Does the word ‘almah’ in Isaiah 7 mean virgin?

The Claim: The word almah in Isaiah 7 does not mean virgin.

When Isaiah’s Hebrew was translated into Greek in the version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint, which Matthew would have read, almah became parthenos – which really does mean ‘virgin’. A simple translation error spawned the entire worldwide myth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Roman Catholic cult of Mary as a kind of goddess, the ‘Queen of Heaven’.

Dawkins, Richard. Outgrowing God (p. 30). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

A Counterargument

Dawkins is making a claim that I encountered as a student. In my college New Testament class, my teacher said that the word translated virgin in Isaiah 7 actually did not mean virgin (as Matthew translated it). By this point in the semester, I was used to my professor making bold claims against orthodox Christianity that turned out to be misrepresentations of the data after further examination - not unlike what Dawkins does in this particular quote. So, I went back to my dormitory and started doing some reading.

I found that there are a number of very strong arguments that the word ‘almah’ in Isaiah 7 would have been understood to refer to a woman who was a virgin.

  • the Jewish translators of the Septuagint (3rd century BC) translated the word almah in Isaiah 7 as παρθένος (parthenos), which does mean “virgin” in a technical sense.
  • the word almah refers to the age of a woman and in Jewish culture a woman of young age would presumably be unmarried and not have had sexual relations. This view is confirmed by the fact that most usages of almah in Scripture do refer to a young, unmarried woman (who would be a virgin).
  • the reason almah was used rather than the technical Hebrew term for virgin, betulah , is because almah indicates a young woman who has just reached puberty whereas betulah could refer to a woman of any age

Based on this evidence, there is no good reason to translate the word almah as anything other than virgin.

The Messianic Hope Quotes

The book The Messianic Hope explains how we know that the Messianic passages of the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 53 or Isaiah 7, are truly Messianic. It responds to claims by skeptics that these passages reference historical figures and do not point forward to Jesus of Nazareth.

The use of the article (frequently untranslated in modern English versions) with the word almah indicates that the Lord had a specific woman in mind

Cyrus Gordon has argued that ancient (pre-Mosaic) Ugaritic, which is cognate to Hebrew, used the word parallel to amah of a virgin goddess

the Septuagint translation of alma with the Greek word parthenos (‘virgin’) is evidence that in the pre-Christian era, the word was understood as referring to virginity

wherever almah is used in the Hebrew Bible…the word is used either of a virgin or in an indeterminate, neutral sense. Based on this study, it appears that Isaiah chose his words based on precision. While the Hebrew betulah could refer to a virgin of any age, almah would refer to a virgin that has just arrived at puberty. She is a maiden in the truest and purest sense. So, there does not seem to be cause to abandon the traditional interpetation of almah as a ‘virgin’ except for an antisupernatural or antimessianic bias

Jews for Jesus

Jews for Jesus is a ministry that aims to share Christ with those of Jewish background. They provide some arguments for how we know that almah can refer to a young virgin and not only to a young woman.

In the few verses where almah appears, the word clearly denotes a young woman who is not married but is of marriageable age. Although almah does not implicitly denote virginity, it is never used in the Scriptures to describe a “young, presently married woman.” It is important to remember that in the Bible, a young Jewish woman of marriageable age was presumed to be chaste.

The commonly held view that “virgin” is Christian, whereas “young woman” is Jewish is not quite true. The fact is that the Septuagint, which is the Jewish translation made in pre-Christian Alexandria, takes almah to mean “virgin” here. Accordingly, the New Testament follows Jewish interpretation in Isaiah 7:14. Therefore, the New Testament rendering of almah as “virgin” for Isaiah 7:14 rests on the older Jewish interpretation, which in turn is now borne out for precisely this annunciation formula by a text that is not only pre-Isaianic but is pre-Mosaic in the form that we now have it on a clay tablet.

Therefore, even if the prophet Isaiah had used the word betulah, it could have been argued that he did not intend to say that this woman had never had sexual relations with a man.

NET Bible

The NET Bible is a resource provided by Dallas Theological Seminary with notes on textual variants and interpretive issues. Here is the note from Isaiah 7 discussing the translation of the word almah .

Traditionally, “virgin.” Because this verse from Isaiah is quoted in [Matt 1:23](javascript:{}) in connection with Jesus’ birth, the Isaiah passage has been regarded since the earliest Christian times as a prophecy of Christ’s virgin birth. Much debate has taken place over the best way to translate this Hebrew term, although ultimately one’s view of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ is unaffected. Though the Hebrew word used here (עַלְמָה, ʿalmah) can sometimes refer to a woman who is a virgin [Gen 24:43], it does not carry this meaning inherently. The word is simply the feminine form of the corresponding masculine noun עֶלֶם (ʿelem, “young man”; cf. [1 Sam 17:56; 20:22]). The Aramaic and Ugaritic cognate terms are both used of women who are not virgins. The word seems to pertain to age, not sexual experience, and would normally be translated “young woman.” The LXX translator(s) who later translated the Book of Isaiah into Greek sometime between the second and first century b.c., however, rendered the Hebrew term by the more specific Greek word παρθένος (parthenos), which does mean “virgin” in a technical sense. This is the Greek term that also appears in the citation of [Isa 7:14]([Matt 1:23]). Therefore, regardless of the meaning of the term in the OT context, in the NT Matthew’s usage of the Greek term παρθένος clearly indicates that from his perspective a virgin birth has taken place.

Conclusion

The translators of the Septuagint did not make an error when they translated almah as parthenos . To the contrary, the author of Isaiah would logically have chosen almah to refer specifically to a young virgin, whereas the technical Hebrew term for virgin, betulah, could refer to a woman of any age. There is also evidence that this word or its cognates were used in reference to a virgin elsewhere in the ancient world. This sufficiently dispells Dawkins’s claim that almah was incorrectly translated as virgin.

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