It is said that every translator is necessarily betrayer. That’s in part because when you are translating, trying to find an equivalent word or phrase in a new language for a message from another, there are two aspects of the language that must be translated; the denotation and the connotation.
The denotation of a word is the easiest part of the process to understand. The denotation of a word is what is usually referred to as “the dictionary definition” of a word. If you look the word up in a reference book, this is what you will find. It is relatively easy to find an equivalent in a new language for the denotation of a word.
But nobody who actually uses language limits their use of words to the denotations found in a dictionary. People who are fluent in the use of any language know full well that any given word has a particular “freight” in common parlance—a street meaning which helps determine when is the appropriate time to use that word.
Of course, in the case of slang, the connotation of a word might be at complete variance from its denotation. “Are you doing okay?” someone might ask you, seeing you flushed on a sultry August day. You respond, saying, “I’m cool.” Of course, you don’t mean that you are actually chilly; you mean you are not feeling sick despite that fact that you are feeling quite warm.
But even apart from slang, we are always using the connotation of words to communicate what we mean. This is the stock in trade of poets. Do you use the word red, burgundy, crimson, scarlet, ruby, or vermilion? If you’ll pardon the expression, which word has the right “shade” of meaning? I wouldn’t describe spilled blood as “burgundy” in color nor would I describe the lips of a woman I wished to portray as possessing angelic beauty as being “crimson” or “scarlet.” The gastronomic overtones of “burgundy” ill-suit the gruesome scene of spilt blood, and a lifetime of dark associations with the word “crimson” or “scarlet” conjure up a mental picture of a woman whose appearance leans toward the demonically seductive, not the beatific.
Which word should I use to convey the meaning I wish to communicate? When I am translating somebody else’s idea, what word or words best convey both the denotation and the connotation of the original? Answering this question is what makes every translator a betrayer. It is nearly impossible when translating from one language to another to find a word that conveys equally well both the denotation and connotation of the original. A translator usually must choose whether to convey the denotation or the connotation of a word more faithfully, thus betraying to some extent its other meaning. We need to remember that this kind of thinking is the background of every translating committee’s work; that means it is in the background of every Bible translation you have ever read.
It was also in the background of every Bible translation used by Christians throughout the centuries, including that used by the great majority of first century Christians, the Septuagint. The Septuagint is a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Koine Greek, the same language in which the New Testament is written. Completed around the late 2nd century B.C., this translation was the primary form of the Hebrew Scriptures used by Jews throughout the Roman Empire, in large part because Hebrew was already a dead language and Koine Greek was the trade language of the Empire. The Septuagint is the version of the Old Testament quoted extensively by the New Testament authors, not to mention their immediate successors in the Church, and not surprisingly so; it was, after all, the Scripture with which most of the Jews in the world were familiar.
The point of this article is not to debate the merits of the Septuagint or discuss how this ancient translation can help us better understand the Hebrew Scriptures that are the basis for most of the modern translations of the Old Testament we use today. That is beyond the limits of so short an essay. I do want to focus in on a particular Old Testament passage whose translation (or supposed mistranslation) has become the subject of such widespread commentary and urban legend that it used regularly by revisionists from both pulpits and pews to undermine the authority of the Bible.
The passage in question is Isaiah 7:14, traditionally translated along the lines of, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The King James, the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, the English Standard Version, and the New American Bible all translate the Hebrew word ʽalmah used in this passage following the lead of the Septuagint as “virgin.” The New Revised Standard Version—the preferred translation of the mainline denominations who have of late been falling away from historic Christian orthodoxy—instead translates the Hebrew word ʽalmah as “young woman.”
Translating the Hebrew word as “young woman” rather than as “virgin” has given great grist to the revisionist mill. A generation ago it was the source of private chuckles for pastors who liked to feel superior to the great bulk of their congregants; people who had the gullibility to believe in the literal virgin birth of Jesus. Now, however, people like John Shelby Spong and Bart Ehrmann have so popularized the supposed “mistake” of the Septuagint translators that the integrity of the Scriptures on this point needs an easy explanation everyone can understand.
The story told by revisionists about the translation of Isaiah 7:14 goes as follows: The original Septuagint translators mistakenly translated the Hebrew word ʽalmah, which properly means a young woman, with the Greek word parthenos, which means a virgin. The Christians came along later, read the Greek version of the Old Testament and did not realize the mistake of the translators. Consequently, when they later wanted to buttress their claims that Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, the early Christians (perhaps further inspired by the Greek legends of heroes like Perseus or Hercules, whose parentage was part human, part divine) invented Jesus’ virgin birth to “prove” Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Now, however, with the assured tools of modern scholarship, we can see their error and prevarication for what it was. We can now truly appreciate the real Jesus, perhaps for the first time since he walked the earth. Stripped of centuries of pious falsehood, we can see him as a great moral teacher, humanist, and herald of God’s in-breaking kingdom, a kingdom that will only come as we shoulder our responsibilities to cultivate peace and justice. We are further assured that, if we are enlightened, the deconstruction of the Scriptural narrative at this point need not worry us, and in fact will inspire us to a more mature faith.
The fact is that for most people, dismantling the New Testament on such a clear point as Jesus’ virgin birth (which is attested to in two of the four Gospels) makes the document useless as a spiritual authority—oh, the Bible can still be used for inspiration, but just about anything can be used for inspiration. What the Bible lacks after such a treatment is the ability to address us bindingly as it did generations of Christians—and that is precisely the idea if we are to change either the spiritual or moral demands of the Christian faith, as so many feel compelled to do.
But this revisionist dance is all smoke and mirrors. The error here is not found in the Septuagint translators’ rendering of the Hebrew word ʽalmah as “virgin.” The error is in modern scholars failing to recognize that the ancient translators were just as nuanced and facile in their use of language as modern people, and that in choosing the Greek word parthenos (or virgin), those translators were opting for the connotation of the word ʽalmah rather than its denotation.
The Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains states that the word ʽalmah means a “young woman, i.e., sexually mature female of marriageable age, which may or may not be sexually active.” The definition goes on to state that [the] “context will demand or suggest if the young woman is sexually active.” Does the original context of Isaiah 7:14 suggest that the ʽalmah in question is sexually active? A sexually active young woman of marriageable age getting pregnant would hardly seem to be an item worthy of note in the ancient world; they were pretty clear on how pregnancy came about. It would definitely not be an item worthy of special attention as an aspect of prophecy. If however, the pregnant young woman were a virgin, then it would be an item worthy of a line or two of prophecy; it would be a sign recognizable to all that the prophet’s other words were true.
In the Jewish milieu of the second century B.C., sexual morays were far stricter than they were in the broader Mediterranean basin at the same time. In other words, an ʽalmah in the Greek-speaking world was far less likely to be a virgin than was a Jew in Palestine. The original translators of the Septuagint, recognizing the differences between these cultural contexts opted to make sure that those who read Isaiah’s prophecies in Greek understood the same thing as those who read it in the original Hebrew. They opted for the connotation of the word ʽalmah as “virgin” over the denotation of the word as “young woman.”
In other words, the Septuagint translators of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Bible used by most of the world’s Jews at the time Jesus lived and by the early Church that spread the message of Him as God’s Messiah and Son, got it right. The prophet Isaiah did in fact predict that a virgin would conceive and bear a son. Of course, people still can (and do!) claim that the early Church made up the story that Jesus fulfilled that prophecy, but they cannot realistically do so supposing that the early Church did not understand the true nature of Isaiah’s prophecy.
A bigger question for us as modern people reading the Bible is, “Should we level such accusations at our forebears in the faith?” Should we accuse our spiritual forebears of such spiritual ignorance, naiveté, invention, and even duplicity? They had great swaths of both the Old and New Testament Scriptures committed to memory, all without the help of the modern chapter and verse system we take for granted. They were much closer to the original Biblical languages than modern scholars and knew them not as dead languages learned by rote from books based on the best guesses of scholars, but as living realities experienced in their day-to-day lives; they knew both the denotation and connotation of their words by intimate and long familiarity. Furthermore, if we can trust Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, it was an expectation of the early Christians that Jesus would be returning for the final judgment any day—in fact, perhaps remembering Jesus’ words that some who heard His preaching would not taste death until they saw the kingdom of God, they were even concerned that some had died before this second coming and perhaps were now lost eternally because of that. Are people whose worldviews are captivated by the anticipation of imminent and irreversible final judgment likely to take liberties with facts about the very Person they expect to be doing that judging?
On the other hand, modern people, raised in a cultural context whose highest value is self-esteem, who cannot imagine that any transgression is severe enough to merit a judgment eternal in scope, and who perhaps imagine that God is as pleased with them as they are with themselves, how likely is it that they might they be sloppy with the facts? How motivated might they be to do so if they need to justify themselves or a loved one by significantly changing the teaching of the historic Christianity regarding who God is or what is required of us as Christian disciples?
Jesus was born of a virgin, not because early Christians needed to “prove” to a mostly Gentile audience that Jesus fulfilled the words of ancient Jewish Messianic prophecy—the Gentile Luke undoubtedly discovered the correlation between the stories of Jesus’ virgin birth and the prophecies of Isaiah as part of his historical research. Jesus was born of a virgin, not because early Christians needed to compete with fallacious, ahistorical Greek demigods for converts—the early Church didn’t suffer from Venus envy. Jesus was born of a virgin because He was born of a virgin; it was a simple fact of His life. The import of that reality needed to be discovered by the early Church after Jesus’ resurrection just as did so much else about Jesus’ life.
So we can, with confidence, proclaim with the rest of the Church throughout history, that Jesus “was born of the Virgin Mary” just as He “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried,” and “on the third day He rose again.”
Praise to You, O Christ!
 Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.