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(Obviously we can not know for certain what they were thinking, but with some knowledge about ancient interpretations of this text and the translation philosophy employed by the LXX, I suspect someone around here has a better idea than I do.)

WLC

כֵן יִתֵּ֨ן אֲדֹנָ֥י ה֛וּא לָכֶ֖ם אֹ֑ות הִנֵּ֣ה הָעַלְמָ֗ה הָרָה֙ וְיֹלֶ֣דֶת בֵּ֔ן וְקָרָ֥את שְׁמֹ֖ו עִמָּ֥נוּ אֵֽל׃

LXX

διὰ τοῦτο δώσει κύριος αὐτὸς ὑμῖν σημεῖον· ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Εμμανουηλ·

My understanding is that עלמה has a semantic range that includes "virgin" but is less specific, hence the RSV "young woman." The Greek chosen by the translators of the LXX - παρθένος - however, is more specific to lack of sexual experience.1 I don't have a better Greek word (suggestions welcome), but I would expect the context would compel the translators to find a different way to express this.

I can think of a few possibilities. I am wondering which is most likely or if there are others I haven’t thought about.

1) They LXX understood their own translation as

Behold, the virgin [having forsaken her virginity] shall conceive....

where the bracketed clause is obvious and therefore assumed.

2) They were using a different Hebrew text that contained a Hebrew word whose range lines up more closely with παρθένος.

3) Τhey were intentionally adding a miraculous element of virgin conception to this prophecy.

4) The semantic ranges of these two words were other than what I summarize in the footnote below.

5) They misunderstood עלמה.

6) Something else?



1. BDAG παρθένος (italics original): “one who has never engaged in sexual intercourse, virgin, chaste person."
HALOT עלמה: “a girl who is able to be married…young woman”

2. I think the Hebrew may be ambiguous as to whether she is already pregnant. (I have asked another question about this). However, because the Greek is clearly future tense, I don’t think this precludes this understanding of the Greek.

Please note: This question does not ask how many times one believes this prophecy has or has not been fulfilled. While it may be relevant to speculate about what the LXX translators thought about the question, that is as far as I’m interested for the purposes of this question.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

A note about the flavor of the two major extant text traditions: The LXX was very Messianic in interpretation, in keeping with Jewish tendencies at the time. In contrast, after the events of the first century, Judaism became very anti-Christian to the point of altering interpretations (and even the text at times) where Christians had claimed Scriptural warrant for identifying Jesus as the Messiah.

A note about prophetic fulfillment: It seems that prophecy was always followed by an "immediate", local, partial, fulfillment, which served as an illustration (or "echo") of the ultimate, eschatological fulfillment. (This is sometimes called "double fulfillment".)

A note about prophetic language: Prophecy was always given in the established language of the original audience. Where no words yet existed to describe the predicted outcome, familiar terms were used to try to convey the basic ideas. Often (always?) the prophecy was given in the language of the "first" fulfillment, while having subtle undertones which suggested that a greater fulfillment was yet to come.

The LXX on Isaiah 7:14: The interpreters of the LXX recognized that the initial fulfillment had already taken place, and were looking forward to the ultimate fulfillment. They wanted their readers to see the subtle suggestions of the text that foretold a miraculous birth of an eschatological Messiah. Therefore, they chose a term which would point the reader's attention toward the future, rather than toward the past.

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Thank you for these insights and +1. You’re illustrating subtle points and I’m trying to simplify for my own understanding – based on the last paragraph, should I surmise that you agree with #3 above? In the first paragraph, are you indicating that #2 is also a possibility, the Hebrew having been later changed to be less messianic? (The DSS text may be helpful to figure this out.) –  Susan Aug 22 at 16:50
    
@Susan In this case I don't doubt the authenticity of the MT (2), which (as you noted) employs a term with a semantic range including both "young woman" as well as "virgin". Literary context points to "young woman" as the immediate fulfillment, but something much greater and more miraculous in the distant future. The LXX translators took this as a "virgin" birth. Since the semantic range (and nature of prophecy) allows for this it would not so much be an added meaning (3) but a sort of "ultimate meaning subtly hinted at by the text". –  Jas 3.1 Aug 22 at 17:15
1  
@Susan Any time we interpret prophecy we need to think in "doubles", which is what the LXX translators did. They just emphasized the eschatological more than the local. –  Jas 3.1 Aug 22 at 17:18

Dinah is called a parthenos in Genesis 34:3 after being raped in Genesis 34:2. Not sure what the LXX translators were thinking there either. They could have easily used the feminine adjective for "young" as a substantive, as in Titus 2:4 where "young wives/women" is translated from tas neas.

Other possible Greek words are korasion and "korē" (e.g. "The young women" in 1 Samuel 9:11 are called ta korasia.)

The translation of the LXX happened over centuries and was done by a mixed bunch of translators, some very skilled in both Hebrew and Greek, others not so much. Perhaps the person who translated Isaiah 7:14 didn't understand the range of meanings of the Hebrew word almah. I have not studied Isaiah in the LXX, but I do know that the translator, or translators, of the Torah, which includes Genesis, did a scrupulous, even overly literal and wooden, translation of the Hebrew to the Greek, so I have no explanation of why poor Dinah is called a virgin (parthenos).

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The translation of almah as virgin makes no sense in context.

First, the word almah is a vague term that means a young woman. Betulah is a more specific term for a virgin, especially one whose signs of virginity are still in tact. See Bably. Talmud Yevamot 60b ("והא אמר רבי שמעון 'בתולה' בתולה שלימה משמע" -"and Rabbi Shimon says that the word "betulah" implies a "complete virgin' [as opposed to one who lost her signs of virginity from non-sexual contact, e.g. a stick (see Yevamot 60a)]). Contemporary scholars -- other than conservative Christians -- agree that the greek word parthenos is also a vague term and does not necessarily mean virgin. Rhodes, Ron, The Complete Guide to Bible Translations, (Harvest House Publishers 2009), p. 82; Sweeney, Marvin A., Isaiah 1–39: with an introduction to prophetic literature, (Eerdmans 1996), p. 161.

Second, the context of Isaiah 7:14 is that King Ahaz is surrounded by enemy armies and has lost hope. Isaiah tells him that God will give him a sign that he will nevertheless be victorious -- some almah will give birth and name her son "Emanuel" which means "God is with us." The key to this sign is not "almah" but "Emanuel." Ahaz could never possibly find a new mother who was still a virgin as delivery would wipe out such signs. Moreover, it would be beneath the king to personally inspect the privates of every new mother to seek such proof. And, Isaiah says nothing about Ahaz finding such proof, although it appears that he did survive the situation. And if he had, would we then impute that that baby was the Messiah? We must conclude, therefore, that Isaiah 7:14 has no messianic message at all and that almah has indeed been mistranslated to create a prophetic proof where there was none intended.

Third, as noted in another answer, the Septuagint also translates Dinah as a parthanos --- the same word it uses to translate almah -- after she had been raped. Gen. 34:3.

Based on these elements, let me analyze your questions:

1) They LXX understood their own translation as "Behold, the virgin [having forsaken her virginity] shall conceive...." where the bracketed clause is obvious and therefore assumed.

I don't think they intended parthenos to be understood as "virgin."

2) They were using a different Hebrew text that contained a Hebrew word whose range lines up more closely with παρθένος.

No, the translation of parthenos is equally vague as almah and can apply to a virgin or non-virgin young woman.

3) Τhey were intentionally adding a miraculous element of virgin conception to this prophecy.

Very possible.

4) The semantic ranges of these two words were other than what I summarize in the footnote below.

I can't speak for the Greek, but the Hebrew is correct.

5) They misunderstood עלמה.

Based on the usage of parthenos concerning Dinah and Isaiah, I'd say that they were consistant

6) Something else?

Number 3 makes most sense.

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