The Almah Controversy
David Conklin

     First, we should note that there are in Isaiah 7:14, according to Beegle (20), no variant readings in "any of the known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, and even the Dead Sea Scroll (from about 100 B.C.)" has the same word. We should also note that the Jewish, pre-Christian Greek interpretation and translation (i.e., the Septuagint--contra the wild, unfounded claim made by Singer that it is "a product of the church") of Isaiah was made about 200 B.C.. This means that there was about a 200-year overlap between the Hebrew and Greek texts before Christianity even began. That the Greek translation of the OT was made by 200 B.C. is supported by a wide number of scholars: Reymond (4, note 7), Buckwalter (12), Feinberg (1967: 43), Barrett (13), Bulman (481) also notes that the translators were "much closer to Biblical Hebrew as a living language than any scholars today". (And we shouldn't forget to mention the critics!); Bulman also noted, on page 482, the appropriate comment made by Rahlfs (Alfred Rahlfs, Septuaginta. Vol. 1 (1949): p. xxiii.) "that the early Christians, in their dispute with the Jews over this verse, "justifiably maintained that this rendering originated from the old Jewish translators themselves."" We should also point out that the Hebrew text started to be systematized, leading to the Masoretic text, in about 100 A.D.; this adds another 100 years onto the overlap between the Septuagint and the Hebrew text. There is no known controversy over the use of the word "parthenos" in Isaiah 7:14 until the Christians used the text as a "proof-text" for the divinity of Jesus.

     The Hebrew word "'almah" is used seven times in the OT; in the table below the translations are from the New King James Version.

TABLE 1: The Hebrew Word "'almah" as used in the OT

Genesis 24:43 "Behold, I stand by the well of water; and it shall come to pass that when the virgin comes out to draw water, and I say to her, "Please give me a little water from your pitcher to drink:""

Exodus 2:8 "And Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Go." So the maiden went and called the child's mother."

Psalm 68:25 "The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after; Among them were the maidens playing timbrels."

Proverbs 30:19 "The way of an eagle in the air, The way of a serpent on a rock, The way of a ship in the midst of the sea, And the way of a man with a virgin."

Song of Solomon 1:3 "Because of the fragrance of your good ointments, Your name is ointment poured forth; Therefore the virgins love you."

Song of Solomon 6:8 "There are sixty queens And eighty concubines, And virgins without number."

Isaiah 7:14 "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel."

     Four things are very obvious from reading the above verses. One, it cannot "be proved 'alma designates a young woman who is not a virgin." [Macrae (672) [emphasis added], contra Kirby who claims "that the context many times demands that "almah" is *not* rendered as "virgin," see also J. G. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, p. 288, cited by Feinberg (1967: 45); Price states it this way: "No usage of the word "almah" in the Hebrew bible can be shown to mean other than a sexually mature virgin ..."; Vawter (310) declares that "nowhere in the OT is 'almah used in a way that certainly excludes the idea of virginity"; these are contra the claim made by Nahigian, Kirby and others--see below.]

     Two, while this word isn't a "technical term for a virgin: it does represent a "young woman one of whose characteristics is virginity." [ibid.; see also Davies and Allison (214); contra Showalter (790) who claims that 'almah is "without any implication of virginity"; or, Clements (88) who states that the young woman "is not necessarily a virgin"; Ibn Ezra (42) states it even stronger [almah] "is certainly not a virgin"; to which Toy (531) and Kirby agrees -- note that not a single one of these writers provides any support for such a claim. See also Solomon Mandelkern, Veteris Testamenti Concordantiae (Tel Aviv, 1978): 881; he defines "'almah" as "puella nubilis," "virgo matura," "puella nubilis" means marriageable child and "virgo matura" means mature virgin. We should note here that Jerome, who studied under the rabbi's of his time, used the word virgo.] In his Basic Theology (Victor Press), Charles Ryrie says "There is no instance where it can be proved that almah designates a young woman who is not a virgin." This is very important as we will see later. Watts (99) suggests that the "common meaning is one who is sexually mature. It is difficult to find a word in English that is capable of the same range of meaning. "Virgin" is too narrow, while "young woman" is too broad." Sauer makes the same points in his article. Price defined almah as "sexually mature virgin." After analyzing the use of the term "'almah" in the OT, Niessen (147) concludes, that "a more accurate translation would be "young virgin"." This would be an especially appropriate translation considering the cultural context which is something most critics seem to ignore; for an example, see Moody (62-3). Likewise, even Cranfield (181) understates the evidence at hand when he notes that "the word 'almah; simply denotes a young woman." Why he didn't take note of the connotation of the word is not revealed. Other suggested translations include the following: Fitzmyer (40) and Kissane (88) translates "'almah" as "a young woman of marriageable age." Baab (787) suggests that it might be translated as "be mature sexually." Likewise, Creager (341) notes that etymologically speaking "the basic meaning was "a sexually mature female."" The combined effect of all these translations is to lead one to the full meaning of the word "'almah": "young woman of marriageable age who is sexually mature who is not already married." Dummelow (418) puts it as "one of maturing and marriageable age." Wheless (235) cites the New Standard Bible Dictionary (939): "Bethulah conveys the idea of virginity, of a young unmarried woman; almah is used simply of a young woman of marriageable age." This definition of almah is misleading because it totally ignores the cultural context and in the case of Isaiah 7:14 it ignores the prophetic context.

     Three, there is no evidence from these verses that could lead one to the conclusion that the word "'almah" refers to one who is "newly married" as some lexicons suggest--see Brown - Driver - Briggs - Gesenius, and Koehler and Baumgartner. It is worth noting that neither of these lexicons provided any proof for this "translation." Which is probably why Brennan, page 971, says "it is never used in the Hebrew Bible when referring to a married woman." Or, as Young, (1965): 287 & 288, states the matter: "At the outset we can confidently assert that the word almah is never employed of a married woman. ... Only almah makes clear that the mother was unmarried." Moody (1962) page 789 says that a man and a woman "were considered husband and wife from the time of betrothal" citing Matthew 1:19-20 as support. However, an inspection of the Greek reveals that the word used for "husband" here is "aner" which can mean a "betrothed or future husband."

     Some have suggested that given that other English translations use the word "maid" or "maiden" that therefore this indicates as well that the word "'almah" does not mean "virgin." However, as Price notes, these words are synonyms for "virgin" -- Webster's Universities Dictionary (Library Guild, 1940): 1022 has "an unmarried woman; especially a virgin" as part of its first definition of the word "maid."

     Four, another thing that can be seen from the above uses of the word "'almah" in the Bible is that there is not a single case, as noted by Brennan (971), Young (121), Surburg (114), Sauer (553), and Kissane (89) in which the word refers to a married woman. This is contra the suggestion made by Owens (58 -- here he violates one of his own rules for proper interpretation), Willis (11-2), the Catholic Encyclopedia, Buckwalter (12), Toy (531), and others. Motyer (125, with emphasis added) notes that "'almah" is "the only Hebrew word which without qualification means an unmarried woman." See also Kraeling (287), Reymond (3), and Wilson (316).

TABLE 2: Other Translations of Isaiah 7:14 (with their respective notes)

Contemporary English Version But the LORD will still give you proof. A virgina is pregnant; she will have a son and will name him Immanuel. {aOr, "young woman." [extended note not included]}

God's Word So the Lord himself will give you this sign: A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel [God Is With Us].

King James Version Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Living Bible All right then, the Lord himself will choose the sign--a child shall be born to a virgin!d And she shall call him Immanuel (meaning, "God is with us"). {Provides lengthy note on the word translated "virgin".}

Modern Language Bible Therefore the LORD Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and shall bear a son and shall call His name Immanuel;

New American Bible Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

New American Standard Bible "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."

New Century Version The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgina will be pregnant. She will have a son, and she will name him Immanuel. {a virgin The Hebrew word means "a young woman." Often this meant a girl who was not married and had not yet had sexual relations with anyone.}

New English Bible Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: A young woman is with child, and she will bear a son, and will call him Immanuel.

New International Version Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

New Jerusalem Bible The Lord will give you a sign in any case: It is this: the young womanb is with child and will give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel. {b. . . For 'young woman' Gk reads 'virgin', interpreted by Mt of Mary.}

New Living Translation All right then, the Lord himself will choose the sign, Look! The virgin* will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel--'God is with us.' {*Or young woman;.}

New Revised Standard Version Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman q is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. {qGk the virgin;}

Revised English Bible Because you do, the Lord of his own accord will give you a sign; it is this: A young woman is with child, and she will give birth to a son and call him Immanuel.

Revised Standard Version Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman i shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. {iOr, virgin;}

Today's English Version/Good News Bible Well then, the Lord himself will give you a sign: a young woman k who is pregnant will have a son and will name him 'Immanuel.' {kYOUNG 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.;}

     It should be noted that the word "'almah" is translated in the Septuagint as "parthenos" (translated as "virgin" in its normal sense; see Carmignac (329-330), Abel (398); Willis (12) makes no attempt to explain why the Septuagint translators then used "parthenos" here if they didn't understand it to mean "virgin".) in only two cases (Is. 7:14 and Gen. 24:43); whereas, "bethulah" is translated as "parthenos" in all but three cases: 1 Kings 1:2, Jer. 14:7, and Esther 2:2 (the Septuagint doesn't translate Est. 2:19). This fact would indicate that "parthenos"/"be'thulah" means a woman (exact age unknown -- to show that a young woman is being referred to the Hebrew would modify "bethulah" by the word "na'arah") who is a virgin --the following exceptions should be noted: Joel 1:8; Est. 2:17; Ezek. 23:3 (these texts will be dealt with below). One might note, as Davies and Allison (214) have, that in Gen. 24:16 the word "be'tulah" is qualified by the clause "no man had known her" which is unusual if "bethulah" strictly meant "virgin" (unless it is a "poetic repetition"--Wadsworth (167) points out that it is "commonplace in the Old Testament" to use "redundancy" "to give emphasis to an important point." Dodd (302) notes the verse but entirely skips the qualification! Willis (11), notes that Wenham makes an illegitimate attempt to extend the qualifier to "'almah" as well since it is used in verse 43.). Note that the qualifying phrase does not appear in 24:43 where the Hebrew uses the word "'almah" and that the Septuagint used "parthenos" in both cases--the use of "parthenos" in the Septuagint in Gen. 24:43 was, Vawter's (322) opinion "obviously predetermined by the btwlh; of v. 16." Now note that this idea doesn't govern the use of "parthenos" in Is. 7:14. For other verses that have to use a qualifying phrase with "bethulah" see Judges 21:12 ("... virgins, that had known no man by lying with any male ...") and Lev. 21:3 ("... a virgin, ..., which hath had no husband; ...") for other examples of qualifying clauses being added. It should also be noted that there are cases in classical literature where "parthenos" refers to females who are not virgins (see Dodd (302) who also refers the reader to Liddel and Scott, and Lattey (94); Ford (294) also supplies examples from undated sepulchral inscriptions. Roberts (503) mentions that this word is "regularly applied to temple prostitutes"; unfortunately, he supplies no details or sources.); just as in Is. 7:14 and Gen. 24:43 "parthenos"/"'almah" means a young woman who is a virgin, or, instead, "young virgin." This confluence of meanings would be the only reason why the Jewish Greek translations of the OT (Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion) used "neanis" (young woman) instead of "parthenos" at Is. 7:14 (cf. J. Ziegler, Septuaginta xiv Isaias (1939): 147; Both Dodd (304) and Lippard note the change in wording without bothering to ask why these translations changed the wording.); otherwise there would have been no reason to change the wording. In contesting this changing of the word's Jerome argued that although, in Kamesar's words (page 63), "the term almah; itself does not mean virgin, it necessitates virginity ... it entails 'more than virginity'." Kamesar (71) notes that Jerome claimed that "the word almah; is used only of virgins in the Hebrew Bible." Jerome's testimony on this matter is important, as Wilson (315) points out, because he "studied Hebrew under the Jewish rabbis of his time (about A.D. 400)." Likewise, Machen points out that "as a matter of fact there is no place among the seven occurrences of 'almah in the Old Testament where the word is clearly used of a woman who was not a virgin." [J. G. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, page 288; cited by Feinberg (256-7)] This simple fact seems to have escaped the attention of Robby Berry; he claims that the word "'almah" "could refer to a virgin, or not, depending on the context."

     Some critics have attempted to attack the usage of "parthenos" in the Septuagint at Is. 7:14 by noting that "parthenos" is also used by the Septuagint in Gen. 34:3 where it obviously does not refer to a virgin. While acknowledging that the use of "parthenos" in Gen. 34:3 is "inexplicable" Bratcher (112) points out that "the word means 'virgin' and should be given that meaning, unless the context proves otherwise." He also notes, on the next page, that at times the word "be'tulah" "means simply 'young girl' with no particular reference to virginity, while at other times it is used metaphorically; in such cases parthenos in the Septuagint will have the same meaning." We should add that if the word "parthenos" doesn't mean "virgin," as some critcs have claimed, then how can the word "be'tulah" which the LXX translators translated as "parthenos" most of the time mean "virgin"?

     There is also no evidence that the Septuagint use of "parthenos" for "'almah" in Is. 7:14 is a mistranslation as claimed by Robby Berry, Drange, Singer, and other online critics. It might be true that the translators saw a theological import to this prophecy beyond Isaiah's time and so used "parthenos" (this would be contra Davies and Allison (214); but there is no evidence either for, or against, this--Kissane (89) suggests that "further revelation had come before that Version was formed."). But, this does not mean that it was a "theological interpretation imposed post hoc by the translators" on the text as claimed by Robby Berry. Nor, does it mean that Matthew "used a single word in the Greek version of the Bible as a pretext for a Christian dogma" as Ward (195) claimed. It should also be noted that while there is now no way to determine exactly what Isaiah meant by his use of the word "'almah" there are, however, indicators that he meant "virgin" and took special steps to see that it would be understood as "virgin" -- [see above] We should also note that it is far more likely that Matthew knew what was meant by the texts and words than are today's critics.

     One should also note the Ugaritic linguistic and cultural roots of the Semitic words and thoughts on this matter -- this is important because the Ugaritic language "is very close to Biblical Hebrew" according to J. Philip Hyatt ("Archaeology and the Translation of the Old Testament," in An Introduction to the Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament (Thomas Nelson, 1952): 54; cited by Bulman (486); see also Beegle (22)). Cyrus Gordon points out that in Ugaritic literature it was predicted that the lunar goddess would bear a son. In 77:5 "she is called by the exact etymological counterpart of [the] Hebrew betulah;"; while in 77:7 "she is called by the exact etymological counterpart of [the] Hebrew 'almah." This indicates the close relationship between the two words; Surburg (114) goes so far as to refer to these terms as synonyms. Beegle (23) claims that while this parallelism exists the ?poetic license? prersent in the text ?does not permit us to conclude that the two terms were synonymous.? However, we should note that if there wasn?t a very close relationship between the two words in the first place then they wouldn?t have been used in such proximity to each other. Bratcher (98) cites a study by Lacheman who pointed out that "it is the word 'almah which gives meaning to b-t-l-t; and not vice versa. 'Virgin is synonymous with 'a young woman'." Wolf (455) notes this parallelism of terminology and concludes that the word "'almah" "must mean "virgin." If we look at other languages that are closely related to the Hebrew, like Steinmueller did, we find that in the Punic language "'almah;" is the word that is used to designate a virgin. He also noted that on Crete inscriptions have been found (dated to the 4th century B.C.) where holy maidens are called la'almath.
Significant Terminology: Almah
Significant Terminology: B'tulah
"Problem" Texts and Conclusion