“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14
In reference to this, “Arnie” had this to say,
“in the tanach is 14;7 the word is not virgin. the word almah is used which means young girl who may or may not be a virgin. if the word betulah had been used it absolutely means virgin. seeing that the christian translation in matthew is virgin that is 100% wrong.one would think thatis such an important verse the word betulah would have been used.”
While “Goldenberg” commented,
“Nowhere in the Tanakh it’s sad that a virgin will give birth to a child. If you translate properly from Hebrew you’ll note that it’s about a young girl but not necessarily a virgin. How do you deal with this major issue?”
Both of them are articulating a very common Jewish objection to Jesus, so it seems right to ask: is there any truth to what Arnie and Goldenberg claim? Is Isaiah 7:14 really a messianic prophecy regarding the virgin birth of Jesus, or is it merely a mistranslation? Let’s take a look at the meanings of the Hebrew words in question: almah and betulah.
The word almah is not a common one in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, it appears only 10 times. In six of these instances, the plural alamot is used, and the singular almah appears in the remaining four. In the ten places in which almah appears it is usually translated as “maiden,” and describes a young woman who is of age to marry, yet is not married. All of this would seem to support Jewish objections that Christian translators have botched it, but closer examination will reveal that this is not the case.
It is true that almah does not explicitly refer to virginity. Yet in none of the 10 passages from the Hebrew Scriptures which contain almah does it refer to a young woman who is married at that time. Consider that in the Biblical period, a young Jewish woman of age to marry would have been presumed to be virginal. Let’s examine some of the other verses of Scripture in which almah appears.
• “Behold, I stand by the well of water; and it shall come to pass, that when the virgin cometh forth to draw water, and I say to her, Give me, I pray thee, a little water of thy pitcher to drink;” Genesis 24:43
In reference to Rebekah, the Hebrew almah is translated as “virgin.”
• “Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Go ahead." So the girl went and called the child's mother.” Exodus 2:8
“The girl” in this passage is Miriam, the sister of Moses. She is referred to with the Hebrew almah, and both Jewish commentators and the historian Josephus speak of her as being only 10 or 12 years of age. Although women did marry early in the Biblical period, it doesn't seem logical to believe she was anything but a virgin at this point in the narrative.
• “Because of the fragrance of your good ointments, your name is ointment poured forth; therefore the virgins love you.” Song of Solomon 1:3
This passage uses the plural alamot, which Jewish commentators often translate as “virgins.” Consistency of usage argues that the use of almah in Isaiah 7:14 means "virgin." Some Jewish objectors – such as Arnie and Goldenberg – like to claim that this is a Christian mistranslation, while the correct (and Jewish) translation is “young woman.” The ancient rabbis who translated the Septuagint (a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek) certainly did not seem to think this, since when they translated Isaiah 7:14 they rendered almah as parthenos, a Greek word which unequivocally means “virgin” -- NOT "young woman." Dr. Cyrus Gordon, a scholar of semitics, argues that the Christian translation rests on this Jewish translation.
“The commonly held view that "virgin" is Christian, whereas "young woman" is Jewish is not quite true. The fact is that the Septuagint, which is the Jewish translation made in pre-Christian Alexandria, takes almah to mean "virgin" here. Accordingly, the New Testament follows Jewish interpretation in Isaiah 7:14. Therefore, the New Testament rendering of almah as "virgin" for Isaiah 7:14 rests on the older Jewish interpretation, which in turn is now borne out for precisely this annunciation formula by a text that is not only pre-Isaianic but is pre-Mosaic in the form that we now have it on a clay tablet.”
Gordon, Cyrus H., Almah in Isaiah 7:14, The Journal of Bible & Religion, Vol. 21(April 1953), p. 106.
When objectors argue against Isaiah 7:14 as a Messianic prophecy that refers to the virgin birth of Jesus, they often do so by claiming that if Isaiah had meant “virgin” instead of “young woman,” then the prophet would have used a different Hebrew word meaning virgin: betulah.
How well does this argument hold up? Let’s examine some of the usage of betulah to find out. The Hebrew scriptures speak of two types of betulot (virgins). One is the sense of the true virgin. The other is what is called the betulah m'orashah, or the “betrothed virgin.” We see an example of this in Deuteronomy 22, where the virgin in a state of betrothal is referred to as the man’s isha, or wife. This would seem to argue against betulah having the singular meaning of “virgin.”
Let’s take a look at some other passages of Scripture which use the term betulah, and see if they uphold the argument that Arnie and Goldenberg present.
• "And it came to pass, before he had done speaking, that, behold, Rebekah came out, who was born to Bethuel, son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham's brother, with her pitcher upon her shoulder. And the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her: and she went down to the well, and filled her pitcher, and came up." Genesis 24:15-16
In this passage, Rebekah is referred to with the term betulah, but note carefully that this is immediately qualified with the phrase, “neither had any man known her.” If betulah unquestionably was understood to mean “virgin,” why would it have been necessary to add, “neither had any man known her?”
• "Lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth." Joel 1:8
In this verse, the prophet uses betulah in a highly unusual context, which one would not expect to associate with virginity. It’s been suggested by some commentators that this refers to a virgin who was betrothed to be married, but that her betrothed died before the union could be consummated. However, the verse uses the Hebrew ba’al in reference to the husband, and in the Hebrew Scriptures ba’al never refers to a betrothed man, only a married man. Context therefore argues that betulah was referring to a married woman.
It would seem that there are problems defending the accusation that the rendering of almah as “virgin” is a Christian mistranslation. It would also seem that the argument that the prophet Isaiah would have used betulah if he was referring to a virgin does not hold up well to scrutiny. In fact, one could argue that had Isaiah done so, critics might have had much more ammunition to argue that he is not referring to a miraculous, virgin birth.
I would imagine that the translators of the Septuagint had good reason to translate almah as parthenos, sending the clear message that Isaiah meant a virgin would give birth. Those translators didn’t have a theological stance they were trying to defend, they were just trying to be faithful to the text and to translate it as accurately as they were able.
The objection that critics such as Arnie and Goldenberg raise, on the other hand, is based on a pre-determined stance: that Christian scholars have purposefully mistranslated the words of Isaiah, and that the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus was never even foretold. In my opinion, it’s a shame that it’s not an objection based on an honest examination of the Scriptures.