The Almah Controversy
The affirmation that Jesus Christ 'was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary' is beset by many problems and difficulties, and to deny or try to ignore their existence is bad theological scholarship. But it is also bad theological scholarship -- though this is sometimes in danger of being overlooked -- to refuse to consider seriously and with as open a mind as possible any evidence or any rational argument, whether historicist of theological, which can be adduced as in any way supporting this affirmation of the Apostles' Creed. It seems to me that neither those who accept the historicity of the Virgin Birth nor those who reject it have a monopoly of prejudice. Cranfield (177)
Before one can conduct an exegesis of a self-contained textual block one must first determine the exact (or, at least, as much as possible) meaning of any disputed or obscure terms that may be present in the text. So, for the textual block Is. 7:10-6 there are a number of words for which we must find out what they meant to the original audience in that day and age. One disputed word, as noted by Young (118) and Oswalt (207), is the word "'almah" in Is. 7:14. This study will attempt to uncover its meaning.
While the interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 is one of the most hotly debated verses in the entire Bible it is interesting to note that, according to Davies and Allison (221) at least some "competent critical scholars are firmly convinced of the historicity of the Virginal Conception." They acknowledge that it cannot be "conclusively proved by historical-critical methods"; why they should, or would, expect that historical-critical methods would be able to do such a thing is unclear. But, they go on to suggest that "careful attention should be paid to their discussions of the relevant evidence." Below we will present at least some of that evidence.
Since, as pointed out by Beegle (21), the "study of comparative Semitic linguistics has greatly increased our knowledge and given us new tools to use in determining the meaning of a word" we will note these where they are relevant to our needs.
We will also hold in mind the sage counsel of accurate interpretation as given by Owens (60), to wit: "To interpret accurately, an exegete must know: (1) the meaning of the word; (2) the force of the immediate historical context in which it is used; and (3) the force of the total Biblical context. One's translation must not violate, contradict or minimize any of the three aspects." In reading all of the sources noted in the bibliography I have noted that most Bible critics either violated, contradicted, or minimized the last two aspects in particular--in a few cases' claims were made that also violated the first aspect. We should also note that it is important to understand and take account of the various type of literature in which the terms are found.
One bit of hermeneutic needs to be kept in mind as we examine the relevant texts. That is, that we should always use the clearest texts available on the matter to determine the meaning of those verses which are less clear. The relevance of this caveat will be seen when we look at some "problem" texts.
Two other important facts need to be mentioned here: one, while Isaiah 7:14 has been interpreted in the context of a virgin birth the text itself does not necessarily mean such; secondly as Bratcher (105) and others have pointed out: "the Biblical witness to the virgin-birth of our Lord does not depend upon the use which Mt. 1:23 made of the LXX translation of Isaiah 7:14, nor is it impaired by the correct understanding and translation of the words of Isaiah on the Hebrew Old Testament."
This study will proceed first by examining the specific meaning of the terms "'almah" and "be'tulah." We will then examine specific "problem" texts.
Significant Terminology: Almah
Significant Terminology: B'tulah
"Problem" Texts and Conclusion