Did Isaiah really predict the Virgin birth?

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RNS photo public domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons

RNS photo public domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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(RNS) A new Catholic translation of the Bible tweaks an Old Testament text -- Isaiah 7:14 -- that many Christians consider a prophecy about Jesus’ birth. So, why did they alter a 2,745-year-old prophecy, and does it change what the church teaches about Jesus’ virgin birth? By Daniel Burke.

  • Melvin

    FYI, Worth reading….

    Isaiah 7:14 Virgin or Young Woman and Who was Immanuel


  • Wayne Amelung

    There is another side to this matter.
    Although some claim that the word translated virgin (Hb. ‘almah) refers generally to a “young woman,” it actually refers specifically to a “maiden”—that is, to a young woman who is unmarried and sexually chaste, and thus has virginity as one of her characteristics (see Gen. 24:16, 43; Ex. 2:8, “girl”). Thus when the Septuagint translators, 200 years before the birth of Christ, rendered ‘almah here with Greek parthenos (a specific term for “virgin”) they rightly perceived the meaning of the Hebrew term; and when Matthew applied this prophecy to the virgin birth of Christ (see Matt. 1:23), it was in accord with this well-established understanding of parthenos (“virgin”) as used in the Septuagint and in other Greek writers.

    Isaiah prophesies further that it is “the virgin” who shall call his name Immanuel. Bestowing a child’s name often falls to the mother in the OT (e.g., the naming of the patriarchs in Gen. 29:31–30:24; but cf. 35:18; also Judg. 13:24; 1 Sam. 1:20), although other women (cf. Ruth 4:17) or even the father (Gen. 16:15; Judg. 8:31) could be involved in the naming. The name itself, Immanuel, “God is with us,” is the message of the sign. Such is its importance that Matthew translates it for his readers (Matt. 1:23). Immanuel is used as a form of address in Isa. 8:8 (“your land, O Immanuel”), and as a sentence in 8:10 (“for God is with us”). To say that God is “with” someone or a people means that God is guiding and helping them to fulfill their calling (Gen. 21:22; Ex. 3:12; Deut. 2:7; Josh. 1:5; Ps. 46:7, 11; Isa. 41:10). As such, it would provide a pointed message either to the fearful Ahaz or to the failing royal house.

    Christian interpretation follows Matthew in applying this verse to the birth of Jesus. However, some aspects of Isaiah’s prophecy also relate to the significance of the sign for Isaiah’s own day. This being the case, a number of questions are raised: To whose family does the virgin belong, and how should her marital status be understood? What is the precise significance of the child’s name? Is it a personal name, or should it be understood as a title? Most importantly, does the fulfillment of this sign belong to Isaiah’s own day, or does it rather point (even in his day) to a much more distant and complete fulfillment? Christians have typically answered these questions in one of two ways.

    Some hold that the sign has a single fulfillment—that is, the sign points originally and solely to the birth of Jesus as the “ultimate” Messiah. Those who hold this view emphasize the understanding of ‘almah only as “virgin,” thus precluding any “near term” fulfillment before the birth of Jesus; this view understands “Immanuel” as a title (as in 8:8) rather than a personal name. It is also noted that the variation in reference to a “son” (Hb. ben) in 7:14, as compared to a “boy” (Hb. na‘ar) in v. 16, further distinguishes between the child of miraculous birth and a more generic reference to a male child unrelated to the divine promise. This has the effect of separating the reference to Isaiah’s day (vv. 16–17) from the fulfillment of the announced miraculous son to be born at a future time (v. 14). According to this interpretation, then, the prediction of the virgin birth in v. 14 is a straightforward prediction of an event cast well into the future, and Matthew’s application of this prophecy to Jesus (Matt. 1:20–23) provides the divinely inspired testimony to there being a single fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. By this interpretation, the sign is directed to the “house of David,” to affirm God’s intention of preserving David’s dynasty (in keeping with the promises of 2 Sam. 7:12–16), in order to bring Israel’s mission to its glorious fulfillment (Isa. 9:6–7; 11:1–10). God will use any means to do this, even miraculous ones: this is a rebuke to the faithless and secular outlook of Ahaz.

  • Daniel Burke

    Thanks for your note, Wayne. Scholars told me that the Hebrew word for virgin is “bethulah,” which is used later in the Book of Isaiah. So while you’re correct – almah and parthenos are not necessarily contradictory, scholars say that Isaiah clearly did not use the word for virgin.

  • Andrew Beltz

    In Genesis 3:15 God declares that there would henceforth be “enmity” between the seed of the woman and the seed of Satan. Satan’s seed would attempt to harm the seed of the woman, but the seed of the woman would mortally wound the seed of Satan.

    Adam’s seed is not mentioned.

    Voila: Virgin birth prophesied by Moses.

  • Corey Bass

    Just being a little bit pedantic here, Andrew. It wasn’t prophesied by Moses, it was just passed onto Moses by Inspiration from God.

  • Nancy de Flon

    “Few Christian doctrines are as tightly held as the belief in Jesus’ chaste conception.” The writer is making a big mistake in equating virginity with chastity. All people are called to be chaste according to their state in life. It’s not something virginity has a monopoly on.

  • Peggy

    It is not essential to the divinity of Christ that he be born of a “virgin”. The doctrine is somewhat outdated if it means that Christ was not fully human and thus was not conceived humanly, i.e. by sperm. What is more important is the doctrine of Incarnation stating that the “Logos” (‘Word”) of God was poured out by the Holy Spirit in a unique way to a human being. We can say that ALL humans are conceived by the Spirit of God but that Mary’s conception was unique in that Jesus human nature was of one “substance” (“consubstantial) with his human nature so that although He saved us in his model human obedience, He was in perfect communion with His divine nature. Like Mary, He was “full of grace”. Not that He was unable to sin, but by grace or the indwelling of the Spirit, He was able NOT to sin. As in the epistle, He was like us in every way except sin, tempted as we all are, but perfectly obedient to God, undoing the disobedience of Adam and Eve at the cost of His human life.