a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall
be called Emmanuel.
famous text of Isaias (7:14) was the topic of the papal
catechism [taught every Wednesday by the Holy Father-Ed.]
on January 31, 1996. We read there:
the context of the message of the angel who invites Joseph
to take with him Mary, his wife, "for that which
is formed in her is the handiwork of the Holy Ghost,"
Matthew attributes a Christological and Marian signification
to the speech. In fact, he adds, " All this was done
that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the
prophet saying, "Behold a virgin shall be with child
and bring forth a son and they shall call his name Emmanuel,
which being interpreted is, God with us" (Mt. 1:22,23).
Matthew the Evangelist writes under the inspiration of the
Holy Ghost. Therefore, it is for the least improper to say
that he "attributes a Christological and Marian signification
to the speech." It would be, on the contrary, precise
to say that, under the divine inspiration, he gives the
true signification concerning it. Moreover, this signification
is clearly manifested also by words of the prophet Isaias:
thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shall bring forth a
son and thou shalt call his name Jesus (Lk. 1:31).
HOLY FATHER'S "CATECHISM" OF THE PEOPLE CONTINUES:
prophecy does not announce explicitly, in the Hebrew text,
the virginal birth of the Emmanuel: the word used (almah),
in fact, signifies quite simply a young lady and not necessarily
a virgin. Besides, we know that the Jewish tradition did
not propose the ideal of perpetual virginity, nor has
it ever expressed the idea of a virginal motherhood.
word almah does not signify "quite simply a
young lady," but an unmarried young lady, a young girl
for marriage and therefore, without exceptions, a virgin.
The prophet, in using almah (young girl for marriage),
and not issah (a married lady) for the mother of
the Emmanuel who shall conceive and shall bring forth a
son means to indicate clearly the virginity of this conception
and of this childbirth…:
much so that it will be she who will give the name to
her son, whereas it is normally the role of the father
to do so.1
Hebrew, it is true, betulah is the precise word employed
for virgin. But in biblical usage, almah is, for
motives that we have just explained, a synonym of betulah.
Thus in Genesis 24:43, Rebecca, before her meeting with
Isaac is called almah, and in verse 16, betulah….In
Exodus 2:8, Mary the sister of Moses, not even an adolescent,
is called almah. We can also refer to the Canticle
of Canticles (1:3; 6:8), which distinguishes the young ladies,
virgins, queens and the other wives of the king. See also
Psalm 68:26. "Isaias," writes L. Dennefeld, "preferred
to name the mother of the Emmanuel, almah, signifying
a young lady unmarried because a young unmarried lady should
be considered a virgin till proof of the contrary."
Dennefeld brings to light that the signification of virgin
is reminded to us by the context: Isaias obviously wants
to express a unique privilege which distinguishes the mother
of the Emmanuel from all other mothers and this privilege
cannot be one to be considered outside of marriage in the
ordinary course of events, because this instead of honoring,
would rather dishonor the mother of the Emmanuel.2
That is why the translation in Isaias 7: 14 almah (or
rather ha Almah, with the article) is a virgin.
The Jerusalem Bible, Steimann also translates almah
quite simply as "young lady." But this Steimann
is not of "blessed memory," for his Life of
Jesus was placed on the Index,3
and the Holy Office, in a letter dated February 11,
1962, forbade the author to write or to publish on biblical
themes. But behold, his very unfortunate translation, which
contradicted all Catholic tradition and biblical exegesis,
now once again resurfaced in the "catechism" of
Pope John Paul II.
it is true "that the Jewish tradition did not propose
the ideal of a perpetual virginity," but it remains
to be proved in a categorical manner that it "never
has expressed the idea of a virginal maternity. "On
the contrary, J. Cales writes that in Isaias 7:14, the announcement
of the Messiah, born of a virgin mother was not appearing
for the first time: Isaias speaks of "the virgin"
(ha Almah, with the article) who conceives and gives
birth. He presumes this to be known, that a virgin will
conceive, by those whom he addresses. In the parallel prophecy
of Micheas (5:1 ff), we find a similar allusion to the virginal
maternity, but which is even more unintelligible to those
listeners who "know nothing about" the virginal
in fact, in his famous words (brought to mind also by the
catechism of Pope John Paul II) says:
thou Bethlehem Ephrata... out of thee shall he come forth
unto me that is to be ruler of Israel...and his going
forth...from the days of eternity. It is for this that
Jahweh shall give them up to the mercy of the other one
till the time where is she that travaileth shall bring
the words 'wherein she that travaileth shall bring forth,'
Micheas refers certainly to the famous prophesy of the virgin
in Isaias 7:14; prophesy which he presumes most well-known
by his contemporaries," notes Fr. Vaccari. In this
Fr. Vaccari is perfectly in line with J. Cales on the fact
that the prophetical books of the Old Testament are nothing
but a synthesis more or less in fragments of the prophetical
preaching in which "the idea of a virginal maternity"
was far from being unknown.
confirmation comes from the Old Greek version of the Old
Testament, in which the Hebrew translator has rendered the
Hebrew ha almah by e parthenos, the virgin.
This is the way that the Syrian translator of the Peschitto
[Syriac version of the Bible], translated the word as also
did St. Jerome later in the Latin Vulgate. We can therefore
conclude with Angelo Penna:
in Hebrew we do not read the technical term as virgin
but by a less known and more general term which signifies
"young girl for marriage." We must therefore
admit that in times past the ancient Jews, in translating
the passage into Greek (2nd century BC) showed
clearly that they understood the text in the sense of
a childbirth from a virgin.4
the "catechism" of Pope John Paul II, however,
the Greek translation, nevertheless, the Hebrew words
were rendered by the term parthenos, virgin. In
this fact, which could seem simply like a particularity
in translation, we must recognize a mysterious orientation
given by the Holy Ghost to the words of Isaias to prepare
the understanding of the extraordinary birth of the Messiah.
why complicate that which is so simple, with the result
being to throw a shadow of doubt on the "queen of Messianic
prophecies"?- No. It is not necessary to suppose "a
mysterious orientation given by the Holy Spirit," nor
even a "particularity in translation." The explanation
is evident: the ancient Jews in translating, even before
the days of the birth of Christ, almah by parthenos
(=virgin) clearly showed: 1) that they considered
almah (maiden) as a synonym of betulah (virgin),
and, 2) that "the idea of virginal maternity"
was not at all absent from the Jewish tradition.
John Paul II is not a Bible scholar and we have to presume
therefore that behind this papal "catechism" there
is an expert. An "expert" has cast a shadow on
the term almah - a term which is used very clearly
as a synonym of betulah (=virgin). That a
"catechism" should propose doubts and not certitudes
seems to us very grave. The more so since it is here a question
of a "papal catechism" and that which is at stake
is the "queen of all Messianic prophecies."
Courrier de Rome, Feb., 1997)
F. Spadafora, Il Libro Sacro, ed. Messagero, Padua,
Enchiridion Biblicon, no.635.
Angelo Penna, La Sacra Biblia, ed. Marietti,
1962, vo1.II, p.590.
Courtesy of the Angelus
Press, Kansas City, MO 64109
translated from the Italian
Fr. Du Chalard
Via Madonna degli Angeli, 14
Italia 00049 Velletri (Roma)