[b-hebrew] virgin vs. young woman

Lew Reich lbr at sprynet.com
Tue Jul 10 03:15:11 EDT 2007

Greetings both to those who may remember me from the late '90s, when I had
more time to post, and served as a moderator, and to those to whom I am a
new voice.

I haven't had time retrieve references for all I have to say, but rather
than risk my being late and irrelevant, I thought I should post in the
interest of timeliness.  I apologize for the length of this post, but the
matter is neither simple nor straightforward, and I thought it would be
useful to provide some references.  I also apologize to the extent that I
rehash material that may have already been dealt with in past discussions
over the years.  Among other things, I am pleased to be able to provide
references to support Tory Thorpe's view that neither almah or betulah
necessarily implies physical virginity.

I've often found that a good reference to start from is the Anchor Bible
Dictionary, and it has proved helpful indeed once again.  The short article
"Virgin" (Vol. VI-853,4) by John Schmitt (professor of Old Testament at
Marquettte) discusses only the Hebrew betulah and the Greek parthenos.  It
seems to me that if almah carried the meaning Rev. Cunningham attached to
it, Professor Schmitt and the editors would have been guilty of a
significant oversight in failing to discuss almah in the article on
virginity.  An almah (a young woman of marriageable age) might be presumed
to be a virgin, just as a naarah or yaldah (both terms used in Genesis 34 to
describe Jacob's daughter Dina) might be, but "almah" is not the word the
Hebrew Bible seems to use when it is specifically virginity that is at

The word that appears in such cases is "betulah,"  most notably in Deut
22:13-22, which concerns the case of a bridegroom who accuses his wife of
not having been a virgin at the time of the marriage, where it appears, as
Professor Schmitt notes, in the plural form "betulim," which means

Now, let me digress for a moment consider the passage in question in Isaiah,
7:14.  It seems to me perfectly legitimate to propound a theological
exegetical interpretation of a text that does not square entirely with the
plain meaning of the text - that was standard rabbinic practice, and the
earliest followers of Jesus were of course Jews who were doubtless familiar
with such midrashic practices.  What does not seem appropriate, in the
context of discussions on a list such as this one, is to pretend that that
midrash is in fact the only possible plain meaning of the verse in question.
In the unlikely event that some contemporary were to have said:  "That slow
little boy over there, 4-year old Albert Einstein, will produce a theory
that will revolutionize modern physics and overthrow the Newtonian world"
no one listening would have supposed that the speaker was suggesting that
the event foretold would happen before the child had graduated elementary
school.  The hearer would have assumed that the unlikely prediction was
being made about a time after the boy had completed his education.
Similarly, the plain (as opposed to midrashic) meaning of the prediction in
Isaiah is of a significant event, not necessarily of a miraculous one.  It
was that a young woman would at some future time conceive and bear a child,
and even if the speaker had referred to her as a virgin, a hearer would
understood that the speaker was not saying that the conception and birth
would happen before she lost her virginity.  In addition, of course, the
plain meaning - as opposed to exegetical - meaning  of the text is that it
refers to a young woman then living, not one 600 years in the future.  Now,
I am certainly not suggesting that creative theological exegesis is "wrong"
- it is a matter of faith.  But I am saying that in an academic setting one
cannot pretend that there are no other ways to understand a text. 

I've always been puzzled why people approach so often the question by
suggesting that the NT writers translated the Hebrew "almah" into Greek as
"parthenos."  First, even if the writers in question were Jewish, there
seems to be some question about how widespread the use of Hebrew was during
the first century even among Jews, as reflected in discussions about what
languages Jesus spoke and the general conclusion that he spoke primarily

Second, if NT authors were not Jewish, there is little reason to suppose
they were literate in Hebrew.  In fact, even the large Jewish community of
Egypt as early as the third century BCE seemed to need a translation of the
Hebrew Bible into Greek, which we now know as the Septuagint, whose earliest
manuscripts date to the second and first centuries BCE.  So it has always
seemed to me far more likely that, as Professor Schmitt points out, the NT
writers were quoting the Septuagint rather than translating themselves.
("It is well know that Matt. 1:23 quotes from the LXX of Isa 7:14, which has
the word 'virgin' (parthenos) while the Hebrew has simply 'young girl'
('almah)." VI-854a.)

The question then seems to be why the LXX translators chose "parthenos" and
what they meant by it.  As Rev. Cunningham points out, we all associate
"parthenos" with Athena and her Parthenon, and tend to assume simply that
"parthenos" means "virgin."  Before addressing that question, I'd like to
return to the question of what "betulah" means.  As noted above, superficial
reading of the Hebrew Bible suggests that it means "virgin."    However, the
Encyclopedia Judaica notes (VIRGIN, VIRGINITY 16:160) that although the term
"[is] usually rendered 'virgin,' [it] is in fact an ambiguous term which in
nonlegal contexts may denote an age of life rather than a physical state.
Cognate Akkadian batulyu (masculine batulu) and Ugaritic btlt refer to 'an
adolescent, nubile girl.'" 

Professor Schmitt agrees:  "From significant passages one sees that the
word's meaning is not that of the modern English word, one who ahs not
experienced sexual intercourse.  The Hebrew word is usually qualified by a
phrase such as 'who has never known a man' (e.g. Ge, 24:16, Num 31:18) when
the word is used specifically to mean what the word 'virgin' means
today....In later legal terminology, the Bible's usage approaches the modern
use.  One can compare that development to the gradual specialization of the
German word 'Jungfrau' from 'young woman' to 'virgin.'" 

The meaning of "parthenos" seems to have been similar.  When I was curious
about why the LXX used that word to translate almah, and inquired of
acquaintances knowledgeable in Greek, they told me, much to my surprise,
that the word parthenos, despite the common impression to the contrary, did
not always denote a virgin.  And it appears that to the authors of the LXX
it did not.  This question was discussed on our sister list, B-Greek, some
13 years ago, and in an article in the June, 1977 issue of Biblical
Archeology Review by Prof. Charles Isbell  (I am sure it's been addressed
elsewhere, but these were the only two references I could find quickly.)  

Prof. Isbell discusses the meaning of betulah, noting that "Biblical writers
did not have at their disposal any single vocabulary word which conveys the
idea of a virgin, so they used standard, pointed, and very specific phrases
to describe a woman whose sexual status they wished to leave in no doubt
whatsoever. For example, the narrator in Genesis 24 wished to describe
Rebeccah as a virgin. And so he clearly stated the fact that 'no man had
known her' (Genesis 24:16). He could refer to Rebeccah as a bethulah
(Genesis 24:16), as an 'almah (Genesis 24:43), or as a na'arah (Genesis
24:14, Genesis 24:28 etc.). But her virginity could not be certified by any
one of these terms; that is why he pointedly declared that 'no man had known
her.' Such a phrase, unlike bethulah or any other vocabulary word in Hebrew,
was totally unambiguous. "

After discussing the meaning of betulah, Prof. Isbell goes on:

"The case is similar with respect to Greek parthenos. Normally, to be sure,
a parthenos was also a 'virgin.' But Genesis 34:1-4 proves that such was not
always the case. Shechem, having raped Dinah (Genesis 34:2), subsequently
told his father Hamor that he wished to marry the girl. The Revised Standard
Version translates his request, 'Get me this maiden [parthenos] for my wife'
(Genesis 34:4), a perfectly good rendition of the Hebrew text, which uses
the word yaldah for what RSV translates as 'maiden.' The point is that this
maiden, the just-raped Dinah, is twice called a parthenos in the Septuagint
(Genesis 34:3, Genesis 34:4)."  This  suggests pretty clearly that the
writers of the Septuagint did not understand parthenos to mean virgin.

On B-Greek, (Sept. 25, 1994) David Coomler expanded on the point, quoting
the LXX:

"The narrowing of the term to mean [parthenos] strictly "virgin" seems to
have taken place over time, and I am curious whether in Septuagint times the
older meaning of the term as somewhat synonymous with _neanis_ (maid, young
woman) was still applicable.

"As possible evidence for this I would cite the tale of the rape of Dinah in
Genesis 34.  It details how Dinah was seduced / raped by Shechem in 34:2,
and follows the account of their intercourse with 32:3, which states that
Shechem 'loved the girl' (_EgapEsen tEn parthenon) and spoke kindly to the
girl (elalEsen kata tEn dianoian tEs parthenou autE).  This would seem to
indicate that _parthenos_ is being used as an alternative to _neanis_ in
this instance, which would explain why it was used in place of _neanis_, the
(at least later) more accurate translation of the Hebrew 'almah in Isaiah

It seems to me, then, that there is very strong reason to conclude that
neither betulah in the Hebrew Bible nor parthenos in the LXX necessarily
implied a "sexually untouched" virgin.

Lewis Reich
lbr at sprynet.com

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list