The Virgin Birth Dilemma
This is the 5th portion of "The Messiah Complex" study series by Justin Best.
To better understand this study, please review Isaiah (Yesha'yahu) chapter 7-8.
Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of debate that plagues rational thinking and deductive reasoning as a whole, is what is known as the “baby-out-with-the-bathwater” effect. If you’re not already familiar with this illogical phenomenon, it’s the effect that is caused when it is demonstrated that one or two formerly “known” ideas on a belief are actually incorrect, causing the entire belief altogether to be abandoned. For example, I might prove to someone that most supermarket foods are full of poisonous additives, and this realization could cause that person to abandon supermarket shopping altogether. That would be “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” In other words, instead of thinking one step further and simply coming to the realization that they should be careful when at the supermarket and be more selective about what they buy, they just throw the supermarket out altogether.
Another way to look at it is like a four legged stool. If the beliefs you rest your understanding on (and eternal life on) are held up by only four legs of doctrine (whatever they may be), then all that is needed is to chop off one of those legs for your seat of understanding to become wobbly. Chop off one more leg and the whole thing comes tumbling down. Your prior understanding is rendered “useless.” The stool (belief) is abandoned because it cannot be supported by logical and objective truths.
It works much the same way with doctrine, ideas, theologies and general beliefs. Depending on how much support you have for them individually or as a whole, they will be either rock solid or wobbly at best. I believe each of us would agree that the better our foundation of understanding is, that is, the more “legs” these ideas have to stand on, the better. The fact that so many people are easily misled in all directions of doctrine is proof that most don’t truly have a leg to stand on when their feet are held to the fire. Unfortunately, most just believe what they’re told to believe, whether it’s what’s on TV or what’s in the pulpit. That being said, it’s easy to shake the core of someone’s faith when they haven’t been shaken before, it’s easy when they are not prepared, and it’s even easier when they are wrong according to scripture.
So why bring these ideas to the forefront of this study on the “Virgin Birth” of the Messiah? Simply, it’s important to understand that the most powerful reason that I’ve found for Messianics to abandon “Christ” is because the authenticity of “Christianity” is easily dismantled by history and the objective theological study of the whole Word. If you haven’t already, it’s important to review our video study titled, “The Natsarim” to truly understand what is meant by this point. Today's Christianity was built on wobbly legs, and history demonstrates that the belief in the Messiah by Messianics was openly hijacked by Roman Christianity. The “Jewish” Messiah who spoke Aramaic and fulfilled and taught the Torah was replaced by a Roman-Greek “Christ” who supposedly changed the Sabbath and didn’t care much about His followers keeping Torah. This is a point that will be discussed even further in future studies (Jesus v. Yahusha).
For some, proving that Christianity is largely paganized and borrows from the mystery religions prior is all that is needed to throw out everything they’ve ever believed about the scriptures. For others, finding out that the first believers in the Messiah did not believe He was born of a virgin and that the prophecy pointing to its necessity is “shaky” at best, is all that is needed to reject the Messiah entirely. That being said, it’s important that when it comes to our belief in anything, but specifically the Messiah, we must ensure we have many legs on which to sit our understanding. Realizing this then, that even if you were to “lose” a leg you thought you had, your entire faith mustn’t come crashing down.
Additionally, there’s another important and critical precept that must be honorably mentioned, and that is the precept of Truth. If we are not honest with ourselves, then others will not expect us to be honest with them; however, if we are, then they will. Simply put, regardless of what debate is swirling through our minds, we cannot move forward with reason if we refuse to be honest and objective, even when it seems to hurt our own belief. We must believe in Truth above all things, and sometimes that means that we are truthfully wrong. One’s ability or inability to adapt to objective Truth will dictate their ability or inability to grow in wisdom, understanding and faith.
For Truth’s sake, I will now present the arguments for and against the prophesied "Virgin Birth" of the Messiah and let you be the judge. In the end, I will share what I believe is the most important point of the entire conversation.
Essentially, the debate of the virgin birth of Messiah is quite simple to understand and research, since it revolves largely around just a few verses in the Tanakh (Old Testament). Essentially, traditionally accepted Christian thinking says that Isaiah 7:14 is a Messianic prophecy that points to the future fulfillment of His virgin birth. The argument from the anti-messiah perspective; however, is that this prophecy is not Messianic at all, and that taking away Messiah’s “virgin” birth doctrine destroys His own credibility (although Messiah Himself never claims this) and the credibility of the New Testament. Here we review the passages from Isaiah 7 that have caused this debate:
"And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my Elohim also? Therefore YHWH himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. - Yesha'yahu (Isaiah) 7:13-16
It may come as a surprise (or a few surprises), but this passage from Yesha'yahu (Isaiah) is literally the only place in the entirety of the Tanakh which makes any prophetic statement about a “virgin” birth. Second, the word for “virgin” used here is hotly debated, since it doesn’t necessarily mean a sexual virgin (explained shortly). Additionally, it may come as an even greater surprise that this prophecy was fulfilled in the very next chapter of Isaiah. In an attempt to digest this information, let’s look at this from a few perspectives. First, the context of the statement made by the prophet Isaiah. Second, the Hebrew and Greek translation of the word “virgin” is necessary. Last, a few perspectives from both sides of the debate and a personal response.
One of the most important processes that any Biblical scholar can perform in the attempt to understand the scriptures, is to review the context of the data. Keeping in mind; however, that sometimes the context can be tricky, and at other times the context doesn’t seem to match the surrounding scriptures at all. In this case study specifically; however, the context provides some pretty critical elements. In this portion of Yesha'yahu (Isaiah), Isaiah is proving to King Ahaz that YHWH truly speaks, and prophecies that a “virgin” will give birth to a child whose name will be called Immanuel. Additionally, the prophet states that before the boy can grow up and know right from wrong (or reaches maturity), that Judah’s rivals will be destroyed. In dissecting this prophecy, the next chapter is critical. In Isaiah chapter 8, we find that this simple prophecy immediately comes to fulfillment:
“And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then YHWH said to me, “Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz; 4 for before the boy knows how to cry ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.” 5 YHWH spoke to me again: 6 “Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and rejoice over Rezin and the son of Remaliah,7 therefore, behold, YHWH is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it will rise over all its channels and go over all its banks, 8 and it will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, reaching even to the neck, and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.” - Yesha'yahu (Isaiah) 8:3-8
Essentially, based on context alone it appears that this prophecy from Isaiah 7 came into fulfillment in the very next chapter, where we see that a prophetess conceived and bore a son. Just a few verses later, the son’s name is referenced for confirmation as “O Immanuel.” Additionally, we can see that YHWH’s judgement is in fact being brought against the enemies of Judah. This is in stark contrast to the events surrounding the birth of the Messiah, who did not see the destruction of Judah's enemies before He reached maturity. Is it possible that there is more than meets the eye in these verses? Of course there is; however, upon closer inspection this prophecy does seem to point to what occurred in their very near future.
Next, it’s important for us to review the Greek and Hebrew words that were used in the translation and see if there is more to gain. In Isaiah 7:14 the word used for “virgin” is the Hebrew word “almah” in the Masoretic texts and “parthenos” in the Greek Septuagint. Here we can review the literal meanings of each.
According to the Masoretic Hebrew:
Almah (al-maw), Strong’s 5959 - a young woman, a virgin. The feminine form of Strong’s 5958, “elem” which means “a young man.”
According to the Septuagint Greek:
Parthenos (par-then-os): a virgin
a marriageable maiden
a woman who has never had sexual intercourse with a man
one's marriageable daughter
a man who has abstained from all uncleanness and whoredom attendant on idolatry, and so has kept his chastity
one who has never had intercourse with women
And so, at first glance this word might seem out of necessity to denote a woman who has never been married or engaged in any kind of sexual intercourse. A proper English virgin; however, upon closer inspection we can see the crux of the argument, that the word used here doesn't always specifically intend sexual virginity, but can also denote a person’s age. For example, it can be argued that in an attempt to simply say “a young woman,” this word could be misunderstood and misapplied to mean “a woman who’s never engaged in sexual intercourse.” Additionally, the argument goes, there is another word in the Hebrew that always means a sexually chaste virgin, the word “betulah.”
Betulah (beth-oo-law), Strong’s 1330 - a virgin.
Many have pointed out that if the author’s original intent was to denote a woman who has never been with a man, the word “betulah” would have been used instead of “almah” to make the matter exactly clear. Long-story short, the argument remains that Isaiah 7:14 was not referencing a future woman who had never lain with a man, but instead, a present-day young woman who is later mentioned in chapter 8 as “a prophetess” who conceived and bore a son as prophesied. The prophetess of that time didn’t necessarily need to be a sexual virgin either, based on the word usage and context, as long as she was simply a young woman, “Immanuel” could have been her second child. According to this understanding of the context, the miracle was never that anyone was giving birth without consummation.
With all this stated, the perspective of those who reject the absolute virginity of the mother of the Messiah should be quite clear. If the absolute proof text that we must base major doctrines from is the Tanakh alone (and not the New Testament), then there is no prophecy about a Messiah who is born of a virgin. Regardless of whether or not you agree with this perspective, you should now be familiar with the basis of it. Naturally, Messianic apologists have developed some responses to this conclusion, and of necessity these responses should be studied as well before each person settles themselves on the matter. That being stated, the primary responses that I’ve found deal only with the translation of “virgin,” and the case is made that “almah” is also used of sexual virgins in other places through the Tanakh. For example, Zhava Glaser of JewsforJesus.org states the following:
“The word almah is rare—usually translated as "maiden" it appears only seven times in the Hebrew Scriptures, three of these in the plural and four in the singular. Some say the word almah is merely the feminine of elem, or "young man."
In the few verses where almah appears, the word clearly denotes a young woman who is not married but is of marriageable age. Although almah does not implicitly denote virginity, it is never used in the Scriptures to describe a "young, presently married woman." It is important to remember that in the Bible, a young Jewish woman of marriageable age was presumed to be chaste.”
Or another comment from Semitics scholar Dr. Cyrus Gordon, who states:
“The commonly held view that "virgin" is Christian, whereas "young woman" is Jewish is not quite true. The fact is that the Septuagint, which is the Jewish translation made in pre-Christian Alexandria, takes almah to mean "virgin" here. Accordingly, the New Testament follows Jewish interpretation in Isaiah 7:14. Therefore, the New Testament rendering of almah as "virgin" for Isaiah 7:14 rests on the older Jewish interpretation, which in turn is now borne out for precisely this annunciation formula by a text that is not only pre-Isaianic but is pre-Mosaic in the form that we now have it on a clay tablet.”
In other words, it can be argued that the use of the word “almah” against the use of “betulah” doesn’t actually disprove the virginity of the one mentioned in Isaiah 7:14, since in every other usage it does in fact speak of a young unmarried woman. For example, when Abraham’s servant was sent to find a wife for Isaac, this is what the scriptures say concerning Rebekah, the young woman that the servant prayed for:
“behold, I am standing by the spring of water. Let the virgin who comes out to draw water, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,”-(Bereshiyt) Genesis 24:43
In this example, the word “almah” is used to denote not only a young woman, but one that we already know is an actual chaste virgin. This is confirmed by the later use of “betulah” when describing her again in the chapter. Essentially, it can be argued that the use of the word “almah” alone does not negate the woman’s actual physical virginity, and in every example that “almah” is used in the Hebrew, it is in fact relating to true sexual virgins. That being the case, many have taken this point to mean that the proof is settled, and that this verse is talking about a virgin in the truest sense of chastity. Personally; however, this does not settle the debate since the argument does little to deal with the clear contextual problems noted earlier, and the fact that Isaiah 7 was directly alluding to the fulfilled events of Isaiah 8.
With all that has been covered to this point, I believe it is important to bring in yet one more perspective, one that I believe has been vastly underrated through many years. I introduce to you the perspective of the Ebionites. As you may recall from an earlier portion of this study, it was briefly mentioned that the Ebionites were some of the first followers of the Messiah in Jerusalem. With the understanding that was briefly addressed earlier through the study of the Natsarim, (a must watch if you haven’t already) what can be known for certain is that the first followers of Messiah were snuffed out, and so were their writings. All is not lost; however, since early historians were gracious enough to make comments about these early followers. More specifically, they made comments concerning the Ebionite doctrines, albeit from a contrarian position.
A quick study of the Ebionites will reveal that this group held some beliefs that would indeed make the common “Christian” shutter with uncomfortability. The "essential doctrines" of the Christian faith have been made to include the virgin birth in all primary orthodoxy for over a thousand years; however, this was not always the case with followers of Messiah. In fact, although they believed that the Messiah had arrived and fulfilled the role of the Son of Elohim (“God”) and died for the sins of mankind, the Ebionites did not believe that He was born of a virgin. Additionally, they almost exclusively used the Hebrew book of Matthew (Mattiyahu) which at that time did not contain the first two or three chapters, and the Book of James (Ya’akov). Simply, as shocking as it may sound, many of the very first followers of Messiah in Jerusalem were Hebrew-speaking Jewish people who only trusted in two known books from what is now called the "New Testament." Additionally, the Ebionites utterly rejected Paul of Tarsus (Shaul) as a false apostle who was apostate to the Torah of YHWH (law). If you’ve been following the progression of this ministry until now, some of these are sentiments that we ourselves can directly relate to. See the Paul Document if you’d like to gain a better understanding of this perspective on the 13th apostle.
Why introduce this perspective? It’s quite simple actually, believing in the virgin birth of the Messiah is not essential to any form of Biblical salvation. Even if one were to become convinced that Isaiah 7:14 is not about the Messiah and distrusted the first two chapters of Matthew (and Luke) as later additions, they would still have no reason to abandon their logical faith in Messiah. The Ebionites lived in the Messiah’s time and likely saw many of the events that unfolded. Surely, if the virgin birth of Messiah were essential to the good news in which they believed, they would not have rejected the notion completely. That being stated, this line of logic is only a demonstration that whether or not Messiah was born of a virgin, the result has no impact on his proven historical existence. Additionally, if Isaiah 7:14 was not a prophecy about the Messiah, then the Messiah did not need to fulfill it.
What this argument does accomplish; however, is it shakes the core of one who may have held the texts of the New Testament to be supernaturally perfect and unadulterated. Certainly, a well-trained Christian church-goer is forced to argue to the death about the virgin birth, because if it wasn’t true, that would mean their English King James Version New Testament isn’t perfect...a totally heretical notion (to them). The reality; however, is what we have already proven time and time again, that the scriptures have undergone immense changes that can be proven rather easily. For more information about how the Bible was changed dramatically in the 1880’s specifically, review our video study titled, The Great Bible Heist: How the West was Lost.
In conclusion, I believe that the virgin birth argument serves to weaken the resolve of Christianity as a whole because of the traditional inerrancy doctrine. Additionally, the argument does serve to create doubt in the authenticity and accuracy of the New Testament texts by demonstrating that the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke may have been developed to create a doctrine of fulfilled prophecy that was never supported by the Tanakh (Old Testament) in the first place. That being stated; however, one who is already familiar with the concepts of Christianity’s deep-rooted flaws should not shutter one bit. This argument does nothing to disprove that the Messiah arrived and died for sin, it only serves to prove what we’ve already proven all along... The New Testament has been altered and Christian orthodoxy has flaws.
Even if we as a truth-seeking people come into agreement with this concept that Isaiah 7:14 was not a Messianic prophecy, it should not knock us off of our stools that are founded upon many stronger legs. Even if Messiah was born of a perfectly normal conception, this does not negate His divine purpose. We mustn’t throw baby Yahusha (“Jesus”) out with the bathwater. In fact, Messiah Himself stated the following:
“Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” -(Mattiyahu) Matthew 11:11
John the Baptist (Yahuchanon) was not born of a virgin and yet was considered the greatest prophet by the Messiah Himself. Isaiah (Yeshayahu) was not born of a virgin. Enoch (Chanok), who was taken up to be with YHWH without tasting death was not born of a virgin. Most importantly, Moshe (Moses) was not born of a virgin, so why would the prophesied Prophet like unto Moshe necessarily be?
There are many more arguments on both sides of this topic, and I encourage each person to truthfully and humbly consider all perspectives and arrive at their own conclusion. Is it still possible that Messiah was born of a virgin? Of course it is; however, it is of absolutely no necessity for this to be true in order for Him to be called the Son of Elohim and accomplish what He did on behalf of YHWH for the lost sheep of Israel.
In the upcoming study series the question is examined, "Did Messiah break and change the Torah?" Until then, Blessings and shalom.