Was Mary a Virgin When She Conceived Jesus?

Frankly, no one can prove Jesus was born of a virgin. Neither can anyone disprove it. Basic human biology and common sense dictates a virgin cannot naturally conceive – conception would require a miracle.

Believing whether Mary was a virgin who miraculously conceived Jesus, if not by faith, boils down to a circumstantial case. Such a scenario requires a conclusion based on the circumstantial evidence.

Jewish marriage was a two-stage process; first the betrothal typically lasting for 12 months, then the wedding to consummate the marriage.[1] Once the proposal was offered to the prospective bride’s father, the finalized details were formally sealed in a binding contract.

Ketubah was a legal marriage contract enacted during the reign of Queen Salome (76-67 BC) and formalized by the Sanhedrin long before Joseph or Mary were ever born. A ketubah was the law of the land.[2]

Family intermediaries vetted the couple’s families, backgrounds and defined the terms of the ketubah, two of whom would eventually sign it as witnesses.[3] Financial details were negotiated including the bride price, the dowry, and any contributions from both families.[4] Monetary values for virgins and non-virgins were predefined by the Sanhedrin.

For the bride, the ketubah provided a trust fund in the event of the husband’s death or a divorce excepting for the disqualifying factor of adultery. For the groom, the ketubah factually and legally established his betrothal was a virgin.[5] The contract found in the Jewish Encyclopedia twice makes specific reference to her virginity:[6]

…“And I will set aside for thee 200 zuz, in lieu of thy virginity, which belong to thee (according to the law of Moses)…”

…“We have followed the legal formality of symbolical delivery [“ḳinyan”] between _____ son of ______ , the bridegroom, and ______ daughter of ______ , this virgin, and have employed an instrument legally fit for the purpose to strengthen all that is stated above, and everything is valid and established.

…………..Bridegroom.

…………..

…………..Witnesses. [7]

During Mary’s betrothal, the Archangel Gabriel announced she would bear a son conceived by the Holy Spirit to which Mary replied, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”[8] By her own account, Mary was a virgin at this point. 

Gabriel informed Mary her cousin Elizabeth was also 6 months pregnant.[9] Excited by this news, she “went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah” to visit Elizabeth – Mary left almost immediately.[10]

From Nazareth to Elizabeth’s home, the trip would have taken 3 to 7 days depending on the town’s exact location near Jerusalem.[11] At the moment of hearing Mary’s voice, the babe in Elizabeth’s womb, who would become John the Baptist, leapt with joy.[12] Elizabeth also already knew that Mary was with child.

In the very short span of about a week, Mary became pregnant. No human could have known she was pregnant at that point, not even Mary herself were it not for Gabriel’s message and Elizabeth’s exclamation. Today’s modern medical pregnancy tests are effective, at the earliest, 10 days after conception and most reliably not until after 3 weeks. At best, a medical blood test can detect pregnancy in as early as 6 days.[13] 

Joseph can be ruled out as the father based on his own reaction to divorce Mary when he unexpectedly learned months later she was pregnant. The possibility that Mary had a secret paramour is a realistic possibility if one does not accept Matthew’s account at face value.[14]

Before reaching a point in her mind to cheat on Joseph, Mary would have to overcome immense hurdles – mentally, spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, and fear. It would be most challenging for a sheltered girl in her early teens still living at home with her parents.[15]

Mentally, Gabriel’s visit had to be a most impactful, unforgettable experience. Mary was told of her future son, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.” [16] Mary then made a commitment to Gabriel and God saying, “Let it be to me according to your word.”[17] Spiritually, to then lose her virginity would be breaking her commitment to Gabriel and God.

Psychologically and emotionally, infidelity would mean betrayal. Mary would have to be willing to betray her own reputation, family, friends, and Joseph bringing them all great shame and disgrace.

Foreboding fear of serious consequences for adultery would be a huge deterrent. Forfeiture of her future financial security was at-risk by breaking the terms of her ketubah contract. Perhaps the greatest deterrent of all was the fear of death by stoning.[18]

Physically she would have to circumvent several traditional safeguards. Betrothed girls subject to Judaic Law were under strict supervision of family and the watchful eye of the community. Unmarried girls were not allowed to be alone at any time with an adult male, not even a family member.[19] While preparing for her spur-of-the-moment trip, Mary would have had to slip away from these guardians of virtue.

If Mary didn’t have a tryst before leaving Nazareth, the only opportunity would be on the journey to visit Elizabeth. Mary would have been required to travel in a caravan with a family-chosen chaperone and her secret paramour would have had to be traveling, too.[20] They would have had to find an opportunity to safely slip away without being caught.

One other factor closes the short period of time for Mary’s conception after Gabriel’s announcement. It was Elizabeth’s own words, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”[21] Would an illegitimate pregnancy have been divinely revealed to Elizabeth who exclaimed that Mary’ and her baby were blessed?

How likely is it that Mary became pregnant by another man – or was she a virgin?

 

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

[1] Brayer. The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature. pp 62-65, 69, 71, 143.  Missler, Chuck. “The Wedding Model.”
[2] “Salome Alexandria.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2018. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/salome-alexandria> “Alexandria.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/1167-alexandra>  “Ketubah.”  Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9290-ketubah>  “Marriage: Ketubbah.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2008. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/ketubbah> Schauss, Hayyim. “Ancient Jewish Marriage.”  MyJewishLearning.com. n.d. <http://www.myjewishlearning.com/life/Relationships/Spouses_and_Partners/About_Marriage/Ancient_Jewish_Marriage.shtml> “The Forgotten Ancient Queen: Salome Alexandra of Judea.” Ancient History. <http://etc.ancient.eu/interviews/the-forgotten-ancient-queen-salome-alexandra-of-judea/Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Ed. Isidore Epstein. “Kethuboth.”  <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/talmud/index.html>  “Ketubah.”  Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Ed. Isidore Epstein. Glossary.  <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/tglossary.html#K
[3] “Ketubah.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  “Dowry.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5297-dowry> Singer, Isidore; Adler, Cyrus, et. al.  The Jewish Encyclopedia. Volume 9. 1912. “Pharisees.” p 663 <https://books.google.com/books?id=lfoOtGOcIBYC&lpg=PA594&ots=6qoCfVVUz7&dq> Schauss, Hayyim.  “Ancient Jewish Marriage.”  “The Origins of the Ketubah”, Ketubah.com. 2014.  <http://www.ketubah.com/templates/template28_article.cfm?article=36>
[4] “Ketubah” and “Dowry.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011.  Singer et. al.  The Jewish Encyclopedia. Vol. 9 “Pharisees.” p 663.  Singer et. al.  The Jewish Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. “Mortgage or Hypothec.” p 37.
[5] Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Kethuboth 12a.
[6] Lamm, Maurice. “The Jewish Marriage Contract (Ketubah).” Chabad.org. <https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/465168/jewish/The-Jewish-Marriage-Contract-Ketubah.htm>
[7] “Ketubah.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011.
[8] Luke 1:34. NASB, NRSV.
[9] Luke 1.
[10] Luke 1:39. NASB.
[11] Luke 1:39.  “Judah.”  Jewish Virtual Library. 2018. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/judah>
[12] Luke 1.
[13] “Pregnancy Tests.” 23 June 2012.  WebMD. 2018. <http://www.webmd.com/baby/guide/pregnancy-tests> “Pregnancy Test.” MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. 2018. <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003432.htm> “Home pregnancy tests: Can you trust the results?” Mayo Clinic. 2018. <http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/getting-pregnant/in-depth/home-pregnancy-tests/art-20047940
[14] Burke, Rodney Wade. Quora. “Do atheists believe Mary engaged in adultery as I do as a Jew?  2015. <https://www.quora.com/Do-atheists-believe-Mary-engaged-in-adultery-as-I-do-as-a-Jew>  “Panthera, the real father of Jesus?” The Evolving Atheist’s Blog. 2009. https://evolvingatheist.wordpress.com/2009/07/05/panthera-the-real-father-of-jesus>
[15] West, Jim. “Ancient Israelite Marriage Customs.”  Quartz Hill School of Theology.  n.d.  http://www.theology.edu/marriage.htm>  Edersheim. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Book II, Chapter 4.
[16] Luke 1:32. NASB. NKJV.
[17] Luke 1:38. NKJV.
[18] Sanhedrin 53a, footnote #3; 59a; 63a; 66b. <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/index.html>
[19] Soncino Babylonian Talmud.  Kethuboth 12a, 12b, 13a, 13b.  “Adultery.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011.  Brayer.  The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature. pp 142-143.
[20] Brayer. The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature. p 142-143.
[21] NRSV, NASB, NKJV, ESV, Berean, WEB.

Isaiah 7:14 – A Virgin Birth Prophecy?

Of all the Isaiah prophecies about the Messiah, Isaiah 7:14 is probably the most controversial. Why? Because Judaism and some others say the prophecy is not about a virgin birth, yet Matthew’s Gospel says Jesus was born of a virgin fulfilling this prophecy.

One single Hebrew word – `almah – is the source of the controversy.[1] Most Christian Bibles translate the word as “virgin” whereas Jewish Bibles and a few Christian Bibles translate it as “young woman.”

“Virgin” vs. “young woman” – those who believe that Isaiah 7:14 is a messianic prophecy pointing to a miraculous virgin birth of a son versus those who believe it is a short-term prediction about a young woman, not necessarily a virgin, who was to bear a son.[2]

Translation of ancient Hebrew text into English is not an exact science where there is not a word-for-word translation equivalent. Hebrew words can serve as either a noun or a verb requiring the translator to take a more wholistic view of the text to understand the context.[3]

Language analysis is a scientific study of word usage by the speaker or author.[4] Word choice and its intended meaning are determined by the speaker (or writer) which may not necessarily be the same meaning applied by the listener (or the reader or translator). The key is unlocking the word definition code of the speaker or writer.

Four Hebrew words come into play in deciphering the meaning of `almah. Lowest common denominator is na`arah meaning “girl” or “young woman” where there is no specific implication of virginity. To say “the girl (na`arah) is wearing a pink blouse,” for example, does not specifically indicate virginity unless additional clarification is added.

Just the opposite of na`arah is betulah explicitly meaning “virgin.” It commonly appears as a metaphor of a virgin in judgements, lamentations, or blessings. A separate category of betulah is used in a legalistic context in the Law always used in the strictest sense of a virgin.

In the remaining few instances, betulah is always used as an adjective or in an adjective clause to clarify na `arah or a noun within the sentence; or immediately prior to the sentence within the context of na `arah. For example: “the girl [na `arah] was a very beautiful virgin [betulah]” or  “Tamar [noun], for she was a virgin [betulah];” or “my virgin [betulah] daughter [noun].”[5] 

Just as important is when betulah is not used. The word is not found as the direct subject of a sentence who initiates a present or future tense action nor does it appear as a standalone noun to represent a specific female subject in the sentence. For example, there are no instances that say something like “betulah shall call;” “betulah plays;” “betulah shall bear;or “betulah loves.”[6]

Last of the three Hebrew words referring to a young female is the rarest –`almah – appearing only 7 times in the entire Bible. It is the feminine version stemming from the Hebrew word `elem meaning “something kept out of sight.”[7]

Unlike betulah, none of the instances of `almah are used in metaphors, legalistic definitions, as adjectives or in adjective clauses. Instead, the word is used exclusively to make reference to a special class of virgins only in a royal context – of God or Hebrew royalty.

As a standalone noun, `almah does not need further clarification from an adjective or adjective clause. Similarly, it is never used as an adjective or in an adjective clause to define the subject. For example, there are no instances such as “the girl [na `arah] was a very beautiful `almah; “Tamar, for she was an `almah;” nor “my `almah daughter”.

In five instances, `almah is the direct subject who initiates an action only in the present or future tense:  “`almah playing tambourines”, “`almah went and called”, “`almah love you”, “`almah comes out to draw water,” and “`almah shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call.”[8]

In the two remaining instances, one is where the virgins available to the King are being quantified:  “`almah without number.”[9] In the other, the King expresses wonderment of “the way of a man with `almah” when it comes to love.[10]

By contrast is the word `ishshah used in reference an adult female, a woman, a wife or even an adulteress. With the use of this word, virginity is no longer assumed or expected.[11]

Only one place in the Bible contains all four words in reference to the same female figure, Rebekah, and it is the earliest appearance of `almah. The passage in Genesis 24 makes it the codex for unlocking the meaning of all four Hebrew words.

Abraham had sent his servant back to his previous homeland to find a bride for Isaac, but he did not give the servant any qualifications for her except that she had to willing agree to marry Isaac. The servant had no idea how to go about finding the bride in an unfamiliar land so he prayed for a sign that led him to find Rebekah.

Gen. 24:16 “Now the young woman [na ‘arah] was very beautiful to behold, a virgin [betulah]; no man had known her.”

v. 43 “behold, I stand by the well of water; and it shall come to pass that when the virgin [`almah] comes out to draw water, and I say to her…”

v. 44 “let her be the woman [`ishshah] whom the LORD has appointed for my master’s son.” (NKJV)

Rebekah is first described in the past tense using the combination of na ‘arah with betulah. Her virginity is further emphasized by saying that “no man had known her.” Later, when recounting his story to her brother, Laban, and Rebekah’s family, the servant used a present tense narrative, now referring to Rebekah as the `almah.

With triple, yet different, references to Rebekah’s virginity, there can be no doubt that she is being described as a virgin. Josephus, a Pharisee expert, wrote in Antiquities saying Rebekah viewed Laban as the “guardian of my virginity” after her father had died.[12]

At the end of the passage, the servant refers to Rebekah in the future tense as `ishshah saying he hopes that she will become the wife of Isaac. In this context, she would be an adult woman who is not a virgin where the use of na ‘arah, betulah nor `almah would not be accurate.

Comparing the Genesis codex definition of `almah as “virgin” to the other 6 uses of `almah in the Bible, in all instances `almah is always used as a standalone noun in the context of a virgin in a royal setting.  The language analysis conclusion:  the meaning of `almah exclusively means “virgin” – no adjectives or further clarifications is needed.

Was Isaiah 7:14 a prophecy of a virgin birth of a son or was it a prediction about a young woman known to Isaiah and King Ahaz to whom he was speaking?

 

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

[1] Net.bible.org. Isaiah 7 Hebrew text.
[2] Nahigian, Kenneth E. “A Virgin-Birth Prophesy?” Skeptic Tank Files. n.d. <http://www.skeptictank.org/files/sr/2virgi93.htm> Cramer, Robert Nguyen. “The Book of Isaiah.” The BibleTexts.com. 1998 <http://www.bibletexts.com/verses/v-isa.htm>  Cline, Austin. “Who Was Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus? Was She Really a Virgin?” <http://atheism.about.com/od/biblepeoplenewtestament/p/MaryVirgin.htm>  Yosef, Uri.  “Isaiah 7:14 – Part 1: An Accurate Grammatical Analysis.” 2011. <http://thejewishhome.org/counter/Isa714_1.pdf>  Bratcher, Dennis. “Isaiah 7:14: Translation Issues.” The Voice. 2014. <http://www.crivoice.org/isa7-14.htmlThe Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary. Yeshayahu- Isaiah 7:14.  “Who is the Almah’s son?”  Teshuvas HaMinim. 2011. <http://web.archive.org/web/20120425022737/http://www.teshuvashaminim.com/isaiah714.html>  Robinson, B.A. “Isaiah 7:14 “Behold, a virgin shall conceive…”” 2007 <http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_proi.htm> “Isaiah 7:14-Deception In The Name Of Jesus.” Agnostic Review of Christianity. 2011.  <http://ihuanedo.ning.com/group/religiousskeptism/forum/topics/isaiah-7-14-deception-in-the-name-of-jesus>
[3] Benner, Jeff A.  “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible.” Ancient Hebrew Research Center. 2013.  <http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/2_bible.html
[4] Sapir, Avinoam. LSI Laboratory for Scientific Interrogation. Language analysis courses.  <http://www.lsiscan.com/id37.htm>  “Scientific Content Analysis (SCAN).” Personal Verification LTD. Updated 15 November 2016. <http://www.verify.co.nz/scan.php>  Last accessed 7 Dec. 2016.
[5] Genesis 24:16; 2 Samuel 13:2.  Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Ed. Isidore Epstein. 1935 – 1948. Yebamoth 61b.  <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/yebamoth/yebamoth_61.html>
[6] “the.” Merriam-Webster. #1a, b, i, m; #4.  <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/the>
[7] BibleHub.com. Isaiah 7:14 Hebrew text. 2018. <https://biblehub.com/text/isaiah/7-14.htm>  “5959. almah” BibleHub.com. 2018. <https://biblehub.com/hebrew/5959.htm>; “5958. elem” <https://biblehub.com/hebrew/5958.htm>; “5956. alam.” <https://biblehub.com/hebrew/5956.htm>.  “`almah  <5959>” Lexicon-Concordance. n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com/hebrew/5959.html>  “`elem <5956>” Lexicon-Concordance. n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com/hebrew/5956.html>
[8] Psalms 68:25; Song of Solomon 6:8; Exodus 2:8; Genesis 24:43; Isaiah 7:14
[9] Song of Solomon 1:3
[10] Proverbs 30:19.
[11]“802. נָשִׁים (ishshah) BibleHub.com. 2018. ” <https://biblehub.com/hebrew/strongs_802.htm> “H802.” Lexicon-Concordance. n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com/hebrew/080.html#02>
[12] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Trans. and commentary. William Whitson.  The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850.  Book I, Chapter XV.2. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>