"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21

Q & A – Does the Hebrew Word Alma Really Mean “Virgin”?

May 30, 2011

in Christianity:,Judaism vs. Christianity,Judaism:,Noahide - The Ancient Path,Questions and Answers,Rabbi Tovia Singer,The Torah

Question: 

Dear Rabbi Singer,

I have listened to your tapes and I have also read a number of your articles on your web site regarding Christ’s virgin birth and you make some very good points.  I have discussed this issue with my pastor and although he did remark that he finds your arguments “interesting” he brought up a good argument (I think).  He asked that if the Hebrew word alma only meant “young woman” and not “virgin,” why is it that in every place the word alma appears in the Bible it is always referring to a virgin?  I think he has made a good point and will relate your answer to him.  I thank you in advance.

Answer:

Your pastor’s contention that “every place the word alma appears in the Bible it is always referring to a virgin” is incorrect.  This is not the first time I have come across a Christian who has made this erroneous assertion; and each and every time I hear it I am puzzled as to why these apologists do not do their research before making this claim.  This is especially the case in our modern age where computer technology has made simple word studies so quick and easy to research.  I will briefly explain your question for the readers of our website who are unfamiliar with this subject.

For nearly two millennia the church has insisted that the Hebrew word alma can only mean “virgin.”  The church must hold this position because Matthew 1:22-23 translates alma in Isaiah 7:14 as “virgin.”  The first Gospel quotes this well-known verse to provide the only “Old Testament” proof text for the supposed virgin birth of Jesus.  The stakes are high for Christendom, because if the Hebrew word alma does not mean virgin, Matthew is misquoting the prophet Isaiah, and both a key tenet of Christianity and the credibility of the first Gospel collapses.

How accurate is this Christian claim?  The place to explore this issue is in the Jewish scriptures.  If the Hebrew word alma means virgin then each usage in the Bible must be either a clear reference to a virgin or at least be ambiguous.  The word alma appears in the Jewish scriptures seven times.  If even one reference clearly refers to a woman who is not a virgin, then Matthew’s rendition of Isaiah 7:14 becomes untenable.

One of the places where the uncommon Hebrew word alma appears in the Bible is in Proverbs 30:18-20 which reads,

There are three things which are too wonderful for me, four which I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship in the middle of the sea, and the way of a man with a young woman [b’alma].  This is the way of an adulterous woman: she eats and wipes her mouth, and says, “I have done no wrong.”

In the above three verses, King Solomon compares a man with an alma to three other things: an eagle in the sky, a serpent on a rock, and a ship in the sea.  What do these three things all have in common?  They leave no trace.  After the eagle has flown across the sky, determining that the eagle had ever flown there is impossible.  Once a snake has slithered over a rock, there is no way to discern that the snake had ever crossed there (as opposed to a snake slithering over sand or grass, where it leaves a trail).  After a ship has moved across the sea, the water comes together behind it and there is no way to tell that a ship had ever passed through there.  Similarly, King Solomon informs us that once a man has been with an alma there is also no trace of the fornication that had occurred between them.  Therefore, in the following verse (verse 20) King Solomon explains that once this adulterous woman has eaten (a metaphor for her fornication), she removes the trace of her sexual activity by exclaiming, “I have done no wrong.”  The word alma clearly does not mean virgin.

In the same way that in the English language the words “young woman” have no bearing on whether virginity is present or not, in the Hebrew language there is no relationship between the words alma and virgin.  On the contrary, it is usually a young woman who bears children.  Had Isaiah wished to speak about a virgin birth, he would have used the word betulah1 not alma.  Betulah is a common word in the Jewish scriptures, and can only mean “virgin.”

Sincerely yours,

Rabbi Tovia Singer
Footnote:

1 In fact, although Isaiah used the Hebrew word alma only one time in his entire corpus (7:14), the prophet uses this word virgin (betulah) five times throughout the book of Isaiah (23:4; 23:12; 37:22; 47:1; 62:5).

 

 

 

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