Is the virgin birth really predicted in the Old Testament?

Is the virgin birth really predicted in the Old Testament? December 13, 2012

Mary with child
Guillaume Piolle, Wikimedia Commons

Did the Old Testament prophet Isaiah actually predict that Mary would conceive Christ while still a virgin?

In Guy Ritchie’s 2000 movie Snatch, Benicio Del Toro plays a diamond thief named Franky Four Fingers. As the story begins, Franky and his fellow workers of iniquity are in Antwerp for a heist, disguised as Hasidic Jews.

As part of the ruse, while guards check for weapons and surveillance cameras roll, Franky rambles on about the veracity of Scripture:

The Septuagint scholars mistranslated the Hebrew word for “young woman” into the Greek word for “virgin.” It was an easy mistake to make because there was only a subtle difference in the spelling.

So they came up with a prophecy: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear us a son.” You understand this? It was the word “virgin” that caught people’s attention. It’s not everyday a virgin conceives and bears a son.

But leave that for a couple of hundred years to stew, and the next thing you know you have the Holy Catholic Church.

‘Virgin’ or ‘young woman’?

Franky is referencing Isaiah 7.14 and what Christians consider the prophecy of the virgin birth of Christ. “Behold,” as the English Standard Version renders it, “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

This is the understanding picked up by Matthew in his gospel. “When Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit,” he explains. “All of this took place to fulfill what he Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son. . .” (1.18, 22-23).

But, as per Franky, there is some controversy here. When you put several translations side by side and layer these two passages one atop the other, you’ll notice a significant discrepancy.

Though all translation use the word virgin when Matthew quotes Isaiah, not all employ it when translating Isaiah itself. The ESV and New King James employ virgin, while the Revised Standard and the New Revised Standard both use young woman. There has been some recent controversy with the revised New American Bible, a Roman Catholic translation, over the same point.

So why the discrepancy? It goes back to those Septuagint scholars in Franky’s complaint.

Greek to me

The Septuagint, the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures, took the Hebrew word almah, which can mean both young woman and virgin, and rendered it parthenos, which more explicitly and exclusively denotes virginity. It’s impossible to know exactly what the original hearers of Isaiah’s prophecy thought it meant, but it’s clear that the later translators thought the prophet meant virgin, not merely young woman.

By the time of Christ, Hebrew had been largely sidelined by Greek translations like the Septuagint, which both Jews and Christians used. You can imagine what the first Christians thought when they heard of Mary’s conception and squared it with Isaiah’s prophecy in Greek.

Driving home the point, Eugen J. Pentiuc of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts, notes that Matthew shows evident familiarity with both the Greek and Hebrew text, indicating an intentional choice of the term virgin here.

As Christianity gained ascendancy, Jews began distancing themselves from the Septuagint — which contains other renderings favorable to Christian doctrine — and increased reliance on Hebrew texts, eventually establishing the Masoretic text tradition. Today the Old Testament in most English Bibles is translated from the Masoretic text, not the Septuagint, which is why the more specific, exclusive rendering virgin has been replaced in many instances with young woman.

So which is correct?

Would you believe both?

Engaged to be married

While it might seem that losing virgin for young woman is going the wrong direction, the Hebrew is actually stronger than the translation can muster. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament defines almah as a young woman ready and able to marry, or a woman who has not yet had her first child. Pentiuc adds, “We may mention that, given the ethical standards of the ancient Israelite society, the idea of virginity, though not distinctly stated, is nevertheless implied. . . .”

In his book The Messiah in the Old Testament, Walter Kaiser makes the same point: of the nine uses of almah in the Old Testament (in both singular and plural forms) all refer to unmarried women. Even though it does not say virgin, the implication is present. What’s more, says Kaiser, “the definite article on this word does speak not of any virgin, but of ‘the virgin’ — a special one whom God has in mind.”

Next, both Matthew and Luke’s narrative mention that Mary was betrothed to Joseph when she conceived. Pentiuc argues for a new etymology of almah that might well underscore this point — and thereby underscore the prophecy’s prediction of Mary’s virginity and even her identity. The lexical root of almah indicates something concealed or hidden, he says, explaining the significance:

During the period of betrothal, fiancés used to live in their parents’ homes, separated, secluded, forbidden from seeing one another. The feminine form, ‘almah, may also be rendered “the concealed one” or even “the veiled one.” This last rendition would reflect the custom of engaged women wearing veils over their faces as a sign of seclusion, or concealment, during the time of betrothal.

In other words, Isaiah was not just prophesying that a virgin would conceive. What’s more, he was not just prophesying the virgin would conceive. He was prophesying that the betrothed virgin would conceive.

Hello, Mary.

No mistake

Pentiuc draws out another fascinating difference between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text here. While the Septuagint’s Isaiah says the father will name the special child, the Hebrew/Masoretic text says the virgin will name the child, indicating that she is unmarried or that the father is absent.

However improbable a person might find the virgin birth, Franky Four Fingers is wrong.

The Septuagint scholars didn’t make a mistake. They were rendering as best they could what was obvious in the text: that a young, betrothed-but-unwed virgin would conceive and bear a son named Immanuel, which Matthew is kind enough to translate. The son of the virgin will be “God with us.”

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