Month: April 2012

Did Isaiah Predict a “Virgin” Birth?

As you can probably guess, this Institute receives a number of Theological questions. Recently, I ran across the following question and  decided it merited a public response.

“I was recently asked about the the Isaiah verse that Matthew quotes. I’m being told it was a mistranslation. I tried to tell the person that he needed to read it all in context. He said I can’t call for context amongst all the books then ignore the context in which the book of Isaiah was written.”

The Adoration of the Shepherds - Gerard van HonthorstInteresting discussion. The quote in question is from Matthew 1:22 & 23:

“So the Lord’s promise came true, just as the prophet had said, ‘A virgin will have a baby boy, and he will be called Immanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.'”

Matthew here is quoting from Isaiah chapter 7.

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.”

The Lord is giving the people of Israel a “sign” as a pledge that He will deliver them; In the time it takes a young women to conceive and her child to grow to the age of accountability, Israel shall be delivered from her enemies. That is the straight forward meaning.

We can read the fulfillment in Isaiah, chapter 8, verses 3 and 4.

“And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the LORD said to me, “Call his name Maher-shalal-hashbaz; for before the boy knows how to cry ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.””

Qumran Scroll of Isaiah

So why did Matthew apply this fulfilled prophecy to Jesus? Did he hear about Jesus’ virgin birth and go searching for a some verse justify it? Does the verse in Isaiah actually refer to a “virgin” or just a young woman? Can we justify both the near fulfillment and Matthew’s application of this verse to Jesus? The only way to solve this is to look at the text itself.

In context, the word used by Isaiah (almah) merely means “young maiden of marrying age”. The word “betulah” means “virgin”. Of course, it was expected that a young maiden be a virgin before marriage … but that is only implied.  So, “almah”, in context, could either mean young maiden or virgin (or both). Since we know the context and have Isaiah’s writings, we could make a determination ourselves. However, I think consulting pre-Christian, Jewish interpretations would appear less biased on our part.

Long before Christ’s time here on earth, the Greeks decided it was in their best interest to understand those rebellious Jews. Perhaps if they understood why they rebelled, they’d be able to better rule them. So, the rulers asked that a Greek translation of the Jewish holy book, the Old Testament, be made. It was called the LXX (the 70), as legend says that 70 elders were involved in the translation process.

Now we have an unbiased translation into a more literal language. Looking at the verses in question, we turn to Isaiah and find that the phrase (ha’almah) was translated into Greek as “the virgin”. This means that decades before Christ was born, Jewish scholars decided that “virgin” was correct in context. It wasn’t until after Christ’s time that some Jews sought to change the meaning to “young woman” (not necessarily a virgin). Before and during Christ’s time, there is strong evidence to believe that few Jewish scholars doubted the translation in the LXX.

So why did the Jewish scholars translate the phrase “ha’almah” as “the virgin”? The word “almah” is only used 10 times in the entire Old Testament; That isn’t a large number of times. In 6 of the 10 cases, the LXX translators chose the Greek word for “virgin”: Genesis 24:43, Exodus 2:8, Psalm 68:25, Song of Solomon 1:3, 6:8 and Proverbs 30:19. In no case is the word ever translated as “young woman” or anything other than an unmarried maiden of marrying age (which implies virginity). So to an ancient Jew, the idea that this could not mean a virgin young maiden was out of the question.

That said, I believe something clever is going on here; I believe that God’s choice of the word “almah” was not an accident. In the near fulfillment, Isaiah married a “young maiden” and a child was born. However, since young Jewish maidens were expected to be virgins until marriage, the word can also be properly translated “virgin”.  So God used the word “almah” knowing that the dual meaning of the verse could be applied to both prophecies.

Xerxes I, King of BabylonBut wait! How did I come up with this concept of a “dual” fulfillment or a “dual” meaning? Looking at Isaiah 14, we see God humiliating Babylon and its arrogance. But then, starting in verse 12, we see this:

“How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’

Either the king of Babylon made some wild, inhuman claims of becoming God, or this section is referring someone else. Even in Jesus’ day, Jewish scholars agreed that this passage was about Satan, the spiritual power behind Babylon. So this section refers both to the king of Babylon and to Satan at the same time. Wow! God is clever.

So, in Isaiah we see God predicting a natural birth (as a sign), at the same time, predicting the birth of Jesus the Messiah.