Saturday, December 15, 2012

Another Perspective on Is. 7:14

The following comes from a reader whom I have been in email contact with since the beginning of this blog. I have always appreciated his perspective on the various issues that have come up over the years.  He wanted to contribute to the discussion on Isaiah 7:14, the Virgin Birth, and the NABRE and gave me permission to post the following anonymously:

Timothy, I don't know if I ever discussed it with you, but even though I was raised and am a practicing Roman Catholic, I am of Jewish ancestry. With that in mind you can obviously guess that I am no stranger at all to Biblical Hebrew as the Church allows us to say many of our prayers in Hebrew, especially for celebrations like Chanukah (which is going on now) and the weekly observance of Shabbat (which with the Church, Hebrew Catholics observe from sundown on Saturday instead of Friday).

The Isaiah 7:14 subject is one that makes little sense if you speak Hebrew. The word in question (almah) is actually equivalent of the archaic English word "maid" or the little more modern word (but still out of use) "maiden." It identifies a type of person, not a description of the person's familiarity with sex. It can indeed be translated as both "young woman" and "virgin."

However the term "virgin" in modern English no longer means what it does either in Isaiah 7:14 or in Matthew 1:23 (parthenos) either. In both instances the term which Catholics traditionally translate as "virgin" applies only to a type of female. In modern English the word "virgin" no longer describes a type of person but a condition of a person, and modern English usage can apply "virgin" to both women and men (for example the popular comedy film of some years ago entitled The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which was about a man). Unfortunately it is this current usage that practically everyone you meet is using when they read these texts even though the term in both Isaiah and Matthew have little to do with a woman's sexual activity.

Both words, the Hebrew one in Isaiah and the subsequent Greek word in both the LXX and Matthew's text are used interchangeably throughout Scripture to refer to maidens, women who are at the age for betrothal with the connotation that such women usually wait until marriage before they engage in sexual activity (but it is only implied). For example, the LXX uses "parthenos" at Genesis 34:3 in reference to Dinah even though she had just had sexual relations with Shechem. This is correct since a "maiden" can still be violated sexually and still be no less of a "maiden" afterward since the words "almah" and "parthenos" just imply the status of what modern English calls "virginity" without making sexual status or lack thereof a requisite for the use of those terms.

In both Isaiah and Matthew the text is highlighting that the child to be born will bring God's presence. As Matthew uses it, he is stating the the Child to be born is to be God Incarnate.

But Matthew is also likely playing on words using what we Jews call "midrash." What we as Catholics call "Tradition," Jews call "midrash," and it is the official and often "oral" interpretation of inspired texts, with exposition or exegesis actually passed down with the way a Scripture text is read (like adding certain emphasis to a word or even using a synonym to highlight a variant way of translating something otherwise hidden in the original Hebrew of a text). Being that Matthew's gospel was written by a Jew for a Jewish audience, his readers would be used to "midrash" as a means to interpret the texts of the Tanakh in reference to Jesus.

Because the words "almah" and "parthenos" can also mean "a woman whose physical virginity is still intact," it is likely that Matthew's use of "parthenos" was midrash--one of the first examples of Apostolic Tradition or "midrash" to be written down. (For more information on this, see NRSV: The Jewish Annotated New Testament, page 4 in the box entitle "Virgin Birth.")

If one takes into account that Matthew 1:23 is now meaningless in modern English as "the virgin shall become pregnant" due to the fact that the modern non-religious reader could apply this to a man as well as a woman (a virgin man becoming pregnant would be a miracle too, some foolish people can now very well argue), we now see that no one on either side of this issue can expect a reading that will make English a perfect target language for these texts. English just isn't a good match for any of the ancient Biblical languages, and you have to admit that Westerners often expect things to match their preconceived ideas or be automatically counted as "wrong." So expecting even some very well educated persons to step out of using modern Western thought and deign to think like an ancient Hebrew may not go over very well. But a more accurate rendering for Matthew in our current sex-crazed world could be "and the virgin woman shall become pregnant," unless someone try to apply Steve Carell's character from that movie to the word "virgin."

For more information on Hebrew Catholics and links to various apostolates, see:

I hope you find some of this useful, even though I doubt it will stop native English-speakers/thinkers from their 2000 year-old-debate. It's really silly from the outside looking in.


gherr05 said...

I have to agree that English is not compatible with the Biblical languages. As a Filipino, in our translation of Isaiah 7:14 used in our liturgy, we have the word "dalaga".

For me this word exactly fits "almah". A "dalaga" is a girl who usually had reached adolescence, but also refers to even older females but are still unmarried. Sexual activity is not involved in the definition of "dalaga".

To mention, inclusive language is not an issue here, as there are words that correspond to genderless nouns or pronouns.

anthropos / ish - "tao" (without reference to any gender, man is "lalaki" and woman is "babae"

adelphos - "kapatid" (this refers to a sibling that is genderless, when you use this word you may specify which gender you are pertaining for clarity)

a third person pronoun - "siya" (this pronoun pertains to someone without knowing its gender. For Filipinos, using "siya" would necessitate to ask whether you refer to a male or female)

Jason Engel said...

I must say I envy you. I'm really quite fed up with the obnoxious debate over inclusive language in English Bible translations. English speakers waste so much time arguing grammar as if it were a society-defining religious debate as if the topic itself actually exists in the original languages (which it doesn't), all the while completely wasting time that could be spent on more positive pursuits, like not creating enemies.

CJA Mayo said...

I actually do, sincerely, believe that gender language in Bible translations, along with the egal-complementarian debate, is a (religious-)society-defining debate, and one of the most important of our day where sincere and confessing Christians disagree*. Creation is the only other of greater magnitude and importance.

(Now, in different languages and cultures, which already have terms such as the Filipino above, the language debate is basically moot, although the egal-comp debate still rages.)

Others are social-justice issues, such as the death penalty - which is admittedly more important than creation or translation from a social-justice perspective - poverty, secularism, government interference in religion, etc., but not doctrinal debates.

(Unlike, say, the social-justice issues of abortion, where all confessing Christians agree; or poverty, where all confessing Christians agree [that it is bad and relief should be administered in some form]; and, dare I say, homosexuality, where all confessing Christians agree - although some would protest otherwise.)

Now, if one does not see these issues as defining the direction of the Church in relation to society-at-large and secular trends, I could see how they would seem utterly pointless. Even to a "true believer" such as myself, I am tired of them (as were, I am sure, many early Christians of the Arian-Orthodox debates, not to say that egalitarianism is anything like the thread of Arianism, qualitatively or quantitatively).

This exhaustion is illustrated well at (scroll down to "Shadows v Vorlons" if you don't want to read it all); it is very true, and funny to boot if you are a fan of B5 such as myself.

Biblical Catholic said...

The reason why the inclusive language debate is non-trivial is because translating a Bible using inclusive language definitely changes the meaning and intent of many passages in the Bible....

The best example of where inclusive language affects Bible interpretation is in Psalm 1.....which begins 'blessed is the man....'

Why is this important? Because Psalm 1 is a messianic Psalm.... 'the one' who is blessed in this passage is none other than Christ....

Now...modern inclusive language translations don't want to say 'the man' (even though, as I understand it, the Hebrew here actually is gender exclusive, the word used here doesn't mean 'person' it mean 'a male person').....but what they do often is turn this male singular into a generic gender inclusive plural....'blessed are they' or 'blessed are the ones'....this not only obscures the messianic meaning of the Psalm (as there is only one messiah, not many) but it does damage to the grammar here as well.

The point of Psalm is that it contrasts the single person, against the mass of people....Psalm 1 is about contrasting, the single person, against the mass of against many....

So turning the subject of the Psalm into a group, means that you are contrasting one group against another group, which is really NOT what the Psalm is about...

So it is theologically important and significant that Psalm 1 be translated as a masculine, singular's not a trivial issue at all.

Now......saying that it is a serious different from saying that it is always given the seriousness that it deserves.

I think there is on the Internet and elsewhere, a kind of unthinking, reflexive, knee jerk reaction against inclusive language which isn't based on theological concerns, but on political ones. So often you have people condemning 'inclusive language' and they don't even really know why they oppose it, and they are not willing to acknowledge that often inclusive language is more accurate....and they also aren't willing to acknowledge that 'inclusive language' is as old as English translations themselves.

You can go back to Wycliffe and Tyndale and see that in places they too used inclusive language.

Example: Tyndale in the book of Exodus refers repeatedly to 'the children of Israel'.....well...this is inclusive language....the Hebrew doesn't say 'children' it says 'sons'.

Also very often you get this knee jerk opposition to anything called 'inclusive language', and some Bible translations, such as the 2011 NIV, get condemned as being 'inclusive', which the very same people will endorse other translations which do the exact same thing as the condemned translations.

I always find it funny that the ESV began at least in part as part of an attempt to combat inclusive language, but the end result is a translation which is far more 'gender inclusive' than the RSV which it revised. If you look at a list of revisions in the ESV, often the only difference is that the ESV has been made more inclusive, the ESV turns the RSV's masculine pronoun into generic, non-gender specific language in literally hundreds of places.

The LCMS condemned the 2011 NIV, while adopting the ESV....but the difference between the ESV and 2011 NIV on the issue of inclusive language is not that big.

So it bothers me that much of the opposition to inclusive language is a lack of understanding of what specifically the theological problem is....

CJA Mayo said...

I find the ESV thing ironic, as well. The OT was re-Christianized to a good degree, the NT was Calvinized to a minor degree, and the entire thing was inclusivized - the latter being the only one of the three where the intent of the translators was expressed - and done in the opposite direction.

Biblical Catholic said...

I think that the alleged 'Calvinist bias' in the ESV is grossly exaggerated....there isn't so much a 'Calvinist' bias as there is a bias in favor of using formal theological terminology, where modern translations generally attempt to dumb down the language of the NT and remove the theology out of fear that people 'won't understand it', the ESV puts the theology front and center. That is, in fact, one of the things that I like about it. If people think that using formal theological vocabulary is 'Calvinist' that's only because Calvinists are just about the only Protestants left who still care about theology. Calvinists will even appeal to creeds....'in paragraph whatever of the Westminster Confession it says....' or they will cite Calvin or even occasionally one of the Fathers OR Thomas Aquinas.

I say 'just about' because I do know that there are Lutherans who do as well, and Lutherans will appeal to Luther's writings and to the Book of Concord. But in America there are just more Calvinists than Lutherans so it is more noticeable...if you hear a Protestant talking about things like 'justification', or 'atonement' or whatever, odds are pretty strong you're talking to a Calvinist.

If people associate rigorous theology with Calvinism that is only because everyone else has dropped the ball, and not at all because such terminology is in anyway biased in favor of Calvinism,

Russ said...

I have never been a fan of inclusive language and I doubt I ever will be. However, in response to Biblical Catholic’s comment that Psalm 1 is Messianic, I found the following that I would like to post as a means of playing Devil’s advocate. It was originally published on November 4, 1994, by Fr. Joseph Jensen. Fr. Jensen, who recently retired after 42 years as Executive Secretary of the Catholic Biblical Association, wrote the following:

…when Psalm 1 is used in the Christian liturgy, we ought not to restrict its meaning to a narrowly historical understanding. Were we to do that, the "law" in question would remain simply the Torah of the Old Testament. When this psalm is used in the Christian liturgy, however, it applies to all, and the "law" includes, in addition to the richness of the Old Testament legislation, all the New Testament instruction, the Sermon on the Mount and the epistolary exhortations.

This approach to translation accords with modern hermeneutical theory, which recognizes that a text, once produced, obtains a certain autonomy from the historical setting in which it was composed, and is susceptible of newer meanings in new situations. The mere fact that Psalm 1 is now part of a canon that includes the Sermon on the Mount and St. Paul's dictum that "in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female" gives it a new nuance that ought not be ruled out by a literalistic translation.

It is quite out of line to argue for "man" in this psalm on the plea that it is Christological. Joseph D. Fessio, S.J., echoing an argument I once heard a bishop use, asserts that "as all the Fathers and unbroken Tradition have taught, Christ is the `antitype,' the fulfillment of all the `types' of the Old Testament. To translate it [Ps. 1:1] as `those' simply obliterates the christological (and therefore the most profound and divinely intended) meaning of the Psalms" (Catholic World Report, 1994, p. 64).

Richard J. Clifford, S.J., a Scripture scholar who has been rector of Weston Jesuit School of Theology, president of the Catholic Biblical Association, and general editor of The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, responding to Father Fessio's claim, noted that "only a minority of patristic authors ever held it [the christological reading of Psalm 1]" and continued in part: "According to St. Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367), `the contents of the first Psalm forbid us to understand it either of the Person of the Father or of the Son.' Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) . . . rejects a Christological interpretation. One can infer that Origen . . . opposed a Christological meaning. The Antiochenes, Diodore and Theodore, . . . repudiated it. St. Jerome is unambiguous: `such an interpretation certainly shows a lack of experience and knowledge, for if that happy man is Christ, and Christ gave the law, how can the words: "But delights in the law of the Lord," apply to Christ'" (National Jesuit News, April/May, 1994, pp. 8-9).

Again, just food for thought regarding Psalm 1. And despite what Mother Angelica once said about the New Jerusalem Bible being full of lies because of its use of inclusive language, it’s still my go-to translation. I simply love it, even if it did, IMHO, completely obliterate Hebrews 2: 6-8 with its use of inclusive language.

Anonymous said...

As the Hebrew Catholic who wrote the email to Timothy in the first place, I must agree with what Russ wrote.

The only reason the word "man" is used in Psalm 1 is because there is no neuter format for expressing this in Biblical Hebrew. The "blessed is the man who..." actually gets read in Hebrew as "You are blessed if you..." The use of "man" is generic in Hebrew, reminding the reader that they themselves are being spoken of primarily, not someone else. The psalmist was cleverly reversing a more common usage of pronouncements, i.e., "cursed is he who walks in the counsel of the wicked, cursed are you if you stand in the way of sinners or you if you sit in company with scoffers," etc.

One extra point: there was never an intent to express anything having to do with "inclusive language" with what I wrote. How anyone got on to that subject is beyond me. Since other languages, especially Hebrew, do not use gender terms to the strict exclusive standards of American English (and thus don't ever require inclusive language use to begin with), pulling a discussion about inclusive language from my letter to Timothy is much like showing everyone how you can pull a rabbit out of a hat when there was no hat presented to begin with.

Russ said...

Anonymous: To answer our question, I have no idea. (But that didn't answer it, did it? :)It still seems to be a hot topic after all these years. But I'm glad Tim ran your email about Isaiah 7:14. I found it very informative. Thanks.

CJA Mayo said...

"Calvinists will even appeal to creeds....'in paragraph whatever of the Westminster Confession it says....' or they will cite Calvin or even occasionally one of the Fathers OR Thomas Aquinas."

Have you ever been on the PuritanBoards? The Westminster Confession is cited left and right there. (The board is exclusively Reformed and dominantly Presbyterian; the registration requirements are strict, excluding non-Calvinists, but the level of discourse is quite good.) I'm often more at home amongst some learned Calvinists than I am amongst the average, rank-and-file Pelagian Catholic ("be nice and go to Mass and confession and thou shalt be saved") or (semi-)Pelagian Protestant ("be nice and choose Jesus and thou shalt be saved"). Without getting in to Molinism.

As far as your second point, they may cite the Angelic Doctor because Calvinism is nothing but Thomism with the all-important distinction between the antecedent and consequent wills of God eliminated. Thomism adheres to sola gratia; if one removes the distinction between the antecedent and consequent will, at the very least three of the five letters of "TULIP" necessarily follow (unconditional election, limited atonement*, irresistible grace), one necessarily follow from there (unconditional election and irresistible grace = perseverance of the saints), and total depravity is needed to make sense of the system (and, could be argued, is already a part of the Thomist doctrine of grace). The entire Calvinist scheme follows logically from a misreading of Thomas, or by taking Thomas's doctrine of grace without his doctrine of God.

*Either limited atonement or universalism follows from a God with only a consequent will.