In an interview today on BBC5, Francesca Stavrakopoulou provided an explanation of the account of Mary’s virgin birth in Matthew’s Gospel. She explained, for a general audience, something that is well known to biblical scholars: that Matthew looked for an Old Testament proof-text to support his contention that Mary was a virgin. And he did so by relying on a verse in Isaiah (7.14) which in Hebrew employs the term ‘almah (young woman or virgin) and in Greek employs the term parthenos (usually “virgin”). The context of Isaiah 7.14 shows that the ‘almah/parthenos in question was not a virgin at the time of her conception, because in the context of Isaiah 7-8, the ‘almah/parthenos refers to someone becoming pregnant according to the usual means. The ‘almah/parthenos turns out to be Isaiah’s wife, “the prophetess”(Isa 8.3), and the purpose of referring to her son is to assure King Ahaz of Judah that before the child is weaned, the two kings who had threatened Judah (King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Samaria) will be decimated by the Assyrians (7.15-16; 8.4). So the context of the prophecy which Matthew cites concerns events occurring in the eighth century BC, not the time of Jesus in the first century AD. Moreover, the ‘almah refers to a woman who is or will be pregnant – and by the very ordinary means of Isaiah having sex with her (Isa 8.3 says Isaiah ‘went into the prophetess’) – so it does not refer to a virgin. So Matthew’s appeal to Isa 7.14 as proof of Mary’s virginity (Matt 1.22-23) not only applies an Old Testament passage to the life of Jesus which has nothing to do with him, but applies an Old Testament passage which involves a woman who has had sex with her husband (not a virgin!). Yet, reading the Greek translation of the Hebrew term ‘almah (which is parthenos, usually “virgin”), Isaiah 7.14 might have appeared to be a “proof” of a virgin giving birth (Matt 1.20, 25). But this was Matthew’s “mistranslation”.
Even though Francesca Stavrakopoulou describes what is quite well-known in biblical studies, it seems to have upset some of the more pious bloggers, who don’t like her reference to an inner-biblical “mistranslation”. But Timothy Law (and Jim West agreeing with him) seem to have assumed that the “mistranslation” referred to by Stavrakopoulou is the Greek LXX translation of the Hebrew. Whereas, what she communicated – using language intended for a general UK audience – would not be wrong in respect of Matthew. For Matthew uses the term parthenos out of its context. Matthew’s Old Testament proof-texting is – in simple and easy-to-understand terms – a “mistranslation” of the original context in both its Hebrew and Greek variations. Here’s what Francesca Stavrakopoulou said:
BBC Interviewer (Nicky Campbell): What about the virgin birth – where does that come from?
Francesca Stavrakopoulou: Well, basically, that’s based on two different traditions. Firstly, Jesus was a Jewish man, born into a very good Jewish family in the Galilee region, probably in Nazareth. And as a result, his family and also his followers would have been very familiar with Old Testament or Hebrew Bible traditions about birth announcements. Special Jewish men who had a particular mission – religious mission – were often said to have been born following an announcement from an angel or a messenger from God. So that part of the story, that God was somehow involved in his birth, is straightforward in terms of Jewish religious culture. The other reason is that Jesus’s earliest writing followers – so the people that wrote the Gospel traditions – they were using a Greek translation of the early Hebrew scriptures. They were using those scriptures as proof-texts to find evidence, prophecies pointing towards Jesus’s mission and life. And one of these texts is in Isaiah. And it talks about a young woman, who will conceive and bear a child. And this child is going to be a royal figure, who is going to save his people. Now the Hebrew word for this is ‘almah, a young woman, an ‘almah. But the ancient Greek translation that the Gospel writers were using uses the word parthenos, which is often translated as a virgin. So basically, the virgin birth idea is a mistranslation.
BBC Interviewer (Nicky Campbell): So, what would you say to biblical literalists, then?
Francesca Stavrakopoulou: They need to learn to read Hebrew.
Of course, Matthew seems to have either invented most of his nativity story, or relied on spurious and invented traditions such as the death of the Innocents, stars, travelling magi, and a journey to Egypt. Even Luke couldn’t agree with Matthew, and changed most of the story.
Update: Mark Goodacre (NT Pod) responds in a podcast. Mark is a little more reserved in using the term “mistranslation” to describe what Matthew does with Isaiah – although, for a general audience I think this term is fine. Mark also rightly points out that Matthew, although reliant on the Greek LXX translation, was probably not ignorant of the Hebrew or of Jewish methods of interpretation. Indeed, the point was made by Soares-Prabhu in a fine treatment, The Formula Quotations in the Infancy Narrative of Matthew. This counters some more vulgar treatments of the “mistranslation”, as in Dawkins, but does not apply to Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s treatment.