Making Sense of Isaiah 7:14 – “Young Woman” or “Virgin”? (Part 1)

Is 7-14

As we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, I want to take the opportunity to address an issue regarding the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), which gets a good deal of discussion during this time of year. I am speaking, of course, of the Emmanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, which notably contains a disputed reference to what Christians have taken to be a prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Almost everyone is now familiar with the fact that a significant variant exists between the Hebrew Bible (all extant versions are the same) and the Septuagint. In part 1, we will look at the textual data, and in part 2 we will look at the meaning of the relevant words in their contexts. So, let’s look at this variant in closer detail.

 

The Textual Data

Isaiah 7:14 from 1QIsª (Dead Sea Scrolls, “The Great Isaiah Scroll”)

לכן יתן יהוה הוה לכמ[ה אות ה]נה העלמה הרה וילדת בן וקרא שמו עמנואל
lkn ytn YHWH hwh lkm[h ˀwt h]nh hˤlmh hrh wyldt bn wqrˀ šmw ˤmnwˀl
“For this reason, YHWH himself will give to yo[u a sign: Lo]ok, the ˤlmh pregnant (conceiving) and giving birth! And he shall call his name Emmanuel (God with Us).”
Alternatively, the last sentence could be read: yqrˀ šmw ˤmnwˀl “His name shall be called Emmanuel.”

 

Isaiah 7:14 from Codex Leningradensis (Masoretic Text)

לכן יתן אדני הוא לכם אות הנה העלמה הרה וילדת בן וקראת שמו עמנו אל
lāḵēn yittēn ˀǝḏōnāy hūˀ lāḵem ˀōṯ hinnēh hāˤalmāh hārāh wǝyōleḏeṯ bēn wǝqārā(ˀ)ṯ šǝmō ˤimmānū ˀēl
“For this reason, the Lord himself will give you a sign: Look, the ˤalmāh pregnant (conceiving) and giving birth! And she shall call his name Emmanuel (God with Us).”

 

Isaiah 7:14 from the Septuagint (or Old Greek)

διὰ τοῦτο δώσει κύριος αὐτὸς ὑμῖν σημεῖον· ἰδοῦ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Εμμανουηλ·
“For this reason, the Lord himself will give you a sign: Look, the virgin will conceive (lit. “will have in the womb”) and will give birth to a son, and you shall call his name Emmanuel.

 

Isaiah 7:14 from the Syriac Peshitta (Leiden ed.)

mṭl hnˀ ntl lkwn mryˀ ˀlhˀ ˀtˀ. hˀ bṭwlṭˀ bṭnˀ wyldˀ brˀ. wntqrˀ šmh ˤmnwˀyl
“For this reason, the Lord God will give you a sign: Look, a virgin is becoming pregnant and giving birth to a son, and his name will be called Emmanuel.”

 

Textual Analysis

These texts represent the gamut of the biblical textual tradition for this verse. The first text, from the Great Isaiah Scroll found at the first cave at Qumran, exhibits what we may call a proto-Masoretic text, in that it aligns with what becomes the Masoretic textual tradition. The variants between it and the Masoretic Text (MT) are minor, for example, the use of the divine name YHWH in 1QIsª, where the MT has ˀǝḏōnāy “Lord.” The other significant variant between the MT and 1QIsª concerns the gender of the verb qārāˀ “to call.” The MT has an active verb in the 3rd person feminine “she shall call,” whereas 1QIsª has a verb with 3rd person masculine. The voice of the verb in 1QIsª could be read in the active voice with a conjunction, “And he shall call…” or, by reading the waw as a yod, it could be a 3rd masculine singular niphal verb in the middle voice “it (the name) shall be called.” The Septuagint (LXX) read the ambiguous consonantal text קראת as a masculine 2nd person rather than a feminine 3rd person.

It is worth noting that the Hebrew, both the MT and 1QIsª, contain participles for “conceive” and “give birth.” This strikes me as odd for the normal stylistic tendencies of Isaiah. The participles function as adjectives, giving the “sign” a more immediate affect. In other words, it does not function as a prophecy of the future, i.e. “this will happen in the future,” but “The sign is this: A pregnant ˤalmāh giving birth!” The sign could occur at any time, immediately or far in the future.

The most significant variant in this text regards the Hebrew term ˤalmāh, which has often been translated in secular scholarship as “young woman.” As it was noticed throughout history that this is not the Hebrew word for “virgin,” which is בתולה bǝtūlāh, though the LXX does contain the explicit word for “virgin,” παρθένος, Christians began to claim that the Jews intentionally changed their Scriptures at this verse in order to obfuscate Christian interpretation of it.

Is this true? Do we have any evidence of this? No, in fact we do not, and the evidence we do have disproves it conclusively.

We must note the very important fact that the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscript 1QIsª quoted above dates anywhere from the 4th to the 2nd centuries BC. So, a text of Isaiah featuring the term ˤalmāh was copied at least a century or more before Jesus was ever born. Did you get that? The Hebrew textual tradition provides conclusive evidence of this reading more than 100 years before the birth of Christ. Therefore, whatever this word means, its presence in Isaiah 7:14 predates Christianity by more than a century.

 

What to take Away

  • Allow me to speak very frankly and pointedly: The textual evidence is very clear. The Hebrew tradition of Isaiah 7:14 contained the word ˤalmāh more than a century before the time of Christ. Therefore, if you claim that Jews intentionally altered their Bible in order to thwart Christian use of this verse, you are engaging in falsehood. Let me state that again. If you say that Jews deliberately changed their Bibles to read ˤalmāh, you are not speaking the truth, because the evidence conclusively proves the opposite. Orthodox Christians, please hear me: Stop saying this! You are spreading falsehood and leading people astray. Stop doing it. The fathers and saints who did claim this to be the case were unaware of the evidence that we have today, therefore what they said, they said in ignorance. We cannot use their ignorance as an excuse to spread falsehood.
  • Furthermore, let it be clear that if anyone seeks to speak authoritatively about this issue or seek to teach or instruct others regarding the Hebrew text of this verse, but such a person is incapable of reading Hebrew or controlling the Hebrew evidence, he or she is speaking irresponsibly and leading people astray. One cannot speak intelligently about Jews changing their Hebrew Bibles if one does not know the Hebrew evidence. If anyone is ignorant of the Hebrew evidence, one must avail oneself of experts in the field before speaking about it. I am shocked that this kind of idiocy takes place, but unfortunately, it is all to common in our Church. This is a matter of responsibility and intellectual integrity, therefore it is incumbent on us as “Orthodox” Christians to to do whatever we must to speak and teach with the greatest amount of knowledge.
  • We must stop propagating ideas about the Bible that are not based upon sound textual and historical evidence. It seems to be all too common in contemporary Orthodox Christianity to do such a thing without any investigation or research. We just repeat what we’ve heard as if it were Gospel truth. It is frightening that such errors are becoming systemic and self-propagating within contemporary Orthodoxy.

In part 2, we will look at the context of the usage of ˤalmāh in the Hebrew Bible and cognate literature in order to attempt to ascertain its meaning.

29 comments:

  1. I’m not competent to comment on this, but I believe the last bit of pro-LXX/anti-everything-else nonsense I saw floating around was actually discussing competing Greek translations of the Hebrew Old Testament made in response to Christian readings of that verse – a slightly different issue. Though the response there would probably just be, “whatevs”.

  2. Guilty as charged! Thank you for your fraternal correction.

    I checked with this long ago using BibleWorks software trying to see for myself how almah was translated in the LXX, since this claim is rampant in Orthodox circles usually in support of the LXX vs Masoretic (a topic which you also painstakingly addressed here, too!). It turned out Is. 7:14 parthenos was actually the peculiar one.

    This is a post long overdue. Ah if I could only learn Hebrew, too!

    Dios mabalos!

  3. This was something new to me. I grew up in a very evangelical Baptist church and world. I never once heard Christians say that the Jews changed their Hebrew Bible. I will be listening to see if I ever do. That school of thought would have never been valid to me as I could never imagine Hebrew scholars tampering with the Word of God.

    1. Linda Johnson comments, “I grew up in a very evangelical Baptist church and world. I never once heard Christians say that the Jews changed their Hebrew Bible.”

      Linda, my own experience was very much the same. After many decades of professional study of Holy Scripture, I joined the Orthodox Church at age fifty. It was shortly after that, for the first time in my life, I heard the accusation that the Jews of falsified their own Scriptures.

      I suspect you won’t find anybody outside the Orthodox Church who would maintain this egregious calumny.

      It is one of the most serious and disgraceful blights on the countenance of the Church.

      1. I haven’t heard of it outside the Orthodox Church, but I did hear the idea (on an Evangelical tv network) that the haftorahs read in synagogue deliberately exclude any Jesusy sounding material.

  4. Eric,

    I read in a scholarly paper recently, although I can’t recall which, that other Qumran texts supported parthenos (the paper was quite possibly by Margaret Barker who is suspect, I know, in some circles). Are there other scrolls from Qumran, other than the one you cite, which would support the contention that parthenos is the better Greek term?

    1. According to the sources I have, Is 7:14 is only extant in 1QIsA and 4Q65, where the latter is almost completely in a lacuna including the relevant word for “young woman” or “virgin.” Unless I am missing something, there is no other evidence from Qumran. It’s not even in the fragmentary Isaiah Pesher texts. There are no extant Greek versions of it from the texts of the Judaean Desert.

    2. Also, I will argue in my next post that parthenos is a perfectly viable translation of ‘almah anyway, so the hunt for some non-extant Hebrew version that reads btulah “virgin,” is a red herring.

      1. Does parthenos possibly connote virginity? I read here that it can or at least that its meaning may have been evolving in the 1st centuries BCE and CE http://www.timothymichaellaw.com/was-the-virgin-birth-a-mistranslation-stavrakopoulou-fails-to-convince/. I assume neanis does not have this possible broader sense?

        To what time frame do the texts you referenced (Aquilla, Symmachus, and Theodotion) date? Are these the oldest Greek translations of OT texts (particularly Isaiah 7:14)? Do the oldest Greek texts we have use parthenos or neanis?

        Looking forward to your part 2! Also, have you blogged at all about the birth narratives in general in the gospels?

  5. Thank you for the scholarly insight with application. I was not aware of evidence that predates the birth of Christ. In your second exhortation, language of “ignorance” and “irresponsibility” is right on the mark while “idiocy” seems a bit further from it. Unless you meant the older sense of not seeing past one’s own sphere (e.g. mono linguistic), here one is perhaps forgiven for detecting the same mode of public discourse you rightly exhort against?

    1. I consider it a matter of common sense for people to render their statements about such technical issues with a modicum of knowledge coming from personal research or experience. That people dogmatically say such things about Jews and the Hebrew Bible that have no basis in reality is, in my opinion, a mark of idiocy, because they do not pause to consider whether or not the information they are proffering as “Orthodoxy” is actually true. The lack of such sense is, I think, both in the modern sense and archaic sense, “idiocy.”

  6. Perhaps in part 2 you can explain which of:

    “The fathers and saints who did claim this to be the case were unaware of the evidence that we have today, therefore what they said, they said in ignorance.”

    The idea of ignorant church fathers and saints requiring correction from modern academia seems somewhat unorthodox, at least to me. But what do I know?

    I am one of those who you say are, “incapable of reading Hebrew or controlling the Hebrew evidence.”

    I suppose I am somebody who bought into cunningly devised fables.

    1. It is not meant to ben arrogant “correction” of the Fathers, but a filling in where they lacked the relevant data. The Fathers were not omniscient, nor were they infallible. Where they were mistaken, they were honestly mistaken. They made an assumption based upon the data they had and understood.

      1. They also did not have access to/could not read the Hebrew versions. I forget where, but I remember reading that St. John Chrysostom lamented this very fact.

  7. At the risk of stealing your thunder I would speculate that the event foretold is miraculous and an almah is presumed to be unmarried, teenage girl. It is not a miraculous sign of God’s presence for a teenage girl to become pregnant outside of marriage but rather a shameful situation (rape or fornication) nor is it a miracle for a young married woman to become pregnant. Possibly the LXX translators wanted to pick up the implications of the Hebrew text and chose to do so by substituting a more precise Greek word to convey what Isaiah had in mind.

  8. “Let me state that again. If you say that Jews deliberately changed their Bibles to read ˤalmāh, you are not speaking the truth, because the evidence conclusively proves the opposite. Orthodox Christians, please hear me: Stop saying this! You are spreading falsehood and leading people astray. Stop doing it.”

    Amen, and amen!

  9. I absolutely agree with you vis-a-vis Jews changing their Bibles. As I think you’ve mentioned somewhere, the messianic status of Jesus is just as, if not more clear, from the Hebrew Bible as it is from the LXX. Plus, the Western Church had a non-LXX based text for its entire history, including its period of communion with us. I’m wondering what you think of Eugen Pentiuc’s idea (I think drawing on St. Jerome) that almah is derived from “concealed” rather than “young.” This would mean that virginity is implied, though not stated explicitly- and it would explain why the LXX translators interpreted it as “virgin.” It’s an idea I would very much like to accept- though not having any expertise in ancient Hebrew, I cannot make a definite judgment.

    1. Unfortunately, Fr. Eugene’s suggestion does not make very good sense of the comparative Semitic data. It is fairly well established in the lexica that Heb. ˁelem/ˁalmāh derives from the Protosemitic root that corresponds to Ugaritic ġlm “lad”, Arabic ġalima “to be lustful”, and Aramaic ˁlm “to be strong.” In Arabic, there is even a derived noun of that root, ġaylam, meaning “beautiful (young) woman.” This contrasts with Arabic ˁalama “to signify, know, learn.” This may be the equivalent of Heb ˁlm where it means “conceal,” as in “to conceal knowledge.” In Northwest Semitic, the Protosemitic consonants *ˁ and *ġ fell together by the time we find Hebrew, Phoenician, and Aramaic writing, but the contrast is still preserved in Ugaritic and Arabic.

      Heb. ˁelem/ˁalmāh connotes sexual maturity, though socially, someone who is not married (perhaps what we might term “bachelor/bachelorette”) or newly married. Their sexual experience is not necessarily in view. I will deal with this in more detail soon.

  10. Eric, This is great stuff. As an evangelical Protestant, I am really enjoying your blog. I look forward to Part Two.

    I did have a question for you: Is there any evidence that suggests that the Septuagint translators were working with a different text, other than the Masoretic tradition, when it came to Isaiah 7:14, or is this merely speculation?

    Thanks.

    1. We have no evidence of it, if they did. And, as I will argue, parthenos was a viable translation for ‘almah in the MT, so we don’t need to posit a different text. Part 2 comes tomorrow!

  11. Eric,

    Late to the party. A couple of questions you’ll have to help me out with here. It is unclear to me if you are trying to limit your argument to this verse, or if you are making an overall case for the “purity” of the Masoretic textual tradition. It seems the former, but from the comments section it appears that many are “taking away” another conclusion altogether…a la Seraphim etc.

    In short, it seems to me you are making a specific argument about a single verse that is being conflated into a generality about the MT. Is this your intent?

    I’ve got some follow up questions, but I want to make sure I understand where you are coming from. If this article represents the “ground truth” for this verse, what is the 30,000 foot view of the MT as a whole from your perspective?

    Thanks,

    Onesimus

  12. harah is an adjective here in Isaiah 7:14 and means ‘pregnant’. It is not a participle meaning ‘conceiving.’ It is the predicate of this verbless or nominal clause. Several major recent translations translate this nominal clause in the present: ‘Look, the young woman is pregnant.’ If this is correct, then the ‘almah was pregnant, married, and a non-virgin. Also,
    the parthenos ‘virgin’ of the OG would not be precise: it would be interpretive.

  13. Reading the rest of Is 7 is also important to contradict the “virgin” theory. We find Asa wondering if he should go into battle and talking with Isaiah about it. Why would G-d give Asa a sign about the impending battle which he would never see?

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