Was Mary a Virgin or Just a Young Woman?

 Was Mary a virgin, or just a young woman? Is. 7:14 states “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The debate is over the meaning of the word “virgin.” The Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words points out that “this passage has been greatly debated, especially since the Revised Standard Version changed the King James Version of ‘virgin’ to ‘young woman.’”
Generally, this is a question between conservatives and liberals – between those who hold to the inerrancy of Scritpure and those who deny it. It is an important question, however, because we should not only believe what the Bible says, but know why we believe – and how to defend our beliefs (1 Pet. 3:15). Our purpose is to state why some believe Mary was just a “young woman,” examine what the Bible teaches, and explain why this teaching is important.

Strong defines the word “virgin” in Is. 7:14 as simply “a lass (as veiled or private).”
Warren Baker and Eugene Carpenter, writing in The Complete Word Study Dictionary say it is “a feminine noun meaning a maiden, a young woman, a girl, and a virgin. The word describes young women in different categories …” The Complete Biblical Library Hebrew-English Dictionary points out that “ʿalmāh refers to a ‘young woman.’ In general usage, an ʿalmāh was a young, marriageable woman. As a potential wife, it was important that she be a virgin. An ʿalmāh could be a young married woman who had not given birth.” The Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words admits ‘the term in the original Hebrew is ambiguous. The Hebrew word ʾalmah refers generally to ‘a young girl who has passed puberty and thus is of marriageable age,’” then adds “Another Hebrews word, bethulah, specifies ‘a woman who is a virgin’ – that is, she has not had sexual intercourse.” Vine defends the use of ʿalmâ, as, as opposed tobethulah saying,

Thus ʿalmâ appears to be used more of the concept “virgin” than that of “maiden,” yet always of a woman who had not borne a child. This makes it the ideal word to be used in Is. 7:14, since the word betûlâ emphasizes virility more than virginity (although it is used with both emphases, too). The reader of Is. 7:14 in the days preceding the birth of Jesus would read that a “virgin who is a maiden” would conceive a child. This was possible, but irregular, use of the word since the word can refer merely to the unmarried status of the one so described. On the other hand, the reader of that day must have been extremely uncomfortable with this use of the word, since its primary connotation is “virgin” rather than “maiden.” Thus the clear translation of the Greek in Matt. 1:23 whereby this word is rendered “virgin” satisfies its fullest implication.

As we have seen, some deny the “virginity” of Mary because of the ambiguity of the word “virgin” in Is. 7:14. This is often a conservative versus liberal debate, which is understandable since conservatives accept miracles and the supernatural, whereas liberals tend to deny anything that cannot be humanly explained. Have we come to a theological stalemate? Certainly not. It has been said that “the Bible is its own best commentary.” As we compare Scripture with Scripture, we find our answer.

As we examine Matt. 1:18-25 a very clear picture emerges. For your convenience, I include that passage here:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

Notice the following important truths. First, Mary and Joseph were espoused, but Mary was found with child “before they came together” (v. 18). Clearly, the birth of Christ was not the result of a sexual relationship between Mary and Joseph. Jesus was born of a virgin! Second, God revealed to Joseph that Mary was a virgin, and that this child was “conceived … of the Holy Ghost” (v. 20). Third, Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14, and obviously understood the word “virgin” to mean more than a “young maid” (v. 23). Finally, Joseph and Mary did not have sexual relationship until after the birth of Christ (v. 24). Again, this clearly shows that Jesus was born of a virgin. As a side note, verse 24 also dismisses the false teaching that Mary remained a “perpetual virgin.”

In Luke’s recording of the birth of Christ (Luke 1:26-38), we see both the submissive spirit of Mary to the will of God (v. 38), and also the fact that she didn’t understand how this could be. How could she be pregnant? How could she have a baby? She was a virgin (v. 34)!

The importance of the virgin birth is borne out by the Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words, which says,

From the very beginning of the church, the doctrine of the virgin birth became the foundation of the Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God. Some of the earliest church fathers stressed this more than any other event in Jesus’ life as proof of the incarnation and deity of Christ. This truth is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed of the fifth century, which declares “I believe in God the Father almighty… and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.”

The Complete Biblical Library Greek-English Dictionary admits, “The Virgin Birth is not presented in Scripture as dogma; it receives little dogmatic treatment in the New Testament. Instead it appears as a holy story, historically verified by the writers, but without much elaboration or explanation.” That Dictionary goes on to show the value of this “fundamental” or cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith saying,

Nevertheless, it would be a complete misunderstanding to interpret this absence of elaboration as an indication that it is not an important cornerstone of the Christian faith. Although such an assertion might even be well-intended, it is highly questionable. All the great confessions of faith from history include an affirmation of the Virgin Birth. The true church of Christ has always believed this. It should also be clear, since the Virgin Birth is how God chose to reveal the Son incarnate, it is not without importance. It must be significant because the Incarnation is a basis for all of salvation history and redemption. It is also central because it captures the innermost essence of who Jesus is.

Admittedly, there is some debate over the virgin birth of Christ – but not among Bible believing folks. The importance of this doctrine cannot be overstated. For if Jesus was not born of a virgin, He would simply be the son of Joseph – not the Son of God!

REFERENCES

Baker, Warren, and Eugene Carpenter, The Complete Word Study Dictionary – Old Testament, (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2003), WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

 

Carpenter, Eugene, and Philip Comfort, Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew Words Defined and Explained, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2000), WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

 

Gilbrant, Thoralf, ed., “6183,” in The Complete Biblical Library Hebrew-English Dictionary – Nun-Ayin, (Springfield, IL: World Library Press, Inc., 1998), WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

 

Strong, James, Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary, (Austin, TX: WORDsearch Corp., 2007), WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

 

Vine, William, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old Testament and New Testament Words, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1940), WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

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  • Robert Cheatle

    Interesting, but your last sentence does not summarise the only options. Mary may already pregnant by an unknown man. It is possible that Joseph was a widower with children and was looking for a new wife, became engaged to Mary only to find she was already pregnant. In those days an unmarried woman might well be stoned to death, so Joseph went ahead with the marriage for some reason. Joseph disappears soon in the biblical story suggesting he was much older than Mary. It also explains the existence of siblings for Jesus, albeit not directly related to Jesus. Whether Joseph consummated the marriage is then irrelevant, knowing that she had already slept with a man may have put him off in those days of sexual purity. Anyway, this is just one other plausible explanation.

    • A Reader

      Indeed so many options! Maybe Mary and Joseph and Jesus weren’t even real, or maybe they were real and people made up some stories about them hundreds of years after they existed.