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A defense of the Virgin Birth against a “Bible-bashing” atheist

Isaiah 7:14 is indeed a prophecy of the glorious virgin birth of Christ, and Matthew was not dishonest in his citation of it.

Detail from "Nativity" (1467-79) by Filippo Lippi [WikiArt.org]

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman’u-el. — Isaiah 7:14 (RSV)

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us). — Matthew 1:18-23

Prominent online atheist 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 am replying to his piece on “The Mistranslation of ‘Virgin’” (12-7-16). Jonathan lays out the basic data and dispute:

Isaiah 7:14 uses a particular word, almah, whose meaning is variously “young woman”, “girl” or “virgin”. . . .

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 (I have offered refutations of these arguments of his now six times), he thinks the Christian arguments are easily disposed of. And he is likely 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, as we examine this issue in the depth it deserves — as opposed to Jonathan’s cursory dismissal.  He proceeds to particular arguments:

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).  A simple search on Google on this topic would yield many examples (which I don’t have the space to detail here).

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).

Pearce continues his vigorous critique:

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%).

We Christians can disagree on translation matters. 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.

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 respond to the heart of his argument (from choice of words and linguistics). Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Waltke et. al)] points out:

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 [Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament: 11 volumes] ) 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.

The same source 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.

In a copiously documented article on Isaiah 7:14 (virtually book-length) by the brilliant Protestant apologist Glenn Miller, who runs the fabulous Christian Thinktank site, concluded, 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’. . . .

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.

He then turned 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.

Miller’s article offers numerous and extraordinarily detailed arguments, and must be read (or at least skimmed) to fully grasp the impact of their profound cumulative strength. But let us briefly consider his conclusion regarding Matthew’s word parthenos (following the Septuagint, which was standard New Testament practice). Miller renders his judgment:

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).

Thus, Isaiah 7:14 is indeed a prophecy of the glorious virgin birth of Christ, and Matthew was not dishonest in his citation of it. Yet another atheist contra-Bible argument falls flat (which is likely the reason atheists virtually never respond back, when a vigorous Christian rebuttal of their flawed and fallacious arguments is offered.


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About Dave Armstrong 1 Article
Dave Armstrong</i is the author of several books of apologetics, including A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (Sophia Press, 2003). He writes from Detroit, Michigan, where he lives with his wife, Judy, and their four children. Visit him online at Biblical Evidence for Catholicism with Dave Armstrong.

6 Comments

  1. always amusing that so many consider the young girls sinners of fornication or adultery, that is the young girls are not virgins but have lost, each of them, their virginity – and that is really a diabolical judgement and premise….

    Besides this, a Scriptural study of almah through Ott (and his work on Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma) relating to the use of this same word, finds, both translations of young women AND Virgin in relationship to the life of Abraham.

    ChristMass blessings, mercies and graces in JMJ

  2. Thank you, Bro Armstrong–keep up the fight.

    And thank God for the gift of faith: irrefutable and apologetics not required.

    “I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” KJV

  3. I have news for Jonathan What’s-his-name. “A light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Neither will he.

  4. This “argument” can be dismissed much more simply. If Isaiah’s “sign from God” was simply that a young woman would conceive and bear a son, that would be no “sign” (i.e. miracle) at all, just something that happens all of the time, and to the great majority of women throughout the world and throughout the history of the human race. Obviously Isaiah intends to convey that the “sign” is thata woman conceives without sexual activity.

  5. I wonder if Matthew knew that Isaiah had an older son, Shear-Jashub (Is 7:3), so that Immanuel, his second son, could not have been born of a virgin. The story of Immanuel may have been for Matthew a reminiscence more than a direct prophecy about Jesus in his own time.
    The virginity of Mary and the whole virgin birth, is not questioned by a better understanding of Isaiah.

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