Contra Strongnosticism, Part 4
For the past several weeks, I've been devoting Fridays to blogging about the error I call "Strongnosticism"—the tendency to use tools such as Strong's numbers to look for "secret knowledge" in the original Hebrew and Greek. In parts two and three in this series, I looked at the word translated "virgin" in Matthew 1:23 (parthenos), showing how to look that word up in a basic Strong's dictionary, how to consult more in depth lexicons, and how to examine every occurrence of that word in context. When last we left off, I had mentioned the need to look at the Old Testament context of parthenos, since Matthew 1:23 quotes a prophecy from Isaiah. In this post, we'll do just that.
First, we need to find where that quotation comes from. Beginning with my Bible text at Matthew 1:23, I'll click in the verse and then choose OT in NT from the Parallels pop-up of the Resource palette (the one with the icon showing two scrolls side by side). This will open a Parallel window showing Matthew 1:23 in parallel with Isaiah 7:14. If I have a Strong's number text displayed in each of those panes, I can drag over "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14 and see that the Hebrew word here is almah.
Identifying the Hebrew word translated "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14 raises a number of questions. Is this the only Hebrew word translated "virgin"? What is the connection between almah and parthenos? Did the Greek Septuagint use parthenos to translate almah?
There are a number of ways to find the answer to that last question. Those who have the actual tagged Septuagint text could click the Add Text checkbox to open two parallel panes on the bottom of the Parallel window. Then, using the text pop-ups at the top of the window, they could choose to display the OT passage in the Greek Septuagint and the NT passage in the Greek New Testament. Like this:
For those who read Greek, it immediately becomes apparent that the Septuagint did indeed use parthenos to translate the Hebrew word almah, and that Matthew therefore used parthenos because he was quoting the Greek translation of Isaiah.
If you don't have the original Greek texts, you could easily learn the Septuagint translation by consulting a good Greek or Hebrew lexicon. For example, selecting "virgin" in Matthew 1:23 and holding down the option key while selecting Thayer (which comes included in the Library Premier and Scholar's Intro levels) will bring up Thayer's entry on parthenos. Thayer tells us that the Septuagint used parthenos to translate several Hebrew words, including almah in Isaiah 7:14.
That, of course, answers our earlier question of whether almah is the only Hebrew word translated "virgin." At least we know that it's not the only word which was translated by the Greek word for "virgin." So let's examine the variety of Hebrew words which are translated "virgin."
The first thing I'll do is examine every occurrence of almah in context by selecting the English word "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14 and then option-clicking the Search button at the bottom left corner of the Resource palette. Remember that holding down the option key simply tells Accordance to search for the Key number attached to the word you selected rather than searching for the English word itself. The resulting search shows me that the ESV translates almah as "virgin" in every case but one: in Exodus 2:8 where it is translated "girl." If I search for this Hebrew word in other Strong's numbered Bibles, I find that the NAS95S translates almah as "virgin" only in Isaiah 7:14, and as "maiden" or "girl" in every other instance. The KJVS translates almah as "virgin" just over half the time, using "maid" or "damsel" the other times.
Now let's see how this compares with any other Hebrew words translated as virgin. To do this, I'm going to enter [email protected] before the Key number in the search entry box. Now, let me explain what that means. The at (@) symbol is used to specify that the words you find meet more than one criteria. For example [email protected][KEY H5959] would find only those places where the English word "virgin" is tagged with the Key number H5959 (which represents the Hebrew word almah). This search, for example, would eliminate every place where almah is translated as "girl" or "maid" or "damsel," because we've said the Key Number for almah must be attached to the English word "virgin."
Now that you know what the at symbol does, notice that I've also entered a minus sign immediately after it. The minus sign indicates negation, so [email protected][Key H5959] means that I want to find every occurrence of the word "virgin" which has not been tagged with the Key number for almah. This is a quick way for me to find all the other words beside almah which are translated as "virgin." If I then click the Details button and check the Analysis tab, I can see exactly what those words are.
As you can see, the other Hebrew word which the ESVS translates as "virgin" is bethulah. Is bethulah, like almah, sometimes translated as "girl" or "maiden" as well as "virgin"? We don't know that yet because our current search specificed that we were looking for the English word "virgin." To search for every occurrence of bethulah I need to search for its Strong number without specifying the English words to which it is attached. I can do that simply by selecting the Strong's number for bethulah in the Analysis window and then selecting ESVS from the Resource palette.
The resulting search shows me that the ESV does indeed translate bethulah in other ways besides "virgin." If I click the Details button for this search and look at the Analysis tab, I can see that the ESV translates bethulah as "maiden" or "maidens" three times, and "woman" or "women" 12 times, though the vast majority of the time it is rendered as "virgin" or "virgins."
The fact that almah and bethulah are both variously translated as "virgin" or some kind of young woman would seem to indicate that they are roughly synonymous with each other, and that they both exhibit the same kind of semantic range that we already discovered with the Greek word parthenos.
Now, did you see how easily I just drew that conclusion? I have yet to examine each occurrence of these two Hebrew words in context; I've just used the statistical analysis tools of Accordance to get a quick overview of the way bethulah and almah have been translated. These kinds of tools are really cool, and they save lots of time, but as exegetes we have to deal with the ever-present temptation to use them as shortcuts. My hypothesis about the meaning of these two Hebrew words may indeed be correct, but until I dig deeper and take context into account, I'm in danger of playing fast and loose with the text.
One reason I'm tempted to jump to conclusions at this point is that I'm eager to finish this blog post and wrap up this series. Can any of you ministry professionals or overextended volunteers relate to that? When time is running short and you need to deliver a message or a lesson (or a blog post), it's easy to cut corners and avoid doing careful exegesis. And you know what? To some extent that's okay.
Does it surprise you that after all my preaching about the dangers of ignoring context, I would now reverse field and say it's sometimes okay to cut corners? Well, I'm not really reversing field at all. The point of this series has been to preach against the dangers of Strongnosticism and to show you how to use language tools effectively and responsibly. My goal has been to demystify those tools and to show how much work and care is still required in using them. That doesn't mean that the busy pastor has to examine all fifty occurrences of bethulah plus the seven occurrences of almah, plus the fifteen occurrences of parthenos in order to understand Matthew's use of Isaiah's prophecy. He can turn to a good commentary or lexicon to get a sense of each word's semantic range, why this word rather than that word was used in a given context, and what it all means for the interpretation of the passage.
For example, if I look almah up in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT), I get a clear, concise discussion of the meaning of almah, with reference both to the meaning of bethulah as well as Matthew's use of parthenos. If I look up parthenos in NIDNTT I'll get an extended discussion of the Greek word, its usage in the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament, and even a link to an entire article devoted to the question of "The Virgin Birth." Likewise, any good technical commentary on Matthew 1:23 or Isaiah 7:14 should provide a helpful discussion of these things. There's no shame in consulting these kinds of resources and benefitting from the careful exegesis of others. And while I think it's good exegetical practice to examine the text yourself before you turn to secondary resources like commentaries and lexicons, I would rather an exegete rely too heavily on a trusted resource than latch on to some Greek or Hebrew word and start pontificating about what it "really means."
The Strongnostic is typically the person who is so enamored with discovering something novel and exciting in the original languages of Scripture that he rides roughshod over the clear meaning of the text. The Bible is exciting enough without looking for hidden meanings and secret knowledge. The antidotes to Strongnosticism are a willingness to do the work of examining original words in context and the humility to measure one's own discoveries against the insights and interpretations of others. If you have the time, energy, and passion to do the former, Accordance offers you all the language tools you could want. And if time is short, Accordance offers a wealth of trustworthy lexicons, commentaries, and study aids to assist you.