‘Alma’ and the Virgin Birth in Matthew and Isaiah
by guest blogger Tyler Vela
Did Matthew tear Isaiah out of context in his fulfillment verse about the Virgin birth? This is a brief response to that question.
On main reason to think that he did not was that we know that Jewish Scholars never claimed that ‘alma’ meant anything other than “virgin” until they wanted to deny the virgin birth of Jesus. How do I know this?
1. None of the ancient languages or versions gives any evidence to show that “alma” ever meant a young married woman. It more likely means something like the English “maiden” that is, a young woman of marriageable age” – and in Israel these were assumed to be virgins, especially when it is described as a woman of good moral character.
2. A “n’ara” may not have always been thought of as a virgin. Otherwise it would scarcely have been necessary to define her five times by the word “bethulah” (virgin). Thus an “alma” must have been presumed to be a “virgin” since it is never modified by “bethulah.”
3. Since the Septuagint version was made in the case of Genesis 280 years B. C. and in the case of Isaiah 200 years B. C., it is to be presumed that their rendering of “alma” by “parthenos” (virgin) in Genesis 24:48 and Isaiah 7:14 was in their minds a justifiable rendering. So far as we have any evidence, the citation of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23 is thus justified by the Jewish interpretation up to the time when Matthew was written and only objected to AFTER people realized that it affirmed Matthew’s narrative.
4. Since the Peshitto Syriac version of the Old Testament was also probably made by Jews, their rendering of the word “alma” by “bethulah” in Isaiah 7:14 must have been considered proper even as late as the second century A. D. So in other translations of the OT into other languages, the common word to translate it was whatever that language’s word for “virgin” was.
5. Jerome, who studied Hebrew under Jewish rabbis of his time (about 400 A. D.), still thought it possible to render “alma” by “virgo” (virgin) in Genesis 24:43 and Isaiah 7:14.
6. The rendering “ulemta” of the Targum to Isaiah 7:14 cannot possibly argue in favor of the meaning “young married woman” in view of the following three facts: a) “Alma” in the O.T. never has this meaning anywhere else. b) “Ulemta” translates not merely “alma” but also “n’ara,” “yolda,” and “bethulah,” none of which means young married woman. c) “Ulemta” is used of Rebecca when she came to the well and met Eliezer; of Miriam when she was set to watch the infant Moses; of the 400 virgins of Jabesh Gilead (Judges 21:12); of Esther and the other virgins who were selected for the choice of Xerxes as wife.
7. All the versions of the Greek “parthenos” (virgin) — Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Harklensian, Syriac, and Arabic — render the word in both Isaiah 7:14 and Matt. 1:23 by the best word for “virgin” which they possess.
8. The evidence that Mary was a virgin does not after all depend on the meaning of the words “alma” and “parthenos” alone; for it is said, also, of Mary that “she had not known man.” This phrase is used in the Old Testament of Rebecca “a virgin that had not known man” (Gen. 24:16); of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:39); and of the virgins of Jabesh Gilead (Judges 21:12).
Thus we can see that Jews and their scholars had no problem with ‘alma’ meaning virgin (because it nearly universally did) until the Christians started to point to Is. 7:14 and they found themselves wanting to deny the virgin birth.
And these are just a few examples.
Tyler Vela, author of the apologetics blog, Logical Theism, has studied Philosophy and English at Sonoma State University, graduated Preseminary (Biblical and Theological Studies) from Moody Bible Institute, and is currently enrolled for his Masters of Religion at Reformed Theological Seminary.