Did Isaiah Really Predict a Virgin Birth? Some Interesting Backstory to the Bible's Most Famous Prophecy (Part II)

Have you ever heard objections to the virgin birth prophecy found in Isaiah 7?

Some say virgin in Isaiah is a mistranslation of the Hebrew 'almah. They say using virgin doesn't make sense in context either; the word should really be translated young woman.

As Christians we should not shy away from biblical scrutiny, but instead embrace it. If the Bible really is the word of God, can it not hold up to criticism?

Last month we examined some popular questions and objections to Matthew's use of virgin when quoting from Isaiah 7:14.

We learned that the Gospel writer did not translate anything (as some have suggested) but instead quoted an existing Greek translation of the Hebrew known as the Septuagint.


Photo by Gareth Harper


We also examined claims that the Septuagint is a corrupt version of the Scriptures because it does not align with the more popular Masoretic Text.

If you have not yet read part one, I suggest you do so first because we set some foundations which will be useful to you as we tackle more questions surrounding the use of the word virgin in Isaiah 7. You can read that article here.

With that preamble out of the way, let's pick up where we left off.

But first, let's read the Scripture passages one more time for context. Here's the Isaiah passage:

The Lord spoke to Ahaz: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 
But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 
And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted." 
Isaiah 7:10 – 16 (ESV, emphasis mine)

From Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. 
When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall call his name Immanuel
 
(which means, God with us). 
Matthew 1:18-23 (ESV, emphasis mine)

With these Scriptures in place for context, let's examine some more objections to the use of virgin in the book of Isaiah.


The Old Testament we use is translated from the Masoretic Text, not the Septuagint, so why use virgin in Isaiah 7 if the MT is considered more faithful?


Now we’re getting somewhere.

While the criticisms we addressed in part one are easier to answer, this is where things get a bit more complex.

The word virgin in Isaiah 7:14 is the Hebrew 'almah[1] in the Masoretic Text, the primary source text for our Old Testament and for Rabbinic Judaism. Theologian James Strong defines 'almah as, "a lass" and also writes that the word means "virgin, maiden."[2] But the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament defines the word simply as, "young woman" and provides this useful clarification: 'almah "is not a technical word for a virgin but represents a young woman, one of whose characteristics is virginity."[3]

In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, scribes translated 'almah as parthenos. Where 'almah carries the insinuation of virginity, parthenos much more literally means virgin. All fourteen uses of parthenos in the New Testament are translated to English as virgin. Nevertheless, parthenos also carries the meaning of maiden and unmarried daughter.[4]

The way I understand it, parthenos is sort of the reverse of 'almah. Where 'almah means young woman and implies virginity, parthenos means virgin yet implies the virgin is a young woman. Clear as mud?

So here's the question: since we base our Old Testament on the Masoretic Text and not on the Septuagint, isn't it a bit dishonest or hypocritical to use virgin in Isaiah 7, since a more faithful translation of the Hebrew seems to be young woman?

This argument is the core of what has bothered me for years, and yet the answer is actually quite simple if you think about it:

Since Matthew quoted from the Septuagint and this example is so specific, it would not make sense to leave 'almah in Isaiah 7:14 as “young woman.”

In reality, young woman does probably make more sense in the context of Isaiah 7 and the situation King Ahaz found himself in. (More on this below.)

Nevertheless, as we saw above, although 'almah literally means young woman, virginity is implied by the word. In fact, Old Testament writers used 'almah six other times, and in three of those instances translators render the word virgin in English (in the King James Version).

In addition, I would argue that there is no 'almah-equivalent word in English. In the 21st century West, one cannot assume virginity in the same way one could assume virginity in the ancient near east. The cultural context of 'almah simply cannot be captured neatly in English.

Additionally, although the Masoretic Text has supplanted the Septuagint as the primary source text for the Old Testament, translators often use the Septuagint to help clarify otherwise confusing or seemingly incomplete passages. Aside from Isaiah 7, translators have relied on the Septuagint to clarify passages such as the first few verses of Deuteronomy 33 and the account of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 in which the Masoretic text seems to be incomplete. Basing Genesis 4:8 on the MT the Scripture reads:

Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. [ESV]

The first sentence is awkward and seems to be missing something. Many translations such as the NIV, then, use the Septuagint to clarify the passage:

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

This rendering provides clarity to an otherwise difficult passage.

So you can see, using “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 is not an illegitimate modification to the passage, but instead an attempt to clarify the meaning and to harmonize the prophecy with Matthew’s gospel.

Because the majority of Old Testament quotations in the New Testament come from the Septuagint, you'll see many passages that do not line up word for word with their supposed source. Take for example Romans 9:33. Paul quotes from the book of Isaiah when he writes:

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense;
    and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

But if you flip back to the passage in Isaiah 28:16 you get:

“Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion,
    a stone, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:
    ‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’

So typically translators leave the MT source in the Old Testament even though it doesn't line up explicitly with the passage's quotation in the New Testament. But again, the use of virgin in Matthew 1 is such a specific example that it makes sense to use the Septuagint parthenos in the text.

This isn't some form of dishonesty or trickeration since you'll see in the footnotes of any good Bible that the MT uses "young woman." If this were a cover-up, one wouldn't expect transparency in the footnotes of the text.


Septuagint or not, why translate 'almah as virgin at all? Wouldn’t Isaiah have used a different word if he really meant virgin?


Here’s where it gets really interesting.

We already established that 'almah literally means “young woman” with the insinuation that the woman is a virgin. Nevertheless, why didn't Isaiah use a more specific word if he really meant virgin?

The question, then, is which word would Isaiah have used? Many point to the Hebrew betulah which means “maiden, virgin.”[5] But problems arise with this word too.

Similar to 'almah, betulah is not a literal term for virgin but instead denotes age and marital status. As Dr. Michael Brown, a Ph.D in Near Eastern Languages, said, "Betulah can refer to a virgin, but more often than not it simply means a young woman or maiden. In fact, more than three out of every five times the word occurs in the Old Testament, the most widely used Jewish translation renders it 'maiden.'"[6]

Joel 1:8 is a good example of betulah's ambiguity. In the verse, a betulah, mourns the death of her husband. In this verse, young woman seems to make more sense than virgin.

So, As R. Laird Harris and the other editors of the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament argue, "What is clear is that one cannot argue that if Isaiah (7:14) in his famous oracle to Ahaz had intended a virgin he could have used betula as a more precise term than 'alma."[7]

Today, betulah does carry the more technical meaning of virgin, but this is a linguistic development post-dating the Bible.[8] As Dr. Michael Brown said, “There is no single word in biblical Hebrew that always and only means virgin.”[9]

So while betulah more closely means virgin than does 'almah, its use in Isaiah 7:14 would not be enough to satisfy critics in all likelihood. But even so I think there’s one more reason to use 'almah, and we’ll answer it in the next question.


What about Isaiah’s prophecy in the context of history?


One thing to keep in mind about prophecy is that it often serves a dual purpose; it has meaning in its immediate context but also applies to a time in the future. I believe such is the case with Isaiah's virgin birth prophecy.

Here’s where I’ll throw in a bit of opinion, but you can decide for yourself. I believe that were there a literal Hebrew word for virgin, Isaiah still would have used 'almah, because virgin would have actually been too specific. Virgin would not apply directly to the situation in Ahaz’s day.

Ahaz became king of Judah in 735 BC at a time when Assyria[10] was the dominate power in the Near East. Tired of paying tribute to Assyria, Rezin, king of Aram (Syria), formed a coalition with Israel to rebel. Thus started the Syro-Ephraimite War. Rezin and Pekah (king of Israel) petitioned Judah to join their cause. But when Ahaz refused, the two nations attacked Judah, hoping to depose Ahaz and set up their own king who would be sympathetic to their cause.

It is in the midst of this conflict that Isaiah offers assurance to Ahaz that Aram and Israel would fail:

Do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah. Because Syria, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has devised evil against you, saying, “Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it,” thus says the Lord God: 
“It shall not stand,
    and it shall not come to pass."
 
Isaiah 7:4-7

As confirmation of the prophecy Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask for a sign, but Ahaz refuses. So God gives the king a sign anyway: the 'almah will conceive and give birth to a son, and "before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted" (Isa. 7:16).

In other words, a young woman would give birth to a son and before the boy became old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, Assyria would defeat Aram and Israel.

This came to pass just as God said through the prophet. Ahaz requested assistance (accompanied by a gift of gold and silver) from Tiglath-pileser, the Assyrian king, who obliged. By 732 BC, fewer than two years after the prophecy, the Assyrians had destroyed Damascus, the capital of Aram therefore ending the Syro-Ephraimite war.[11]

But what about the child? This sign may have been fulfilled in the birth of Isaiah's own son in chapter 8. Isaiah writes:

And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, “Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the boy knows how to cry ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.” 
Isaiah 8:3-4

Maher-shalal-hash-baz means hasten to the spoil, referring to Assyria who would plunder Aram and Israel. Critics will point out that the wife of Isaiah was no 'almah, neither a virgin nor a young maiden of marriageable age. But this is not necessarily so. Although conjecture, some have imagined that the woman here was a new wife of Isaiah's due to the death of his previous wife.

One thing to remember: this wasn't just a prophecy for Ahaz, but for all of Judah. That's why God mentions the house of David by name in Isaiah 7:13. Ahaz, if you remember, was a bad dude. He worshiped false gods, he sacrificed his own son, and he looted the temple in order to make an altar in the style of the Assyrians.

So this salvation that Isaiah prophesied was not for the sake of Ahaz or on account of his righteousness, but rather it was to preserve the line of Judah, the house of David, that God had promised would never cease.[12] God saved the kingdom of Judah in order to keep his promise to preserve David by bringing about a Messiah. Who is that Messiah? None other than Jesus Christ, born of a virgin--God in human flesh who came to dwell with humanity.

So you see, using a word that strictly means virgin would have been too restrictive for the dual purpose of Isaiah's prophecy. Isaiah's wife, most likely a young woman, gave birth to a son named Maher-shalal-hash-baz, while Mary, a virgin, also gave birth to a son. God provided both as a demonstration of his preservation of the line of David: Maher-shalal-hash-bazin the short term and Jesus Christ in perpetuity.


Conclusion: Don't Fool Yourself into Believing the Virgin Birth Is Trivial


As you can see, Matthew’s use of “virgin” when quoting Isaiah is not a bastardization of the text--not on his part, and not on the part of the original translators of the text either. While it does not explicitly mean virgin, 'almah implies virginity.

Furthermore, it is not hypocritical of modern day translators to retrofit Isaiah 7:14 with the English word virgin because the Septugint used the Greek-equivalent parthenos (usage that predated Jesus’s birth) and because even though we now base the Old Testament on a different Hebrew source, the Septuagint better informs this passage because of its quotation in Matthew.

Nevertheless, if you’re bothered by the use of virgin in Isaiah because it does not fit in the context of King Ahaz, then your angst is probably justified. Scripture records no virgin birth in the 8th century BC, so in its original context “young woman” might be more appropriate for 'almah in the passage.

All told, due to the ambiguity of the immediate meaning of the prophecy and the clarity of its application to Jesus, to me it makes more sense to render 'almah as virgin in Isaiah 7:14. But if you can’t get past it, go ahead and read it as, “the young woman shall conceive.” Such a rendering still fully applies to Mary, mother of Jesus, even if some specificity is lost!

But don't fool yourself into thinking the virgin birth is unimportant or not authentic. Luke also attests that Mary was a virgin when she conceived our Lord. He did not appeal to Isaiah 7 because his primary audience was Theophilus, a gentile for whom the Jewish Scriptures held less (if any) sway.

I'd encourage you to read through the entire Old Testament this year to establish context for the New Testament and to give yourself a richer understanding of God's Word. Whether you've never made it all the way through or read the Old Testament several times, I've put together a curated reading plan to pick out the highlights of the first thirty-nine books.

It's totally free; just enter your email address below, and I'll send it your way:


I’m not here to tell you what or how to believe, but I do believe that if you examine the evidence with an open, honest, and prayerful approach, the Spirit will show you what is genuine. As Jesus said in John 16:13, “The [Spirit] will guide you into all the truth.”

As always, that’s my prayer for you and for me: that the Spirit would guide us into the truth. I pray that our own biases and preconceived notions about God and the Scriptures would never get in the way of what is real. So as we celebrate the Christmas season this year, may we focus on what is truly important: the incarnation of God for the salvation of humanity. Contained in those few words is one of the most precious truths ever revealed. That the Father loves us so much he sent his son to dwell among us, to be the Immanuel foretold by the prophet. If that’s not something to celebrate, I’m not sure what is.

--------------

Notes:

1. Also written as 'almâ.
2. James Strong, The New Strong's Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Hebrew and Aramaic Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 212.
3. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1980), 672.
4. James Strong, The New Strong's Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Greek Dictionary of the New Testament (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 193.
5. Strong, Hebrew and Aramaic Dictionary, 48.
6. Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2007) Kindle edition, location 4211 of 5869.
7. Harris et. al, Theological Wordbook, 138.
8. Ibid.
9. Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus, location 4225 of 5869.
10. Also called the Neo Assyrian Empire.
11. I relied on Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible at https://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/isaiah/7.htm and The Chronological Study Bible, New International Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014) Kindle edition to arrive at these dates. 
12. 2 Sam. 7:16, eg.


2 comments:

  1. Which ever word you use the bottom line shows that
    Mary was both a young woman and still a virgin.

    ReplyDelete