Thursday, December 22, 2011

M- Was Not Nessarily a Virgin?


Starting about 2,300 years ago, the Hebrew Bible was translated into a Greek version now known as the Septuagint. One shortcoming of that translation is its inattention to near synonyms. For instance, the Hebrew words for "love," "mercy" and "compassion" are frequently mixed up, because they mean nearly the same thing. Likewise, because most young women in antiquity were virgins and most virgins were young women, the Septuagint wasn't careful to distinguish the words for "virgin" and "young woman" in translation.

This is how the Hebrew in Isaiah 7:14 -- which describes a young woman giving birth to a boy who will be named Emmanuel -- ended up in Greek as a virgin giving birth. Though these facts about Greek and Hebrew are generally undisputed among scholars, the translation error remains, both because people are usually unwilling to give up familiar translations, and also perhaps because the Gospel of Matthew describes the virgin birth of Jesus by quoting the mistaken Greek translation of Isaiah 7:14.

Metaphors are particularly difficult to translate, because words have different metaphoric meanings in different cultures. Shepherds in the Bible were symbols of might, ferocity and royalty, whereas now they generally represent peaceful guidance and oversight. So the image of the Lord as shepherd in Psalm 23 originally meant that the Lord was mighty, fierce and royal. The impact was roughly the same as "the Lord is a man of war." But in most English-speaking cultures, "the Lord is my shepherd" conveys a wholly different, and therefore inaccurate, image.

Similarly, kinship terms like "father," "brother," "sister," etc. were used in the Bible specifically to indicate power structure. This is why the romantic Song of Solomon -- the Bible's only full length treatise on relationships -- says "my sister, my bride" or "my sister, my spouse." On its face, that English translation is not only unromantic but in fact felonious. The original point, however, was that the woman in this relationship should be the man's equal.

No comments: