Did Isaiah Really Predict a Virgin Birth? Some Interesting Backstory to the Bible’s Most Famous Prophecy

As I seem to be doing more and more these days, I have taken on an utterly too ambitious topic for this article.

Maybe you could chalk it up to the inner masochist in me, but I don’t think such an explanation tells the (entire) story. Truth is, this subject has been in the back of mind for over three years, rattling around in there and surfacing every once in a while to see if I was ready for the task of tackling the issue of the virgin birth prophecy.

Mick Haupt

After learning that the word virgin in Isaiah 7:14 does not strictly mean virgin, I began wondering if skeptics' claims that early followers of Jesus mistranslated or misconstrued the Scriptures to suit their purposes are legitimate.

In truth, although I have done quite a bit of homework on this, I am in no way an authority on the subject. Furthermore, the web article format simply cannot do the issue the justice it merits. To say this issue could fill an entire book is no exaggeration as many authors have already undertaken and fulfilled the task.

Nevertheless, I think the issue is worth addressing and revisiting because it is important we know of deficiencies (or perceptions thereof) regarding the Bible.

Lost in Translation?

In case you’ve never encountered the arguments, here’s the most common iteration:

The original Hebrew manuscript for Isaiah 7 uses the Hebrew almah which translators render “virgin” in the majority of English translations. The word almah, though, means young woman, not virgin. Therefore Matthew mistranslated the prophecy or worse: deliberately changed the meaning in order to convince fellow Jews Jesus was the Messiah. Or, at the very least, the gospel writer misapplied a bastardized translation of prophecy to Jesus of Nazareth.

Again, the examination of these issues can and has filled entire books, so I’ll give you just a primer. But first, let’s take a look at the passages. From Isaiah:

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)

Next is 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 Scripture passages for reference, let’s dig in. Multiple different issues emerge here, so let’s start with the easiest to debunk.

Matthew mistranslated or changed the meaning of the Isaiah passage.

In reality Matthew did not translate anything in quoting Isaiah.

He quoted from a collection of Greek translations of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures) known as the Septuagint. Scribes translated the first five books of the Old Testament into Greek in the third century BC, and by approximately 150 BC various groups of men had finished translating the rest of the Scriptures.[1] 

So as you can see, Matthew’s source had been in use for over two hundred years at the time he wrote his book. And, although we don’t have firm dates for the completion of the Greek translation, textual critic Emmanuel Tov notes that the translation of Isaiah—the book from which Matthew took the virgin birth prophecy—contains clues that reveal a time frame of between 175-150 BC.[2]

Therefore Matthew didn’t translate anything, but rather used the Septuagint as his source text in his gospel. Lest you think this is unusual, the overwhelming majority of Old Testament quotations in the New Testament come from the Septuagint.[3]

It is logical that Matthew used the Septaugint as his source since he was already writing in Greek, as did all of the New Testament authors. But why write in Greek if his intended audience was Jewish? It's hard to pinpoint the exact reasons, but for one, Greek was more common in first century Palestine. Hebrew had been in sharp decline with only the highly educated able to read it. This is why Jesus, when speaking to the Pharisees, chief priests and scribes, would say, "Have you never read in the Scriptures?" But to the masses he would say, "You have heard that it was said."[4]

In reality, literacy among the Jewish people in Israel was probably around 10%[5], and Greek and Aramaic were more common everywhere except for Judea.[6] In addition, for those Jewish people outside of Israel in places like Alexandria, Greek held an even stronger influence. So if Matthew wanted to reach the widest possible audience, Greek was his best choice.

All of this aside, the most likely reason for writing in Greek is that Greek may have been the only language in which Matthew was literate! It is probable his occupation as a tax collector for the Roman empire required knowledge of the language.

Whatever the reasons, you can see Matthew didn’t translate or change anything; he quoted an already existing document in the form of the Septuagint.

Fine, then the Septuagint is a corrupt translation of the original Hebrew text.

This is usually the next line of attack once we establish that Matthew quoted from an existing source predating Jesus of Nazareth.

First, the idea of an “original” Hebrew manuscript is misleading. The Masoretic Text is the authoritative version of the Tanakh for Jews, and it is the text on which the majority of Christian Bibles base the Old Testament. But this authoritative text did not reach its final form until around the year 1000 AD.[7,8] The Masoretes started in the 7th century AD to edit and codify the Scriptures in order to make sure the meaning was not lost by adding vowels to an otherwise vowel-less text. So to say that the Masoretic text is the original Hebrew is a mistake. The text the Masoretes produced was based on one of multiple existing versions of the Hebrew Scriptures.

That’s not to say that the Masoretes didn’t do a bang-up job. They did. In fact, some scrolls found at Qumran (i.e. the Dead Sea Scrolls) are nearly identical with the final Masoretic product (minus the vowels and diacritical markings, of course).

Nevertheless only about 35% of the Biblical manuscripts found at Qumran line up exclusively with what would become the Masoretic Text. At least 5% of the Dead Sea fragments agree with the Septuagint translation.[9] This demonstrates that the Septuagint is not a mistranslation of the Masoretic source, but instead a translation of an alternate Hebrew version of the Tanakh!

The bottom line is that in Matthew's day, a central “original” Hebrew text did not exist. The first century saw a plurality of Scripture versions in use, and this did not seem to bother anyone. Different manuscript versions of the same text coexisted in caves at Qumran. Why bother to keep Septuagint source texts if they held no validity in the first century?

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

Now we’re getting somewhere.

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

But since I've already taken up quite a bit of space here, I'll answer this and more objections in the next blog post. Stay tuned for part two.

In the mean time, you should download my free guide to the Old Testament. It gives you a 90-day reading plan to survey the entire first portion of the Scriptures.

If you've ever wanted to read through the Old Testament, or simply want to dive deeper, this guide is for you. It's called How to Read Through the Old Testament without Getting Lost or Dozing Off, and the best part? It's free. Just enter your email below, and it's yours:

You'll also get my monthly subscriber-only articles. They are just like these blog posts, but they only go out to people on my email list. (Of course, you can always unsubscribe at any time.)

I'll see you next month with part two of this post.


1. “Septuagint,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Septuagint.
2. Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible: Second Revised Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 137.
3. Timothy Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), Kindle Edition, 85.
4. Matthew 21:16 and 5:27 respectively, emphasis added.
5. Catherine Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2001), 496.
6. Angel Saenz-Badillos, A History of the Hebrew Language, trans. John Elwolde (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 167-170.
7. Law, When God Spoke Greek, 7.
8. Ibid, 22.
9. Tov, Textual Criticism, 115-116.

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