Isaiah 7:14 rightly is regarded as the center of today’s Old Testament reading, but often for the wrong reason. For centuries, the Church usually has read it as a prophecy of the Virgin Birth, but this understanding is mistaken. Yes, Jesus’ virgin birth is an important Christian teaching, but we may not read it in Isaiah 7:14, because it is not there.
Now that I have your attention, let me propose that we need an accurate reading of 7:14, and of its quotation in Matthew 1:23. Those of us who accept God’s perilous calling to teach and lead the church need to know this issue, so I ask your indulgence in making this a teaching opportunity, more than usually is the case in APA reflections on lectionary texts.
The big picture: Ahaz’s geopolitical dilemma.
Understanding this text requires some knowledge of the backstory. Twenty-year-old Ahaz became Judah’s king in 735 B.C. because Jerusalem’s movers and shakers vetoed the plans of his father, Jotham, to join a Syro-Israelite coalition formed to fight a looming Assyrian threat. Their most practical and effective way to thwart Jotham was to replace him with Ahaz, his son and heir. In response, Rezin of Aram-Damascus (Syria) and Pekah of Israel (Ephraim/Samaria; vv 8-9) invaded, intending to remove Ahaz in favor of “the son of Tabeel,” from Gilead in Transjordan (v 6).
Ahaz “knew” he could not defeat Rezin and Pekah, unaided. He almost had decided to seek Assyrian protection, becoming an Assyrian vassal–the outcome his neighbors and foes were working to avoid, in and for all the west. (Just over a century earlier, a western coalition had turned back an Assyrian invasion. These two thought they could do it again, if they could get all the small western kingdoms on board, as their predecessors had done.) At this perilous moment, God sent Isaiah to meet Ahaz “at the end of the conduit of the upper pool” (v 3), to appeal to him to put his faith in Yahweh, rather than in Assyrian arms.
During this conversation God offered Ahaz any “sign” he would ask (v 11) as an assurance that God intended to rescue him. (God knew, as Ahaz should have known, that Assyria would prove the greater danger for Judah.) Ahaz refused God’s invitation, with evident false piety, “I will not put the Lord to the test” (v 12). This is the context of verse fourteen, and why it begins, “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign.”
The eighth-century sign.
The crucial noun is ha’almah; with the article (ha), it means “the young woman”; we should translate, “Behold [or, Look], the young woman shall conceive, and she shall [be] bear[ing] a son, and she shall call his name ‘Immanuel.’” What did this mean for Ahaz? Isaiah’s inclusion of the article (“the young woman”) implies that a young woman ofAhaz’s acquaintance (or at least from Judah) soon would conceive and bear a son. Before the lad would be old enough to “reject the evil and choose the good, the territory will be deserted, [of] which you [now are cowering] in dread in the face of its two kings” (v 16; yes, awkward, but reflecting God’s/Isaiah’s dismissive tone toward the two lightweights, Rezin and Pekah, and their futile scheme.)
Even those who read 7:14 as a prediction of Jesus’s virgin birth acknowledge that the noun ’almah does not require the translation “virgin.” The linguistic reality goes further. While it is true that Isaiah’s culture expected a never-married ’almah to be a virgin, that has nothing to do with this noun. ’Almah simply does not mean “virgin,” and ’almah is Isaiah’s (God’s) designation here. Soon after this conversation, some specific [“the”], but here unnamed, young woman would conceive a boy-child and name him “Immanuel.” If Ahaz would trust God and sit tight, he would see God’s deliverance. This is our beginning; this is how we must understand Isaiah 7:14, linguistically, and in its own historical context. God’s sign for Ahaz was not the manner or agency of the young woman’s conception, but the name of her son, “Immanuel/God with us.”
The Greek translation and Matthew’s quotation.
Since it is not in the Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14, where did the reading “virgin” originate? The Septuagint (LXX), the third-century Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, rendered ’almah as parthenos, which many think does mean “virgin.” It is true that, like a never-married ’almah, a never-married parthenos normally would have been a virgin on her wedding night, but that cultural norm is just as much a red herring in Greek as it is in Hebrew. More translators/commentators have thought parthenos means “virgin” than have thought ’almah means “virgin,” but that does not make it so. Just as designating a young woman an ’almah says nothing about her virginity or lack thereof, neither does designating her a parthenos. The LXX translators did not choose parthenos so they could portray “the young woman” of Isaiah 7:14 as a virgin. That would not have occurred to them, any more than Isaiah or Ahaz thought Isaiah’s prediction centered on a virgin giving birth.
These assertions are easy to check; it only requires reading the entire lexical entries for both nouns. Most standard reference tools–Hebrew and Greek lexicons, theological dictionaries/word books, Bible dictionaries, etc.–say something like “Hebrew ’almah [or Greek parthenos] does not necessarily mean ‘virgin.’” For that, something else is needed, and a further proof of this position is that the Bible provides this “something else,” which we will come to. Another kind of proof is that if Isaiah 7:14 did read “virgin,” we would have to defend two virgin births, one in eighth-century Judean Jerusalem, the other in Roman Bethlehem on the cusp of two eras. (Yes, we would; we can’t have it both ways.)
The misreading of parthenos arises partly from the fact that Matthew 1:23 is not Matthew’s translation of Isaiah’s Hebrew, but his quotation of the LXX. (This is despite Matthew’s own knowledge that neither ’almah nor parthenos means “virgin.”) Several factors have obscured Matthew’s meaning. First, Matthew is the Evangelist who reports that when Mary was found to be with child, Joseph naturally thought she had been with a man and he knew he was not that man. It took an angelic dream appearance to reassure Joseph, so it is natural for the reader to think of the Virgin Birth here, though that was not Matthew’s own focus. This is reinforced by the fact that most believers accept Jesus’ virgin birth as a central Christian doctrine. Even the widely known epithet of the Greek goddess, “Athena Parthenos,” coupled with the general pagan belief that Athena was a virgin, has contributed to the unexamined assumption that Greek parthenos means “virgin.”
The real story–Luke, quoting Mary.
Our investigation requires a bit of a detour here, if we would leave it with contentment of mind. If Isaiah did not predict, and Matthew did not record, that Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’ conception, how do we know she was? We need to know how the Bible does report that a woman never had experienced sexual intercourse. Rebekah’s introduction as a “suitable” wife for Isaac (Gen. 24:16) is a typical example, “the girl/young woman was . . . a betulah, and no man had known her.” Most English translations render betulah as “virgin,” but as a noun in the lexicon of Hebrew, betulah does not mean “virgin,” any more than Hebrew ’almah or Greek parthenos. Regarding virginity, none of these nouns is conclusive, because none means “virgin.”
What is conclusive is the Genesis narrator’s next statement about Rebekah, “And no man had known her.” This, and similar constructions in other contexts, “And she knew not [or, had not known] a man,” are unequivocal testimony to a (young) woman’s virginal status, as no single noun in Hebrew or Greek is, or could be.
This brings us to Mary’s own testimony, recorded in Luke 1:34, her response to Gabriel’s announcement, “How can this be, since I do not know/have not known a man?” Mary’s is the strongest possible evidence of her virginity; it also is the only necessary evidence. (Does any one of us think we would want to contradict the testimony of Jesus’ mother, or cross-examine her on this point?)
It turns out, then, that not only is there no prediction of a virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14, nor any fulfillment of such a prediction in Matthew 1:23, but also that the biblical witness does not need either of them. By her own testimony, Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus, and that is (or should be) enough. Isaiah’s otherwise unknown eighth-century child was Immanuel/God-with-us, an assurance and encouragement to Ahaz, had he chosen to listen. Matthew picked up this ancient prophecy, giving it eternal meaning as he [re]applied the name/title to Jesus, the Immanuel/God-with-us of all the ages. This Advent/Christmas season, let us celebrate “Immanuel” in Matthew’s sublime account, and leave Mary’s perplexed but faithful query to Luke, with whom it properly belongs.