The Almah Controversy
SIGNIFICANT TERMINOLOGY: Be'tulah
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 womenIt 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 parthenonOn 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.
Significant Terminology: Almah
Significant Terminology: B'tulah
"Problem" Texts and Conclusion