What do you get when you mix one liberal Hebrew Bible professor, 75 conservative Evangelical seminarians, and the original Hebrew translation of Isaiah 7:14? The answer: Pure pandemonium. Today, my professor began her exploration of the book of Isaiah, which is the text from which Christianity has drawn its famous “Virgin Birth” prophecy: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14, NIV)
This verse would be a fabulous prophecy for the coming of Jesus if it did not contain one of the most notoriously-debated mistranslations in all of scripture. You see, the Hebrew translation of this passage does not say “virgin.” It says “A young woman of marrying age will conceive.”* Rabbi Tovia Singer sums up the controversy in a neat little package on his website:
For nearly two millennia the church has insisted that the Hebrew word alma can only mean “virgin.” The church must hold this position because Matthew 1:22-23 translates alma in Isaiah 7:14 as “virgin.” The first Gospel quotes this well-known verse to provide the only “Old Testament” proof text for the supposed virgin birth of Jesus. The stakes are high for Christendom, because if the Hebrew word alma does not mean virgin, Matthew is misquoting the prophet Isaiah, and both a key tenet of Christianity and the credibility of the first Gospel collapses.
He goes on to explain why the words “young woman” don’t imply virginity:
In the same way that in the English language the words ‘young woman’ have no bearing on whether virginity is present or not, in the Hebrew language there is no relationship between the words alma and virgin. On the contrary, it is usually a young woman who bears children. Had Isaiah wished to speak about a virgin birth, he would have used the word betulah not alma. Betulah is a common word in the Jewish scriptures, and can only mean virgin.”
Rabbi Singer elaborates further in a footnote:
“In fact, although Isaiah used the Hebrew word alma only one time in his entire corpus (7:14), the prophet uses this word virgin (betulah) five times throughout the book of Isaiah (23:4; 23:12; 37:22; 47:1; 62:5).”
Does the “credibility of the gospel collapse” if this verse really is so egregiously mistranslated? That was the tense question that bounced all over the room after my professor’s lecture– but only in grumbles and whispers. “That’s heresy” some of the students said as they exited the lecture hall. I even heard a student whom I know to be a third-generation preacher say “I’m going to call my daddy and tell him about the mess they’re teaching here” as he packed up his laptop.
I was reminded of how hard it was for me to relax my theological structure when I first began to grapple with these questions. I suppose I can only hope that the students in my class will find peace and more open minds as the semester progresses. Especially as our professor has already told us that next week, she’ll be explaining why Isaiah 9:6** also has nothing to do with Jesus. Now THAT should be interesting.
* Thank you to Thom Stark for providing the following important correction: “The Hebrew actually doesn’t say, ‘the young maiden WILL conceive.’ It says, ‘the young maiden HAS conceived.’ The verb is in the perfect tense. It should actually be translated adjectivally, as in, ‘this pregnant woman will bear a son.’ The prediction was that the child would be male, not that the woman would become pregnant. She was already pregnant.”
**Isaiah 9:6 says “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”