Controversial Bible Revision: About That ‘Virgin’ Thing…

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Provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Headline writers are having fun with stories about a new translation of the Bible, which has been in the works since 1994 and will finally be released on March 9 (Ash Wednesday): “Bishops boot ‘booty’ from revised Bible,” “Booty Recall: Bishops Drop Word from Bible.”

Sure, spoils is replacing booty in the forthcoming edition of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) New American Bible — which, being a 21st century update, already has its own Facebook page — but that’s hardly the most intriguing adjustment.  Read further in USA Today’s article, and you’ll come across this tidbit:

One change may set off alarms with traditionalists, in a passage many Christians believe foreshadows the coming of Christ and his birth to a virgin. The 1970 version of Isaiah 7:14 says “the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

The 2011 text refers to “the young woman” instead. It elaborates that the original Hebrew word, almah, may, or may not, signify a virgin.

Details, details.

It’s one thing to change booty to spoils, and bring the text more into line with today’s language, but doesn’t changing virgin to young woman have some pretty weighty implications?

(More on TIME.com: What the Bible Has to Say About Sex)

“The effort in this translation was to be as faithful to the original Hebrew as possible,” says the USCCB’s Mary Elizabeth Speers. “It doesn’t mean the bishops are changing their mind on the virgin birth of Jesus or the perpetual virginity of Mary. That doctrine stands, and will probably stand until the end of time.”

Speers points out that references to the virgin birth remain unchanged in the revised edition’s New Testament; she says the Gospel of Matthew quotes the Greek translation of Isaiah, which used the Greek word for virgin, and so in Matthew, virgin it is. “We need to say what he [Matthew] said,” says Speers, who notes further that Luke 1:34, “which is actually the very strong warrant for the birth of Jesus,” has not been altered. As for Isaiah, “We are merely translating what the Hebrew says.” Speers cites the Divino Afflante Spiritu, the 1943 encyclical, as the reason for such faithful translation to the original.

But if Hebrew should have been the source for translations since 1943, why didn’t the 1970 New American Bible use young woman? The word’s true meaning is hardly a new discovery. “I think they didn’t want to court this controversy,” Speers says, acknowledging, “there’s a level where it’s a scary change.” Retranslating almah was not undertaken lightly. No less than 15 people “had a hand on that particular word,” according to Speers, who adds that it was then reviewed by five bishops and approved by a committee of many more.

Jarring as the change may seem, “it’s not surprising,” says Michael Coogan, who had worked on the Book of Job for the revised version, and is editor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible. “Most translations now follow that,” he says, “because the Hebrew word means young woman; it doesn’t say anything about her sexual experience.” Coogan, who is also the author of God and Sex, notes that a precise word for virgin is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.

Still, virgin persists in various translations of Isaiah. (One can compare several different versions of the relevant passage, and the rest of the Bible, on the American Bible Society’s website).

“Each of these translations has its own sort of sponsoring group, and some are more conservative, evangelical than others,” Coogan says. “The more conservative and evangelical, the more likely they are to have ‘virgin’ instead of ‘young woman.”

While the USCCB has embraced young woman in its revised New American Bible, that text is only intended for study and personal prayer. Catholics attending Mass will still hear virgin when Isaiah is read, since this new translation has not been approved for liturgical use.  It may one day, but change, God knows, can be slow.

(More on TIME.com: Pictures of the Week)

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