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Did The Doctrine of The Virgin Birth of Jesus Arise From a Mistranslation?

Updated on August 12, 2013

The History of The Virginal Conception

Many of the claims used to support the contention that the Bible is divinely inspired are concerned with the Hebrew Bible prophecies being fulfilled in the New Testament.

This passage from Isaiah (7:14-16) is one such example:

"Therefore, the Lord, of His own, shall give you a sign; behold, the young woman is with child, and she shall bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel. Cream and honey he shall eat when he knows to reject bad and choose good. For, when the lad does not yet know to reject bad and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread, shall be abandoned."

The quote is in the context of a prophecy made to king Ahaz of Judah, who found himself on the brink of war with Pekah, king of Israel, and Rezin, king of Aram. The prophet assures him that an "almah," will conceive and that her son will grow (cream and honey he shall eat) without the impending threat to Judah and Jerusalem coming to fruition.

Christian Doctrine holds that Jesus was conceived by Mary through the intervention of the Holy Spirit as attested to in the new testament by the gospels of Matthew (1:18-25) and Luke (1:26-38). This doctrinal cannon became widely accepted throughout Christendom (small as it was at the time) by the second century and remained an undisputed central miracle attesting to Jesus's Divinity until the 18th century when Biblical scholars such as Joseph Priestley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge pointed out a possible error in translation of the Hebrew word, "almah."

Lost in Translation

The passage from the old testament, written in Hebrew, becomes muddled when we examine the translation of the word, "almah." The authors of Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels originally in Greek and while the Hebrew word simply connotes a young woman of child bearing age without reference to virginity, the Greek word they choose to use, "parthenos," in their translation refers specifically to a young virgin women.

We see this manifested in Matthew thusly;

"All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus."

-Matthew 1:22-25

Likewise in Luke, the author for theological or linguistic reasons seems to make the same mistake.

"In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.

-Luke 1:26-31

While the argument has been made that this supposed mistake being made twice lends some veracity to the virginal conception of Jesus (The Criterion of Multiple attestation), neither Mark nor John make any reference to Mary's virginity. So it would seem the gospel accounts in the New Testament are divided on this point. Biblical Historian Stephen L. Harris of UC Sacramento has hypothesized that the, "mistranslation," may have been a purposeful one used to answer questions in the 2nd century concerning Jesus's illegitimate birth.

Drawing a Conclusion

The difficult task for a believing Christian here is to reconcile Theology with History. Biblical Historians have reached a rather solid consensus that the Doctrine of Jesus's Virginal conception rests on little evidence and is attributable to a Linguistic distortion occurring during the translation of the Old testament from Hebrew to Greek. Given this a pious Christian can reach one of two conclusion;

1. Mary was a Virgin and the birth of Jesus was indeed a miracle as asserted by both the authors of Matthew and Luke.

or

2. The Authors of Matthew and Luke were both aware of a prophecy in the Hebrew bible and either mistakenly or purposefully tampered with the translation of a single word leaving us with a prophecy seemingly fulfilled.

To draw the former conclusion, one must truly discard evidence and invoke an unremitting faith, but that would seem to be an act at the very heart of religious piety.

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      deborah testimony 2 years ago

      in my testimony the one true living God of Heaven and Earth showed me two identical Jesus Christ. This is similar to Christ’s testimony on the mount of temptation in Luke chapter 4. The devil appears looking like Jesus and tempting him if he be the son of God.

      This duplicate identity or mirror image comes from men changing original scriptures of prophecy!

      Here is the original scripture in Living Torah Isaiah 9:5-6,

      For a child has been born to us, a son given to us, and the authority is upon his shoulder, and the wondrous adviser, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, called his name, "the prince of peace". To him who increases the authority, and for peace without end, on David's throne and on his kingdom, to establish it and to support it with justice and with righteousness; from now and to eternity, the zeal of the Lord of Hosts shall accomplish this.

    • profile image

      deborah testimony 2 years ago

      Hello my name is Deborah and I am sharing my testimony called, "Christ testimony of the churches around the world". Just Google name of video.

      Many believers Christ believers in worship buildings around the world do not know original scriptures of prophecy were changed during the end of the First Century AD by certain men who first establish the Roman Catholic Church. These certain men were Jews and Gentiles who transferred the scriptures after adding and taking away words of prophecy and then put them in a book they called the “Holy Bible”. They called Living Torah scriptures “Old Testament” and scriptures of testimonies of Christ “New Testament”. In the Holy Bible are mixtures of original and changed scriptures of prophecy!

      Disciple Paul spoke and wrote before his departure about these certain men, who would change the truth of God into a lie and draw disciples after them. Also disciple John and Peter spoke and wrote as well.

      Here are the scriptures:

      Acts 20:28-31,Take heed therefore to yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which Jesus, the Christ has made you overseers, to feed his sheep, which he has purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock and also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.

      Rom 1:23,25 And changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four footed beasts, and creeping things. Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever Amen.

      And in 2Tim 4:3-4; 2 Thess 2:4; Gal 1:6-7; 2 Cor 4:2.

      Disciple John spoke and wrote:

      1John 2:18-19, Little children, it is the last time: and as you have heard that anti christ shall come, even now are there many anti christs; whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.

      2John 1:7, For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an anti christ.

      Disciple Peter spoke and wrote:

      1Peter 2: 7-8, to you therefore which believe he is precious: but to them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner and a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: where to also they were appointed.

      2Peter 1:16, For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

    • celafoe profile image

      charlie 4 years ago from Planet earth. between the oceans

      never mind you have made your anti Christian postion clear. I do not use a "evolution brain", i use the one God gave me. Logic is the way of man. Scripture is clear the bible cannot be understood by unbelievers so of course you do not understand it..

      1 Cor 3:19-21 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, "He catches the wise in their own craftiness"; 20 and again, "The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile." 21 Therefore let no one boast in men"

      I did not spue hate just a scriptural response to false doctrine.

    • adamschwartz profile image
      Author

      adamschwartz 4 years ago from Syracuse NY, USA

      post it again, but do it amicably and I'll leave it. But I won't have people spewing hate at me just because I disagree with them.

    • celafoe profile image

      charlie 4 years ago from Planet earth. between the oceans

      I stand on my previous comments that you deleted.

    • celafoe profile image

      charlie 4 years ago from Planet earth. between the oceans

      so like the rest of the false prophets and teachers you only allow the comments that agree with you- so I rebuke you in the Name of Jesus for presenting false info as Chritian.

    • Nicholas Fiorito profile image

      Nicholas Fiorito 4 years ago from Northern NJ

      Thanks adamschwartz, I've seen that documentary, but I'll check it out again. Sorry if I'm not making my question clear. ;)

      Hello Shadow Jackson! I don't think anyone is claiming that the virgin birth explains everything about Christ. However, doctrinally speaking, the Virgin Birth is hugely important to the veracity of Christian Theology. Without it, historical Christianity and almost all mainline Christian theologies wouldn't really work.

    • Shadow Jackson profile image

      Billionaire Brains 4 years ago from Washington, DC

      There is more to Jesus's life, death and ministry than a virgin birth. And whether or not the writers of those two gospels simultaneously based their recounting off of a misinterpretation of a prophecy, does not explain every and all things related to Christ.

    • adamschwartz profile image
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      adamschwartz 4 years ago from Syracuse NY, USA

      Yes, there's a very good documentary on just the point I think your making called, "The God Who Wasn't There," showing the similarities between a number of gods and literary figures like Oedipus and Hercules. I'd highly recommend it, if you haven't seen it.

    • Nicholas Fiorito profile image

      Nicholas Fiorito 4 years ago from Northern NJ

      I'm familiar with that argument, but I will have to check out your Hub for your specific take on it and presentation.

      Allow me to clarify my point. What I wonder, and what I have not heard anyone argue yet, is that perhaps ancient people used the mythic tropes and language of well-known, more ancient stories (virgin birth, having 12 apostles, miracle healings, dying and being resurrected in 3 days, etc.) in as a literary technique not to make factual claims, but to frame Jesus as a god-like figure. In other words, perhaps this was a natural way in which ancient people would have wrote and spoken about important people, or figures they struggled to comprehend themselves.

    • adamschwartz profile image
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      adamschwartz 4 years ago from Syracuse NY, USA

      Thanks very much, Yes that detail of Jesus's life is certainly echoed from many Mediterranean religious traditions. Particularly the Zoroastrian god Mithra seems to be a template from which all pertinent details of Jesus's life were plagiarized. I wrote a hub on this called, "Did Jesus of Nazareth Exist?" in which I outline the positive case for the historical figure but refer back to the Politically motivated incorporation of previous pagan traditions into Christian Theology as Christianity was spread and thus made more palatable by Constantine once adopted by the Roman empire.

    • Nicholas Fiorito profile image

      Nicholas Fiorito 4 years ago from Northern NJ

      Great work Adam Schwartz! I wonder, too, if mythic language and tropes have something to do with it. In the ancient world, so many gods and demi-gods were produced through a virgin birth; I wonder if early Christian authors used this as a literary technique to emphasize Jesus's importance. Your thoughts?