Problem: Matthew misquotes Isaiah
Verses: Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23; Status: Minor

Here's the NRSV translation of Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (NRSV)

And here's Matthew 1:22-23, discussing the virgin birth of Jesus:

All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 'Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel', which means, 'God is with us.' (NRSV)

So, "young woman" becomes "virgin". Is this a misquotation? Well, not exactly. Matthew, who spoke Greek, is apparently quoting not from the original Hebrew text, but from the Greek translation available to him, known as the Septuagint. And the Septuagint does say "virgin".

Furthermore, it's not entirely certain that the NRSV's translation of Isaiah 7:14 is correct. The ESV, for instance, has this:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (ESV)

I suspect the NRSV is correct, but most evangelicals insist that Isaiah 7:14 can be translated with the word "virgin". For example, the ESV Study Bible says:

Although some claim that the word translated virgin (Hb. 'almah) refers generally to a "young woman," it actually refers specifically to a "maiden" - that is, to a young woman who is unmarried and sexually chaste

Meanwhile, the Oxford Bible Commentary says:

The word 'almah [...] does not imply virginity. The Greek translation of Isaiah, for reasons which are still unknown, here used the word parthenos, which does mean 'a virgin'

A live issue, then.

The meaning of the prophecy

Isaiah 7 doesn't seem to be about Jesus at all; rather, the actual prophecy is that a child will be born (this is around the year 730 BC), and before this child is old enough to know right from wrong, the enemies of Judah will have been defeated. This is Isaiah 7:14-16:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. (NRSV)

It seems like a stretch to see this as being about Jesus, when the actual meaning is so clear. It's also troubling that the child in the prophecy is called "Immanuel". Jesus is never called that in the New Testament (unless you count Matthew's quotation of Isaiah itself).

Still, perhaps none of this is fatal: New Testament writers often seem to find hidden meanings in the earlier texts.

Updated: 2009-04-03

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