“The virgin shall conceive.” That’s how the Greek OT rendered Isaiah 7:14, by using the word parthenos (the standard word for “virgin”) to translate the Hebrew term ‘almah. The Jewish translators made this choice in their Greek version, almost 350 years before Matthew seizes upon this line as a prophecy of the miraculous conception of Jesus.
At this point, Jews – from Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion (in their revised Greek translations), to Justin Martyr’s fictional debate partner Trypho the Jew – begin to backtrack from the rendering quoted by Matthew, opting instead for neanis. And as time moves on to the so-called Enlightenment, we begin to hear that if Isaiah had meant “virgin”, he would have used the word betulah, which is unambiguous.
But wait a minute. First, betulah is no more unambiguous than ‘almah. The Canaanite goddess Anath goes by the title “Virgin” (btlt), but her virginity is questionable (to the extent that one can question the factual details of a myth). Likewise, the virginity of Babylon (Isa 47:1) and even Israel are open to question, if collective identities can lose their virginity. True, betulah is most often accompanied by the specification that the girl has never had sexual experience, but one might ask whether that is necessary to spell out, if sexual inexperience is undoubtedly implied in the word.
Curiously, even the Greek parthenos is not as unambiguous as often thought. Dinah is called a parthenos after she is violated by Shechem in Genesis 34:3 (translating the Hebrew na‘arah, “girl”).
Second, we can dismiss the claim that the Hebrew term ‘almah in Isaiah 7:14 can only mean “young woman.” The word, in both its masculine and feminine forms, emphasizes the subject’s youth and inexperience, such as when young David is called an ‘elem in 1 Samuel 17:56 (see also 1 Sam 20:22, where ‘elem is used to describe what 20:25 calls a na‘ar qaton or “little boy”). Miriam is called an ‘almah in Exodus 2:8, and Proverbs 30:19 refers to the seduction of an ‘almah, a verse which seems to imply that the girl has no prior sexual experience.
The ‘almah root is also found in the substantive noun ‘alumim, “youth/youthfulness”, which is found in Isaiah 54:4, Psalm 89:45, Job 20:11, and Job 33:25. Overall, the picture we get from this term ‘almah is a picture of a girl who is young and inexperienced, a synonym of na‘arah, betulah, and parthenos.
So the claim that Isaiah 7:14’s ‘almah has no connotation of virginity is not as slam-dunk as we’ve been led to believe. Rather, ‘almah is part of a semantic field of words that all emphasize youth and inexperience. The real question is how the birth of any child to any mother (virgin or not) 700 years in the future can be a sign to a king in Isaiah’s day. It appears that the initial sign to Ahaz was a normal birth that took place in the 730’s BC. The supernatural conception and birth of Jesus of Nazareth 700 years later was Isaiah’s prophecy “on steroids.”
NEXT WEEK: “QUIT BASHING THE PHARISEES”
Rev. Tom Hobson, Ph.D., is Assistant Pastor at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church (ECO), Chesterfield, MO, and author of What’s on God’s Sin List for Today?