One of the more interesting controversies in regard to Bible translation in recent decades has been the rendering of Isaiah (Isa) 7:14. You may be aware of the issue. Here is Isa 7:14 in the King James Version:
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Up until the middle of the 20th century, this was often quoted as a clear Old Testament (OT) prophecy fulfilled in the New Testament (NT). This seems obvious from Matthew (Mat):
Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
Although there are a few minor word changes, no one would dispute that Matthew has Isa 7:14 in mind here. The problem, however, comes in with the modern version Bible translations. The Revised Standard Version is a good example:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. [Emphasis added]
This translation immediately caused problems for Bible believing Christians, because it seemed to weaken the prophetic aspect of Isa 7:14, and undermine the consistency of the Bible. Why the change? Very briefly, the Hebrew word translated “virgin” in the KJV, עַלְמָה ‘almah, normally in fact does mean “young woman” and the RSV translators felt that faithfulness to the Hebrew meant that this was the correct translation. Critics of the KJV and the traditional rendering also felt that the KJV translators deliberately rendered Isa 7:14 with “virgin” to make it more consistent with Mat 1:23. However, as we’ll see below, it’s not quite that simple.
What about Matthew 1:23? The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Greek word that Matthew used in his quotation was παρθένος, parthenos, which nearly always means virgin throughout Greek literature. Matthew did not translate the Hebrew himself, however, but used the Greek OT. This ancient translation of the Hebrew is called the Septuagint, from the Latin word for seventy, septuaginta, because of a legend that 72 translators were involved in producing the translation. It is therefore often abbreviated with the Latin numeral for 70, LXX, which is the abbreviation I will use in this article. In the LXX, the translator (or translators) for Isaiah rendered the Hebrew word ‘almah with the Greek word parthenos, centuries before the consistency with Mat 1:23 would have been an issue. Here is the LXX in English translation:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanouel.
Matthew simply used the existing Greek translation. The question arises, however, did the LXX and Matthew do this correctly? Why did the LXX translate with parthenos and not the Greek equivalent for “young woman?” This article presents one possible explanation for this.
One can always assume that the LXX translator simply made a mistake, since we are speaking of a translation, and not the inspired originals. However, this theory does not satisfy because it simply doesn’t fit the facts. Moisés Silva, in his introduction to the Nets LXX translation of Isaiah, notes that the translator is actually rather complex, at times showing a great deal of competency, at other times displaying oddities that can leave the reader scratching his head. The author seems to have had some trouble with rare Hebrew vocabulary, and struggled with some of the more difficult passage to come up with appropriate Greek equivalencies. Isa 7:14, however, is not a difficult passage. It contains no rare vocabulary, and the Hebrew is quite straightforward. Imputing him with error therefore does not appear to be the right answer.
In fact, there is in Greek a perfectly good word for “young, woman, νεᾶνις, neanis. This word appears over 30 times elsewhere in the LXX, sufficient to demonstrate that the word was in living speech at the times when the translation was being produced. This suggests that the choice of parthenos is deliberate since the default rendering would normally be neanis.
First, let’s have a look at ‘almah where it appears in the Hebrew OT and how the LXX translates. Below are the Scripture references and the Greek word used to translate (using standard transliteration for the Greek):
Gen 24:43 parthenos (virgin)
Exo 2:8 neanis (young woman)
Isa 7:14 parthenos (virgin)
Psa 68:26 neanidôn (of the young women)
Pro 30:19 neotêti (youthfulness)
Cant 1:3 neanides (young women)
Cant 6:8 neanides (young women)
We observe here that the LXX translators at Exo 2:8, Psa 68:26 (67:26 LXX), and Cant 1:3 and 6:8 use the word neanis, “young woman.” Of special interest here, however, is the translation at Gen 24:43, parthenos. This indicates that the translation at Isa 7:14 is not itself an oddity, there is at least one other rendering of the word from a Hebrew text. Now, please realize that the LXX was not translated like a modern translation. The work was done by different translators, and at different periods of time, so that the translator of Genesis is almost certainly a different person (or persons) than the translator of Isaiah. What might both translators at this point be seeing in their respective texts and contexts which lead them to render parthenos? Below, I will compare the two translations and we will see that Gen 24:43 strengthens the thesis presented below.
So, why does the translator use parthenos at Isa 7:14? I would suggest that the motivation was contextual, related to the translator’s understanding of the major point which Isaiah is making through this section.
Isa 7:1 In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not yet mount an attack against it. Isa 7:2 When the house of David was told, “Syria is in league with Ephraim,” the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind. Isa 7:3 And the LORD said to Isaiah, “Go out to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field. Isa 7:4 And say to him, ‘Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah. Isa 7:5 Because Syria, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has devised evil against you, saying, Isa 7:6 “Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it,” Isa 7:7 thus says the Lord GOD: “‘It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. Isa 7:8 For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. And within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people. Isa 7:9 And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.'” Isa 7:10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, Isa 7:11 “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” Isa 7:12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” Isa 7:13 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Isa 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Isa 7:15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. Isa 7:16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. [ESV]
Ahaz is asked to name a miraculous sign which the Lord may do to confirm his word. Ahaz refuses to do so (thereby indicating unbelief on his part). In response, the Lord, through Isaiah, assures Ahaz that he himself will give a sign, an incontrovertible one, and a very surprising one. This sign involves the unexpected birth of a child to a young woman in the household of the king, a young woman who is apparently unmarried at the time the prophecy is given. Isaiah, consonant with his “naming theology” elsewhere, reveals that the name of the child will be Immanuel, “God with us,” as a symbol that God has brought the sign and will bring to pass his purposes with regard to the threatened invasion of Israel by Syria and the Northern tribes of Israel. In the local context of Isaiah, did this have to be a literal virgin birth? It is only necessary that the young woman have an unexpected pregnancy, and that the circumstances of her life so change in a way that makes it clear that God was working. It’s as though God is saying “Do you find it surprising that the young lady will in fact have a child? If I can do this, I can certainly stop this invasion. The one is not more surprising than the other.” It is possible, therefore, that the translator knowing quite well the possible meanings or usages of ‘almah wished to capture the surprising nature of the prophecy, and translated parthenos, a meaning which the Hebrew may certainly bear.
Now, let’s compare the context here to the context of Gen 24:43.
Gen 24:37 My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I dwell, Gen 24:38 but you shall go to my father’s house and to my clan and take a wife for my son.’ Gen 24:39 I said to my master, ‘Perhaps the woman will not follow me.’ Gen 24:40 But he said to me, ‘The LORD, before whom I have walked, will send his angel with you and prosper your way. You shall take a wife for my son from my clan and from my father’s house. Gen 24:41 Then you will be free from my oath, when you come to my clan. And if they will not give her to you, you will be free from my oath.’ Gen 24:42 “I came today to the spring and said, ‘O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, if now you are prospering the way that I go, Gen 24:43 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,” Gen 24:44 and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also,” let her be the woman whom the LORD has appointed for my master’s son.’ [ESV]
This is the passage in which Abraham’s servant is sent to his relatives to procure a wife for his son Isaac. What type of girl would be suitable for the heir to Abraham’s estate and the promises of God? Rebekah is that girl, young, unmarried, and to be truly fit as Isaac’s wife, a virgin. It seems that the LXX translator here agrees with that statement, since he renders parthenos here, and not neanis. This supports the idea that ‘almah, while not restricted to the use of “virgin,” may certainly be translated that way if the translator feels that the context warrants.
Matthew knew Hebrew (there are several examples from Matthew’s gospel which suggest de novo translation). Despite this, he feels comfortable with the LXX rendering of the passage, and uses it. Why? It very neatly accords with Matthew’s theological purpose in his description of the actual birth of Jesus. In the providence of God, a translation was made which more literally agreed with the facts than perhaps the translator himself could have imagined. In the full context of redemptive history, the LXX translation becomes a forceful and accurate interpretation of the Hebrew in the context especially of our Lord’s first advent, and therefore is legitimately used by Matthew.
 Exo 2:8 Deu 22:19 Deu 22:20 Deu 22:21 Deu 22:24 Deu 22:26 Deu 22:26 Deu 22:27 Deu 22:29 Jud-B 19:3 Jud-B 19:4 Jud-B 19:5 Jud-B 19:6 Jud-B 19:8 Jud-B 19:9 Jud-B 21:12 Jud-A 19:3 Jud-A 19:4 Jud-A 19:5 Jud-A 19:6 Jud-A 19:8 Jud-A 19:9 Jud-A 21:12 Ruth 2:5 1Ki 1:2 1Ki 1:3 1Ki 1:4 2Ki 5:2 2Ki 5:4 Ps 67:26 Sos 1:3 Sos 6:8 Dan-Th 11:6 3Ma 4:6 3Ma 5:49 Sir 20:4
 Ps 67:26, LXX. The LXX numbers the Psalms somewhat differently than the Hebrew and the English versions.
 There are three possibilities to explain this translation: 1) the translator may be rendering freely 2) The translator could have a different reading in his Hebrew text than the Masoretic text, or 3) There could be a text critical difficulty in the LXX manuscripts. Whatever the reason, I therefore am not using the verse in this analysis.
 = Song of Solomon
 Karen Jobs and Moisés Silva, Invitation to the LXX (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2000), p. 29-44. This book is the best available on the LXX for the non-specialist.
 E.g., Matthew 2:15, where Matthew renders “son” in accordance with the Hebrew, whereas the LXX has “children.”