Sunday, March 6, 2011

“A Virgin Shall Conceive”: Isaiah 7:14 and a Problem with the NABRE

On Ash Wednesday of this year, the revised edition of the New American Bible will be released (1). In preparation since 1994, the appearance of the new translation is long overdue and generally welcome, but the text contains one serious flaw. In Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah prophecies the birth of the coming Messiah. God commands Achaz to ask a sign and Achaz refuses, saying that he will not tempt God. The prophet replies,
“Is it a small thing for you to be grievous to men, that you are grievous to my God also? [14] Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” (2)

Jewish readers, recently joined by modern skeptics, have protested that the word “virgin” is not in the original Hebrew and originates from an ancient Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint. In the NAB-Revised Edition (henceforth, NABRE), the US Catholic Bishops have capitulated and render the highlighted text “a young woman will conceive.” This capitulation fails to account for several good reasons for keeping the word “virgin,” including, its initial translation by BC Jews, the social context of the time, and the context of the passage itself.

Early in the 3rd century B.C., many Jews, spread abroad by the diaspora, no longer knew or could read Hebrew and so Hebrew scholars translated the Old Testament into Koine Greek. St. Augustine relates a legend of how the Septuagint, as this Greek translation of the Old Testament was named, came to be. One of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt (Ptolemy Philadelphus), desired a Greek translation for his library and commissioned the translation by 72 learned Jewish scholars. Working independently, these 72 scholars each returned a translation of the text that was in perfect agreement, taken to be a divine sign of its excellence (3). The Septuagint continued to be used by Jews and Early Christians until the 2nd/3rd century AD, when the Jews, probably for several reasons (4), went back to the Hebrew .

After Jesus’ Ascension, early Christians searched the Old Testament for messianic prophecies fulfilled by Jesus. Probably using the Septuagint, they found in Isaiah 7:14, a passage perfectly suited to their needs, reading, “a virgin shall conceive etc.” Such a passage was naturally a good fit for the early Christians, much of whose strategy for preaching Jesus to the Jews included appeals to fulfilled prophecy. Ancient Jews who remained resistant to Christianity began to protest that the Hebrew text did not read “virgin” at all, but rather simply almah, “young woman,” while many modern secularists have taken up the critique.

Despite the recent capitulation by the US Catholic bishops, however, at least three compelling reasons remain for supposing that the translation of the Hebrew word almah should remain “virgin,” rather “young woman.” First, Septuagint was translated by Jews for Jews. Closer to the context and understanding the language better than we, they chose to render the word almah by the Greek word for virgin, parthenos rather than neanis, young woman. Second, while true that almah does not explicitly mean virgin, this is misleading. The late Carsten Peter Thiede has pointed out that,
“critics have asserted that “virgin” should read, young woman… [but] almah [is] a young unmarried woman of childbearing age. Given the social culture of Isaiah’s days, she was therefore either a virgin or a prostitute. Since the context of the prophecy rules out the prostitute, we are left with the virgin (5).”
Finally, the context of the text of Isaiah itself speaks of this as a sign. As Origen said long ago, a young woman becoming pregnant would not be a remarkable sign, but a virgin becoming pregnant would (6).

Welcome as the NABRE is, the choice to render the Hebrew almah in Isaiah 7:14 as “young woman” rather than “virgin,” unfortunate and flawed. As it has read for the past 2,250 years (and has meant for longer), Isaiah 7:14 should still read, “a virgin will conceive and bear and son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”

2. Isaiah 7: 13-14. Douay-Rheims Bible.
3. Augustine, City of God
4. These may have included a declining use of Greek among the Jews, perhaps the result of many Jews of the Diaspora becoming Christians, as well as the desire to avoid a text that became associated with Christianity.
5. Carsten Peter Thiede, Jesus: Man or Myth, (2004) p.47. Thiede was Professor of New Testament History and Papyrology and Archeology at STH in Basel Switzerland. He is also author of, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish Origins of Christianity (2003).
6. Origen, Against Celsus, ed. Henry Chadwick, (1953), p.34. (Available on google books)
-additionally, the greek word for young woman, neanis, occurs elsewhere in the Septuagint, which makes it appear that the initial Jewish translators did have reason to render almah as parthenos (virgin), rather than neanis (young woman).


  1. Another new battle in the war for proper translations! Whether it be the Grail Psalter, Missale Romanum, or even the NABRE! My personal preference is for the Douay-Rheims....

  2. I prefer the D.R also. It is the one I tend to use for personal reading.

  3. I usually have an Ignatius Bible, myself. A lot of this translation stuff comes up often within the context of Liturgy. Especially in light of the Council of Trent, which set forth the standards by which a Sacrament is conferred validly, there's a constant debate as to how to properly translate Liturgical texts. But that's only part of the story: Latin Catholics and Greek Catholics, for example don't even necessarily agree on the moment that the Eucharist is consecrated!