Debunking the Nativity: The Mistranslation of “Virgin”

Debunking the Nativity: The Mistranslation of “Virgin” December 7, 2016

This is the third instalment in the “Debunking the Nativity” series and I will concentrate on the virgin birth. These posts sit alongside my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination.

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

Before I explain this, let me give a little history lesson as to how the Hebrew Bible was put together. The Jewish religion had the Tanakh which was a collection of books in Hebrew which broadly covered the Christian Old Testament. The Greek empire stretched over Judea and surrounding areas as a result of Alexander the Great’s exploits. This was known as the Selucid Empire. In order to allow the Tanakh to be accessed by those many Greek speaking Jews that were around, it was decided to have it translated into Koine Greek. This version is called the Septuagint, which means “translation of the seventy”, due to the legend in which seventy-two elders were supposedly put into seventy-two separate rooms only to come up with seventy-two identical translations (with God’s help).

Thus the original Hebrew books were translated into Greek anywhere from the 3rd Century 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)

This is one of the most referenced prophecies predicting Jesus as Messiah, and why Jesus was (in a manner of self-fulfilling prophecy?) named Immanuel. Aside from the fact that the rest of the prophecy makes no sense with its issues of good and evil, we have the key verse which talks of a virgin bearing a child.

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. As such, it is possible that because Matthew uses a mistranslation of an original Messianic prophecy, he mistakenly thought that the Messiah had to be born of a virgin rather than simply a young woman.

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.[1] 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”[2] meaning that a reference to an unknown woman in the future is less likely.

The debate is still strong, since many Bible translations use “young woman” as opposed to “virgin”[3]. What is perhaps more evident is the idea that Isaiah 7 doesn’t refer to Jesus at all, but as Bishop John Shelby Spong says[4], it is more likely a prophecy that was fulfilled during the Syro-Ephraimite invasion of Judah and the siege of Jerusalem by the combined armies of the Northern Kingdom and Syria in around 735 BCE. The child born to the young woman was supposedly a sign that the Jerusalem siege would end and the city would continue to thrive as it did before the conflict. A reading of the whole passage in context leads one to conclude that this must be the case. It certainly seems like the prophecy has been forcefully co-opted, shoehorned even, into predicting Jesus as Messiah.

As such, it is almost irrelevant as to whether the prophecy refers to a young woman or a virgin since it is a prophecy which clearly does not refer to Jesus’ birth. As biblical scholar and liberal Christian Thom Stark, in The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It), illustrates (2011, p. 28):

…the point is moot. Even if Isaiah did mean “virgin”, he was not predicting a miraculous birth. If the woman had been a virgin at the time Isaiah uttered the prophecy, she would not have been by the time she had conceived the child. However, the verb here, “to conceive” (harah), is in the perfect tense, which means it is a completed action. The best translation of the verse would reflect that the young woman was already pregnant, that Isaiah was predicting the child’s gender, and directing her how to name him: “Look, this young pregnant woman is going to have a son, and she shall name him Emmanuel.”

Stark continues to show how the Isaiah passage cannot possibly refer to Jesus, a considerable amount of time later, putting the verses into the context of the recent Assyrian conquest, and the child having to eat “cheese and honey” (uncultivated food) as opposed to bread and wine. 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”. 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.

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. Another issue is that if the word does mean “virgin” then it must mean virgin for both prophecies but the first prophecy does not refer to a virgin, rather the wife of King Ahaz. Moreover, how could the verses 7:15-16 apply to Jesus? That is a simply nonsensical idea. With these and many other issues, the dual prophecy theory collapses before it gets off the ground.

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”. 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. 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.”

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

TheNativity

NOTES

[1] For example, the Revised English Bible, the Revised Standard Version, James Moffatt Translation and the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] J.S. Spong, “A religious Santa Claus tale: The birth narrative of Jesus shouldn’t be taken literally”

[3] It is really worth checking out the lexical information about the Isaiah passage as set out in the NET Notes in the NET Bible: http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Isa&chapter=7&verse=14 (retrieved 10/03/2012). For example, “In Isa 7:14 one could translate, “the young woman is pregnant.” In this case the woman is probably a member of the royal family. Another option, the one followed in the present translation, takes the adjective in an imminent future sense, “the young woman is about to conceive.” In this case the woman could be a member of the royal family, or, more likely, the prophetess with whom Isaiah has sexual relations shortly after this.”

[4] There was an excellent linguistic resource online about the Isaiah passage and use of almah on the www.messiahtruth.com website (http://www.messiahtruth.com/is714a.html). However, at the time of publishing the website was not available, though the document can be found variously online (search for Messiah Truth and Isaiah 7:14). This resource gives a complete and formidable deconstruction of the apologist claims that Isaiah 7 both contains reference to a virgin and to Jesus.

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