The propagation of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth by the Hellenist and Latin Fathers served two purposes:
- It allowed for the seamless integration of the Jewish Jesus into the synthesis of pagan religious thought characteristic of the Roman Empire;
- It allowed for the concealment of the 'embarrassing' fact that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of a man other than the man to whom his mother was betrothed.
For nigh on two thousand years, ecclesiastics and scholars have continued to assert, as did the Fathers, that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus is based on the Bible.
As their evidence they quote:
- The Book of the prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew Scriptures
- The New Testament Gospel of Matthew
- The New Testament Gospel of Luke
In this Part 1, we will examine the first assertion.
At various times, Christian ecclesiastics and theologians of various stripes have asserted the following:
- That Isaiah predicted that a 'virgin' would conceive (7:14);
- That the Jewish people therefore expected a virgin-born messiah;
- That young Jewish girls, after the time of Isaiah, grew up hoping they would be chosen by God as this 'virgin' mother;
- That Jesus' claim to messiahship hinged on 'virgin birth'.
All of these assertions represent a mixture of error and confusion.
The sign given to Ahaz King of Judah by Isaiah the prophet (circa 730 BC)...
The context of Isaiah Chapter 7 is the threatened destruction of the House of David by the armies of Rezin King of Syria and Pekah King of Israel. Isaiah the prophet gives King Ahaz a sign of deliverance from these enemies. Chapter 7 verses 14-16 read:
"Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Curd and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. But before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you have a horror of shall be forsaken."
The Hebrew words of Verse 14 are taken from the Leningrad Codex B19A (L), dated 1008-1009 AD, as reproduced in Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia.
The literal translation is:
"Therefore · he will give · the Lord · himself · to you · a sign
Behold (hinneh) · the young woman (ha-almah) · is pregnant/will be pregnant(harah) · and is bearing/and bear · son · and she will call · his name · with us · God."
Isaiah's message to King Ahaz had nothing to do with the conception or birth of the child. The sign was about the length of time that would elapse before the House of David (Judah) would be delivered from its enemies. The child Immanuel soon to be born would function as a living 'clock' — he would be a physical reminder to the King that before the child reached the age of reason the threat posed by the kings Rezin and Pekah would cease. (Rezin and Pekah were subsequently killed. See II Kings 15:29-30 and 16:9.)
The word almah used here simply means a young woman of marriageable age whether or not she be a virgin. It is the feminine form of elem meaning a young man (of marriageable age). Even today in Modern Hebrew almah still means a young woman — "Miss...".
The crucial second part of Verse 14 is a verbless clause introduced by hinneh. Such clauses refer to the present or to the immediate future. Therefore the translation must be either:
"Behold, the young woman is pregnant and is bearing a son…"; or
"Behold, the young woman will be pregnant and bear a son…"
I prefer the latter translation as the child referred to here is obviously the same child born to Isaiah in Chapter 8. Note that the child is named Immanuel (God with us) by the mother in Chapter 7 to symbolise that God would be with the House of David in its struggle against the kings Rezin and Pekah, and then named Maher-shalal-hashbaz (the spoil speeds, the prey hastes) by the father and God in Chapter 8 to symbolise the impending destruction of these two kings by the King of Assyria. Isaiah goes on to say in 8:18 that:
"I and the children whom the LORD has given me shall be for signs and for wonders in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells in mount Zion." (Mention is made in 7:3 of another son of Isaiah, Shear-jashub.)
The name Immanuel has no special or extraordinary significance. (See Judges 6:12-13). It is no different to many other Hebrew names possessed of similar meanings: Boel (God is in him), Abijah (YHVH is my father), Zebadiah (Gift of YHVH), Ahijah (brother of YHVH), Elihu (God himself)!
What is important for us to take note of is that the child Immanuel of Isaiah 7:14 was a child born in Isaiah's own time.
The Hebrew Scriptures were eventually translated into Greek at some point between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC. This Greek version is commonly referred to as The Septuagint (LXX standing for the seventy scholars supposedly engaged upon the translation).
Without going into laborious detail, scholarly opinions vary widely as to the Septuagint's origin, its transmission, its textual integrity (especially the Book of Isaiah), whether it first included only the Torah, the dating of the first translation, and so on. Many excellent works on the subject are readily available.
The Greek Septuagint rendered the Hebrew word almah (young woman) of Isaiah 7:14 into the Greek word parthenos (virgin). The translation of this one single word has been a source of raging controversy ever since.
However, all these long centuries of dispute have really been quite pointless because parthenos had varied usage in ancient Greek and never carried the narrowly defined meaning of strictly physical virginity.
A girl could lose her virginity biologically, but not socially. If the sexual union was not sanctioned in official ways, then it was hidden in the eyes of society — it was officially non-existent.
The Septuagint itself in Gen: 34:2-4 twice describes Dinah after her rape by Shechem as a parthenos and the word was also used in classical Greek literature to refer to women who had not retained their virginity biologically e.g. Homer, Iliad 2.514; Pindar, Pythian Odes 3.34; Sophocles, Trachiniae 1219; Aristophanes, Clouds 530.
But over and above all the foregoing semantic disputes is the central issue that the book of Isaiah is a Jewish book reflecting Jewish thought. The concept of a virgin birth is utterly alien to Jewish thought. It was alien to Isaiah, it was alien to the Jews of the New Testament, it is alien to Jews now and always will be.
An important observation to be made from all the above is that if Isaiah did indeed prophesy a virgin birth for Jesus, as Christian scholars assert, then that particular manner of being born applied equally to the child Immanuel born in Isaiah's own time. Thus they are faced with a profound theological problem — two virgin births!
In the next commentary, we will examine the assertion that evidence for the doctrine of the Virgin Birth can be found in the Gospel of Matthew.
 Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart, 1983.
 Brown, Driver and Briggs, eds. Gesenius, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Oxford University Press, London, 1968.