesn’t have a separate word for “woman” or “wife”. The one word does both. The reason the book was open at that page for the exhibition was that the Critica Sacra shows each of the verses in which “gune” (english transliteration of the greek) appears and explains why it was either translated as “woman” or as “wife”.

    A modern reader now has to do a double hermeneutic and try to bear in mind that a 16th/17th century understanding of “woman”/”wife” is involved in their decisions.

    What it shows it that translation is much more complicated than just converting a word.

    Therefore Paula Gooder’s is right.
    NIV is a good translation only depending on what you use the translation for.

    If studying passages I tend to look at both ESV or NRSV for study first before resorting to the original text.
    At the other end of the scale are the easy-reading versions like Good News and The message. I don’t criticise them but nuances are often lost and one is accepting a translation team’s particular view as much as the translation itself in order for them to print an easy reading version.

    NIV is quite a good translation that is a mix between the two. It is not really a Bible translation for study but then it doesn’t really pretend to be.

  18. Clive July 26, 2015 at 8:53 am #

    Dear Thomas,

    Ian brings us back to the question of “is NIV a good translation”.
    NIV attempts to lean towards an accurate translation whilst being as easy to read as possible.

    No translation is ever going to be perfect.

    If I am dealing with a home group or a congregation it is easily sufficient to point out that whatever translation of Isaiah 7:14 is used then the verse says nothing about how the conception takes place.
    Prophecies in Matthew’s gospel can be (to put it diplomatically) a little elastic.

    In this modern day the majority of people treat the sound-bite that they read as true and factual both casually and thoughtlessly. If I choose to translate as virgin/maiden in the same way as woman/wife then Isaiah 7:14 still doesn’t say how the conception takes place. Many modernists however understand academics as saying that the verse doesn’t say “virgin” as a definite statement when a real understanding of what academics are actually saying reveals that they are NOT actually saying that the verse doesn’t say “virgin” they are instead raising the possibility that the verse might mean “maiden” or similar.

    You have given extensive references and I respect that.
    The slightly worrying thing is that you have spoken about words like “almah” and “betulah”.
    The problem here is that we can certainly agree that the original Hebrew actually says “lmh” and “btlh” (to use the transliterations) – the vowels are an assumption, and whilst they are probably right two things come from it:
    1) The vowels and, therefore meaning, are assumed (rampart/strength/goat was discussed before)
    2) It is hard to always assume that the vowels that accompany a word like “btlh” are always the same and the resultant word is always the same – they might not be.

    My position that seems to confuse you is that I only try to consistently avoid stating translations of Hebrew with certainty.

    There is a reason why Jesus probably spoke Aramaic (and possible greek) with the Jews and that is because the Jews themselves DIDN’T speak Hebrew. The language had died away. (It’s like using Latin in Church today.) Yet since the reading in the Synagogue is often in Hebrew phoenetic symbols were added to help the reader at about 200BC. In parallel, and separately Jews translated the OT into greek in 200BC precisely because Hebrew wasn’t used anymore. Since Jews themselves did the translation the LXX translation is a reference to help us understand what the Hebrew might mean. The hermeneutics you have referenced is that our understanding of “virgin” might be different to Isaiah’s time and so in Isaiah’s time a “maiden” (or similar) might have been a virgin at the time of conception anyway. Modernists don’t take in that nuance.

    My position is to resist expressing things with certainty now with respect to the original Hebrew on its own.

    • Thomas Renz July 26, 2015 at 9:45 am #

      Clive,

      I am in large agreement and especially appreciate your stress on the need to bear in mind what words meant at the time translators chose them. But you seem to be saying that a Hebrew text without vocalisation must of necessity be somewhat obscure. This is nonsense; the translation issues here or in Psalm 8 have nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Hebrew was and is regularly written without vowels.

      I think we can safely say that no-one ever seriously proposed that Psalm 8 claims that “through the praise of children and infants you have established a goat against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger” or that we could fix the semantic value of almah, if one we knew for sure which vowels to supply to the consonantal text.

      • Clive July 26, 2015 at 3:24 pm #

        Dear Thomas

        I am NOT saying that a Hebrew text is somewhat obscure but I AM saying that academics don’t have the absolute certainty but the modern society thinks you do.

  19. Thomas Renz July 28, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

    I am in a library which allows me to have a quick look at Adam Kamesar’s essay on the philological argument from the second to the fifth century in J Theol Studies 41 (1990): 51-75 It seems that the claim, made by Justin Martyr, that the other Greek translations (Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion, which all use neanis [“young woman”] instead of parthenos) deliberately corrupted the text in response to Christianity was quickly abandoned. Instead the Greek church fathers sought to argue that neanis refers to a virgin in this case. Among them only Origen refers to the Hebrew word almah but his argument seems to proceed on the (mistaken) assumption that every occurrence of the Greek neanis in the OT translates almah rather than a knowledge of the Hebrew texts.

    It is, as so often, only Jerome who truly engages with the Hebrew text. He agrees that almah is not the normal word for “virgin” (which is betulah) but add that neither is it the normal word for “young woman” (which is na’arah). He then pursues an argument from etymology to claim that almah is a cloistered woman (and hence of necessity a virgin). Kamesar suggests that the moves Jerome makes are typically Rabbinical. (It also involves the sue of the Latin alma which he connects with sancta, hence implying virginity.) Jerome does, however, add the argument from Deut. 22:23-29 found among the Greek fathers to make the point that even if almah means “young woman” it could still refer to a virgin.

    It seems to me that the ongoing use of “virgin” in English translations expresses a commitment to long-standing Christian tradition but with all respect to this tradition (which I have, I believe), it is nevertheless in my opinion hugely problematic because we are used to reading the Bible, asking about the historical reference as well as typological interpretation, and within the historical context it seems quite important that the woman is pregnant at the time the prophecy is uttered and it seems most likely that the direct article is used demonstratively here. After all, the prophecy says much about timing which would be left completely up in the air if no-one knew what the starting point for the ticking clock was, given that women conceive and give birth all the time and all of them were virgins at some point…

    • Ian Paul July 28, 2015 at 12:33 pm #

      Thanks, that is really helpful. It also raises the issue of the clash of methods in allegorical reading and historical-critical reading…

  20. Thomas Renz July 28, 2015 at 12:43 pm #

    What I had not known prior to reading this article was that the argument among most of the church fathers was not in fact narrowly philological, which is to say most accepted that the word in question does not always refer to a virgin. They used other arguments to suggest it does so here, arguments which most of us would not find persuasive enough to make ourselves, I think. (In fact, I am not aware of any commentator in the last hundred years making the argument in this form, i.e. with cross-reference to Deut. 22 or suggesting that almah refers to a nun or something like this.)

Leave a Reply