In Christianity, the virgin birth of Jesus is an essential doctrine since the sin nature is passed along from father to son. A natural-born person would have sin and thus not be able to save himself, let alone others. Since the miraculous virgin birth is an essential doctrine, it comes under attack from critics.
Matthew 1:18 says “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.” A few verses later, 1:22 – 23 say “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.”
Matthew 1:23 is quoting Isaiah 7:14. The full sentence goes from v.14 to 16:
Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good. For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.
In the next chapter, we find the following in Isaiah 8:3-4:
And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, “Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the boy knows how to cry ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.
Of course, Bible critics are never far away. A common criticism goes something like this:
- The Hebrew and Greek words used for “virgin” actually mean “young maiden” and therefore Isaiah 7 is not a prophesy of a Jesus being born a virgin. Isaiah used the Hebrew word almah, which means maiden. For example, Deuteronomy 22:13ff is specifically speaking of virgins, and uses bethulah. Genesis 24:43 is not speaking specifically of virgins and uses almah. So Isaiah could have used the Hebrew word bethulah, which means virgin, but instead he used almah, which means maiden.
- Just because a young maiden gets pregnant does not indicate any predictive power of prophesy. This happens all the time when virgins have sex.
- Isaiah’s prophesy was to King Ahaz. A prophesy about Jesus being born centuries into the future would have meant nothing to Ahaz.
- Isaiah 8:1-4 shows the fulfillment of the prophesy in Isaiah 7:14. In chapter 8, Isaiah repeats the same prophesy and has a child. The prophesy in Is. 7:14 is about a current event that was fulfilled right there at the time.
- So the passage that Matthew quotes from Isaiah has nothing to do with Jesus. Before Jesus came, people who read Isaiah would have no way of knowing this was predicting a messiah, since it was a local prophesy that was already fulfilled in Isaiah’s day. Matthew was manipulating a text to make it look like it fit Jesus.
This is quite a list of claims. However, once we look at what the passages actually say, we find that these criticisms are hollow. We will show how the passage does indeed point to Christ Jesus. The claims against Matthew are baseless, poorly researched, and without merit.
The Words for Virgin
The critics make a big case about the Hebrew almah and the Greek parthenos supposedly meaning young maiden, while the Hebrew bethulah supposedly meaning virgin. However, the case made by the critics is simply incorrect as the language scholars demonstrate.
First, neither almah nor bethulah distinguish clearly between virgin and young maiden in every instance. To wit:
- bathulah (Strongs 1330, 1331) the KJV translates this virgin 38 times and maid or maiden 12 times.
- Almah (Strongs 5959) the KJV translates this virgin 4 times and maid or damsel 3 times. Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon says of almah: “virgin, young woman of marriageable age”
Lengthy articles on both almah and bethulah can be found in The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999)) Summary points are as follows.
Speaking of Deut. 22:13ff and the use of bethulah as virgin: “one must concede that bĕtûlîm or bĕtûlâ does not clearly speak of virginity in this disputed text. (p.138)
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But in Joel 1:8, where the bĕtûlâ is called upon to lament the death of her baʿal “husband,” it probably does not mean “virgin” for elsewhere baʿal is the regular word for “husband” and its usual translation by “bridegroom” in the versions is otherwise unattested. Likewise in Est 2:17 the bĕtûlōt who spent a night with King Ahasuerus are not virgins, unless it is a “shorthand” for “those who had been virgins.” In a parable Ezekiel speaks of Oholah and Oholibah playing the harlot and their bĕtûlîm breasts being handled (23:3). Here too the notion of virginity would be inaccurate. Finally in Job 31:1 even the NEB translated our word by “girl” because it would not be sinful for Job to look on a virgin. Unless it is an epithet for a Canaanite goddess it probably designates a young married woman (cf. vv. 8ff).(p.295)
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Since bĕtûlâ is used many times in the OT as a specific word for “virgin,” it seems reasonable to consider that the feminine form of this word is not a technical word for a virgin but represents a young woman, one of whose characteristics is virginity (p.672)
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There is no instance where it can be proved that ʿalmâ designates a young woman who is not a virgin. The fact of virginity is obvious in Gen 24:43 where ʿalmâ is used of one who was being sought as a bride for Isaac. Also obvious is Ex 3:8. Song 6:8 refers to three types of women, two of whom are called queens and concubines. It could be only reasonable to understand the name of the third group, for which the plural of ʿalmâ is used, as meaning “virgins.”(p.672)
So the language scholars here would decidedly disagree with the critics. Their articles have much greater length with citations, so the reader is encouraged to look to their work for additional support.
Further, a proper rendering of Is. 7:14 is “The virgin shall be with child” (NASB, NIV), not “the virgin shall conceive.” The distinction is not that a virgin will someday get pregnant, but that the virgin woman will be pregnant. To show this, the following translations:
NIV: “The virgin will be with child”
New Century Version: “The virgin will be pregnant”
Lexham: “the virgin is with child and she is about to give birth”
NIrV: “the virgin is going to have a baby”
Young’s: “The virgin is conceiving”
Of the English translations I have, twelve use virgin and two say young maiden, both with a footnote about virginity. To insist that almah does not or cannot mean virgin flies in the face of the vast majority of language scholarship and is without merit in the literature.
The critics also have quite a bit of presumption, for their claims would lead us to believe that they hold dozens of translators as not knowing what they are talking about, but somehow these critics are greater language scholars than the bulk of the people doing translation full time.
Virgins, Children, & Prophecy in Isaiah 7 – 8
When Isaiah 8 says that the prophetess conceived and bore a son, he was apparently speaking of his wife, for the text mentions nothing of Isaiah marrying twice or going to a harlot. Isaiah and his wife had already had a son, Shear-jashub, mentioned in Is. 7:3. So the woman mentioned in Is. 8:3 had most probably already had a son, thus not being able to fulfill the prophesy of a virgin being with child given in 7:14-16. This alone is enough to reject Isaiah 8 as a fulfillment of Isaiah 7.
Second, the child born of the virgin in Is. 7:14-16 name is Immanuel, which means God With Us. Isaiah’s second child from 8:1-4 is named Maher-shalal-hash-baz, which means “The spoil speeds, the prey hastens.” Whatever the second name means in context, it is obviously not “God with us.”
Third, the prophesy of the child in 7:16 was about “before the child knows how to refuse evil and choose good.” The child in 8:4 was “before the child knows how to cry “my father” or “my mother.” These do not align well.
Fourth, it is possible that the child in 7:16 Isaiah could mean his first son, Shear-jashub. Earlier in the same chapter, God had told Isiah to bring Shear-jashub with him, so the child would have been there in 7:14-16.
Fifth, the prophesy in Is. 7:13 is to “the house of David” which means the extended family of David. The child in Is. 8 was not of David’s household.
Sixth, the Septuagint in Isaiah 7:14 uses the Greek parthenos (Strongs 3933) which is used in Luke to indicate virgin. Parthenos is the technical word for virgin, as the Greek lexicon’s support. For example, Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich (BDAG) says “one who has never engaged in sexual intercourse, virgin, chaste person. Female of marriageable age with focus on virginity.”
Further, the Septuagint was not a Christian document, having been completed c.132 BC, well before Christ. So it could not have been translated with some later bias from the Christian church.
Seventh, we are assured that the New Testament passage means virgin, for Mary asks the angel “how can this be, as I do not know a man?” (Luke 1:34)
Lastly, we consider the criticism that the prophesy of Isaiah 7 was to King Ahaz and he would not have known what it meant if it were for the messiah many centuries in the future. This criticism shows a simple lack of reading the text in context. Isaiah had approached Ahaz in 7:10-11, and the person speaking through Isaiah was God Himself. In v.3, “The LORD said to Ahaz…” God tells Ahaz to request anything he wanted, a request even as high as heaven. Such a request could have included any sign, not just a local one.
In addition, four times in Isaiah 7 God uses the phrase “in that day” (v.18, 20, 21, 23). This was a common phrase used throughout the Old Testament prophets to mean the last days. So there are indeed textual clues in Isaiah 7 that would lead the hearer to think of a much later time.
Several reasons lead us to conclude that the critics are wrong.
- Both almah and bethulah can mean virgin or young maiden. The context gives us clues.
- The Hebrew grammar in Isaiah 7 leads us to conclude that the woman will be with child while she is a virgin.
- The child in Isaiah 8 cannot be the fulfillment of the child predicted in chapter 7, for there are too many differences in the two accounts.
- The prophesy has all the same textual clues as other prophesies about the future.
We therefore hold that the Bible can indeed be trusted, and the Bible is indeed telling us that Mary will be a virgin at the time of Jesus’ birth. The critics are simply incorrect on this issue and the Bible is once again proven correct and true.