Fewer texts in the OT have been more important to the Christian church than Isaiah 7:14. To give a context let us go through a few ancient translations of Isaiah 7:14 in the Versions of the Old Testament.

Hebrew Masoretic of Isaiah 7:14

לָ֠כֵן יִתֵּ֨ן אֲדֹנָ֥י ה֛וּא לָכֶ֖ם אֹ֑ות הִנֵּ֣ה הָעַלְמָ֗ה הָרָה֙ וְיֹלֶ֣דֶת בֵּ֔ן וְקָרָ֥את שְׁמֹ֖ו עִמָּ֥נוּ אֵֽל׃

The Jews of the second century AD did not interpret העלמה as a virgin as St. Justin Martyr's dialogue with Trypho demonstrates. Therefore, the text probably should be read in a neutral way, the young woman will conceive and give birth to a son as intended by the surrounding context of that text without excluding a possibility that the young woman might be a virgin.

We can compare both MSS and DSS with LXX which differ from one another. There is no known manuscript or fragment of Isaiah 7:14 which use בתולה instead of העלמה. Perhaps the real issue should be whether or not the word בתולה, which always means virgin, was used in Isaiah for that purpose. The answer is, yes, it is used in Isaiah 62:5. LXX translated both indistinguishably with ἡ παρθένος, a virgin.

St. Jerome was the only Christian to argue from the Hebrew text, who concluded that the Hebrew העלמה should be read as virgo, if even in a periphrastic way. Jerome actually believed that the Hebrew העלמה meant abscondita “hidden.” Therefore the girl in Isaiah 7:14 was more than a virgin. She was a cloistered girl, which necessitates virginity.

Greek Septuagint of Isaiah 7:14

διὰ τοῦτο δώσει κύριος αὐτὸς ὑμῖν σημεῖον ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Εμμανουηλ.

Its reading is found in Matthew 1:21 and it has become the proof text of the virgin birth of Christ for the Church among the Church Fathers. But to translate a Hebrew word העלמה the Greek Septuagint calls Dinah as ἡ παρθένος in Genesis 34:3 after being raped in a verse earlier.

The readings of Aquila and Theodotion, two of the Three Jewish revisers of the LXX in the first and second centuries clearly remove the idea of chaste woman from the text. Of course a young woman might incidentally be a virgin, but their usage of ἡ νεᾶνις renders the Hebrew העלמה and implies that the conception and the birth of the son will happen in the natural way.

How Christians explain that Isaiah 7:14 refers to a virgin? Can such passage be read textually as referring to a young cloistered maiden while maintaining that it necessitates virginity as suggested by Jerome because it's a sign to support a Christian doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ?1

1 I appreciate Justin’s argument from the Greek word σημειον in Dialogue 84. In essence he argues that it would not be a divine sign if the woman would give birth in the natural way. The sign is precisely that because the Messiah would be born in a supernatural way by a virgin. But Jews argue that the sign isn't alluding to a virgin birth.

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    You probably should ask, "What arguments do Christians make that the original Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 referred to a virgin?" and move a lot of what you wrote in the question to a self-answer. Otherwise it's another truth question. Does it refer to a virgin? If you believe the Gospel of Matthew the answer is yes and the question is trivially answered -- but I don't think that's what you're looking for at all. Mar 13 '15 at 15:54
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    I've changed the question, it's no longer a truth question. Mar 13 '15 at 20:31
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    Adithia, it probably shouldn't be deleted because the question as written is on topic at BH and has a good answer there. Deleting it would cheat the answerer of due credit. However, you’re welcome to ask another question here that is re-worded to focus on doctrine, with or without a link to the BH one. Meanwhile, I’ve deleted my comment there.
    – Susan
    Mar 14 '15 at 1:44
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    This is either a truth question about what usage is correct and should be on BH (last paragraph is clearly that) or a stump-the-chumps question (your comments on answers suggest this). Questions are not for proving something wrong. Please edit this to be a proper question per the guidelines of one site or another.
    – Caleb
    Mar 14 '15 at 4:32
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    You appear to be trying to force a square peg into a round hole. If you have a question about a Christian tradition's doctrinal viewpoint ask about that. Such a question would not have all the original language stuff and wouldn't need to depend on a hermetical argument about the nature of a text. As it stands this is more and more a BH thing: the area of expertise that deals with the sort of content this question is full of is there, not here. Even if the answer is "a reading in context can only produce X, Y can only be arrived at through a doctrinal lens", the site that can say that is BH.
    – Caleb
    Mar 14 '15 at 5:09

Regardless of later usage, exegesis should look at the original language and the likely original meaning of a text. In the original Hebrew, Isaiah 7:14 uses the word 'almah, which means 'young woman' and is used only in this sense in nine other references in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word for 'virgin' is betulah and is used exclusively in that sense more than fifty times in the Hebrew Bible. Ian Wilson says in Jesus, page 46, that while 'almah carries a general connotation of eligibility for marriage, this does not necessarily mean virginity. Nevertheless, nearly all English-language Christian Bibles say 'virgin' in Isaiah 7:14.

In chapter 7, in the reign of Ahaz, Jerusalem has survived a threat from Assyria and now the Aramaeans and Israelites (Ephraim) are the next threat (*). However, in 7:7-9, the Lord tells Isaiah that they will not succeed, and that Israel will be destroyed within just sixty five years (... within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people.). He offers to provide Ahaz with a sign from God, to dissuade him from forming an alliance with Assyria, but Ahaz refuses. Isaiah presses the point, saying that a son shall be born, called Immanuel, and that he will be holy and there will be peace and prosperity. In other words, I propose that Isaiah believed that this good news would help him persuade the king that God favoured Isaiah’s advice (**).

In spite of Christian tradition, this oracle could probably be linked to the birth of a royal baby in Isaiah 9:5-6:

For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion [kingship] rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, From David's throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains By judgment and justice, both now and forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this!

(*) At this stage, we must distinguish Israel (Ephraim) from Judah. They were separate nations and occasionally at war, as in this case. In later centuries, Judah glossed over these differences and adopted the name ‘Israelite’ for themselves, perhaps with a view to justifying a claim on the rich northern lands of what was later known as Samaria, in line with its chief city and capital, Samaria.

(**) I used to think that 7:14 refers to the prophet's wife and her baby (Isaiah 8:3), simply because of the proximity to 7:14, but I admit I was being lazy - a son born to a sometimes irritating prophet is not a sign that would make a king feel blessed by God . As I understood Isaiah better, I realised that the reference was to the royal baby mentioned in 9:5-6. In particular, only the expectation of a son would make the king feel blessed by God and willing to heed the words of his prophet. Isaiah 9:5-6 describes the king's son in raptuous terms, followed in the remainder of chapter 9 by news of the defeat of Israel, which had so recently threatened Judah.

  • Are you suggesting that Isaiah 9:5–6 is NOT prophesying of Christ's birth, but of some other "royal baby"? And what does the split of Israel and Judah have to fo with the interpretation of Isaiah 7:14? You've lost me. Mar 13 '15 at 7:15
  • @BrianHitchcock If indeed the original Hebrew did not say 'virgin', then this passage could not have been a prophecy of the birth of Jesus, and that is in fact the consensus of the great majority of critical scholars. As the question itself tells us, the earliest Hebrew texts we have do say 'young woman', not 'virgin'. Mar 13 '15 at 7:26
  • I never mentioned a split between Israel and Judah, but stated that the text of the Book of Isaiah tells us that Israel were preparing for war against each other. It is this that explains the reason for what Isaiah is saying in chapter 7, where he is counselling King Ahaz not to enter into an alliance with Assyria, to fight Israel. History tells us that Judah did eventually enter into an alliance with Assyria, resulting in Assyria conquering Israel in 722 BCE. Has this helped? Mar 13 '15 at 7:32
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    @BrianHitchcock I can only suggest that instead of looking at a translation, look at the original Hebrew version and assume this original to be correct, at least as the Hebrew author Isaiah intended it. The original does not specifically refer to a virgin (betulah), although an 'almah (young woman) could be a virgin. To understand what Isaiah meant, we need to know the context, and I provided that context. Isaiah wanted to avoid war between Judah and Israel and hoped that with the inspiration of God, news of an impending royal birth would make Ahaz happy. Mar 13 '15 at 20:17
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    Reading meaning OUT of a text will usually involve asking what the author meant, but occasionally & secondarily it can be what (objectively) it means now. Eusegesis could be reading what we (or early Christians) would like the text to mean. If we want 7:14 to refer to a virgin either i) we can see that is what the author meant (by word choice & context) or ii) we decide this is what it should mean, and we create an explanation that suits our purpose. In this case, it is clearly not what Isaiah meant. <intended before yr last post> Mar 14 '15 at 6:41

Ver. 23. Behold a virgin,[5] &c. The Jews sometimes objected, as we see in St. Justin's dialogue with Tryphon, that the Hebrew word alma, in the prophet Isaias, signified no more than a young woman. But St. Jerome tells us that alma signifies a virgin kept close up. Let the Jews, says he, shew me any place in which the Hebrew word alma, is applied to any one that is not a virgin, and I will own my ignorance. Besides the very circumstances in the text of the prophet, are more than a sufficient confutation of this Jewish exposition; for there a sign, or miracle, is promised to Achaz; and what miracle would it be for a young woman to have a child, when she had ceased to be a virgin? (Witham) --- How happens it that nowhere in the gospels, or in any other part, do we find Christ called Emmanuel? I answer, that in the Greek expression the name is given for the thing signified; and the meaning is: He shall be a true Emmanuel, i.e., a God with us, true God and true man. (Estius) --- The text says, they shall call, i.e., all men shall look upon Him as an Emmanuel. Again, his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty, the Prince of peace, &c., i.e., He shall be all these, not so much nominally, as really and in effect. (Haydock)

Haydock Bible commentary, Matthew 1 Verse 23 http://haydock1859.tripod.com/id1730.html

  • Thanks for your answer. Emmanuel is a name it doesn't mean that Jesus is actually God with us it might be that through Jesus God's present is with us just like with the prophets in the past. Isaiah 7 has a context and that context fit solely to early pre exilic Judaism before Babylonian captivity. That prophecy already fulfilled by Isaiah's virgin wife who gave birth to a son. There is no indication that there would be a second or eschatological fulfillment. If not Mormon would do the same to any NT passages. That would be hermeneutical chaos. Mar 13 '15 at 14:57
  • Did you even read my comment? My comment states that Emmanuel is both true God and true man. And for you to deny Jesus divinity is to show that you have some serious spiritual problems. John Chapter 1 explicitly affirms that Christ is God, the Word made Flesh. And Jesus himself says, "The Father and I are one."
    – Azygos
    Mar 14 '15 at 5:12
  • Have you read my profile? I'm not denying Christ's divinity. Mar 14 '15 at 5:15

"Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." Isaiah 7:14

As Azygos notes, it is not much a sign if a young women gives birth to a son. What would be the significance or the reason for the middle phrase.

However, the more decisive reason is that most Christians believe the gospels to be divinely inspired. In Matthew it is written:

So all this was done so that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: "Behold, the virgin shall be with children and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel," which is translated "God with us". (Matthew 1:22-23).

  • First you might want to check the first footnote on my question. The sign mentioned in v14 is that the two kings who threatened King Ahaz would be destroyed quickly in v15. It is fulfilled in the next chapter with the birth of a child to the prophet Isaiah, see 8:4. The women mentioned in Isaiah 7:14 and 8:3-4 are one and the same and that she is Isaiah’s wife. The sign is that Isaiah’s child will be born quickly and before he matures the nations who threaten the Kingdom of Judea will be defeated. Isaiah’s children are specifically referred to as a “signs” from God, see 8:18. Mar 14 '15 at 3:09

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