Continued from Chapter 18g

Why does the Septuagint use parthenos?

The Hebrew phrase ha-‘almah harah ve-yoledet ben literally rendered is “the ‘almah pregnant and shall bear a son.” Wanting to indicate that the ‘almah, “young woman,” was still a betulah, “virgin,” at the time of the annunciation of the prophecy, the translator into Greek must have decided to render the term ‘almah as parthenos.

The complete verse rendered from the Masoretic text reads: “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: behold, the young woman shall conceive [literally “she is pregnant”], and shall bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel.”10 The Septuagint’s use of parthenos is legitimate exegesis when properly applied to indicate that the young woman was a virgin at the time of prophecy but not at conception. Virgin conception is not indicated by the text. For Matthew the Septuagint’s translation of ha-‘almah, “the young woman,” as parthenos, “virgin,” proved fortunate. Parthenos in Matthew 1:23 refers to a virgin, and is used to indicate a virgin conceiving and remaining in that state after conception: “and [Joseph] kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a son,” but no mention is made of being a virgin following the birth.

This is inconsistent not only with the Hebrew ‘almah, but with the Septuagint’s use of parthenos in Isaiah 7:14. Matthew uses parthenos in a manner that conforms to the pagan divine birth-myth motif and shows a disregard for the Septuagint’s reasoning in rendering ‘almah as parthenos.

It is clear:

  • That Isaiah’s words, in Hebrew, say nothing of a virgin-birth.
  • That the notion of parthenogenesis did not exist in Israelite thought.
  • That the sign was relevant to the situation of which the prophet spoke and was meant to vindicate the prophet’s message.
  • That Isaiah was definitely speaking of a child soon to be born.

10 The Masoretic text of lsaiah 7:14 contains the word ve-qar’at, rendered “and she shall call.” This word has the consonants qr’t which would normally represent a second person singular form of the verb “to call.” On this basis, the Septuagint derives the reading “you [second person feminine singular] shall call.” Actually, the Masoretic Hebrew text preserves here an old third person feminine form “she shall call.” The Book of Isaiah, published by the Hebrew University, contains notes on the textual evidence concerning tense variations of this verb found among certain Septuagint and Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts. On page 26 of this work the first apparatus shows that the manuscripts of the Septuagint are not always in agreement, using here the second or third person. The running commentary on the bottom of the page (the left side in English, the right side in Hebrew) shows that some manuscripts of the Septuagint have here the second person singular future indicative active; others have the second person plural future indicative active; yet others have here the third person singular future indicative passive; still others have here the third person plural future indicative active. The same running commentary gives the information that the readings of the Septuagint almost equal the readings of the Vulgate, Targum, and Peshitta. The second apparatus shows that the complete Isaiah scroll from the Dead Sea Scroll collection has here ve-qar’a, which is “and he shall call,” “and one shall call” (The Book of Isaiah, ed. Moshe H. Goshen-Gottstein, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1975, 26. See also Millar Burrows, The Dead Sea Scrolls of St. Mark’s Monastery, vol. I, “The Isaiah Manuscript and the Habakkuk Commentary,” New Haven: The American Schools of Oriental Research, 1950, Plate VI.).

© Gerald Sigal