The doctrine of the virgin birth—that Mary conceived and bore Jesus without ever having had intercourse with a human male—is one of the oldest Christian doctrines. It dates all the way back to the early Church and has remained a part of many Christian orthodoxies even until modern times. It is also no revelation that the doctrine relies for its textual evidence upon a mistranslation.
I would like to examine two things. First, what exactly are the sources for this doctrine, and how did this mistranslation arise in the first place? And second, how and why did it continue to perpetuate itself through the years, even though its foundation has been known to be questionable for a very long time? (This has been cut for length: my answers to these questions can be found after the jump.)
Let’s attack the sources first. The original text is the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 (all translations are my own):
לָ֠כֵן יִתֵּ֨ן אֲדֹנָ֥י ה֛וּא לָכֶ֖ם א֑וֹת הִנֵּ֣ה הָֽעַלְמָ֗ה הָרָה֙ וְיֹלֶ֣דֶת בֵּ֔ן וְקָרָ֥את שְׁמ֖וֹ עִמָּ֥נוּ אֵֽל׃
Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold, the young woman (‘almah) shall become pregnant and bear a son, and name him Immanuel.
Note that the Hebrew word ‘almah means “young woman” and does not imply anything about the sexual status of the person in question. However, this all changed when the language moved out of Hebrew. In the third century and later, the Bible was translated into Greek for the benefit of most Jews, who no longer spoke Hebrew. This translation was called the Septuagint (LXX for short), and its version of Isaiah 7:14 runs like this:
δία τοῦτο δώσει Κύριος αὐτὸς ὑμῖν σημεῖον· ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ λήψεται, καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἐμμανουήλ.
Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold, the virgin (parthenos) will conceive in the womb, and bear a son, and you will call his name Emmanuel.
The Greek word parthenos means “virgin” specifically, and does not lack the ambiguity of the Hebrew word ‘almah. It is interesting to note that other Greek texts besides the LXX use the word νεᾶνις neanis, meaning “young woman” without any sexual connotations, but the parthenos reading came to dominate the textual tradition. This is obvious from looking at later translations, such as Jerome’s Latin Vulgate of the fourth century CE, which was translated directly out of the Hebrew but with a strong eye toward the previous textual tradition:
propter hoc dabit Dominus ipse vobis signum: ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium et vocabitis nomen eius Emmanuhel.
Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold, the virgin (virgo) will conceive and bear a son, and you will call his name Emmanuel.
By the time of the writing of (at least) the Gospel of Matthew, the conceit that Mary was a virgin was already built in to the theology, and in fact was a necessary condition of that theology to make the prophecies of the Old Testament be brought to fulfilment by the events in the New Testament. The best example of this is Matthew 1:20–23:
ταῦτα δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐνθυμηθέντος ἰδοὺ ἄγγελος κυρίου κατ’ ὄναρ ἐφάνη αὐτῷ λέγων, Ἰωσὴφ υἱὸς Δαυίδ, μὴ φοβηθῇς παραλαβεῖν Μαριὰμ τὴν γυναῖκά σου, τὸ γὰρ ἐν αὐτῇ γεννηθὲν ἐκ πνεύματός ἐστιν ἁγίου· τέξεται δὲ υἱὸν καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν, αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν. τοῦτο δὲ ὅλον γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ κυρίου διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος, Ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσσουσιν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἐμμανουήλ, ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον Μεθ’ ἡμῶν ὁ θεός.
But when he had made up his mind to do this [i.e. not to marry Mary and send her away], a messenger from the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph son of David, do not fear taking Mary as your wife, for the child conceived within her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus for he will save the people from their sins.” This took place to fulfil the word of the Lord through His prophet: “Behold, the virgin will conceive in her womb and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”
So there you have it. A seemingly innocuous substitution—parthenos for ‘almah, “virgin” for “young woman”—and we have, by the time of the codification of the New Testament, a doctrine that Jesus was conceived of Mary, a virgin, via the Holy Spirit. Errors of textual transmission have been supplemented by theology to create a chimera of a whole different sort.
(The astute reader will have noticed that I did not attempt to deal with all the other transmission problems in this text, notably the identity and number of those doing the naming, and the exact phrasing for “conceive”. I am content to leave the tracking of and wrangling over these things as an exercise for the reader.)
Let me turn now (briefly, I promise) to my second question: why is this doctrine still around, and how does it keep itself going? The answer, as I alluded to above, is that it is essentially indestructible. Like the alien in Alien or the myth about Eskimo words for snow, once the “virgin” mistranslation was loose in the wild, there was no stopping it. And indeed, slaying this chimera is now all but impossible, since there have been so many layers of theological edifice constructed on top of it in the two thousand or so years since it first got its start. Right or wrong, this doctrine is here to stay.
Also, I suspect that a long undercurrent of anti-translationism in many parts of the Western world, which regarded the Vulgate as the only authoritative Bible for centuries and were responsible for the burning at the stake of anyone who owned or produced a translated Bible is partially responsible as well. Currently, this belief seems to take the form of an antipathy toward textual criticism in general, which has as its root the assumption that the Bible is a human document, produced by humans, and susceptible to human error. This is especially evident in the King James Only movement, but more generally in those who argue that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. We simply cannot begin to understand these issues unless you accept that the text of the Bible has changed over the centuries, as it has been passed through different hands and been translated into different languages.
“You may ask,” Tevye the dairyman once noted, “how do these traditions get started? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.” Although Tevye didn’t believe in the virgin birth, and we do know how the tradition behind this doctrine got started, his larger point remains valid: it’s a tradition, and regardless of how unfounded or silly they are, traditions oftentimes take on lives all their own.
- Textual transmission and the silencing of voices by Sam August 6, 2008
- Google Says the World Was Made, Made Pretty By Men by Shelby Knox July 6, 2010
- Some thoughts on gender and Judaism by Sam August 9, 2008
- Some thoughts on homosexuality and Judaism by Sam August 8, 2008
- Where Are We Going, And Why Are We In This Handbasket? by Thomas May 1, 2008