ISAIAH 7:14B IN NEW MAJOR CHRISTIAN BIBLE TRANSLATIONS CLIFFORD HUBERT DUROUSSEAU
Recent major Christian Bible translations have finally admitted after nearly
2,000 years that Isaiah did not prophesy a virgin birth or, more precisely, a
supernatural virginal conception of the Messiah. Beginning with The Revised Standard Version in 1952, followed by The Jerusalem Bible in 1966, The New English Bible in 1970, The New Jerusalem Bible in l985, The Revised English Bible, The Good News Bible and The New Revised Standard Version
in 1989, and, just recently, The NewAmerican Bible Revised Edition (2011),
translators have decided that the time is right to reveal that Aquila,
Theodotion, and Symmachus – Jewish and Judaeo-Christian translators of the
Hebrew Scriptures into Greek in the second century – were right in
translating almah in Isaiah 7:14b as neanis ("young woman") rather than
parthenos ("virgin"), and that Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, who
opposed the use of "young woman", were wrong.
An examination of the complete text and context of Isaiah 7:14b in the
original Hebrew rather than the Greek of the Septuagint that not only
confirms that ha-almah has been mistranslated as "the virgin" or "a virgin"
but that harah has been mistranslated as well. Furthermore, it is clear that it is
part of a near-time prophecy delivered ca. 734 BCE about the imminent birth
of a son to a then-pregnant mother, who would call him (karat) Immanuel
("With-us-is-El"), who would be a sign to Ahaz and the house of Judah that
Rezin and Pekah would be soon defeated, rather than a far-term prophecy of
the birth of the Messiah non-metaphorically-God-fathered and betulah-born.
As these new translations read it, Isaiah 7:14b is partly in implied present
time. The first part of the first clause consists of a demonstrative particle, a
definite article, a noun, and an adjective: 'Look, the young woman pregnant.' This is a common construction in Hebrew. In English, we supply a context-
dependent form of the linking verb "to be," in this case "Look, the young
woman is pregnant." If the almah pointed out was already pregnant (harah),
Clifford Hubert Durousseau taught Bible as Literature courses at University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Former member of the Chicago Biblical Research Society and the Society of Biblical Literature, he lives now in Istanbul, Turkey.
this automatically rules out the claim that Isaiah was prophesying a distant,
future virginal conception. Jewish tradition unanimously agrees that
Immanuel was a contemporary of Isaiah, and this is clearly indicated by
"Young woman" and "virgin" were not synonyms in ancient Judaism, when
it was common for twelve-year-old girls to be married and become pregnant.
There is no indication in the oracle that this young woman is not pregnant
Harah, too, has been translated imprecisely. There is in fact no verb in the
first clause. It does not say the almah "shall conceive." The RSV, which
translated almah correctly in 1952, mistranslated the adjective harah
("pregnant") as "shall conceive" and, moreover, failed to translate the definite
article and used the indefinite article instead: ' Behold, a young woman shall
conceive and bear a son, . . ." This translation of the adjective harah, the
fourth word in the first clause, as the verb "conceive" began in the Vulgate.
Jerome, despite the fact that he learned Hebrew from a Jewish teacher and
made his translation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin from the Hebrew text
(not the Greek Septuagint), translated thus: Ecce virgo concipiet, et pariet filium, et vocabitur nomen ejus Emmanuel ("Behold, the virgin shall
conceive, and shall bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel"). The
NRSV corrected these items in 1989: "Look, the young woman is with child
…." "With child", an archaic prepositional phrase, renders harah, the present
tense copula is supplied, and the definite article is restored after being
The NRSV has the sixth word of this compound clause in the Hebrew in
the future tense: "Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, .
. ." The word yoledet is an active participle and can be translated "is
bearing/giving birth to." It signifies in this case a very near-term event and
thus can also be rendered "about to give birth to." The NABRE reads: "the
young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel."
But why Emmanuel, the Greek form, rather than Immanuel, the Hebrew
form? In a footnote, we are informed that "Emmanuel" means "with us is
God." That is correct. "Immanuel" (properly immanu El) is a verbless clause
functioning as a name and consisting of a preposition, a pronoun and a noun.
As in the first clause of the prophecy, "the young woman is pregnant", a form
ISAIAH 7:14B IN NEW MAJOR CHRISTIAN BIBLE TRANSLATIONS
of the verb "to be" must be supplied. Yet the NABRE failed to supply the
verb "is" in the first clause. Harah and yoledet are not attributives here, but
predicates. Furthermore, the second conjunction ve- before karat ("she shall
call") is omitted. The correct translation is: "Look, the young woman is
pregnant and about to bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel."
These multiple mistranslations of the Hebrew text, beginning in the LXX,
caused it to be misinterpreted for centuries in Christianity. An inordinate
focus upon only two words in the prophecy in the Greek version, parthenos
("virgin") and Immanuel – the one as a proof of the virgin birth (traditionally,
that Mary was a virgin ante partum, in partu, that is, before the birth, during
the birth), and the other as a proof that the child to which the prophet refers
would be God incarnate, a paradoxical "God-man" – led to a neglect of the
rest of the words in the text, starting with the definite article! But this has
changed in recent scholarship. TheJerome Biblical Commentary, a first-class
work of modern Catholic Biblical scholarship which Raymond Brown, the
Vatican II peritus, edited along with Roland Murphy and Joseph Fitzmyer,
declares: "A critical examination of Is 7:14 . . . gives no evidence that Isaiah
was thinking of Jesus' conception. Isaiah does not speak about a virgin; it is
not clear that he is referring to a futureconception; and the whole import of
the scene in ch. 7 of Is implies that the birth will take placeca.734 BC.
Clearly Mt's [Matthew's] interpretation of Is is more-than-literal" (italics
The later use of Isaiah 7:14b by Matthew 1:22-23 was non-contextual and
midrashic and based on the Greek Bible. It is not a sensus plenior ("fuller
sense") of the Hebrew Bible text. As Samuel Sandmel says in A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, "In all traditions, proof-texting ignores
the total context and plucks out a gratifying verse."2 The use of Isaiah 7:14b
by the translator of the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew is a pesher, not peshat,
that is, it is an oracular application of the verse to a contemporaneous event
over seven hundred years after its fulfillment; it is not the plain meaning of
the text in its context. While a pesher is legitimate as long as it is recognized
as a pesher, it is illegitimate once the pesher is considered the peshat. This is
what happened in Christian literature with Isaiah 7:14b.
Christianity’s Isaiah 7:14b-LXX-supported virgin birth narratives
contended with antecedent analogues and Jewish and Roman objections (see
Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 67.2; 70.5; I Apology 22.5; 54.8). The account
of the conception of Plato by his virgin mother Perictione through Apollo, as
related by Diogenes Laertius in Lives andOpinions of the Eminent Philosophers 3.2, is a Greek parallel to the Matthean conception story. It
opens with a genealogy to indicate his distinguished family line and then
merely by implication points to Apollo as the father of Plato. The legend of
the virginal conception of Perictione is also found in Apuleius, De Platone
1.1; Anonymous Prolegomena 1.41-46, 2.12-16; Plutarch, Quaest. conv. 717
Justin Martyr indicates in Dialogue with Trypho 48 that there were
Christians even in his day who did not accept the pesher found in the Greek
translation of the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, produced, as Jerome tells us
(Lives of Illustrious Men 3), by an unknown translator: "For there are some of
our race, my friends, who admit that he is the Anointed One, while holding
him to be man of men . . ." This view, held by Theodotion and Symmachus,
The Roman Catholic translators of The New American Bible (1970) knew
over forty years ago the truth about Isaiah 7:14b. As Raymond E. Brown
openly admitted, but in a small footnote (!) in 1977 in his magisterial and
monumental work on Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, "The reading 'virgin' was
imposed by a decision of the American bishops on the reluctant Catholic
translators of the NAB."3 They finally gave a green light and a nihil obstat
and imprimatur to "young woman" in 2011.
Almah as "young woman" is not a non-Christian or Jewish translation: it is
the correct translation. Lexicography confirms it. This is the plain meaning of
the word almah as found in Proverbs 30:19, the way of a man with a young woman [almah, MT; neanis, LXX], referring to sexual intimacy and proving
it need not connote "virgin." There is only one word for"virgin" in Hebrew,
betulah, and Isaiah did not use it. Christianity has now honestly admitted
what even Jerome knew but dared not to admit into the Vulgate.4 As the
NABRE puts it succinctly in a note: "Hebrew almah designates a young
woman of marriageable age without specific reference to virginity. The
Septuagint translated the Hebrew term as parthenos, which normally does
mean virgin, and this translation underlies Mt 1:23." In other words, the LXX
translation uses a word that signifies something which the Hebrew word does
ISAIAH 7:14B IN NEW MAJOR CHRISTIAN BIBLE TRANSLATIONS
not, and the Greek Gospel of Matthew based its proof-from-prophecy upon a
The Jewish Christians who accepted the Greek Gospel of Matthew and its
use of the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 7:14b were evidently Greek-
speaking or Hellenistic Jews who did not carefully check the LXX against the
Hebrew of Isaiah. Isaiah 7:14b-LXX at Matthew 1:23 is a mistranslation and
misquotation of Hebrew Isaiah 7:14b. The Great Isaiah Scroll discovered
among the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 confirms that the Hebrew almah of
Isaiah 7:14b is correct and has not been changed in the course of Judaism's
Isaac ben Abraham of Troki (16th century), in his Hizzuk Emunah [Faith Strengthened] (Part 2, chapter 2), stated: "We have had frequent occasion to
speak of the method employed in the New Testament and other Christian
works, of citing from our Scriptures certain passages which, on careful
examination, have no reference whatever to the immediate subject. Thus they
quote also the passage from Isaiah 7:14, 'Behold, ha-almah (meaning young
woman and not virgin) is with child and about to bring forth a son.' The
prophecy was given to Ahaz, King of Judah, in order to allay his
apprehensions regarding the two kings who had come to wage war against
Jerusalem. How could Ahaz receive consolation from prophecy, the
fulfillment of which he would not live to see?" In chapter 3, Troki completed
his discussion of the quotation in Matthew 1:23 with these words: "The
English version of Matthew 1:23 has, 'And they shall call his name
Emmanuel,' but in the Hebrew original we have ve-karat, 'and she shall call.'
It is also a striking fact that the name Emmanuel was not given to Jesus by
the virgin. Nor do we find that the Emmanuel mentioned in Isaiah was ever
considered to be the Messiah." There, in plain and simple language, was the
correct translation of all of Isaiah 7:14b.
Ulrich Luz, in his commentary on Matthew, writes: "Luther declared his
willingness to pay the 'stubborn, condemned Jews' a hundred guilders if
[almah at] Isaiah 7:14 really means 'young woman' and not 'virgin.' He owes
Isaiah 7:14b in recent major Christian Bible translations spells the
dénouement of the ad infinitum almah-betulah/parthenos-neanis debates
between Jews and Christians. This is good news.
NOTES 1. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer, Roland Murphy, eds., The Jerome Biblical Commentary (New Jersey: Prentis Hall, 1968) p. 616.
2. Samuel Sandmel, A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005).
3. Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke, Yale Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1993, second
4. See Adversus Iovinianum I, 32: "I know that the Jews are accustomed to meet us with the
objection that in Hebrew the word 'almah' does not mean a virgin but a young woman. And, to speak truth, a virgin is properly called ‘betulah’, . . ." (italics mine).
5. Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7 (Hermeneia; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989) pp. 123-4.
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