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Francis on Isaiah 7:9 in Greek and Hebrew

July 6, 2013

I thought BLT readers might be interested in this excerpt from Pope Francis’ first encyclical letter, Lumen Fidei (English title On Faith), released yesterday. This is paragraph 23, the first paragraph of chapter 2. (I’ve added some paragraph breaks for clarity.)

Unless you believe, you will not understand (cf. Is 7:9). The Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint translation produced in Alexandria, gives the above rendering of the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz. In this way, the issue of the knowledge of truth became central to faith.

The Hebrew text, though, reads differently; the prophet says to the king: “If you will not believe, you shall not be established”. Here there is a play on words, based on two forms of the verb ’amān: “you will believe” (ta’amînû) and “you shall be established” (tē’āmēnû). Terrified by the might of his enemies, the king seeks the security that an alliance with the great Assyrian empire can offer. The prophet tells him instead to trust completely in the solid and steadfast rock which is the God of Israel. Because God is trustworthy, it is reasonable to have faith in him, to stand fast on his word. He is the same God that Isaiah will later call, twice in one verse, the God who is Amen, “the God of truth” (cf. Is 65:16), the enduring foundation of covenant fidelity.

It might seem that the Greek version of the Bible, by translating “be established” as “understand”, profoundly altered the meaning of the text by moving away from the biblical notion of trust in God towards a Greek notion of intellectual understanding. Yet this translation, while certainly reflecting a dialogue with Hellenistic culture, is not alien to the underlying spirit of the Hebrew text. The firm foundation that Isaiah promises to the king is indeed grounded in an understanding of God’s activity and the unity which he gives to human life and to the history of his people. The prophet challenges the king, and us, to understand the Lord’s ways, seeing in God’s faithfulness the wise plan which governs the ages.

Saint Augustine took up this synthesis of the ideas of “understanding” and “being established” in his Confessions when he spoke of the truth on which one may rely in order to stand fast: “Then I shall be cast and set firm in the mould of your truth”. From the context we know that Augustine was concerned to show that this trustworthy truth of God is, as the Bible makes clear, his own faithful presence throughout history, his ability to hold together times and ages, and to gather into one the scattered strands of our lives.

The NABre, the official English translation of the Bible for American Catholics, renders this part of Isaiah 7:9 as

Unless your faith is firm,
you shall not be firm!

Neither the online NABre, nor my hardcopy NAB study bible, nor my New Jerusalem bible, mention the Septuagint rendering that Francis writes of here.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2013 5:22 pm

    Of course, the Hellene translation of the Hebrew reads like this:

    καὶ ἐὰν μὴ πιστεύσητε, οὐδὲ μὴ συνιῆτε.

    This Greek can be variously translated into English, and some even call the translation Pope Francis is citing a “mistranslation” –

    yes though you may not believe nor understand.
    — tr. Charles Thompson

    but if ye believe not, neither will ye at all understand.
    — tr. Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton

    And if you do not believe,
    neither shall you understand.

    New English Translation of the Septuagint, tr. Moisés Silva

    The motto of the Alexandrian School was, [Si non credideritis, non intellegetis] “Unless you believe, you will not understand” (a mistranslation and misapplication of Isa. 7:9 in the Septuagint).
    — page 219, Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning, by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., and Moisés Silva

  2. kmpenner permalink
    July 6, 2013 9:05 pm

    Menzies argues that the reading of Isa 7:9b represented by MT, Vg, Symmachus, Theodotion, and Tg. Jon. “if you will not believe, then you will not be established” was corrupted by a scribe’s minor mechanical error compounded by a second scribe’s brilliant but mistaken conjectural emendation, to produce the reading of the LXX, Peshitta, and VL ” If you will not believe, then you will not understand” (Menzies 1998). “It is likely that if 1QIsa reflects a corrupted text, it was corrupted from a form of the verb אמן rather than a form of the verb בין since תאמינו differs from the MT’s תאמנו by only a single consonant. This corruption should probably be attributed to an accidental insertion of a stray yod, perhaps by a fatigued copyist, and perhaps in unconscious imitation of the hiphil form of the word which appears earlier in the verse. At this point the meaning of the text became obscured. This first error was compounded when a later copyist, who recognized that there was a problem with the text of his Vorlage (1QIsa or a relative), attempted to correct the problem by emendation. This copyist substituted תבינו for (the second) תאמינו” (Menzies 1998, 126).
    This was a favourite verse of Augustine, but he was preceded by
    Irenaeus, Dem. 3 (
    Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 2.8.2; 2.17.4; 4.134.4
    Tertullian, De baptismo 10.1; Adv. Marcion 4.20.13; 4.25.3; 4.27.9; 5.11.9
    Cyprian of Carthage (Ps.), Ad Vigilium 6; Quir. 1.5; 3.42
    Origen, in Ps B (Pitra, 453); Pascha 2.47; in Ps K (PG 23.105); in Exod. 7.3
    De recta in Deum fide (GCS 4.112)
    Eusebius, Comm. Isa. 1.43; Dem. Ev. 7.1.19, 26-28, 42, 111; Preap. Ev. 12.1.3
    Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. Illum. 5.4

  3. July 13, 2013 11:02 pm

    When I was working through Childs’ comments on Clement here I listed some of the evidence and translations that are current.


  1. Francis on Isaiah 7:9 in Greek and Hebrew | Gaudete Theology
  2. Day 199: Isaiah 7-9; The Sign of Immanuel | Overisel Reformed Church
  3. Day 206: Isaiah 32-34; Final Judgments | Overisel Reformed Church
  4. Have You Not Heard ? | text2013

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