Virgin Fallacy

We recently were asked the following by one of our visitors:

A Christian co-worker recently told me that the Bible contains a prophecy, in the book of Isaiah, forecasting that the Messiah would be born to a virgin mother. She then showed me the verse in her Bible: “Therefore the L-rd Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” I suspect that something must be wrong here. Could you please shed some light on this matter as this sounds like it was fulfilled by Jesus.

Although this passage has historically been a favorite Christian “prooftext“, serious weaknesses have caused a recent decline in its popularity. A comprehensive examination of this verse (Isaiah 7:14) is beyond the scope of this column; we will limit ourselves to a consideration of just two of its many problems.Someone once quipped that “a text without a context is pretext“. The first question that needs to be raised is whether the verse cited here is indeed a reference to the Messiah. We might ask the missionary to provide some compelling reason for us to accept that the verse warrants such an interpretation. We suspect that the missionary will be hard-pressed to provide a logical basis for this assumption.

Then, of course, there is the crucial issue of the general context. The seventh chapter of Isaiah takes place about 700 BCE, and describes an alliance between Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel, whose combined forces threaten to destroy the kingdom of Judah. The prophet Isaiah assures Achaz, King of Judah, that G-d will protect his kingdom. He prophesies that a child will be born to a certain woman, and that, before the child learns to distinguish good from evil, the two kingdoms threatening Judah will be destroyed (verses 15 – 16). The prophecy contained in Isaiah 7 clearly addresses this particular political crisis; it in no way refers to the concept of a Messiah. Furthermore, Jesus was not born until 700 years later; his birth could hardly offer any reassurance to King Achaz!

The second flaw in this prooftext, and the one which ultimately condemns it to oblivion, is that it’s founded upon blatant mistranslation. Isaiah, in fact, merely speaks of “the young woman “almah” who will give birth. Christian translators took great license, as did the New Testament when it “quoted” this verse in Matthew, when they rendered this word “virgin“. There is a specific Hebrew word for “virgin” (betulah), which Isaiah would have used if that were what he meant.

Modern Christian scholarship has recognized that the “virgin birth” prophecy is based upon a distortion of the Hebrew scriptures. Beginning with the Revised Standard Version of the Bible in 1952, virtually all Christian translations have adopted “young woman” rather than “virgin” as the correct rendering of “almah“.