The Catholic Thing
The Virgin Shall Conceive Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Saturday, 10 December 2011

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It’s Advent, so it probably won’t be long before we’ll be subjected to the standard rant about Isaiah 7.14: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” What you may hear is that the Hebrew word for “virgin” is bethulah, but the word here is alma, which simply means “a young girl,” so the early Christians who thought Isaiah 7.14 meant “virgin” were simply confused. I’ve had to endure this rant several times from the pulpit, and it’s trotted out every few years in the mainstream media, trumpeted as though it were the fruit of the latest biblical scholarship. 

It might interest readers to know, however, that the early Church Fathers were fully aware of this issue. St. Jerome, among others, for example, talked about it at length in the fourth century. The twelfth-century scholar Richard of St. Victor had a well-known quarrel with one of his religious brothers, Andrew, who thought himself very sophisticated and sensitive for having “discovered” the problem after learning a little Hebrew. What the conflict shows as much as anything is how a little learning can be a dangerous thing.

Alma was first translated “virgin” not by early Christians, but by the Third Century B.C. Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek (a version we call the Septuagint). It was those Jewish translators who first translated the word alma in Isaiah 7.14 into the Greek parthenos, or “virgin.” Jerome, who learned his Hebrew from rabbis in the Holy Land, was of the opinion that this was a good translation, and he rendered the word virgo in the Latin Vulgate, from which we get the English “virgin.” 

But why did the ancient rabbis translate the word alma with the Greek word for “virgin”? We don’t know for sure, but perhaps they, like Richard of St. Victor centuries later, were convinced by the context. The previous verse reads: "Listen now, O House of David, is it little for you to weary men, that you weary my God as well? Therefore the Lord, of His own, shall give you a sign.” 

It’s not much of a “divine sign,” suggested Richard, for a young girl who’s not a virgin to conceive a child. Happens every day. And if the Jews believed the prophecy was fulfilled at the time of Isaiah, why were they still expecting the coming of a Messiah centuries later? So too, in ancient Jewish law, an alma is presumed to be a virgin unless proven otherwise. 

There is no evidence to prove that alma ever referred to a young married woman or a woman caught in fornication. In some sense, then, alma seems to have served a role not unlike the British usage of the word “maiden.” A young woman of marital age is called a “maiden,” but it is also a gentler, less vulgar, way of saying, in polite company “virgin.”

Be that as it may – and there is plenty more to say on both sides of the debate – for Christians who understand what their Church has held since the earliest times about the relationship between the Old Testament and the New, to bury oneself in such verbal squabbles is to miss a deeper, more fundamental point.  

Let’s presume for the sake of argument that Isaiah may have had some other child in mind, perhaps a “young woman” who was already pregnant. And let’s presume also that the upshot of the prophecy is that, as in Isaiah 7:16, “when the child does not yet know how to reject bad and choose good” (that is, before he reaches the age of maturity), “the land whose two kings you dread shall be abandoned." Thus, Isaiah supposedly had in mind that the two kings besieging Judah would soon be assassinated, as is revealed in 2 Kings 15. But, even if true, this would present no more difficulty for Christians than does the existence of the historical Abraham or Moses or David, all of whom are taken to prefigure Christ. 

The way this retrospective “prefiguring” works is not unlike the way the “names” of God reveal who God is. It operates by analogy. Take the name “Father.” We know human fathers first, and only later apply it to God. But once we come to understand God more fully, we realize that He is more truly a “father” than our human fathers. 

He creates us from nothing. He cares for us more faithfully. His love is never-ending. Once we come to know who God is, we realize (in retrospect) that our human fathers have “prefigured” our divine Father. So too, whatever freedom Isaiah foresaw dimly, as in a glass darkly, it was not to be realized fully until the coming of Christ.

Human authors “prefigure” in stories with words, but only God can prefigure with historical events. God was faithful to the promises He made to Abraham, Moses, and David, but those promises of freedom and of a new land where God can be worshiped in peace and of the coming of God’s kingdom are realized most perfectly, Christians believe, with the coming of Christ. The freedom He brings is freedom from sin and death. The worship He institutes involves partaking of God’s own body and blood. The kingdom He establishes is God’s own kingdom. Christ, the Church Fathers say, “recapitulates” and completes all of salvation history.

Whatever Abraham, Moses, and David hoped for, they could not have even begun to imagine the wonders God had in store for His people, or the extent of the love He would show, in the time to come. Who could have imagined – it’s still hard to believe – that when God sent Immanuel, He really would be, in the flesh, “God with us.”

Randall Smith
is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Tony Esolen, December 10, 2011
And then there is what St. Justin says, that the Hebrews at Jamnia, wishing to separate themselves from the Christians, deliberately altered the text of Isaiah to read "alma". In any case, the LXX translation is "parthenos," and that's "virgin", so the Jews must have known at that time what they were looking for.
written by Manfred, December 11, 2011
As you may be aware, Mr. Smith, the Church just celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception which makes your essay rather moot. After the last fifty years in the Church, the last thing we need is historico-critical method of biblical scholarship being introduced yet again. The reason that Benedict is accepting traditional Catholicism vis a vis Modernism is he is willing to admit that the last time Catholicism actually thrived was before Vat. II. I recently had lunch with a biblical scholar who has been published in Homiletic and Pastoral Review and he reminded me that of the millions of Catholics receiving Holy Communion each week who have not been to Confession in years, we may safely assume many (most?) are in a constant state of mortal sin (contraception a major cause of this sin) and therefore each time they receive the Eucharist in this state they compound the sin. They have effectively excommunicated themselves and they don't even realize it. In order to make some sense of their responsibilities, priests and theologians will discuss instead (two thousand years later) whether or not Mary was a virgin. I would like to say that modern "Catholicism" is irrelevant. In fact, it is a danger to one's salvation.
written by Dave, December 11, 2011
There is a horror at the root of the claim that "alma" was not correctly translated "virgin," and that is the horrible claim -- a crime, really -- that our Lord was conceived in sin. If that be the case, then our own sins, especially sexual ones, become not so much forgivable as irrelevant: and the fruit of that thought is the millions who blithely receive Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin under the repugnant notion that their smug acceptance of the world's thinking on this point is to their everlasting justification, as they "know" more than Holy Mother Church.

We must pray that Our Lord look down from heaven and see countless millions of souls in states of invincible ignorance -- for attitudes shaped before the age of reason presents are changed only with the greatest of difficulty and of graces. So millions of people conceived and raised in a contraceptive mentality before the age of reason ever kicked in may find themselves with some exculpatory claim on that Day.

Which does not relieve us, in the least, of our duty to practice and present the Church's teaching on the regulation of conception, which must be based first of all, in my view, in a rejection of the instrumentalist philosophy happily and disastrously reigning. Once I see my body as an instrument for my pleasure or quest for power, and once I see others merely as means by whom/which I achieve what I want (which makes me "happy"), I will with the greatest of difficulty even comprehend the Church's teaching on the regulation of birth. The point is that people are rescued from invincible ignorance every day, when they seek the Truth with all their heart and when there are others prepared to help them without judging them. We have a massive catechetical project before us and I thank Dr. Smith for his contribution to that effort.

written by Mike Carter, December 12, 2011
Just for your consideration fron a novice. St. Mary’s virginity is not a matter of her own private life, but rather a biblical reality, which belongs with our faith in Lord Jesus Christ. As you know, the Tradition of the Church (both the Church of Rome and Eastern Orthodox) holds that St. Mary remained a virgin all her life; before the pregnancy, during childbirth, and until she departed. The prophecy in Is 7:14 (“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel.”) refers to St. Mary directly and literally. It accurately describes her state as being virgin and betrothed at the same time. For the Hebrew term used for “virgin” is “almah” and not “betulah” nor “issa”. The word almah means a virgin maiden who may be betrothed, while betulah means a virgin who is not betrothed and finally the word issa means a married lady. It is interesting that the word almah is used in the prophecy to mean the continuation of the state of virginity and for this reason it has been translated “the virgin” and not “a virgin”.
written by Randall Smith, December 12, 2011
The author replies:

Ah, Mr. Carter, if only it were that easy! As I have suggested above, there is much more to be said on both sides of the linguistic debate. Bottom line: One cannot assert that the prophet was speaking of a virgin technically on the basis of the Hebrew word almah alone. Personally, I am loathe to credit St. Justin's contention that the Jewish rabbis corrupted their own sacred text simply out of spite against Christians.

My point is simply that, whatever Isiah had in mind, what God had in mind was Christ. Human authors prefigure with words; the divine Author can prefigure with the events of history. Abraham, Moses, David: all existed historically, all prefigure Christ. Christ "recapitulates" all of salvation history. And it is for this reason that whatever Isaiah thinks he is referring to, the promise made to him is ultimately fulfilled in Christ. So Christians need not worry about whether Isaiah had in his mind some other "child."
written by Zophia, December 21, 2011
Perhaps Isaiah did not refer to John the Baptist either? Really, there is absolutely no need to start denigrating the greatness of Isaiah now, just to make some 'linguistic points'. Could any sane Christian really DOUBT which "Mighty Counsellor" and "Prince of Peace" was being referred to by the great prophet? Can we doubt that he referred to John, Christ's cousin, in the desert? Can we doubt that he referred to the sign of the virginity of the young maiden 'marriageable', betrothed and yet 'virgin'? This is being ridiculous! Maybe nobody has ever come crying in the wilderness? What? Are we trying to excuse ourselves and say that we still haven't even heard the Gospel? It is too much! Does anyone think another, normal ordinary young girl conceived some other child to fulfil this prophecy? It is nonsense! The Bible repeatedly says that the Holy Spirit speaks through the mouths of the (true) prophets; that is what they are for! How could we even IMAGINE that it 'doesn't matter' who Isaiah 'thinks' he is referring to? Could the Holy Spirit have filled him with anything other than the truth? Honestly! "For Heaven's sake'!

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