Thursday, November 22, 2012

Who is the Almah's Son?

Isaiah 7:14

Matthew 1:23

"Therefore my Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the maiden will become pregnant and bear a son, and she will name him Immanuel."

This passage is the first of many used by the Gospel of Matthew to indicate that the Nazarene was predicted in the T'nakh. Accordingly it is the first one that is run across when reading the Christian Bible cover to cover. This prominent position and the importance of the Virgin Birth in Christian theology probably led to this "prophecy" being one of the better known ones applied to the Nazarene. It is also one that Christians go to great lengths to defend as Messianic, with many different approaches taken by different missionaries to resolve the difficulties of such an interpretation.1

A very significant matter to know in this discussion is that the word generally translated as virgin, "almah", does not mean virgin. I don't wish to elaborate on that point at this time, but we will (although to see an extensive argument against translating almah as virgin from a Messianic/Christian apologist see Michael Brown’s Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus vol. 3, pages 20-21 with the footnotes). The argument that almah does not mean virgin is well known and Christians have several standard responses, which we will also explore latter. So the first thing I wish to do is show what the passage does mean, and then deal with what it doesn’t. In doing so we will see that regardless of the actual meaning of the word rendered as "virgin", that the passage is not Messianic nor does it refer to the Nazarene. With that, let’s look at the passage in context. After we understand the passage in its context we will be better suited to explore the true meaning of "almah" and it’s proper translation:

When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah King of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it. Now the house of David was told, ‘Aram has allied itself with Ephraim’; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken ...Then Isaiah said, ‘Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The ["virgin"] will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid to waste.’" Isaiah 7:1-2,13-16. (NIV)

One may recall that after King Solomon (Sh’lomo HaMelech) passed away the nation of Israel split into two kingdoms. The southern kingdom was ruled by the House of David and was know as Judah (Yehudah). The capital of Judah was Jerusalem (Yerushalayim) and Achaz the son of Yotham was its king. The northern kingdom was known as Israel (Yisrael) and/or Ephraim. The capital of the northern kingdom Israel was Samaria and Pekach the son of Remaleyahu was its king. Chapter 7 opens with an alliance made between Aram and Israel to attack Judah. Hashem proceeds to tell the king of Judah that a child will be born as a symbol that the alliance would not be successful. To find out whom the child in the passage refers to one need only turn the page to Isaiah chapter eight.

A comparison of the two reveals the obvious intent of chapter seven is the child mentioned in chapter eight (the numbers identify the root word identified in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, a popular Bible reference among Christians).

Chapter 7 verse 14 reads "The maiden will become pregnant (2030) and bear a son (3205), and she will name him Immanuel."While chapter 8 verse 3 is "I approached the prophetess, and she conceived (2030) and bore (3205) a son."

Notice that 8:3 uses the same language to describe the birth of Isaiah's son as was used in 7:14, one describing future action and the other describing completed action.

In 7:16, "For before the child knows to abhor evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you fear will be abandoned." The two kings they feared being kings Pekach and Rezin from Israel and Aram (see 7:1, 2).
Then compare 8:4, "For before the child knows how to say ‘My father’ and ‘My mother’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoils of Samaria will be carried off before the king of Assyria."

Damascus was the capital of Aram, and we mentioned earlier that Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom, Israel. In 8:4 we see that before Isaiah’s son would mature that Aram and Israel would be fall, just as was said concerning the child of 7:14 in slightly different language, but with the same meaning.

7:14 "and she will name him Immanuel."
Then 8 "and its wingspan will be the full breadth of your land, O Immanuel."

These two verses are the only two verses in T’nakh which use this contraction.

The child foretold in 7:14 is none other than the child born in the next chapter, apparently to Isaiah and his wife (i.e. "the prophetess"). It is not uncommon to find Christian commentator’s who recognize that this is the simple meaning of the text in context. The NIV Study Bible concedes that the subject of Isaiah 7 is the son born to Isaiah in chapter 8. Messianic Apologist Michael Brown writes, "In that light, it is interesting to note that the promise of yet another child of promise, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz in chapter 8, seems to take the place of the Immanuel prophecy in chapter 7 in terms of the immediate historical context spoken there."2 Radio apologist Hank Hanegraaff, "The Bible Answer Man", writes, "First, the prophecy in Isaiah chapter seven--'the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel'--was fulfilled in Isaiah chapter eight. As Isaiah makes clear, this prophecy was fulfilled when Isaiah 'went to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son' named Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (8:3)." (The Complete Bible Answer Book, page 220).Still others go so far as applying the adjacent verses to the historical context while singling out verse 14 and 5 alone as Messianic, "In Isaiah 7:14-15 Christ is immediately in the foreground, but verse 16 ("for before the child shall know how to refuse evil and choose the good, the land that thou abhorest will be forsaken of both her kings") is a local reference."3 This despite the fact, as we have shown, that the exact same language used in verse 14 is used in reference to the conception of Isaiah's son.

And of course this opinion is prominent among those held by the Jewish sages such as Rashi who understands Isaiah 7:14 as referring to Isaiah's son born in chapter 8. The context is clear and Christians who wish to maintain a legitimate interpretive methodology accept this explanation and seek alternative ways of applying it to the Nazarene (although in doing so they cripple the "predictive" power of the passage with respect to its application to the Nazarene).

Almah, Virgin or Young Woman?

Now, as we mentioned before, the passage does not say virgin. The Hebrew word for virgin is bethulah; the word here is almah which means young woman, or "maiden". To this point there are a whole host of objections, so I apologize if I stumble in my attempt to systematically respond. One possible objection, which I surprisingly have not seen, is that there is a comment by Rashi that seemingly equates the two terms. While Messianic Christians often find Jewish literature an exciting and new frontier for evidence of their claims, the truth is that this has been done for centuries, and more often than not these sources are recycled from earlier Christian works. With as much time and effort that has been put into such research, the prominence of Rashi, and the infrequency of the term almah I am actually quite amazed that I have never seen this Rashi mentioned.4 Commenting on Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) 1:3, Rashi explains "maidens (almaoth) as "virgins" (batholiths). What then, shall we make of the objection that almah doesn’t mean virgin?

First let us consider what if the term almah meant virgin? It would not imply a virgin birth, or more importantly conception. Justin Martyr, one of the earliest Christian apologists, argued "This, then, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive," signifies that a virgin should conceive without intercourse. For if she had had intercourse with any one whatever, she was no longer a virgin."5 This assertion is in error. Scripture states, "while the barren women bears seven" (1 Samuel 2:5), following Justin Martyr’s reasoning she is still barren even though she has borne children! Rather, virginity, if that is what almah had meant, would simply refer to her status at the time of the prophecy."'Virgin' (almah) was simply a term used to refer to the prophetess prior to her union with Isaiah, not to indicate that she would give birth to a child as a virgin. By way of analogy, it would have been true in 1999 to say that 'the governor of Texas will one day lead this country,' but this obviously does not mean that George W. Bush would lead the United States as the governor of Texas."(Hank Hanegraaff, The Complete Bible Answer Book, page 221).6

Hobart E. Freeman challenges, "Furthermore, it is not true that almah can sometimes designate a married woman.7 In not one single instance either in the Scriptures or in extra-biblical literature is there any support to the critical claim that almah is used of a married woman. On the contrary, the presumption was that every almah was, by implication, a virgin and unmarried." 8 So too, Hal Lindsey writes, "The term almah may sometimes mean a young maiden but it always means an unmarried young girl. About this Martin Luther said, ‘If a Jew or Christian can prove to me that in any passage of scripture almah mean a married woman, I will give him a hundred florins.’"9

While we will return to the aforementioned Rashi, this claim has no basis in fact. First of all, there is nothing to suggest the word refers to an unmarried woman other than the fact that young women are more frequently unmarried. The word usually and best translated as virgin in Hebrew is בתולה bethulah (alternatively betulah and besulah), and this would be used to specifically identify a woman as a virgin.10 Almah (עלמה) has no such necessary (or implicit) connotation. It is interesting to note that in early times both Jews and Christians have translated this passage into Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew. In the Targum, the Jewish translation the word is rendered by the Aramaic cognate for almah (עולמתא). In contrast the Peshitta, the Aramaic Christian Bible, in Matthew quote of this verse uses the Aramaic cognate for the Hebrew bethulah (בתולתא), not almah! Apparently these early Semitic language speaking Christians recognized that the Aramaic for bethulah was a better indicator of virginity than the Aramaic for almah.

For a table of Syriac/Aramaic letters see Wikipedia.

Secondly, the word is used rather infrequently in the T'nakh, and none of the other passages use it in such a way that demands that it means "virgin" as opposed to young woman. "The word is used nine times in the Old Testament, five times in the plural, and four times in the singular. Without dispute the word refers to an unmarried woman. No one has ever produced a test either in Hebrew or in the closely related Ugaritic language where "almah" is used in reference to a married woman." 11

Not only would it be an argument from silence to say that all instances in the T’nakh refer to an unmarried woman so the word can only refer to an unmarried woman, it is an argument from silence based on a very few number of usages.12 Even if we where to determine that each of the other instances the subject is in fact not married, that doesn't mean the word means they are unmarried, the term "refers" is being used equivocally.

And though we have only a few verses to derive the meaning from context, when we read Proverbs 30 we see a clear example of an almah being a married woman. In verses 18-33 the author gives four groups of four things that have something in common. The first example is;

There are three that are beyond me and a fourth that I do not know; the way of an eagle in the heavens; the way of a snake upon a rock; the way of a ship in the heart of the sea; and the way of a man with a young woman (almah). Such is the way of the adulterous woman: She wipes her mouth and says, ‘I have done no wrong.’

We have a list of four things that leave no evidence of having occurred. After listing the fourth, a man with an almah, the author proceeds to elaborate calling an adulterous and that she wipes her mouth and denied anything happened. One might suggest the author is giving another example in verse 20, separate from the way of a man with an almah but that would make five examples rather than the four mentioned by the author. Or one may suggest that this verse is completely unrelated, but then it would be out of place in this passage, which mentions groups of similar things. Such a suggestion also ignores the fact that the verse shares the characteristic of the preceding examples. And while some have objected to identifying the subject of this verse with intercourse as being a result of our contemporary fixation on the topic in society, such a suggestion is rather absurd 13 when the very next verse speaks about adultery.

Not surprisingly there are those who still attempt to negate the implication of this passage:
Some have maintained that what unites these four is in each one something disappears. A soaring eagle is easily lost from sight. A serpent quickly slithers off the rock, disappearing from sight. A ship can be lost in a fraction of time. And a virgin can loose her virginity to young man [sic] very quickly. If this were the true interpretation of the proverb, the word 'almah would indeed be a virgin. But since there is no moral evil in the first three examples, it seems unlikely that the fourth would call extramarital sex "wonderful." Moreover, the contrast with the adulterous woman in 30:20 would imply that the 'almah in the previous verse was not engaged in illicit sex. Probably the best way to understand this proverb is as referring to the mysterious and wonderful qualities of youthful attraction. Thus, it once again would refer to a virgin. (Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope: Is the Old Testament Really Messianic?, page 154).

There are several problems with this, starting off with the false dilemma he constructs with the passage referring to a virgin either way. On the one hand if we were to accept Rydelnik's assumption that verse 20 (with respect to adultery) is in contrast with the way of a young man and an almah then there is no basis to assume the almah in question is unmarried, and assuming the young man is her husband their is nothing illicit about the relationship. Nevertheless I do not see much justification in interpreting verse 20 in contrast with the previous verse rather than as a restatement, as is common in the poetical books. Indeed the two verses are joined with the comparative adverb כן which would suggest the two are comparable. And while verse 18's "wonderful" (נפלאו) might be an inappropriate description for adultery, the translation "hidden" (such as found in Deuteronomy 30:11) would not only suffice but fit its parallelism with "a forth that I do not know". And while Rydelnik writes, "But since there is no moral evil in the first three examples, it seems unlikely that the fourth would call extramarital sex 'wonderful'" a more careful reading reveals that the word translated as "wonderful" only applies to the first three examples, "There be three things which are too wonderful for me" (KJV)

All of this discussion about other instances of almah are of secondary importance, since among the seven times T’nakh uses almah, once is in Isaiah 7:14, our text in question, and we have shown that in context it clearly refers to the "prophetess" of Isaiah 8 (apparently Isaiah’s wife), so it certainly does refer to a married woman. Certainly an almah (young woman) can be a virgin, but whether the T'nakh mentions one almah who is also a virgin or a thousand, it doesn't mean that every almah is a virgin. The context of Isaiah 7:14 demonstrates that the almah it discusses is not. Although I am not sure how much a hundred florins are worth…


Unable to establish that the Hebrew word almah means virgin, apologists try to base their interpretation on a translation. The will argue that 70 Jewish Rabbi’s translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek, and they translated the word almah as parthenos, which means virgin.
The fact that the word almah means "a virgin" is proven by the Septuagint. During the intertestamental period, seventy-two Hebrew scholars, six from each of the twelve tribes, worked down in Alexandria, Egypt, on the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into the Greek language. When they came to this "sign" in Isaiah, those seventy-two men understood that it meant "virgin," and they translated it into the Greek word parthenos 14
The first problem15 is that the tradition that "Seventy Jewish Rabbis" translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek only applies to the first five books, the Torah (never mind the incongruity of citing Jewish tradition by those who deride and scoff at unless it serves their purpose and then they treat it as if it were from the most reliable source in the world). The rest of the Hebrew Bible was translated at different times by different people. The next problem is that it must be pointed out that extant copies of the Hebrew Bible into Greek do not accurately reflect the pre-Christian translations for Greek speaking Jews, so it is not at all certain that the term parthenos was used at all, much less by 70 Jewish Sages. Furthermore, even if we assume that in the time between such translations were made and the time which the Christian Scriptures were written, the term parthenos did not undergo a change in meaning or implications, it is not at all certain that the translator considered the full nuance of the term when choosing it, rather than utilizing the first seemingly appropriate term which came to mind. It is a dangerous thing to try to read the minds of people who lived centuries earlier and you know next to nothing about.

Finally, as with almah the use of parthenos need not imply anymore than her status at the time of the prophecy.


Another line of objection goes that since the child is to be called Immanuel, which literally means "God is with us", then the child can’t be a normal child (see Freeman, page 205, see also John Calvin on Isaiah 7:14). The assumption here seems to be that the statement of "God is with us" is due to the fact that this child is born. However if you recall this message of this passage is that Judah will be safe from the alliance of Aram and Israel. God is with Judah because He is protecting them from their enemies, "Plan a conspiracy and it shall be annulled; speak your piece and it shall not stand, for God is with us." (Isaiah 8:10). One must wonder why the name Immanu-e l (God is with us) is seen as any more an indicator of divinity than Sh’mu-e l (His name is God) or any of the other many Hebrew names with references to God in them?

Interestingly, some wish to argue that Isaiah's son born in chapter eight cannot be the child of Isaiah 7:14 since he wasn't named Immanuel. "The scriptures mention no individual with the name Immanuel, either in name or in deed. To the wife of the prophet Isaiah, or to anyone else." (James a. McCune, Is Jesus the Jews' Messiah?, page 17). "Chapters 7-12 constitute a series of prophecies given during the reign of Ahaz. some have attempted to identify the virgin's Son of chapter 7 with the prophet's son in chapter 8. The names preclude that possibility..." (Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee vol. 3 page 216.) This is curious since the Nazarene wasn't named Immanuel either, not do we ever see him called by such a name/title in the Christian Bible unless you count the instance when the verse is cited in Matthew as predicting his virgin birth. Of course the only other place where Immanuel is found in the Hebrew Scriptures (or the Christian scriptures save for Matthews citation of Isaiah 7:14) is in Isaiah chapter 8 following the birth of his son. Rashi notes (in manuscript editions at least see Judaica Press Isaiah vol. 1 on chapter 8) that while Isaiah is commanded to name his son "Maher-shalal-hash-baz" in chapter eight Isaiah 7:14 says "she shall call his name Immanuel." The Hebrew is unambiguously in the feminine, and though that alone might not be sufficient to make it apparent that the two names refer to the same child, the totality of the context does. (Indeed, the name the prophet is instructed to call his son has ominous implications, one can easily imagine a mother preferring a name with a more positive connotation.) In support of the Christian interpretation (despite the Nazarene not being named Imanuel) Brown notes that Scripture gives Solomon a name in 2 Samuel 12:24-25 which is otherwise un-used (Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 3, page 31).

A "Sign"

Since one is unable to establish almah as meaning virgin the objection is raised that a non-virgin birth in not miraculous. According to the prophecy the child was a "sign", an אוֹת. "Unless almah be translated with the implication of virgin there is no announcement worthy of being constituted as a sign of the birth of Immanuel, who was to be called Mighty [God]." (An Introduction to Old Testament Prophets, Hobart E. Freeman, Page 208, see also The Promise, Hal Lindsey page 66.) Again, "My friend, it is no sign at all for a young woman to conceive and bear a son. If that's a sign, then right here in Southern California a sign is taking place many times a day, every day." (Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee vol. 4, page 12).Or in the words of John Calvin:
Though we should admit what they say, that עלמה (gnalmah) sometimes denotes a young woman, and that the name refers, as they would have it, to the age, (yet it is frequently used in Scripture when the subject relates to a virgin,) the nature of the case sufficiently refutes all their slanders. For what wonderful thing did the Prophet say, if he spoke of a young woman who conceived through intercourse with a man? It would certainly have been absurd to hold out this as a sign or a miracle. (John Calvin on Isaiah 7:14,
Yet Calvin himself had just noted that:
Now, there are two kinds of signs; for some are extraordinary, and may be called supernatural; such as that which the Prophet will immediately add, and that which, we shall afterwards see, was offered to Hezekiah. (Isaiah 38:7.) Some are ordinary, and in daily use among believers, such as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which contain no miracle, or at least may be perceived by the eye or by some of the senses. (John Calvin on Isaiah 7:12, ibid).
This objection actually strengthens my argument because one really is arguing with God, not me. In Isaiah 8:18, the prophet said, "Behold, I and the children whom Hashem has given me are signs (לְאתוֹת = "for signs" is plural of the word found in 7:14) and symbols for Israel from Hashem." (Stone Edition) The word sign doesn’t strictly imply a miraculous sign as many apologists would suggest, and the T’nakh clearly identifies Isaiah’s children as "signs".

Though the subsequent, parallel passage identifies Isaiah’s son’s as "signs" Michael Brown wished to argue that based on context it must be a miraculous sign,
"This much is obvious from the context: The sign must clearly bear the marks of divine activity and intervention, since Ahaz grieved the Lord by refusing to ask for a sign, ‘whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights,’ as a result of which the Lord said that [H]e [H]imself would give Ahaz. What a sign it needed to be!" (Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 3, page 20.)
This point is to commended insofar as it attempt to establish a reason for understanding the sign to be supernatural, but one must realize that the verse cited were intended to convey the broad range of options which Ahaz had to select a sign, not to pigeon-hole God’s. That God must select a miraculous sign does not follow from Ahaz’s being given the option. Nevertheless I would contend that if the sign "must clearly bear the marks of divine activity and intervention" that a virgin birth may be "supernatural" but it is in no-way clear. After all Mary’s husband Joseph needed to be informed of the "miracle", certainly Ahaz wasn’t privy to. As Brown himself notes, the claim of a virgin birth "hardly an easy pill to swallow" (Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 4, page 71).Ultimately Joseph required divine revelation of Mary’s virginal status, the "sign" itself required a "sign".

Another approach utilized is to argue since the Bible condemns an unmarried, non-virgin, to death, then the almah had to be a virgin. In addition to being incorrect, since the death penalty was only prescribed for adultery and not fornication (Exodus 22:15), it is clear from the Gospels that this was not a possibility. Mary, being "betrothed" and technically married to Joseph by Jewish law, would have been guilty of adultery for a relationship with another man and liable to the death penalty according to Biblical law (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). Even though Joseph had not yet had the source of Mary’s pregnancy "revealed" to him, his intent was merely to divorce her. She was never under any threat of execution because the Romans reserved the right to inflict capital punishment (cf. John 18:31). Furthermore, as we have noted, nothing in the term almah implies an unmarried woman. Isaiah’s wife was a young woman, but a married young woman. Nothing was illicit about their relationship.

With this in mind, perhaps we can better understand "What is bothering Rashi?" such that he explains "maidens’ as "virgins". Sifsei Chachamim explains that while Rashi would offer both the simple and allegorical meanings of Shir haShirim, "maidens" is a bit straightforward, so "virgins" is offered as an alternative. But is it really a simple mathematical equation of the two. No. Rashi does not explain that the two terms are synonymous. "Virgins" are simply [generally] a subcategory of "young women" who do happen to be unmarried. Rashi is narrowing in on the identity of these "maidens" in the verse "Therefore do the maidens love thee." Of course Scripture isn’t portraying this gentlemen as some creep who attracts the attention of married women, so Rashi uses a term that refers to the subcategory of "young women" who are not married, virgins. It is not the term almah which requires this, since as we have seen it is used to refer to non-virgins, but it is the context of the verse itself where such a qualification might be inferred.

In contrast, many who have conceded that the plain meaning of the text refers to Isaiah’s son, still maintain that this is a dual prophecy or that it alludes to the Nazarene’s virgin birth. Some specifically argue that the very reason Hashem used the word almah is because it could refer to a non-virgin (Isaiah’s wife) or a virgin (Mary). This approach is without merit. You can not derive a specific fact from a general statement. That would be similar to saying the prophecy that Messiah would be from Judah predicts that he would be from the family of Joseph the carpenter. It’s foolish, the passage doesn’t give that information. It doesn’t answer the question. Since the word in question could mean a virgin or a non-virgin, one could just as easily say it foreshadows that the Messiah would be born of a non-virgin. One cannot make such a specific inference from a general premise. Superficially one might see such a claim as similar to how we have explained Rashi, but in Rashi their is additional contextual reason to limit the scope of the term. In Isaiah 7:14 there is not additional context to change the implication of the term, since the term in context refers to the wife of Isaiah. And unlike Rashi's comment on Shir HaShirim which simply explains/teaches the meaning of a verse, Matthew is not merely stating that Isaiah 7:14 refers to the Nazarene, but he implies that there is a fulfillment of prophecy in the Nazarene's virgin birth, but were there is not the ability to derive such a specific meaning until after the fact then one cannot claim that a prophecy has been "fulfilled". Even if it had been intended, it wasn't predicted.

In addition to the above considerations we must remember that this was a sign for king of Yehudah that his enemies would not defeat them. One must ask how this sign could be of any significance if it occurred hundreds of years after the death of those for whom the sign was intended? Freeman tries to address this difficulty by citing Zechariah 3:8 and he writes, "It cannot be maintained, therefore, that the essential purpose in every sign is for it to have immediate significance to that particular generation in which it is given" (page 206).

Now, the Jewish interpreters understand the passage to mean Yehoshua the Kohen Gadol (Joshua the High Priest); "you and your companions who are sitting before you, for they are men [worthy] of miracles" rather than men that are a sign. That being said, if we were to concede that they were themselves signs, they are not signs for anyone specific as was Immanuel, who was a "sign" specifically for the king of Yehudah. Also note the irony that Freeman argues that Immanuel must be a miraculous birth to be a sign but then cites these regular humans as examples of signs to show that a sign doesn’t have to be for the generation it is given.

The Hebrew word translated "virgin" refers to an unmarried woman (Gen. 24:43; Prov. 30:19, Song 1:3; 6:8), indicating that the birth of Isaiah's own son in Isaiah 8:3 could not have fulfilled this prophecy. Besides, birth of a son to Isaiah would hardly have satisfied the promise of a "sign" and the son's name is "Immanuel" in 7:14. Matthew noted the fulfillment of this prophecy in the birth of Israel's Messiah in Matthew 1:23 and applied the name "Immanuel" (i.e., "God with us") from Isaiah 7:14 to Him. That was a literal fulfillment of Isaiah's Old Testament prophecy." (Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New versus the Old, page 243).

There is no support in Isaiah 7:14 for the virgin birth. It is a clear prophecy of Isaiah’s own son in the following chapter. Context shows that it is his wife who is the "almah" of our verse, and his son who is the "sign" and this is conceded by many Christian interpreters, including evangelicals. It is also significant that none of us can claim knowledge that this verse was fulfilled by the birth of the Nazarene. The "claim" of a virgin birth isn’t the same thing as a fulfillment. No one, not even the apostles, witnessed this miracle, it is indemonstrable. Rather, even if one believed that Isaiah 7:14 predicted a virgin birth, even of the Messiah, one would have no reason to accept the claim that it had been fulfilled unless one already was a Christian who accepted Christian doctrine.

1On the other hand we also see a tendency among some to minimize the importance of Isaiah 7:14 in the face of difficulties in maintaining the Christian stance. "The virgin birth of Jesus, we should note, in no way depends on Isaiah 7:14, but on the unequivocal statements in Matthew (1:18, 25) and Luke (1:34, 35)." William Sanford LaSor, Hermeneutics, page 112. "Isaiah 7:14 is often attacked by the anti-missionaries as a "central" prophecy of the New Testament, as if it were quoted dozens of times by the New Testament authors and as if it were grossly misinterpreted there. In fact, it is quoted only once in the entire New Testament, and when understood properly—in terms of Isaiah’s original prophecy and Matthew’s quotation—you will see that the Messianic interpretation makes good scriptural sense." (Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 3. page 18.
2Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus vol. 3. page 26. Brown’s identification of Isaiah 8 fulfilling Isaiah 7 is nuanced, but note that he identifies Isaiah 8 as "another child of promise" although the passage does not predict his birth but rather records it. Isaiah 7 predicts a child being born, Isaiah 8 gives the account of a child being born.

3Ramm,Protestant Biblical Interpretation, page 252. So too the very conservative Dake’s Annotated Study Bible (page 505 column 4) sees these verses as referring to Isaiah's son, with the exception of verse 14 which he rips it from the surrounding context and says refers exclusively to the Nazarene. Full disclosure requires that I note that while Dake is extremely, well, conservative with an atypical style and might represent the extremity of the Christian point of view, he would not be considered normative by many other evangelical Christians for good reason.

4Subsequently, I have seen this noted in passing by Michael Brown in Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 3, page 30.

5 First Apology, chapter 33,

6 This idea is also expressed by the more liberal John Goldingay, "Even if the traditional translation "virgin" (NIV) rather than RSV's "young girl" is right, this need not imply that the girl in question will still be a virgin when she conceives and gives birth. To say that the Prince of Wales will one day rule Great Britain does not indicate that he will rule as prince; it presupposes that he will rule after he has become king."Models for Interpretation of Scripture, page 164. I present this argument hypothetically of course since almah does not mean virgin.

Christian apologists are often willing to concede that almah does not mean virgin, but they often insist that it only refers to an unmarried woman. "it is not true that almah can sometimes designate a married woman." (Freeman, page 208). "It always means an unmarried young girl." (Lindsey, page 66). "The Hebrew word almah denotes any young unmarried woman, whether she has kept her virginity or not." (All the Messianic Prophecies of the Bible, Lockyer, page 62.) This is ironic since Mary was, after all, married to Joseph at the time she conceived the Nazarene, as we see from Joseph's intention to "put her away", i.e. divorce her prior to the revelation of her supernatural conception. See Dake on Matthew 1:19, "Divorce her privately (Dt. 24:1-4), as well as the NIV's translation of Matthew 1:19.

This doesn't actually pose a problem for Christianity since despite it being repeated frequently there is no basis to restrict the application of this term only to young women who are single (see Joel 1:18, and our comments below).

8An Introduction to Old Testament Prophets, Page 208.

9The Promise, page 66.

There are those who make an even bolder claim, arguing that bethulah does not mean virgin. Typically this is based off of Joel 1:8, "Lament like a [bethulah] girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth." See for example, "Lament like a virgin - for the husband of her youth - Virgin is a very improper version here. The original is בתולה bethulah, which signifies a young woman or bride not a virgin, the proper Hebrew for which is עלמה almah. See the notes on Isaiah 7:14 (note), and Matthew 1:23 (note)." ( Regarding this, McDowell correctly notes, "Joel 1:8 is, according to Unger, not an exception because it 'refers to the loss of one betrothed, not married.'" (Evidence that Demands a Verdict page 144).[We must point out that betrothal in Jewish law is a form of marriage subject to the laws of adultery and only dissolved by divorce but, as was the intent of this citation, the practice was that the marriage was not consummated at this stage.]. Had those who made such a claim made any attempt to apply this claim consistently they would know it is untenable. One need only look at the Mosaic legislation in Deuteronomy 22 regarding charges of unfaithfulness to clearly understand that the term refers to virginity.
Brown, in Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus vol. 3 provides a more comprehensive argument for this position, with varying degrees of strength. Yet in doing so he overstates his case stating "All this is of great importance when we remember that anti-missionaries commonly tell us that if Isaiah had intended to prophesy a virgin birth clearly, he would have used betulah rather than ’almah/ Not so! Rather neither word in and of itself would clearly and unequivocally convey the meaning of virgin." (ibid page 23). Brown himself notes (205, footnote 57) that in legal contexts, i.e. when the actual status of the woman vis a vi intercourse is relevant, bethulah is used to indicate virginity.

Likewise Brown’s assertion (ibid page 204) that the identification of "bethulah" in Joel 1:8 with a betrothed woman is "purely speculative" and his citation which labels the identification of ba’al as not only husband but also "fiancé" as an "assumption" fails to consider the historical reality of the "marital" status of the betrothed in ancient Jewish culture. So while giving us a number of pieces of evidence which may suggest bethulah was used loosely, the fact that this is the term employed when virginity was specifically in question has not and cannot be negated.

11James A. McCune, Is Jesus the Jews' Messiah?, page 14, citing James e. Smith What the Bible Teaches About the Messiah page 252.
We should also consider the claim that the term almah was necessary to refer to a woman who was a virgin and of marriageable age. In addition to having no supporting evidence indicating that the word has such a connotation, it is simply not the case that the more common word for virgin is insufficient for such an implication. To the contrary we read in Psalms 148:12, "young men and also maidens (bethuloth), old men together with youths" Here "maidens", the word we have otherwise translated as "virgins" is used to parallel "young men." The term may apply to younger girls technically, but that is not usually the context it is used.

13In truth it is an ad hominem fallacy which attacks not the interpretation but the interpreter (for "seeing" a topic which is brought up in the passage explicitly no less). A similar, but alternative understanding of Proverbs 30:19 is given by Gry in The Book of Isaiah cited by Brown in Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, page 202, "On the other hand, it is also used in Pr 3019 where the marvels of procreation and embryology…seem to be alluded to." While the verse would bear such an interpretation, the subsequent reference to adultery would suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, that the relationship under consideration is an intimate one is confirmed as the natural implication, only with respect to the specific inference does this opinion diverge.
14Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, vol.4, page 12.

15While there are some missionaries who wish to argue that the "Rabbi's" who translated the Torah into Greek understood Isaiah 7:14 as referring to a virgin birth, others have taken the opposite approach. In an attempt to argue against the view that the Gospel's biography of the Nazarene is the result of legend grown up around him in accordance with the Messianic expectations of the time, Vincent Henry Stanton wrote:
...Justin's Dialog with Trypho shows that even in his day Jews were not known to have so interpreted it. For Justin is endeavoring to prove to Jews that the "prophecy had been spoken not with reference to Hezekiah as ye were taught, but to this my Christ." (Dial. C. 71) If Jewish interpreters had changed its application, or if any school among them had held the Messianic view, he would certainly, judging by the charges he brings in many cases, have made the most of the fact. ( The Jewish and The Christian Messiah, page 377)

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