Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries

The Old Testament Prophecy regarding the Virgin Birth

By John Tachos

There are some, who instead of admiring the accuracy of the prophecy regarding the Birth of our Lord Jesus Christ by a Virgin, prefer to search for reasons to disbelieve.  This is why they doubt that the words in Isaiah 7:14 actually speak of a virgin.  They assert that the original Hebrew text uses the term "almah", which means "young woman" and not the term "bethulah" which means "virgin".   They furthermore point out that Isaiah uses the term "bethulah" in other parts of his book, but not in 7:14, ergo, they claim that it is clearly NOT a reference to a certain virgin who was to give birth to a son, but that quite simply, the Septuagint authors when translating the term "almah" had incorrectly used the word "virgin".  They maintain that in order to prove Jesus was actually the Christ, Matthew (1:23) and Luke (1:26 etc.) had written that He was born of a virgin, which would supposedly act as a verification of Isaiah's prophecy.

 

We need to respond to this claim, since this issue was brought up by the extremely cunning Porphyrios during the 3rd century A.D.

First of all, let's see what Isaiah had said:

For this, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Emmanuel.”  (Isaiah 7:14)

There are 51 verses in the Old Testament in which the word “bethulah” is used.  It is our conviction that, first of all, the word “bethulah” does not always signify a virgin; secondly, that the word “almah”  at times indeed refers to a virgin, and in fact –based on the given trends of that era-  the word always meant “virgin”; thirdly, even if the translation had the word “young maiden” instead of “virgin”, or, if Isaiah had indeed implied “a young maiden”, even so, that young woman would have to have been a virgin.

The fact that the word “bethulah” does not always mean “virgin”, is evident in various verses of the Old Testament.

In Genesis, we note:

Genesis 24: 15,16: 

"And it came about before he had finished speaking in his mind, that then, behold, Rebekka, who was born to Bathouel son of Melcha the wife of Nachor—and he was Abraam’s brother—was coming out with her water jar on her shoulders. Now the maiden was very beautiful in appearance; she was a maiden (betulah)—no man had known her. So then going down to the spring she filled her jar and came up.."

Genesis 24: 43:

"Behold, I stand near the spring of water, and the daughters of the people of the city will come out to fetch water, and it shall be that the maiden (almah) to whom I should say, “Give me a little water from your jar to drink...”

In verse 16, Rebecca is referred to as “bethulah”; but that word was obviously not adequate enough to let us know that she was a virgin, thus, the author added the clarification that “no man had known her” to that day.

Whereas, in verse 43, Rebecca is referred to as “almah”, which was obviously a satisfactory term for the author of Genesis to indicate that Rebecca was a virgin.  The author of Genesis did not add any clarification after the word “almah”, that “no man had known Rebecca”, obviously because the word “almah” implies the absence of carnal relations.

There are quite a number of instances where the use of the word “bethulah” is accompanied by the clarification of “not having carnal knowledge”.

In Joel 1:8 we read:

"Lament like a bride (ki-betulah) girded with sackcloth, for the husband (ba’al)  of her youth..."

We notice here that a bride – in other words, a woman who has had carnal relations – is referred to as “kibetulah”.   Normally, if the word “bethulah” signified “virgin”, it would be inappropriate to use it for a married woman, who is mourning for her “virginal” husband, i.e., the husband whom she was married to, a very long time ago (=from the time she was a virgin).

This last point is very important, because some people insist that the “bride” mentioned in the above verse is merely betrothed (and not wed), and therefore has no carnal relations as yet.  However, this mode of expression denotes a very long period of time (hence she cannot still be engaged), as is apparent in the wording of Proverbs 5:18:

"Let your well of water be solely your own, and rejoice with the wife from your youth."

Furthermore, the betrothed of a young woman is called “ish” and not “ba’al”, which is always used when referring to a married man, and not to one who is betrothed.  The word “bethulah” does not chiefly imply “virgin”; it signifies a young woman who lives in her father’s house.

The word “almah” is used 6 times in the Old Testament, in the Singular and Plural  (Genesis 24:43, Exodus 2:8, Isaiah 7:14;  Psalms 68:25, Song of Solomon 1:3 and 6:8).  In none of these verses is it used to mean “a married woman” or women (i.e. who are not virgins).

But even in the languages of other peoples of the Middle East, the word equivalent to the term “bethulah” does not necessarily signify “virgin” (in its biological sense).   For example, the Akkadian term “batultu” basically denotes an age group.  Only when it is within a special context, does it imply “virgin”.   In the Ugarit texts, the wordbtlt is the usual characterization of Anat, Baal’s wife.  In Aramaic texts, we read of a woman “btwlt” who is in labour.

At any rate, if Isaiah had prophesied that a …non-virgin was to give birth to a son, it would not have been much of a “sign given by God”.   After all, for a non-virgin to give birth to a son is nothing wondrous or unusual; nor is it a miracle sent by God so to speak, since all women that give birth are naturally not virgins.

In other words, it would have been illogical for Isaiah to speak of a non-virgin giving birth to a son, and present it as a miracle.   Even if the word “almah” does not precisely denote “virgin”, but simply “young maiden” – a young woman who is not yet married – Isaiah would still not have referred to a birth by a non-virgin as something miraculous.  All of the young (unmarried) women of that time were virgins.

Saint Basil the Great in his “Interpretation of Isaiah", p. 464, writes of the allegations of the Judeans (and of Porphyrios), below:

"The Jews are resisting the publication of the Septuagint edition, claiming that the word “Virgin” does not agree with the Jewish view, instead it should be “the Young Maiden”,  in that it implies a young woman who is in the prime of her life, and not to a woman who is unfamiliar with wedlock”.

To which, Saint Basil replied:

“Unless it is a tremendous sign and a display of something different to the commonplace manner of people, what is there so wondrous about one out of many women who cohabits with a man, to become the mother of a child? How then can it also be, for a child born of fleshly desire to be called Emmanuel? (Emmanuel=the Lord is amongst us)  So that, if the event was indeed a "sign", the birth would also be paradoxical.  If the manner of the child's birth was commonplace, it would neither be called a "sign", nor would the child be called "Emmanuel".  Likewise, if the woman who gave birth was not a virgin, what kind of "sign" would that be? And if the birth was not divine -as many claim- then how is the presence of Emmanuel explained?

Essentially, what Saint Basil is saying is:  "where is the miracle, if a married woman became the mother of a child?  And if that was considered the “sign” (in other words the miracle), then, the way it was born must have been uncommon.  If it was the commonplace kind of birth, then it would not have been called a miracle.  If it wasn’t a virgin who was going to give birth, then where is the miracle?" 

Saint Basil also provides us with other examples: in Deuteronomy 22:27 and Kings III 1:3-4, where virgins are referred to as “maidens”.

Even if Isaiah had used the word “almah” instead of “bethulah”, he still implied the same thing, i.e., that a virgin was to give birth to a son. Otherwise, the prophesying of this miracle (the wondrous sign) would not have made any sense. The Septuagint translators had very appropriately translated the word “almah” as “virgin”, because that is precisely what Isaiah wanted to stress:  that a woman, who had no carnal relations, was to bear a son. That is what constitutes a miracle and a “sign”.

 

Greek text

Translation by A. N.

Article published in English on: 7-12-2005.

Last update: 9-4-2013.

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