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 – a miracle would be required. Believing whether Mary was a virgin who miraculously conceived Jesus, if not by faith, requires a conclusion based on the circumstantial evidence.

Jewish marriage was a two-stage process – the betrothal period, typically lasting for 12 months, followed by the wedding ceremony part of which included the bride’s virginity being forfeited in the Yihud room.[1]

To begin the process, a proposal was offered to the prospective bride’s father. The negotiated details were eventually formally finalized in a sealed, binding contract called a ketubah. The legal marriage contract, ketubah, was enacted by Queen Salome (76-67 BC) and formalized by the Sanhedrin long before Joseph or Mary were born. During their life times, the marital ketubah was the law of the land in Judea.[2]

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

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 the prospective bride’s 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, according to Luke, the angel 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] In addition to the ketubah and its two witnesses, by her own account Mary was a virgin at this point. 

Gabriel also informed Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was 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] Elizabeth already knew that Mary was with child. At the moment of hearing Mary’s voice, the babe in Elizabeth’s womb, who would become John the Baptist, leapt with joy.[12]

In the very short span of about a week, Mary became pregnant. No human under normal circumstances 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 modern 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 of wanting 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]

Playing out that possibility, it would be most challenging for a sheltered girl in her early teens still living at home with her parents.[15] To cheat on Joseph, Mary would have to overcome immense hurdles – mentally, spiritually, psychologically, emotionally as well as the fear factor.

Mentally, Gabriel’s visit had to be a most impactful, shocking and unforgettable experience. Mary was told she was pregnant and 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 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.

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 foreboding fear of death by stoning for adultery.[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] If she went anywhere, a chaperone was required. While she hurriedly prepared for the spur-of-the-moment trip to visit her cousin, to cheat 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 into the wilderness without being caught. If she became pregnant during the trip, she would have only been pregnant for less than a week.

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 to Mary that the baby in her womb was blessed?

The circumstantial case against Mary becoming pregnant by another man is very strong – was Mary a virgin when she conceived Jesus?

 

Updated August 15, 2022.

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

REFERENCES:

[1] Brayer, Menachem M.  The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature.  KTAV Publishing. 1986. pp 62-65, 69, 71, 143. <https://archive.org/details/jewishwomaninrab0000bray_a4j0/page/143/mode/2up>   Missler, Chuck. “The Wedding Model.” Koinonia House, Inc. 2018.  <http://www.khouse.org/articles/2003/449/#notes>  Jewish Wedding Ceremony. Chabad.org. n.d. <https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/476757/jewish/Jewish-Wedding-Ceremony.htm#The> “Yichud Room.” Chabad.org. n.d. <https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/477338/jewish/Yichud-Room.htm> Last accessed 12 Dec. 2021. Kaufman, Michael. “After the Wedding Ceremony.” MyJewishLearning.com. n.d.<https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/after-the-wedding-ceremony
[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.” 
[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.

A Virgin Birth Prophecy – Isaiah 7:14?

Of all the Isaiah prophecies about the Messiah, Isaiah 7:14 is probably the most controversial. Why? Because Judaism and others say the prophecy made to King Ahaz 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 debate.[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 birth of a son to a virgin vs. those who believe the prophecy 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, a more in-dept version of literary 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 carry 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.

Deciphering the meaning of `almah brings into play three Hebrew words. Lowest common denominator of the words is na`arah meaning “girl” or “young woman” where there is no specific implication of virginity.[5] Isaiah never once used this word.

Opposite of na`arah is bethulah explicitly meaning “virgin.” It commonly appears as a metaphor of a virgin in judgements, lamentations, or blessings. A separate category of bethulah is used in a legalistic context in the Law involving the strictest sense of a virgin. Isaiah only used bethulah 5 times as either a metaphor or judgement of a city or nation. The word is also used to describe a type of na`arah; however, since Isaiah never used na`arah, he did not use bethulah in this context.

Next is the rarest of Hebrew words, `almah, appearing only 7 times in the entire Bible. It is a feminine noun stemming from the Hebrew word `elem meaning “something kept out of sight.”[6] Unlike bethulah, none of the instances of `almah are used in metaphors, legalistic definitions, as adjectives or in adjective clauses.

Exclusively, `almah is used to make reference to a special class of females – Hebrew royalty. As a standalone noun, `almah does not need further clarification by an adjective or adjective clause. Similarly, `almah is never used as an adjective or within an adjective clause to define the subject.[7]

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

Abraham had sent his servant back to his homeland to find a bride for his son Isaac, but he did not give the servant any qualifications for a bride except that she had to willingly agree to marry Isaac. The servant prayed for a very specific sign and when he recognized the sign pointing to Rebekah, he used all three Hebrew words plus a forth when recounting the story to her family:

Gen. 24:16 “Now the young woman [na ‘arah] was very beautiful to behold, a virgin [bethulah]; 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 (girl/young woman) with bethulah (a virgin). Her virginity is further emphasized by saying that “no man had known her.” At this point, it has been explicitly stated that Rebekah is a virgin. Josephus, a Pharisee expert, wrote in Antiquities that Rebekah viewed Laban, her uncle, as the “guardian of my virginity” after her father had died.[6]

Later in his account, the servant used a present tense narrative, now referring to Rebekah by simply using a single Hebrew word, hmleh or `hā-‘al-māh  (the virgin) – the same Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14. She is not referred to as a na ‘arah who is a bethulah. It is defined for the reading audience that `almah unambiguously means virgin.

A fourth Hebrew word provides further validation when the servant referred to Rebekah in the future tense as `ishshah, meaning “woman,” hoping she would become the wife of Isaac.[8] In this context, Rebekah would be considered a married adult woman who is not a virgin, thus the use of na ‘arahbethulah nor `almah would be applicable nor 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 context, either Hebrew or Godly. The language analysis conclusion: the meaning of `almah exclusively means “virgin” – no adjectives or further clarifications are needed or expected.

One other consideration. If `almah is translated as “a young maiden” where the state of virginity is not certain, how unimpressive is that prophecy? The female subject who may already be pregnant, or will soon be, has a 50-50 chance of giving birth to a boy.

On the other hand, if `almah is translated as the “virgin” who would conceive a son, that possibility would be unthinkable – a virgin conceiving and giving birth to a boy child.

Which interpretation rises to the level off a boundless, miraculous prophecy? 

 

Updated December 9, 2021.

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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.  <https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/introduction.htm>
[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] “na`arah <05291>” NetBible.org. 2019. <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=05291>
[6] 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>
[7] 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>
[8]“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>