In my last post I made a case for the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, I noted that according to Matthew’s Gospel, this miraculous birth was prophesied in Isaiah 7:14. However, there are many skeptics today who deny Isaiah made any such prophesy about a virgin birth. The source of this assertion by modern skeptics is found from the New School scholarly ranks, i.e. mainly those within the atheistic/agnostic and liberal segments. Naturally skeptics latch on to these NS arguments and perpetuate them as if facts, but of course there is more to the debate. Therefore in this post I will explore the “debate” of Isaiah 7:14.
Isaiah’s prophecy (to the House of David) reads as follows:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you (all) a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah7:14)
Skeptics will argue that the Hebrew word “almah” Isaiah used to describe the mother in this passage does not mean “virgin”, but rather “young girl”. They claim if the passage was referring to virginity then the Hebrew word “betula” should have been used. Aye aye aye! Where to start?
First, it is true that the word “almah” suggest youthfulness and appropriately denotes a “young girl”. Although it is worth noting that in ancient Judaism, a young girl would be understood to be a virgin. That said, many scholars will attest that there are several nuances to the Hebrew term. Meaning depending on how the term is used, and in what context, it can have another meaning (i.e. virgin). In the case of Isaiah 7:14, the writer is prophesying the Sign of Immanuel, which means God with Us. With that in mind, what would be the significance of a “young girl” becoming pregnant with a child? Moreover, what kind of sign is that to look for? It is fair to say that at any time in the world there is always a young expecting mother somewhere – ancient Israel is no exception. Therefore, clearly the context of the prophecy indicates that God’s SIGN (for Immanuel) has to do with the highly unusual nature of this birth. Meaning here is a young girl for whom giving birth would not be normal and indeed highly unusual, i.e. miraculous or supernatural in nature — by a virgin.
Once more, if there is any doubt as to how Hebrew speaking Jews from antiquity viewed this passage, then one need look no further than the Septuagint produced around 200 BC. The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible or Jewish scriptures. In it, the word “almah” in Isaiah 7:14 is translated as “parthenos” which is the primary Greek word used for “virgin” – again this translation was made two hundred years before Jesus was born. So it is with great amusement, at least to me, that there are actually some modern scholars who pompously assert that they actually know more when it comes to discerning what ancient text said (or meant), than say those ancient Hebrew & Greek speaking Jews who lived over two thousand years ago. You know … those people that actually produced the text, read them and later translated them into the dominant language of their day. Moreover, Matthew showed no aversion to the Jewish translation of his day, often quoting from the Septuagint, and from his Gospel, he clearly understood the prophetic sign from Isaiah 7:14 to be when a “virgin” is with child. Knowing the stories in circulation about Jesus’ virgin birth, Matthew sees this prophecy to the House of David found in Isaiah fulfilled by Jesus’ birth, and that Jesus IS Immanuel. A point Matthew explicitly makes in his Gospel.
Now what about the word “betulah” that skeptics argue should have been used if Isaiah ‘meant’ virgin? Like the word “almah”, there are several nuances to this Hebrew term. Meaning depending on how the term is used, and in what context, it can have various meanings. Betulah can refer to a virgin, but it most always means a “young maiden” — one in the charge or guardianship of her father. In other words, neither “almah” or “betula” means virgin in and of themselves, but both are terms consistent with virginity and properly denote the word “virgin” depending on the context and how each is used. Why is this? Because the fact of the matter is there is NO single word in the biblical Hebrew language that clearly, unequivocally, explicitly, ONLY and ALWAYS means virgin.
Therefore those skeptics who argue against the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, claiming that “almah” does not mean “virgin,” and that the ‘correct’ Hebrew word for “virgin” is the word “betula,” are in fact wrong on both claims. A careful look at the full scholarship on this issue, and NOT simply the misrepresentations and half-truths from select NS scholars of the atheist/agnostic and liberal persuasion, reveals that there is NO single word-meaning for either Hebrew term. The reality is that both terms in the proper context can refer to a virgin. With that in mind, let us now consider why Isaiah chose to use the word “almah” over “betula” in this prophecy. The choice between almah, which can denote a “virgin / young girl,” and betula, which can denote a “virgin / young maiden,” may at first glance appear okay to use interchangeably — but upon closer examination are not. Remember that a “betula” most always refers to a young maiden under the guardianship of her father. If the passage of Isaiah 7:14 was indeed a prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus, as professing Christians contend, then the word “betula” would not apply. Why? Because Jesus’ mother, Mary, while not yet married, was still betrothed to Joseph as his wife, and thus no longer under the guardianship of her father. This would naturally leave “almah” as the most applicable term in the Hebrew Language to describe Jesus’ mother in this prophetic passage. The very term Isaiah elected to use in this prophecy.
Finally, as if all this was not enough to settle the matter, one must consider that the rendering of “almah” as “virgin” in this verse (Isaiah 7:14) has the support of the best modern Hebraists, i.e. Kay, Lowth, Ewald, Gesenius and Delitzsch. Once more, virtually all modern major English translations properly render the term almah as “virgin” — with the only exception to my knowledge being the RSV/NRSV. But enough already, I think I’ve bloviated on this topic long enough. As is apparent, the Sign of Immanuel prophesied in Isaiah 7:14 clearly refers to a virgin that will conceive and give birth to a son. Those arguing otherwise, are either ignorant to ALL the facts, or are perpetuating erroneous claims, half-truths, distortions and the like. In any event, this debate, if it is even fair to call it that, is best described as rooted in what I classify “more skeptic nonsense”.
That is it for this post; I hope some may have found it insightful.