[B-Greek] KATABOLH SPERMATOS/WN (was "Translating Hebrews 11:11")

Iver Larsen iver_larsen at sil.org
Sun May 3 05:14:56 EDT 2009

Thanks to Elizabeth and Carl for these citations and to Yancy Smith for helpful comments that he had
trouble getting through to the list, so he sent them to me. I am not getting much support, but I
would still like to present my views, not expecting many to agree. Please bear with me if this goes
somewhat into translation, but any translation reflects a particular understanding of the Greek text
and context.

As a Bible translator, my quest into Hebrews 11:11 has had two main areas of interest.
1. What is the most likely intended meaning of the verse?
2. Why have the English Bible translation tradition gone in one particular direction, different from
the tradition in some other Bible translation circles?

I believe the main reason for 2. is the Vulgate translation
virtutem in conceptionem seminis accepit.

This questionable translation is more or less copied in the Geneva Bible and the KJV:
"Sara herself received strength to conceive seed".

KJV has the same phrase "conceive seed" in
Lev 12:2 "If a woman have conceived seed" LXX: GUHN hHTIS EAN SPERMATISQHI

Num 5:28: "then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed."

The various non-Biblical citations show that KATABOLH can in certain contexts refer to the
"planting/laying down" of seed(s) both in the ground and in the womb. Normally "seeds" occur in the
plural as can be expected. If the reference is to seed from plants, both plural and singular may be
used, but the singular is rarely used for the human "seeds".

The KJV translation makes no sense in modern English, so RSV dropped the "seed" and said:
"Sarah herself received power to conceive."

The problem with that is that KATABOLH SPERMATOS cannot by any reasonable stretch of the imagination
mean "conceive". As many have pointed out, the laying down of the seed(s) is the prerogative of the
man, not the woman.

By the way, the common word for "conceive" in the LXX is SULLAMBANEIN. In the NT it is at times 
clarified by the addition of (EN) GASTRI/KOILIAi, because the word has other common senses. To 
become pregnant is LAMBANEIN EN GASTRI and to be pregnant is ECEI EN GASTRI.

The problem of "conceive" has been handled (or mishandled) in various ways in English versions:
Change the subject to Abraham as in NET: "By faith, even though Sarah herself was barren and he was
too old, he received the ability to procreate", or in NRSV: "By faith he received power of
procreation, even though he was too old" or in TEV: "It was faith that made Abraham able to become a
father," or NIV: "By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was
enabled to become a father." (The TNIV changed the subject back to Sarah and avoided the conception
word: "And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children.")

These are all questionable, because the subject in the Greek sentence has to be Sarah, and the
phrase in question does not mean "bear children", although the TNIV might be an acceptable idiomatic
translation and it is not far from the intended meaning.

I think it would be possible to construe EIS KATABOLHN SPERMATOS in such a way that the implied
agent for KATABOLH is still Abraham, but it seems unlikely. (She received power towards/enabling a
laying down of seed (by Abraham).)

Another reason for the questionable English tradition is that some basic exegetical principles seem
to be overlooked. The immediate or close context is always more important and relevant than a
distant context. By the immediate context I mean the verse itself and surrounding verses. Since the
subject is Sarah and Sarah cannot be the subject of "planting/sowing a seed", the suggestion that
this is the meaning of the Greek phrase is not likely to be correct.
By close context, I refer to the NT and the LXX, because Hebrews was written to an audience who was
stooped in the LXX and familiar with the NT. For this audience, Biblical Greek is more relevant than
secular Greek. Similarly, people need to learn Biblical English to understand some of the English 
versions and
they would be floundering if they relied too much on secular English.

In the LXX and in the NT SPERMA has two meanings (corresponding to Hebrew zera'):
1. Seed of a plant
2. Offspring

In sense 1 it may be used in plural, e.g. Mat 13:32, Mrk 4:31, and 1 Co 15:58. Gal 3:16 is a special
play on words of sense 2, where Paul interprets the singular use of SPERMA to refer to ONE
descendant rather than a group of descendants, even though the Hebrew Zera' can refer to both a
singular offspring and a group of descendants. This is prophetic argumentation, or Jewish
contemporary logic, not modern logic.

SPERMA occurs no less than 280 times in the LXX (214 in Genesis-Malachi), so it is not a rare word
where we have to search in extra-biblical sources for its meaning. It does not occur in the plural,
but that is in part a reflection of the Hebrew singular form Zera', because when the reference is to
seeds from plants as is the case in 14 out of 59 occurrences in Genesis and a few other places, a
plural could have been used in at least some of the Greek expressions. (There are two plurals in
4Macc 18:1 - offsprings - and Dnt 1:12 ?).
Sense 2 first occurs in Gen 3:15. Based on the glosses in my computer version of the Hebrew, sense 1
occurs about 70 times in the OT and sense 2 about 135 times. (A thorough study of all occurrences
would render more accurate figures, since the glosses are not always reliable.) The word occurs 21
times in Sirach, all in sense 2.

There is a third sense, but for that to come into effect, another word has to be added. This is the
sense of "sperm" or "human seeds".
The Hebrew expression is "laying of seed" (shikbat zera') and this is consistently translated as
KOITH SPERMATOS in this special sense in order not to confuse it with sense 1 or 2 which are the
common senses.
This expression occurs 8 times in the LXX corresponding exactly to the 8 times where this Hebrew
expression is used: Lev 15:16,17,18,32; 18:20; 19:20; 22:4; Num 5:22.

So, notwithstanding the usage in non-Biblical Greek, the Jewish and Greek speaking readers of
Hebrews would naturally use their knowledge of the LXX to interpret Heb 11:11. They would be used to
SPERMA in sense 1 and 2 above, but for sense 3 would have expected an expanded phrase or other clear
clues in the context that this was the intended meaning. KATABOLH is not a sufficient clue to lead
in that direction, since it has many other senses.

They would also come to the text with the knowledge of common phrases like SPERMA ABRAAM (not SPERMA

What Hebrews 11:11 is telling us is not only was Abraham the founding father of the Hebrews, but
that Sarah by faith became the founding mother of the Hebrews. KATABOLH refers to foundation in all
other usages in the Greek NT, so the phrase probably means "foundation of offspring." By faith she
was given the power to give offspring (a son) to Abraham. That is close to the meaning of several 
versions, too, but they miss the concept of foundation, the "mother of the Hebrews", parallel to
Abraham as the father of the Hebrews.

Notice also the only other two usages of SPERMA in Hebrews:

SPERMA is a Biblical technical term for "offspring/descendant(s)" and this is by far the most common
usage of the word. That is in my view the best foundation for understanding Heb 11:11.

Many translations who are not dependent on English tradition have taken this exegetical route,
including the revised Luther Bible: Durch den Glauben empfing auch Sara, die unfruchtbar war, Kraft,
Nachkommen hervorzubringen trotz ihres Alters. (to bring forth descendants).
Münster: "Durch Glauben empfing auch selbst (die) unfruchtbare Sarra Kraft zur Grundlegung von 

I could cite many other non-English versions, such as a Swedish one:
Genom tron fick jämväl Sara, fastän överårig, kraft att bliva stammoder för en avkomma
(Through faith even Sara, even though too old, received power to become founding-mother for a 
A Norwegian one: Ved tro fikk også Sara kraft til å bli mor for en ætt, og det til tross for sin 
høye alder
(By faith Sara, too, received power to become mother for a group of descendants, and that in spite 
of her old age.)

Iver Larsen

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