The “Myth” of the Virgin Birth?

The “Myth” of the Virgin Birth?

Dennis O’Donnell © 2014

Matthew 1:22-23: Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet [ed. Isaiah 7:14]: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel” (NASB)

Every year around Christmas time, it’s fairly common to find programs on (for example) PBS or the History Channel that cover topics related to Jesus in some fashion.   I remember watching one or two programs that put forth the theory that Jesus was not, in fact, born of a virgin; rather the story found in the gospel of Matthew (and amplified in Luke) was simply a fiction written about Jesus’ birth, based on a mistranslation found in the Greek Septuagint of the original Hebrew script of Isaiah 7:14-16.   For me, the debate over the story of the Virgin Birth of Christ was new – but – it’s a debate that has actually gone on for centuries.

Having learned of this particular debate, I began to read articles on this topic and found that every argument I could find “for” (or in favor of) the Virgin Birth was, in my opinion, fairly weak. All of these arguments were based primarily on linguistics and/or “church tradition” – neither of which goes far in persuading the opposition.   But, I also realized that there was (what I felt was) a shortcoming in the linguistics-based or tradition-based “pro-Virgin Birth” arguments: they focus on the “how”, and not the “why”.   That is, each of these approaches to explaining the miraculous Virgin Birth basically attempt to explain Matthews inclusion of reference to Isaiah 7:14-16 in his gospel in terms of “how the Septuagint translation may accurately work – linguistically speaking – in this case”. But, in this writing, I’m focusing more on the “why” (which I will explain as we continue). I’ve not read any other author propose the argument for the Virgin Birth that I’m putting forth in this writing, so I feel my (humble) contribution to this debate is worth sharing.

The theory that Jesus was not born of a virgin goes something like this:   It was important for the writer of the gospel of Matthew (hereafter referred to as “Matthew”, simply because I don’t want to continually write “the writer of the gospel of Matthew”) to demonstrate to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, and therefore Matthew wanted to show that Jesus had fulfilled all the prophesies about the “coming Messiah”.   Matthew believed (or, at least, wanted others to believe) that Isaiah 7:14-16 was a prophecy about the birth of the Messiah – Immanuel, “God With Us” – so he then set out to create a fictional account of the birth of Christ – based on the Greek Septuagint’s rendering of Isaiah 7:14-16 – in order to make the claim that the prophecy had been fulfilled. Unfortunately, the Greek Septuagint has an important mistranslation in it: Isaiah 7:14, in the original Hebrew, says “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a young woman will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel”. But, the Greek Septuagint says “…Behold, a virgin will be with child….”. Hence, based on the mistranslation in the Septuagint, Matthew conjured up a fiction story to explain how Mary, a virgin, miraculously conceived a child who would be called Immanuel – all in order to make the claim that the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 had been fulfilled.   And, of course, the Elephant in the Living Room is that Isaiah 7:14 says nothing at all about a virgin in the original Hebrew. In other words, Matthew had created a grand fiction in order to explain a prophesied miracle that was, in fact, never prophesied.

It is correct that Isaiah 7:14, in the Hebrew, uses the word “almah” (meaning, basically, “a young woman”), and not “bethuwlah“, the word commonly translated as “virgin”.   And, it is also quite correct that the Septuagint translates “almah” to “parthenos“, which is (arguably) the Greek word for “virgin” (and not merely “a young woman”).[1] Over the centuries, there have been those that have tried to “explain away” the issue on a basis of linguistics, but for every instance found in texts in which either almah or parthenos is used to mean something other than what each commonly means, there is an equal (or better) and opposite refutation of the given explanation. In short, attempting to somehow “explain away” the issue on the basis of linguistics simply leads to more debate.

That linguistics debate has gone on for centuries with no real resolution, and I have no intention of stepping into that row. Rather, I’m going to approach the “Virgin Birth” story from a different direction, but first, we’ll first need to determine whether Isaiah 7:14-16 was actually a Messianic prophecy (or not); afterwards, we’ll consider the “young woman / virgin” part.

In the modern Jewish community, it appears that Isaiah 7:14 is no more understood as a Messianic prophecy than the average American would understand “have a nice day” to be a Constitutional law. “The Jewish Encyclopedia” (1906) states plainly that Isaiah 7:14 has “no Messianic import whatever[4].   There is no shortage of modern Jewish commentators and Rabbis that clearly echo this same thought: for example, Rabbi Jack Abramowitz writes “This familiar verse [ed. Isaiah 7:14] is often mistranslated to say that a virgin will give birth and it is taken by non-Jewish sources as a messianic prophecy. It is not; it was a sign given by Isaiah to King Achaz regarding foreign affairs of the time”. [5] In a similar vein, Rabbi Tovia Singer writes “It is clear from this chapter [ed: Isaiah 7:1-16] that Isaiah’s declaration was a prophecy of the unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem by the two hostile armies of the Kingdoms of Israel and Syria, not a virgin birth more than seven centuries later”. [6]There are even non-Jewish writers that will express the same idea as Abramowitz and Singer: in his book entitled “The Life of Jesus”, David Strauss suggests that Isaiah 7:14-16 was referring to events of his own time, and that the young woman (the “almah“) in question may have been “perhaps the prophet’s own wife”. [7]

Modern-day Orthodox Judaism has a fairly short list of scriptures which it considers to be “Messianic”, comprised of verses from only eight books of the Tanakh (Old Testament), and most notably, Isaiah 7:14-16 is not one of them. [8]   Writer Tracey R. Rich says of Orthodox Judaism, “As recently as 300 years ago, this was the only Judaism, and it still is the only Judaism in many parts of the world”. [9]   Thus, if one were to accept modern Orthodox Judaism as being the most similar to Judaism in Palestine at the time of Christ, one would have to conclude that Isaiah 7:14-16 was not considered Messianic at that time, as it is currently not accepted as such in Orthodox Judaism.

In earlier writings, the notable Jewish scholars Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki) and Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi), writing in the 11th and 12th centuries, respectively, both hold the viewpoint that Isaiah 7:14-16 was part of a larger prophecy concerning the war between Judah and the Ephraimite-Syrian coalition. [10] It should be noted that in Rashis complete (and thorough) commentary on Isaiah 7, he never once mentions that the scripture was ever regarded as being Messianic.

There have, of course, been Jewish scholars that disagreed with the view of the majority of other scholars, and asserted that Isaiah 7:14-16 was indeed a Messianic prophecy – but (interestingly) they held to the view that the Messiah was Hezekiah and that the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14-16 had already been fulfilled. The legendary Jewish scholar Hillel wrote sometime between 30 BCE to 10 CE that “There will be no Messiah for Israel, because they already had him in the days of Hezekiah”, and echoing Hillel’s thoughts, Johanan ben Zakkai wrote (in 70 CE or shortly thereafter) “Prepare a throne for Hezekiah, king of Judah, who is coming”. [11]   Clearly, though, the views of Hillel and Zakkai were distinctly a “minority opinion”, and found little support among the community of Jewish scholars. In the Talmud-Sanhedrin 99a, a discussion between Rabbi Joseph and Rabbi Hillel is recorded, saying ““Rabbi Hillel said, ‘There shall be no Messiah for Israel, because they have already enjoyed him in the days of Hezekiah.’ Rabbi Joseph said, ‘May God forgive him (for saying so)'”. [12]

In short, we see that the “mainstream” of Jewish thought was that Isaiah 7:14-16 was not a Messianic prophecy at all, and the scant few scholars that seemed to assert that it was, were not referring to a “future” or “coming” Messiah, but rather, to one that had already come: Hezekiah.   And, we see that that particular idea was rejected by the majority of other scholars.   For the majority of Jewish scholars, the Messiah was yet to come – but Isaiah 7:14-16 had nothing to do with him.

Far more important and relevant to this discussion is the fact that at the time of Christ, the “average Palestinian Jew” – the broad populace of “believing Jews” – was still hoping for a Messiah. [13]   The average Palestinian Jew at that time would almost certainly had no idea that Hillel believed that Hezekiah was the Messiah, any more than the “average American Christian” these days would know whether (or not) John Wesley believed thirty angels could stand on the head of a pin. They might well not have even known who Hillel was, or, if they did, they chose to ignore his belief entirely (as did most scholars) – and to be sure, the evidence would support that: as far as the bulk of Palestinian Jews at that time were concerned, there had been no Messiah, and they needed one “now“, to free them from the bondage of Roman rule. To put it plainly, the average Palestinian Jew at the time of Christ paid scant little (if any) attention to the writings of scholars:   the majority of them – the shopkeepers, fishermen, farmers, masons, carpenters, laborers, shepherds and so on – were people for whom the difficulties of merely staying alive – compounded by the burdens of Roman rule and taxation – had left them hoping for the “coming Messiah”, and left them precious little time for reading scholarly commentary (provided that they could even read it – if they somehow managed to get access to it).And, even though any given Synagogue congregation might include someone that had knowledge of Talmudic commentary, still, Isaiah 7:14-16 was not taught as being a Messianic prophecy.   At best, it could have been taught that (for example) that “the scholar Hillel believes the scripture to be Messianic, referring to Hezekiah” – and one was free to take his opinion with a grain of salt.   It is obvious from the fact that there were many other “possible Messiahs” between the time of Hezekiah and the time of Christ that the majority of people pretty well took Hillel’s opinion with that proverbial grain of salt; they were still hoping for the “coming Messiah”.

I do not at all mean to impugn the wisdom, insights, or teachings of any of the great Jewish scholars, nor to disrespect or denigrate any of their contributions.   I am merely trying to state that the specific meaning of Isaiah 7:14-16 would have been of little importance to the vast majority of Palestinian Jews at the time of Christ; it was not a scripture that was “fundamental” to their faith, and certainly was not one of the foundational tenets of Judaism. [14]   I would offer, as a matter of perspective, that if the reader were to go stand outside any mainstream Christian church – Catholic or Protestant – on a Sunday morning and ask the first one hundred adults that exited the building “can you tell me what Matthew 6:22 is about?”, probably none of the respondents would even know the scripture. If they did (or, if you reminded them of what it says), they would not be able to tell you that in that scripture Jesus is using a common Hebrew idiom to express the idea of “generosity”.   In the same fashion – or perhaps, even more so – the average Palestinian Jew at the time of Christ would probably have had no idea what the text of Isaiah 7:14-16 was, and if they did, they would have had no concrete idea what it meant, nor would they have had any idea what a particular scholar had written about it fifty or a hundred years earlier. For the average Jew in Jesus’ day, knowing these things about Isaiah 7:14-16 simply did not rise to that level of priority. This scripture, which was neither taught as being fundamental to the faith, nor considered a tenet of Judaism, did not rank as important enough to remember for the average Palestinian Jew. One remembers what is important to them; one remembers one’s own home address – but, not the home address of a total stranger.

As it turns out, though, understanding that the Jews – the very vast majority of them – have never regarded Isaiah 7:14-16 to be a Messianic prophecy, nor were taught that it was, is of the utmost importance if we are to understand the reason why Matthew would have quoted the scripture and stated that the Virgin Birth of Christ had taken place in order to fulfill the prophecy.

It was to the “average Palestinian Jew” – non-sophisticated people of little education, the “working class” – that Matthew wrote his gospel.   While little is actually known about Matthew, the broad consensus among scholars is that he himself was an educated Jew, with the weight of evidence suggesting that he may have been of Palestinian origin himself.   But, whether of Palestinian origin or not, as a Jew (and not a Greek gentile convert to Christianity) his perspective of scripture would have been shaped by the teachings of other Jews.   Matthew refers to scriptures from the Law and the Prophets no less than sixty times in his gospel. In his writing, he makes virtually no attempt to explain nuances of Palestinian Jewish culture, but rather, writes as if his intended audience already understands certain Hebrew-Jewish concepts, which suggests that he “instinctively” understood the level of scriptural education and understanding that the other Jews of the Hebrew-Jewish culture would have had.   And while Matthew was himself an educated Jew, and intimately familiar with the technical aspects of Jewish Law, [15] his writings show no inclination on his part to “shoot over the heads” of his intended reading audience by engaging in diatribes of “higher criticism” nor to resort to obscure passages of scripture to support his contention that Jesus was the Messiah.   Matthew’s “target audience” would likely not have known – nor had real reason to believe – that Isaiah 7:14-16 was a Messianic prophecy.

Thus, for Matthew, there was never any reason, compulsion or incentive to “conjure up a fiction” – based on a either a proper translation or a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14-16 – for the purpose of showing that the prophecy had been fulfilled as a Messianic prophecy, because neither he nor the others of his culture and understanding were ever expecting that particular prophecy to be fulfilled by the Messiah. There were no “points” to be gained by showing that Isaiah 7:14-16 had been fulfilled in this story of Mary and the Virgin Birth, and therefore, inventing such a fiction would lend no credence at all to the story of Jesus, because fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14-16 was not seen as a prerequisite of “Messiahship”. Thus, Matthew had absolutely no reason to create a fictional story in order to answer a question or provide a proof, because the question had never been asked, and the proof had never been required.

At its best, inventing such a fictitious account would be taking an enormous risk for no return at all, and at worst, it could cost the authors credibility and completely undermine the value of everything else he had written. It would be like a defendant in a criminal case telling the judge and jury, in his own defense, some story which had nothing at all to do with the particulars of his case, and thus not adding one bit to the “believability” of his case. And, if the story he told turned out to be a lie (on top of being irrelevant), it would only serve to make him – and his case – even more unbelievable (and would leave the defendant more easily condemnable).

In short, I would assert that the theory that Matthew conjured up the Fictitious Virgin Birth story in order to show that a Messianic prophecy had been fulfilled is – to put it plainly – ludicrous.   He didn’t, because it wasn’t.

One might (reluctantly) agree, and say “Well, alright then, you’ve made your point: Isaiah 7:14-16 wasn’t Messianic. But even still, Matthew conjured up the Fictitious Virgin Birth story based on a mistranslation of almah, whether the scripture was a Messianic prophecy or not”.

Let us consider this second proposition then:   Matthew created a fiction based on a mistranslation of the word almah.

As I mentioned earlier in this writing, I’m not going to step into the linguistics debate at all.   Over the centuries, there have been countless writings that have discussed and debated the specific meanings of almah, bethewlah, and parthenos (the Hebrew and Greek words in question). I have nothing new to add to that ongoing debate. In fact, unlike many Christian writers, I’m going to “throw in the towel” before the fight even begins, and agree entirely with what has been taught by Rabbis for centuries: the birth of Immanuel was NEVER understood or expected to be a Virgin Birth.

I have not found one credible scholarly Hebrew or Rabbinical source that asserts that Isaiah 7:14-16 indicates that Immanuel would be born of a virgin.   Not one. None. While it may be true that an almah may indeed be a virgin (parthenos), it is only true in the sense that all almahs are indeed virgins – until they are not. It is equally possible that an almah is not also a virgin. This is to say that the word almah – although while sometimes used to signify a young woman who also, incidentally, was a virgin – does not itself mean “virgin”.

What we then find in Rabbinical teaching is – to the very best of my research – always the same: Immanuel would be born of a young woman.   That young woman may have been married, or perhaps not.   But in no case do we ever find, in any historical document available to us, that any credible Rabbi, Jewish Scholar or Tanna (Jewish Sage) ever teaches that Immanuel would be born to a virgin.

The point is this: Matthew, being an educated Jew – and one who obviously knew the scripture in question – would not have learned from any Rabbinic, Tannaic or Scholarly teaching that Immanuel was expected to have been born of a virgin. Despite the use of the Septuagint, any teaching Matthew would have received concerning Isaiah 7:14-16 would have been that Immanuel was to be born to a young woman.   After all, the utter and complete lack of Rabbinical or Jewish Scholarly writings – whether of Palestinian, Babylonian or Alexandrian origin – asserting that Immanuel was to have been born to a virgin is the greatest and most undeniable attestation of what was (and still is) taught, and therefore, to what Matthew himself would have been taught.

Now, for a brief moment, I have to touch on an aspect of linguistics (although I had hoped to avoid this entirely).   As to the Greek word parthenos itself, both LSJ and Strong’s Greek Concordance indicate the primary meaning of the word as being “maid” or “maiden”.   It was indeed used to signify “virgin” at times, but the more broad usage of the word, according to these sources, was as indicated. As such, the primary definitions given in LSJ and Strong’s are consistent with the Septuagint’s translation of almah (to parthenos) – “young woman” to “maiden” – and, far more importantly, are consistent with the Rabbinical teaching that Immanuel would be born to a “young woman”.

What we see, then, is that Matthew – writing as a Jew, with an understanding of scripture shaped by the teachings of other Jews (none of whom taught that Immanuel was expected to be born of a virgin) – is quoting Isaiah 7:14-16 to other Jews who would have equally never understood that scripture as to mean “Immanuel will be born of a virgin”.

And yet, as some scholars would have it – despite Matthew’s own “Jewishness”, and despite his level of education and knowledge of scripture, and despite the fact that there was never any teaching among the Jews that Immanuel would be “born of a virgin”, and despite the fact that the broad usage of the word parthenos at that time was simply “maid” or “maiden” (thus, synonymous with almah), and despite the fact that Greek was a very widely-spoken language at the time (and the language in which most scholars believed Matthew wrote his gospel) – Matthew somehow has managed to misunderstand this one word parthenos – and based upon this misunderstanding, he then creates the Fictitious Virgin Birth story, as if somehow other Jews – including other educated Jews – would be fully prepared to accept that story as genuine.

In American English, there are a number of words and phrases that we commonly use that are from other languages.   As examples:   “bon voyage” (meaning “have a good trip”), “verbatim” (meaning “word for word”), “status quo” (meaning “the existing state or condition of things”), “bona fide” (meaning “genuine, or in good faith”). I’m not sure that we are actually “educated” on these words or phrases; rather, we merely learn them from common usage. We may, for example, never know that “bon voyage” is French, or that “status quo” is Latin, and indeed, in our common usage, the origin is of little consequence.   If one were to say to me “I think we should keep the status quo”, I’m going to understand that as meaning “I think we should keep things the way they are”.   I don’t have to “translate” the phrase “status quo” in my head.   I don’t even know Latin, in the first place, and therefore, there isn’t much translation at all for me to do. I just know that “status quo” means “the way things currently are”.

I would assert very strongly that Matthew would have simply known that parthenos meant “young woman”, and not “virgin”, in the context of Isaiah 7:14-16 – as other educated Jews would have known that the scripture was referring to a young woman, and not a virgin.   And I would further assert strongly that Mathew would have known that other Jews would have had the same understanding.   It was, after all, what has been taught for centuries among the Jews.

The theory that Matthew created a fictional account of the Virgin Birth, based on a “mistranslation” in the Septuagint, would require that Matthew was completely ignorant of what had been taught – for centuries – by Jewish teachers and Sages, and it would furthermore require that he was ignorant of the very language he wrote the gospel in (at least, according to the majority of scholars). I myself know that “Christ” and “Messiah” are terms that are used synonymously, and yet, I have had no formal education in either Greek or Hebrew.   But, even more to the point, I know that others in my culture are aware that “Christ” has something to do with Jesus, with Christmas, and with “Christian” – whether those others in my culture adhere to any belief in “Jesus the Christ” at all.   Even if things about Jesus, Christ, Christmas or Christian are not formally and routinely taught to everyone in this American culture, still, I know that the vast, overwhelming majority of people in this culture are more than vaguely familiar with the terms.   Matthew was a writer who clearly and obviously had a broad knowledge of scripture, indicating a high degree of education. He was a learned man – one that had studied.   Matthew obviously knew the prophecies in Isaiah (7:14-16 and others); and yet the contention of some scholars that Matthew didn’t know that Isaiah 7:14 was merely referring to a “young woman” (and not a virgin) would indicate that somehow he was entirely ignorant of the Rabbinical teachings about the prophecy in Isaiah.   This is a contention that is beyond reason.   I would use the word “absurd”, but I must go even further, and consider it mere balderdash. A learned man asks questions and seeks answers: this is the heart of learning.

Still, one might object, and say “Look, maybe Matthew actually did know that parthenos simply meant ‘maiden’ (or almah). But, nonetheless, the story he created about Mary and the Virgin Birth is fiction”.   This, of course, is merely an argument based on a predetermined bias: “the story must be fiction, because I cannot accept it as being true“.   I strongly suspect that this bias, more than anything else, is what has been behind the Theory of the Fictitious Virgin Birth all along. But, alas, to delve further into that topic is to delve deeply into some other realm – perhaps of human psychology or philosophy – and far outside the scope of my topic.

Why then did Matthew write “now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel'”?   (Matt 1:22, NASB)

I realize, of course, that many Christians might be disturbed to know that the Jews have never considered Isaiah 7:14-16 to be a Messianic prophecy, and that the scripture quoted from Isaiah was not about a virgin birth. But, it is precisely that Jewish understanding of the scripture that gives Matthew’s account an almost indisputable credibility – but one must ask “if Matthew himself, as a Jew and like other Jews, did not consider Isaiah 7:14-16 to be a Messianic prophecy, and if Matthew understood -as has always been taught – that Immanuel was to have been born to a “young woman” (and not at all necessarily a virgin), then why did he include the scripture reference in his gospel at all?”

The answer to this question is – if one embraces the Jewish understanding of Isaiah 7:14-16 – so obvious that it is obscured by its “obviousness”: a “can’t see the forest for the trees” type of thing.

You see, the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14-16 – while not considered a Messianic prophecy by the Jews – was also a scripture that the Jews have never been able to come to a consensus on specifically how or when it was ever fulfilled. [16]

Let me repeat that, because it is of tremendous importance: the Jews have never been able to come to a consensus on how, specifically, it (Isaiah 7:14-16) was ever fulfilled.   That is to say: there is no record, anywhere in the Tanakh of the child called Immanuel having ever been born.

Isaiah 7:14-16 is part of a longer passage of scripture in which the whole of the prophecy is given, and the whole of that prophecy is part of a story about Ahaz and the war between Judah and an Ephraimite-Syrian coalition. The significance of the birth of Immanuel rests in this passage from Isaiah 7:16, which says “…before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.” This might be taken to mean that Immanuel would be born very soon, and within a few years (before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good), the Ephraimite-Syrian coalition will have been destroyed, or forsaken.   Or – equally – it might mean that Immanuel might be born many, many years later: “before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good” is entirely dependent on when the child was born.   Whether born sooner or later, the Ephraimite-Syrian coalition will have been destroyed before the child reaches an age of knowing to refuse evil and choose good.

Since there is no record in the Tanakh of Immanuel having been born, Jewish scholars have long been divided on when and how the prophecy about Immanuel’s birth was fulfilled, but the presumption is made that somehow it must have been fulfilled, because the Ephraimite-Syrian coalition was indeed destroyed (which ignores the issue of “timing” mentioned in the previous paragraph). For example, some contend that the almah was either the mother of Hezekiah, and others contend that she was the daughter of Isaiah. [17]   Still others contend that she was the wife of Isaiah (as noted earlier). However, all theories have proven problematic:   for example, Hezekiah was born well before the war with Ephraim and Syria began, and although almah does not mean “virgin”, it does strongly imply a girl who was not married, and who, in all likelihood, has not yet had a child.   Isaiah’s wife was (obviously) already married, and, she already had a son. [18]

There may be other possibilities for who the almah is, but once you have more than one possibility, it’s impossible to say that a consensus has been found.   At best, then, one might say that the belief among the Jews is “the scripture must have been fulfilled”, but then, this must be followed with “we just don’t know exactly when or how“.

When Matthew writes (rather boldly, I might add) that “all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet”, what he was saying (boldly) to those of his Jewish culture – and perhaps specifically to Jewish scholars – was not referring to a “virgin birth” at all; rather, Matthew was asserting that “All this was to fulfill that prophecy in Isaiah – about the birth of Immanuel – the one that has, all these centuries, been left sort of ‘hanging’, because nobody has been able to authoritatively show that it was ever fulfilled”. In this, Matthew was challenging centuries of established Jewish thought, saying (in effect) “we’ve had it wrong all these years. The reason we could never understand when or how Isaiah 7:14-16 had been fulfilled is because it, in fact, had never had been fulfilled. Not until now“.

Matthew was claiming – in retrospect (and, against all convention) – that Isaiah 7:14-16 was indeed Messianic, in the same fashion that Hillel had made such a claim regarding Hezekiah. For Christians, Isaiah 7:14-16 is seen as a Messianic prophecy in retrospect – in the same fashion that Matthew saw it in retrospect.

One might make a final objection at this point, and say “Even though no consensus has ever been reached on when or how this scripture was fulfilled, clearly, it must be talking about something that happened in the time of Ahaz, not some event that would happen over seven centuries later”.

This argument can only be considered spurious: In Judaism today the Messiah is still being waited for, and every single scripture that today’s Jews consider as Messianic is each over two thousand years old.   The “time factor” is of little consequence.

Matthew was – first and foremost – telling the story of Jesus’ birth (which of course includes the fact that Mary was a virgin) as a matter of “historic fact”.   His addition of the reference to Isaiah 7:14-16 was in retrospect, and I would imagine that the correlation between Jesus’ virgin birth and the Isaiah prophecy actually came to Matthew in a moment of surprised revelation – a little “light in the brain flicking on” kind of moment.   Matthews knowledge of Isaiah 7:14-16 did not foster a “grand fiction” – but rather, the truth of the story of the Virgin Birth caused Matthew to realize that he had “stumbled upon” the real fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14-16 (which itself had nothing to do with a “virgin birth” at all, but rather, with birth of Immanuel).

Mary’s virginity was established by the actual history that Matthew recounts; it was one of the facts of the story (whether one accepts those facts or not).   As such, for Matthew, it was entirely irrelevant whether he used the Hebrew word almah (young woman) or the Greek word parthenos (virgin) when reciting Isaiah 7:14. The truly relevant thing for Christians and Jews alike is this: the “facts” of the story were not determined by a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14, as if Matthew was conjuring up a fiction.   Rather, Isaiah 7:14-16 – whether using almah or parthenos – could now (finally) be understood correctly because of the birth of Christ – the birth of Immanuel, “God With Us”.


Copyright (C) 2014, Dennis O’Donnell – all rights reserved.



[1] Almah, Betulaw (Bethuwlah), Parthenos

A. Almah (עלמה) is a Hebrew word meaning a young woman of childbearing age who has                                      not yet had a child, and who may be an unmarried virgin or a married young woman.

[Saldarini, Anthony J. (2003). “Matthew”. In Dunn, James D.G.; Rogerson, John. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Eerdmans. ISBN 9780802837110.]

B. Betulaw (בתולה) is a Hebrew word meaning virgin, and in a legal sense, a girl under between the age of twelve and twelve and a half. [“Dictionary of Targumim, Talmud and Midrashic Literature”; Marcus Jastrow; pp 200]

C. Parthenos (παρθένος) is a Greek word meaning virgin; “properly, a virgin; a woman who has never had sexual relations; a female (virgin), beyond puberty but not yet married”[Strongs Concordance; 3933]

D. “of unknown origin; a maiden; by implication, an unmarried daughter:–virgin”

[Strongs Greek Dictionary; 3933]

Note the conflicting definitions given for parthenos in C and D. This conflict – in two different Strongs publications would attest to the (apparantly) rather “fluid” uses of the word parthenos. There also seems to be evidence of interchangeabilty between Almah and Betulaw.

There has been, for centuries, considerable debate on the actual meaning of these words. For this writing, I’ve chosen to avoid that linguistic debate as much as possible.

[2] Isaiah 7:14 not messianic

A. “This passage in Isaiah isn’t speaking about the Messiah or a virgin birth.”

[Rabbi Zalman Kravitz; article entitled “A Virgin Birth?”; Rabbi Zalman Kravitz; see

[; “Jews for Judaism”]

B. “The following passages in the Jewish scriptures are the ones that Jews consider to be messianic in nature or relating to the end of days. These are the ones that we rely upon in developing our messianic concept:

Isaiah 2, 11, 42; 59:20

Jeremiah 23, 30, 33; 48:47; 49:39

Ezekiel 38:16

Hosea 3:4-3:5

Micah 4

Zephaniah 3:9

Zechariah 14:9

Daniel 10:14”

1. Tracey R. Rich, “Messiah.” Judaism 101.

2. George Robinson, Essential Judaism (Pocket Books, 2000).”

[Anonymous Encyclopedic; article entitled “The Messiah in Judaism”; see

[; “The Jewish Messiah – ReligionFacts”]

[Note:   Isaiah 7:14 is not included in this list]

[3] In this writing, my references to “the Jews” are meant in broad, general terms as to refer to those that would profess (at least) a basic faith or belief in the God of Abraham.   One can be a Jew without having any religious “inclinations” at all, and among the total population of Jews, one can find those that hold to a belief in the God of Abraham, and, one will also find Jews that are agnostics or atheists – and, of course, those that believe in Jesus.

Even among “believing” Jews, there is a tremendously wide variety of thoughts or doctrines regarding a wide variety of topics.   For example, at the time of Christ, the sect of the Sadducees believed neither in a resurrection nor an afterlife. The Pharisees believed in both.   And, there were (and are) Jewish “God believers” that believe in reincarnation. However, there are some core beliefs that are fundamental to all believing Jews, such as a belief in One God, and the belief in the “coming Messiah”.   I hope, then, that the reader will give latitude for my generalities: if I’m not allowed to generalize in a reasonable fashion, I would have to spend years writing volumes of books to cover the wide range of Jewish thought and doctrine.

[4] “The prophets advocated a government which would be in conformity with God’s will and be regulated by His laws of righteousness. In connection with Isaiah’s Messianic hope it remains to be observed that the ‘Immanuel’ passage, Isa. vii. 14, which is interpreted in Matt. i. 23 as referring to the birth of Jesus, has, as Robertson Smith (“The Prophets of Israel,” pp. 271 et seq., 426 et seq.) and others have pointed out, no Messianic import whatever”. [“The Jewish Encyclopedia”, 1906, “Isaiah, Book of”]

[5] “This familiar verse is often mistranslated to say that a virgin will give birth and it is taken by non-Jewish sources as a messianic prophecy. It is not; it was a sign given by Isaiah to King Achaz regarding foreign affairs of the time.” [Rabbi Jack Abramowitz; Article entitled “Isaiah 7:14”;

see – “Orthodox Union/Torah”]

[6] “It is clear from this chapter [ed: Isaiah 7:1-16] that Isaiah’s declaration was a prophecy of the unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem by the two hostile armies of the Kingdoms of Israel and Syria, not a virgin birth more than seven centuries later.” [Rabbi Tovia Sinter; article entitled “Dual Prophecy and the Virgin Birth”; see – “Outreach Judaism”]

[7] Strauss, D.F. The life of Jesus, Calvin Blanchard, NY, 1860, p. 114.

[8] In general, only the following passages are accepted as referring to the messiah:

Isaiah 2, 11, 42; 59:20

Jeremiah 23, 30, 33; 48:47; 49:39

Ezekiel 38:16

Hosea 3:4-3:5

Micah 4

Zephaniah 3:9

Zechariah 14:9

Daniel 10:14

References:      Tracey R. Rich, “Messiah.” Judaism 101.

George Robinson, Essential Judaism (Pocket Books, 2000).

However, there are some Jewish scholars that will add the following verses to the list, although these verses are not specifically about the person of the Messiah, but rather of the effects of the coming of the Messiah

Isaiah 1:26

1 Chron. 22:8–10

Zechariah 10:6

Isaiah 25:8

Zechariah 12:9

Isaiah 60:12

Zechariah 11:12-14

Ezekiel 37:16-22

Isaiah 51:11

Isaiah 53:7

Isaiah 52:13–53:5

Zechariah 8:23

Ezekiel 16:55

Ezekiel 39:9

Ezekiel 40

Zephaniah 3:9

Isaiah 51:3

Amos 9:13–15,

Ezekiel 36:29–30

Isaiah 11:6–9                      

[see; Wikipedia – Jewish Messianism]

[Note: Isaiah 7:14 is not included in this list]

[9] “As recently as 300 years ago, this was the only Judaism, and it still is the only Judaism in many parts of the world.” [Tracey R. Rich; article entitled “Welcome to Judaism 101”, Tracey R. Rich, “Judaism 101 – a Jewish Encyclopedia”; see]



[10] Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040 CE – 1105 CE), generally known by the acronym Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki), was a medieval French rabbi and author of a comprehensive commentary on the Talmud and commentary on the Tanakh. Rashi’s works are considered fundamental for Jewish study. Rashi held to the opinion that the “almah” of Isaiah 7:14 (the prophesied mother of “Immanuel”) was the wife of Isaiah himself. [“ArtScroll Tanakh”; commentary on Isaiah 7:14]


David Kimhi (1160 CE –1235 CE), generally known by the Hebrew acronym as the RaDaK (Rabbi David Kimhi), was a medieval rabbi, biblical commentator, philosopher, and grammarian.


Radak held the opinion that the “almah” of Isaiah 7:14 (the prophesied mother of “Immanuel”) was the wife of Ahaz. [ “ArtScroll Tanakh”; commentary on Isaiah 7:14 ]


Following are Rashi’s complete comments on Isaiah 7:14 as they appear in the Tanakh:


the Lord, of His own, shall give you a sign: He will give you a sign by Himself, against Your will.

is with child: This is actually the future, as we find concerning Manoah’s wife, that the angel said to her (Judges 13:3): “And you shall conceive and bear a son,” and it is written, “Behold, you are with child and shall bear a son.”

the young woman: My wife will conceive this year. This was the fourth year of Ahaz.

and she shall call his name: Divine inspiration will rest upon her.

Immanuel: [lit. God is with us. That is] to say that our Rock shall be with us, and this is the sign, for she is a young girl, and she never prophesied, yet in this instance, Divine inspiration shall rest upon her. This is what is stated below (8:3): “And I was intimate with the prophetess, etc.,” and we do not find a prophet’s wife called a prophetess unless she prophesied. Some interpret this as being said about Hezekiah, but it is impossible, because, when you count his years, you find that Hezekiah was born nine years before his father’s reign. And some interpret that this is the sign, that she was a young girl and incapable of giving birth.


[Note: there is no mention of Isaiah 7:14 as being a Messianic prophecy]


[11] Hillel (also known as Hillel the Elder, born Babylon traditionally c. 110 BCE, died 10 CE in Jerusalem) was one of the most famous Jewish religious leaders and one of the most important figures in Jewish history, and is associated with the development of both the Mishnah and the Talmud. Hillel is renowned as a sage and scholar of Judaism, and he was the founder of the House of Hillel School for Tannaïm. Hillel was the founder of a dynasty of Sages that continued

until about 400 – 500 CE.


Zakkai (Yohanan ben Zakkai, 30 BCE- 90 CE) is also known as Johanan B. Zakkai, and by the acronym Ribaz. He was one of the tannaim (the Jewish Sages) in the era of the Second Temple, and a primary contributor to the Mishnah, considered a core text of Rabbinical Judaism.   He is one of the most venerated Jewish figures of his time.


[12] Joseph ben Ephraim Karo, also spelled Yosef Caro, or Qaro, (Toledo, 1488 – Safed, March 24, 1575) was author of the Shulchan Aruch, which was the last great codification of Jewish law, and which is still considered authoritative in Judaism.   Rabbi Joseph is often referred to as HaMechaber (Hebrew: “The Author”‎) and as Maran (Aramaic: “Our Master”).


“Rabbi Hillel said, ‘There shall be no Messiah for Israel, because they have already enjoyed him in the days of Hezekiah.’ Rabbi Joseph (ben Ephraim Karo) said, ‘May God forgive him (for saying so).’”


[13] Other Messiahs

       A. Before the Common Era, there were a number of men that to the Palestinian Jews had either proclaimed themselves to be the Messiah, or were considered by many Jews to be the Messiah. Each of these “false Messiahs” is representative of the fact that the Jews, at the time of Christ, were indeed looking for the “coming Messiah”.

[Note: In this, we see that the claims by some (very few) scholars that Hezekiah was the Messiah was not at all relevant to the majority of Palestinian Jews].

(1) Judas Maccabeus (167-160 BCE) – “The people were hoping for the Messiah, conceived as another Judah Maccabee, who would be raised up to vanquish the heathen occupation forces.” [Fred Klett; article entitled “Hanukkah and Jesus”; 1996; see; “Chaim”].


Many of the events in the life of Maccabeus his life paralleled the prophesies in Daniel chapter eight. [“John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible”; entry on Daniel 8:14; John Gill]


2) Simon of Peraea (c. 4 BCE) – “There was also Simon, who had been a slave of king Herod, but in other respects a comely person, of a tall and robust body; he was one that was much superior to others of his order, and had had great things committed to his care. This man was elevated at the disorderly state of things, and was so bold as to put a diadem on his head, while a certain number of the people stood by him, and by them he was declared to be a king, and he thought himself more worthy of that dignity than anyone else.” [“Jewish War” 2.57-59 and “Jewish Antiquities” 17.273-277; Flavius Josephus]              

(3) Athronges (c. 4-2? BCE) – “Athronges, a person neither eminent by the dignity of his progenitors, nor for any great wealth he possessed. For he had been a mere shepherd, not known by anybody. But because he was a tall man, and excelled others in the strength of his hands, he was so bold as to set up for king. This man thought it so sweet a thing to do more than ordinary injuries to others, that, although he risked his life, he did not much care if he lost it in so great a design.” “After he had put a diadem about his head, he assembled a council to debate about what things should be done, and all things were done according to his pleasure. So, this man retained his power a great while; he was also called king, and had nothing to hinder him from doing what he pleased.”

B. Gospel of John, 10:22-24:   22 At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; 23 it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. 24 The Jews then gathered around Him,and were saying to Him, “How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.” (NASB)

Gospel of John, 10:22-24:   22) And it was the festival of the dedication of the Temple (Hanukkah) at Yirushalem (Jerusalem – city of Shalom) and it was winter. [Hosea 9]. 23) And Yeshua (Jesus) walked about (to and fro) in the Temple Sanctuary’s Porch of Solomon. [Psalms 22:16]. 23) And the Jews surrounded Him (in hostility, the leaders)

and said to Him, “Until what point (how long) are You going to leave us hanging in suspense? If You are the Anointed One, tell us clearly (publicly, as one who is of certain genealogy).” (They were trying to trick Him for if Yeshua – (Jesus) – had told them yes it would have been a death sentence as anyone who publicly announced he was a Mashiach = Messiah = anointed one, was to be put to death) [Hosea 11:7, Job 33:1 ff]

[“The Gospel of John, An Actual Translation” © 2012 Roy Blizzard III – A translation of John from the Hebrew text of Franz Delitszch].

[14] Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (born 1138, died 1208), also known as “Maimonides” and “The Rambam”, compiled what he refers to as the Shloshah Asar Ikkarim, the “Thirteen Fundamental Principles” of the Jewish faith, as derived from the Torah.

1. Belief in the existence of the Creator, who is perfect in every manner of existence and is the Primary Cause of all that exists.

2. The belief in G-d’s absolute and unparalleled unity.

3. The belief in G-d’s non-corporeality, nor that He will be affected by any physical   occurrences, such as movement, or rest, or dwelling.

4. The belief in G-d’s eternity.

5. The imperative to worship G-d exclusively and no foreign false gods.

6. The belief that G-d communicates with man through prophecy.

7. The belief in the primacy of the prophecy of Moses our teacher.

8. The belief in the divine origin of the Torah.

9. The belief in the immutability of the Torah.

10. The belief in G-d’s omniscience and providence.

11. The belief in divine reward and retribution.

12. The belief in the arrival of the Messiah and the messianic era.

13. The belief in the resurrection of the dead.

[Anonymous Encyclopedic; article entitled “The Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith”;

see  of-Faith.htm; “Chabad”]

[15] Duling, Dennis C. (2010). “The Gospel of Matthew”. In Aune, David E. The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 296–318. ISBN 978-1-4051-0825-6.

[16]There is no consensus among Jewish scholars regarding the exact fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14-16. In particular, since the birth of Immanuel is never mentioned in the Tanakh, it is impossible to determine when that birth might have occurred, and this has been the source of disagreement among Jewish scholars for centuries.

“Probably no single passage of the Old Testament has been so variously interpreted or has given rise to so much controversy as the prophecy contained in these verses. The difficulties arise mainly from the fact that while the terms of the prediction are so indefinite as to admit a wide range of possibilities, we have no record of its actual fulfillment in any contemporary event.”

[ “Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges”; commentary; “Additional             Note on Chap. Isaiah 7:14-16”]

“The almah has been identified as either the mother of Hezekiah or the daughter of Isaiah.”

[“Isaiah”. Coogan, Michael D. (2007). In Coogan, Michael D.; Brettler, Mark Zvi; Newsom, Carol Ann. New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford University Press.]

“Both of these candidates – the mother of Hezekiah or the daughter of Isaiah – are problematic: Hezekiah was born well before the war with Ephraim and Syria began, and although almah does not specifically mean “virgin” it probably does mean a girl who has not yet had a child, and Isaiah already has a son.” [Sweeney, Marvin A (1996). Isaiah 1–39: with an introduction to prophetic literature. Eerdmans.]

Rev. Joseph Sterns writes:

1. “Rabbi Joseph Caro, in his comment on Isaiah 7:14, believes that Immanuel is the son of Isaiah the prophet and his wife, the prophetess.”

2. “Radak, on the other hand, reaches no definite conclusion; he states that the almah mentioned here could be a bethulah or not. He is also not sure if Immanuel is the son of Isaiah or the son of Ahaz.”

3. “Metsidat David clearly believes the wife of Ahaz is the almah and the mother of Immanuel.” [Rev. Joseph Sterns; article entitled “The Miraculous Birth”; see; “Hebrew Witness”]

The indeterminate nature of who the mother of Immanuel would be has been commented on, and debated by some of the most venerated scholars in Jewish history, including Rashi and Radak, as indicated by the following commentary:

“Either Isaiah’s (Rashi) or Ahaz’ (Radak) young wife will bear a son and, through prophetic inspiration, will give him the name Immanuel, which means ‘God is With Us.’ thus in effect prophesying that Judah will be saved from the threat of Rezin and Pekah.”

[ “ArtScroll Tanakh”; commentary ]

[17] Coogan, Michael D. (2007). “Isaiah”. In Coogan, Michael D.; Brettler, Mark Zvi; Newsom, Carol Ann. New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford University Press.

[18] Sweeney, Marvin A (1996). Isaiah 1–39: with an introduction to prophetic literature. Eerdmans.

[19] parthenos

A. From LSJ:

A. maiden, girl, Il.22.127, etc. ;

2. of unmarried women who are not virgins, Il.2.514, Pi.P.3.34, S. Tr.1219, Ar.Nu.530.

3. Παρθένος, the Virgin Goddess, as a title of Athena at Athens, Paus.5.11.10, 10.34.8 (hence of an Att. Coin bearing her head, E.Fr.675); of Artemis, E.Hipp.17 ; of the Tauric Iphigenia, Hdt.4.103 ; of an unnamed goddess, SIG46.3 (Halic., v B.C.), IG12.108.48,54 (Neapolis in Thrace); αἱ ἱεραὶ π., of the Vestal Virgins, D.H.1.69, Plu.2.89e, etc. ; αἱ Ἑστιάδες π. Id.Cic.19; simply, αἱ π. D.H.2.66.

4. the constellation Virgo, Eudox. ap. Hipparch. 1.2.5, Arat.97, etc.

5. = κόρη 111, pupil, X.ap.Longin.4.4, Aret. SD1.7.

II. as Adj., maiden, chaste, E.Hipp. 1006, cf. Porph. Marc.33 ; μίτρη π. Epigr.Gr.319 : metaph., A.Pers.613.

B. From Strong’s Greek Dictionary:

G-3933. parthenos,   par-then’-os; of unknown or.; a maiden; by impl. an unmarried daughter:–virgin.




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