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UNRAVELING THE VIRGIN BIRTH DEBATE

Decoding the Text

Introduction

The biblical passage in Matthew 1:23 has long been a focal point of theological discussions, particularly concerning the translation of the term “virgin.” This verse, claiming the fulfillment of a prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures in Isaiah 7:14, raises questions about the intentional choices made by the Gospel writer. Join us on a journey to uncover the deliberate mistranslation found in Matthew’s Gospel and to understand why the Greek term “parthenos” was chosen over the Hebrew “almah,” exploring the theological motivations behind these decisions and their broader implications for the narrative of Jesus’ birth.

The Deceptive Translation

The pivotal word in this debate is “almah,” the Hebrew term used in the Book of Isaiah 7:14. It reads,

לָ֠כֵן יִתֵּ֨ן אֲ-דֹנָ֥י ה֛וּא לָכֶ֖ם א֑וֹת הִנֵּ֣ה הָעַלְמָ֗ה הָרָה֙ וְיֹלֶ֣דֶת בֵּ֔ן וְקָרָ֥את שְׁמ֖וֹ עִמָּ֥נוּ אֵֽל׃

“Assuredly, my L-rd will give you a sign of His own accord! Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Lethernamehim Emmanuel.”

Noticeably absent is the explicit mention of virginity. The intentional choice of Matthew to translate “almah” as “virgin” has perpetuated a narrative inconsistent with the original Hebrew text.

Exploring the Hebrew Context

The Hebrew language provides two distinct words to convey the concepts of a young woman and a virgin: “almah” and “betulah.” While “almah” signifies a young woman, “betulah” specifically denotes virginity. Examples from the Hebrew Bible, such as Exodus 22:16 and Esther 2:2, illustrate the careful use of “betulah” when emphasizing virgin status.

אִם־מָאֵ֧ן יְמָאֵ֛ן אָבִ֖יהָ לְתִתָּ֣הּ ל֑וֹ כֶּ֣סֶף יִשְׁקֹ֔ל כְּמֹ֖הַר הַבְּתוּלֹֽת׃

If her father refuses to give her to him, he must still weigh out silver in accordance with the bride-price for virgins.

וַיֹּאמְר֥וּ נַעֲרֵֽי־הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ מְשָׁרְתָ֑יו יְבַקְשׁ֥וּ לַמֶּ֛לֶךְ נְעָר֥וֹת בְּתוּל֖וֹת טוֹב֥וֹת מַרְאֶֽה׃

The king’s servants who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for Your Majesty.

Now, when we delve into the Hebrew word הָעַלְמָ֗ה (ha almah), we find that it means “the young woman,” conveying age and gender without necessarily implying sexual purity. Although, in general, a young woman is presumed to be a virgin, the term itself does not explicitly denote virginity. Two examples from the Hebrew Bible illustrate this dual nature:

Genesis 24:43 – The Story of Rebekah:

הִנֵּ֛ה אָנֹכִ֥י נִצָּ֖ב עַל־עֵ֣ין הַמָּ֑יִם וְהָיָ֤ה הָֽעַלְמָה֙ הַיֹּצֵ֣את לִשְׁאֹ֔ב וְאָמַרְתִּ֣י אֵלֶ֔יהָ הַשְׁקִֽינִי־נָ֥א מְעַט־מַ֖יִם מִכַּדֵּֽךְ׃

“As I stand by the spring of water, let the young woman who comes out to draw and to whom I say, ‘Please, let me drink a little water from your jar,’”

This passage highlights the youth and gender of Rebekah (There are different opinions about the age of Rivka, it seems that she was at least under 13 years old). While the text doesn’t explicitly mention Rebekah’s virginity, the cultural context suggests it.

Exodus 2:8 – The Rescue of Moses:

וַתֹּֽאמֶר־לָ֥הּ בַּת־פַּרְעֹ֖ה לֵ֑כִי וַתֵּ֙לֶךְ֙ הָֽעַלְמָ֔ה וַתִּקְרָ֖א אֶת־אֵ֥ם הַיָּֽלֶד׃

“And Pharaoh’s daughter answered, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother.”

This verse describes the young Miriam’s role (Mirjam was 7 years old[1]) in the rescue of Moses, emphasizing her age without addressing the concept of virginity.

However, הָעַלְמָ֗ה (ha almah) is versatile and can also be used in a broader sense, namely, as an adulteress, as demonstrated in Proverbs 30:18-20:

שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה הֵ֭מָּה נִפְלְא֣וּ מִמֶּ֑נִּי (וארבע) [וְ֝אַרְבָּעָ֗ה] לֹ֣א יְדַעְתִּֽים׃

“Three things are beyond me;
Four I cannot fathom:

דֶּ֤רֶךְ הַנֶּ֨שֶׁר ׀ בַּשָּׁמַיִם֮ דֶּ֥רֶךְ נָחָ֗שׁ עֲלֵ֫י־צ֥וּר דֶּֽרֶךְ־אֳנִיָּ֥ה בְלֶב־יָ֑ם וְדֶ֖רֶךְ גֶּ֣בֶר בְּעַלְמָֽה׃

How an eagle makes its way over the sky;
How a snake makes its way over a rock;
How a ship makes its way through the high seas;
How a man has his way with a maiden.

כֵּ֤ן ׀ דֶּ֥רֶךְ אִשָּׁ֗ה מְנָ֫אָ֥פֶת אָ֭כְלָה וּמָ֣חֲתָה פִ֑יהָ וְ֝אָמְרָ֗ה לֹא־פָעַ֥לְתִּי אָֽוֶן׃ {פ}

Such is the way of an adulteress:
She eats, wipes her mouth,
And says, “I have done no wrong.””

Unveiling the Manipulation

The intentional translation of “almah” as “virgin” in Matthew’s Gospel reflects an agenda that extends beyond linguistic nuances. The Church’s propagation of the miraculous conception hinges on this misleading interpretation, promoting a narrative that aligns with established dogmas but deviates from the original scriptural intent.

The True Essence of the Text

The prophet Isaiah delivered a prophecy to King Ahaz during a military crisis orchestrated by Assyria, causing the king to be paralyzed with fear in anticipation of imminent calamity. In response to this looming crisis, G-d provided Ahaz with a reassuring sign: before the child [from the “almah”] reached the age to say “dad” or “mom,” deliverance would come. Isaiah’s wife gave birth to a son in a natural, everyday manner. In itself, this was not a sign [after all, what is remarkable about a natural conception and birth], but the fact that deliverance came before the child reached the age of 2 was the sign that G-d provides redemption.

Conclusion

In unraveling the true meaning of “almah,” we challenge the entrenched narrative of a miraculous conception. Matthew’s deliberate translation choice serves as a testament to the manipulation that has shaped theological doctrines. By revisiting the Hebrew context and understanding the nuances of these words, we cast light on a more authentic interpretation, dispelling the myth of a miraculous conception and reaffirming the importance of accurate biblical translation.

In summary

this narrative unfolds a tapestry of profound lessons that resonate across the intersections of faith, history, and linguistic precision. Through the lens of Isaiah’s prophecy to King Ahaz, we glean insights into: Certainly, here is the revised order:

1. **Clarity in G-d’s Communication:**

   The intentional use of “almah” and the subsequent misinterpretation in the New Testament highlight the importance of clarity in understanding G-d’s communication. It underscores the need for precise interpretation to avoid potential misuses of sacred texts.

2. **Discerning Linguistic Nuances:**

   The exploration of the Hebrew terms “betulah” and “almah” reveals the importance of discerning linguistic nuances in biblical interpretation. Understanding the distinctions between these words enhances our grasp of the original text, emphasizing the significance of linguistic precision in biblical studies.

3. **Divine Presence in Crisis:**

   The story illuminates G-d’s reassuring presence amid political and personal turmoil. In times of crisis, the narrative underscores the comfort found in divine guidance.

4. **Significance of Divine Timing:**

   The prophetic sign, tied to the age of a child, emphasizes the meticulous timing of G-d’s intervention. It teaches us to trust in divine orchestration, even in the face of impending challenges.

5. **Ordinary Events, Extraordinary Purposes:**

   The birth of Isaiah’s son through natural means unveils the extraordinary purpose behind seemingly ordinary events. This encourages us to recognize G-d’s transformative power in the everyday aspects of our lives.

6. **Trust in G-d’s Redemption:**

   The narrative conveys the message that G-d’s redemption comes at precisely appointed moments. Trusting in this redemption, symbolized by the sign, becomes a key aspect of the believer’s journey.

7. **Intersection of Faith and History:**

   By exploring historical events intertwined with prophetic messages, we see the seamless connection between faith and historical reality. This intersection invites us to contemplate the profound ways in which faith influences the course of history.

Unified by the overarching theme of Isaiah’s prophecy, these lessons form a cohesive narrative. They guide believers to navigate the complexities of faith, appreciate the depth of historical intersections, and approach scriptural interpretation with discernment.


By Angelique Sijbolts

See also the blogs:

JEREMIAH 7:14 – THE YOUNG WOMAN WILL CALL HIM IMMANUEL
EXPLORING THE ORIGINS OF THE VIRGIN BIRTH

Sources:

[1] Chabad Article: Miriam
Lets Get Biblical by Rabbi Tovia Singer Volume I

Texts from Sefaria.org

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