Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 7:14 in the Old Testament? Is the word “virgin” a mistranslation? Does not the Hebrew word almah mean “young woman”?


By Peter Salemi


The Hebrew word “almah” can be translated “young woman,” “girl” or “maiden,” as well as “virgin.” The New Bible Commentary Revised puts it: “It presumes rather than states virginity” (page 596, emphasis added). This source states, “Although almah does not implicitly denote virginity, it is never used in the Scriptures to describe a ‘young, presently married woman.’ It is important to remember that in the Bible, a young Jewish woman of marriageable age was presumed to be chaste.” (Article; Almah: Virgin or Young Maiden? by Zhava Glaser, emphasis added).


Almah is used to describe Rebekah as a “virgin” or “young woman” as some versions have, before her marriage to Isaac (Gen. 24:43). The Bible states that She was a virgin (verse 16) using the word “bethûlâh” (Strong’s #1330). Adding to the statement that she is a virgin, “neither had any man known her” (v.16) This is key when it comes to using the word “bethûlâh” as we shall see. 


Almah is never used to describe a married woman. The New Bible Dictionary: “In using the word alma, however, Isaiah employs the one word which is never applied (either in the Bible or in other Near Eastern sources) to anyone but an unmarried woman” (page 557, emphasis added).


This is not true of “bethûlâh” — the other term that may be translated “virgin.” The New Bible Dictionary continues, “The word bethûlâh may designate a virgin, but when it does the explanatory phrase ‘and a man had not known her’ is often added... the word bethûlâh may also indicate a married woman.” (emphasis added). The phrase neither had any man known her” must be added to show that she is a virgin, or there will be confusion because as the source above says it can indicate a married woman. In a figurative sense, being married and a virgin is being pure, staying loyal and dedicated to her husband not committing adultery during the entire time of the betrothal (Deut 22:23, 28) and marriage.


What’s Interesting is, “In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are two types of betulot [fair virgins]—the true virgin, and the ‘betrothed virgin’ (betulah m’orashah). In Deuteronomy 22, a betrothed virgin is referred to as a man’s ‘wife’ (ishah). The state of betrothal was just as serious and sacred as the married state and the difference between the two appears, in some instances, to be a mere formality. The word betulah, commonly understood as virgin, is still not precise.” (Article; Almah: Virgin or Young Maiden? by Zhava Glaser, emphasis added). She was a virgin-pure in a sense that she belonged to one man, and stayed dedicated and loyal to that man untouched by anyone but him. Paul said of the church that they were as a “chaste virgin [figuratively not literally as in the case with Mary] to Christ.” (2 Corinth 11:2). Pure in a sense of dedication and loyalty to their one husband Jesus Christ, and not contaminated with idolatry which is spiritual adultery in the Bible. 


This we can be said of Joel 1:8: “Lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth.” Dedicated and loyal remaining pure to the husband of her youth. Again this article writes, “Some commentators say this [Joel 1:8] refers to a betrothed virgin, thus making the lamentation all the more poignant because the marriage had never been consummated. The use of ba’al (husband) in this verse, however, seems to imply the opposite. The word ba’al is never used in the Jewish Scriptures of the betrothed state, but only of a married man….Therefore, even if the prophet Isaiah had used the word betulah, it could have been argued that he did not intend to say that this woman had never had sexual relations with a man.” (Article; Almah: Virgin or Young Maiden? by Zhava Glaser, emphasis added).


The New Testament makes clear that she was with child of the Holy Spirit “before they came together (Matthew 1:18) even though they were espoused or betrothed, so the word Almah would apply to Mary and not bethûlâh in this relationship. Mary was engaged to be married and still a virgin-an unmarried young virgin woman. Gills commentary states, before they came together...that is, before they cohabited together as man and wife, before he brought her home to his own house and bed. The espousals were before they thus came together. It was usual with the Jews first to espouse or betroth, and then to marry, or rather consummate the marriage, by bringing the woman home to her husband's house, between which there was some space of time.” (emphasis added).


Moses uses both Hebrew words to describe the virgin Rebekah (see Genesis 24:16, 43). But why did Isaiah use almah to describe the one who would bear Immanuel (meaning “God with us”)? Since Almah never means a young married woman, as opposed to bethûlâh, one who is betrothed and living with a husband, it is the better term for Isaiah 7:14.


It is interesting to note that the Septuagint — the most important Greek translation of the Old Testament — translates the Hebrew word almah (Isa 7:14) into the Greek parthenos. This particular Greek word always means “virgin.” The Hebrew equivalent words are Almah in the Literal sense and literal and figuratively with the word betulah (see Strong’s #1330). This was the judgment of some 70 Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek about 250 B.C. The woman who was to conceive and have a son was to be a virgin in the literal sense of the word-Almah!


All that aside remember that here the Greek New Testament interprets the Hebrew as The Angel explained to Joseph: “Do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit....All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, a virgin [Parthenos] shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1:20-23).


The rendering of “almah” as “virgin,” and even the possibility of a virgin birth, have been entertained by some Jewish sages and scholars who are not believers in Jesus. One is Semitics scholar Dr. Cyrus Gordon: “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, emphasis added).


A Sign


God himself said, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign;” God himself was going to give an extraordinary sign to the world about this extraordinary birth that was to come. God said, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son…” Now if this just meant a “young woman” was going to have a son-that’s NO SIGN! That happens every single day! Now a young unmarried virgin having a son-that is a miraculous sign that God is doing something special in this world-that special sign is “God with us” “and shall call his name Immanuel”!


McDowell again states, “This is certainly unique in that this could be no ordinary birth. Thus, we can see that the doctrine of the virgin birth presented in the Gospel is in accord with earlier Scripture teachings.” (Evidence that Demands a Verdict by J. McDowell, p.112, emphasis added).


He Opened their Understanding of the Bible


Just before his ascension, Christ told his apostles: “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the prophets [including Isaiah] and the psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45). That last sentence is the key. The apostles — including Matthew — received an inspired understanding of the correct sense of the Hebrew Scriptures.


Many times the Hebrew prophets did not fully comprehend the exact nature of what they were writing (Dan. 12:8-9).


Matthew was given inspired understanding of many Hebrew Scriptures concerning Jesus Christ. Isaiah 7:14 was just one.


Virgin Birth In History “Such-an-one”


Early Jewish writings reveal that the birth of Christ was unusual. Many suspected that Mary became pregnant by an unknown man as the scribes and Pharisees challenged Jesus about his birth and said to him in the Gospel of John, “We be not born of fornication;” (John 8:41) implying that his birth was illegitimate. So rumours spread about his birth. For this to happen, obviously there was something special about his birth. The disciples preached that he fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, and of course his opponents would rather make Jesus out to be an illegitimate child of adultery.  


They asked R. Eliezer, “What of such-an-one as regards the world to come?” He said to them, “You have only asked me about such-an-one. What of a bastard as touching inheritance? -What of him as touching the levirate duties? What of him as regards whitening his house?-What of him as regards whitening his grave?”-not because he evaded them by words, but because he never said a word which he had not heard from his teacher.


This early Tannaitic passage, according to Klausner, does refer to Jesus since the term “such-an-one” is used for Jesus in the Ammoraic period. Some scholars think that R. Eliezer here affirms that Jesus will have a place in the world to come. The questions he asks those who first questioned him all have “Yes” answers indicating that his answer to them is, “Yes, Jesus will have a place in the world to come.” Other scholars, however, think Eliezer is dodging their question.


Another passage shows once again the natural reaction of the opponents of Jesus and his disciples to their report of the virgin birth: R. Shimeon ben ‘Azzai said: I found a genealogical roll in Jerusalem wherein was recorded, “Such-an-one is a bastard of an adulteress.”


If Mary was not pregnant by Joseph, then, the argument goes, she was pregnant by someone else-that is adultery and Jesus was therefore illegitimate. (Quotes from He Walked Among Us, by J. McDowell, p.69). Clearly there was something about the birth of Christ that was controversial in Jesus time, the scriptures say that he was born of a virgin.


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