Translation and the Septuagint by Samuel Thomas

Q. Why is 'almah in Prov 30:19 translated as the abstract neotéti in the LXX (Septuagint) and adolescentia in the Vulgate (and, of course, 'youth' in the Douay-Rheims, a translation of the Vulgate), but differently—as a concrete noun—in Protestant translations?

A. It is sometimes difficult to answer the question "why" a particular scribe or translator made a particular decision. The occurrences of the concrete Hebrew noun 'almah are usually translated into various concrete forms of the stem né- (with two exceptions: Gen 24:43 and, famously, Isa 7:14, in which the Greek word is parthénos), making the abstract sense of neotéti in LXX Prov 30:19 something of an anomaly. While the Vulgate and some translations such as Douay-Rheims may follow LXX in this regard, many if not most modern Catholic and Protestant translations follow the Hebrew (Masoretic) text with a concrete noun such as "young woman," "maiden," "girl," etc. This likely reflects not only the long-standing Protestant (and, at times, Catholic) effort to produce translations that take the Hebrew text as "more original," but also a desire to retain the structure and plain sense of the poetic parallelism of this particular verse.

Q. The proof-texts for the virginal conception of Jesus (Isa 7:14) and for the resurrection of Jesus (Ps 16:10) used in the Gospel of Matthew and Acts were taken from the LXX (Septuagint). According to the NRSV and other translations, those texts were incorrectly translated in the LXX. Is the scriptural basis for these two beliefs therefore questionable?

A. When dealing with ancient versions of texts it is best to suspend judgments about whether a translation is "incorrect" in favor of an effort to understand the process of textual transmission and how and why translation decisions were made. Here the LXX translator had several choices for translation, and while parthénos may not be the most common rendering of the Hebrew 'almah, it is a justifiable—if surprising—choice within the range of lexical and semantic possibilities.

The LXX text of Ps 16:10 does differ from the standard Masoretic Text (MT) of the Hebrew, but recent gains in textual criticism demonstrate that we can no longer say whether the LXX or the MT represents a "more original" text, if we can even speak of such a thing. (In some cases, for example, it is clear that the underlying Hebrew text of the LXX was different from and perhaps prior to the Masoretic Text as represented by certain manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls.) Therefore it is at least possible that LXX Ps 16:10 represents an earlier recension of the text than MT (though there may be other problems with seeing LXX Ps 16:10 as referring to resurrection in its own context).

Whatever the previous textual history of these passages, no doubt the authors of Matthew and Acts made use of the theological potential of LXX Isa 7:14 and Ps 16:10 in their effort to present "prophecies" of virgin birth and resurrection. As with other New Testament interpretations of scriptural texts, we can catch a glimpse into the textual and interpretive world of early Christians to see how they argued for their theological understandings of Jesus—but that's not the same as disproving their beliefs.

Samuel Thomas, "Translation and the Septuagint", n.p. [cited 27 Jun 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/translation-and-the-septuagint

Contributors

Samuel Thomas

Samuel Thomas
Associate Professor, California Lutheran University

Samuel Thomas is associate professor of religion at California Lutheran University. He teaches and writes about the Dead Sea Scrolls, Second Temple Judaism, the Hebrew Bible, and religion and ecology.

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Shorthand title for the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures fabled to have been completed by 70 translators (LXX is 70 rendered in roman numerals).

Textual documents, usually handwritten.

Relating to the Masoretes, a group of medieval scribes who preserved and transmitted the written Hebrew text of the Bible. Or, the Masoretic Text itself, an authoritative Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible.

The authoritative Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible, containing both the consonants and the vowels (unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have no vowels). The earliest existing copies of the Masoretic Text date to the 10th century C.E.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

A text that has been revised.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

The notion that Mary became pregnant with Jesus without having had intercourse with a human man but rather was impregnated by God.

The Latin-language translation of the Christian Bible (mostly from Hebrew and Greek) created primarily by Jerome.

Prov 30:19

19the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a girl.

Gen 24:43

43I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to dri ... View more

Isa 7:14

14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

Prov 30:19

19the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a girl.

Isa 7:14

14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

Ps 16:10

10For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.

Ps 16:10

10For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.

Ps 16:10

10For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.

Ps 16:10

10For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.

Isa 7:14

14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

Ps 16:10

10For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.

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