"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21

Q & A: A Christian Defends Matthew by Insisting That the Author of the First Gospel Used the Septuagint in His Quote of Isaiah to Support the Virgin Birth

June 23, 2011

in Christian New Testament,Christianity:,False Prophecies in the Christian New Testament,Idolatry,Jesus,Judaism vs. Christianity,Judaism:,Misquotes and Mistranslations in the Christian New Testament,Original Sin,Questions and Answers,Rabbi Tovia Singer,Roman Catholicism,Virgin Birth


Question: 

Rav Singer, Why did you say Christians mistranslate the scripture by saying “almah”doesn’t mean “virgin,” when their translation of virgin comes from the Septuagint’s “parthenos,” not the Hebrew “almah”?  “Parthenos” does mean “virgin.”

They didn’t mistranslate but used a different text.  This is pretty well known, did you not know?  I don’t think this is a very good thing to have on your page.

Answer:

Your inquiry will undoubtedly make an enormous contribution to our website because contained within your question are some of the most commonly held misconceptions regarding Matthew’s rendering the Hebrew word alma as virgin in Matthew 1:23.  Placing your question on our website will therefore benefit countless others who are confused by the same mistaken presuppositions imbedded in your question.

Your assertion that Matthew quoted from the Septuagint is the most repeated argument missionaries use in their attempt to explain away Matthew’s stunning mistranslation of the Hebrew word alma.  This well-worn response, however, raises far more problems than it answers.

To begin with, your contention that “parthenos does mean virgin” is incorrect.  The Greek word parthenos can mean either a young woman or a virgin; for this reason the Greek word parthenos can be found in the Septuagint referring to someone who is not a virgin.  For example, in Genesis 34:2-4, Shechem raped Dinah, the daughter of the patriarch Jacob, yet the Septuagint refers to her as a parthenos after she had been defiled.  The Bible reports that after Shechem had violated her, “his heart desired Dinah, and he loved the damsel (LXX:parthenos) and he spoke tenderly to the damsel (LXX: parthenos).”  Clearly, Dinah was not a virgin after having been raped, and yet she was referred to as a parthenos, the very same word the Septuagint used to translate the Hebrew word alma in Isaiah 7:14.

Moreover, the Septuagint in our hands is not a Jewish document, but rather a Christian one.  The original Septuagint, created 2,200 years ago by 72 Jewish translators, was a Greek translation of the Five Books of Moses alone.  It therefore did not contain prophetic Books of the Bible such as Isaiah, which you asserted that Matthew quoted from.  The Septuagint as we have it today, which includes the Prophets and Writings as well, is a product of the church, not the Jewish people.  In fact, the Septuagint remains the official Old Testament of the Greek Orthodox Church, and the manuscripts that consist of our Septuagint today date to the third century C.E.  The fact that additional books known as the Apocrypha, which are uniquely sacred to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church, are found in the Septuagint should raise a red flag to those inquiring into the Jewishness of the Septuagint.

Christians such as Origin and Lucian (third and fourth century C.E.) had an enormous impact on creating and shaping the Septuagint that missionaries use to advance their untenable arguments against Judaism.  In essence, the present Septuagint is largely a post-second century Christian translation of the Bible, used zealously by the church throughout the centuries as an indispensable apologetic instrument to defend and sustain Christological alterations of the Jewish scriptures.

The fact that the original Septuagint translated by rabbis more than 22 centuries ago was only of the Pentateuch and not of prophetic books of the Bible such as Isaiah is confirmed by countless sources including the ancient Letter of Aristeas, which is the earliest attestation to the existence of theSeptuagint.  The Talmud also states this explicitly in Tractate Megillah (9a), and Josephus as well affirms that the Septuagint was a translation only of the Law of Moses in his preface to Antiquities of the Jews.1 Moreover, Jerome, a church father and Bible translator who could hardly be construed as friendly to Judaism, affirms Josephus’ statement regarding the authorship of the Septuagint in his preface to The Book of Hebrew Questions.2 Likewise, the Anchor Bible Dictionary reports precisely this point in the opening sentence of its article on the Septuagint which states, “The word ‘Septuagint,’ (from Latseptuaginta = 70; hence the abbreviation LXX) derives from a story that 72 elders translated the Pentateuch into Greek; the term therefore applied originally only to those five books.”3

In fact, Dr.  F.F.  Bruce, the preeminent professor of Biblical exegesis, keenly points out that, strictly speaking, the Septuagint deals only with the Pentateuch and not the whole Old Testament.  Bruce writes, “The Jews might have gone on at a later time to authorize a standard text of the rest of the Septuagint, but . . . lost interest in the Septuagint altogether.  With but few exceptions, every manuscript of the Septuagint which has come down to our day was copied and preserved in Christian, not Jewish, circles.”4

Regarding your assertion that Matthew was quoting from the Septuagint, nowhere in the Book of Matthew does the word Septuagint appear, or, for that matter, is there any reference to a Greek translation of the Bible ever mentioned in all of the New Testament; and there is good reason for this.  The first century church was well aware that a Jewish audience would be thoroughly unimpressed by a claim that Jesus’ virgin birth could only be supported by a Greek translation of the Bible.  They understood that if Jews were to find their Christian message convincing, they would need to assert that it was the actual words of the prophet Isaiah that clearly foretold Mary’s virgin conception, not from the words of a Greek translation.  Therefore, in Matthew 1:22-23, the author of the first Gospel insists that it was “spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child . . . .’ ”   Matthew loudly makes the point that it was specifically the prophet’s own words that proclaimed the virgin birth, not the words of any translator.

Isaiah, of course, did not preach or write in Greek, and therefore the word parthenos never left the lips of the prophet throughout his life.  All 66 chapters of the Book of Isaiah were spoken and then recorded in the Hebrew language alone.  Matthew, however, was attempting to place in the mind of his intended Jewish reader that it was the words of prophet Isaiah himself which declared that the messiah would be born of a virgin.  Nothing of course could be further from the truth.

Furthermore, this contention becomes even more preposterous when we consider that the same missionaries who attempt to explain away Matthew’s mistranslation of the Hebrew word alma by claiming that Matthew used aSeptuagint when he quoted Isaiah 7:14 also steadfastly maintain that the entire first Gospel was divinely inspired.  That is to say, these same Christian missionaries insist that every word of the New Testament, Matthew included, was authored through the Holy Spirit and is therefore the living word of God.  Are these evangelical apologists therefore claiming that God needed a Greek translation of the Bible and therefore quoted from the Septuagint?  Did the passing of 500 years since His last book cause God to forget how to read Hebrew that He would need to rely on a translation?  Why would God need to quote from the Septuagint?

Matthew’s mistranslation of the Hebrew word alma was deliberate, not the result of his unwitting decision to quote from a defective Greek translation of the Bible.  This is evidenced by the fact that the context of Isaiah 7:14 is not speaking of the birth of a messiah at all.5 This fact remains obvious even to the most casual reader of the seventh chapter of Isaiah.

For Matthew, the prophet’s original intent regarding the young woman in Isaiah 7:14 was entirely superseded by his fervid desire to somehow prove to the Jewish people that the virgin birth was prophesied in the Hebrew scriptures.  Bear in mind that the author of the first Gospel — more than any other writer in the New Testament — shaped and contoured his treatise with the deliberate purpose of promoting Christianity among the Jews.  In essence, Matthew was writing with a Jewish audience in mind.  He understood that in order to convince the Jewish people to embrace Jesus as the messiah, it was essential to demonstrate his claim of the virgin birth from the Jewish scriptures.  Luke, in contrast, was writing for a non-Jewish, Greek audience and therefore makes no attempt to support his version of the virgin birth from the Hebrew Bible.

In his attempt to promote numerous Christian creeds among the Jews, Matthew was faced with a serious quandary.  How would he prove that Jesus was the messiah from the Jewish scriptures when there is no relationship between the Jesus of Nazareth of the New Testament and the messianic prophecies of the Jewish scriptures?  How was he going to merge newly inculcated pagan myths, such as the virgin birth, into Christianity with a Hebrew Bible in which a belief in a virgin birth was unknown?

In order to accomplish this daunting task, verses in the Hebrew scriptures were altered, misquoted, taken out of context, and mistranslated by the author of the Book of Matthew in order to make Jesus’ life fit traditional Jewish messianic parameters, and to make traditional Jewish messianic parameters fit the life of Jesus.  In essence, he had to claim that it was the Hebrew prophets themselves who foretold that Jesus was the messiah.  It is therefore no coincidence that no other writer in the New Testament misuses the Jewish scriptures with abandon to the extent that Matthew does throughout his Gospel.

The irony of all this Bible manipulation is that the first Gospel was written for the sole purpose of convincing a Jewish audience that Jesus was the promised messiah.  Yet, if the Book of Matthew had never been written, the church would almost certainly have been more effective in its effort at evangelizing the Jews.  In essence, had promoters of Christianity avoided the kind of scripture tampering that can be found in virtually every chapter in the Book of Matthew, the church might have enjoyed far more success among the Jews as did previous religions that targeted the Jewish people for conversion.

For example, the priests of Baal did not attempt to bolster the validity of their idol worship by misquoting the texts of the Hebrew Bible, as Matthew did.  Yet, the Bible reports that Baal gained enormous popularity among the Jewish people.  In contrast, once the nation of Israel was confronted with a corruption of their sacred scriptures by authors and apologists of the New Testament, their apostasy to Christianity for the most part became unpalatable and the Jewish people throughout history remained the most difficult nation for the church to convert.  Consequently, whereas the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John enjoyed overwhelming success among their targeted gentile audiences, the Gospel of Matthew played an enormous role in the ultimate failure of the church to effectively convert the Jews to Christianity, at least the knowledgeable ones.

Best wishes for a happy Purim.

Sincerely yours,

Rabbi Tovia Singer
Footnotes:

Click on the footnote to return to the article

1Josephus, preface to Antiquities of the Jews, section 3.  For Josephus’ detailed description of events surrounding the original authorship of the Septuagint, see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XII, ii, 1-4.

2 St.  Jerome, preface to The Book of Hebrew Questions, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 6.  Pg.  487.  Hendrickson.

3The Anchor Bible Dictionary.  Excerpt from “Septuagint,” New York: Vol.  5, pg.  1093.

4 F.F.  Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, p.150.

5 The seventh chapter of the Book of Isaiah begins by describing the military crisis that was confronting King Ahaz of the Kingdom Judah.  In about the year 732 B.C.E. the House of David was facing immanent destruction at the hands of two warring kingdoms: the northern Kingdom of Israel and the Syrian kingdom.  These two armies had laid siege to Jerusalem.  The Bible relates that the House of David and King Ahaz were gripped with fear.  In response these two warring armies, God sent the prophet Isaiah to reassure King Ahaz that divine protection was at hand — the Almighty would protect him, their deliverance was assured, and these two hostile armies would fail in their attempt to subjugate Jerusalem.

It is clear from this chapter that Isaiah’s declaration was a prophecy of the unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem by the two armies of the Kingdoms of Israel and Syria, not a virgin birth more than 700 years later.  If we interpret this chapter as referring to Jesus’ birth, what possible comfort and assurance would Ahaz, who was surrounded by two overwhelming military enemies, have found in the birth of a child seven centuries later?  Both he and his people would be long dead and buried.  Such a sign would make no sense.

 

 

 

Want to share or print this? Choose how below:
  • Print
  • email
  • Add to favorites
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: