December 12, 2005

Isaiah's Reborn: John Stek Responds

I was please to receive a response from John Stek, the chair of the TNIV translation team in regards to the passage in Isaiah 26 I have already discussed.

The response leads me to believe that the TNIV committee did have the same general idea that I understood from their translation. If this is the correct translation it is very possible that Jesus in John 3 was in fact alluding [1] to this passage. Here is Stek’s response:

Isaiah 26:18 is not at all transparent and consequently has been variously understood. The Committee understood the verse as a confession of failure on the part of Israel. They confess to have done no more than "give birth to wind." That is, they have not been a source of "salvation" to the larger world (the "earth"). Hence, "the inhabitants of the world have not fallen" (a literal rendering). But "fallen" is generally understood (also in v. 19) as an idiom for being birthed.

To try to render this in English, the Committee, when preparing the NIV, rendered this line: "we have not given birth to the people of the world." That rendering, however, is open to misconstrual, so when revising the NIV in preparation of the TNIV, we faced the option of recasting the line minimally in some such manner as: "we have not given rebirth (or new birth) to the people of the world" or to recast it completely, as we did: "the people of the world have not been reborn." Because the latter is the more literal, we opted for it.

However, even then we had other choices. For example, we could have rendered the line: "the people of the world have not experienced a rebirth," or "have not been born anew." Whether wisely or unwisely, we opted for the more literal and the more economical wording. Of course, "rebirth," "born anew," "reborn" has to be understood in the light of the immediate context. As Brevard Childs has summarized the context in his 2001 commentary on Isaiah: "All the divine promises of the new age and of Israel's transforming of the world have not been realized." (Isaiah: The Old Testament Library, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, p. 191).

John S.

Most recently the ESV has translated [2] the verse as “fallen” however, as Stek pointed out ‘fallen’ can be seen as an idiom for being born. For example a situation where the mother is on a birthing stool and the baby drops, or falls out of the mother. In fact the ESV translates the same Hebrew word in verse 19 as “birth” but in 18 as “fallen.”

All of this apposed to the Septuagint’s understanding [3] of “fallen” as in adoration or destruction?

This brought to mind some of the reasoning behind the TNIV aside from the gender-wording issues that have received much of the attention. I’ll address these in another post.


[1] John 3:1-15 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

[2] Isaiah 26:18 “we were pregnant, we writhed, but we have given birth to wind. We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth, and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen.”

[3] “We have conceived, O Lord, because of thy fear, and have been in pain, and have brought forth the breath of thy salvation, which we have wrought upon the earth: we shall not fall, but all that dwell upon the land shall fall.” (LXX)

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