In a recent piece on the BBC, interviewer Nicky Campbell spoke with Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter. Responding to a question about the virgin birth, Dr. Stavrakopoulou said that, “basically, the virgin birth idea is a mistranslation.”
I think she’s wrong.
The NAB’s decision to change “virgin” to “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14 has once again brought up the virgin birth, Mary, and the nature of prophesy, as well as the role of translation in accurately conveying the text of the Bible.
Most reports I’ve seen recently, though, confuse what are really three separate issues here.
The first issue is the text of Isaiah 7:14. The Hebrew there reads: “an alma … will bear a son and call him `Emmanuel.'” It has long been known that alma does not mean “virgin.” Rather, the Hebrew word applies to any young woman. So the English translation of that line should read along the lines of “a young woman … will bear a son…” (The evidence is widely known and readily available, including in my And God Said.)
Unfortunately, the Septuagint — the highly influential ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament — got the translation wrong here, translating the Hebrew alma as the Greek parthenos, which (probably) did mean “virgin.” It was an easy mistake to make, because most young women back then were virgins, and most virgins were young women. It would be like translating “teenager” as “high-school student” in a society where most teenagers were in fact in high school.
Based on this mistranslation, though, most modern translations — going back to the KJV and including the recently published NIV — translate “a virgin … will bear a son” here. (The NIV has a footnote, “or young woman.”) The new NAB (“NABRE”) is a notable exception. That version now has, “the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.” Their choice to go with “young woman” reflects the correct understanding of the original Hebrew (though I do have problems with their phrasing of the rest of the line).
The Virgin Birth
Importantly, though, Isaiah 7:14 is not the description of “the virgin birth” of Jesus. Rather, we find the virgin birth first in Matthew 1:18-25, which brings us to the second issue.
As part of the description of Jesus’ birth, the text in Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14, noting that Jesus’ birth “fulfilled” (plirow) the phrophet Isaiah’s words (a point I return to below).
Matthew 1:18-25 only uses “virgin” (parthenos) in quoting Isaiah 7:14. But Matthew’s description of Jesus’ birth is nonetheless clear on the matter. The text uses the euphemisms “before [Mary and Joseph] came together [sunerchomai]” and “[Joseph] did not know [ginosko] her [Mary] until after she gave birth” to indicate that Mary was a virgin, and the text twice clarifies that the pregnancy was “from the Holy Spirit” [ek pneumatos agiou].
These combine to create a clear account: Jesus was born to a virgin.
The text in Luke 1:26-38 is similar in nature. Though again “virgin” is replaced with a euphemism (“Mary asked the angel, `how [is it possible that I will conceive] since I do not know [ginosko]” any men?), the text is clear, adding for emphasis that “with God nothing is impossible.”
The actual descriptions indicate a virgin birth, regardless of what the words in Isaiah 7:14 mean.
The third issue is how to reconcile the virgin birth with Isaiah 7:14, which is cited in Matthew 1:23.
The most straightforward way is to note that even though Isaiah 7:14 refers to a “young woman,” not a “virgin,” the text doesn’t say that she wasn’t a virgin. She could have been. (By comparison, the text also doesn’t say that the woman had long hair, but she might have.) In other words, Isaiah 7:14, even with the better understanding of the original text, doesn’t contradict anything in the NT.
The more nuanced way to reconcile the two texts is to recognize what the verb in Matthew 1:22, plirow, really indicates. Though the word is commonly translated “fulfill” (as in, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet [Isaiah]”), better is “match,” as I describe here (“What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?”). I won’t go through the whole explanation again, but for now I think it suffices to note that Matthew knew that the details in Isaiah 7:14 differed from those he was describing. After all, the name of the child in Isaiah 7:14 was Immanuel, not Jesus.
Either way (and even though it’s not really my place to say), I don’t see a huge theological problem here. And even if there were a problem, I would still be in favor of an accurate translation.
It seems pretty clear to me that Isaiah 7:14 mentions a pregnant woman (who, at least as far as translation can take us, may or may not have been a virgin) and that the NT refers to the virgin birth of Jesus. It seems equally clear that the lack of perfect harmony between the texts is in keeping with other kinds of prophesy in the NT.
Still, from the international stage (“traditionalists may see [the NABRE’s change from “virgin” to “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14] as a step away from the original meaning”) to local communities (“If the meaning of the language is changed to reflect that Mary may not have been a virgin, you’ve just denied the divinity of Christ”) the discussion seems skewed to me. It seems to start with theology, and then ask how the translations can be doctored to match that theology, while I think an accurate translation should stand on its own.
Or to put it another way, it seems to me that basing theology on a translation designed solely to support that theology is both bad translation technique and bad theology.
It has long been known that the KJV translation “virgin” for the pregnant woman in Isaiah 7:14 is inaccurate, and many modern translations opt instead for “young woman” or at least a footnote along those lines. The NRSV, for example, translates: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” And though the NIV 2011 translates “virgin,” it also offers the footnote “or young woman.”
But how old was this “young woman”? Was she really young? Younger than whom?
In this case, the Hebrew word here — alma — probably referred to what we would now call a teenager. (The Greek translation in the Septuagint, parthenos, probably did mean “virgin,” but the Greek here is widely regarded as a translation mistake.)
“Teenager” is the wrong translation, though. For one thing, in antiquity there were no teenagers as we think of them now, because people generally only lived until about age 40. As I explain in And God Said:
Accordingly, people didn’t have time as they do now to spend their first decade as care-free children, then find themselves in their teen years, explore the world as twenty-somethings and settle down as thirty-somethings. They’d be dead before they ever really started living.
Rather, people [in antiquity] were “children” and then they were “adults.” (And then they were dead.)
For another thing, “a pregnant teenager” in English carries connotations that the Hebrew did not. (Also, we don’t have a word in English for a “female teenager.”)
So what about “young woman” as a translation?
There’s an old adage in linguistics that even a big mouse is smaller than a small elephant. In our current case, we want to keep in mind that “young” is relative, too.
As I personally use the phrase, “young woman” usually applies to a woman in her 20s or even older. By this reckoning, “young woman,” at least in my dialect, is — surprisingly — too old for alma.
There’s also another aspect to consider. Did alma refer to age, or to stage in life? I think it’s the latter, and I think the stage in life was the one at which a woman normally got married.
In other words, Isaiah 7:14 is about a woman getting pregnant just at the age one might expect. Does “young woman” in English convey that? I don’t think so, both because it may convey the wrong chronological age, and because it emphasizes “young” in a way that the Hebrew does not.
Accordingly, I think “woman” is a better translation: “A pregnant woman will give birth to a son, and call him Immanuel.”
What happens to prophecies in the New Testament?
The obvious answer is that they come true, but I think a more careful look shows otherwise.
Matthew 1:18-22 / Isaiah 7:14
As an example of a prophecy apparently coming true, we might consider the first chapter of Matthew. The text starting around Matthew 1:18 deals with the virgin birth of Jesus, fulfilling the prophecy of virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14. The text even reads (Matthew 1:22; NRSV), “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.”
John 19:24 / Psalm 22:18
Similarly, according to John 19:24, the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ tunic to fulfill the prophecy of Psalm 22:18, “…and for my clothing they cast lots.” (Matthew 27:35 has the same account, but not all manuscripts have the direct reference to Psalms there.)
Fulfillment of Prophecy
Both of these seem to be cases of prophecies coming true.
But the Greek word in each case is plirow. And while “fulfill” is one common translation of that verb, I don’t think it’s accurate.