Blog Post

Was Jesus Really Born of a Virgin?

For many people, the question of whether or not a virgin can give birth is in the same category as questions about whether or not pigs can fly or time can be reversed or the sun can be stopped from shining. But in each of these circumstances, we must remember that all it takes for these “supernatural” events to be possible is for a “supernatural” God to exist. CS Lewis reminds us of this great truth in his book Miracles. In fact, he goes beyond it and argues that once we allow for a theistic worldview—one in which a supernatural God exists and is involved in the natural order of things—then supernatural events are not simply possible; they are to be expected. And if supernatural events are to be expected, then things like a virgin giving birth or the sun being stopped from shining are the kinds of things that we ought to expect to happen in the world in which we live.

But, admittedly, it is one thing to expect events to happen that are like a virgin giving birth and another thing altogether to expect a virgin actually to give birth. Were it not for the clear teaching of the Word of God at this point, we would not be able to say anything more than simply that it is possible that something like a virgin giving birth could happen, given a theistic worldview. The Bible, however, specifically claims that a virgin did in fact give birth. Not only so, but it also predicts that this particular event would happen more than 700 years before it actually did. The prediction is then fulfilled in time and space in the life of the virgin Mary, which is recorded for us in the Gospels. Therefore, in order to know for sure whether we ought to expect a virgin to give birth, we need to examine this prediction, as it is recorded for us in Isaiah 7:14, along with its fulfillment in Matthew 1 and Luke 1.

Isaiah 7:14 clearly states that at some point in the future an unnamed “virgin” will give birth to a son, and she will call his name “Immanuel.” This passage, however, has been disputed by some scholars who have argued that the Hebrew word ‘almah, which is translated as “virgin” in the English Standard Version of the Bible, ought really to be translated as “young woman” instead. They further argue that if “virgin” had been Isaiah’s intention, he would have used the Hebrew word bethulah in the place of ‘almah, because, they claim, bethulah specifically refers to a virgin, whereas ‘almah does not. There are several things that we need to say in response to this.

First, it is not at all clear that these two Hebrew words (‘almah and bethulah) mean what these scholars think they do. For one thing, the meanings of both words seem to be dependent upon the context in which they occur. The word bethulah, for instance, occurs approximately 50 times in the Old Testament, and in only about 21 of these occurrences does the word appear to mean virgin. The remaining 29 are more uncertain; they could be referring to a virgin or to a young woman. One of these occurrences, moreover, Genesis 24:16, suggests that bethulah is actually a more general word that requires additional information from the context before it can be translated “virgin.” Here, in this verse, Rebekah is referred to as a certain kind of bethulah—one “whom no man had known.” If bethulah really does always and only mean virgin, then the addition of the clarifying phrase, “whom no man had known,” would be unnecessary and redundant. The fact that it is included suggests that the word bethulah does not mean virgin all by itself but does so only when the context demands it. And a similar thing can be said in reference to the word ‘almah. It occurs about 9 times in the Old Testament, and in at least 3 of these occurrences the context helps us to determine that the word is obviously referring to a virgin and not just to a young woman. The point is that bethulah does not always and only mean virgin and ‘almah does not always and only mean young woman. The context is vital in determining the precise meaning in each case.

For another thing, it is certain that the word ‘almah is never used to refer to a married woman. This is true even in those occasions when the context does not allow us to say with certainty that ‘almah must refer to a virgin. Martin Luther was so confident about this point that he actually offered 100 Gulden—which, from what I can tell, would be something like $45,000 for us today—to anyone who could prove that ‘almah was used in reference to a married woman anywhere in the Old Testament. And neither Luther, nor anyone else since then, has ever had to pay up! That is because the word always refers to an unmarried woman who is of marriageable age.

Old Testament Judaism was not a culture that was known for its promiscuity, at least not among its young women. Jewish law required the death penalty to be administered to any young woman of marriageable age who was found not to be a virgin (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 22:13-21). That means that in Isaiah’s day and time, the expectation among all the people would have been that an unmarried young woman of marriageable age would necessarily be a virgin.

Second, the context of Isaiah 7:14 indicates that the best translation for ‘almah must be “virgin” and not simply “young woman of marriageable age.” God is providing a sign for unbelieving King Ahaz. And it is hard to see how a “young woman of marriageable age” who conceives and bears a son would qualify as a sign from God. By definition, a sign must be something extraordinary. Otherwise, how does one know that it actually is a sign. A young woman bearing a child out of wedlock certainly would be notorious, but it would hardly be extraordinary in a way that would be worthy of God. He is not only perfectly righteous and holy, but He requires His own people to be holy precisely because He is Himself (see, e.g., Leviticus 19:2). The whole point of Isaiah 7 seems to be that God’s sign will be an extraordinary (not notorious) child who is brought into the world by way of an extraordinary (not notorious) birth. He will be human and divine: human, because He will be born of a woman; and divine, because He will be “God with us.” He cannot, therefore, come into the world in the same way that every other child does. His birth must be special. His birth must be a virgin birth. If it isn’t, then the resulting child can only be human. He cannot be Immanuel, God with us.

Third, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, which is called the Septuagint, confirms that ‘almah is best interpreted as “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14. It translates this verse by using the Greek word parthenos, which more explicitly denotes a virgin, rather than neanis, which more generally means a young woman. Moreover, the gospel accounts in Matthew 1 and Luke 1 both use the Greek word parthenos of Mary and do so in a context that explicitly portrays her as a virgin. In Matthew 1:18, for instance, we read that Mary becomes pregnant “before [she and Joseph] came together.” That is why Joseph resolved to break off their engagement. He knew that he was not the father of the child she was carrying (v. 19). No doubt he would have gone through with his plans to put Mary away were it not for the “angel of the Lord” appearing to him in a dream and telling him that the child within Mary’s womb was not from a man but “from the Holy Spirit” (v. 20) instead. Matthew then goes on to quote Isaiah 7:14 and to say, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that its prophecy is fulfilled in the virgin birth of Jesus. That is just what we would expect, given everything we have seen about Isaiah 7:14.

Similarly, in Luke 1:27, Mary is twice called a “virgin” (parthenos) and is told by the angel Gabriel that, while still in that state, she will give birth to a son who “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (vv. 31-32). When Mary questions Gabriel, understandably, and asks how this will be because, as she herself says, she has never been with a man (v. 34), Gabriel answers by telling her that no man will be involved in the process. It will be an extraordinary birth: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” And it will produce an extraordinary child: “the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (v. 35).

For all of these reasons we can be confident that a virgin really did give birth. Not only is this the kind of thing that is to be expected given the fact that a supernatural God exists, but this is the very thing that we should expect in itself, given the fact that the Bible tell us so. Isaiah 7:14 predicts that a “virgin”—and not just a “young woman”—would give birth to a son who would be both divine and human; and the Gospels record the fulfillment of that prediction in the life of Mary and Jesus. The glory of Christmas is that the expectation of Isaiah 7:14 has become a reality. The virgin really did give birth to a son. He was called Immanuel, because He really was God with us. And He was given the name Jesus, because He really did save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). That is why we sing, “Joy to the World! The Lord has come.”


Originally published in Tabletalk, (December 22, 2017).