Do the Scriptures say Jesus was born of a virgin or simply a young girl without a claim to sexual purity? Many critics would deny the virgin birth of Jesus, but how they could do this without denying the implications of the text is a mystery to me. One of the most interesting points I heard made says the New Testament draws the validity of its doctrine from an Old Testament text that does not support the idea that a virgin would both conceive and give birth. If the foundation for the doctrine of the Virgin Birth isn’t there, then how could its substance be true? Wouldn’t it be mere opinion, if it were not fulfilling an actual Scripture in the first Covenant?
Matthew says an angel told Joseph to name the child Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). He based this saying upon what was written by the prophet Isaiah who foretold that a virgin would both conceive and give birth to a child whose name would be Emmanuel or God with us! The controversy lies in the fact that the Scripture which Matthew has in mind, Isaiah 7:14, uses the Hebrew almah (H5959) for the maiden who would conceive. Hebrew scholars claim that the word almah refers to a young maiden of marriageable age, but not necessarily a virgin. The better word, if one wished to refer to a virgin, would have been bethulah (H1330), but since Isaiah used almah, he apparently was not referring to a virgin!
As I see it, the problem with the wording of Isaiah was not a controversy, until sometime after Jesus was crucified, and when the Gospel was being preached. The Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), compiled by Hebrew scholars long before the birth of Jesus, translates Isaiah 7:14 to indicate virgin in the Greek. They used the word parthenos (G3933), the same word used by Matthew. The fact is that almah, the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14, is used seven times in the Old Testament: Genesis 24:43, Exodus 2:8, Psalms 68:25, Proverbs 30:19, Song of Solomon 1:3 & 6:8 and Isaiah 7:14. Of these Genesis 24:43 and Exodus 2:8 are definitely virgins; while the others imply the young women are virgins, and Isaiah 7:14 seems to say a virgin shall not only conceive, but a virgin shall also bear or give birth to the babe as well. There simply doesn’t seem to be a problem with “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 until after Jesus’ time.
On the other hand, if we look at the word bethulah, the Hebrew word scholars seem to unanimously claim does mean virgin, the compilers of the Septuagint have translated it 43 times into parthenos (G3933), the Greek for virgin, but the remaining 7 are either skipped or translated into korasion (G2877), meaning “girl.” However, what I find surprising is that one of those 50 occurrences of the Hebrew word for “virgin”, the bethulah (H1330) is mourning for the husband of her youth (Joel 1:8). Now how could that be, if bethulah is the Hebrew word for ‘virgin’?
Another point to consider is, in two places where bethulah is used in the Hebrew Scriptures it is defined as a young girl who has never known a man (Genesis 24:16 and Judges 21:12). If bethulah always means virgin (except for Joel 1:8) why would it need to be defined to a Jewish reader? Still another matter to consider is that in the surrounding context of one of those Scriptures, Genesis 24:16, almah is used as a synonym for bethulah. Rebecca is described in Genesis 24:16 using bethulah with the additional information that she had never known a man. Immediately before v.16 Abraham’s servant is praying, and Rebecca came in answer to that prayer. But when Abraham’s servant recalled the incident with Rebecca’s family in Genesis 24:43 he used the word almah instead of bethulah. It seems to me, in light of what the Septuagint translators have shown us and in this comparison of both words in context of the same incident, that both mean about the same thing—“a young woman of marriageable age.” In the context of the Jewish society where harlotry was disdained and even punishable with death, it is presumed these words indicate sexual purity or virginity.
Therefore, Matthew has it correct and there should really be no controversy at all among Biblical scholars. After all, no controversy even existed until at least a century or two after the Gospel had been first preached. Moreover, the ancient Jewish scholars who wrote the Septuagint agree with Matthew’s interpretation (the word means virgin), and a comparison of the two Hebrew words used to describe a young woman of marriageable age shows they are synonyms, and, in the context of ancient Jewish society, that means virgin!