Thoughts on biblical translations


I enjoyed aspects of the recent "God Squad" column by Rabbi Gellman, though I have to take exception to one point.

Rabbi Gellman indicates that the translation of "alma" in Isaiah 7:14 in the KJV translation (and other translations also carry this reading) as "virgin" is an error and relates its likely beginning to an error he believes was introduced with the Latin Vulgate translation.

However, the translation of the Hebrew "alma" as "virgin" goes back much, much further than the Vulgate.

In the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew scriptures done by Jewish scholars for Jews who'd become speakers of Hellenistic Greek and not readily able to use the original Hebrew, we find the same issue.

This translation is believed to have been completed over a couple centuries before the common era -- before the time of Jesus of Nazareth, -- and translated "alma" in Genesis 24:23 and in Isaiah 7:14 by the Greek word "parthenos," which has the unambiguous meaning of virgin.

Also, according to the Greek of the Septuagint, a supplemental lexicon by Chamberlain, the adjective, "parthenikos," carries the meaning of "suited for a maiden" in Joel 1:8 in the Septuagint and "maidenly" or "virginal" in Esther 2:3. A similar adjective, "parthenios," is a textual variant at Esther 2:3 for "virginal" in some manuscripts and as a neuter plural is used as a noun for signs pertaining to virginity in the portions starting at Deuteronomy 22:14 and Judges 11:37.

Clearly the root "parth" is related to virginity in Hellenistic Greek. Most of us encounter this mainly in the name of the temple of the virgin, Greek goddess, Athena, to the ancient Greeks, the patroness of Athens, which is known as The Parthenon.

So, this issue goes back much further than the Latin Vulgate and is not limited to translations done by Gentiles.

Though this will not end the controversy, if one is wrong, so are the others, and if one is right, so well might be the others, though it should be remembered that Jewish scribes took the task of dealing with the Hebrew scriptures very, very seriously.

Though diligence alone cannot guarantee results, we might consider that this extreme care likely applied to the work of the Jewish translators of the Septuagint as well.

George Koll

Walla Walla


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment

Click here to sign in