Question: I’ve heard people say that the Hebrew Bible does not use the word for “virgin” in Isaiah’s prophecy quoted in the New Testament in reference to Mary. Is this true?
Isaiah 7:14, written about 740 years before Jesus’ birth, reads: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” When we fast-forward to Jesus’ birth, Matthew recorded in his Gospel how an angel announced to Joseph that his fiancé Mary would bear a child conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:20-21). Matthew then tells the reader that this virgin conception was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”
In the English translation both Matthew and Isaiah appear to be in perfect agreement. Some claim, however, that Matthew’s quote, which comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, misrepresents the Hebrew word “almah.” They claim that “almah” means a young woman of marriageable age, not “virgin.” Their argument is that Isaiah never intended to mean that a virgin would get pregnant and bear a son.
The word “almah” in Hebrew, like so many words in any language, can carry a variety of meanings, depending on the context in which it is used. The word “cool” in English for example can refer to the temperature in a room, or it can mean “great!” or “terrific!”—depending on the context. One meaning does not fit all uses.
The dictionary definition of “almah” means a “young woman” who is sexually mature and able to bear children. While the word could technically be used of a married or sexually active woman, the reality is that of the nine times it occurs in the Hebrew Old Testament “almah” is never used that way (see Gen. 24:43; Ex. 2:8; 1Chr. 15:20; Ps. 41:6; 68:26; Prov. 3:19; Song of Sol. 1:3; 6:8).
The context of Isaiah 7:14 itself shows that Isaiah wanted to highlight this “almah” as distinct. She is not a woman that one would expect to be pregnant. It is the very fact that she will conceive a child that makes her special and unique, even as the child she will bear will be special and unique.
It’s important to remember as well that it was Jewish scholars in the area of Alexandria—about 100 years before Christ—who translated the Hebrew Bible into the Greek form that Matthew would later quote from. These scholars understood their own Hebrew word “almah” to mean “virgin,” and translated it accordingly.
Isaiah’s prophecy of the virgin birth demonstrates again God’s great desire to inform mankind of the plan He has put into place to rescue us from the path of destruction brought about by sin. His love, grace and forgiveness are available to all who put their trust in Jesus, the Savior born of the virgin Mary, even as God promised long ago.
John 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.