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Virgin Legend?

A number of readers have written in about my August 13 column, “Questioning Virginity.” All have taken issue with my saying that the Greek word parthenos, in the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew almah in Isaiah 7:14, means “virgin.” Thus, for example, Peter Siegel comments:

“You have fallen into the linguistic equivalent of the urban legend with your unquestioning assumption regarding the meaning of parthenos. Like almah, the term almost certainly meant ‘young women’ at the time of the creation of the Septuagint translation. The fact that many young women were unmarried and hence likely virgins is undeniable. All the same, no Greek child of the time would have been surprised to hear his own mother, chatting with her peers, referred to as a parthenos, based on its plain meaning rather than on one of its several connotations.”

Mel Lubin makes the same point, while David Deutsch writes:

“The problem is that while parthenos usually means ‘virgin,’ it can also mean ‘young women’ and elsewhere in the Septuagint was used as such. Perhaps the best example of this is the Torah reading of Vayishlach, where, after the rape of Dinah, when she is clearly no virgin, the Septuagint refers to her as parthenos in its translation of the Hebrew word na’arah. And so, in Isaiah, we have a situation where a Hebrew word, almah, which normally means ‘young woman’ but can also mean ‘virgin,’ is translated with a Greek word, parthenos, which normally means ‘virgin’ but can mean ‘young woman.’ That leaves it up to debate.”Finally, Yaakov Becker makes a similar point, while adding that “the mythology of a virgin birth has absolutely nothing to do with the Torah.”

Because the translation of almah in Isaiah has been such a theologically loaded issue over the centuries, it is worth pursuing it a bit further — which I might begin doing by observing that, while I am no Greek scholar, my Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, which has served many generations of Greek students as a standard reference work, translates parthenos as “a maid, maiden, virgin,” and lists its adjectival meanings as “virgin, pure, chaste, unsullied.” Moreover, my Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary defines both “maid” and “maiden” as “1. A girl; a young (unmarried) woman; 2. A virgin.”

It is certainly the case that there is an ambiguity in all these definitions, since even in sexually strict societies not every young unmarried woman is a virgin. Yet it is also the case that, had the translators of the Septuagint wished to be less ambiguous, they might have chosen words other than parthenos for Isaiah’s almah, such as koré, which can mean either “young woman” or “young wife” with no implication of virginity at all; pais, or neanis, which also means a young woman and is the Septuagint’s word for Ruth the Moabite when Boaz asks of her: “Who is this damsel?” (The Hebrew word for “damsel” here is na’arah — which, as Mr. Deutsch correctly says, is translated by the Septuagint in the story of Dina as parthenos. But Mr. Deutsch is wrong about parthenos designating Dina after her rape, since it in fact describes her beforehand. Nor do I know what makes Mr. Siegel think that parthenos normally would be used in ancient Greek for a young mother.)

None of this is to dispute Mr. Becker’s statement that there are no virgin births in the Hebrew Bible. The point of my previous column was not, needless to say, that the traditional Christian interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 is the right one, but simply that it is not as linguistically farfetched as its Jewish critics have argued. Nor — and here Mr. Becker will no doubt disagree — is it, in a biblical context, thematically so farfetched either. A repeated motif in the Bible is that of the woman who is unable to conceive until there is divine intervention on her behalf, after which she gives birth to a son who grows up to be a spiritual hero. This is the story of Sarah, of Rebecca, of Rachel and of Hannah. True, all these women are married and quite obviously not virgins, yet their pregnancies are divine miracles nonetheless — Sarah’s even coming after menopause! Furthermore, the Hebrew verb used for God’s intervention in such cases is pakad, as in va-adonai pakad et Sarah — a word that can be translated either as “remembered” or “visited,” and that in the post-biblical Hebrew of the early Christian era even has the occasional sense of “had sexual intercourse with.”

The Christian belief that Mary gave birth to Jesus while she was still a virgin is not necessarily, therefore, a pagan one that has no roots in Judaism. On the contrary: It has very deep Jewish roots, as does the entire story of Jesus, who remains a distinctively Jewish character in the New Testament despite the Gospels’ attempt to distance him from his Jewish background. It is because his first disciples were Jews that, believing his birth to be miraculous, they interpreted almah as “virgin,” and the evidence of the Septuagint does not tell us that this was outlandish.

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