You may not know this, but a virgin birth is not as rare as you may think. In United States, roughly one of every 200 women claims that she has become pregnant as a virgin, according to a recent study. “Like a Virgin (mother)” is research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published just before Christmas last year. The concept of a virgin birth is so unlikely to be true that research was necessary to determine the reasons behind such unlikely claims in our days. The truth to the matter is: a virgin birth is just not possible.
This is probably the reason the story of Jesus being born from a virgin is considered inconceivable. Actually, long ago Celsus[i] had already stated that the early church invented Jesus’ virgin birth because the truth was too ugly to be published. According to him, Jesus was an illegitimate child of an adulterous relationship of Mary (Origen, Against Celsus, 1.28). Similar accusation is also present in the old rabbinical tradition of Israel, known as the Talmud, that claims that Mary was unfaithful to her husband (Talmud Shabbat 104b, Sanhedrin 67a).
In other words, a virgin birth is so unlikely to be true that a better explanation needs to be given. And this was exactly what happened in the recent documentary show Bible Secrets Revealed. In the first episode of the series, Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Elaine Pagels, and Bart Ehrman argue that Jesus’ virgin birth account is “essentially a mistranslation.” According to them, the prophecy of Isa 7.14—“the virgin shall conceive and bear a son” (ESV)— does not point to a virgin but to a girl in a marriageable age, that due to a mistranslation was later understood as a prophecy fulfilled in Mary’s virgin pregnancy.
The argument that supports this conclusion is threefold: (1) The Hebrew word used in the Hebrew text of Isa 7.14 does not mean virgin but a girl of a marriageable age; (2) the word used in the Greek version of the OT (Septuagint or LXX) of Isa 7.14 does not mean a girl in a marriageable age but a virgin; (3) therefore, this mistranslation opens the door to the possibility of Matthew seeing in Mary a fulfillment of a prophecy. In other words, if Matthew had read the text in Hebrew, he would not see the ‘virgin birth’ as a prophecy fulfillment. However, the validity of this conclusion is dependent on the validity of its premises: if one of the first two premises were not true, the conclusion would also not be true. Thus, it is necessary to better analyze both premises in order to check the validity of the conclusion.It is true that Isa 7.14 is not presenting the concept of a virgin but is describing a young woman that is about to conceive…”
First, is it true that the Hebrew word in Isa 7.14 means a girl in a marriageable age and not a virgin? The Hebrew word used in this verse is almah and it is used only 9 times in the whole OT (Gen 24.43; Exod 2.8; Isa 7.14; Ps 46.1; 68.26; Prov 30.19; Song 1.3; 6.8; 1 Chr 15.20). Usually, this word is used to employ the meaning of a young girl, for the central idea of almah is more concerned with youth and nubility, than the sexual experience of the woman described. It could be translated as ‘marriageable girl’ (Gen., Exo 2.8; Psa 68.26), a ‘girl to be married’ (Prov 30.19) or simply ‘young woman’ (Song 1.3). The notion of unspotted virginity is not what this word primarily conveys, for the proper word to describe it is betulah. However, sometimes almah could imply a “virgin girl” in a secondary sense. In Gen 24, for example, Rebekah was depicted as young (vv. 16, 55, 57), unmarried girl (vv. 28, 36–51) of marriageable age that was also a virgin (v. 16). In this verse, she is presented as both naarah (young woman) and betulah (virgin), which suggests that a young girl in a marriageable age would likely to be a virgin as well.
But, it is possible to see this meaning in Isa 7.14? It is very unlikely that this is the case. In Isa 7.14 the expression the “virgin shall conceive” is formed by a verbless clause whose timeframe is dependant of the surrounding verbs. In this case, the verb to bear (hb. yalad), an active participle, could imply an action in process or about to begin, which offers us two possible interpretations: (a) if she is already pregnant, then almah does not describe a virgin, but a young woman; or (b) in the timeframe of the prophecy she was virgin, but she would lose it in the conception of his son. In any case, it is hard to see almah here as an indication of sexless pregnancy. Therefore, we conclude that, it is true that the word almah in Isa 7.14 is not presenting the concept of a virgin but is describing a young woman that is about to conceive and give birth to her son.
Second, is it true that the Greek word used in Isa 7.14 means only a virgin? The word used in the LXX to describe the Hebrew word almah is parthenos. In NT literature this word is used to describe both a young male (Rev 14.4) and a young female (1 Cor 7.28), with special attention to their virginity. Sometimes, however, the word could describe an unmarried woman (Act 21.9), but even in this case, it is possible to argue that the emphasis was over her sexual purity. However, in classical Greek, this word had a more comprehensive meaning and could be applied generally to a young woman of a marriageable age, that could include or not focus on her virginity. Pausanias used it to describe the Virgin Goddess, a title of Athena at Athens (Description of Greece, 5.11.10, 10.34.8), while Herodotus would describe the Virgin Goddess of Tauric Iphigenia (The Histories, 4.103). However, usually parthenos was used to describe a maiden, young woman with no special attention to her sexual experience. Homer, for example, used this word to describe a young girl with no special focus in her sexual life (Iliad, 22.127) and unmarried woman who are not virgins at all (Iliad, 2.514). In light of these facts, it seems that it is not correct to say that the Greek word parthenos is only used to describe a virgin.
But, is it possible that this comprehensive meaning was also present in the LXX? We believe that this is the case. Gen 24 presents Rebekah as young girl (v.16; hb. naarah) that was virgin (v.16; betulah), but when Jacob retells the story to her family he calls her almah (v. 43), as if these words had interchangeable meaning. More interesting yet is the fact that the LXX translates all these terms (naarah, betulah, almah) as parthenos (virgin), which suggest that this Greek word had a more comprehensive range of meaning than only virgin at that time when the LXX was produced. This is reinforced by the fact that in the LXX parthenos described a recently raped girl (Gen 34.3). Therefore, it is fair to say that the lexical range of parthenos in the LXX was broader than in the NT literature, and that it is possible that the LXX rightly translated the Hebrew text of Isa 7.14 presenting a more flexible word to describe a more complex meaning in the passage. It is also important to note that, even if the meaning of parthenos was exclusively used to describe a virgin in the LXX, the text of Isa 7.14 itself could be used to derive a different conclusion: All verbs employed by the LXX translators are in the future, which indicates that the woman presented there was virgin at the time of the prophecy but not necessarily at the moment of conception or birth of her son.Matthew was not looking for a prophecy to create the tradition of the virgin birth of Jesus.”
Therefore, it is fair to say that the conclusion presented in the Bible Secrets Revealed show is not correct: The LXX did not mistranslate almah for parthenos, which means that the conclusion that Matthew was “deceived” by this word to see Mary as a fulfillment of Isa 7.14 does not follow the evidence either. It also proves that Matthew was not looking for a prophecy to create the tradition of the virgin birth of Jesus. The fact that Luke also presents Mary as parthenos (virgin) without any mention of Isa 7.14—which suggests that the tradition was independent from a prophecy fulfillment—reinforces this conclusion. It seems more appropriate to say that the “reflection on Isa. 7.14 colored the expression of an already existing Christian belief in the virginal conception of Jesus.”[ii]
[i] Celsus was a second century Neo-Platonist Greek philosopher and opponent of Christianity. His work survived only in Origen’s work Against Celsus, an apologetic book answering Celsus’ affirmations concerning Christ and early Christianity.
[ii] R. T France, “Scripture, Tradition, and History in the Infancy Narrative of Matthew,” Gospel Perspectives: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels (ed. R. T. France and David Wenham; 2 vols.; Sheffield: JSOT, 1981) 2.249.