During an alleged review of Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great (which, surprisingly enough, he likes) Richard Dawkins makes the theological point that the story of Jesus' birth is not unique in literature. Readers of the Times Literary Supplement were doubtless astonished to learn for the first time that other legendary and mythological characters apart from Jesus have been said to have had no human father.
Dawkins rants that:
Jesus' case was abetted by a simple mistranslation of the Hebrew for 'young woman' into the Greek for 'virgin'.
This phrase comes up a lot. One might almost say that it was 'stock criticism'. In a whimsical essay about possible examples of 'virgin births' in nature, Dawkins ranted unequivocally that:
The entire legend of the Virgin Birth stems, in the first place, from a mistranslation of a Hebrew word meaning 'young woman' into a Greek word meaning 'virgin'.
It is worth examining this theological claim in some detail. I think it tells us a great deal about why relations between the religious and the non-religious are on the point of breaking down.
First, some dull facts.
Two out of the four canonical Gospels contain a story about the birth of Jesus. The stories are quite similar in structure: Jesus' birth is announced by an angel; it is initially disbelieved but then supernatural proofs are offered; his special nature is recognized by various unlikely people. However, the details are entirely different.
All scholars agree that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, but that they were independent of each other, apart from the ones who don't.The relevant part of Luke's narrative runs as follows:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the name of the virgin was Mary.
And the angel came in unto her, and said, "Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women."
And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
And the angel said unto her, "Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus"...
Then said Mary unto the angel, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?"
And the angel answered and said unto her, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren."
The English word 'virgin' stands for the Greek word parthenos. So far as I know, no-one questions that parthenos means 'a woman who has not had sexual intercourse'. 'To know someone' is, of course, a Biblical euphemism for 'to have sex with them'. So when Mary asks "How is this possible, since I know not a man?", she is unambiguously asking "How can I possibly be pregnant since I haven't had sex yet?"
Here is Matthew's version:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.
But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins."
....Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: and knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus.
Again, the text is quite un-ambiguous. It doesn't state in so many words that Mary was a virgin; but it does say that Jesus had no human father and that Joseph had not had sexual intercourse with Mary when Jesus was born.
If you try really, really hard, you can imagine a Hebrew text underlying Luke's Greek in which the word 'virgin' had meant 'young woman'. In this imaginary text, the angel would have been sent to a young woman in Nazareth; and the name of the young woman would have been Mary. It is even possible to imagine a text in which "How is this possible, since I know not a man?" had been "How is this possible since I am a young woman." ("I am far too young to have a child, in the same way that my relative Elizabeth is far too old to have a child.") Such a change would not have been a mistranslation, but a conscious amendment of the text.
In Matthew's narrative, the 'simple mistranslation' theory is even harder to uphold. You would have to imagine an ur-text in which "before they came together" had been "while she was still a young woman" and "knew her not until she had been brought forth of her first born" had read "continued to have rapacious nooky even though she was only a young woman."
So, everything turns on the following comment by Matthew:
Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, 'Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name "Emmanuel" ' which being interpreted is, God with us.
Matthew is quoting from the prophecy of Isaiah, or, if you are the sort of person who worries about this kind of thing, the prophecy of dutero-Isaiah. The full passage runs as follows:
"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."
Isaiah wrote in Hebrew; but Matthew would have been looking at the standard Greek translation, called, for reasons I probably once knew, the Septuagint. This Greek translation certainly said that the person who would have a child and name it Immanuel would be a parthenos.
Now it gets very boring indeed. Where the English says virgin and the Greek says parthenos, the original Hebrew had said almah. The word almah occurs seven times in the Old Testament, and Good King James translates it variously as 'virgin', 'damsel' and 'maiden'.
Gen 24: 23: ' ...it shall come to pass that when the virgin cometh forth...
Ex 2:8 '...and the maid went and called the child's mother.
Psalm 68: 25 The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after; among them were the
damsels playing with timbrels.
Proverbs 30:18 There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.
Song of Songs 6:8 There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number.
In each case, the woman being described probably was a virgin; explicitly so in the Genesis passage. However, Hebrew has another word, bethuwlah which can be used when the writer wants to make it clear that the the lady in question is a virgin in the Anne Widdecombe sense, as: "The damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her...'" Since Isaiah doesn't use this word to describe the woman in the prophecy, it is fair to say that he didn't think that her virgin-ness was the most important thing about her. The passage probably comes out as "You'll know that God is going to save you when a young woman names her child 'Emmanuel' " as opposed to "You'll know that God is going to save you when a virgin has a child, and by the way, she'll name him Emmanuel." (Since Isaiah was in the habit of giving his children names like A-Few-Will-Come-Back and Quick-Loot-Fast-Plunder it's even possible that little God-Is-With-Us is another of the prophet's own kids. Hosea's children were named Unloved and Not-My-People. Registration must have been a bundle of laughs in Jewish schools.)
So: it is a perfectly good fact that when the Jewish scriptures were translated into Greek in around 180 BCE the word almah in the Isaiah passage was translated as parthenos. To say that this came down to a 'simple mistranslation' says more than we know. Certainly, an ambiguity was removed -- a passage which could possibly be read as referring to a virgin was changed into one which had to be read in this way. Was it 'simply' a mistake? Or were the translators deliberately revising the text? Or were they making a traditional translation, writing parthenos because that reflected the opinion of the wisest commentators of their day?
"The idea that there was a prophecy which said that the mother of Jesus would be a Virgin is the result of a mistranslation" is an unexceptionable statement. Insert a couple of probablies and a perhaps or two and no-one but a megaphone carrying fundamentalist would have any quarrel with you. But it's always cited as "The story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus is the result of a mistranslation." Not even "A mistranslation of the prophecy of Isaiah" – simply "a mistranslation." And this is a much more complicated claim, involving suppositions and conjectures and speculation and things we just don't know. In order to believe it, you'd have to believe the following:
1: The very earliest Christians -- the ones who who must have had first hand contact with Jesus' family and his disciples -- had no story of the birth of Jesus, or if they did it has been lost without trace.
2: At some time toward the end of the first century Matthew formed the opinion that Isaiah 7 was a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. He therefore invented out of his head the doctrine that Jesus' mother was a 'virgin', even though no such thing had previously been taught by Christians.
3: Oh, and by the way, he didn't check with any Hebrew speaking Jew.
4: In order to support the new doctrine that he had made up out of his head he invented out of his head the story of Joseph and the Angel.
5: Luke read Matthew and instantly accepted the new doctrine of the Virgin Birth. So he invented, out of his head, a completely different story, which owed nothing to Matthew, about Mary and the Angel, padded it out with some material about John the Baptist , and sent it off to the scribes without bothering to quote the Old Testament prophecy which had caused all the trouble to begin with. (1)
None of this is intrinsically impossible. Some scholars, I guess, believe it, or something a lot like it. The game of inventing imaginary histories for famous books keeps academics out of mischief for hours on end. The non-existent drafts of Hamlet are much more interesting than the actual play. But this kind of thing can only ever be a conjecture: based on the single fact that Matthew quotes Isaiah.
Isn't it equally possible that the very, very early Christians did indeed believe that Jesus had a supernatural conception – either because Mary had told them so, or because it expressed a prior theological belief that he was the Son of God? If this were the case, then Matthew, scouring the Old Testament for passages which seemed to back up Jesus' claim to be Messiah, would have taken it for granted that Isaiah really meant 'virgin' because that's what he already believed. This would take into account the fact that the fit between Matthew and Isaiah isn't actually all that good: if Matthew had been making the whole thing up, couldn't he have worked some honey and butter in somewhere?
Of course any critique of Christianity will involve a critique of the historicity of the Gospels; of course one of the things that would occur to any sensible critic is that some of the stories about Jesus were 'reverse engineered' to make it look as if they fulfilled prophecies. But to say "The story" – sorry, "the entire legend" -- was "the result of a mistranslation" when what you mean is "A plausible case can be made out of saying that the story was a fictional creation that was retrofitted to a prophecy – and by the way, the prophecy itself contained a questionable piece of translation" is misleading. Wouldn't an intelligent but ignorant person, hearing the claim for the first time, assume that "the story is the result of a mistranslation" meant "someone mistranslated Matthew and Luke so it looked as if Mary was a Virgin; but Matthew and Luke never said anything of the sort; it was all a silly mistake like Cinderella's fur slipper becoming a glass slipper because 'vair' and 'verre' sound similar. Har har aren't Christians silly." Do those who pass on the 'mistranslation' story do anything to correct this impression? Is it in fact just what they want people to think?
"Perhaps Matthew retrofitted his text to a prophecy from Isaiah and perhaps that prophecy had been contentiously translated; and perhaps Luke based his story on Matthew; and perhaps everyone accepted their stories, and perhaps that's where the story of the Virgin Birth came from" is complicated, vague and dull. "The story of the virgin birth is the result of a mistranslation" is simple, exciting, and easy to remember. There a lots of simple, exciting, easy to remember and massively misleading slogans about the Bible in circulation: "They've discovered a new Gospel which gives Judas' side of the story" "There were at one time of 70 different Gospels"; "Constantine made up the idea that that Jesus was the Son of God", "The council of Nicea decided on the content of the Bible", "Judas was a zealot".
It isn't easy to respond to slogans: by the time you have said "Well, it depends what you mean by...." and "That's very misleading because...." your victims eyes have glazed over. "You don't seriously expect me to compare and contrast different texts and look things up in a concordance, do you? The simple phrase is much easier to grasp than your long, boring essay, with all those nasty liberal 'perhapses' and 'maybes' in it. You must be splitting hairs. Or trying to confuse me. Obfuscation! Obfuscation!"
Is it possible that Dawkins is deliberately infecting people with the 'simple mistranslation' meme in the hope that it will inoculate them against what he sees as the much more dangerous virus of Christianity? If he is right that Christianity is dangerous, would it even matter if the factual content of the anti-meme was incorrect? Are Christians making a silly mistake when we treat phrases and essays and indeed entire books which are intended only as slogans and rallying cries as if they were actual arguments? Indeed, should we give up the whole concept of "good or bad argument" and "true or false claim" and replace it with "successful or unsuccessful meme"? If you believe in memes, does the concept of 'truth' retain any validity at all? Is the logical conclusion of Dawkinsism to raise "whatever I say three times is true" to the level of a scientific axiom?
(1) Incidentally: when referring to this in a footnote to a book on evolution – go figure – Dawkins rants that Matthew 'was not, of course, the Apostle and contemporary of Jesus, but the gospel-maker writing long afterwards'
There are no 'of courses' in the study of the Gospels, but a lot of sensible scholars have said that Matthew must have been written after 70CE, because he refers to fall of Jerusalem, but before 100CE, because he's quoted by Ignatius. Whether 70-100CE amounts to 'long afterwards' depends on your point of view. If Matthew had been an up and coming tax inspector of 22 at the time of Jesus, then he could have been a nonogenarian sitting down to compose his memoirs at the turn of the century. 'Long afterwards' raises the suspicion that the speaker believes Brownite fantasies of the Gospels being fourth or fifth century and should be stomped on whenever they turn up.