Virgin Birth—or Prophetic Slip?
One of the first miracles recorded in the New Testament is the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. According to Matthew 1:22-23, Isaiah prophesied about the virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14. However, some in the scholarly community (particularly those within the atheistic and agnostic segments) deny that Isaiah was prophesying about a virgin birth. Isaiah 7:14 reads as follows in three separate translations:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (ASV, emp. added).
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (KJV, emp. added).
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman'u-el (RSV, emp. added).
The difficulty with the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 lies in the Revised Standard Version’s translation of the verse, which renders the Hebrew word ‘almâ as “young woman.” The American Standard and King James Versions render ‘almâ as “virgin.” If the correct translation of the verse is “ young woman,” then Matthew misquotes and misuses a section of Isaiah. According to Sam Gibson, a former-believer-turned-skeptic and author of the website Cygnus’ Study Debunking the Bible, the Bible cannot be true since, “there is not one prophecy in the Bible that cannot be explained away through rational, chronological, interpretive or other methods without relying on the supernatural” (2001). If Isaiah is not a prophecy at all, then others like Mr. Gibson will fall from Christianity, citing the Bible as unreliable.
Those who are opposed to the interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 as a prophetic passage referring to a virgin birth claim that ‘ almâ does not mean “virgin,” and that the word used exclusively for “ virgin” is the Hebrew word betûlâ. Both of these claims, however, are inaccurate. A careful look at the etymological and semantical aspects of these two words actually documents the fact that there is no single-word-meaning for either Hebrew term.
According to John Walton, one of the translations of ‘almâ is “young woman,” but there are certain nuances to the Hebrew term. After examining all occurrences of the word, and looking briefly at its etymology, Walton gave the lexigraphical definition of ‘almâ as “one who has not yet borne a child and as an abstraction refers to the adolescent expectation of motherhood.” In application to Isaiah 7:14, he admitted that virginity seemed to be implied (1997a, 3:415-418). As to the claim that, if Isaiah had meant virgin, he would have used betûlâ, Walton refutes that as well. He says that betûlâ is a “social status indicating that a young girl is under the guardianship of her father, with all the age and sexual inferences that accompany that status” (1997b, 1:783). If the passage was a prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus, then betûlâ would not apply since Mary, while not yet married per se to Joseph, was nonetheless no longer under the guardianship of her father.
The Septuagint renders ‘almâ in Isaiah 7:14 as parthenos, which means “a female of marriageable age with focus on virginity” (Danker, 2000, p. 777). Concerning the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew, Dohmen noted:
It is unlikely that the LXX [Septuagint] tried to import the concept of a virgin birth, a familiar idea in many religious traditions, into Isa. 7:14. It is also possible that the unusual translation of the LXX is an attempt to accommodate the meaning of the text as altered by both the redaction and the reception of the original prophetic oracle (2001, 10:160, emp. added).
The translators of the Greek Septuagint rendered ‘almâ as parthenos, which generally means “virgin,” instead of neanis, which generally means “young woman” (Danker, p. 667). Jerome, in his translation of the Bible into Latin, rendered parthenos as virgo, which usually means “virgin” (Dohmen, 10:160). It is interesting that the translators of the Septuagint took the thought of the Hebrew passage and translated it into a Greek word for “virgin.” Since they worked about two hundred years before Christ was born, then the translators of the Septuagint could not have been trying to “fit” scripture to a Christian viewpoint, but instead were merely giving the correct translation for the passage. Of the passage in Isaiah 7:14, H.D.M. Spence and Joseph Exell made the following observations:
The rendering “virgin” has the support of the best modern Hebraists, as Lowth, Gesenius, Ewald, Delitzsch, Kay. It is observed with reason that unless ’almah is translated “virgin,” there is no announcement made worth of the grand prelude: “The Lord himself shall give you a sign—Behold!” The Hebrew, however, has not “a virgin” but “the virgin” (and so the Septuagint, h parthenos), which points to some special virgin, preeminent above all others (1962, 10:128, emp. in orig., italicized Greek words transliterated from Greek characters in orig.).
The point is well made that Isaiah was emphasizing a special birth, worthy of being considered a sign from God. With that in mind, the logical translation for ‘almâ is “virgin.”
Besides Isaiah 7:14, ‘almâ is used in Genesis 24:43, Exodus 2:8, Psalm 68:25, Proverbs 30:19, Song of Solomon 1:3 and 6:8. In an examination of the passages using the word ‘almâ, H.C. Leupold concluded that it “cannot be denied that such a one is to be classified as a virgin” (1988, 1:156). James Coffman drew an identical conclusion in his Commentary on Isaiah, citing Homer Hailey’s conclusion that the word ‘almâ , as used in the Old Testament, must be referring to a virgin (1990, p. 75). J. Gresham Machen, in his classic book, The Virgin Birth of Christ, indicated that “there is no place among the seven occurrences of ‘almah in the Old Testament where the word is clearly used of a woman who was not a virgin” (1980, p. 288).
In Genesis 24:43, the word ‘almâ refers to Rebekah, who we know from Genesis 24:16 was a virgin (which, incidentally, is designated by the term betûlâ). So here both betûlâ and ‘almâ are used to refer to a virgin girl. In Exodus 2:8, ‘almâ refers to Miriam, the elder sister of Moses. There is nothing in scripture to indicate that his sister was married at that time. In fact, it appears that she was not married and still living at home; therefore, ‘almâ likely is referring to her virgin condition. The Psalm 68:25 reference uses ‘almâ to designate young girls who were playing timbrels in what appears to be a religious parade or ceremony. It is highly unlikely that these girls were not virgins, since it would be uncommon for either a married woman or an unchaste girl to be involved in such a procession. Proverbs 30:19 is a little harder to decipher, but it appears that it is referring to intercourse between a man and a woman. [“There are three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: the way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maiden.”] However, it is impossible to ascertain from the verse whether or not the woman was a virgin. From the context of Song of Solomon 1:3 (“Thine oils have a goodly fragrance; thy name is as oil poured forth; therefore do the virgins love thee”), ‘almâ can refer only to a virgin. Song of Solomon 6:8 (“There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number”) also is obviously referring to virgins, as opposed to the queens and concubines who have lost their virginity.
In Matthew 1:18-25, the apostle Matthew provided a divinely inspired commentary, citing Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy fulfilled by the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us’ ” (Matthew 1:22-23, emp. added).
Therefore, the only conclusion that one can draw respecting the available evidence is that the Hebrew word ‘almâ, as used in Isaiah 7:14 and elsewhere in the Bible, is properly rendered “virgin.” The term does not always mean virgin in non-biblical writings, nor do analogous terms of other Semitic languages necessitate this translation. Nevertheless, in biblical usage, the only example that can be found is of a young woman whose virginity is intact. Leupold commented:
The translation “virgin,” therefore, deserves to be moved out of the margin [referring to the marginal translation of ‘almâ as “virgin” that the RSV gives] and into the text; and the translation “young woman” merits no more than marginal status (1988, 1:157).
While correct on certain other translation points, the translators of the RSV made an erroneous judgment in the case of Isaiah 7:14.
Coffman, James Burton (1990), Commentary on Isaiah (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press).
Danker, Fredrick William (2000), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
Dohmen, C. (2001), “‘almâ, ‘elem,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 10:154-163.
Gibson, Sam (2001), “Cygnus’ Study—The Prophecy Challenge,” Cygnus’ Study Debunking the Bible, [On-line], URL: http://www.cygnus-study.com/prophecy.shtml.
Leupold, H.C. (1988), Exposition of Isaiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Machen, J. Gresham (1980), The Virgin Birth of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Spence, H.D.M. and Joseph Exell (1962), The Pulpit Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Walton, John (1997a), “‘alûmîm, ‘elem, ‘almâ,” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 3:415-419.
Walton, John H. (1997b), “betûlâ,” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 1:781-784.