Monday, September 14, 2009

"Virgin," "Maiden," and Progressive Revelation

In the RSV vs KJV controversy that roiled matters in the 50s and 60s, the matter of the translation of Isaiah 7:14 seemed to be the first thing on the lips of every KJV advocate. Here it is in that version:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

But RSV gave us this:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign, Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

This was all about a conspiracy among modernists to deny the virgin birth, I was told.

Fifty years later, the NET Bible First Edition translates the verse this way:

For this reason the sovereign master himself will give a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel.

The NET Bible editors use this verse in their preface and introduction to the First Edition to discuss their translation philosophy. They embrace the concept of "progressive revelation." Here is how they explain that concept, using Isaiah 7:14 as an example:

Simply put, progressive revelation recognizes that God reveals himself – his nature as well as his word, plans, and purposes – over time. He did not reveal everything about himself and what he was doing in the world all at once; instead he graciously revealed more and more as time went on. Later revelation serves to complement and supplement what has come before. The relation of this reality to translation work creates a great deal of tension, especially as it relates to the theological context, because certain earlier passages are clarified by later ones. Does the translator translate the older passage with a view to the clarification that the later passage brings, or does the translator concentrate solely on the native context of the older passage? The translators and editors for the NET Bible have generally chosen to do the latter for a variety of reasons. A translation which takes into account the progress of revelation will be true to the three contexts discussed above [the grammatical context, the historical context, and the theological context]. It is also very beneficial to the Bible reader to have the progress of revelation accurately represented in the translation of particular texts. This helps the reader see how God has worked through the centuries, and it helps the reader to stand more accurately in the place of the original recipients of the text. Both of these are very instructive and inspirational, and they help the reader to connect with the text in a more fulfilling way.

A discussion of particular passages in the NET Bible – how they have been translated and why – will illuminate these concepts. Explaining these examples will show how the translators and editors have put the aspects of the translation theory discussed above into practice. The translators and editors believe these issues are important for readers of the Bible to grasp, so all these passages have extensive notes regarding these issues. An example from both the Old and New Testaments will be given.

Isaiah 7:14. This verse has seen a great deal of discussion in the history of interpretation. The text of the verse from the NET Bible is as follows:

Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel.

The most visible issue surrounding this verse is the translation of the Hebrew word עַלְמָה (’ almah). The NET Bible uses the phrase “young woman,” while many translations use the word “virgin.” The arguments center upon two main points: the actual meaning of the term as it is used in Hebrew, and the use of this verse in the New Testament. There is a great deal of debate about the actual meaning of the Hebrew word. However, in the New Testament when this verse is cited in Matthew 1:23 the Greek word παρθένος ( parqenos) is used, and this word can mean nothing but “virgin.” Therefore, many people see Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy about the virgin birth with Matthew 1:23 serving as a “divine commentary” on the Isaiah passage which establishes its meaning. The interplay of these issues makes a resolution quite complex. It is the opinion of the translators and editors that the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14 means “young woman” and actually carries no connotations of sexual experience, so the grammatical context of the verse in the Old Testament is in our opinion fairly straightforward. Neither does the historical context of Isaiah 7:14 point to any connection with the birth of the Messiah: in its original historical context, this verse was pointing to a sign for King Ahaz that the alliance between Syria and Israel which was threatening the land of Judah would come to nothing. The theological context of Isaiah 7:14 is also limited: it is a presentation of God’s divine power to show himself strong on behalf of his people. The role or birth of the Messiah does not come into view here. So the historical and theological contexts of the verse support the grammatical: the word עַלְמָה (’ almah) means “young woman” and should be translated as such. Within the book of Isaiah itself, however, the author begins to develop the theological context of this verse, and this provides a connection to the use of the passage in Matthew. In Isaiah 8:9-10 the prophet delivers an announcement of future victory over Israel’s enemies; the special child Immanuel, alluded to in the last line of v. 10, is a guarantee that the covenant promises of God will result in future greatness. The child mentioned in Isaiah 7:14 is a pledge of God’s presence during the time of Ahaz, but he also is a promise of God’s presence in the future when he gives his people victory over all their enemies. This theological development progresses even further when another child is promised in Isaiah 9:6-7 who will be a perfect ruler over Israel, manifesting God’s presence perfectly and ultimately among his people. The New Testament author draws from this development and uses the original passage in Isaiah to make the connection between the child originally promised and the child who would be the ultimate fulfillment of that initial promise. The use of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23 draws upon the theological development present in the book of Isaiah, but it does not change the meaning of Isaiah 7:14 in its original context.

That's pretty bold of the NET Bible translators, I think. NIV, CEV, and even Peterson in the Message use "virgin." The NASB, still my favorite, uses "virgin" too but has a text note: "Or, maiden." Similarly, the NCV (New Century Version) uses "virgin" with a longer text note: The Hebrew word means a young woman." Often this meant a girl who was not married and had not yet had sexual relations with anyone. The NKJV uses "virgin" of course, and the NRSV uses "young woman."

In the Living Bible, the translation is "virgin," but there is an extensive footnote:

The controversial Hebrew word used here sometimes means "virgin" and sometimes "young woman." Its immediate use here refers to Isaiah's young wife and her newborn son (Isaiah 8:1-4). This, of course, was not a virgin birth. God's sign was that before this child was old enough to talk (verse 4) the two invading kings would be destroyed. However, the Gospel of Matthew (1:23) tells us that there was a further fulfillment of this prophecy, in that a virgin (Mary) conceived and bore a son, Immanuel, the Christ. We have therefore properly used this higher meaning, "virgin," in verse 14, as otherwise the Matthew account loses its significance.

It is interesting to see the NET Bible translators come down on the same side as the RSV and NRSV.

As I have been reading about the Dead Sea Scrolls, I have taken to reading prefaces and introductions to the various translations (not to mention footnotes and text notes), and the NET Bible has an extensive preface and introduction (and great footnotes). You can read the entire preface and introduction on-line, and the NET Bible itself.

Before leaving this endless post, I want to note that one of the NRSV editions on my bookshelf is Walter's well used, paperback copy from Urbana '96.

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