The Ancient Versions on Isaiah 7.14
Posted by John Meade on May 16, 2009
Fewer texts in the OT have been more important to the Christian church than Isaiah 7:14. Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho is a great example of the controversy between Jews and Christians over this crucial text. However, Justin and Trypho argue on the basis of Greek versions alone, and the controversy never descends to the meaning of the Hebrew Bible. The Versions listed below are translations from the Hebrew text, and I offer some commentary on each one.
Isaiah 7:14 in the Versions of the OT
The Aramaic Targum represents a clear Jewish reading of the verse: בְכֵין יִתֵין יוי הוּא לְכוֹן אָתָא הָא עוּלֵימְתָא מְעַדְיָא וּתלִיד בַר וְתִקרֵי שְמֵיה עִמָנוּ אֵל׃. Although the Targum contains a cognate of the Hebrew lemma, according to the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon (CAL), עוּלֵימְתָא means “girl” with no reference to the chaste or unchaste state of the girl. The Jews of the second century AD did not interpret this text as a virgin birth as the Dialogue with Trypho demonstrates. Therefore, the Targum probably should be read in a naturalistic way, the young woman will conceive and give birth to a son [in the natural way].
The Syriac Peshitta of Isaiah 7:14 reads as follows: ܡܛܠ ܗܢܐ ܢܬܠ ܠܟܘܢ ܡܪܝܐ ܐܠܗܐ ܐܬܐ܂ ܗܐ ܒܬܘܠܬܐ ܒܿܛܢܬ ܘܝܿܠܕܐ ܒܪܐ܂ ܘܢܬܩܪܐ ܫܡܗ ܥܡܢܘܐܝܠ܂. Syriac ܒܬܘܠܬܐ certainly means “chaste girl” or “virgin,” and this translation may infer that Christians translated Isaiah, though we cannot be certain of this conclusion. Although we do not know whether Christians or Jews translated the OT Peshitta, this version still testifies to another reading of virgin over young woman.
Jerome’s Vulgate has as follows: propter hoc dabit Dominus ipse vobis signum ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium et vocabitis nomen eius Emmanuhel. Jerome represents the conclusion to the debate, since his version was completed by 405 AD. He also brought a new dimension to the debate, since he was the only Christian to argue from the Hebrew text, who concluded that the Hebrew העלמה should be read as virgo, if even in a periphrastic way. Jerome actually believed that the Hebrew העלמה meant abscondita “hidden.” Therefore the girl in Isaiah 7:14 was more than a virgin. She was a cloistered girl, which necessitates virginity.
The LXX has διὰ τοῦτο δώσει κύριος αὐτὸς ὑμῖν σημεῖον ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Εμμανουηλ. Its reading is found in Matthew 1:21 and it has become the proof text of the virgin birth of Christ for the church.
Justin debated the readings of Aquila and Theodotion, two of the Three Jewish revisers of the LXX in the first and second centuries. These two translated the text as follows: ἰδοὺ ἡ νεᾶνις ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν. They clearly remove the idea of chaste woman from the text. Of course a young woman might incidentally be a virgin, but ἡ νεᾶνις renders the Hebrew העלמה and implies that the conception and the birth of the son will happen in the natural way.
There is one Hebrew text that underlies these readings. Of course the NT decides which way Christians are to go, but it is interesting to note that early Christians did not argue presuppositionally over this verse, when they conversed with Jews. Christians attempted a variety of exegetical and philological arguments to prove that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, just as the OT said the Messiah would be. The one in particular I appreciate is Justin Martyr’s argument from the Greek word σημειον in Dial. 84. In essence he argues that it would not be a divine sign if the woman would give birth in the natural way. The sign is precisely that because the Messiah would be born in a supernatural way by a virgin. Although Justin did not argue on the basis of the Hebrew text, he still made a compelling argument for the faith based on the Septuagint.