Why " Behold, a Virgin Shall Conceive" Is the Correct Translation of Isaiah 7:14

8 January 2006


The proper translation of Isaiah 7:14 is that of the American Standard Version: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." The word Halmah is best translated as virgin.

Eric Rasmusen, Department of Business Economics and Public Policy, Kelley School of Business, Indiana University, BU 456, 1309 E. 10th Street, Bloomington, Indiana, 47405-1701. Office: (812) 855-9219. Fax: 812-855-3354. [email protected]

This paper is not finished. This is really just a collection of notes, hardly connected together.


Isaiah 7:14 is rendered different ways by different translations:

ASV Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

NAB Isaiah 7:14 "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.

The Good News Bible (1976) Isaiah 7:14. Well then, the Lord himself will give you a sign: a young woman who is pregnant will have a son and will name him "Immanuel".

The Good News Bible (1976) has the footnote,

"YOUNG WOMAN: The Hebrew word here translated "young woman" is not the particular term for "virgin," but refers to any young woman of marriageable age. The use of "virgin" in Mt 1.23 reflects a Greek translation of the Old Testament, made some 500 years after Isaiah.''

How arrogant. The translators, doing their work 2500 years after Isaiah, impugn the translators of the Septuagint, writing 500 years later.

RSV Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

VUL Isaiah 7:14 propter hoc dabit Dominus ipse vobis signum ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium et vocabitis nomen eius Emmanuhel

LXT Isaiah 7:14 dia. tou/to dw,sei ku,rioj auvto.j u`mi/n shmei/on ivdou. h` parqe,noj evn gastri. e[xei kai. te,xetai ui`o,n kai. kale,seij to. o;noma auvtou/ Emmanouhl


 aWh yn"doa] !TeyI !kel' WTT Isaiah 7:14

 td,l,yOw> hr'h' hm'l.[;h' hNEhi tAa ~k,l'

`laeƒWnM'[i Amv. tar'q'w> !Be



            The controversy is over whether the  word  "virgin" or  "young woman" is  the better English translation.  Or, if we take the masoretic Hebrew text as closer to the original Hebrew than the Septuagint Greek, whether Parthenos  parqe,noj or xxx is the better Greek translation of the Hebrew word Almah hm'l in this passage.


 Here are the basics:


parqe,noj noun 2nd decl nom sing fem, from  parqe,noj, ou f virgin, unmarried girl; m  undefiled man or unmarried man (Re 14.4)  



Doesn't that mean that "young woman" is the better translation? No. The Septuagint, King James Version, and American Standard Version translators had reasons for choosing "virgin" instead.

1. If "young woman" is correct, there is no miracle in Isaiah.

2. Any Christian who believes the Bible is inspired must think that Matthew knows what he is talking about.

3. Even if you don't think the Bible is inspired, since Matthew wrote in Hebrew (probably), he would not try to pass over anything like this on his readers. This is true even if he wrote in Greek, since he was directing his gospel towards Jews.

4. Why do we think the Masoretic text is better than the Septuagint here? The Jews might well have changed the Hebrew word to break up the Christian prophecy. The Masoretes were very careful text editors, but remember that there is about 800 years of anti-Christian Jewish history before them.

5. What are we to think if Matthew was wrong, and "virgin" was not the correct meaning? It seems that scoffers would then say, "We know that what happened is that Jesus was born of a virgin, and you Christians wanted to make that seem to be the fulfillment of prophecy, so you twisted Isaiah. Well, the prophet did not predict a virgin birth, so that miracle is no fulfillment." That's silly of course. A much more reasonable skeptic's view would be: "Yes, 'virgin birth' is what Isaiah meant, and since we all know that, you Christians invented the story of Jesus's virgin birth." Here is the context of the verse:

Isaiah 7: (ASV) 13 And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David: Is it a small thing for you to weary men, that ye will weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 Butter and honey shall he eat, when he knoweth to refuse the evil, and choose the good. 16 For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land whose two kings thou abhorrest shall be forsaken. 17 Jehovah will bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy father's house, days that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah even the king of Assyria. 18 And it shall come to pass in that day, that Jehovah will hiss for the fly that is in the uttermost part of the rivers of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. 19 And they shall come, and shall rest all of them in the desolate valleys, and in the clefts of the rocks, and upon all thorn-hedges, and upon all pastures.

Isaiah 7:14 is rendered, "The maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son," to which the following comment is attached: "The Greek version reads 'the virgin,' being more explicit than the Hebr. which uses almah, meaning either a young girl or a young, recently married woman."


Emmanuel Kant. Emmanuel Swedenborg.

Halmah is the word for Maiden, and Bethulah is the word for Virgin. Parthenos is the Septuagint word.

""that he might know how to refuse evil'' is one translation.

See KJV Micah 5:3 Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth: then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel.

Halmah comes from the word for Concealed.

See Prov. 30:19 (the way of a man with a maid) and Gen 24:43, and Exodus 2:8 for other uses of Halmah. All of those make it clear that maiden is the best translation.

KJV Genesis 24:43 Behold, I stand by the well of water; and it shall come to pass, that when the virgin cometh forth to draw water, and I say to her, Give me, I pray thee, a little water of thy pitcher to drink;

KJV Proverbs 30:19 The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.

KJV Exodus 2:7 Then said his sister to Pharaoh's daughter, Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee? 8 And Pharaoh's daughter said to her, Go. And the maid went and called the child's mother.

Out of Context Prophecies

There are a variety of prophetic passages which , like Isaiah 7:14, are pulled out of context. That is a legitimate use of prophecy, if unsettling to modern Americans.

Matthew 2: 15 quotes Hosea 11:1, out of context it is said. That is true, sort of--it is the son out of Egypt verse. But Jesus IS like Israel coming out of Egypt, but not sinning this second time.

KJV Matthew 2:15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

KJV Hosea 11:1 When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt. 2 As they called them, so they went from them: they sacrificed unto Baalim, and burned incense to graven images. 3 I taught Ephraim also to go, taking them by their arms; but they knew not that I healed them.

How can Jesus be a sign to *Ahaz*?

KJV Matthew 1:23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

KJV Isaiah 11:1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: 2 And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD; 3 And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears: 4 But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked. 5 And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins. 6 The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. 7 And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den. 9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. 10 And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious. 11 And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. 12 And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. 13 The envy also of Ephraim shall depart, and the adversaries of Judah shall be cut off: Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim. 14 But they shall fly upon the shoulders of the Philistines toward the west; they shall spoil them of the east together: they shall lay their hand upon Edom and Moab; and the children of Ammon shall obey them. 15 And the LORD shall utterly destroy the tongue of the Egyptian sea; and with his mighty wind shall he shake his hand over the river, and shall smite it in the seven streams, and make men go over dryshod. 16 And there shall be an highway for the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria; like as it was to Israel in the day that he came up out of the land of Egypt.

KJV Isaiah 12:1 And in that day thou shalt say, O LORD, I will praise thee: though thou wast angry with me, thine anger is turned away, and thou comfortedst me. 2 Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid: for the LORD JEHOVAH is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation. 3 Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation. 4 And in that day shall ye say, Praise the LORD, call upon his name, declare his doings among the people, make mention that his name is exalted. 5 Sing unto the LORD; for he hath done excellent things: this is known in all the earth. 6 Cry out and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion: for great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee.

KJV Matthew 3:3 For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

KJV Micah 5:2 But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.

KJV Matthew 2:4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. 5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, 6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

KJV Jeremiah 31:15 Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.

KJV Matthew 2:17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, 18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. These are examples of the common use of ex post prophecies--prophecies whose meaning is not apparent until after they are fulfilled. These prophecies are useless as predictions. Rather, they are evidence, ex post, that something big has happened. This fits nicely with the Concealment Argument: that God wishes to keep himself concealed.

Note, too, that prophetic verses are often taken out of context in Matthew, and perhaps elsewhere. Indeed, this is not just Matthew: he is quoting the "chief priests and scribes" as doing this. It is fine for verses to have multiple meanings.

The virgin birth is clearly explained in Luke 1:29-37. It is miraculous, but no more miraculous than Elizabeth's becoming pregnant at an old age. Here is the passage:

KJV Luke 1:29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. 30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. 31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. 32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. 34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? 35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshdow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. 36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing shall be impossible.

KJV Joel 1:8 Lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth. Here in Joel 1:8, it is bethulah that is used, even though this seems to be "young woman".

How should the Hebrew word halmah be translated? Virgin? Maiden? Young woman? Unmarried woman?

One approach is to use Matthew for guidance on how to translate Isaiah. Matthew gives the seal of approval to the Septuagint on this. His audience would have known the Hebrew original, yet he acts as if Virgin is the correct meaning of the passage.

The fact that there exists another Hebrew word meaning virgin is not dispositive. In English, if we call someone "a beautiful maiden'', we imply virginity, even though we do not say ""a beautiful virgin.''

(1) It is not much of a sign if a young woman has a baby and names it "Immanuel.'' As miracles go, that's pretty tame. And remember that the word "sign'' is the same as the word for miracle. So the context indicates that viriginity is to be stressed.

(2) The Septuagint translators were closer to the scene than us, and may have had a better Hebrew text. Maybe the original Hebrew DID have the technical term for virgin. Or, maybe that is the right nuance.

(3) Matthew lends his authority to the Septuagint translation.

(4) Since Matthew seems to translate it this way, maybe even if all other evidence pointed to a different translation, we should use ""virgin''. If we repsect the New Testament, we should respect its authority on points of translation too. This argument,of course,would carry no weight with a non-Christian.

(5) Even in English, the term "maid'' implies virginity more than youth. There exist old maids, but not promiscuous maidens or sluttish maidens. "Young woman'' is quite different. Can the Hebrew word really refer o a young married woman? It could be equivalent to our word "girl'', but it is reasonable to draw the inference of virginity there too. The point Isaiah is making is that an unmarried woman becomes pregnant. Note that pregnancy is emphasized. Isaiah does not simply say ""a woman will name her son Immanuel.''

It is very hard to interpret Isaiah 7 even apart from the New Testament. It seems to say:

1. A virgin will give birth to a son, God With Us. 2. While he is a child, Syria and Israel will be devastated. 3. Judah also will be depopulated,by Egypt and Assyria, , but those who remain alive will be richenough to eat milk and honey.

How does this apply to Christ?

Certainly, by the time he was a child, this had long since happened. But that seems a tricky solution.

Why did the Septuagint translators choose this word? October 27, 1999 I asked the B-Hebrew list. I thoguth of two reasons, besides accuracy: 1. They thgouht the passage implid a miracle. 2. They were worried about pretend-Messiahs, and wanted to raise the bar on the qualifications by requiring candidates to be born of virgins

. uses of Parthenos: Gen. 24:14 Gen. 24:16 Gen. 24:43 Gen. 24:55 Deut. 22:23 Jda. 19:24 Jdg. 19:24 2 Sam. 13:2 2 Ki. 19:21 4 ma. 18:7 Amos 5:2 Isa. 7:14 Isa. 37:22 Isa. 47:1 Jer. 2:32 Jer. 18:13 Jer. 38:4 Jer. 38:21 Lam. 2:13

The prophecy says that (a) a child will be born-- perhaps to a virgin-- and called God-with-us by his mother, and (b) before the child is grown, bad things will happen to Assyria and Egypt.

As Mr. Kirk says, this is an odd prophecy for Matthew to cite. Leaving aside the issue of the name of the baby (which Mary's claim of divine conception could conceivably fulfill), Matthew himself would realize there were two problems with his claim:

1. By A.D. 0, Egypt and Assyria aren't relevant, and they are the biggest part of the prophecy.

2. Even tho he quotes the Septuagint, the educated Jews among his readers-- of which there was likely to be at least one at any public reading-- know that the original Hebrew is Almah.

(This puzzle is increased if Matthew originally wrote in Hebrew or Aramaic, as, if I remember rightly, Eusebius reported, and was later translated into Greek. If that were the case, then Matthew's original would be Hebrew, and presumably something like the Dead Sea Scroll version.)

So why did Matthew make this claim?

Some thoughts: Point (2) is answered if "virgin" is in fact a good translation of "almah", and so is some evidence towards that. Point (1), however, remains, suggesting that Matthew doesn't think prophecies are perspicuous, obvious in their meaning. If he doesn't think that, then maybe virgin is not a good translation of Almah, but Matthew thinks that the prophecy is supposed to be obscure till he explains it, and that part about Assyria and Egypt is just camouflage.

Almah verse list: Gen. 24:43 Exod. 2:8 Prov. 30:19 Isa. 7:14

Ps. 68:26 Cant. 1:3 Cant. 6:8

URL: http://www.rasmusen.org/_religion/alma.htm. Indiana University, Department of Business Economics and Public Policy, in the Kelley School of Business , BU 456, 1309 East Tenth Street, Bloomington, Indiana 47405-1701, (812)855-9219. Comments: Erasmuse@Indiana.edu.