Parthenos

There’s a bone of contention between Jews and Christians and the same bone exists between Christians and Christians, when it comes to The Book of The Prophet Isaiah.  This book has been described by an eminent Jew of great authorityas being ‘all comfort’; which I interpret to mean that from start to finish The Book of Isaiah tends towards building up a Jew or a Christian and tends away from lowering his or her morale and joy in The Lord.

The Book of Isaiah is I think I can say the most ‘upbeat’ of The Old Testament books.  A lot of it is joyous and in regard to prophesy it is optimistic and encouraging to its readers.  Much of the libretto for Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” consists of words taken from this book, because this book is revered by Christians as being that book which most of all in The Old Testament foresees and proclaims, in sometimes minute terms, the coming of Messiah.

There is that famous Chapter 53 in Isaiah which lays out the characteristics such a Messiah will display upon his coming; and these have been apositely applied, since the times of the Gospel and New Testament writers, by commentators and believers, to the character of Jesus of Nazareth.

I have heard say that in Jewish Synagogues this Chapter 53 is not read; that it is the only item in the Jewish Scriptures not to be read at some time in Synagogues.  I do not want to say this is the truth; because I have no real evidence other than it being something I read and I do not know how much authority to place on the allegation.  My friend, a Christian of years and since birth, and so consequently having a lot more circumstance surrounding his faith than my faith of only 25 years, replied to my questioning him about this omission that; “The omission of Chapter 53 by the Jews is ‘not trivial’ to discuss and to unfold the reasons for it.  I have not at the time of my writing this been able to get further with my friend’s statement of the issue being ‘not trivial’ but I took him to mean that there is more than meets the eye to this omission by the Jews and that I should not be too hasty to draw conclusions from the bald statement which asserts its omission.

I do know that The Book of Isaiah is a composite Biblical book; by which I mean that there are said by many authoritative scholars both Jewish and Christian to be at least three separate authors of the Book and probably they lived over the course of at least a century of years. Some ‘old school’ Christians and Jews continue to look at the Book as being written by a single long-lived author whose writing style and views changed over the course of a long life.

In the early part of the Book at Chapter 7 there is a prophesy upon which much depends for Jews and among Christians of diferent persuasions.  It is that renowned prophesy which the Gospel Evangelists make so much of and which runs like this:

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

The fuller passage runs:

“Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.”

Now there’s a great deal to be said about this prophesy; and which has been said for two thousand years about it; sufficient to fill libraries hundreds of times over. So what you are getting from me here is not original; nor is it in any way complete; it is at best an outline of some of the main issues and at worst it is merely my own prejudice.

Perhaps the central issue is that of the word translated above in the verses taken from Isaiah (from the King James Bible) ‘virgin‘ – a ‘virgin shall conceive“. Most of us know this is Matthew’s and Luke’s version of their accounts of the Nativity of Jesus Christ.  There is The Annunciation; there is The Angel before Joseph telling him not to “put Mary away” but to be a father to the child, that ‘Holy Thing‘ in her who had conceived “by The Holy Ghost“; there is The Nativity and The Magi and all the great stories told down the ages about the way of the coming of The Lord.

The Koine Greek word used by the New Testament writers of the Scriptures was ‘parthenos’ – in Greek ‘παρθένος” – a word of which online Wiktionary says: when used as a Noun means: 

  1. young, unmarried woman; maiden
  2. virgin
  3. pupil
  4. epithet of various goddesses, most commonly of Athena

When used as an adjective:

  1. maidenly
  2. chaste

It was said elsewhere in my reading around on this topic today that in regard to Conservative Christians, their litmus test for an acceptable translation of a Bible version has become the word chosen by the translators to fulfill as the English Language equivalent of this Koine Greek word ‘parthenos’.  Certain Conservatives have been know (apparently) to burn piles of Bibles which had used any word other than the word ‘virgin’ in their rendering of this passage in Isaiah into English.  You can see how hot the issue is and remains; for Jews and for Christians.

Any Bible avoiding the translation of “parthenos” as “virgin” was considered by some Conservatives to be revisionist and so as being a deviation from and a betrayal of the Scripture.

There is a translation of The Old Testament into Greek and known as The Septuagint, sometimes it is referred to merely by the term “LXX”.  The backstory behind this Septuagint is this in brief.

The Jews of the Diaspora across the Mediteranean and North Africa in the centuries before Christ and living near the times of The Maccabees; them being away from Jerusalem and in a society which used Greek in everyday discourse, they found themsevles ever more unable to retain Hebrew from generation to generation as the language in which to read their Scriptures, since it was becoming ever more unfamiliar and so difficult to maintain and to train up their children in the Hebrew lanagauge.

So a solution became that a Greek translation of the Hebrew should be commissioned by them.  The story continues that seventy Jewish scholars (hence “Septua” and “LXX”) were chosen and that each of the seventy arrived at the verbatim exact same translated text as one another, even though each having worked independently to translate. This of course sounds a bit fabulous, but the translation was made, and was used by Diaspora Jews as a useful alternative to the Hebrew original.

This Greek Septuagint, at a time some centuries before Christ, translated the pertinent Hebrew word from Isaiah as “parthenos”.

Further, certain revered and solid Jewish scholars of the Targums did agree of old that the Hebrew word concerned as used in Isaiah should be read as meaning (in English) ‘virgin’.  This claim of course I have not establsihed for myself; at best I am reliably informed here.

In another excursus into words and meanings I discovered that some Greek scholars claim that the word ‘parthenos” had changed meaning over time in Greek life, so that in Attic days of the 5th Century BC the word did mean ‘virgin’ and was used thus (The Temple of Athena  was and remains known to day as The Parthenon, because Athena was considered by the Athenians their parron and as being a chaste and undefiled goddess of that City State).

This claim of a change of meaning for the word ‘parthenos’ I have searched cursorily only for evidence or confirmation but I have not found any as yet.

Wiktionary appears to me to be pretty clear on several items worth noting about the word ‘parthenos” (see above for its definitions).

  1. As an adjective the word is used to mean ‘chaste’ and ‘maidenly’. This to me means that ‘virgin’ is not ruled out as a meaning. Of course a woman can be chaste and happily married, because chaste means not going wholly without sexual intercourse but going with it in a moderate and regulated manner – at least I believe so. “Maidenly” however is more difficult. “Maidenly” in my own upbringing would mean for me ‘virgin-like’ since no distinction between a ‘maiden’ and a ‘virgin’ was made in my education. But I am old and times have changed.
  2. Let us allow ‘maidenly’ at a stretch to be able to include a non-virgin woman in its scope of meaning. Let’s just move on for now
  3. As a noun the word “parthenos” means among other things ‘maiden’ and ‘virgin’. These are the two most appposite meanings for us in regard to our passage in Isaiah. “Virgin” then is most likely meaning in Isaiah in my own opinion; since “maiden” at the very least includes ‘virgin’ in its meaning; and ‘virgin’ itself, is the other meaning, which is the one we are concerned with and aiming to establish or deny.
  4. There is also the added evidence of the scholars of the Targums ( from a set of religious men not Christians; a fact which adds some extra weight) and there is the evidence of the Septuagint scholars, again Jews, (who are impeccably unbiased since Christ lived four or so centuries in their futures)

Now I have established as best as fairly as I can as my knowledge presently stands what is the word Isaiah uses (“parthenos” i.e. “virgin”) how outrageous is that!!?? A virgin shall conceive and bear a son…!!!

To a contemporary mind it is fantastical, a story to be set beside the one about the generation of the Greek Septuagint by seventy simultaneous Jewish scholars.

For us nowadays miracles, and this is a biggie – are not just no evidence, inadmissible to us and by us discounted absolutely, and even the idea of The Age of Miracles being Passed is for us at best a polite fiction we hide our disbelief behind. Miracles are counter-evidence for us; that is they are proof to us that the Gospel stories are folly, nay, that the Bible itself, is a dusty old book which holds stories and events which could not have happened and did not happen.

I remeber a guy, a comedian on TV a year or so back saying about the meaning of the Bible and in a satirical slighting kind of way crooning: “And I awoke, and it had all been a dream..” And this is us indeed. We do believe that we know better; that somehow humanity has in our day turned a corner and in doing so has left behind it an age of stark ignorance and superstition as a mere anomally in our progress towards…..?????

I have written elsewhere how the miracles, in particular those performed by Jesus, when read by a reader at face value are some of the most persuasive and affecting parts of the Gospels; and not because they are ‘wonder cures’ and the like and involve a “divine magic” but because of the beautiful love and grace, charity and patience the application of his powers by Jesus demonstrates. This vastness of compassion is beyond human conception otherwise.  For us to discount the miracles, or to use them as proof of falsehood is for us to miss out utterly on this Divine love and grace and its constant emanatinon from Jesus as he is depicted in the Gospels.

Many of us will find it very hard to be persuaded by this generous love and grace of Jesus unless we accept prima facie these miracles of His and their absolute selflessness of giving.

So the virgin birth, a massive miracle… a massive obstacle? Are we to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel, by us hanging onto our own assumed rockhard certainties as dictated to us by the pressure of the times in which we live? As Oliver Cromwell said in earnest to a friend hell bent on being certain:

“I beseech you in the bowels of Christ; think that you may be mistaken”

 

 

 

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