Thursday, December 20, 2012

NT Pod 64: Is the Virgin Birth based on a Mistranslation?

NT Pod 64 asks "Is the Virgin Birth based on a Mistranslation?" It is about twelve minutes long.

NT Pod 64: Is the Virgin Birth based on a Mistranslation? (mp3)

Key texts: Matthew 1.18-25, Isaiah 7.14, Matthew 2.23.

The brief clip of Francesca Stavrakopolou is from BBC Radio 5 live, 5 Live Breakfast, 20 December 2012.

Feel free to leave your feedback below or on Twitter or on our Facebook page.

Thanks to Ram2000, Me and You, for the opening theme, released under a Creative Commons agreement.


  1. That was very enlightening thank you Mark. You should think about being a radio dj on the side.

  2. Wow, what a voice. Good content, too!

  3. Thanks Mark - begs the question whether scholars should agree to offer two minutes radio soundbites.

    By the way you might want to trim the last few seconds of your podcast!

  4. Thanks. It's a tough medium, agreed.

    That's my little blooper. Thought you might enjoy?

  5. This was really helpful. Thank you.

  6. Does Francesca really think the mistranslation is the original source of the doctrine? Or do you think she was abbreviating to the point of inaccuracy?

    I think it very generous of you to say that Matthew isn't mistranslating though. Sure the gloss is technically valid, but Matthew is basing his whole argument on one particular nuance that probably isn't warranted by the passage he's quoting. Combined with the fact that there's one other undisputed mistranslation in the same sentence, and I'm content to call it a mistranslation, at the very least a tendentious translation.

    Do you have any patience for tracing other hints at Jesus's illegitimacy in the gospels (e.g. Mk 6:3, Jn 8:41) as possible independent traditions of his dubious family status?

    1. I would argue that the Septuagint canon actually PRE-dates the Masoretic standardization long enough to be in contention with much of the Hebrew/Aramaic for originality. The Jewish community of Alexandria was as old as the one in Babylon. The Septuagint use of "parthenos" may be a bit of poetic license oriented to a Greek-speaking audience. I know that the rabbis claim such an ancient lineage for the Prophetic texts. Most Jews and Christians would love to believe that the Hebrew came before the Greek. Hebrew scripture was memorized and recited as part of an ORAL and AURAL tradition. Parenthetically I note Islam's "Holy Q'ran" is also venerated as a recitation from memory of the Prophet's words. This was standard for pastoral peoples in the Middle East, even after they settled in one place. Rabbinic Judaism still yet places highest authority on what they call "the oral law" (Torah sheh'b'al-peh). But Greek (Hellenistic) civilization was literate earlier than Hebraic. We already have standard editions of Homer before any official published Hebrew sacred canon. I go out on a limb and openly challenge the "Hebrew primacy" of "Old Testament" literature. We already the exclusively Greek apocryphal texts such as the Maccabeean narratives, Judith, Tobit, Wisdom and so forth. I argue that the Septuagint may in fact be at least as "original" or more than the Hebrew text and Aramaic Targums. Is that heresy from the bleachers ?

    2. By the way: I had always assumed that the circumstance of "Virgin birth" of the Christ was a central core principle of Christianity. Since it validates Divinity and "born without sin", it would be especially central to the doctrine and theology of both Roman Catholicism and the Eastern Rite(s) as well. But the virgin birth is only reported in Matthew and Luke. NOT in Mark (generally thought to be the oldest and a source for the other Synoptics). NOT in "Acts of the Apostles". Not in the very elegant and philosophical styling of John. And, most disturbingly, NOWHERE in any of Paul's letters. "Pauline Christianity" seems to omit any mention of the virgin birth. Does the virgin birth doctrine appear in Revelations, Peter, Jude, etc ? Surely Paul might have at least mentioned it ? Unless it might be a stylistic literary detail worked into the narrative at a much, much later date. There's nothing especially Jewish about the theme of virgin birth. I can't recall it anywhere else in Jewish literature (leaving out Isaiah's use of "almah"). However, Greco-Roman literary traditions are crammed with instances of divine impregnation and cohabitation between the gods and humans. Perhaps the virgin birth detail was reverse-engineered into the narrative by later editors/compilers of "Matthew" and "Luke" in order to widen it's literary and poetic appeal to Greek and Roman audiences - rather than over-interpreting a passage in Isaiah ?

  7. Mark, thanks for this. I appreciate you highlighting Matthew's "God with us" theme. While Matthew places this theme as bookends in 1:23 and 28:20 he includes it as well in Matt 18:20, where two or more gather in Jesus' name he is "with them". -- Tony Costa

  8. Ian (and Mark):

    1. I think parthenos for alma is a mistranslation, and exactly the kind of mistranslation that we find throughout the LXX.

    2. I think that Matthew almost certainly knew that it was a mistranslation.

    3. The interesting thing is that Matthew didn't care. I don't think that he was "basing his whole argument on one particular nuance." Rather, he wasn't making an argument at all. He was writing religious text. And one common way of doing so back then was to use a matching text.

    The technical term for this kind of matching text is "proof text," a phrase that has the unfortunate quality that it seems to suggest proof in the modern sense. But there was no proof involved. In this case, the matching between the virgin birth and the LXX mistranslation was enough.

    I have much more about proof texts and other NT citations of OT "prophecies" here: "What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?."


  9. I'm aware that you don't like anonymous comments on your blog (although there are a number above), but I thought it only common courtesy to let you know I've started a series of posts on my new blog about this podcast. If you're interested they can be found here: first part, second part, third part.


  11. No one today should believe that virgins can magically have babies, that humans can walk on water, or that dead men can walk out of their graves to eat broiled fish sandwiches with their former fishing buddies. The whole Christian story is superstitious nonsense.

    If there is a Creator, he/she/it gave us a brain. Let's use it! Trust in reason and science, not in the tall tales of ancient holy books.

  12. I know I'm late to the party, but what is not clear to me, either as to "what was the case" or as to what you, Dr. Goodacre, are contending, is whether the "existing" tradition Matthew may have been working from was a more general tradition of an irregular, out of wedlock, conception, or the more particular tradition of a virgin birth? And if the latter, why?
    I gather that there is material elsewhere about Jesus' having an irregular conception, as referred to in the podcast, but am I missing other "external" tradition about a specifically virgin birth?
    If we avoid the term "mistranslation" as a slur on Matthew's erudition what about Ian's 2012 reference to a tendentious translation? Or what I might call a tendentious "usage" of either/both terms? Both the Hebrew and Greek terms are in some sense "ambiguous" as to the prior chastity of the young woman, Whether he was proceeding from either term, did Matthew (and/or Luke) "willfully" seize upon the virginal interpretation of the Isaiah verb to put the seal of divinity upon Jesus (and incidentally "rescue" Mary's reputation setting the stage for, and tone of, millenia of Marian devotion)?
    If the doctrine virgin birth isn't based on a mistranslation (which might be based on an innocent mis-reading), and can't be traced to other earlier traditions (Mark and Paul) does that mean that it was based on a conscious, intentional act on the part of the Evangelist(s) to sieze upon an Old Testament precedent to sanitize or elevate Jesus' "provenance"?