Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
We who believe that Jesus is truly the Messiah, the sinless virgin-born Son of God, treasure Isaiah 7:14 as a proof text for our faith. But mention this text to an unbeliever and he will probably inform you that the word almah in the original language means “young woman,” not virgin.
Contention over the translation of Isaiah 7:14 began in the early days of the church. In A.D. 150, Aqilah the Proselyte rendered the word almah into the Greek neanias, meaning “young female.” Few scholars of his day used that translation, and only excerpts of it remain as quotations in some of the early Jewish and Christian writings. Nevertheless, to this day the controversy rages on. Those who believe in the virgin birth of Christ quote the King James Version of the Bible that translates almah as “virgin,” and those who oppose this doctrine cite for their case the more recent Revised Standard Version that renders almah as “young woman.”
We who do believe and are vitally concerned with reaching Jewish people with the Gospel need to find support that is credible to the Jewish community for our stance that almah does, indeed, mean “virgin.” Firstly, the Septuagint rabbis who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (about 240 B.C.) thought almah referred to a virgin, for they translated it into the Greek parthenos, which indisputably means “virgin.”
Secondly, we can find further support for our view in Matthew’s New Testament account of the Messiah’s birth. He applies the Isaiah 7:14 verse to Mary, whom he describes in Matthew 1:25 as a virgin. Matthew 1:23 directly quotes from Isaiah 7:14, down to the definite article, translating ha-almah into the Greek ha parthenos.
A translation based on the logic of the immediate context and on the use of the word in other Old Testament passages will further strengthen this position.
The context of Isaiah 7:14 implied that something supernatural would happen to convince King Ahaz of God’s message. God was willing to give Ahaz a sign (Hebrew ot). This same word, ot, is used also in Isaiah 38:7, 8 where God gives a supernatural sign to King Hezekiah by turning back the shadow on the sun dial. Again, we find the word ot in Exodus 4:8, 9 where it is used to describe the miraculous signs given to Pharaoh through Moses.
Further contextual logic stems from Isaiah’s statement that this child who will be born will be called Immanuel, meaning God with us. Because this child was to symbolize God’s very presence with His people, the translators certainly could have expected such an extraordinary personage to have an extraordinary, even miraculous birth.
Evidence also occurs in other Scriptures to support the Septuagint and Matthew translation of “parthenos.” In Genesis 24:43 Rebekah is described as “a virgin (almah).” Again, in Song of Solomon 1:3 we find alamot, the plural form of almah, often translated by Jewish commentators as “virgins.” The word almah is also used in Exodus 2:8 to describe Miriam, who at the time, according to Josephus and Jewish commentary, was only ten or twelve years old. Even taking into account the very early marriage customs of the ancients, Miriam was probably too young to be married, and thus still a virgin.
Opponents of the translation “virgin” for almah claim that Hebrew Scripture uses a different word, bethulah, to mean virgin. We do see this term used to describe Rebekah in Genesis 24:16, but there it is qualified with the statement immediately following, “neither had any man known her.” If the common understanding of bethulah were “virgin,” the passage would not have needed the explanation, “neither had any man known her.”
Again we find the bethulah in Joel 1:8, where it definitely applies to a married woman: “Lament like a bethulah girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth.” Had the prophet used bethulah rather than almah in Isaiah 7:14, the critics would have much more cause to insist that the prophecy did not refer to a supernatural birth.
A word study by Arthur Glass, a 20th century Hebrew Christian talmudist, indicates that almah is derived from the Hebrew ne’elam, which means “hidden,” and is a composite of two words: na’al and elem. Na’al means “to close,” and elem means “a youth.” Thus, explains Glass, the word almah took on the meaning “hidden,” denoting a young girl who was sheltered and unviolated.
From all these evidences, we see that the Septuagint translators had good reason to translate almah as parthenos, “virgin.” They were dedicated to the task of rendering the Holy Scriptures into the common language as accurately as possible. Faithfulness to the meaning of the text was their chief concern. Those who handle the Scriptures today must also remain faithful to the text. They must not manipulate the translation until it suits some pre-determined theology. Rather, they must try to discern with open, willing hearts, what God’s message is.
The Septuagint rabbis had no theological axe to grind. They evidently thought that Isaiah 7:14 predicted a miraculous act of God. Matthew also knew that when he quoted from Isaiah 7:14 in his Gospel. Praise God, that miracle that Isaiah prophesied did come to pass, and we can experience much joy in the Incarnation, whereby “…the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.” John 1:14.