In part 1 of this series, we looked at the textual data regarding Isaiah 7:14 in multiple Hebrew manuscripts and translations into other languages. In part 2, we examined the “wibbly-wobbly” nature of prophecy and the way the biblical text is interpreted differently at different times to refer to different events within history. In this part, I wish to delve into the meaning of the words themselves within the socio-linguistic context of ancient Israel.
It is often claimed that the word ˤalmāh simply means “young woman,” and this fact alone disqualifies it as prophecy or, in more wild and irresponsible cases, it is even said to disprove the virgin birth of Christ entirely (as if the virgin birth depends upon prophetic foretelling in order to be possible – utter silliness!). However, does the word mean “young woman” as so many claim that it does? Of course we must realize that “young woman” is an English gloss, and an English gloss does not constitute “the meaning” of a word. Any linguist or philologist with the most basic training knows this axiomatically. The meaning of a word is established by its usage, that is to say, its context. Many scholars have used the gloss “young woman” to connote a woman who is not, in fact, a virgin. When we look at its usage in the Hebrew Bible, we see that it is consistently used to refer to a young girl or woman of marriageable age who is not yet married or for whom marriage is imminent (cf. Gen 24:43), or as it is consistently translated in English Bibles “maiden.” Additionally, there are a few cases where the marital status of the girl is questionable.
In Proverbs 30:19, we find a riddle that presents its last “clue” as “the way of a man with an ˤalmāh.” The answer to the riddle has been given various explanations. The best, in my opinion, is that like an eagle in the sky, a snake on a rock, and a ship on the sea, the “way” of a man with his ˤalmāh occurs but does not leave a trace. Or, alternatively and less convincingly, it is mysterious, for no one knows (in an ancient context) how an eagle stays aloft, how a ship stays afloat, and how a snake moves without legs. However, the answer lies in the next verse (20), “This is the way of an adulteress, she eats, she wipes her mouth, and she says, ‘I have done nothing.” The answer to both of these riddles, is that they are done without leaving evidence. The context points most clearly, I believe, to the ˤalmāh being a maiden, who loses her virginity, but no trace (to public eyes) can be found. However, this does not necessarily or explicitly preclude the ˤalmāh from already being married and sexually active.
Song of Songs 6:8 uses a numerical poetic device to single out the Shulamite girl as being “the only one” for man, who, portrayed as a king, has “…sixty queens, eighty concubines, and ˤǝlāmōṯ (plural of ˤalmāh) without number.” One might assume, here, that because the ˤǝlāmōṯ are mentioned beside the other members of the royal harem that they would also be sexually active partners of the king. However, if these ˤǝlāmōṯ were sexually active, they would either be queens or concubines. It is more likely, in my opinion, that this class includes virginal girls who are potential candidates for the royal harem, i.e. potential objects of the king’s affections that are rejected for the Shulamite girl, who is “the only one.” We see an example of this in Abishag, who is called a נערה בתולה naˁǝrāh bǝṯūlāh “a young girl, a virgin.” She is, of course, to be used by the aging David to regain his sexual vitality, though he refuses to do this. While a different word than ˤalmāh is used, the more general naˁǝrāh (see below), the idea is the same, I believe, as we see in Song 6:8.
Furthermore, the social context of Israelite and Jewish society shows us the meaning of ˤalmāh. Every society and language has multiple words to describe a person at the various stages of life. In English, we have “baby” or “infant”, “toddler”, “boy”, “girl”, “teen”, “adolescent”, “young man”, “young woman,” etc. Hebrew is similar. We may speak of an עול ˤūl “suckling, infant,” נערה/נער naˤar/naˤǝrāh, which can be used to describe everything from a weaned infant to a teenager of marriageable age. This is perhaps the most general of all the words used for a person in his or her youth. Finally, we have the word עלמה/עלם ˤelem/ˤalmāh, which carries the distinct meaning of sexual maturity. Such a person is sexually mature, though marital status is not necessarily in view. In ancient Israelite and Jewish society, a girl was under the control of her father until she was given in marriage, at which time she would be controlled by her husband. A woman in the ancient Near East did not have rights to her own sexuality, to do with it as she pleased. When a sexually mature girl married, her status and the term used to describe her would normally change from naˤǝrāh or ˤalmāh to ˀiššāh, “woman” or “wife.” A young, sexually mature girl that was married (and thus not a virgin) would not normally be called an ˤalmāh, though it was technically possible to do so in a rhetorically figured manner.
So, let’s be clear. A young girl of marriageable age, who was not married, would be called an ˤalmāh and would be considered to be a virgin. If she were not a virgin, she would be married. If she were not a virgin and not married, there are four options: She would be (1) an adulteress, (2) a prostitute, (3) a rape victim, or (4) she was a consecrated virgin (this would be rare if not unheard of). There was no such thing in that society as a young, single, independent woman, who could possess her sexuality absolutely and remain in good standing with society. Such a person would be considered an adulteress or a prostitute. The only possible exception to this is where ˤalmāh could be used in figured discourse to refer to newly married girl, perhaps one who had not yet given birth. In this regard, the evidence we have from the Hebrew Bible is not plentiful enough for us to make hard distinctions. However, I am of the opinion that normal usage of the term connotes an unmarried girl who has reached sexual maturity.
Now, going back to Isaiah 7:14 and its broader context (see part 2), we may note that Emmanuel may actually refer to Hezekiah, in which case, the ˤalmāh of 7:14 would, then be a married woman, and the term was being used figuratively. However, this is really beside the point, for the real-world referents of ˤalmāh and bǝṯūlāh (“virgin” = παρθένος) substantially overlap, for the Hebrew term bǝṯūlāh also refers to the state of a young girl/woman of marriageable age, though in many cases explicit lack of sexual experience is intended (Deut 22:15-17). The difference here is that sexual experience is highlighted, not just sexual maturity (though cf. Joel 1:8). Under normal social and stylistic circumstances, both terms would refer to an unmarried girl who has reached sexual maturity. Under abnormal social or (more importantly) stylistic conditions, these terms may be stretched to refer to a sexually active wife (compare to the way a man might call his wife or girlfriend “babe” or “baby.”). These are stylistic (poetic) figures, but the referent may in fact be married and sexually active.
Therefore, given the substantial semantic and pragmatic overlap between the two terms, it is perfectly viable for the Old Greek (LXX) translator of Isaiah to render ˤalmāh with the Greek term παρθένος.
Therefore, the Greek is not a “mistranslation” of the Hebrew contra so many critical scholars who have carelessly made this claim (no doubt with their own ideologically charged rhetoric).
Furthermore, St. Matthew’s use of this verse in its OG (LXX) version has nothing to do with the translation itself, but is his own hermeneutical application of it as a function of his own artistic appropriation of it a posteriori to the birth of Jesus Christ. Therefore, he is not “misappropriating” the text, because we cannot (as disinterested observers) restrict ancient biblical interpretation to any sort of “original meaning,” since it was commonplace at the time for interpreters to engage in artful “midrashic” explanations of biblical texts, none of which garner the censure of critical scholars the way this one does.
What to take Away
- The translation of Isaiah 7:14 and the hermeneutical appropriation of it in Matthew 1:23 are two entirely different things that must be judged independently of each other, one as a translation and the other as interpretation.
- παρθένος is a perfectly viable translation of the Hebrew term ˤalmāh, which is borne out by a socio-linguistic analysis of the terms.
- Both ˤalmāh and bǝṯūlāh may stylistically be made to refer to a married, sexually active woman, in which case the original meaning in Isaiah 7:14 may in fact refer to the wife of King Ahaz without negating the fact the normal usage of ˤalmāh would generally indicate a sexually mature girl who is nevertheless unmarried and a virgin.
- The use of the English gloss “young woman” is not appropriate, for it is too easily understood to be an unmarried yet sexually active, independent woman in our own society, which was not a normalized state in ancient Israelite or Jewish society.
Therefore, it is with this that I conclude our study of the Emmanuel Prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. I do hope that we Orthodox Christians can bring some much needed philological precision to the issue and avoid the crass rhetoric that has characterized it in the past. I hope you have also witnessed how critical scholarship, rightly applied, mediates between the two respective positions, and brings necessary nuance that separates lexical semantics from hermeneutics.