On one of my posts there was a comment about the unmistakability of the New Testament concerning the virgin birth (my post was on the discussion of betulah and almah on the TV show Studio 60). I am quite traditional in my view of the virgin birth–that is I believe that it was a virgin birth, for reasons that will be clear shortly. But, in the spirit of scientific inquiry I thought we would take a look at this question.

The British evangelical scholar, Gordon Wenham, wrote a fine essay in 1972 in which he persuasively argues that the Hebrew word betulah means simply “a girl of marriageable age” and not necessarily “virgin”1.

Most modern translations also take this view, but there are inconsistencies. For instance, the ESV is inconsistent in their translation and notation methodology–in Ex 22:16 they translate betulah as “virgin” in the text but then give a footnote that reads “or girl of marriageable age.” Then, in Lev 21:14 the text reads “virgin” while the footnote reads “Hebrew young woman.” But in most cases they translate “virgin” without a footnote.

In the New Testament two words are typically used that are associated with virginity: parthenia “virginity” Lk 2:36; and parthenos “virgin” Mt 1:23; 25:1, 7, 11; Lk 1:27; Ac 21:9; 1 Cor 7:25, 28, 34, 36-38; 2 Cor 11:2; Rv 14:4. I would argue that parthenos has a very similar meaning to betulah, that is, “a girl that is eligible to marry.”

Parthenos has this meaning in classical Greek; see this quote from Louw and Nida:

a person who has not as yet married (and possibly implying virginity) — ‘unmarried person.’ ‘concerning the unmarried, I do not have a command from the Lord’ 1Cor 7:25. Some scholars interpret parthenos as referring not only to those who have never married, but also to widows and widowers who have not remarried. The meaning of ‘unmarried persons who are not necessarily virgins’ is well attested in Greek from classical times.

The NIV and ESV consistently translate parthenos as virgin except in Acts 21:9 in which they translate the phrase thugateres parthenoi as “unmarried daughters.” The King James Version translates parthenos as “her” in 1 Cor 7:38. Furthermore, the ESV translates epei andra ou ginsosko as “since I am a virgin.” While the translations are consistent in their translation methodology of parthenos for the most part, there are uneven patches.

I would view the words used in both testaments as referring primarily to women of marriageable age. In these cultures women were expected to remain chaste until marriage. In all of the New Testament references to Mary there is no textual reason to assume that she was not a virgin before she conceived Jesus–the objection to the virgin birth would have to come from philosophical and worldview perspectives.

But, I went through this exercise because the lexical issues involved are not as cut and dry as some people might believe. It is my opinion that theology comes from morphology and not the other way around (yes, I have heard of the hermeneutical spiral and I agree with it, but you get my drift). We must be honest about the facts at hand.

I accept the virgin birth because of these reasons: the cultural expectations of the day were that women remain chaste until marriage, there is no textual reason to reject Mary’s virginity, my worldview allows for the possibility of supernatural events, and church history and tradition overwhelmingly favor a virgin birth. But, notice that I do not rest my argument on the definition of betulah or parthenos because the semantic range of these terms includes people who are of marriageable age who are not virgins. Finally, notice as well that I do not exclude the virgin birth because of the definition of these words as I have heard many people do–the semantic range of these terms includes both possibilities for both sides of the argument over the virgin birth. Therefore support for either position must come from other places.

  1. “Betulah, A Girl of Marriageable Age,” Vetus Testamentum 22:3, 326-348 [back]

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Charles Halton

6 Comments. Leave your Comment right now:

  1. Hey Charles,
    Ah, yes! Support for the virgin birth comes straight out of scripture. While there is infinine value in going through the lexiconical exercises and entymology to be sure that the words do indeed mean what we think they mean, and studying the cultural significance of the period, in the instance of the virgin birth of Christ, I take the shortest path to the source of authority…Mary herself. She claims in response to the angel’s announcement that she will soon have a son (in Lk 1:34) That she can’t have a son (or daughter) because she has never had sex with a man. (certainly she would not be trying to bluff the angel by claiming she was not old enough to be ‘active’)
    And if scripture is infallible and inerrant, there is no indication that she is lying because the angel explains to her how this impossibility is a possibility, even a certainty. So any N.T. references to the ‘virgin’ birth of Christ are indisputable, since they cannot contradict Luke 1:34.
    I did enjoy your lexiconical journey in your above post.

  2. Your reference to Luke 1:34 is quite correct and I quoted the last part of this verse, but for some reason forgot to cite that it was Luke 1:34. This is the verse that many modern translations render as “since I am a virgin” when the Greek reads “since I have not known a man.” Not really a semantic difference, but if I were translating I would try to stick closer to the actual phraseology.

  3. Charles,
    I agree entirely with you here, but wonder why the ESV chooses to completely transliterate it as ‘a virgin’ with a footnote giving the accurate greek phrasing. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to include the actual wording in the text itself and place the transliteration in the footnote? I guess that’s why my translation of the Bible is not out yet! Still waiting on yours!
    Keep up the good work!

  4. Hey Bill,
    I agree with your approach. I tend to try to stick closer to the original languages in the text and then footnote for clarification. Thanks for the good observations.

  5. I have serious issues with inerrancy and infalliblity… But as far as Mary being a virgin when she conceived… Well, I’m not opposed to it outright, but I don’t see it being relevant to anything… Yeshua doesn’t recall it for any validation or explanation of himself, his teaching, or his authority… It wasn’t cited by the earliest Christians as an essential element of their faith…

    In order to begin to accept it, I would have to understand how such a thing fit into the Second Temple Period Israelite echatalogical conception and then how it subverted that. Are there any parrallels or contrasts among other religious groups of the period? Also, I would need to study the virgin conception story from a critical literary standpoint so I can grasp an understanding of how the Jewish story as a whole and how it worked symbollically, sociologically, etc.

  6. Pingback: Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » Biblical Studies Carnival XIII

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