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The Virgin Shall Conceive

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 B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.