Reading the Bible with Jesus-Glasses

Isaiah 7:14 announces that a “young woman” will give birth to a child, a promise that God will be faithful and there will be a next generation. Fair enough. Matthew 1:23 says a “virgin will give birth to a child” and while this might suggest to some readers that God remains faithful, there’s some far more significant in that one word difference. Matthew has just told us that Mary conceived without Joseph and that the child was of the Holy Spirit and this leads Matthew back to Isaiah 7:14 but why did he translate a “virgin” instead of a “young woman”?

Therein lies a far deeper story. In Warren Carter’s exceptional Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World is an introduction to the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, and that Greek translation is called The Septuagint (the accent is on “Sep” so say SEPtuagint not SepTUagint). The Septuagint is usually abbreviated as LXX (or 70, which is a distracting story since the oldest story of the translation was that it came from 72 translators, six from each tribe).

What does the use of a translation for the early Christians say to you about the Bible? 

The original story, now found in The Letter of Aristeas, of the translation was around 25o BCE, when Eleazar the high priest sent 72 translators down to Alexandria so there would be a copy of the Pentateuch in the library and there are some important Ptolemy names, like Ptolemy I and II and Demetrios, but the facts in Aristeas are a bit garbled and don’t matter in this context. The big issue is that the LXX translation happened and the story is legendary and the translation was a process with great significance for the earliest Christians.

First, Aristeas shows that the Bible could be translated into the language of the powerful in a way that showed the cultural significance of Jews, and it could at the same time show that Jews could sustain their distinctiveness. They had their Bible, which sealed their identity, but they had a respectable translation in the language of those outside Israel. So diaspora Jews had a  Bible the way each of us — English speakers, Danish speakers, German speakers, Swedish speakers, I could go on but won’t — have the Bible in our own language.

Second, the authors of the New Testament by and large used The Septuagint and not the Hebrew Bible. There are a number of elements at work here, with variety in each instance, but it shows the earliest Christians were Greek-readers and wanted to communicate the New Testament message in one of the languages of the Roman Empire.

Third, it gets interesting. The earliest Christians read the Bible messianically, or in the words of Warren Carter, with their “Jesus-glasses on.” That is, they saw Jesus in the Old Testament where others had not seen him or a Messiah. It gets even more interesting. Sometimes, as in the example above from Matthew 1:23, they saw Jesus in the Old Testament on the basis of a Greek translational preference instead of the original Hebrew. Thus, the LXX of Isa 7:14 has “virgin” and not simply “young woman.” To be sure, “young woman” could be a virgin but almost certainly was not in Isaiah. So, Matthew finds Jesus in the translation of the Hebrew into Greek.

I had a student in my office one time who made quite the deal out of “brothers and sisters” and since the Bible said “sisters” were teachers that meant anyone who denied women were teachers was denying the Bible. The issue was that “and sisters” was an explicitation of the Greek text in a more inclusive rendering and the original Greek had only “brothers.” I agreed that “brothers” was inclusive so this wasn’t so much a difference but an instance of seeing more in one’s own translation than was present in the original, which is what Matthew sees in the LXX of Isa 7:14.

Fourth, the language of the LXX became the language of Christian “theologizing” about what God did in Jesus.

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  • Wyatt Roberts

    Scot, what is your take on Luke 10 where the LXX is concerned. I’ve always understood it to be an allusion to the LXX…the gospel is analogous, the new Septuagint.

  • scotmcknight

    Wyatt, help me… not sure what you mean. 72 vs. 70?

  • This is a wonderful example of why it is not sufficient to look simply to the original context in which scripture is written (or the intent of the author) as we attempt to understand it’s contemporary significance. Even in this apparent “accident of history” (which resulted in the mythology and theology of the virgin birth), profound spiritual truths are illustrated, one of which is the distinction between those who are (Christ-like) “born of God” or “born from above” and those who, like children of Adam, have a natural history…

  • MarkP1971

    This gets to the core of how evangelicals and Calvin never got Luther. Word Alone was never just about scripture alone. The Word was first Jesus Christ the living Word, then the proclaimed word as the means of the Spirit, and then also the written word by which we could test the preaching. Did it reveal Christ? That Word works in multiple languages.

    But just one quibble. On what basis are you saying “to be sure, “young woman” could be a virgin but almost certainly was not in Isaiah?” That would seem to miss part of the point, that the LXX translators got when they used parthenos, that is present in the Isaiah story. The living sign of an unmarried girl continuing life, marrying and having a child while the king worries about enemies already vanquished in God’s Word.

  • Wyatt Roberts

    Scot, I’m sure you know some versions have 72, others have 70. In any case, Luke (a more gentile-ish gospel, I think) is the only gospel with this account of 72/70 disciples being dispatched. I recall reading a story about the process of how the LXX was translated, and Ptolemy II’s alleged response to it. It may be apocryphal…may have been Letter of Aristeas, or something by Josephus.

    Anyway, the King is supposed to have wept for joy at the Jewish wisdom that would be available to the world through the LXX. I’m not doing the story justice, but since I read that, I’ve taken Luke 10 to be alluding to that whole LXX event. Just wondered if you had any thoughts about that.

  • Eric Weiss

    I’m glad you have educated people re: the proper pronunciation of “Septuagint,” but I think we should be calling it Η Μεταφραση των Εβδομηκοντα (ev-though-MAY-kone-duh – Randall Buth’s Koine pronunciation) and should be calling the New Testament Η Καινη Διαθηκη instead of Novum Testamentum Graece. 🙂 After all, they’re Greek documents, not Latin ones.

  • scotmcknight

    Well, I’m not so sure we can know why Luke had 70 or 72. There are, as you know, a list of 70 nations, too…