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.