Merry Xmas, Pagan Mistranslators!

At yesterday’s Advent mass in Catholic churches across the planet, the first reading was from Isaiah, who is speaking to King Ahaz:

“The Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” (Isa 7:10-14)

Lady Gaga

"I hate Santa!"

Ahaz is afraid a Syria-Israel alliance will defeat his country, Judah, in battle, and Isaiah makes this prophecy to reassure him. In this period, Jews had two kingdoms – Israel and Judah – and Israel eventually capsizes to the Babylonians.

A few minutes later, the priest read the famous passage from the Gospel of Matthew describing how Mary “was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” Joseph was going to divorce her “quietly,” because they had not bonked, and he made the logical assumption. The passage ends (cue echolocator):

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel ….'” (Matt 1:18-24)

Scripture don’t get no clearer, sistas: Isaiah prophecies in 780 BCE … Jesus’ birth fulfills 780 years later. However, let’s mention here a well-known mistranslation issue much beloved by Atheists, who certainly have a point. (Richard Dawkins mentions it in The Selfish Gene.)

Here’s the ish: All the New Testament writers spoke and wrote in Greek and referred to the standard Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint (or LXX). The Septuagint uses the word “parthenos,” which means “virgin.” Whew. Trouble is, in the original Hebrew, the word used is “almah,” which means simply “young woman.” Not necessarily virgin, just young.

So we have centuries of tortuous Christian doctrine about how Jesus can have been physically born from a woman (Mary) who was nonetheless genitally intact, when all the original prophecy requires is that she be youthful. In a Vanity Fair piece last year, Christopher Hitchens claimed no Catholic really believes in the virgin birth, and he may be on to something.

It gets worse. “Name him Emmanuel?” Huh? Matthew translates the word “Emmanuel” as: “God is with us.” The “God” part of this translation is the particle “El,” at the end. In the 1930s, an excavation at Ugarit in Syria uncovered a library of stone tablets written in Akkadian. They showed these pagan Canaanite enemies of the Jews worshipped a God called … “El.”

We Catholics are in a world of hurt: Mary may not be a virgin, Jesus is named for a pagan God … what’s next, pop stars biting the heads off Santa dolls?!

* If you want to know more about “El” – and a lot of other things – I recommend James Kugel’s fascinating How to Read the Bible, p422-424. I’m half-way through and it is rocking my kasbah.

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