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Translation and the Septuagint

Why is ‘almah in Proverbs 30:19 translated differently? Could translation choices have impacted later theological developments?

Fra Angelico
Fra Angelico

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

    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.