Reply to Atheist JMS Pearce: “Mistranslation” of “Virgin”? (Isaiah 7:14)

Reply to Atheist JMS Pearce: “Mistranslation” of “Virgin”? (Isaiah 7:14) July 26, 2017

[many thanks to Glenn Miller of A Christian Thinktank for his extraordinary biblical research, which I’ve massively utilized]


Virgin and Child with Four Angels, by Gerard David (c. 1450/1460-1523) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Jonathan MS Pearce has written a series, “Debunking the Nativity”: in which he offers up a series of weak, fallacious, highly selective arguments, that he believes are decisive refutations of Christian and biblical contentions regarding the birth and infancy of Jesus. I’ve already dealt with his argument concerning when Old Man Herod died (he thinks the data contradicts Matthew). Now, I am replying to his piece on “The Mistranslation of ‘Virgin'” (12-7-16). His words will be in blue.


Jonathan lays out the basic data and dispute:

[T]he original Hebrew books were translated into Greek anywhere from the 3rdCentury BCE to as late as 132 BCE. Isaiah 7:14 uses a particular word, almah, whose meaning is variously “young woman”, “girl” or “virgin”. Jewish and secular scholars have argued that it is this word which has caused much trouble in the interpretation of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good. For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken. (7:14-16)

Alright. Now what arguments can he bring to bear? He utilizes very few, briefly explained. I will bring many, profusely argued. Readers can then determine the relative strength or plausibility of each competing argument.

His general skeptical thesis is as follows:

Remaining on the subject of the virgin birth, it is worth noting the issue involving the mistranslation of the very word “virgin”. . . .

This translation used by Matthew, according to skeptics, is erroneous. This translation made by Matthew is incorrect it is claimed, since the original Hebrew word almah means young woman in the same way that elem, the equivalent, simply means young man. Matthew uses the Greek word parthenos which exclusively means virgin. The more proper Hebrew word for virgin is bethulah, it is similarly claimed. . . .

In order to translate it as “virgin” one has to take the prophecy well out of context and use the word in its more unlikely form. . . . 

I posit that the Septuagint translators and Matthew mistranslated the passage and Matthew misappropriated the passage from Isaiah for his own theological ends.

As usual, he thinks the Christian arguments are easily disposed of (or else he is counting on his atheist and skeptical readers to be blissfully unaware of the mountain of Christian “counter-research” on the topic: as if it is nonexistent). In fact, the debate is extraordinarily more complex than he makes out. For Jonathan, it’s simple: Matthew “mistranslated” (and he appears to perhaps also insinuate that this was intellectually dishonest). In Jonathan’s opinion, even the 72 Septuagint translators (who weren’t the despised Christians, since there were none yet) were incompetent. Well, we’ll see, won’t we?, as we examine this issue in the depth it deserves — as opposed to Jonathan’s cursory dismissal.  He proceeds to particular arguments:

One problem Christians face is that if “virgin” is the translation it has a definite article (”the”) rather than an indefinite article (“a”) required by “a virgin” meaning that a reference to an unknown woman in the future is less likely.

Gesenius Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon (Samuel Tregelles, translator, Baker: 1979) states along these lines:

Peculiar to Hebrew is the employment of the [i.e., definite] article to denote a single person or thing (primarily one which is as yet unknown, and therefore not capable of being defined) as being present to the mind under given circumstances. In such cases in English the indefinite article [“a”] is used.

Hebrew doesn’t have indefinite articles. See a collection of the statements of Hebrew grammatical works on the topic of usage of definite articles, and also much related material in a source I use below (use a word search for “definite article”).

It certainly seems like the prophecy has been forcefully co-opted, shoehorned even, into predicting Jesus as Messiah. . . . 

Given that it quite obviously seems that this passage is a prophecy involving Ahaz and not Jesus, then it seems more likely that almah does actually refer to “young woman”. . . . 

It has been claimed that this prophecy, then, was a dual prophecy predicting two different outcomes. However, dual prophecies have no precedent—there are simply no other examples of such a thing.

To the contrary, dual application or dual fulfillment or “double reference” of prophecies is a fairly common occurrence in biblical prophecy (particularly in messianic prophecies).  An article on website explains this and provides many examples. This notion also overlaps with the common biblical motif of prototypes and types and shadows. For example, David was a prototype of the Messiah (as were Joseph, Moses, and Joshua to a lesser extent), and Elijah was a prototype of John the Baptist (as Jesus alluded to in Matthew 11:7-14: “he is Eli’jah who is to come”).

Thus, the fact that Isaiah 7:14 makes reference to Ahaz as a subject does not rule out a possible messianic application. But even if not regarded as a “dual application” it can be plausibly argued that the passage as read simply has a wider application than only Ahaz (i.e., it has more than one subject). Thus, apologist Glenn Miller (more on him below) elaborates:

The prophecy is given to not just Ahaz, but to ‘the house of David’–the ‘you’ in v.14 is plural, and Ahaz is addressed as a representative of the line (whereas in 7.1-9, the phase ‘house of David’ is described as ‘Ahaz and his people’–v.2). The point here is that the message is addressed to a historically-larger group (i.e. the dynasty and lineage of David) than a simple ‘local’ fulfillment would suggest. . . .

It might be worth pointing out that even historical, non-messianic prophecies (esp. of national or international scope) often reached beyond the lifetime of the specific historical ‘addressee’. Even in this section of Isaiah, Ahaz is promised that “Within 65 years, Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people” (7.8)! Ahaz would never live long enough to see the fulfillment of that prophecy (he would see the beginning of it, but not the end). Prophecy is often a process–not simply an event.

The upshot of all this is this: In response to Ahaz’ failure to exercise his royalty in line with Davidic mandates of loyalty and trust, God will step in to provide a true Davidic king, Immanuel. This king will appear after the consequences of the failure of Ahaz and family have manifested themselves in history, with the invasion of Assyria extending even to Judah (but stopping short of Jerusalem–cf. 8.8c). This Immanuel-child will appear with a ‘larger than life’ birth (to an unknown virgin) and manifest a ‘larger than life’ set of abilities/responsibilities, and function as a sign to the entire House of David, that God is active in delivering his people (in spite of Ahaz’ unbelief).

This understanding of the text seems to do the best justice to the various historical contexts and literary details in the passage [notice, without invoking notions of ‘double fulfillment’ , ‘multiple senses’, etc. . . .]

The standard Christian defence of this is that in other instances where almah is used to refer to a young girl, the person has on occasion at least incidentally been a virgin. Moreover, they claim that bethulah itself can sometimes refer to women who are not virgins (such as Esther 2:8-17) and is sometimes used with a phrase to clarify that the woman has not known a man. However, for critics, the use of almah in Isaiah would suggest a correct translation would be young woman as opposed to virgin since it appears to refer to a wife of King Ahaz. Importantly for the translation of the Hebrew word almah, the Aramaic and Ugaritic cognate terms are both used of women who are not virgins, more commonly in the context of age. [Footnote 1: For example, the Revised English Bible, the Revised Standard Version, James Moffatt Translation and the New Revised Standard Version.] . . . 

The debate is still strong, since many Bible translations use “young woman” as opposed to “virgin”. . . . 

It is interesting to note that most Bible translations (apart from, for example, The Revised Standard Version) which include the New Testament translate almah in Isaiah as “virgin”.

There are many besides RSV that translate it “young woman” (e.g., Good News, NRSV, REB, NEB, Moffatt, Goodspeed, and Knox, in effect the same idea, with its “maid”). That’s eight that do not have virgin, alongside eleven major translations that do (KJV, NIV, ASV, NKJV, NASB, NAB, Douay-Rheims, Confraternity, CEV, ESV, Young’s Literal). Amplified Bible has both notions: “young woman who is unmarried and a virgin.” But since it includes virgin, I’ll classify it with those versions making it a 12-to-8 ratio of 20 major translations (60% to 40%). Big wow. We Christians can disagree on translation matters (I have all the versions above in my own library, save for Young’s).

It’s another thing altogether, however, to make the claim that one party is utterly unjustified in their preferred rendering. I don’t see that such a negative appraisal is warranted in this instance at all. But atheist polemical criticism of Christianity demands it, I reckon. I prefer to give folks (including even Bible writers) the benefit of the doubt, as to knowledge and (if indeed this is also being questioned) honesty.

However, translations of the Hebrew Bible which do not include the New Testament merely translate the word as “young woman”. For Jewish translators, as mentioned earlier, youth is what is implied by the term and not virginity.

All this shows is that the Jewish community appears to lack diversity in scholarly views as to translations. Who is being more “dogmatic” here?

As Messiah Truth, a Jewish source, claims, “Other more accurate vocabulary was available to Isaiah had he desired to specifically refer here to a virgin—the Hebrew term  (betulah) means a virgin.”

Now I shall massively respond to the heart of his argument (from choice of words and linguistics), utilizing the spectacularly researched, almost magisterial article on Isaiah 7:14 (virtually book-length) by Christian apologist Glenn Miller, who runs the fabulous Christian Thinktank site. He starts out with a nuanced disclaimer as to the relative apologetic strength of the argument, that I fully agree with (his all caps changed to italics, and added bolding for emphasis removed, as throughout):

Within the Christian worldview (which for me is validated by other means than the fulfilled prophecy of Is 7.14!), I accept the messianic status of the passage on reasonable grounds [his italics], relative to my paradigm community.

Now, outside the Christian worldview, in perhaps the realm of apologetic discussions, Isaiah 7.14 is not a passage I would adduce to prove either the supernaturalness of the Bible (from fulfilled prophecy) nor the messiahship of Jesus. The data it gives us is too easily ‘suspended’ on the basis of general exegetical considerations, . . . To at least my Western mind, the connection does ‘jump out at me’ like perhaps Micah 5. 2 or Zech 11. So, although I will interact with Jim on this passage (for I do think the data is against his grounds for dismissal of it), I do not want to give the impression that I consider this passage a strong argument for Christian claims.

Miller tackles the meaning of the Hebrew bethulah:

Bethulah is often connected with ‘virginity’ in the lexicons, but TWOT [Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Waltke et. al)] points out that this is now questionable:

Virgin, maid, maiden; probably from an unused verb baµtal “to separate.” Although Hebrew lexicons and modern translations generally translate bethulah as “virgin,” G. J. Wenham (“Betulah ‘A Girl of Marriageable Age,’ ” VT 22:326–48) and Tsevat (TDOT II, p. 338–43) contest this as the general meaning but prefer “a young (marriageable) maiden.” But whereas Wenham does not concede the meaning “virgin” in any text, Tsevat allows this meaning in three out of its fifty–one occurrences (Lev 21:13f; Deut 22:19; Ezk 44:22). In any case, a strong case can be presented that bethulah is not a technical term for virgo intacta in the OT, a conclusion that has important bearing on the meaning of almah in Isa 7:14.

[Abbreviations: TDOT II = Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament: 11 volumes]

Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament states about Isaiah 7:14:

Like Greek parthenos, Latin virgo and German Jungfrau, betula originally meant “young marriageable woman” but since she was normally a virgin it was not difficult for this meaning to become attached to the word. This more technical meaning is a later development in Hebrew and Aramaic and is clearly its meaning by the Christian era. When the change took place is not clear.

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 betulah as a more precise term than almah.

New Bible Dictionary (Third Edition. I Howard Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, D.J. Wiseman. IVP:1996) — article, “Immanuel” — comments as follows:

Why did Isaiah designate her by this particular word alma? It is sometimes said that had he wished to teach a virgin birth there was a good word at his disposal, namely, bet_ula. But an examination of the usage of the latter word in OT reveals that it was very unsatisfactory, in that it would have been ambiguous. The word bet_ula may designate a virgin, but when it does the explanatory phrase ‘and a man had not known her’ is often added (cf. Gn.24:16). The word may also designate a betrothed virgin (cf. Dt.22:23ff.). In this latter case the virgin is known as the wife (ishah) of the man, and he as her husband (ish). But the word bet_ula may also indicate a married woman (Joel 1:8).On the basis of this latter passage a tradition arose among the Jews in which the word could clearly refer to a married woman. [TankNote: later Jewish tradition made this word into ‘non-menstruating’, applying even to menopausal women–cf. Vermes, Jesus the Jew, pp.218ff] Had Isaiah employed this word, therefore, it would not have been clear what type of woman he had in mind, whether virgin or married. Other Heb. words which were at his disposal would not be satisfactory. Had he wished to designate the mother as a young woman he would most likely have employed the common term narah (‘girl’). In using the word alma, however, Isaiah employs the one word which is never applied (either in the Bible or in the other Near Eastern sources) to anyone but an unmarried woman. This unmarried woman might have been immoral, in which case the birth could hardly have been a sign. We are left then with the conclusion that the mother was a good woman and yet unmarried; in other words, the birth was supernatural. It is the presence of this word alma which makes an application of the passage to some local birth difficult, if not impossible.

After presenting this data and many other similar massive citations (that can be read at the link), Miller concludes, as to bethulah:

Now, the data up to this point about bethulah indicates that virginity is not an implication from the word, with the core meaning of the word being that the woman still lived under her father’s sponsorship, roof, and legal authority. In that day and age, this would sometimes imply virginity (with the concomitant notions of respectability and chastity), but it would not have been the main focus of the word at all. Modern scholars tend to accept the arguments of Wenham and Tsevat, and see bethulah as referring to a ‘girl of marriageable age, living in the household of her father’.

The two main passages that are generally used to “prove” that virginity is NOT the core concept (or even an implication from the word) are Gen 24.16 and Joel 1.8. . . . [extensive commentary then is cited]

In short, it is incorrect to say that “bethulah” is the word that would have been used, if ‘virginity’ was a major issue of the passage. It generally means ‘young woman, living in the household of her father’ (with OR without virginity)…

He then turns his attention to the Hebrew almah, which is used in Isaiah 7:14:

The linguistic data is fairly straightforward. This word, in contradistinction to bethulah, is never used of a non-virgin (either in the OT or in ordinary cognate usage). It still generally means ‘young woman’ but always includes the notion of virginity and non-marriage.

For relative brevity’s sake, I’ll cite two sources of the five that he provides:

The rarity of its usage makes determining its meaning very difficult. The masculine <elem occurs only twice and is translated, “lad,” “stripling,” or “youth.” This may suggest that almah is another term denoting a girl of a particular age — but of what age is uncertain. In Ex. 2:8 the girl could be younger than a teenager, but in Gen. 24:43 Rebekah is already of marriageable age (cf. v. 16 [bethulah]). In no case is it clear that an almah is married: indeed, Cant. 6:8 contrasts the king’s wives (“queens” and “concubines”) with the “maidens [alamoth] without number.”. So possibly almah means “virgin,” since all unmarried girls in Israel were expected to be chaste. Often it has been argued that since bethulah denotes “virgin,” almah cannot have this technical sense. But if bethulah means “teenage, nubile girl,” then it is not impossible that almah means “virgin.”…It would certainly help the discussion if the meaning of almah were clearer. Unfortunately, the evidence is too meagre to be decisive. It is not certain what differentiates almah from other Hebrew terms for younger females. Elsewhere almah is never used for girls who are definitely married (Prov. 30:19 is equivocal), so this may weigh against interpretations that suppose that Isaiah was thinking of the king’s wife of his own wife. But the lexical evidence is not strong enough to rule out such possibilities. Certainly Isaiah’s use of almah contributes to making this a striking and mysterious prophecy. [ISBE] [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised ed., Geoffrey W. Bromiley (ed), Eerdmans:1979.]

Third, the term almah is never used in the OT of a married woman, but does refer to a sexually mature woman. There are no texts in the OT where almah clearly means one who is sexually active, but it is possible that Song of Solomon 6:8 (cf. Prov 30:19) implies this. It would appear then that almah normally, if not always, implies a virgin, though the term does not focus on that attribute. Fourth, several of the Greek translations of the OT (i.e., Aq, Sym, Theod) translate almah with neanis;  however, the LXX clearly translates it with parthenos. It is probably correct to say that if almah did not normally have overtones of virginity, it is difficult if not impossible to see why the translators of the LXX used parthenos as the Greek equivalent. [NT:DictJG, s.v. “Birth of Jesus”] [Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Joel Green, Scot McKnight, I Howard Marshall (eds.), IVP:1992.]

Miller opines:

Now, let me comment on a couple of the seven almah verses. There are two verses that are sometimes advanced as evidence that almah is used of non-virgins: Proverbs 30.19 and Song of Solomon 6.8. The scholarly data sources listed above indicate that these two verses either (a) support the ‘unmarried’ meaning; or that the passages are (b) too unclear to contribute to the discussion.

[massive citation of applicable scholarly sources follows]

Miller summarizes the differences between bethulah and almah:

Okay, let’s check where we are…we have seen that bethulah is a social word, describing a woman’s relationship to patriarchal authority, and that alma is a biological word, describing a woman’s reaching the age/ability of childbearing. NIDOTTE [New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, William A. VanGemeren (gen.ed.). Zondervan:1997+ (5 vols) ] can summarize part of this:

The lexical relationship between (bethulah) and (almah) is that the former is a social status indicating that a young girl is under the guardianship of her father, with all the age and sexual inferences that accompany that status. The latter is to be understood with regard to fertility and childbearing potential. Obviously there are many occasions where both terms apply to the same girl. A girl ceases to be a  (bethulah) when she becomes a wife; she ceases to be an (almah) when she becomes a mother.

Thus, I have to conclude–on the basis of lexical and usage information that:

The word yalda would have been inappropriate in Isaiah 7:14 because it refers to a child. Likewise na’arah would have been the more normal choice if a young woman had been the object of Isaiah’s thought, for it is used of both married and unmarried women. Some say that if Isaiah had really wanted to denote virginity he would have used bethulah which primarily denotes virginity. However, bethulah was used of widows and others who had experienced coitus. Furthermore, a bethulah can be a woman of any age, making the word difficult to qualify as a specific sign. The evidence supports both the traditional translation of “virgin” and the modern translation of “young woman,” but each must be qualified. The English term “virgin” does not suggest age limitations while the English phrase “young woman” does not suggest virginity. The word almah demands both, and so a more accurate translation would be “young virgin.” [Niessen]

This brings us around to Matthew’s use of parthenos (following the Septuagint, which was standard New Testament practice). Miller (after comprehensively consulting the linguistic exegetical literature) renders his judgment:

Looking back now (after the 5 years between my first draft of this article and now in 2002), the lexical data still looks overwhelmingly in favor of the original, traditional position about the words alma, bethulah, and parthenos, although the means of getting to this conclusion are different than the original lines of argument laid down decades ago by the lexicographers. One can see in the lexicon entries above that ‘virgin’ still shows up for bethulah, and that ‘young girl’ still shows up for almah, but the modern climate/consensus (reflected in many of the later sources cited above) is that both words have been somewhat misunderstood until now. Now, from both cognate and fresh studies of the social context, neither are words specialize in a focused, core meaning of virgo intacta. Bethulah has come to be understood to apply to a marriageable woman, living in her father’s house (generally a virgin, but not so in the case of widows or the divorced); and almah has come to be understood as a ‘young, fertile, unmarried–and hence chaste in that culture–woman’. What this means is that if any notion of virginity were intended–even as only an ‘implication’–almah was the best/only word to do that job. And hence, parthenos in the New Testament (the only word that could be used for ‘virgin’) was the correct word for Matthew to use (as well as Luke).

All of this data considered together, is, I submit, far more plausible than Jonathan’s contention that the translators of the Septuagint were incompetent, and Matthew, dead wrong in how he cited the Old Testament. There is more than ample linguistic warrant and justification for the Septuagint’s and Matthew’s use of parthenos as a translation of the Hebrew almah. It has certainly been proven, I think, at the very least, that it was not a “mistranslation” (“deliberately” or not).

See also an additional related paper by Glenn Miller, answering an objection that Jonathan didn’t raise: “Isn’t the verb tense of Is 7:14 present instead of future?” Also, see additional clarifying comments of his on the passage.

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