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The virgin birth (conception) of Jesus

What about the "a virgin shall
conceive" passage in Isaiah?

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The story of the virgin birth (conception) of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke is accepted as literal truth by essentially all conservative Christians They believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, and that the Bible is God's word. The Qur'an, mentions the virgin birth as well; most Muslims also believe in the virgin birth.

But, belief in the virgin birth may have been an honest mistake by the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Most theologians and historians who are not conservative Christians believe that the author of the Gospel of Matthew (or someone who supplied the writer with source material) scanned an unknown ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. He found what he believed to be a reference to Jesus' birth. It was in Isaiah 7:14. This has since become a famous passage; it is often recited at Christmas time. He copied it into Matthew (1:23) to showg that prophecies in the Hebrew Testament were fulfilled in Jesus' life.

As it happens, the Greek translators had made a mistake. When they were translating the Hebrew writings into the Greek Septuagint and similar translations, they converted the Hebrew word "almah" into the Greek equivalent of our English word for virgin. "Almah" appears nine other times in the Hebrew Scriptures; in each case it means "young woman". When the Hebrew Scriptures referred to a virgin (and they do over 50 times) they always used the Hebrew word "betulah". 1 So, it appears certain that Isaiah referred to a young woman becoming pregnant -- a relatively ordinary event.

Some English translators are accurate to the original Hebrew:

bulletRevised English Bible: "...a young woman is with child..."
bulletRevised Standard Version: "...a young woman shall conceive..."
bulletJames Moffatt Translation: "...a young woman with child..."
bulletNew Revised Standard Version: "...the young woman is with child..."

Other translations mistranslated the Hebrew and referred to the woman as both pregnant and a virgin; that is, a miracle had occurred. This avoids the conflict that would otherwise occur between Isaiah and Matthew 1:22-23. (The author of Matthew quoted Isaiah as describing a virgin who was pregnant before becoming sexually active):

bulletNew International Version: "...the virgin will be with child..."
bulletThe Living Bible: "...a child shall be born to a virgin..."
bulletContemporary English Version: "...a virgin is pregnant...". In a footnote, they say that the "Hebrew word did not imply a virgin birth". They give "young woman" as an alternative.

Other translations went part-way. They mistranslated the Hebrew and said that the woman had been a virgin. However, they imply that the woman might have been a virgin, who engaged in sexual intercourse and then became pregnant:

bulletAmerican Standard Version: "...a virgin shall conceive..."
bulletAmplified Bible: "...the young woman who is unmarried and a virgin shall conceive..."
bulletKing James Version: "...a virgin shall conceive..."
bulletNew Living Translation: "...the virgin shall conceive a child..."
bulletNew Century Version: "...the virgin will be pregnant...". They also state in a footnote that the original Hebrew word really means "a young woman".

Some versions are vague and can be interpreted in many ways:

bulletNew World Translation: "...the maiden herself will actually become pregnant..."
bulletThe Jerusalem Bible: "...the maiden is with child..."
bulletYoung's Literal Translation: "...the virgin is conceiving"

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The birth being discussed in Isaiah 7:14 appears to be unrelated to Jesus. It describes the Syro-Ephraimite invasion of Judah and the siege of Jerusalem by the combined armies of the Northern Kingdom and Syria circa 735 BCE. 2 The child that was born to the young woman at that time was a sign from God that the siege would be lifted and that Jerusalem would continue to florish as it had in before the attack. The prophecy was presumably completely fulfilled about 730 years before the birth of Jesus.

For King Ahaz circa 735 BCE, "the birth of the Messiah some seven hundred years later would have been of little consolation!" 3

For another analysis of this passage, see Reference 4.

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  1. J.S. Spong, "Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus", Harper San Francisco, CA, (1992), P. 74-79. Read reviews or order this book
  2. J.S. Spong, "A religious Santa Claus tale: The birth narrative of Jesus shouldn't be taken literally," Beliefnet, at: http://www.beliefnet.com/
  3. J.D. Douglas, et al., Eds, "New commentary on the Whole Bible," Tyndale House, (1990), Page 895.
  4. Kenneth E. Nahigian, "A Virgin-Birth Prophecy?" at: http://www.mantis.co.uk/

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Home page > Christianity > Chr. history... > Chr. beliefsVirgin Birth > here

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Copyright © 1996 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Essay last updated: 2007-DEC-16
Written by. B.A. Robinson

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