Our Lady Ever-Virgin: Isaias 7:14 and the Hebrew Word Alma

Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel (Isaias 7:14).

Recently I posted as a News Item the denial by Bishop Manuel Linda of Porto, Portugal, of our Blessed Mother’s perpetual and physical virginity before, during, and after the Birth of Jesus. 

First, I beg the reader’s pardon for putting the words of Bishop Linda and Anselmo Borges, a theologian of the same vein, in print. I have clipped just two paragraphs from  their Christmas interview with the Portuguese website Observador. These are  found on Rorate Caeli website. I am using these remarks in the interests of justice and to educate our readers on a very important matter regarding the prophecy of Isaias: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (7:14). I am focusing on only one issue from this interview. Other unorthodox errors by the same twosome dealing with the truths of Christmas as we have them in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (such as the very place and the date of Christmas) will have to be ignored in this rebuttal.

Rorate Caeli informs us that in said interview:

“[T]hey dismantle all ‘myths’ related to Christmas, including its December date (‘probably September’…), but the greatest scandal of all is the direct attack on several Dogmas related to the divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the purity of His Immaculate Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

The main passages are translated below:

“He [Christ] was conceived by Mary and Joseph as any other person… Virginity is only associated with Mary as a metaphor to prove that Jesus was a very special person.”

The Bishop of Oporto tells the Observador website that, “we should never refer to the physical virginity of Mary.” And, “The Old Testament says many times that Jesus was to be born of a maiden, a daughter of Israel, who was simple, poor, and humble. But this is truly just a reference to the full devotion of this woman to God.The gift of being mother of God was given to Mary because she had an undivided heart. What matters is full giving of herself,” explains the Bishop.

Similarly, by way of some kind of clarification, Anselmo Borges explains: “That is, to say that Jesus was born of a virgin woman is a theological truth but not necessarily a biological truth.” He even adds that “theology is not a treatise on biology” and that Mary’s virginity serves only to “tell the importance of Jesus as the special son of God”

You have read the words. My refutation is as follows:

The True Meaning of Isaias 7:14

The Holy Ghost does not tell us through Isaias the prophet that “a young maiden” shall conceive and bear a son. He tells us that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son. And his name shall be called Emmanuel.” This is the “sign” that Isaias tells King Achaz that the Lord Himself shall give in response to the reluctant king’s feigned piety. (Note: The historical occasion here recounted in Isaias chapter seven is merely subservient to the inspired prophecy, therefore I prescind from it for convenience sake.) Saint Matthew cites the passage as a prophecy fulfilled in Mary. He also adds the meaning of the word Emmanuel, “which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matthew 1:23).

What kind of a “sign” would it be for a young “maiden” to conceive? No sign at all! There were hundreds of young maidens in the kingdom of Juda at the time of Isaias. The population of the southern kingdom was about one million. The “sign” of which Isaias spoke had to be a stupendous event if it was meant to astonish. And it was stupendous, for a future time to behold; indeed it was a Messianic prophecy. “A virgin shall conceive”! “And the virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:27). So stricken was the prophet Jeremais when he contemplated the “sign” of Isaias that in the Spirit he added his own prophecy: “[T]he Lord hath created a new thing upon the earth: A WOMAN SHALL COMPASS A MAN” (31:22). Here, too, we may say that women are compassing men all the time. But this is an extraordinary encompassing to be sure. The Douay English translators even put it in capital letters. Notice, the prophet Jeremias introduces the event with those awesome words: “for the Lord hath created a new thing upon the earth.” Yes, this is a new thing. For a virgin to conceive and bear a son is indeed a “new creation.”

But Wait: Bishop Linda Disagrees

We can only conclude that Bishop Linda is saying that all this is wrong. Saint Matthew was wrong and, worse than that, that the Holy Ghost never inspired the words Saint Matthew attributes to Him. Linda is alleging that he knows Hebrew better than the Jewish Apostle Matthew (or “Levi” if we quote Mark and Luke who both use his Hebrew name).

(Note: The Rorate Caeli website states that Observador has published a denial by Bishop Linda of what he is quoted as saying in the interview. I have checked the link to this “denial” and find no denial whatsoever, or clarification of what he really meant, to what is quoted above in the Christmas interview).

We must understand that the Jews of Our Lord’s time regularly read from the prophets in their synagogues. Jesus Himself, while in the synagogue of Nazareth, rose up to read from Isaias. He chose this text: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. Wherefore he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, he hath sent me to heal the contrite of heart, To preach deliverance to the captives, and sight to the blind” (61: 18-19). Then closing the book He said, “This day is fulfilled this scripture in your ears” (Luke 4:21). After the Savior announced to them that salvation was not going to be a Jewish monopoly the leaders of the synagogue took Jesus to the edge of a  cliff to thrust Him off but the Almighty would not allow that and He walked through them and went His way.

Isaias and the Greek Septuagint Reading

The text from the prophets read in the Galilean synagogues were, no doubt, in Hebrew rather than the colloquial Aramaic. Some scholars are of the opinion that the Hebrew scrolls used in Our Lord’s time (at least in Galilee of the Gentiles) were a re-translation back into Hebrew from the Greek Septuagint. That conclusion is based on the fact that many of the Old Testament citations used in the New Testament (411 direct quotes) are taken from the Greek Septuagint. And Greek was, of course, the language of inspiration for the New Testament. The Septuagint translation was the work of the seventy-two Hebrew scholars assigned in the second century B.C. to put the Hebrew Bible into Greek at the behest of Alexander the Great. Greek was the universal language at that time and the Macedonian conqueror wanted the whole world to benefit from the Jewish scriptures.

Here is my point: If Jesus had opened the scrolls at the synagogue in Nazareth to Isaias chapter seven He could have read the passage (conforming as it did with the Septuagint) exactly as we have it in English translation above. (Of course, there were no chapters and verses then in sacred writ for convenient reference. These would not come until after the Middle Ages.)

Looking at the Greek Septuagint: The Alma Controversy

The Hebrew word for “young virgin” was alma. The Hebrew word for virgin simpliciter was bethula, the latter of which did not specify age or purity. Alma, however, had a twofold meaning. According to Saint Thomas Aquinas (and I should mention the Protestant Strong’s concordance as well) alma denotes not only “maiden” or “virgin” but “hidden,” “secret’, “that is, one never exposed to the gaze of men but kept under close custody by her parents.” Hence, the Septuagint rendering of Isaias 7:14 did not use any of the several Greek words for “girl,” rather, these Jewish scholars used the Greek word parthenos, which means, exclusively, “virgin.”  Although there may be exceptions among Jewish writers from from the early Christian centuries (Trypho the Jew, whom Saint Justin [+165] debated in his Dialogues, is allegedly one), generally speaking, the Jews understood the Isaian verse to mean “young virgin.” This was certainly the case in the second century before Christ. The reason I say that Trypho is “allegedly” one is that modern Jewish scholars believe that Trypho was a fictional character invented by Justin for polemical purposes to refute Jewish arguments then used by rabbis (some scholars think the main one was Rabbi Tarphon mentioned in the Talmud) to deny that Jesus was the Messiah. This may be true.  Justin did, after all, address the later of his two apologetic Dialogues to the emperor Antoninus Pius and his son Marcus Aurelius.

Direct Attack from Dark Sources after the Incarnation and Today

After the Incarnation and the Virgin Birth of Jesus that changed, as we see in the Talmud. The Gemara (or Babylonian) Talmud commentaries on the Mishna (the earlier written collection of Jewish oral Talmudic traditions) were composed by the Sanhedrin in exile sometime around the sixth century, while the older Mishna Talmud (or Jerusalem Talmud) was completed around the fourth century. Prior to that these teachings were passed on by word. What the Gemara says about Jesus and His Immaculate Mother is insulting. At some point after that even Hebrew dictionaries began to omit the virgin translations of alma. In fact, so thorough is this deletion, that if one types in the word almah (Jewish spelling) in the online dictionary one gets this falsehood: “from a root implying the vigour of puberty, is a Hebrew word for a young woman of childbearing age. Despite its importance to the Christian tradition of the virgin birth of Jesus, scholars agree that it has nothing to do with virginity.” (Wikipedia, my emphasis)

In that vein, on Best Jewish Studies website, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983) ranks Our Lord among the “false messiahs” — 1) salvation by sin, Sabbatai Zvi (1626-1676), and 2) Jacob Frank (1726-1791), whom Frankist sychophants claimed was Zvi’s reincarnation. In our time, Rabbi Tovia Singer of Outreach Judaism Q&A website calls the Christian understanding of the Hebrew word alma to be a virgin a “wild contention.” With condescending hubris against Christians, he goes right to the “source” and puts Saint Matthew on trial: ”If the Hebrew word alma does not mean a virgin, Matthew crudely misquoted the prophet Isaiah, and both a key tenet of Christianity and the credibility of the first Gospel collapses.” Wrong on both counts, Mr. Singer. As I have explained, without denying that alma can mean “young maiden” the primary meaning of alma is “young virgin” and Saint Matthew did not misquote Isaias.

Back to Bishop Linda and Father Borges

But these contentious rabbis are not Christian. They have their own false religion to defend. Bishop Manuel Linda and Father Borges are Catholic clergymen. They imagine that they (Portuguese!!) know more about Hebrew than the seventy Jewish translators of the Septuagint! They seem to think they even know more than Saint Matthew who cites the passage in Isaias as a prophecy fulfilled in the Virgin Mary. God only knows what these two two clergymen think of the other Gospel references to Mary’s Virginity before during, and after Our Lord’s birth. For God sent the angel to Nazareth “To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:27). And, upon hearing the message of the angel announcing that she would bear a Son who would be “called” (that is to say, who would BE) the “son of the Most High,” she asked, “How shall this be for I know not man?” The Jews used the expression “to be called” sometimes in the sense of “to be.” As in the verse from Matthew, “He shall be called Emmanuel,” which is to say, He shall BE “God with us.” And, again, the angel in reply to Mary’s question says: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (vs 35). Which is to say that He shall BE the Son of God.

More. The Hebrew word alma is used seven times in the inspired text of the Old Testament. It always means “a young maiden” and in two cases it explicitly can only mean “virgin.” The first time it is so employed in the explicit and latter sense is when Abraham’s servant is explaining to Laban, Rebecca’s brother, how he had prayed to the Lord saying  “…and may it be that the maiden (“alma”) who comes out to draw [water]…” would be the right woman to become Isaac’s bride” (Gen. 24:43). Earlier in the chapter, a description of Rebecca is given in verse 16 which says, “And the girl was very beautiful, a virgin (alma), and no man had had relations with her…”

Testimony of Saint Jerome

I would be remiss if I did not mention Saint Jerome (347-420). He was commissioned by Pope Saint Damasus to translate the Bible into the vernacular Latin of his time. There were several inaccurate Old Latin versions then circulating in the West. These needed correction. There had to be one standard Latin Bible for the Church. That would be the Vulgate Latin Bible. What did Saint Jerome do to accomplish his mission? He studied Hebrew under rabbis in Palestine. He already knew Greek, so reading the Septuagint and the inspired Greek of the New Testament were no problem for him. Having mastered Hebrew he, in fact, sometimes preferred the original and inspired Hebrew of the Old Testament to the Greek Septuagint. Be that as it may, he translated alma of Isaias 7:14, whether from the Hebrew or the Greek parthenos, as virgo, “virgin.” I quote the Doctor:

“’Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel’. .  . I know that the Jews are accustomed to meet us with the objection that in Hebrew the word Almah does not mean a virgin, but a young woman. And, to speak truth, a virgin is properly called Bethulah, but a young woman, or a girl, is not Almah, but Naarah! What then is the meaning of Almah? A hidden virgin, that is, not merely virgin, but a virgin and something more, because not every virgin is hidden, shut off from the occasional sight of men.” (St Jerome – Against Jovinianus Book 1 ch 32)

Bishop Manuel Linda and Father Borges, are you with Rabbi Singer or with Saint Jerome? Clearly both of you have rejected the teaching of the Catholic Church!

Teaching of the Church

It need hardly be said that all the Fathers and Doctors of the early Church believed in the Virginal Conception of Jesus as well as His Virginal Birth from the holy and closed womb of His mother Mary. If the Birth be Virginal then, so too, must the Conception be Virginal. The dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity is often given in Latin as ante partum, in partu, et post partum (before birth, during birth, and after birth). Hear Saint Leo the Great in his famous letter to Flavian, the Tome (449), which was acclaimed and accepted by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The pope affirms therein among many other Incarnational truths  ”. . . the Virgin Mother, who gave birth to him in such a way that her virginity was undiminished.” At the end of this magnificent tome all of the assembled fathers, east and west, proclaimed as one that this is the Faith, “Peter has spoken through Leo.”

It was first defined ex cathedra at the 2nd Council of Constantinople in 553. Then, in 649, a Roman Synod, which convened at the Lateran under Pope Saint Martin I, anathematized anyone who would deny that Mary “gave birth to (God the Word) without corruption.”  Nearly a millennium later, in 1555, it was again defined by a proclamation of Pope Paul IV. In his Constitution Cum quorumdam hominum condemning certain other errors he admonished all those who deny that the Blessed Virgin Mary “did not retain her virginity intact before the birth, in the birth, and perpetually after the birth.”

The Catechism of the Council of Trent followed suit with this clear teaching:

“For in a way wonderful beyond expression or conception, he is born of his Mother without any diminution of her maternal virginity. As he afterwards went forth from the sepulcher while it was closed and sealed, and entered the room in which his disciples were assembled, although ‘the doors were closed’ (Jn. 20:19), or, not to depart from natural events which we witness every day, as the rays of the sun penetrate the substance of glass without breaking or injuring it in the least: so, but in a more incomprehensible manner, did Jesus Christ come forth from his mother’s womb without injury to her maternal virginity.

“…To Eve it was said: ‘In pain you shall bring forth children’ (Gen. 3:16). Mary was exempt from this law, for preserving her virginal integrity inviolate, she brought forth Jesus the Son of God, without experiencing, as we have already said, any sense of pain.”

I conclude with the verses of a beautiful Marian hymn that is recited after Compline during Advent up to the feast of the Purification. Of course, it can be sung at any time. It was composed in the eleventh century by Blessed Herman the Cripple. The word alma beginning this hymn is actually from the Latin word (as in alma mater for one’s college ) which means “nourishing” or “kind.” Be that as it may, the hymn is wonderfully expressive of a tender and filial devotion to our Mother Mary as well as it being a theological jewel. Virgo prius ac posterius, O Alma Mater, natura mirante!  And, there is nothing wrong here, indeed it is most fitting,  if we give alma its Hebrew sense.

First the Latin:

Alma Redemptoris Mater,

quae pervia caeli porta manes,

et stella maris, succurre cadenti, surgere qui curat, populo:

tu quae genuisti, natura mirante,

tuum sanctum Genitorem,

Virgo prius ac posterius,

Gabrielis ab ore,

sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.

In English translation:

Nourishing mother of the Redeemer,

gate of heaven, star of the sea,

assist your people who have fallen yet strive to rise again.

To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator,

Yet remained a virgin after as before.

You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting,

have pity on us poor sinners.