What is the Prophecy of Isaiah 7?
Recently during an episode of American Pickers, I found each commercial break was occupied by advertisement for a show presenting the “truth” about Jesus’ birth. The commercial claimed that the Virgin Birth of Jesus was the result of a mistranslation of the Bible. I am not concerned that 3000 years of Biblical tradition will be overturned by the network that brings us Ancient Aliens and UFO’s of the Bible. The problem is that lunacy presented as scholarship is generally considered more entertaining than studying the text for ourselves.
The claim is nothing new, but the assertion about a single word in Isaiah 7:14 has been repeated so often that is it rarely questioned. The claim is that the word used for “virgin” simply means a young woman. There is nothing remarkable about prophesied birth. The “sign” given to King Ahaz is simply a member of the royal household having a son. This is then picked up in Matthew 2:23, where Jesus’ birth is said to fulfill the prophecy:
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son and they shall call his name Immanuel, which translated means “God with us”.
Thus some conclude the virgin birth of the Messiah is a Christian fabrication. Some say it was created to make Jesus appear more unique, or to clear the name of Mary, who became pregnant out of wedlock. However, a quick survey of the history of the words and translations involved will shed light on these claims.
Addressing the Claims of Christian Revisionism
The word in Isaiah translated either “virgin” or “young woman” is the Hebrew word “Almah”. About two hundred years before Matthew wrote his Gospel account, a translation of the Tanakh (or Old Testament) was commissioned. This translation, the Septuagint or the LXX, was done by a council of seventy rabbis. When this group looked for the best word to capture the Almah of Isaiah 7, they chose the word “parthenos” the Greek word used exclusively for “virgin”. So it seems that the translation of Almah as virgin was not a Christian fabrication but represented the best translation choice according a consensus of Jewish Scholars of the second century BC.
What about the claim that Almah means “young woman” while Betulah means “virgin’?
It is a common claim by Jewish “Anti-Missionaries” and some scholars that the Hebrew word for virgin is “Betulah” while the word “Almah” simply means “young woman”. They say if the text meant specifically “virgin” it would use the word Betulah and instead of Almah. Let’s compare the usages of Almah and Betulah to see if this claim holds true.
Uses of Betulah- Betulah is used in the Bible 50 times. Of these instances, 12 are metaphors. 14 instances are inclusive of male and female where the sense is “young people”. The remaining 21 uses are of young women of the age of marriage where virginity would be assumed only by the context. Contrary to the current claim, Betulah does not seem to denote virginity, but simply a young person near or at the age of marriage.
Uses of Almah- We only find 8 uses of Alma in the Bible. 2 of these uses refer to a tuning used in the music of the Temple. In Psalm 68:25 we find Alma used to speak of women musicians leading the Temple procession. These were likely particularly virgins. Proverbs 30:19 speaking of the mysteries of courtship would likely refer to a virgin. Song of Solomon 1:3 suggests the stares of the virgins considering a husband. In Genesis 24:16 Abraham’s servant has been seeking a wife for Isaac when he meets Rebekah who is described as “a young woman (nara) of the age of marriage, who had never known a man.” In light of this, Abraham’s servant can refer to her in verse 43 as “Almah”. So it seems the qualification for an Almah to be a young woman of marriage age, who is specifically a virgin.
The use of these two words in the Hebrew Scriptures seems to be the opposite of the current contention. Betulah seems to be used for a young woman, whereas Almah seems to be the word that more strongly suggests virginity in particular.
If we take the “sign” of Isaiah as “the virgin will be with child and bear a son” we are in keeping with the early uses of the word and the earliest translation traditions. Thus it seems that when God spoke a message to Ahaz through Isaiah, calling Ahaz to ask for a sign that might be deep as Sheol or high as heaven, when Ahaz refused and God, Himself determined the sign, it would a virgin who would bear a Son that would known as “God with Us”. Matthew says this was fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah.
There are some who dislike this idea so much that they are eager to cover up history and vocabulary to obscure it. If there is a mystery here, perhaps it is this: “What is so dangerous about the Virgin Birth some would prefer we never believe it?”