The Christmas season is like an alarm clock for skeptics. It’s an annual reminder for them to tell you that the Christmas story is fiction. One of their favorite arguments is to cast doubt on the virgin birth.
Critics say that Matthew was very quick to connect Jesus to the Old Testament. Even if it caused him to get sloppy and make a fool out of himself. So to bolster Jesus’ Messianic credentials, he invented the virgin birth story. He did this by misreading the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14, which does use the word virgin or parthenos in Greek.
But the original Hebrew passage wasn’t referring to a virgin at all, but a young woman. If Isaiah was prophesying a virgin birth, he would have used the more precise word betulah, not almah. Matthew assumed the word meant virgin. His ignorance led to the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus. A great example of this kind of criticism comes from popular atheist YouTubers Paulogia and Digital Hammurabi. Feel free to give it a watch.
So it is true that betulah means no engagement in sexual activity. But does that mean almah never means virgin?
Virgin or Young Maiden?
The word almah occurs six other times in the Old Testament. Let’s take a look at these passages and see if they mean virgin or young maiden.
Genesis 24:43. Rebekah was Isaac’s bride-to-be. In the same chapter, she is a “girl” (na’arah). (Gen 24:14). She’s also called a virgin (betulah) in verse 16 and a maiden (almah) in 24:43. All three words describe a virginal young woman.
Exodus 2:8. Miriam’s sister Moses is an almah. She’s still living at home with her parents. It’s easy to infer she’s still a virgin.
Psalm 46:1. Indeterminate.
Psalm 68:25. Indeterminate.
1 Chronicles 15:20. Indeterminate.
Song of Solomon 1:3. This verse refers to the alamot for Solomon. These are not married women but maidens who wanted husbands. The term implies virginity.
Song of Solomon 6:8. This description includes 3 categories: 60 queens, 80 concubines, and alamot without measure. The alamot are wife or concubine candidates. In other words, the king had a supply of virgins.
Proverbs 30:19. This verse describes the way of a man with an ‘almah’. The context in Prov. 30:18-20 refers to four incomprehensible things:
- An eagle in the sky
- A serpent on a rock
- A ship at sea
- And a man with an ‘almah’.
What do all four things have in common? They are all things that disappear quickly. The eagle flies away from sight. The serpent slithers off the rock. A ship disappears. And well, a virgin can lose her virginity in a heartbeat. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)
If this interpretation is right, almah can absolutely mean virgin. There’s no moral evil in the previous three examples. The fourth example can’t be referring to illicit sex. So almah indicates virginity in this passage.
What An Expert In The Old Testament and Semitic Languages Says:
Dr. Michael Heiser is an Old Testament scholar with a Ph.D. in Semitic languages. After surveying these passages, he concludes:
In ancient patriarchal culture, a “woman of marriageable age,” like Mary, was a female who had at least reached puberty and so was capable of bearing children. Daughters in such a culture were under close supervision and restraint. Even in today’s sex-saturated culture, a significant number of girls in their teen years are virgins—how much more those in a patriarchal culture? Matthew was raised in this culture—and with the book of Esther—so it should not surprise us that he saw no incongruity in understanding almah (עלמה) to mean “virgin.”
The bottom line is that isn’t correct to claim that almah was never understood as “virgin”. Dr. Josh of Digital Hammurabi is right to say that it has a range of meanings, but we’ve seen there is no reason to abandon the traditional interpretation except for anti-supernatural bias.
“The context has nothing to do with the Messiah!”
Paulogia and critics like him have said this passage context of the passage isn’t Messianic at all. But the danger to the house of David explains why Isaiah may have been foretelling the Messiah. After all, it was the Davidic line through whom the Messiah would come. (2 Samuel 7:12-16) If Ahaz’s house went down, so would the Messianic hope.
A straightforward reading shows that the sign would happen within a few years. Not 700 years later. But there are some clues in the text that show this is wrong.
As Dr. Michael Brown has pointed out in his 5-volume series Jewish Objections to Jesus, there’s not one prophecy in Isaiah 7 but two. One is a long-term prophecy that addresses David’s house. (Is. 7:13-15) There’s also a short-term prophecy addressed to Ahaz. (Is. 7:16-25)
Notice Isaiah says: “Listen, house of David!” He shifts the direction of the prophecy away from Ahaz and to the whole house of David. Verses 13-14 switch from singular (to Ahaz) to plural. God was sick of Ahaz’s fake spirituality, so he addressed the line he represented.
“And they will call his name Immanuel.”
Let’s look at the prophecy Matthew quotes. The virgin mother of the child will recognize His special nature. Immanuel means “God with us”. God would be with Judah in a special way through this child.
Isaiah also says that the coming Davidic king (Isa 9:6), the child receives more divine titles. These include “Prince of Peace”, “Mighty God” and “Everlasting Father.” The prophet indicates the Messiah would be God incarnate — Immanuel.
Isaiah continues a few passages later. He tells us that though the Davidic dynasty had become a mere stump, a shoot would “grow from the stump of Jesse” (Is. 11:1). This King from David’s line has the Spirit of God and establishes a righteous reign (Is. 11:2–5). His kingdom would be so peaceful that it would even alter the nature of predatory animals (Is. 11:6–9). And all the nations will seek “the root of Jesse” (Is. 11:10).
So Isaiah delivered a message of hope to Israel, a nation that was under severe threat. The future son of David would come someday and be a great ruler.
What will be the sign of this? He’ll be born of a young virgin. This context is key to understanding the passage. And only then does the prophet turns his attention to the immediate threat. Only then does he prophesy to the evil King Ahaz.
So Who’s the Child in Isaiah 7:16?
God directed Isaiah to bring his own son to the confrontation with the king at the conduit of the upper pool (cf. 7:3), so it makes the most sense to identify the lad as Shear-Jashub. Otherwise, there would be no purpose for God directing Isaiah to bring the boy.
Having received the promise of Immanuel, the prophet points to the small boy he brought along. He says:
“But before this lad knows enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.”
In this way, Shear-Jashub functioned as a sign to the king. Isaiah could then tell Judah in the very next chapter:
“Here I am with the children the LORD has given me to be signs and wonders in Israel from the LORD of Hosts who dwells on Mount Zion” .(Is. 8:18)
Why Would Matthew USe Isaiah 7:14?
It strains credulity to think Matthew invented the virgin birth story based on a bad reading of the text. Before Christianity, there is zero evidence that any Jewish commentator thought Is. 7:14 was Messianic.
In his voluminous work The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim lists 456 passages the Targums or Talmud took to be Messianic.
Isaiah 7:14 didn’t make the list. For the theoretical Jewish-Christian fictionist, this passage isn’t germane. First-century Jewish interpretation could have allowed it to be Messianic. But it wasn’t viewed that way. This cuts against the theory that the virgin birth is an invention. It didn’t fit in with Messianic expectations.
So we can run the argument in reverse against the skeptic. As Dr. Tim McGrew has written:
“It is not easy to find a good explanation for the incorporation of such material into a fictional account of Jesus’ nativity. Yet there it is. How, then, shall we explain that fact? Why did Matthew feel moved to draw out just those strands from the prophetic writings, unless it was because the parallels were suggested by the events themselves?”
NT scholar Marc Goodacre of Duke University concurs. He points out that Matthew often takes tradition and scripturalizes it rather than taking prophecy and making it into history. Take Matthew 2:23, which says Jesus “will be called a Nazarene.” There’s no apparent scriptural reference for this allusion, but most scholars believe the sources for Jesus’ growing up in Nazareth are good. John seems to think it’s a point of embarrassment. (Jn 1:46)
Don’t Let the Skeptics Bah Humbug Your Christmas
Suggesting exaggeration because of silence in Mark or Paul’s letters doesn’t mean they were unaware. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Paul seems to know of Luke’s Gospel, and we know that Luke had much to say about Jesus’ birth. (Paul debatably does seem to imply some knowledge of the virgin birth in Galatians 4:4.)
We’ve seen that one cannot assert dismiss the word almah as having no reference to a miraculous conception. And the Incarnation of the Messiah is clear from the passages in Isaiah 9 and 11 — God would be with us. Finally, there is no reason to believe that a zealous first-century Jew, intent on making up a story about the birth of the Messiah, would feel compelled to stick them into his story.
Sources and recommended resources:
- Virgin Birth Prophecy – Jesus and the Old Testament – Dr. Michael S. Heiser (video)
- Was Mary a Virgin? by Dr. Michael Heiser (blog post)
- NT Pod 64: Is the Virgin Birth based on a Mistranslation? by Dr. Marc Goodacre. (podcast)
- Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Volume 3: Messianic Prophecy Objections by Dr. Michael Brown (book)
- The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? Michael Rydelnik (book)
- Did Messianic prophecy inspire the Christmas story? by Tim McGrew (blog post)
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.