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Questioning Virginity

‘Virgins or Grapes? The Koran Revisited” is the title of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s August 5 hopeful reflections on new scholarly readings of the Koran, which suggest that the famous “virgins” of the Muslim paradise, reputed to be one of the world-to-come’s rewards for faithful Muslims and (in some circles) suicide bombers, actually were “white grapes” for Muhammed. Since this subject was dealt with in these pages more than two years ago, in a March 15, 2002, column, I won’t return to it other than to point out that in terms of Islamic beliefs as opposed to Koranic intentions, it is quite irrelevant. Muslim commentators always have taken the passages in question to refer to virgins, not grapes, and this is how Muslims have understood them and will continue to do so.

One might say something similar regarding a much more notorious textual debate concerning Scriptural virginity, namely the age-old quarrel between Judaism and Christianity about the meaning of the Hebrew word almah in Isaiah 7:14 — a verse that reads: “Behold an almah shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [i.e., “God is with us”].” Does almah mean a virgin, as traditional Christian commentators, interpreting it as a prophetic allusion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, have believed? Or does it simply mean a young, unmarried woman, as Jewish commentators, accusing the Christians of distortion, have insisted? Although serious men have expended much passion and ink on this question, it is not a serious one from a modern perspective.

Take the well-known Jewish commentator David Kimchi (1160-1235), whose Sefer ha-Berit or “Book of the Covenant,” a medieval debate between a Jewish and Christian scholar, devotes several pages to almah. This word, Kimchi’s Jewish scholar argues, cannot mean “virgin” because there are other places in the Bible where such a meaning makes no sense, such as Proverbs 30:18-19, where we read: “There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with an almah.” Since this last phrase clearly refers to sexual intercourse, how can almah mean a virgin in it? (The Jewish scholar also might have observed, although Kimchi does not have him do it, that Christians themselves recognized this point, since in his canonical fourth-century-C.E. Latin translation of the Bible, Jerome, while rendering almah in Isaiah as virgo, renders it in Proverbs as adolescentia.) The real Hebrew word for “virgin,” the Jew observes, is betulah, not almah, which is the feminine form of elem, a youth or young man.

Kimchi’s Christian is not given any comeback, and the Jew wins this round, hands down. Fair enough — it’s a Jewish book! Yet had it been a Christian one, some good arguments could have been presented on the other side, too. It could have been observed, for example, that in biblical as in medieval times, a young, unmarried woman almost always was a virgin, and that no less an authority than Rashi or Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (d. 1105), the most renowned of all Jewish biblical commentators, actually interprets almah as “virgin” in some places, as in his gloss on the phrase “therefore do the alamot love thee” in Song of Songs 1:3, where he explicitly states: “Alamot [the plural form of almah] are betulot.” And even more damaging from a Jewish point of view, although it occurs in a text that Kimchi did not know, is the fact that the third-century BCE Greek Septuagint, the first Jewish (or any) Bible translation in history, renders the disputed almah in Isaiah as parthenos or “virgin,” too!

And yet to think this really matters is, from a contemporary point of view, putting the cart before the horse. Not only needn’t Jews be disturbed if the word almah in Isaiah can be interpreted legitimately as meaning “virgin,” but they also should realize that such a meaning explains why Christianity came to believe in the virgin birth of Jesus in the first place. In other words, as is the case with many supposed details of Jesus’ life and death in the New Testament, we are dealing here with a legend invented by Jesus’ early disciples in order to portray him as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. It was only because they interpreted almah in Isaiah as “virgin,” as did the Jewish translators of the Septuagint, that they imagined such a story about him.

In the case of both the Koran and the Bible, the attempt to determine the original meaning of this or that text can involve one in fascinating inquiries. But it is only the true believers, those who accept the Koran or Bible as God’s literally given word, who will argue over the theological significance of the conclusions. Religious beliefs and behavior depend not on what a sacred text meant to say, but on what it has been thought to say over the ages by its followers. New advances in scholarship will not change their opinions, Mr. Kristof’s hopes notwithstanding.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected]

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