Almah is the English transliteration of the (modern) Hebrew word for “young woman.” Likewise, betoolah is modern Hebrew for “virgin.” The Hebrew Scripture, in Isaiah 7:14, the classic verse foretelling us of the coming of The Christ, uses almah. And therein lies a needless source of division among Christians.

When Isaiah wrote, it is likely that there was no linguistic distinction between an unmarried and young woman, and “virgin.” At the time, and, frankly, up until relatively modern times (in my lifetime), “young unbetrothed woman” was synonymous with “virgin.” How wrong we were, you might say.

Now Jewish translations that I’ve seen always use the words “young woman” to translate almah. Fair enough. But, since the word really connotes “virgin”, evangelically-informed translations seem to all use “virgin”, while those striving for linguistic if not theological purity will use the first, modern Hebrew meaning of “young woman.”

Herewith, Isaiah 7:14 in three Christian versions:

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

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman’u-el.

Note the changes, from “a virgin” to “the virgin” to “a young woman.” The “the” (no, not the alt rock group) would seem to prophesy Mary, the Mother of God. “A” virgin certainly does not rule out Mary. “A young woman” doesn’t either, in point of fact. The point of all this? The particular wording does not affect my faith. Not one little bit.

My preference is to read a version that adheres most closely to what I believe to be the truth of Christ Jesus. This I find in the NIV (not, repeat not, a third time not Today’s NIV), the English Standard Version, and, thanks to a recommendation from Jim at Stones Cry Out, the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

That being said, if the pew Bible I find is the Revised Standard or even Today’s NIV, I’ll read it prayerfully. And have charity towards those who think these more “modern” (read: politically correct) are somehow, better.

Either way, the Bible I read will not change my faith — just that some versions will enhance it more than others.

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