As we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, I want to take the opportunity to address an issue regarding the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), which gets a good deal of discussion during this time of year. I am speaking, of course, of the Emmanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, which notably contains a disputed reference to what Christians have taken to be a prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Almost everyone is now familiar with the fact that a significant variant exists between the Hebrew Bible (all extant versions are the same) and the Septuagint. In part 1, we will look at the textual data, and in part 2 we will look at the meaning of the relevant words in their contexts. So, let’s look at this variant in closer detail.
The Textual Data
Isaiah 7:14 from 1QIsª (Dead Sea Scrolls, “The Great Isaiah Scroll”)
לכן יתן יהוה הוה לכמ[ה אות ה]נה העלמה הרה וילדת בן וקרא שמו עמנואל
lkn ytn YHWH hwh lkm[h ˀwt h]nh hˤlmh hrh wyldt bn wqrˀ šmw ˤmnwˀl
“For this reason, YHWH himself will give to yo[u a sign: Lo]ok, the ˤlmh pregnant (conceiving) and giving birth! And he shall call his name Emmanuel (God with Us).”
Alternatively, the last sentence could be read: yqrˀ šmw ˤmnwˀl “His name shall be called Emmanuel.”
Isaiah 7:14 from Codex Leningradensis (Masoretic Text)
לכן יתן אדני הוא לכם אות הנה העלמה הרה וילדת בן וקראת שמו עמנו אל
lāḵēn yittēn ˀǝḏōnāy hūˀ lāḵem ˀōṯ hinnēh hāˤalmāh hārāh wǝyōleḏeṯ bēn wǝqārā(ˀ)ṯ šǝmō ˤimmānū ˀēl
“For this reason, the Lord himself will give you a sign: Look, the ˤalmāh pregnant (conceiving) and giving birth! And she shall call his name Emmanuel (God with Us).”
Isaiah 7:14 from the Septuagint (or Old Greek)
διὰ τοῦτο δώσει κύριος αὐτὸς ὑμῖν σημεῖον· ἰδοῦ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Εμμανουηλ·
“For this reason, the Lord himself will give you a sign: Look, the virgin will conceive (lit. “will have in the womb”) and will give birth to a son, and you shall call his name Emmanuel.
Isaiah 7:14 from the Syriac Peshitta (Leiden ed.)
mṭl hnˀ ntl lkwn mryˀ ˀlhˀ ˀtˀ. hˀ bṭwlṭˀ bṭnˀ wyldˀ brˀ. wntqrˀ šmh ˤmnwˀyl
“For this reason, the Lord God will give you a sign: Look, a virgin is becoming pregnant and giving birth to a son, and his name will be called Emmanuel.”
These texts represent the gamut of the biblical textual tradition for this verse. The first text, from the Great Isaiah Scroll found at the first cave at Qumran, exhibits what we may call a proto-Masoretic text, in that it aligns with what becomes the Masoretic textual tradition. The variants between it and the Masoretic Text (MT) are minor, for example, the use of the divine name YHWH in 1QIsª, where the MT has ˀǝḏōnāy “Lord.” The other significant variant between the MT and 1QIsª concerns the gender of the verb qārāˀ “to call.” The MT has an active verb in the 3rd person feminine “she shall call,” whereas 1QIsª has a verb with 3rd person masculine. The voice of the verb in 1QIsª could be read in the active voice with a conjunction, “And he shall call…” or, by reading the waw as a yod, it could be a 3rd masculine singular niphal verb in the middle voice “it (the name) shall be called.” The Septuagint (LXX) read the ambiguous consonantal text קראת as a masculine 2nd person rather than a feminine 3rd person.
It is worth noting that the Hebrew, both the MT and 1QIsª, contain participles for “conceive” and “give birth.” This strikes me as odd for the normal stylistic tendencies of Isaiah. The participles function as adjectives, giving the “sign” a more immediate affect. In other words, it does not function as a prophecy of the future, i.e. “this will happen in the future,” but “The sign is this: A pregnant ˤalmāh giving birth!” The sign could occur at any time, immediately or far in the future.
The most significant variant in this text regards the Hebrew term ˤalmāh, which has often been translated in secular scholarship as “young woman.” As it was noticed throughout history that this is not the Hebrew word for “virgin,” which is בתולה bǝtūlāh, though the LXX does contain the explicit word for “virgin,” παρθένος, Christians began to claim that the Jews intentionally changed their Scriptures at this verse in order to obfuscate Christian interpretation of it.
Is this true? Do we have any evidence of this? No, in fact we do not, and the evidence we do have disproves it conclusively.
We must note the very important fact that the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscript 1QIsª quoted above dates anywhere from the 4th to the 2nd centuries BC. So, a text of Isaiah featuring the term ˤalmāh was copied at least a century or more before Jesus was ever born. Did you get that? The Hebrew textual tradition provides conclusive evidence of this reading more than 100 years before the birth of Christ. Therefore, whatever this word means, its presence in Isaiah 7:14 predates Christianity by more than a century.
What to take Away
- Allow me to speak very frankly and pointedly: The textual evidence is very clear. The Hebrew tradition of Isaiah 7:14 contained the word ˤalmāh more than a century before the time of Christ. Therefore, if you claim that Jews intentionally altered their Bible in order to thwart Christian use of this verse, you are engaging in falsehood. Let me state that again. If you say that Jews deliberately changed their Bibles to read ˤalmāh, you are not speaking the truth, because the evidence conclusively proves the opposite. Orthodox Christians, please hear me: Stop saying this! You are spreading falsehood and leading people astray. Stop doing it. The fathers and saints who did claim this to be the case were unaware of the evidence that we have today, therefore what they said, they said in ignorance. We cannot use their ignorance as an excuse to spread falsehood.
- Furthermore, let it be clear that if anyone seeks to speak authoritatively about this issue or seek to teach or instruct others regarding the Hebrew text of this verse, but such a person is incapable of reading Hebrew or controlling the Hebrew evidence, he or she is speaking irresponsibly and leading people astray. One cannot speak intelligently about Jews changing their Hebrew Bibles if one does not know the Hebrew evidence. If anyone is ignorant of the Hebrew evidence, one must avail oneself of experts in the field before speaking about it. I am shocked that this kind of idiocy takes place, but unfortunately, it is all to common in our Church. This is a matter of responsibility and intellectual integrity, therefore it is incumbent on us as “Orthodox” Christians to to do whatever we must to speak and teach with the greatest amount of knowledge.
- We must stop propagating ideas about the Bible that are not based upon sound textual and historical evidence. It seems to be all too common in contemporary Orthodox Christianity to do such a thing without any investigation or research. We just repeat what we’ve heard as if it were Gospel truth. It is frightening that such errors are becoming systemic and self-propagating within contemporary Orthodoxy.
In part 2, we will look at the context of the usage of ˤalmāh in the Hebrew Bible and cognate literature in order to attempt to ascertain its meaning.