In Trials and Tribulations 1, we presented an overview of the history of the Bible and the various ancient manuscripts that scholars have used over the centuries to translate Biblical texts from the original languages into other languages. We noted that translating from ancient languages and incomplete manuscripts copied centuries later present challenges to translators and interpreters. Here we will look more specifically at three examples of phrases, words and names whose translations and interpretations down through the centuries have had real-life implications for millions of people around the world. These three examples all happen to concern women, in large part because they have been so influential.
“A Virgin Shall Conceive”
One of the basics of Christian theology is that Jesus, acclaimed by Christians as the Messiah or Christ, was born to a woman, Mary, who never had sexual intercourse with a man. The phrase, “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” appears originally in Isaiah 7:14 and is quoted in Matthew 1:23. Many commentaries acknowledge that the Hebrew word ‘alma signifies merely a young, unmarried woman, with no reference to her sexual activities. These words and this simple phrase illustrate translation and interpretive challenges at several layers.
First is the meaning of the original text in Hebrew. The “book” of Isaiah is a compilation of several collections of texts, probably originally passed down orally then composed between the seventh and fourth centuries BCE. The young woman in Isaiah, according to Dartmouth scholar Susan Ackerman, most likely refers either to the prophet Isaiah’s wife or the wife of King Ahaz from Ugarit in Syria.
The second layer of translation and interpretation is that of the translation of the Hebrew texts into Greek in the third century BCE (as we noted in our earlier post). Ackerman and New Testament scholar Vasiliki Limberis both point out that the Hebrew word ‘alma was translated into the Greek word parthenos, “virgin,” which can mean either a young woman or a woman who has never had sexual intercourse.
A next layer is what the evangelist Matthew then did not only with the text of Isaiah – in Greek translation – but also with a possible tradition circulating that the mother of Jesus had become pregnant either through rape or an illicit relationship with a Roman soldier (see Limberis and Schaberg). Such a scandal would have to be deftly addressed. Moreover, early Christians, sporadically persecuted for centuries, were at the same time trying to bolster their standing in the Empire, form their collective identity, and hold up their main “characters” as significant and worthy of adoration. These trends led to Jesus becoming identified with other so-called “divine men,” some of whom were born of the union between a God and a human woman (see Miller and Schowalter), and the interpreting of Mary’s situation as crafted by God.
One of Matthew’s evangelistic missions in particular was to show his community that Jesus was truly the Messiah and Anointed One, long promised to Israel. Matthew’s setting was most likely Antioch in Syria around 85 or 90 CE; his community probably included both Jews and pagans (see Kingsbury). Matthew found support for his perspective in Hebrew Scriptures: Jesus, he argued, fulfilled various prophecies, including the one in Isaiah about the young pregnant woman. The evangelist who wrote the Gospel of Luke similarly, writing possibly as late as the early second century, also picked up on the Mary story and the virgin birth.
A next layer of interpretation is what happened to these Gospel stories in subsequent centuries as Christianity became the state religion, as Roman Catholicism broke from Eastern Orthodoxy, as the Anglican church broke from Roman Catholicism, as other branches of Protestantism came into being, and as Christian Fundamentalism evolved, especially in the United States.
Two related beliefs developed around the figure of Mary and became doctrinal, beliefs that Christians were and are expected to adhere to: her identity as the “virgin” predicted by Isaiah (and thus the identity of Jesus as the Immanuel of that passage) and her perpetual virginity (that is, her presumed purity for the rest of her life – never having sexual relations with Joseph or anyone else). Neither of these beliefs are supported by the original texts and could legitimately be considered false or at least misleading interpretations:
- First, Matthew explicitly states that Mary’s husband Joseph did not have sexual relations with her until Jesus was born. In fact, Matt. 13:53-58 and Mark 6:1-6 both attest that Jesus had siblings.
- Second, as Ackerman points out, “To find [in the Isaiah passage] references to a virginal conception and to Jesus’ divinity goes well beyond the intentions of the original text.”
Therefore we must conclude that the early church (more specifically, the early church “fathers”), far removed from both the Hebrew and first-century contexts, has interpreted the phrase “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son” for its own theological purposes. To give the “fathers” the benefit of the doubt, we might posit that the church holds up Mary as a powerful, loving near-goddess, almost worthy of worship. She intercedes for us with Jesus and comforts us in our tribulations. However, as we saw in our earlier post, church fathers essentially forbade their followers from equating Mary with a deity and worshipping her in her own right. Only the all-male Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit were worthy of worship.
Cynically, then, what the church has essentially done in its translation and interpretation of the Isaiah and Matthew passages was to hold a woman up as a model that is not only nearly impossible for real women to attain but that also excludes women from true leadership in the church. Unpacking the ancient words and phrases, then, is a liberating exercise that is completely responsible to the texts and peoples in question.
“Junia or Junias?”
A second example of a translation problem with social and theological implications is the person referred to in Paul’s letter to the Romans 16:7: Junia, Junias or sometimes Julia. Linked grammatically with Andronicus, this “Junia” was an apostle on a par with other male apostles. As can be attested in The New English Bible and The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, for example, previous scholars interpreted this name as masculine, Junias.
Several factors argue against this identification, according to esteemed New Testament scholar Bernadette Brooten. First, the church fathers attest this apostle as a woman; as paired with Andronicus, this is almost certainly a husband and wife pair (similar to Priscilla and Aquila). Secondly, responsible translators of this name have noted that, in ancient inscriptions, the male name Junias is unattested, while the female Latin name Junia occurs over 250 times in Greek and Latin inscriptions from Rome alone.
The overwhelming probability that Junia is female is highly significant for the history of women in the church and in the West in general. Junia thus becomes the only woman called an apostle in the New Testament. As an apostle, Junia must have claimed to have seen the risen Jesus (Paul states explicitly that she and Andronicus were Christians before he was), and she engaged in missionary work, making her a very significant figure in the history of early Christianity. Junia had been in prison, perhaps for the sake of the gospel, and she may also have been related to Paul, according to Brooten. For translators to bend a great deal of evidence to make Junia a man betrays a long-standing bias of attempting to erase the memory of significant women in the early Christian movement. Today, as we noted in our post on Paul’s female colleagues, Fundamentalist Christians cannot legitimately claim that women were excluded from leadership roles in the early church.
This very important woman – mentioned in all four New Testament Gospels – has long had a reputation of being a prostitute. However, there is no evidence for this in the Gospels; rather it is a later assertion by church fathers and constitutes another example of how faulty interpretations have long-lasting significance.
The identification of Mary as whore is due to a complicated conflation of texts influenced by prejudice and a male fascination with sex and eroticism (see Osiek). The identification of Mary as a prostitute is found in Ephraim of Syria (306-373) and became official by the time of Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) (see Abrahamsen and Thompson).
The basic facts about Mary Magdalene are as follows:
- She appears numerous times in the New Testament and in all four gospels: Mt 27.55-56, 61; 28.1; Mk 15.40-41, 47; 16:1, 9; Lk 8.2; 24.10; Jn 19.25; 20.1, 11, 16, 18.
- She is named in all resurrection narratives.
- Mary was a follower of Jesus, she stood by as he died on the cross and, with two other women, discovered the empty tomb.
- She is not the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair (Lk 7:36-50).
Mary’s prominence in early Christian literature is significant and shows, along with what we know about Junia and other women in the early Christian movement, how important women were to its growth. Here is a sampling of Mary’s appearances in literature in the first few centuries.
- In the Gospel of Philip 63.34-64.5 (an extracanonical text of the late second/early third century), we learn that “Jesus loved Mary Magdalene more than all other apostles, called her Apostle to the Apostles and ‘the Woman Who Knew the All,’ and often kissed her.”
- The third-century text Pistis Sophia portrays Mary Magdalene as the questioner of Jesus, who was then addressed as “dearly beloved.”
- Mary Magdalene is featured prominently (though negatively) in the Gospel of Peter (late first century CE) and in the Epistula Apostolorum (early second century CE). As Karen King argues, in the period of the early church, Peter was not the important disciple that he later became. Rather, he was viewed as “a jealous and contentious character, who cannot see beyond his own male pride.” In contrast, Mary was “consistently represented as a faithful disciple.” Her unwavering faith and steadfast character were quintessential qualifications for the ability to preach the gospel and promulgate the Savior’s message.
As we can see, the way a word, passage or name is translated and interpreted is important and significant, not just in an intellectual sense but for the actual lives of human beings. In our next post, we will look at the translation work of the Jesus Seminar and Westar Institute.
Abrahamsen, Valerie. “Human and Divine: The Marys in Early Christian Tradition,” in Amy-Jill Levine with Maria Mayo Robbins, eds., A Feminist Companion to Mariology, 164-81. London and New York: T & T Clark International, 2005.
Ackerman, Susan. “Young Woman,” in Carol Meyers, Toni Craven and Ross S. Kraemer, eds., Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, 317. Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000.
Brooten, Bernadette J. “Junia,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds., Oxford Companion to the Bible, eds., 405. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Brooten, Bernadette J. “Junia,” in Carol Meyers, Toni Craven and Ross S. Kraemer, eds., Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, 107. Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000.
King, Karen L. The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003.
Kingsbury, Jack Dean. “Matthew, The Gospel According to,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds. Oxford Companion to the Bible, 502-06. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Limberis, Vasiliki. “Mary 1,” in Carol Meyers, Toni Craven and Ross S. Kraemer, eds., Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, 116-19. Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000.
“Mary Magdalene,” in F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingston (eds.), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 884. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Miller, Robert J. Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003.
Osiek, Carolyn. “Mary 3,” in Carol Meyers, Toni Craven and Ross S. Kraemer, eds., Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, 120-23. Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000
Overman, J. Andrew. “Mary Magdalene,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds., Oxford Companion to the Bible, eds., 499. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993
Pfeiffer, Charles F. and Everett F. Harrison. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute, 1962.
Schaberg, Jane. The Illegitimacy of Jesus. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995; first published by Crossroad Publishing Co., 1990.
Schowalter, Daniel N. “Virgin Birth of Christ,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds., Oxford Companion to the Bible, eds., 789-90. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Thompson, Mary R., SSMN. Mary of Magdala: Apostle and Leader. New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995.
Walker, Barbara G. “Mary Magdalene,” The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, 613-15. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983.