This was posted and grabbed from the Newsgroup: alt.fan.cecil-adams it's my reference to the meaning of a virgin but it goes much deeper, and quite lengthy.
From: "Bill Baldwin"
Subject: Re: Bill Baldwin citing
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>"Ras Harpentuan" writes:
>>May be old news, but is this the same Bill Baldwin that frequents this
>Ed Zotti was doing some fact-checking, and asked me to help him out with
>the background on this question. Always eager to delegate, I suggested
>putting Bill in the picture.
>I only regret that Cecil did not end up quoting Bill more extensively,
>since the summary that he prepared for Ed was not only edifying but
>Maybe Bill will post it here, if we ask nicely. What do you say, Bill?
I have served the master well. My life is complete. Here's the full
text of what I sent "Little Ed." (You'll note that the misprint suggesting
that Greek for "sisters" is "adelphi" rather than the correct "adelphai" is
not derived from my synopsis. And Cecil being who he is, this mistake
obviously belongs to someone else. Must be the work of disgruntled office
drudges or saboteurs):
(1) whether Jesus had siblings
I know of no extra-Biblical historical source that says anything on this
subject. Several Biblical passages do speak of Jesus' brothers: John 2:12,
7:3-5, 10, Acts 1:14, Matthew 12:46,47 (parallel passage Mark 3:31,32),
Matthew 13:55 (Mark 6:3). The last of these names them as James, Joseph (or
Joses), Simon, and Judas and goes on to mention that he had sisters as well.
Also Matthew (in 1:25) and Luke (in 2:7) refer to Jesus as Mary's
"firstborn" son. However, it's possible that such a designation was
conferred automatically to firstborn sons at birth whether there was further
issue or not.
Paul also refers to "James, the Lord's brother" in Galatians 1:19.
However, it is interesting to note that Jesus on the cross singles out John,
"the beloved disciple" but a non-relation. He says of John to Mary "Woman,
behold your son" and of Mary to John, "Behold your mother" with the result
that John took her in to live with him (John 19:25-27). This is a somewhat
perplexing decree when the woman presumably had four able-bodied sons
available to take care of her. However, John 7:5 notes that his brothers did
not believe in him, so that would be a simple explanation of his preference
So obviously the Church line was that Jesus had siblings, right? Of course,
right, say the Protestants. Not so fast, Bub, say the Eastern Orthodox and
the Roman Catholics. Mary was not simply a virgin when she conceived, but a
virgin all her life, unsullied by the inherent dirtiness of the sex act.
(Thus, as Dave Barry noted, making Joseph the patron saint of cold showers,
but I digress.) So these cannot be her children.
I have labeled this section "The Dogma" advisedly. The perpetual virginity
of Mary is not a doctrine asserted by Scripture. It is a dogma handed down
by Tradition, an authority which the Orthodox and Roman Catholics
acknowledge on a level with Scripture, but which Protestants reject.
So the Orthodox and Catholics disagree with the Protestant interpretation of
the above data. It only remains for them, inevitably, to disagree with each
The Orthodox Dogma
The passages refer to Jesus' half brothers. They are Joseph's sons by a
former marriage. They are called brothers by the same convention that allows
Scripture to refer to Joseph as Jesus' "father" despite the fact that he
hadn't, technically, been involved in the conception except as an innocent
Support from Tradition: "This theory is found first in the apocryphal
writings of James (the Protevangelium Jacobi, the Ascents of James, etc.),
and then among the leading Greek fathers (Clement of Alexandria, Origen,
Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa, Epiphanius, Cyril of Alexandria); it is embodied
in the Greek, Syrian, and Coptic services, which assign different dates to
the commemoration of James the son of Alphaeus (Oct. 9), and of James the
LordÂ's brother (Oct. 23). It may therefore be called the theory of the
Eastern church. It was also held by some Latin fathers before Jerome (Hilary
of Poitiers and Ambrose)" (Philip Schaff, _History of the Christian Church).
With such evidence, the eastern church is more than content.
Strengths: It would be very natural to the Hebrew mindset to refer to such
relations as "brothers." It supports the dogma of Mary's virginity. It
lessens the problem of Jesus commending his mother into John's care. (But
not much. See "Weaknesses.") It explains the brothers' patronizing attitude
to Jesus in John 7:3,4.
Weaknesses: Jesus' brothers almost always accompany his mother, indicating a
close relationship and leaving the problem of Jesus commending Mary to John
undiminished. It assumes a former marriage of Joseph nowhere attested to.
(This isn't really such a big deal. There are lots of things we aren't told
about Joseph.) It compromises Jesus' claim to the throne of David which had
to come through Joseph's lineage, not Mary's. Scripture elsewhere vigorously
asserts this claim.
The Catholic Dogma
The passages refer to Jesus' cousins. This theory was first advanced by a
young Saint Jerome (of Latin Vulgate fame) in 383. He was arguing against
one Helvidius who had held forth the theory that Jesus' "brothers" were,
well, his brothers. To Jerome this did not sufficiently guard the purity of
Mary or, interestingly enough, of Joseph either.
Jerome's contemporary and an even bigger theological powerhouse, Augustine,
picked up the cousin theory. He waffled for a bit with the half-brother idea
in 394. But finally his inherent suspicion of the sex act won out and
decided for the virginity of both parties.
Naturally, then, the Latin or Western Church adopted this view.
This is Roman Catholic doctrine to this day. The Jerusalem Bible, a modern
English translation for Catholics, has this footnote where Jesus' brothers
are referred to: "Not MaryÂ's children but near relations, cousins perhaps,
which both Hebr. and Aramaic style Â'brothers,Â' cf. Gn 13:8 ; 14:16 ; 29:15 ;
Lv 10:4 ; I Ch 23:22f ."
The Catholic doctrine further asserts that these cousins are sons of Mary,
the wife of Alphaeus and sister of the Virgin Mary; but I'm darned if I know
how they decided that.
Strengths: It protects Mary's and Joseph's virginity. It accounts even
better for Jesus commending his mother into the care of John, "the beloved
disciple." It does not compromise Jesus' claim to the Davidic throne.
Weaknesses: There are perfectly good Greek words for "cousin" and "kinsman"
and these words are used in the very books that refer to Jesus' "brothers."
This is simply an unnatural reading of the text. It means that the Virgin
Mary had a sister named ... Mary. Right.
Conclusion: Aside from dogmatic concerns, there is every reason to believe
the Bible claims Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters. There is
no other contemporary historical evidence on either side of this question.
(2) whether virgin as in Virgin Mary meant what we think it means today or
merely "young woman."
THE SIMPLE ANSWER
Luke is explicit about this. He recounts how the angel appeared to Mary and
told her she would bring forth a son. She responds with the obvious
question: "How can this be, since I do not know a man [i.e. I'm a virgin]?"
(Luke 1:34). The angel responds that the child will be conceived in her by
the Holy Spirit.
Matthew concurs. Matthew 1:18 reads: "Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as
follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came
together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit." The gospel goes on
to note that Joseph's first impulse on finding out his fiancÃ©e was pregnant
was to break up with her. He had to be calmed down by an angel telling him
everything was jake and that the child in her was conceived by the Holy
Matthew sums up the event in 1:22,23: "So all this was done that it might be
fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying:
23'Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall
call His name Immanuel,' which is translated, 'God with us.'"
THE REAL QUESTION
Did Matthew and Luke and the early church assign virginity to Mary because
of a misunderstanding of an Old Testament prophecy? Does the Hebrew Bible
really predict that a virgin will conceive the Messiah? Or does this basic
Christian doctrine rest on (giggle) a mistranslation?
Here's the King James translation of the prophecy from Isaiah 7:14: "Behold,
a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."
Now for the New Revised Standard translation: "Look, the young woman is with
child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel."
Both versions are translating the Hebrew word almah. The Koehler-Baumgartner
lexicon -- the OED of the Hebrew to English world -- defines it thus:
"almah: girl (of marriageable age), young woman (until the birth of first
child)." The first definition implies virginity, the second doesn't. And
even in the first definition, the idea that the almah would conceive
doesn't necessarily mean that she would do so while still a virgin. She
could get married, do the nasty, and then conceive.
The word is used 7 times in the Hebrew Bible. Here's how it breaks down:
Genesis 23:43 -- The woman, Rebekah, is unquestionably a virgin
Exodus 2:8 -- The woman, Pharaoh's daughter, may or may not be a virgin.
Isaiah 7:14 -- (The passage in question)
Psalm 68:26 -- Probably virgins, but unable to tell.
Proverbs 30:19 -- Probably virgins, but unable to tell.
Song of Solomon 1:3 -- Probably virgins, but unable to tell.
Song of Solomon 6:8 -- Probably virgins, but unable to tell.
What else is there? Nothing really. For the New Testament, we can study
contemporary ancient Greek documents. For the Old Testament, the Hebrew
Bible is all there is (excepting the odd amulet or bit of pottery).
So where did Matthew get the idea to translate this "virgin"? From the
Septuagint, the 3rd to 1st Century B.C. Greek translation of the Hebrew
Scriptures. Hebrew was becoming an unfamiliar language to many, so the Jews
set to work on a suitable translation to be read in the synagogues. This
translation pegs the almah as a parthenos. A virgin. Nothing more, less, or
One other time the Septuagint translates the word as "parthenos" (virgin), 4
times "neanis" (young woman, girl, maiden) and once as "neotes" (youthful
female). Even these second and third words indicate that the person in
question is a virgin.
The passage surrounding Isaiah 7:14 involves a prophesy to King Ahaz of
Judah when King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel are
marching against Jerusalem, Judah's capital. The Lord tells Ahaz to ask for
a sign, but Ahaz declines. So the prophet Isaiah expresses the Lord's
disgust at this and says he'll give a sign anyway. A ... whatever ... will
conceive and bear a son, etc. "But before the boy knows enough to reject the
wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid
The Early Church Was Misled by the Septuagint
Under this theory the Septuagint made a simple error of translation. The
early Church, in its zeal to proclaim Jesus the Jewish Messiah (and
possibly, doing double duty, explain away rumors of his illegitimacy) stated
that this prophecy of virgin birth had been fulfilled in their Lord.
Argument for: The word doesn't really mean virgin. And what's more the
prophecy clearly refers to the near future of Ahaz's time, not to the remote
future of the coming Messiah. Before the boy grows up, the two kings coming
against Ahaz will be defeated. This happened long before the birth of Jesus.
Rebuttal: It was a Jewish translation of Isaiah, prior to the time of
Christ, that first introduced the idea that it was a virgin that would
conceive. These translators knew the Hebrew language and chose their words
carefully. They would have been able to formulate the above argument, yet
still they chose to translate the passage the way they did.
One must understand the hermeneutic of the time. Many passages were
considered messianic that would not appear that way to a 20th century
reader. Even passages that refer to the near future or even the present or
the past. This was not a hermeneutic invented by the early church, although
naturally the early church seized on it. In any event, a passage predicting
the birth of "Immanuel" -- Hebrew for "God with us" -- would almost
certainly have been considered messianic. Matthew wasn't even being
An advantage to rejecting this is it saves us from the "Everyone was stupid
then, but we're so smart now" school of thought.
The Passage Is a Prophecy of a Miraculous Virgin Birth
Pro: It's possible that the Hebrew word almah always carried the connotation
of virginity. There just isn't enough Hebrew data to conclude that. This
would explain why the Septuagint translators, who knew Hebrew and Greek,
made the translation they did.
Rebuttal: Dang it, the passage clearly refers to the time of Ahaz! He's got
two kings attacking him and those kings will be defeated before this kid
that's about to be born is mature. There's no reference in Isaiah or any of
the contemporary historical narratives to a miraculous virgin birth. And
that's the only time when this miracle could have occurred to fulfil this
prophecy. A virgin birth over half a millennium later just doesn't count,
even if it did happen.
It's a Floor Wax and a Dessert Topping
The prophecy in Isaiah has both a proximate and an ultimate fulfillment. It
refers proximately to an event in Ahaz's time and ultimately to the birth of
the Messiah. Thus the use of almah is deliberately ambiguous. It refers in
Ahaz's time to a young woman who will conceive in the ordinary way, but it
refers ultimately to the birth of Christ. The Septuagint translators chose
to emphasize the ultimate over the proximate fulfillment.
Pro: Regardless of whether this flies with us, this is certainly consistent
with the attitude of Matthew and the other New Testament writers. Matthew
was not ignorant of the historical context of Isaiah's prophecy; he simply
felt that the ultimate historical context of all Scripture had arrived in
Jesus. As Paul put it, "All the promises of God are 'yes' in Christ Jesus."
In support of this, notice how Matthew handles the flight of Mary and Joseph
into Egypt. "So [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother during the
night and left for Egypt, 15where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so
was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'Out of Egypt I
called my son.'"
Matthew is here quoting Hosea 11:1:"When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son." Hosea is clearly referring to the flight
of the nation of Israel from Egypt. (In fact, Hosea, speaking for God, goes
right on to complain that "the more I called Israel, the further they went
from me." This would certainly be an odd set of words for Matthew to apply
to Jesus.) Israel is often referred to as God's "son" in the Hebrew Bible.
Now Matthew is not brain dead. He knows that the words of Hosea originally
referred to the flight of Israel from Egypt. And he knows his readers know
that. So what's he trying to pull? He's trying to say that it is Jesus who
is the true son of God, Jesus who is the true Israel. He is reinterpreting
the literal meaning of these words, imbuing them with Messianic portent.
Many such examples could be adduced in Matthew. And Matthew is not alone in
this. This appears to be the uniform treatment of Old Testament prophecies
by the New Testament writers.
Rebuttal: I'll leave that to Deborah (hee hee). Seriously, I think this is
clearly what's going on in Matthew's argument. The obvious non-Christian
rebuttal is "Do you expect us to buy his argument?" But that's really
outside the scope of this response. I'm simply saying that this was the New
Testament understanding; and, as far as the translation "virgin" goes,
there's pre-Christian provenance for that. Where Deborah may be able to help
is in answering whether pre-Christian Rabbinic interpretation of Isaiah 7