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The Almah Controversy
SIGNIFICANT TERMINOLOGY: Be'tulah
David Conklin
http://biblestudy.iwarp.com/
 

     Another Hebrew word that is suggested that Isaiah could have, or might have, been used instead in Is. 7:14 is "be'tulah" [See R. W. Rogers, "Isaiah," Abingdon Bible Commentary, 643-4; cited by Feinberg (255)]. There are a number of good reasons why Isaiah did not use "be'tulah" in 7:14 while he did use the term five times later on (23:4 "nor bring up virgins"; 23:12 "virgin daughter of Zidon"; 37:22 "the virgin, the daughter of Zion"; 47:1 "virgin daughter of Babylon"; 62:5 "as a young man marrieth a virgin") -- Lippard, Robby Berry and others forget about the verse at 23:4. As can be seen in three of the uses of the word "be'tulah" it is used as a technical, prophetic formula/term that referred to a nation (see also Jer. 14:17 "virgin daughter of my people"; 46:11 "virgin daughter of Egypt"; and Lam. 2:13 "virgin daughter of Zion"). So, in the context of a prophecy if Isaiah had used the word "be'tulah" his readers could have been confused and might have then expected the reference in this prophecy to be about a nation rather than about a child being born to a woman -- this fact is ignored by Lippard and Robby Berry. In addition to the above, we should note that Waetjen makes an interesting case for "the virgin" representing "the corporate motherhood of Israel." This would tie in with other expressions for Israel, such as "Daughter of Zion" and "Virgin Israel." Unfortunately, this suggestion would then tend to reinforce the previous suggested possible error and does not directly address why Isaiah would change his terminology.

     However, there is also no evidence that the word "be'tulah" is any more precise than the word "'almah" in Is. 7:14; this is contra Wheless (235) who claims that "'almah" and "be'tulah" "are used with a fair degree of discrimination of sense" (see also Robinson and Kirby) In its use in the OT, by and large, it "refers to a woman whose age is unknown" (Niessen (146)). It should also be noted that there are instances where "be'tulah" is used where the virginity of the woman could be open to question, again, contra Wheless (235) who claims that bethulah in all of its uses "it has the technical sense of virginity." For example, see Joel 1:8, here the Septuagint does not use the word "parthenos"; but; instead, replaces it by "numphe"; thereby, "reflecting the idea of actual marriage rather than just betrothal." By the way, the Hebrew word "ba'al" used in Joel 1:8 (translated as "husband"; for a more fuller discussion of this passage see below under "Problem" Texts) is never used in the OT to refer to a betrothed "husband" -- see Table 4 below for its actual usage -- "It always refers to a married man when describing the relationship between a man and a woman" (Niessen (146); see also Wenham (345); Ford (294) notes that this verse: "admits of no ambiguity" and refers to one who "is married (and we presume experienced coitus)"; (contra Unger, cited by McDowell, 145 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."); Est. 2:17; Ezek. 23:3; Job 31:1)). Ford continues by supplying an example from the Mishna (Nidd. i. 4) in which "be'tulah" refers to a married woman. Motyer (125) notes that this word "often requires some such additional description as 'neither had man known her' (e.g., Gn. 24:16; Judg. 11:37-39; etc.) So, it is false for Drange to claim that the word "be'tulah" "definitely means "virgin"." Given all of the above reasons the Hebrew word "'almah" is the best term Isaiah could use to designate an unqualified virgin -- contra Lippard and Robby Berry.

     So, given that "be'tulah" can refer to either a married woman or a betrothed woman Young, (1965): 288, notes that Isaiah's use of "almah" was a deliberate choice for it is the only Hebrew word that "signifies an unmarried woman" and thus Isaiah chose the word "almah" because it is the only word that wouldn't confuse us. After all, what would have been so significant about a married or betrothed woman giving birth?

By the way, it should be noted that the technical term for virgin birth in the biological sciences is parthenogenesis (see R. J. Berry (106) for a list of sources in the scientific literature in regards to this principle; on page 107 he also notes some sources regarding parthenogenesis in man). Note that the first part of the word "parthenogenesis" is "partheno" from the Greek word "parthenos." So, Leeming (272), can state that "According to this definition, the story of the birth of Jesus is a virgin birth story whereas the birth of Buddha and Orphic Dionysos is not." Cranfield (181) points out that "none of the alleged parallels is a real parallel. In none of them is there any question of a truly virginal conception: rather it is a matter of physical intercourse between a god and a mortal woman from which birth results." However, not all writers have done an adequate job of researching the topic before voicing their opinion(s) on the matter--see, for example Addinall (71), Shimron, Robinson, anon., and Kersey Graves. Also, in 1955, Bundy (Jesus and the First Three Gospels (Harvard Univ. Press, 1955): 11; cited by Boslooper (135)) wrote that "The idea of a supernatural or virgin birth is pagan, and it must have found its way into the story of Jesus through Gentile-Christian channels." Boslooper (135), who thinks that the virgin birth is a myth of the highest order (page 21), responds with: "It is difficult to find a statement in all the literature of historical criticism which is more misleading." He further notes that "Contemporary writers invariably use only secondary sources to verify such claims. The scholars whose judgment they accept rarely produced or quoted the primary sources. The literature of the old German Religiongeschichtliche Schule, which produced this conclusion and which has become the authority for contemporary scholars who wish to perpetuate the notion that the virgin birth in the New Testament has a non-Christian source, is characterized by brief word, phrase, and sentence quotations that have been lifted out of context or incorrectly translated and used to support preconceived theories." He then spends the next 50 pages directly examining the available evidence and arrives at roughly the same conclusion as Leeming gave above. On this point Bratcher (108) astutely points out that ideas such as "a divine child [being] born to a virgin goddess" would have been "completely foreign to the Hebrew faith" because it not only lacked the "necessary preconceptions" but also because the concepts "were distinctly irreconcilable with the basic article of the Hebrew faith, namely, the oneness and uniqueness of God." He refers the reader to "a convincing refutation of the influence of ethnic myths upon Hebrew thinking cf. the article by Louis M. Sweet." See also the note on this subject by Davies and Allison (214-5), Brown (30), and J. G. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ. (Harper, 1930): pages 217-8 and 336-9 (cited and by Buckwalter (5-6)). Moody (791) states it quite strongly when he says that the,

stories about how Zeus begat such persons as Hercules, Perseus, and Alexander constitute nothing more than mythological fornication. The same sordid state is found in the stories about Apollo's begetting Ion, Asclepius, Pythagoras, Plato, and Augustus. The yawning chasm between these pagan myths of polytheistic promiscuity and the lofty monotheism of the virgin birth of Jesus is too wide for careful research to cross.
Of course, the key words in that passage is "careful research" which all to frequently isn't a prequisite for being a Bible critic.

     Note that in the table below the word "parthenos" is used to translate "be'tulah" 46 times out of its 50 uses in the OT. If, as is commonly done, it should be argued that "be'tulah" means "virgin" then doesn't "parthenos" mean "virgin" as well? And, if it is the case, that "parthenos" means "virgin" then why doesn't it mean "virgin" when it is used in Is. 7:14 as well? These questions have gone unanswered by the Bible critics. The table below also shows that the word "be'tulah" has been used in a wide variety of circumstances and describes a rather wide range of various women. Wenham (348) notes that during its course of usage a semantic shift took place in the directions toward a more restricted meaning of "virgin." We cannot, based on the current evidence, determine when this shift took place--or why it was necessary.
 

TABLE 3: Translations of the word “Be’tulah” in Selected Translations (original table was made by Israel Silverberg for the Jewish Institute of Biblical Polemics)

Verse
KJV
RSV
NIV
JPS
Septuagint
Gen. 24:16
virgin
virgin
virgin
virgin
parthenos
Ex. 22:16
maid
virgin
virgin
virgin
parthenon
Ex. 22:17
virgins
virgins
virgins
virgins
parthenon (pl)
Lev. 21:3
virgin
virgin
unmarried
virgin
parthenos
Lev. 21:13, 14
virgin
virginity
virgin
virgin
parthenon
 
 
/ virgin
Deut. 22:19
virgin
virgin
virgin
virgin
parthenon
Deut. 22:23
virgin
virgin
virgin
virgin
parthenos
Deut. 22:28
virgin
virgin
virgin
virgin
parthenon
Deut. 32:25
virgin
virgin
young
maiden
parthenos
 
 
 
women
Judges 19:24
maiden
virgin
virgin
virgin
parthenos
Judges 21:12
virgins
virgins
young
maidens
parthenous
 
 
 
women
It should be noted that in this verse “be’tulah” is qualified by the word “na’arah” which would give the translation “young virgin”.
 
2 Sam. 13:2
virgin
virgin
virgin
virgin
parthenos
2 Sam. 13:18
virgins
virgin
virgin
maiden
parthenos
1 Kings 1:2
virgin
young
virgin
virgin
ne'anidah (young 
 
 
maiden
 
 
woman)
2 Kings 19:21
virgin
virgin
virgin
maiden
parthenos
2 Chr. 36:17
maiden
virgin
young
maiden
parthenous
 
 
 
woman
Esther 2:2
virgins
virgins
virgins
virgins
koraoih (girls)
Esther 2:3
virgins
virgins
girls
virgins
parthenos (root)
Esther 2:17
virgins
virgins
virgins
virgins
parthenous
 
On this verse in Esther, Wenham (344) suggests that the word “be’tulah” is shorthand for “those who had been virgins” and that this is even more probable can be seen in vs. 19 “if it refers to the transfer of girls to the second harem after going into the king.” This idea is confirmed by noting that the Septuagint does not mention the virgins coming to the king in this verse. Here Wenham refers the reader to the Jerusalem Bible and L. B. Paton’s Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Esther (1908): 186 ff.
 
Esther 2:19
virgins
virgins
virgins
virgins
not translated
Job 31:1
maid
virgin
girl
maiden
parthenon
     On the last verse Wenham (346) notes that there was nothing wrong with looking at “virgin” while there would be if he were to be “looking” (CEV: “stare with desire”) at either a married or betrothed woman. This is especially clear when one considers the immediate context (vs. 8-10). The HarperCollins Study Bible notes here that it is idolatry, not lust that is the offense.
 
Ps. 45:14
virgins
virgins
virgins
maidens
parthenos
Ps. 78:63
maidens
maidens
maidens
maidens
parthenos
Ps. 148:12
maidens
maidens
maidens
maidens
parthenos
Isaiah 23:4
virgins
virgins
daughters
maidens
parthenous
Isaiah 23:12
virgin
virgin
virgin
maiden
phugatera
 
 
 
 
 
(daughter of)
Isaiah 37:22
virgin
virgin
virgin
maiden
parthenos
Isaiah 47:1
virgin
virgin
virgin
maiden
parthenos
Isaiah 62:5
virgin
virgin
maiden
maiden
parthenos
Jer. 2:32
maid
maiden
maiden
maiden
parthenos
Jer. 14:17
virgin
virgin
virgin
hapless
phugater
 
 
 
 
people
Jer. 18:13
virgin
virgin
virgin
maiden
parthenos
Jer. 31:4
virgin
virgin
virgin
maiden
v. 38:4 parthenos
Jer. 31:13
virgin
maidens
maidens
maidens
v: 38:13 parthenos
Jer. 31:21
virgin
virgin
virgin
maiden
v: 38:21 parthenos
Jer. 46:11
virgin
virgins
virgin
maiden
v: 26:11 parthenum
Jer. 51:22
maid
maiden
maiden
maiden
v: 28:22 parthenon
Lam. 1:4
virgins
maidens
maidens
maidens
parthenos
Lam. 1:15
virgin
virgin
virgin
maiden
parthenos
Lam. 1:18
virgins
maidens
maidens
maidens
parthenos
Lam. 2:10
virgins
maidens
young
maidens
parthenous
 
 
 
women
Lam. 2:13
virgin
virgin
virgin
maiden
parthenos
Lam. 2:21
virgins
maidens
maidens
maidens
parthenos
Lam. 5:11
maids
virgins
virgins
maidens
parthenous
Ezek. 9:6
maids
maidens
maidens
maiden
parthenon
Ezek. 44:22
maidens
virgin
virgins
virgins
parthenon
Joel 1:8
virgin
virgin
virgin
maiden
parthenos (root)
Amos 5:2
virgin
virgin
virgin
maiden
parthenos
Amos 8:13
virgins
virgins
young
maidens
parthenos
 
 
 
women
Zech. 9:17
maids
maidens
young
young
parthenous
 
 
 
women
women
 
     Wilson (315) notes that in the Peshitto Syriac version of the Old Testament used the word "be'tula" for "'alma" in Is 7:14. This means that even as late as the second century A.D. (It was made either late in the 1st or early in the 2nd century A.D.) the understanding that "'almah" in Is. 7:14 as "virgin" was "considered proper." This fact is particularly important because the Peshitto Syriac may have been written by Jews (cf. H. Wheeler Robinson, ed., The Bible in its Ancient and English Versions, pages 85-9; cited by Bratcher (104)). It is interesting to note the number of Bible critics who never mention this fact.

     We should note that in the Sumerian ("undeflowered") and Akkadian ("undeflowered," "not experienced," "unopened," and "who has not known a male") languages the term "virgin" can only be expressed in the negative. In the Egyptian and Ugaritic languages the related word to "be'tulah" is used of (in the Egyptian) to describe the Pharaoh's mother (see the Pyramid texts of the King) and (in the Ugaritic) for Anat, the wife of Baal. There are also parallel words with like meanings in the Shiite and Aramaic. This evidence leads Tsevat to conclude that the word "does not mean 'virgin' in any language exclusively (Aram.), mainly (Heb.), or generally (Akk/Ugar.)." [Tsevat (340)] This has lead Wenham to propose that "be'tulah" means "a girl of marriageable age" (see also Paul (160): "an ambiguous term which in nonlegal contexts may denote an age of life rather than a physical state."). Why Lippard, Drange, and Robby Berry would ignore such evidence is something of a mystery.
Introduction
Significant Terminology: Almah
Significant Terminology: B'tulah
"Problem" Texts and Conclusion
Bibliography