The Anti-Missionary’s Charge:
The Jewish Tanakh, written in the present tense, says:
“Therefore, the Lord, of His own, shall give you a sign; behold, the young woman (alma) is with child, and she will bear a son and she shall call his name Immanuel.”
The Greek Septuagint changed the Hebrew word, alma, from young woman to virgin and put it in the future tense. These two changes definitely gives it a Christian slant. From Matthew 1:22-23:
“Behold, a virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.”
This anti-missionary is absolutely correct.
The sign promised to Israel is contained the phrase “the young woman/virgin is with child.” The sign promised to Israel is worded in the present tense in the original Hebrew. The Tanakh English version renders the Hebrew accurately, “is with child.” However, the sign has not been given yet. The giving of the sign is still future. The sign “the young woman/virgin is with child” will become a reality sometime in the future. This sign will not appear until sometime after Isaiah’s conversation with King Ahaz.
We have to start our analysis of the sign prior to the phrase “is with child.” We have to start with the phrase “shall give you a sign.” The verb translated “shall give” is in the imperfect tense in the Hebrew text. The imperfect tense communicates incomplete action. Verses in the imperfect tense are legitimately translated as events to be completed in the future. The Septuagint translators made a legitimate decision and rendered the verb in the future tense in their Greek translation. The rendering is appropriate because the sign is promised for the future, grammatically and contextually. The Jewish translators are simply doing a Targum, an explanatory rendering. With the time frame of the sign determined, we now have to analyze the sign itself.
So what is the sign? Let us start with the Hebrew Definite Article. The text uses the Hebrew Definite Article, appropriately translated into English by the word “the.” This indicates that a specific virgin is in view. “The virgin” is pregnant. But more than that, she is bearing a son and called Him “God with us.” Yes, Isaiah does word the sign itself in the present tense. She is giving birth at that moment. Isaiah can do this because he is seeing the birth from a prophet’s point of view-unlimited by space or time. He is viewing the actual birth as it occurs in the future. It is doubtful that he is, at that moment, viewing the actual birth of a child in his present time. If he was, he would be viewing a birth taking place out in the open, in a public place. If he was, he would be viewing a birth “at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, on the highway to the fuller’s field” (Isaiah 7:3). In addition, Ahaz and his entourage would be looking on as well, according to Isaiah 7:3. The context indicates some sort of a public scene. Probably Ahaz is inspecting Jerusalem’s water supply in preparation for the expected conflict with Aram and Israel (Isaiah 7:1-2). It is highly unlikely that a woman would be there giving birth in that kind of situation.
What is the explanation? I think the explanation lies in the fact that this is a future event that Isaiah can see occurring in his “mind’s eye.” He can see it occurring in the future from his prophet’s perspective. In addition, this birth has to be a “sign.” The word “sign” either signifies the unusual event itself or in some way points to that unusual event. It may point backward to a historical event such as the stones in the Jordan (Josh. 4:6). A sign can even look forward to such a promise as a thornless future world (Isa. 55:13).
The point of the text is that this birth has to be unusual. It has to qualify as a sign. A non-virgin girl, a young woman, giving birth is hardly an unusual event. It happens every day. It has happened to my daughter four times already. This is not a reference to a young woman giving birth in a public place. This sign is of a virgin giving birth. The physical state of the woman is the sign, not the physical location of the birth. The physical location will be covered in Micah 5:2-Bethlehem, but that is not the point here. A woman, in her virginity, giving birth would be a sign. That does not happen every day.
The anti-missionary claims that the Septuagint tampered with the text by changing the tense to future. I have already demonstrated that the rabbis who translated Isaiah 7:14 into Greek made a legitimate translation decision. If that is tampering, then it was done by Jewish rabbis. The Septuagint was in place long before Jesus came on the scene. The Septuagint translation was made around 285-244 BC. There was no “Christian slant” possible at the time the Septuagint was written. The rabbis who translated the Septuagint apparently understood the text to speak of the future and that it spoke of a virgin. They translated according to their understanding of the Hebrew text. They did not translate the text in agreement with a non-existent “Christian” understanding. In addition, we do not need the Septuagint to determine if the Hebrew word alma means virgin. A word study of alma will do that.
In Biblical Hebrew, alma exclusively means virgin with no clarifying information needed. The Septuagint simply supports that conclusion. Again, Matthew simply uses the Jewish, textual resources available to him in the first century CE/AD. As he compares the text and his experience with Jesus, he sees a literal prophecy uttered by Isaiah and literal fulfillment in the life of Jesus. He then passes that understanding on to the reader. The reader can then decide for himself if Matthew is correct or not.
This brings us to a corollary objection. For this let us move to our next objection, a discussion of the word “virgin” found in the same passage.
- ^ Harris, R. Laird, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980), p.19