[b-hebrew] virgin vs. young woman

Isaac Fried if at math.bu.edu
Tue Jul 10 09:11:19 EDT 2007


I tend to agree with those who want see BTULAH as the combination BAT- 
(UL-AH, 'a grown up daughter', from the root (UL 'to be elevated',  
which is but a variant of the roots )UL, )IL, (OL, of the same  
meaning. This same elevation marker L is found also in (ELEM and  
(ALMAH. The word NA(AR from the root N(R, related to the root (UR,  
[like )UR] refers to the alertness, briskness, vigor and agility of a  
young man. For a girl it is of course NA(ARAH. So (ELEM is for body,  
and NA(AR is for spirit.

Isaac Fried, Boston University

On Jul 10, 2007, at 3:15 AM, Lew Reich wrote:

> 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
> issue.
> 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
> "virginity."
> 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
> Aramaic.
> 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
> 7:14."
> 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
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