This is, as might be expected, the headline for the BBC: ‘Hebrew Expert: “Virgin Birth a mistranslation”‘. The presenter asked Stavrakopoulou what she would say to biblical literalists who would no doubt object to her comment. She replied, ‘They should learn to read Hebrew.’ In fact, to sort out this problem, they should know more about the Greek Old Testament than the Hebrew.
Their argument seems to be: parthenos can mean young woman; almah does mean young woman; therefore, by translating almah as parthenos, the LXX only means young woman. Not only does the conclusion not follow from the premise, but the argument is successfully reversible: almah can mean virgin; parthenos does mean virgin; therefore, by translating almah as parthenos, the LXX probably means virgin.
Moreover, these scholars seem to be ignoring one of the most critical exegetical tools in that verse: the author of Isaiah says that this birth is a miracle. If it follows that up by saying that a young woman shall conceive and give birth, that is not a miracle and renders the passage nonsense. If the intended meaning is virgin, which is one of the possible meanings of almah, then the passage makes sense. Therefore, virgin is a better translation if you go by the evidence in the text.
The word “almah” does not mean virgin. Just as the word “alma” in Hebrew means young man, the word “almah” means young woman. The word for virgin that is used several times in the Hebrew scriptures is “betulah.” And while a young woman may be a virgin, when “almah” is used in the Hebrew Bible in other verses (very few times, by the way), it means a young woman who bears children.
When Christians defend the translation of “virgin” for “almah” in Isaiah 7:14, they typically do not mean that “virgin” is the best equivalent for all cases where the word “almah” is used, but just that it is among the range of possible meanings for the word and that, in this case, the evidence suggests that that is the meaning intended. Now there are two premises there, and I don’t know if you are prepared to deny both of them or only one of them, but I think both are defensible: we claim that “virgin” is among the possible meanings of almah for several reasons, among them something you just admitted: “a young woman may be a virgin.” A stronger supporting reason is that almahs in the Bible are typically unmarried, and it would be unjust to suppose that an unmarried woman was anything but a virgin without evidence; therefore by speaking of a young woman in Hebrew culture, there is ipso facto a probable association of virginity. There are also several passages in the Old Testament where almah refers to virgins exclusively.
Re: the second premise, that in this case “virgin” is probably the intended meaning, we have the fact that Isaiah 7:14 presents the birth as miraculous. Tell me: is it miraculous for an ordinary young woman to conceive and bear a son? Because if you admit that it is not, then I cannot see how you can think that “young woman” is all it means. I would really like to know your answer to this question, so please, consider it thoughtfully.
However, if you look at the broader context of the whole passage from Isaiah, the meaning of the prophecy relates to the woes of King Ahaz rather than to the coming of the Messiah. The sign is a prophecy regarding when the kingdom of Judah will no longer be threatened by either Israel or Assyria: that is, before the son knows the difference between good and evil; and this prophecy does come to pass. IOW, it is the birth and development of the young woman’s son that is the prophetic sign specifically designed for Ahaz, and not the manner in which the young woman conceived of her child. Further, Isaiah would not have used a word such as “almah” if he meant to emphasize the conception of a child by a virgin, especially when the specific word for virgin, “betulah,” was so readily available. And besides, the word “almah” is also used in Proverbs in a less savory light to suggest an adulteress who leaves no trace of sexual relationships precisely because she is NOT a virgin.
The Gospel writer was able to refer to the citation of Isa. 7:14 when he gave his narration of the birth of Jesus, because his readers, whether or not they were aware of the semantic shift that had occurred in the short history of this little Greek word, knew that in the first century parthenos indeed meant ‘virgin’.
Moreover, the first part of Isa. 7:14 says, "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign…”
What sort of sign would it be for a ‘young woman’ to be found with child?
dmar198 & JerryZ
I wrote a chapter on this identical topic, entitled “Imperfect Scripture Bugging You.” I was driving home from work one day and heard Victor Bugliosi promoting his book called “Divinity of Doubt” (Bugliosi was the prosecutor in the Charles Manson case and wrote “Helter Skelter”). Bugliosi claimed that this very issue proved that Christianity was a fraud. I got so mad that I went home and wrote a chapter debunking his ill-advised theory.
It is not accurate that ‘almah’ can not imply virgin, or mean virgin.
In each case the Hebrew word almah explicitly means “virgin” or implies it; in each case almah always refers to an unmarried woman of good reputation. It is never used to refer to a married woman in Scripture. In Genesis 24:43, the word alma is used for Rebekah, Isaac’s future bride. The passage also records that she was a young girl and that “no man had touched her” (24:16). In Exodus 2:8almah describes the infant Moses’ older sister, Miriam. In Psalms 68:25, almah describes maidens being courted, while in Proverbs 30:19, almah is used to suggest the mystery of marriage and procreation-a virgin giving herself to a man. In Song of Songs 1:3 and 6:8, the Hebrew word almah is applied to virgins of the royal court as opposed to women who are sexually experienced.
Rabbinic Judaism maintains that the word bethula is the Hebrew word for “virgin.” It is true that this word is also used for a girl or young woman, and in the passage about the young Rebekah, both bethula and almah are used (see Genesis 24:16 = bethula; 24:43 = almah). However, while bethula may refer to a young girl who is a virgin, it is also used in the Old Testament Scriptures to refer to a young married or a young sexually active woman as it is in Joel 1:8 (bethula is found at least 50 times in Scripture). Most translations in English render Joel 1:8 as “mourn as a virgin bethula] bride in sackcloth mourns for the bridegroom of her youth,” accepting the revised Jewish rendering of the word bethula and adding the word “birde”, which does not appear in the Hebrew text. But this translation does not make sense in the context of the passage-bridegrooms have brides, but brides are no longer virgins. A young girl will mourn her bridegroom, but if it is a virgin who mourns, she is mourning her betrothed and not her bridegroom. If this passage was referring to a betrothed young woman and not a young woman whose marriage was already consummated, the Hebrew would have been bethula meorasah (The Book of Isaiah, Edward Young, volume I, page 288). Also, in Aramaic translations of Scripture, the Aramaic equivalent to bethula refers to a married woman. Isaiah did not use the word bethula because he did not want to confuse his readers. Isaiah’s prophetic statement clearly intends us to understand that “the virgin” with child is the force of the sign connected to the “House of David” (Is 7:13)-the use of the plural “you” in verse 14 indicates that the sign is not just for King Ahaz. The use of the words ha almah, “the virgin” and not “a virgin”, are deliberate. This virgin is a woman chosen by God to bear a son who will be a sign to the House of David and all of Judah.
Still further, the Septuagint uses parthenos to render Hebrew almah (which means a young woman, of the right age for marriage, who at least should be a virgin. Betulah is the more precise word for virgin). R. Laurentin (The Truth of Christmas Beyond the Myths, Petersham, 1986, p. 412, claims the Septuagint sometimes uses parthenos loosely. But this is not true. Actually, there are only two places in the OT where the Septuagint translates almah by parthenos. One is in Genesis 24. 43, where the context shows the girl is a virgin. The other is Is 7. 14. There are several other places where almah is at least likely to be a virgin. But the Septuagint is so careful that it uses instead of parthenos, a more general word, neanis in those cases. Laurentin in the English version appeals also to Genesis 34. 3 (in the French he had appealed to 34. 4, which does not have the word parthenos at all). But the case is at least unclear, since 34. 3 is likely to be an instance of concentric ring narration, common in Hebrew. And as we have just said, in all clear instances the Septuagint is very precise in its use of parthenos, at times more precise than the Hebrew (as shown by the context).
Some (unbelieving) Jews have done a similar thing by claiming that, in Hebrew Prophetic Scripture (the original language), the word used for Jesus’ birth “doesn’t exactly mean virgin, but young woman.”
The New American Bible translators bought into this suggestion, which of course introduces doubt concerning the Miracle of the Incarnation and Virgin Birth.
One argument I have to refute this notion is that, if the Blessed Mother were not a virgin at the Incarnation and Birth of Jesus, what would have been so special about it for God to announce it in Scripture?
The other argument is the obvious argument of Faith in the Gospels and Apostles’ teachings, which correctly interpret Scripture.
I think we’re giving Isaiah too little credit for inspiration.
“Bethulah” means a virgin, plain and simple.
“Almah” means a young woman of marriageable age, who can bear children, and can also mean a virgin. The closest English equivalent is “maiden” or “maid”, which is what Ronald Knox and the original Jerusalem Bible used.
Considering that the Blessed Virgin Mary was both Virgin and Mother, “almah” is the best word to capture these unique attributes.
Reason why the Apostolic Tradition and Magisterium are crucial. Words are ambiguous and the Tradition + Magisterium provide the correct application of ambiguous words, a la Matthew 1:25. I do very much like Monsignor Knox’s translation of that verse:
“and he had not known her when she bore a son, her first-born, to whom he gave the name Jesus.”
A case of the Magisterium and Tradition clearing up a verse which has lead, without proper translation, to much division and argumentation.
Another Catholic English translation of the Bible that I don’t think is given enough attention is the Christian Community Bible published by Claretian Press, which is used by the Claretian Order in the Philippines. It is a fresh translation of the Bible and its footnotes and book introductions are a hundred times better than the American NAB’s. (It’s also got an imprimatur and official support by a religious order and the hierarchy of the Philippines, which helps establish its credibility too.)
Anyway, its translation of Matthew 1:25 is one that I think deserves careful consideration, because if I’m reading it right it is perfectly defensible from the Greek and is much more clear than the usual English translation of that verse: “24 When Joseph awoke, he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do, and he took his wife to his home. 25 He did not have any marital relations with her. When she gave birth to a son, Joseph gave him the name Jesus.”