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Question

Father Angelo,

I am writing to you because for some time I have had ( I have been having) a doubt about the famous prophecy of the prophet Isaiah  on the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary (Is 7:14) and  I would like to be able to understand it better with your help.

My doubt, or rather my desire to  better understand, arose from the fact that I have been in contact with a person of Jewish faith for a certain period of time due to work reasons. This person has been studying the Hebrew language for many years, that is, since he was a child, as he belongs to a very important Jewish community. One day, while we were talking about the Holy Scriptures, we ended up on this topic and he basically told me that the prophecy of the ImmaculateConception of the Virgin Mary never happened (took place) in the Hebrew Bible  because, according to what he says, the Hebrew Bible (Masoretic text) reads: «The young woman has conceived and is about to give birth», and not «The virgin will conceive and give birth» (in the future), and it refers to the wife of King Ahaz. Later I did some research on the subject and, in a book written by a biblical scholar, I found the following: «Verse 14 of the seventh chapter of the book of Isaiah has always been used to argue(prove) that the prophet had foretold the  conception and the birth of Jesus by a girl who, having been chosen by God as the mother of his only-begotten son, remained a virgin before, during, and after the event: we recall the aforementioned dogma of the Catholich Church that in 553 defined the perpetual virginity of the Madonna during the council of Constantinople.)

The verse is traditionally rendered as follows: «Behold the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Emmanuel».

This reading has been preached for centuries as proof that Isaiah, inspired by God, foretold the extraordinary event.

But is it really so?

The Hebrew text is as follows: Here is a girl-the pregnant woman giving birth-and she will call-and her-name us-with EL

The Hebrew text is clear, it states that the young girl (with the article) – this is the meaning of «almah» – is pregnant and about to give birth.

«Almah» defines a girl, because the Hebrew term for virgin is «birullah» and the distinction is clear and unambiguous.

It is not the same in Greek for which the term “parthenos” indicates both a young girl and a virgin , allowing a possible confusion that could be either the result of good faith or of an express desire to direct the meaning rather in a direction than in another)

Whoever wants to find the «virgin» there, can do it  in  Greek, but this misrepresentation is not possible with the Hebrew language, the original one in which the Old Testament was written: in the latter, in fact, the distinction is clear.

But there is more to confirm what is being said.

Isaiah therefore refers to a precise situation that is occurring at the moment in which he (or whoever for him) is writing:

– there is «the» young girl, who is obviously known and identified because she is indicated with the article;

– the young girl is pregnant at that time, that is, she is already expecting the child;

– she is giving birth (the verb is in the participle «ioledet», that is, she is about to give birth to her child: the birth is imminent.

The verse has no reference to an event  to be placed in a distant and unspecified future: it is taking place under the eyes of the writer and represents the hope for a change from the disastrous situation in which the kingdom finds itself at that moment .

As mentioned above, however, we have further confirmation: the Bible also reveals the name of the pregnant girl: Abiyyah (abbreviated to Abi), daughter of Zechariah, young wife of Ahaz, king of Judah (8th century BC) .

The girl clearly identified with the article was therefore her and was about to have the son Hezekiah, who will succeed to his father at the age of 25 and will reign for another 29 years, giving concrete form to the hopes that were placed in him:   in fact he  did what was right in the eyes of Yahweh (2Ch 29, 1). We do not intend to enter here into the merits of what his father Ahaz had previously done  as to generate strong hopes for a national redemption,  hopes which were  consequently placed in his son who was about to be born.

Instead, we would like to note that the German Catholic bishops’ conference has  perceived the true meaning of Is 7:14 and has therefore included the correct translation in the new editions of the Bible , explaining in a note that the Hebrew term «almaha» means precisely «young girl » (Die Bibel, Herder, Stuttgart 2016).There is no signs of the  prophecy about Mary who, in an unspecified future, would have given birth to Jesus while remaining a virgin. Furthermore, I also consulted the «new great biblical commentary» published by the Querinian publishing house and basically it reads the same. 

Excuse me for the length of my email, but I would like your opinion on this.

Thank you in advance for your kindness and availability.


Response from the priest

Dearest,

1. you made a learned disquisition on the meaning of «almah», on its meaning and to whom it refers.

However, you have skipped the most important piece, the one that supports everything else.

You did not mention the LXX (Seventy).

2. As everyone knows, the four Gospels which have been transmitted  to us were written in Greek. In the Gospels, reference is often made to the Old Testament.

It is clear that the evangelists had to quote it in Greek.

What have they done?

They took the current Greek translation, which was that of the LXX.

3  At that time the Jews used to hold this translation in great esteem, so much (so) as to surround it with a legendary «aura» according to which, around 250 BC., by order of King Ptolemy Philadelphus, the Hebrew Bible was translated in Greek by 72 translators in 72 days for the use of the Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt and in the rest of the diaspora, who. by now no longer knew Hebrew.

Here is what Treccani encyclopedia reports: According to the most ancient tradition, King Ptolemy Philadelphus would have called 72 translators in Egypt (6 for each of the 12 tribes of Israel), who would have translated, in 72 days, the Pentateuch».

This tradition, recollected in the Epistle of Aristea, was later expanded and partly modified: already in Philo (Life of Moses) we find mentioned the prodigious fact that each of the 72 translators would have worked in complete isolation, with the final result perfectly identical to that of all the others; then, the translation of the entire Old Testament was attributed to the Seventy and their number was rounded up to 70; according to some writers, they would have worked on the version in pairs, no longer isolated .

4. The version of the LXX was believed to be inspired and therefore was kept in high consideration.

Apart from the legendary «aura», it is true that it was translated by expert Jews over a period of time ranging from 250 to 100 BC.

Only from the beginning of the current era, when Christians started to use this same translation, did the esteem of the Jews towards the LXX decrease to the point that they made new translations, and fixed the official Hebrew text in the so-called Masoretic text. Such work was done between the 5th and 10th centuries after Christ.

5. Now the LXX (i.e. the Jewish doctors) translate the Hebrew Almah with «Parthènos».

«Almah» means young woman, young girl. It also means virgin.

Why did the LXX opt for virgin?

Have these doctors been mistaken on this point? Or have they expressed common beliefs regarding Isaiah’s prophecy?

And what prophecy would it be to indicate that a woman is about to give birth?

The Jerusalem Bible writes: «The text of the LXX is a precious witness of the ancient Jewish interpretation».

6. But there are not only the LXXs.

It is the deeper meaning of «almah» that connects this girl to Mary.

Here is what St. Jerome, a great connoisseur of the Hebrew text, says: As far as I remember, I have never heard that «almah» means married woman, but one who is a virgin: indeed, not only a virgin, but a virgin of a younger age, in the years of ‘adolescence. In fact, there could be a late-age virgin, but this virgin was in the years of puberty (in annis puellaribus): or certainly a virgin, but not a child, and also who may not have known a man yet, but was already a virgin married.

In this case we understand even better the question posed by Our Lady, who was already married to St. Joseph, but had not yet gone to live with him. The Jews in fact  used to celebrate the marriage in two stages:at  first they would stipulate the contract and only after  six months or a year they would actually   live together.

Here is the text of St. Luke’s Gospel: In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city in Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin, betrothed to a man of the house of David, named Joseph. The virgin was called Mary.

Entering her, he said: «Rejoice, full of grace: the Lord is with you.» At these words she was very upset and wondered what was the meaning of a greeting like this.

The angel said to her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, because you have found grace with God. And behold, you will conceive a son, you will give birth to him and you will call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High; the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever and his kingdom will have no end. 

Then Mary said to the angel: “How will this happen, since I don’t know a man?” (Lk 1: 26-34).

She was already married, as clearly emerges from Mt 1,20: «Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your bride with you. In fact, the child that is generated in her comes from the Holy Spirit».

7. The Jerusalem Bible still writes: Even if Isaiah immediately has the birth of a son of Ahaz in sight, for example Hezekiah (…) we can understand, from the solemnity given to the oracle and from the strong sense of the symbolic name given to the son, which Isaiah glimpses in this royal birth, beyond the present circumstances, an intervention of God in view of the definitive messianic kingdom. The prophecy of Emmanuel therefore surpasses its immediate realization, and legitimately the evangelists (Mt 1,23 quoting 7.14; Mt 4.15 -16 quoting Is 8,23-9,1), then the whole Christian tradition, they recognized the announcement of the birth of Christ.

8. Furthermore, according to G. Girotti, the  specific article with which this young woman is indicated «does not necessarily mean a virgin already known to readers, but it is also used to introduce a Virgin who is well determined in herself, but who still cannot be known from the context».

Therefore in our case, the Virgin may very well be unknown to listeners, but she is introduced with the definite article because the prophet sees her as very determined in his vision. According to St. John Chrysostom, this article represents some famous person, indeed unique (Comment on Isaiah, p. 205).

9. Finally, in order not to act like the JWs  or other fundamentalists who take a verse disconnecting it from the whole context, this must also be said: how can one say that the son of Ahab’s wife would have been it: ” Because a child was born for us, a child was given to us.

On his shoulders is power and his name will be: Admirable Counselor, Mighty God, Father forever, Prince of Peace.

Great will be his power and peace will have no end on the throne of David and on his kingdom, which he comes to consolidate and strengthen with law and justice, now and forever (Is 9: 5-6).

G. Girotti writes: The names of this child are four and represent his attributes, his superhuman qualities. By attributing them to the child, Isaiah clearly wanted to make it clear that the child he saw is not a human child, nor just a child of royal blood, but a child of a much higher order (Commentary on Isaiah, p. 244).

10. The prophet Micah 5: 1-4 also alludes to the woman who has to give birth: And you, Bethlehem of Ephra, so small to be among the villages of Judah, the one who must be the ruler in Israel will come out of you for me; whose origins are from antiquity, from the most remote days.

Therefore God will place them in the power of others until she gives birth to the one who is to give birth; and the rest of your brothers will return to the children of Israel.

He will rise up and feed with the strength of the Lord, with the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. They will live safely, for he will then be great to the ends of the earth.

He himself will be peace! (Mi 5,1-4).

Comment M-J. Lagrange: «The one that must give birth not only coincides with the almah, but, as far as we can understand it, also establishes the meaning contained within it, and which is contained in its indeterminacy».

Isaiah certainly spoke of a divine Savior and Micah 5, 3-4 alludes to the same belief. Both await the salvation of Israel from a blossoming Child of mysterious origin and speak of the Mother in this regard. Isaiah designates her rather as the young woman which for us still practically means a virgin. The translation of the LXX proves that this was its meaning, because there is no possible discussion on the translation of parthenos.

It is well understood that «almah» means, properly speaking, a young woman.

Therefore not married. If she has a child, one must choose between an illegitimate birth or a supernatural birth. The works of the critics have precisely shown that parthenogenesis was on the horizon of the ancients and that consequently the prophet was able to allude to it (Le judaisme avant Jésus-Christ, p. 365, note 1).

11. There is nothing to complain about the «young girl» translation you mentioned at the end of your email. It conforms to what I have told you so far.

However, you argue that here we cannot see an allusion to Mary’s virginity.

Well, here’s what G. Girotti writes: Having seen her also in childbirth, we can speak of a virgin birth. Of course, virgin birth is on the subject, and those who already know it from another source see it affirmed also in this verse. Furthermore, virgin birth is confirmed by tradition, as the Holy Fathers explain our prophecy of the virginal conception and birth.

The argument of tradition, however, is a theological argument, and any Catholic must admit it; but the question is to know whether even from the apologetic point of view, from the text and context alone it should lead to a virginal birth.

It should be noted first and foremost that the prophet’s attention is drawn not to what the virgin was or did, but only to the virgin as she is concipient and giving birth. Now, in the very act of conceiving and giving birth, the prophet does not call her woman or by any other name, but a virgin. Therefore we must admit that the virgin kept her virginity both in conception and in childbirth. The prophet then, supernaturally enlightened, predicts conception and childbirth as virginals (Commentary on Isaiah, pp. 205-206).

12. As you can see, the Church’s argument is well founded in the Sacred Scripture and indeed in the Hebrew Bible.

The translation of the LXX compiled by Jewish doctors of the first and second centuries BC reveals a common faith and expectation.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to say everything I’ve written.

I wish you could study the Scriptures even more deeply. You will then touch how true is what Jesus said about himself: You are searching the Scriptures, thinking that you have eternal life in them: it is they that bear witness to me (Jn 5:39) and If you believed in Moses, you would believe me, too; because he wrote about me (Jn 4:46).

I bless you and remind you to the Lord on the evening of this beautiful day dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii and to the patronage of the Virgin Mary on the Dominican Order.

Father Angelo