(Mt. 1:23) Did Isaiah really predict a virgin birth?

By James M. Rochford

The way the critics flock to this passage, we might think that it was a central prophecy of the NT! In reality, it is cited only once—here in Matthew (Mt. 1:23). And yet, Matthew had good reason for citing it. Let’s consider a number of criticisms hurled against this passage.

Does the Hebrew term “almah” mean “virgin” or “young maiden”?

Critics claim that this Hebrew term (almah) does not refer to a virgin, but just a young maiden. Thus, they argue, Isaiah really wasn’t predicting Jesus’ virgin birth. Is this the case?

While the Hebrew term almah does not explicitly mean “virgin,” it was probably the best term to refer to one in the Hebrew language. Brown writes, “While the word ‘almah can refer to a virgin, it does not specifically mean ‘virgin.’ Its basic meaning is primarily related to adolescence, not sexual chastity.”[1] Critics often claim that Isaiah could have used the Hebrew word betulah [pronounced bet-HOO-lah], if he wanted to refer to a virgin. However, Brown observes,

There is no single word in biblical Hebrew that always and only means ‘virgin.’ …As for the Hebrew word betulah, while it often refers to a virgin in the Hebrew Scriptures, more often than not it has no reference to virginity but simply means ‘young woman, maiden.’ In fact, out of the fifty times the word betulah occurs in the Tanakh, the NJPSV translates it as ‘maiden’—rather than ‘virgin’—thirty-one times! This means that more than three out of every five times that betulah occurs in the Hebrew Bible, it is translated as ‘maiden’ rather than ‘virgin’ by the most widely used Jewish translation of our day.[2]

In fact, the word betulah is used of a widow in Joel 1:8, who could hardly be a virgin! When Betulah is used in Genesis 24:16 and Judges 21:12, the authors add the phrase “had never known a man” and “had not known a man.” Why add these phrases, unless the term betulah was not clear enough on its own?

The only way to understand if a woman was a virgin was by the context. Therefore, while almah does not explicitly mean “virgin,” it was the best Hebrew word to describe one—given the context.[3] Kaiser notes that the OT authors never once used the word almah to describe a married woman.[4] Consider the six other times that the OT uses the term almah:

(Gen. 24:43) Rebekah was a virgin at the time, and she was unmarried before she met Isaac.

(Ex. 2:8) Miriam was a virgin at this time, and she was a very young girl.

(Ps. 68:25) The women in the royal procession were all virgins.

(Song of Songs 1:3) The text doesn’t say if these women are virgins or not, but the context is marital purity.

(Song of Songs 6:8) This word is contrasted with married women and concubines.

(Prov. 30:18-19) The word is used in contrast to the adulteress in verse 20.[5]

Matthew quoted Isaiah 7:14 from the Septuagint, which was the standard Greek translation at the time. In the Septuagint, the term almah is translated with the Greek word parthenos, which literally meant “virgin.”[6] Therefore, Matthew was not trying to be deceitful; instead, he was using the standard translation of his day.

To conclude, while the term almah does not exclusively mean virgin, it is certainly compatible with virginity—especially when we see that there was no other Hebrew term to use that would be any better.

Was the virgin birth copied from Paganism?

Popular movies like Brian Flemming’s The God Who Wasn’t There (2005) or Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist (2007) make the assertion that the gospel authors copied the concept of the virgin birth from Paganism. Yet these assertions of Pagan myths turn out to be myths themselves. Bart Ehrman—an agnostic critic of the Bible—explains that core Christian doctrines like the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the cross, and resurrection were not stolen from Paganism. In fact, he regards the idea as absurd. He writes,

We do not have Mithraic texts that explain it all to us, let alone texts that indicate that Mithras was born of a virgin on December 25 and that he died to atone for sins only to be raised on a Sunday.[7]

There is no evidence. This is made up.[8]

Where do any of the ancient sources speak of a divine man who was crucified as an atonement for sin? So far as I know, there are no parallels to the central Christian claim. What has been invented here is not the Christian Jesus but the mythicist claims about Jesus.[9]

The majority of scholars agree… there is no unambiguous evidence that any pagans prior to Christianity believed in dying and rising gods.[10]

Anyone who thinks that Jesus was modeled on such deities needs to cite some evidence–any evidence at all–that Jews in Palestine at the alleged time of Jesus’s life were influenced by anyone who held such views.[11]

Skeptics argue that the apostles used this doctrine to win Pagans, who had similar beliefs. Yet, the virgin birth was not a favorable doctrine to hold for the early church. Both Jews and Pagans rejected it.[12] The virgin birth was offensive to both Jews and Pagans, and it most likely cost them followers.

Was the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 ripped from its historical context by Matthew?

We need to consider the full context of Isaiah 7:14 to answer this objection properly. When we read the entire chapter, we see that the people of Judah were being attacked by the Arameans from the north. These attackers were going to destroy Jerusalem and remove the king from the house of David. The phrase “house of David” is used twice in Isaiah 7 (v.2 and 13). By repeating this phrase, they were taunting God’s messianic line, because the Messiah was to come from the line of David (2 Sam. 7:11-16). The phrase “house of David” is used only three more times in the rest of the Major Prophets (Isa. 16:5; 22:22; Jer. 21:12). This rare use of the expression was a direct assault on God’s future messiah.

Ahaz was the faithless king on the Davidic throne. Isaiah urged Ahaz to stand firm in his faith against these attacks (v.7-9), but Ahaz was a coward. God offered to give him a sign to bolster his faith (v.11), but Ahaz refused (v.12). God rebuked this lack of faith, but he didn’t rebuke Ahaz directly. Instead, he rebuked the entire “house of David” (v.13). In the next verse (v.14), the Hebrew is plural, which means that God is addressing the entire house and kingly line.

God had asked Ahaz to request a sign that was “as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven” (v.11). Therefore, we should expect a supernatural and powerful sign—not something simplistic. However, a supernatural and powerful sign never occurred. In fact, commentators argue over what the sign actually was:

(1) Some say that God predicted that the child would be a boy (a fifty-fifty chance!); thus not very likely.

(2) Some say that the mother would prophetically call him Immanuel (which wouldn’t be a sign if she knew of this prophecy!).

(3) Some say that the sign is that God will defeat Judah’s enemies before the boy grows up.

(4) Some say that the sign is that Judah will be defeated by God’s enemies before the boy grows up.

Conservative scholars believe that Maher-shalal-hash-baz was a partial fulfillment of this prophecy (Isa. 8:3), but he wasn’t a complete fulfillment for a number of reasons. First, he was never called Immanuel. Second, his birth was not miraculous, as this prophecy predicted (v.11). Third, Isaiah’s original prophecy was in the plural (Isa. 7:13-14), referring to the entire house of David—not just the immediate heir. Since Maher-shalal-hash-baz only partially fulfilled this promise, this left the prophecy open for a future and ultimate person: Jesus.

Imagine how strange it would be, if messianic prophecy didn’t have an immediate context. For instance, as the Arameans were gathering outside of Ahaz’s border to go to war, consider if Isaiah told Ahaz, “Don’t worry! In 700 years, there will be a virgin birth, and the Messiah will come to Earth…” Of course, this wouldn’t provide much consolation to the immediate context! Instead, God gave an immediate fulfillment (Maher-shalal-hash-baz), and he gave a later fulfillment, as well (Jesus).

God doesn’t give two fulfillments to be confusing. Instead, he gives them to be clear. That is, we can see the way the first installment was fulfilled, and this shows us how the second will be fulfilled. If the first was fulfilled literally in a human birth, the second will, too. Moreover, the original audience can see the faithfulness of God fulfilled in their time, and the later audience can see this as a down payment for the future faithfulness of God. Matthew was saying, “Look! God came through on his promise back then, and he’s doing something similar again in our day. Since this prophecy wasn’t completely fulfilled back then, we should continue to see if it’s going to be fulfilled in our day.”

Furthermore, Matthew interprets Isaiah 7 in light of Isaiah chapters 7 through 11. In fact, he quotes from Isaiah 7:14 (predicting the Messiah’s birth; Mt. 1:23), Isaiah 9 (predicting the Messiah’s birth and divine status; Mt. 4:15-16), and Isaiah 11 (predicting the Messiah as reigning as a King; Mt. 2:23). While the immediate expectation might not have been a virgin birth, this was the complete fulfillment.

Finally, Isaiah 7:14 is not the only place to foresee the virgin birth. Genesis 3:15 refers to a future redeemer, who would be born of a woman—not a man. Because the Jews were a patriarchal society—not matriarchal, this is a very odd expression. Moreover, in Psalm 22, we read that the Righteous Sufferer refers to his mother twice, but he doesn’t refer to his human father once. In addition, we can also argue this case thematically. That is, God’s promise was repeatedly punctuated by a miraculous birth from barrenness. We see this in Sarah (Gen. 21:1-2), Rebekah (Gen. 25:21), Rachel (Gen. 30:22-24), Leah (Gen. 29:31), Samson’s mother (Judges 13:1-24), and Elizabeth (Lk. 1:7). Finally, Mary was not just barren—she was a virgin—and yet God’s promise culminated in this event.

Was the virgin birth just the result of anti-scientific and premodern thinking?

Modern skeptics charge that ancient man didn’t understand the natural from the supernatural, because they were too primitive. However, this doesn’t align with the account of the virgin birth. C.S. Lewis writes,

When Joseph discovered that his bride was pregnant, he was ‘minded to put her away.’ (Mt. 1:19) He knew enough biology for that. Otherwise, of course he would not have regarded pregnancy as proof of infidelity. When he accepted the Christian explanation, he regarded it as a miracle precisely because he knew enough of the Laws of Nature to know that this was a suspension of them.[13]

Furthermore, if Joseph wanted to test the truthfulness of Mary, he had a test given to him in the Mosaic Law (Deut. 21:13-21). It would be absurd for a godly man like Joseph to stay with a woman like this, after he realized she was lying about being a virgin—considering the religious and cultural milieu.

Of course, Joseph never hired a private investigator to monitor Mary’s faithfulness to him. We don’t have video footage of Mary’s activities nine months before she gave birth. However, we believe the virgin birth based on the historical testimony of Scripture. Specifically, the virgin birth is based primarily on two passages (Mt. 1:18-25; Lk. 1:26-38). This historical testimony meets two criteria of authenticity: (1) multiple attestation and (2) embarrassment.

Multiple attestation. This principle boosts the testimony of a historical source, if it is found in two independent sources. Both Matthew and Luke record this event, but they do not draw their testimony from Mark, who never mentions it. Most likely, it was Mary who reported this to Luke (Lk. 1:1-3), and Matthew drew his testimony most likely from Jesus himself, as one of his disciples.

Embarrassment. This principle boosts the testimony of a historical source, when an event is embarrassing to the original source. Pagans had difficulty accepting Christ because of the virgin birth. Why would Luke (a book written to Gentiles) include the virgin birth, when this was such a barrier to faith?

Why don’t Mark and John refer to the virgin birth?

Mark was a short, blow-by-blow of Jesus’ life—not an exhaustive account. Mark leaves out more than any other gospel, because it is shorter. Moreover, some think that Mark’s mention of Jesus “the son of Mary” (Mk. 6:3) is implicitly stating his knowledge of the virgin birth (compare with Lk. 4:22 and Mt. 13:55). Also, Mark calls Jesus the “son of God” (Mk. 1:1), which implies a supernatural birth. Moreover, Gundry argues, “Because Mark depends on Peter’s reminiscences and Peter did not associate with Jesus until Jesus’ ministry, Mark’s Gospel picks up at the start of that ministry.”[14]

John doesn’t include a birth narrative at all, because it was already recorded by Matthew and Luke. Thus, he probably felt no need to include it. Remember, 90% of John is unique material. He didn’t focus on retelling what the Synoptic gospels already told; he focused on illuminating more eyewitness and theological details. However, John did mention that Jesus was supernaturally made flesh (Jn. 1:14), as the pre-existent son of God (Jn. 1:18). Perhaps, he felt that a virgin birth story would be redundant based on what the others already wrote. However, don’t forget John 8:41, which might be an allusion to the virgin birth.

Was Jesus ever called “Immanuel” like Matthew claims?

This objection confuses Jesus’ name with his title. Jesus wasn’t named Immanuel, but he was Immanuel (“God with us”). Surely, all of the verses that apply to Jesus’ deity also apply here (Lk. 8:39; Jn. 1:1; 8:58; 10:30; Phil. 2:6; 1 Jn. 5:20; Titus 2:13; 2 Pet. 1:1; Rom. 9:5; Col. 2:9). Moreover, the term Immanuel is not used anywhere else throughout the OT.[15] So, if it doesn’t apply to Jesus, then it applies to no one. Similarly, Solomon was named Jedidiah (2 Sam. 12:25)—even though he was never called this name.[16]

[1] Brown, Michael L. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Messianic Prophecy Objections. Volume Three. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003. 20.

[2] Brown, Michael L. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Messianic Prophecy Objections. Volume Three. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003. 21.

[3] Kaiser writes, “When all the passages in the Old Testament with alma are investigated, the only conclusion one can arrive at is that it means a ‘virgin’ here.” Kaiser, Walter C. The Messiah in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1995. 160.

[4] Kaiser writes, “To date, no one has produced a clear context, either in Hebrew or in the closely related Canaanite language… where alma can be applied to a married woman. Moreover, the definite article on this word does speak not of any virgin, but of “the virgin” a special one whom God has in mind.” Kaiser, Walter C. The Messiah in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1995. 160. Fruchtenbaum writes, “This word is used seven times in the Hebrew Scriptures and not once is it used to describe a married woman; this point is not debated.” Fruchtenbaum, Arnold G. Messianic Christology: a Study of Old Testament Prophecy concerning the First Coming of the Messiah. Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1998. 34.

[5] Carson observes that this passage has come under scrutiny. He writes, “Although it is fair to say that most OT occurrences presuppose that the ‘almah is a virgin, because of Proverbs 30:19, one cannot be certain the word necessarily means that.” Carson, D.A. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New Internation Version. Vol. 8. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984. 77.

[6] Kaiser writes, “The word ha alma (“the virgin”) has caused much debate. The Septuagint (as did Mt. 1:23) chose the Greek noun parthenos, a word that has the specific meaning of ‘virgin.’” Kaiser, Walter C. The Messiah in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1995. 160.

[7] Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 213.

[8] Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 212.

[9] Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 214.

[10] Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 230.

[11] Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 230.

[12] Erickson writes, “It is true, of course, that there is also early evidence of denials of the virgin birth. Some of these, naturally, were by pagans. More significant, however, are the objections from Jews, who were in a better position to be aware of the facts and might reflect a more accurate picture of the tradition. Some who claimed to be Christian believers also raised objections.” Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983.

[13] Lewis, C. S., and Walter Hooper. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1970. 46.

[14] Gundry, Robert Horton. A Survey of the New Testament. 4th Edition ed. [Grand Rapids]: Zondervan Pub. House, 2003. 131.

[15] Brown, Michael L. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Messianic Prophecy Objections. Volume Three. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003. 25.

[16] Carson notes, “Though ‘Immanuel’ is not a name in the sense that ‘Jesus’ is Messiah’s name (1:21), in the OT Solomon was named ‘Jedidiah’ (‘Beloved of Yahweh,’ 2 Sam 12:25), even though he apparently was not called that. Similarly Immanuel is a ‘name’ in the sense of title or description.” Carson, D.A. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New Internation Version. Vol. 8. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984. 80.