“Virgin” or “Young Woman”? Isa 7:14

The first reading on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, is from Isaiah 7 and includes the famous words: “the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son and shall name him Emmanuel…” (Isa 7:14).  This verse is important since Matthew 1:22-23 explains that Jesus’ birth by the Virgin Mary is a fulfillment of this prophecy: 

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’

However, the recently released NABRE (New American Bible Revised Edition), like some other translations of Isa 7:14 (RSV, NRSV, and NJB) says “young woman” instead of “virgin.”  This discrepancy in translations is confusing to many even well-informed Catholics.  Raymond Arroyo, the host of EWTN’s popular “The World Over Live” recently expressed his perplexity at why the NABRE would make this change.

Before I did my graduate studies in Scripture, I thought that the RSV translation of “virgin” as “young woman” was simply due to scholarly disbelief in the virginal conception of Jesus, since I knew of biblical scholars who did not believe in miracles and did not acknowledge Jesus’ divinity.

It turns out it’s more complicated than that.  The original Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 uses the word almah, which really does mean “young woman” rather than “virgin.”  On the other hand, the Septuagint version of Isaiah, the Greek translation that was used by Jews for a couple centuries before the birth of Christ, uses the more specific parthenos, which does mean virgin.  At that time an unmarried Jewish almah would be assumed to be a parthenos, so the Septuagint translation was completely reasonable.

Although Matthew probably knew the Hebrew original, since he was writing in Greek (like the other authors of the New Testament), he naturally quotes the Greek Septuagint and says “the virgin [parthenos] shall be with child.”

So the simplest explanation is that the NABRE, RSV, NRSV, and NJB, correctly translate the Hebrew original as “young woman,” while the NAB (and the RSVCE and NIV), following Matthew 1:23, correctly translate the Septuagint version of Isa 7:14 as “virgin.”

But this raises the further questions of what Isaiah himself meant by this prophecy back in the eighth century B.C., and how it is that Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah.  The Gospel of Matthew by Curtis Mitch and Ted Sri in the Catholic Commentary series explains the historical context of Isaiah 7:

This prophecy came in a period of crisis for the Davidic kingdom, as enemy armies threatened to invade Jerusalem and remove King Ahaz.  With the dynasty’s survival in question, Isaiah foretold that an heir would be a sign that the kingdom would not end with Ahaz but would continue under God’s protection.  Some might have seen in this prophecy a reference to Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, who carried out a religious reform and delivered Judah from many evils, showing that God was still with the dynasty (2 Kings 18:1-6).

So what does this have to do with Jesus?  Mitch and Sri continue:

However, Matthew sees a deeper level of meaning in the child of Isa 7:14… [because of the Septuagint’s use of parthenos].  Mary is the virgin who conceives and bears the royal son, Jesus.  Matthew’s Gospel, therefore fittingly reveals Isa 7:14 as foretelling the virginal conception of the messiah.

In other words, when Matthew reads the word parthenos (“virgin”) in the Septuagint of Isaiah 7:14 in light of what he knows of the virginal conception of Jesus (a historical tradition known independently to Luke), he recognizes that God was saying something profound through Isaiah that went beyond the political crisis of the eighth century B.C.  The LORD was speaking about a miraculous conception of the Messiah, the definitive heir to the throne of David, through the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:18).  This is the way that God chose to be Emmanuel, “God with us” (Isa 7:14; 8:8; Matt 1:23).  This is the way Isaiah’s extraordinary prophecies (Isa 9, 11) about this future ruler were to be fulfilled.  In hindsight, in light of the further revelation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, this interpretation of Isa 7:14 makes perfect sense.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission uses the example Matthew’s interpretation of Isa 7:14 to illustrate the fuller sense of Scripture (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, II.B.3), which it defines “as a deeper meaning of the text, intended by God but not clearly expressed by the human author.

The fuller sense is an aspect of the spiritual sense, “the meaning expressed by the biblical texts when read, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the paschal mystery of Christ and of the new life which flows from it.”

The fuller sense “has its foundation in the fact that the Holy Spirit, principal author of the Bible, can guide human authors in the choice of expressions in such a way that the latter will express a truth the fullest depths of which the authors themselves do not perceive. This deeper truth will be more fully revealed in the course of time-on the one hand, through further divine interventions which clarify the meaning of texts and, on the other, through the insertion of texts into the canon of Scripture.”

So, which translation of Isa 7:14 is correct?  “the virgin shall be with child”?  or “a young woman shall be with child”? Both can be defended reasonably.  The second faithfully represents the Hebrew original of the Old Testament.  The first faithfully represents the Septuagint and the way that the Gospel of Matthew and the Christian tradition interpret Isaiah’s prophecy in light of Jesus Christ.  Whichever translation is used should be explained in a footnote.

Weighing the reasons, I think “the virgin shall be with child” is better suited to Catholic Bibles and to the use of Scripture in Christian liturgy.  But obviously, some learned people, including the editors of the NABRE, think otherwise.

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29 Comments

Filed under biblical interpretation, Peter Williamson, The Gospel of Matthew, Uncategorized

29 responses to ““Virgin” or “Young Woman”? Isa 7:14

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  2. “original Hebrew”

    The Septuagint predates the Hebrew bible by a few centuries. The current “Hebrew” bible, based on the “Masoretic Texts” is both a re-translation and correlation between the Septuagint and early Hebrew sources.

    The Masoretic Text, an attempt by the Jewish community to both, return to Hebraic origins, as well as remove/change language contained in the Old Testament that supports Jesus as the Christ.

    The New Testament quotes the (Greek) Septuagint because it was “the” Jewish Bible at the time of Christ, and had been for 300 years. The LXX was created by the 12 Jewish tribes, together, as a combined text of agreed Jewish scripture. Therefore, it’s not so much the “original Hebrew”, as it is the “original Greek”.

    • Peter S. Williamson

      This reader is correct that the Masoretic text, the most authoritative version of the Hebrew Scriptures, reached its final form much later (10th century A.D.) than the Septuagint (second century B.C.).
      However, the Masoretic text preserves the tradition of the original Hebrew writings of the Old Testament, what Jews call the Tanak. There is no question that these writings were first put down in Hebrew, the language of ancient Israel.
      The Septuagint translation into Greek began in the third century BC among Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria. There are indeed some places where it seems that the Septuagint preserves the original content more accurately than the Masoretic text, and scholars consult the Septuagint regarding uncertain readings in the Masoretic text.
      However, I am unaware of any scholars who hold that the Hebrew Bible was altered from saying “virgin” to say “almah,” young woman. There are, however, some scholars who think that “virgin” is the preferred translation of “almah.”
      Hope this helps.

  3. Scripture; Tradition, and the Magisterium have already agreed that “virgin” is the state that Mary was in when she conceived Jesus via the Holy Spirit. So why did not those who choose to use “young women” when they updated the NAB?

    Also, Mary herself stated that she did not understand because she had not know man.

    Crazy world we live in!

    • Peter S. Williamson

      Your comment illustrates a problem with Christian versions of the Bible translating almah in Isa 7:14 as “young woman”: this translation easily confuses people, making them think that the virginal conception of Jesus is being questioned.

      However, it is not. All of the translations that use “young woman” in Isa 7:14, still report the virginal conception of Jesus in Matt 1 and Luke 1. What they lose is a clear connection between what is said in Matt 1:23 about Jesus’ conception and the prophecy in Isa 7:14.

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  6. JMJ

    I have the “new” NAB bible which was supposed to be corrected over the orignial edition(which I threw in the rubbish) hoping that it would be true to the Word AS the Holy Spirit gave us. Boy! was I ever let down. It seems that the American catolic church just doesn’t get it; so now, my question is: Where can I find a true version of the Bible that I can read and enjoy. I keep going back to the Good News (TEV) which came out in the 70′s (not the updated one) which just “happened” to come out as I finally met Jesus. His Word, the Bible, became alive to me after all my years of being a cradle Catholic fed in the Latin Mass without the Holy Spirit being allowed to fill us with His power and gifts. I have many versions of the Bible; but each one seems to be lacking in one way or another. God Bless. JMJ

    • Peter S. Williamson

      Dear JMJ,

      I agree, there’s no perfect translation! The best thing is to keep a few of them and compare them. And periodically change which one you’re reading, so that what you read is fresh.

      Actually, there’s one thing that’s even better than that–learn Greek and Hebrew and read the original!

      But even more valuable than that is to seek the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit and to interpret Scripture in a manner not individualistically, but in unity with the way that the Church has interpreted it.

      These steps won’t solve every problem, but they’ll help!

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  8. Don K

    Having only taken one foreign language, that being Deutsch, helps to understand that literal translations do not necessarily convey the true meaning of words. The word ‘jungfrau’ pulled apart, jung = young, frau = woman, young woman? Not in deutsch, jungfrau means virgin. So the Hebrew word translated into Deutsch would be jungfrau? and into English virgin?

    My post is just a reminder that words or phrases can have a somewhat different meaning when put together, other than the simple meaning of the base parts (roots of the word).

    So does the Hebrew word, taken apart mean ‘young woman’? But at the time it was written, the people who would have heard that word, would they have understood it to mean virgin?

  9. Just wanted to point out that the original RSV-CE has “young woman” while the RSV-2CE, published a few years back by Ignatius, follows the LXX “virgin”.

  10. Ktrierw

    At mass we profess “…by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary…” in fact we all bow at this profession because of the profound appreciation we should have for the Incarnation. Yes, Mary was indeed a young woman, but she is much more than that. She is the spouse of the Holy Spirit. Let us not risk offending God by denying his great blessings upon Mary at every opportunity and especially in His Holy Word.

    • Mary Chris

      Just to let you know Mary is not the spouse of the Holy Spirit.
      Can not the term “young women” be thought upon as also a virgin woman? Don’t most teenagers start complaining of feeling old after they have a baby? Yet before, they are young and carefree.

      • Don Schenk

        Mary Chris,
        Actually, the canopy over the main altar at a seminary near where I live says (in Latin) “daughter of the Father, mother of the Son, spouse of the Spirit.”
        Mary is refered to as the spouse of the Holy Spirit because it is by the Holy Spirit that she conceived Jesus. In fact St. Maximillian Kolbe wrote that, just as Moses was close to the Father and Jesus WAS the Son, Mary was close to th eSpirit.

  11. Don Schenk

    I once used a concordance to look up the several Hebrew words that could mean “young woman.” In the case of “almah,” it seemed that she was a maiden, or a young woman who was still a virgin–but not an ever-virgin. thus, in Isiah it probably refered to a young fiance–
    “The almah, being with child, shall give birth to a son and shall call his name ‘Emanuel’.”
    Greek-speaking pre-Christian Jews considered “parthenos” to be a perfectly good translation to use for the Septuagint, and it wasn’t until the rise of anti-Christian apologetics that they insisted that it “really” meant young woman.

  12. Theophrastus

    Dr. Williamson:

    Perhaps I am reading in a comment you did not make, but it seems that you are implying that the NABRE’s translation runs somehow against the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s interpretation of Isaiah 7:14. But as you will note, the intention of the NABRE translators was to produce a formal translation of the Old Testament text, and thus it would be seem more appropriate to follow the Commission’s guidelines for literal translation (which the Commission directly says is “distinct” from the fuller sense).

    The more practical problem with equating almah with virgin (besides the fact that Isaiah uses the proper Hebrew word betulah (=”virgin”) five times in Isaiah (23:4; 23:12; 37:22; 47:1; 62:5) and only once uses almah) is that it runs against the direct sense in Isaiah 7:1-16 where Isaiah is reassuring King Ahaz about his military threats from Syria and the Northern Kingdom. If this verse is merely a reference to the birth of Jesus, it is quite a non-sequitir; if it is a reference to a contemporary birth (such as King Hezekiah), then it would be strange because we do not think of King Hewzekiah or other people from the period of King Ahaz as having virgin births.

    The NABRE translators went to some trouble to carefully qualify their translation with an explanatory footnote:

    Isaiah’s sign seeks to reassure Ahaz that he need not fear the invading armies of Syria and Israel in the light of God’s promise to David (2 Sm 7:12–16). The oracle follows a traditional announcement formula by which the birth and sometimes naming of a child is promised to particular individuals (Gn 16:11; Jgs 13:3). The young woman: Hebrew ‘almah designates a young woman of marriageable age without specific reference to virginity. The Septuagint translated the Hebrew term as parthenos, which normally does mean virgin, and this translation underlies Mt 1:23. Emmanuel: the name means “with us is God.” Since for the Christian the incarnation is the ultimate expression of God’s willingness to “be with us,” it is understandable that this text was interpreted to refer to the birth of Christ.

    • Peter S. Williamson

      Thanks for your helpful comment and the NABRE footnote.

      I appreciate your comment because it underscores that the immediate context of Isa 7:14 is not about a virginal conception or the birth of Christ, but about a sign God is giving Ahaz that his reign will be protected from Aram and Israel who are seeking “regime change” in Judah. It’s thematic link to the birth of Christ is that David’s royal dynasty will indeed endure.

      It is for this reason that the Biblical Commission views Matt 1:23 as a “fuller sense” of Scripture, since the historical-literal sense of the passage, even of the Septuagint, is different than the meaning that Matthew discovers there in light of the information that has been passed on to him about Jesus’ virginal conception and in light of his knowledge of who Christ is.

      I do not regard the NABRE’s translation as contrary to the Biblical Commission document which did not address principles of translation for ecclesial and liturgical use. I mention their document to explain how the Commission understands Matthew’s assertion that the virginal conception of Jesus is a fulfillment of Isa 7:14 and to illustrate that NT fulfillment of the OT is not always as simple as people might imagine.

      I do think there is a pastoral and catechetical and therefore liturgical advantage to having Christian translations of the Old Testament that maximally illuminate the connections between the OT and NT, connections that would have been apparent to the original audience of the NT writings.

  13. Joseph Hickey

    I have numerous translations of the Bible. The ones I feel most comfortable with as far as correct translations is the RSV-CE (2nd Ed.), DR, NASB, and the ESV. The NASB (Key Word Study Bible) and the ESV which are Protestant versions chose to use “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14. The NASB notes explain that the Hebrew is “young woman”, but it notes that “Matthew settled the question by choosing to follow a translation which made His virgin birth explicit” (NASB).
    It seem strange to me as time goes by that Catholicism (American, at least) has become very liberal with scripture & teachings and at the same time there are many Protestant denominations that have become more orthodox and even incorporating some Catholic teachings & traditions.

  14. Mike Kelley

    Thanks for enabling us all to see the reasons for this translation imperfection using young woman instead of virgin.
    To me it is not reasonable that the literary divine artwork of God the Holy Spirit who knows how to compose divine revelation intended young woman instead of virgin to be used.
    How many young women in humanity concieve and bear a son?
    Virgin makes the event completely distinct from all other women in humanity while calling her merely a young woman not distinct from any other is poetically dead compared to what virgin signifies.
    Would the Holy Spirit intend a less perfect meaning and choice of words than a word which reveals the mystery of what happened?
    I think their choice of young woman is placing a bright yellow green pimple on the nose of their scriptural Mona Lisa.

  15. what does the virigin’ daughter in isaiah 37:22,23 refers to?

  16. Keith Menter

    This may have already been covered. But a “Young Woman” concieving and bearing a son is not a “Sign.” That happens all the time, but a VIRGIN concieving a son, that’s a sign!

    • Alex

      Additionally, the writers of the Septuagint could have been making the connection with the prophecy of Genesis 3:15 to the serpent, indicating the offspring of the woman. The Jews always traced back through the father, so if they viewed Isaiah 7:14 as prophecy of the offspring in Genesis 3, then a virgin birth was understood.

      Gen 3:15 “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspringe and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

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  19. the ancient jewish sam aritans,who are not true jews ,(Jesus called them a synagogue of satan) Revsa

  20. check out the catholic encylopedia about jesus’s genealogy, it states,”supposed son of joseph, but really of heli.if a virgin birth was necessary for jesus to be the messiah why did”nt the 12 disciples ask him, if that was a condition to be forfilled for jesus to be the “messiah”?

  21. Whoever wrote the book of Matthew should have a known he was pulling Isa.7:14 out of context with surrounding verses.Isa.7:15-16 was about the same child as is in v.14,but Jesus did not come eating Butter(or curds) and Honey,neither would Jesus have had to learn to choose good over evil as v.16 says.The writer of Matthew delibertly lied in his effort to tie Jesus to Isa.7:14.If you read Isa.7:14 straight from the Hebrew it is easy to see the young woman was already with child in the time of Ahaz.If you read on through Isa.8:8 in verse 3 you see the child conceived and born during the time of Ahaz,and Isa.8:8 shows the child called(named)Immanuel.Isa.7:14 was never,ever a Messiah prophecy about a supposed virgin born Jesus some 700 years later.
    To top that off there is no,ZERO reliable proof or evidence that Jesus the miracle worker,crucified and resurrected from the dead Jesus ever existed as a flesh and blood person.Yes there were plenty of Jeus’es(people named Jesus)in the first century but no evidence of the miracle worker,crucified,and resurrected from the dead Jesus.For years I have sent emails to biblical scholars and apologetics to send me proof of not just any Jesus but the N.T.4 GOSPEL Jesus all stop corresponding knowing there is no reliable evidence.
    Isa.7:14 is not the only N.T.claimed prophecy fulfilled by Jesus that was never a Messiah prophecy,if you check them out in the O.T.nearly if not all were never prophecies about a Messiah they are pulled out of context with surrounding verses and made to seem prophecy fulfilled.Start researching more carefully it is no wonder there are skeptics,agnostics and atheists they have much reason to doubt,including me.
    In Real Truth,
    Jay Osborne
    P.S.Forward to my email address any comments or refutes.

  22. Robert

    I’m debating a Jewish man from Israel and we are debating Isaiah 7:14. I have come to learn that the word in this verse translated by the KJV as virgin is almah, which means young maiden. But I have come up with an explanation to the confusion of whether this verse is speaking about a young maiden or a virgin.
    Even though the term almah was used in the Hebrew text, the term young maiden fits both young maidens in the verse because the maiden who was there at the time the verse was spoken by Isaiah to King Ahaz was not a virgin, but Mary who was to be born hundreds of years later was also a young maiden, and also a virgin.
    Had Isaiah used the term virgin which in the Hebrew is betulah, the words would not have made sense to King Ahaz because the woman standing close by in the story was not a virgin.
    But God speaking through the prophet Isaiah used the word almah to make the prophecy make sense to King Ahaz and also to cover Mary’s virgin birth of Jesus hundreds of years later, as Mary too was a young maiden who happened to be a virgin at the that time.

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