God Wants You Dead is an entertaining and subversive little book that reminded me of a well-known controversy in the translation of the Judeo-Christian Bible. Most educated people probably know that in Isaiah 7:14 it is prophesied that the Messiah will be born of an ‘almah’ of the House of David — and thereby hangs an ambiguity over which much ink and blood have been spilled.
Reading this, I was reminded of something most people don’t know — that a similar translation problem lurks even nearer the root of Christian theology…
The word ‘almah’ in Hebrew is ambiguous in much the same way ‘maiden’ is in English; it can mean “young woman” or it can mean “virgin”. Christian translations render it as ‘virgin’, interpreting it as a prophecy of the birth of Yeshua bar-Yosif, later called Jesus the Christ. This prophecy, is, in effect, conjured up out of what might be a translation error.
Here are two more facts known to many educated people:
1. The Christians did not begin to arrive at a settlement of the question of the divinity of Jesus until surprisingly late – the council of Nicaea in AD 325, and important controversies remained live until the Third Council of Constantinople in 680.
2. The original Aramaic-speaking Christians of Palestine having been effectively wiped out in the aftermath of the Bar Kokba revolt in AD 70, Christianity was re-founded by Paul of Tarsus among speakers of Koine Greek. The entire New Testament is written in Koine Greek.
Now here are two facts generally known only among a handful of specialist scholars. I picked them up through omnivorous reading and did not fully realize their significance for a long time.
3. In other Aramaic sources roughly contemporary with the New Testament, the phrase “Son of God” occurs as an idiom for “guru” or “holy man”. Thus, if Jesus refers to himself as “the son of God”, the Aramaic sense is arguably “the boss holy man”.
4. The Koine Greek of the period, on the other hand, did not have this idiom.
Now, imagine a Koine speaker reading the lost Aramaic source documents of which the Gospels are redactions, with only an indifferent command of the latter language He does not know that “Son of God” is an idiom…
Yes, that’s right. I’m suggesting that Jesus got deified by a translation error!
(Correction: The Bar Kokba revolt was AD 132; I was confusing it with the revolt of AD 70 in which the Temple at Jerusalem was destroyed.)