Part IV – The Isaiah Scroll

The passage of the Isaiah Scroll offered by Biblical Reproductions, from Isaiah, chapter 22, is a fairly straight-forward account of fortification work done by King Hezekiah in the days of an Assyrian threat against Judah in the late eighth century BCE.  The other section of this manuscript, from chapter 23, is a prophetic denunciation of the city of Tyre and other places. These texts are neither difficult nor complicated to translate. But other parts of the prophet’s writings are difficult and complicated indeed!

All translations of the Old Testament are based on the original Hebrew text, and/or the Greek translation, the Septuagint, made in Alexandria, Egypt, in the mid third century BCE, and/or the Latin translation of the Greek, called the Vulgate, made by St. Jerome in Bethlehem in the late fourth – early fifth century.

But translations are difficult and sometimes treacherous undertakings.  The best of translators may simply not know what the original Hebrew writer meant because the Biblical writers sometimes used a word that appears only one time in the Bible. The prophet Amos, for example, made his livelihood dealing with the sycamore trees (Amos 7:14)  but nobody knows just exactly what he did to them because the word he uses to describe his work is /boles /(בולס )   word which occurs only once in the Bible—whose meaning is unknown.

Sometimes translations are simply wrong. A famous mistake occurs in the sixth Commandment. The King James version says “Thou shalt not kill.” The Hebrew language, however, has two separate and distinct terms for the act of taking a life. In this commandment it uses the verb /ratzach (רצח)—/which mean murder—rather than /harag/(הרג)which is a general word for killing. So the commandment is “Thou shalt not murder;” a completely different idea from “Thou shalt not kill.”  The New International Version uses the correct term, murder, in its translation of Exodus 20:13.

The matter of translations becomes crucial in dealing with the role of Isaiah’s prophesies in forming the vision of the writers of the Gospels. The translation of Isaiah 7:14, “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son…” is particular problematic, as this verse has been so influential in forming Christian theology.  Hebrew has several words for a woman. The word Isaiah uses in 7:14 is /alma/(עלמה). That word means simply “young woman” and has no necessary connection to the technical term virgin; that is, a woman who has never had sexual intercourse.  Most modern translations indeed render the text as “young woman.”

The New International Version (NIV), however, renders the verse thus:

14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign:  The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. This translation thus lines up with to the long tradition accompanying this verse, but adds a footnote, at the word virgin, or  young woman.

It seems clear that the tradition and theological implications of this one verse have long since eclipsed the scholarly philological discussion of its exact meaning.

This  beautifully encased reproduction of the Isaiah Scroll is presented by Biblical Reproductions and is licensed by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Author:  Walter Zanger