Saturday 26 January 2013

The Virginal Conception - Is Mark Goodacre right to criticise Francesca Stavrakopoulou? (Part 1)

I'm a great fan of Professor Mark Goodacre despite him asking me not to comment any more on his blog anonymously. He always seems to me to try to exercise reasonableness (except for that one occasion) and keep his cool despite the madness and unpleasantness of people toward him.

Recently he entered into the fray of a minor storm set off by a radio interview given just before Christmas by Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou on BBC Radio Five Live, and did one of his podcasts on it. I find myself, whilst conceding that Goodacre is probably right overall in his thesis, feeling he has been rather unfair in his analysis of Stavrakopoulou. So I thought I'd do a series of posts on where I think Goodacre has overstated his case, even though he's probably right in the end. I suggest you listen to Goodacre's podcast (something that is always well worth doing) before reading on.

I'm going to skip over is comment about Richard Dawkins' "fairly ill-informed passage" in The God Delusion, but I might return to this for a future post.

How should we translate עַלְמָה in Isaiah 7:14?
Goodacre states that עַלְמָה can mean "maiden, virgin, young woman, something like that..." (podcast 5:05) and goes on to expand on the old English word "maiden" (I presume attributing this to עַלְמָה  but it's just possible he means παρθένος) which can have "connotations" of virginity. One gets the impression that Goodacre would be satisfied with a translation of "maiden" for עַלְמָה and consequently a connotation of virginity, even if this was not its main meaning.

Is this fair?

Well the first thing to say is a concession. עַלְמָה is also translated by παρθένος in the LXX of Gen 24:43, and I don't think anyone would contest that παρθένος does indeed have strong connotations of virginity; indeed I would suggest that "virgin" is a very reasonable translation of παρθένος almost everywhere it is used.

So does that settle it? Well of course it doesn't. Everywhere else in the Hebrew bible that עַלְמָה appears it is translated not by παρθένος but by νεᾶνις (Exod 2:8; Cant 1:3; 6:8) or νεότης (Prov 30:19). This should be enough to warrant examination of why the LXX of Gen 24:43 and Isa 7:14 render it παρθένος.

This examination is rather easier for Gen 24:43 than Isa 7:14. Here the woman concerned is Rebekah who would become Isaac's wife. Rebekah has quite an introduction to the reader; in particular she is described in these terms just before (Gen 24:16):

 וְהַֽנַּעֲרָ֗ טֹבַ֤ת מַרְאֶה֙ מְאֹ֔ד בְּתוּלָ֕ה וְאִ֖ישׁ לֹ֣א יְדָעָ֑הּ
And the young woman was of greatly beautiful appearance, a virgin, and no man had known her

Note the use of בְּתוּלָה "a virgin" in this description.This passage is considered to be non-priestly (Wellhausen would have said a mixture of J and E), and so this level of descriptive detail is quite characteristic for the author(s). The LXX translators loved the virginity aspect of Rebekah; if the Hebrew text went slightly overboard with her virginity already, note how (rather bizarrely) the LXX translates the passage just given:

ἡ δὲ παρθένος ἦν καλὴ τῇ ὄψει σφόδρα παρθένος ἦν ἀνὴρ οὐκ ἔγνω αὐτήν
And the virgin was of exceedingly beautiful appearance, she was a virgin {again, in case you missed it}, man did not know her

Could anyone be more virginal than that?! Indeed two verses earlier the LXX translators had already announced her virginity before the Hebrew text had got round to it (Gen 24:14). She's "the virgin" in the LXX of 24:55 where, again, in the Hebrew she is simply הַנַּעֲרָ.

So it is hardly surprising that in all this context the LXX of Gen 24:43 translates עַלְמָה with  παρθένος. The translators do seem to have got rather obsessed with Rebekah's virginity. This should have no reflection on what עַלְמָה actually means.

What does עַלְמָה actually mean?
Goodacre (if you hadn't picked up on it the first time) categorically states "παρθένος" is not a mistranslation (podcast 5:51), rather he maintains it is a "perfectly good" translation. This is where he is simply wrong, and Stavrakopoulou is simply right; παρθένος is a mistranslation; a different word such as νεᾶνις should have been used, and indeed was used by the translators of the LXX in the main.

I suspect that Goodacre has unwittingly picked up on the work of evangelical fundamentalists, who have been unwavering in their striving to prove that Isa 7:14 fits exactly with Matthew's quotation of it (in its LXX form) in Matt 1:23. Unfortunately inerrantists have produced tons of nonsense about this matter and have even managed to get some of it published in respected literature.

Contrary to Goodacre, עַלְמָה does not have any nuance of virginity or even purity beyond the English equivalent of "young woman". Yes, some "young women" are virgins, and some are not; the same applies to עַלְמָה and you cannot tell anything from the term itself about the virginity or otherwise of the woman concerned.

I should explain. עַלְמָה is the feminine form of the masculine noun עֶלֶם - young man. Neither masculine nor feminine forms are used a great deal; in fact the masculine form only appears twice in the Hebrew bible, both times to describe David. On the first occasion (1Sam 17:56) David is not yet married, and so could possibly be a virgin. However the second occasion (1Sam 20:22) is significantly after his marriage to Michal (they get married in 1Sam 18:20-27). Does anyone think that David was a virgin at this time? No, of course not. In fact even the evangelical inerrantists tend to be silent about the matter rather than address it head on; I suspect they hope people won't notice the usage of this word.

It used to be thought that the root עלם had only two different meanings: to hide or to be dark. But more recently, as the Clines Dictionary of Classical Hebrew shows, there is probably a third that is in view for עֶלֶם and it's feminine equivalent עַלְמָה. He lists עלם III as meaning "be mature, be deflowered, i.e. robbed of virginity" and suggests this as a translation of its occurrence in participle form in Nahum 3:11. Thus the root of a word which Goodacre suggests carries a connotation of virginity, may actually mean the converse!

But actually I don't even need to go this far from the word as used in Isa 7:14. The very same word is used Proverbs 30:19

 וְדֶ֖רֶךְ גֶּ֣בֶר בְּעַלְמָֽה
 and [the] way of a young man with a young woman.

This is clearly a description of sexual intercourse, and precedes "the way of an adulterous woman" in the next verse. Here עַלְמָה is someone who is having sex, and far removed from a virgin.

So is παρθένος a mistranslation of עַלְמָה?
The translators of the LXX could have used the word νεᾶνις or indeed a number of other Greek words to convey accurately the meaning of עַלְמָה. Instead they chose to alter the meaning of עַלְמָה by using παρθένος. So yes, this is a mistranslation, and on this point the score is Goodacre 0, Stavrakopoulou 1.

Don't miss the next episode on Goodacre's podcast, because the scoreline doesn't remain like this. Also, I'd like to examine in a future post why the translators of the LXX chose to mistranslate here. But first I'll need to complete my critique of the podcast.

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