I recently watched a video (see below) where a Messianic Christian was calling out an Orthodox Rabbi for saying that Matthew mistranslated Isaiah 7:14 when it quotes the passage while changing “the young woman” to “a virgin.” The Rabbi pointed out the Hebrew “et” (direct object marker) is present in Isaiah 7:14, indicating that the speaker and his intended audience know the woman of whom he speaks. The Christian insisted that this is not necessarily the case. Since I’ve encountered some research on the topic, I decided to share what I have learned.
Doctor James Kugel:
Dr. James Kugel is a Hebrew professor at Harvard University. He is also an Orthodox Jew. In his book “How To Read The Bible,” he discusses the broader controversies surrounding this passage and its translation in Matthew. However, he also narrows down to this specific issue of the importance of the direct object. Here is what he has to say on the matter.
The exact identity and nature of the “certain young woman” who gets pregnant in Isaiah’s above-cited oracle is somewhat controversial: was she a real person, or merely hypothetical? To begin with, it is unclear whether the first word of Isa. 7:14 is to be translated as “Behold,” “Look,” and the like, or (as I have done) “Suppose . . .” The latter is indeed sometimes a meaning of the Hebrew hinneh (for example, in Exod. 3:13, “Suppose I do go to the Israelites . . .”) and would seem to fit the context better, since in those preamniocentesis days one would probably not say, “Behold! This woman is pregnant and is going to give birth to a son.”97 The next word, ha-‘almah, translated as “a certain young woman,” might also be rendered simply as “the young woman.” Some scholars have in fact suggested that the definite article here implies a known individual—perhaps Ahaz’s own wife, or Isaiah’s. (The woman in Prov. 7:19 says, “The husband is not in his house,” but what she really means is my husband.) However, biblical Hebrew sometimes also uses definite articles and even demonstratives in an indefinite sense,21 in the same way that an English speaker might say, “This guy came up to me and started talking French,” where “this guy” really means “an undefined person, someone I never met before.” Considering this ambiguity, “a certain young woman” seems to preserve better the vagueness of the Hebrew: she might be known or might not be. As for “young woman,” that is how ‘almah is usually translated nowadays; the word does not necessarily tell us whether she is married or not.22“How To Read The Bible by James Kugel
So we see here that this isn’t necessarily a case of preconceived religious notions driving the translation. According to this Orthodox Jewish Hebrew Scholar, there is justification in thinking that Isaiah may not have even had a specific woman in mind. However, it is worth noting that Dr. Kugel is the only scholar that I have seen putting forth this interpretation. Therefor it could be a minority view. So I headed over to the NET Bible, a Christian publication, to check their notes on the verse and this is what I found.
NET Bible Notes on Isaiah 7:14
For this reason, the Lord himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel.
“The Hebrew article has been rendered as a demonstrative pronoun (“this”) in the translation to bring out its force. It is very likely that Isaiah pointed to a young woman who was present at the scene of the prophet’s interview with Ahaz. Isaiah’s address to the “house of David” and his use of second plural forms suggests other people were present and his use of the second feminine singular verb form (“you will name”) later in the verse is best explained if addressed to a woman who is present.”NET Bible Isaiah 7:14 with notes.
Not only do we find supporting evidence for both views, but both views are able to find support from unfriendly sources. Thus, I am forced to conclude that both authors are justified in their respective interpretations. However, it does seem unreasonable to me for either of these individuals to expect the other to inform their audience of the opposing view. They are, after all, theologically motivated individuals looking to teach their own understanding.
I, on the other hand, am merely interested in discovering what the text really says and means. I am also interested in your opinion. Which argument makes more sense to you? Let me know in the comments down below!