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14th March, 2011

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Mary: maid or virgin?

The recent publication of the Roman Catholic New American Bible Revised Edition will undoubtedly reignite an old storm - the meaning of Isaiah 7:14. Both the King James Version and the New King James version render one particular word as "virgin":

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold, the virgin [Hebrew: 'almah] shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel (NKJV).

The New American Bible has replaced "virgin" with "young woman". Nothing new about that, as the Revised Standard Version led the way down the path of least resistance back in 1952, sparking a storm of controversy that has flared up and dimmed again many times since. The question is this: did Isaiah (well, God, actually) have a virgin in mind when he penned this famous passage taken by most Christians as a prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ? Many, many examples can be found of the following kind of reasoning:

Can somebody please explain the possible justification for translating Isaiah 7:14 as "Behold, the virgin shall conceive..." (ESV) when the Hebrew says no such thing? Matthew in his gospel (1:22-23) translates it that way when citing the verse, but Matthew is either taking liberties with the Greek Septuagint ( parthenos ), being extremely creative with his messianic proof texting, or both. The Hebrew word, as all biblical students should know, is almah , meaning young woman, corresponding to alem , young man. If 'virgin' had been intended, there was a perfectly good word available, betulah . Isaiah doesn't use it.

Rarely in the annals of Bible interpretation have so many been so wrong about so little for so long. Otherwise careful exegetes seem to have willfully swallowed this sugar-coated nostrum. The above quote provides a fine example of an almost willful lack of scholarship on the part of a normally circumspect researcher. (Indeed, one wonders where on earth he gets the notion that the Hebrew for "young man" is alem.) The notion that betulah refers to a chaste virgin while 'almah refers to a young woman who has or has not engaged in sex is a thorough beat-up - it has no justification whatsoever.

Furthermore, one wonders at the arrogance of modern man; we act as if we know more about ancient Hebrew and Greek than did their users 2000 and more years ago. Today's experts get a little irritated at the Alexandrian scholars who translated the Old Testament into Greek around the third century B.C. and rendered Isaiah's "'almah" as "parthenos" - a word they all agree comes very close to our word "virgin" in meaning. What? Why did those silly translators not choose some other Greek word with a more ambiguous meaning? Maybe they were on happy weed. And as for Matthew, who also rendered it as parthenos in referring to Mary's conception with Jesus Christ (1:23), well, what do you expect? He was obviously a bit of a dunce. Adding insult to injury, the same people

confidently assert that they know the precise meaning of 'almah when, in reality, they have only seven occurrences to go by (Gen. 24:43, Exod. 2:8, Ps. 68:26, Prov. 30:19, Cant. 1:3, Cant. 6:8, Isa. 7:14).

The error is drastically compounded by sloppy analysis of the meaning of betulah. Opponents of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ insist that if Isaiah had a miracle - a virgin birth - in mind, he would have chosen a different word (betulah) from the one he used ('almah). Contrary to all the assertions, a contextual study of betulah in its 48 usages readily shows that its real meaning is simply "young woman" in its most general sense, and "unmarried woman" in its more restricted sense. Virginity is obviously the normal state of such a woman, but no Scripture can be called upon to show that chastity is the centre of gravity of the word. Indeed, where the young woman's virginal state is being emphasized, words to that effect are added. As an example, note Genesis 24:16:

Now the young woman [na'arah] was very beautiful to behold, a virgin [betulah]; no man had known her.

The very addition of those words, "no man had known her", makes it clear that betulah does not necessarily convey virginity! If betulah simply means "virgin", no qualification would be necessary. (See also Joshua 21:12.) That purity of body is not what the word stresses is quite easy to demonstrate. First, betulah is used numerous times in prophetic passages, such as 2 Kings 19:21 and Jeremiah 18:13, which castigate Israel for her ungodliness and total lack of spiritual chastity, as a euphemism for Israel. (Conceivably the term is used in a sarcastic way. But the burden of proof would lie with the proponents of such a view.) Secondly, the term is used again and again as the female equivalent of "young men" (Hebrew, bachur). Deuteronomy 32:25 is one such example:

The sword shall destroy outside; there shall be terror within for the young man [bachur] and virgin [betulah], the nursing child with the man of gray hairs.

Those who argue that betulah refers to a virgin maid would have to also insist that bachur refers to virgin men. Note this passage which underscores the folly of such a notion:

Therefore deliver up their children to the famine, and pour out their blood by the force of the sword; let their wives become widows and bereaved of their children. Let their men be put to death, their young men [bachur] be slain by the sword in battle (Jer. 18:21).

To propose that most of the soldiers were virgins is patently absurd.

The simple fact of the matter is that a comparative study of the usages of 'almah and betulah would suggest that 'almah conveys the state of virginity more forcefully than betulah.


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