Virgin Birth Was Not Prophesied

Joseph Francis Alward
October 2, 1997

In Old Testament days pagan Gentiles had a strong
tradition of belief in virgin-born saviour-gods [1], all
of whom existed centuries before the birth of Jesus.
Bible writers, who were promoting Jesus of Nazareth
as the Hebrew's long-awaited messiah, struggled
mightily to fit their stories about Jesus to what they
believed were Old Testament prophecies about the
coming messiah.

In this essay we will provide information which will
suggest that one of these writers mistakenly
believed a verse about the ordinary and imminent
birth of a child was a prophecy that the future
messiah would be born of a virgin.


  E-Mail Alward                       Home Page 

Falsely Translated Isaiah Verses Predict Virgin Birth

The verse that is the heart of the controversy is found in the book of Isaiah.

Correct Translation False Translation Matthew's Verses
"Therefore the Lord Himself giveth to you a sign, Lo, the young woman is conceiving, And is bringing forth a son, And hath called his name Immanuel" [2]. "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."
(Isaiah 7:14)
"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 means "God is with us" (Matthew 1:21-23)

Thus, the woman--not a virgin [2]--is already carrying the child whose birth is imminent; thus, the Isaiah verse cannot refer to a future conception. We see above that Isaiah was not speaking of a messiah which would appear eight hundred years later; he was referring to the present. The child he spoke of was already conceived; the child, which would soon be born, would be a sign--a good omen--to a king about to engage in battle.

The editors of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and New English Translation (NET) of the Bible would undoubtedly have loved to uphold the traditional belief that Isaiah predicted that Jesus would be born of a virgin, but they evidently knew that was wrong:  "Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son.."  (Isaiah 7:14) ... "Look, this young women is about to conceive and will give birth to a son." (Isaiah 7:14 NET), but they didn't do so because they evidently knew the proper translation is "young woman", not "virgin". The reason Matthew put the word "virgin" in Isaiah's mouth  may have been because belief in saviors born of a virgin was extremely commonplace, and Matthew either wanted to be sure not to disappoint those whom he wished to recruit into his religion and put the word there fraudulently, or else he actually believed that Isaiah spoke of a virgin, when in fact his recollection of scripture was foggy and he had no access to scripture which would have shown him wrong.  A similar point is about Matthew's memory is made in Potter's Field article; there you'll find another example of Matthew twisting remembered accounts of stories in scripture into prophecies of a coming messiah.

Note that the name of the child to be conceived was to be Immanuel [3], not "Jesus" [4]. In the entire New Testament the name Immanuel appears only once--in Matthew's verse where he quotes the false Isaiah prophecy. More than a thousand times the name Jesus appears in the New Testament, but not once is the savior from Nazareth called Immanuel, except in the single verse where Matthew tells us what Isaiah said the child would be called. One would think that if Jesus was ever called Immanuel by anyone, then one of the characters in the Bible, or one of the writers, would have done so, as Matthew said Isaiah said would happen; Mark, Luke, John, Paul, or Peter would surely have mentioned the name a few times, but they mentioned it not once.  The reasonable inferrence to be made here is that Isaiah was not predicting that a future savior of the Jews would be called Immanuel.  Why then did Matthew think that Jesus was called Immanuel, if that's what he thought? This is only speculation, but perhaps Matthew, a greek Jew who didn't know the first thing about the Hebrew language, thought that the name Jesus was the greek version of Immanuel, which means "God is with us"; but it's not, Jesus is Hellenized Greek for Joshua, which means "God is salvation".

Immanuel Is Born in Isaiah

Additional evidence that the prophet in Isaiah referred to an event soon to be realized, and not an event in Bethlehem eight hundred years later, may be found in the very next chapter in Isaiah (see table, below), where a child called "Immanuel" is born. As proof that the boys in these two Isaiah chapters are one and the same, we may note below in the table below, both chapters mention the conquest of the lands of two kings "before the boy" reaches a certain age; this key phrase links the two chapters to the same child, Immanuel. The unborn and born child in the two Isaiah chapters are further linked by the appearance of the name Immanuel in both places. Immanuel, which in Hebrew means "God is with us" is a name which one may be sure was carefully chosen by the prophet to reassure the king that God would be on his side. Thus, in the second chapter we see the exclamation, "O Immanuel", which is Isaiah's proud announcement that the child was born and represented a sign that "God is with us".

Before Birth of Immanuel After Birth of Immanuel
"The young woman has conceived and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel. Before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste." (Isaiah 7:14-16) "And she conceived and gave birth to a son. Before the boy knows how to say My father or My mother, the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off ......O Immanuel." (Isaiah 8:3-8)

Immanuel Was Not Perfect

Another reason for doubting that the child spoken of in Isaiah is the future Jesus Christ is that Isaiah notes that there will be a waiting period before the child will know the difference between right and wrong. This would not make sense if the child referred to by Isaiah were actually the future son of God: How could a God-entity not know the difference between right and wrong? Since the perfect son of a perfect God could not have been imperfect at birth, we have one more reason for believing that Isaiah was not prophesying the coming of the future messiah.

Matthew Was Referring to a Prefigurement

Matthew's errors can be mitigated by a somewhat more forgiving interpretation of his intentions.  I think it is apparent that the person Matthew was speaking of whose name would be Emmanuel is not Jesus, but the child in Isaiah.   Matthew obviously knows that the actual name of the son of God is Jesus, because he said so, so he apparently doesn't believe the son of God's actual name is also Emmanuel, as well as Jesus. 

Now, the question is, Why did Matthew compare the virgin birth of the son of God to the virgin birth of the child in Isaiah?  I believe the words shown above (Matthew 1:20) show clearly that Matthew only wanted his audience to know that the birth of the son of God--who now is with us--was prefigured in the virgin-birth centuries before of the one whose name meant, "God Is with Us." 

Note added later:

21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." 
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" --which means, "God with us." 

Matthew said that the birth of Jesus fulfilled this prophecy. How could the prophecy have been fulfilled unless both aspects of the prophecy happened as predicted?

If the "fulfillment" of a Biblical prophecy story requires that all of its specifications be met, then Matthew was mistaken when he said that "all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet." 

On the other hand, if "fulfillment" in the New Testament sometimes meant that the fulfillment story contains SOME elements which are parallels to some of the elements in the antecedent story, then Matthew was not in error. One example of the type of "parallel" I think Bible writers occasionally had in mind is David's lamenting prayer following his betrayal by one close to him, and Jesus' lamenting prayer following a similar betrayal. The details of the parallel events don't match at all, but the parallel is inescapable, and almost surely was on the mind of Mark when he invented the Gethsemane story. I mention this so that it is understood that "parallels" need not contain elements which match exactly. This is the case with the virgin birth prophecy.

In the fulfillment under discussion, there are two parallel elements: 

(1) Jesus was born of a virgin, and so was Emmanuel.
(2) Jesus birth meant that through him God was now with us and would save us from our sin, and Emmanuel's name meant God is with us.

These are also inescapable parallels which Matthew no doubt thought were of divine significance, and I'm sure his readers thought so, too.

In summary, unless skeptics insist that "fulfillment" to New Testament writers HAD to mean that ALL of the specifications in the antecedent story would be actualized in the fulfilling story, there is not necessarily a problem with Matthew's fulfillment story.

To refute this argument, it would seem to me that skeptics have to show textual evidence that "fulfillment" never meant merely that significant parallels existed. 

Matthew made several other prophecy "fulfillment" claims. Can anyone show that the fulfillments in these other stories were not merely the appearance of some parallels between the fulfillment and antecedent stories? If not, then skeptics should perhaps not be so quick to allege that Matthew was in error.


Did Matthew believed that Isaiah passage about Emmanuel was a prophecy?  It seems to me that the most Jesus is saying is that the virgin-born child the prophets had "spoken of" was "fulfilled" in Jesus birth.  Prophets writing about something, as Isaiah did with Emmanuel, is not the same as prophesying.  If we are to believe that Matthew thought that Isaiah was predicting that the child "Emmanuel" was to be the "Jesus" in Matthew's birth story, then we must conclude that he thought that "Emmanuel" was not born in the time of Isaiah. But, is this likely?  Is it possible that Matthew did not know that Emmanuel was born two chapters later in Isaiah?  And, did he not know that Jesus evidently was never called Emmanuel by anyone?

If Matthew knew that Isaiah was not making a prophecy, then we have no right to insist that Matthew was in error when he said that Jesus' virgin-birth fulfilled that which was spoken of by the prophets, do we?  Now, the question is, what does Matthew mean by, "fulfilled as spoken of by the prophets."  I've given my answer to this question elsewhere (the virgin birth story):  Matthew was merely calling attention to divine parallels.


It seems possible that the author of Matthew based his virgin-birth story on the incorrectly-translated verses in Isaiah because he believed--or pretended to believe-- that the prophet in Isaiah was referring to a future virgin-birth, and not describing an already-pregnant young woman. If Matthew actually believed that the son of God would be known as "Emmanuel," he apparently made three other mistakes, too. (1) He evidently thought that Jesus was the Hellenized form of Immanuel, but he was wrong. (2) He apparently overlooked the fact that the child referred to in the alleged virgin-birth prophecy in Isaiah was born two chapters later. (3) He may have failed to understand that the child in that prophecy was to have a period of learning before he knew the difference between right and wrong and, which implied that the child couldn't have been the future son of God.  Alternatively, if Matthew was merely telling his audience that Jesus' virgin birth was prefigured in the virgin-birth of the one whose name would be "Emmanuel," then Matthew's errors are not as bad. 

When all of this evidence is viewed objectively, it is hard to avoid that conclusion that Matthew was simply mistaken. This will be no problem for those who don't believe that every story in the Bible must be true in order that one may hold the belief that Jesus is God. However, for the inerrantist, these apparent inconsistencies present a very large problem. In order to fully harmonize these apparent problems, inerrantist must explain these inconsistencies:

The "prophesied" messiah would have to wait until he knew right from wrong.
The child referred to in Isaiah 6 was apparently born two chapters later.
The child-omen to a king living in 800 BC would be Jesus in 30 AD.
The word "ha-almah" normally means "young woman", not "virgin".
The word "harah" is past tense, not future tense, and means "conceived".

[1] Crishna; Indian saviour god, born of the virgin Devaki; before sixth century BC. Buddha; Indian god born of Virgin Maya or Mary; third century BC. Fo-Li; Chinese mythological god, born of a virgin in 3468 BC. Lau-Kiun (Lao-Tsze), born of a virgin in 604 BC. Ra; Egyptian god, born from the side of his mother. Before 2000 BC. Zoroaster; Persian (Iranian) god; born in innoncence, of an immaculate conception of a Ray of Divine Reason.Perseus, son of Jupiter by the virgin Danae, daughter of Acrisius, King of Argos. Hercules, son of Jupiter by mortal mother, Alcmene. Apollo; son of Jupiter and mortal mother, Latona. Romulus, alleged founder of Rome, son of god by a pure virgin, Rhea-Slyvia.
[2] "laken yittan adonai hu lakem oth (omen) hinneh ha-almah (young woman) harah (is pregnant) ve-yeldeth ben ve-karath shem-o immanuel."

According to Yariv Eyal, a teacher of Hebrew, "There exists no word with the ayin-lamed-mem root of "almah" (the female form of "elem", or "lad", which is mistranslated as "virgin" in Isaish 7:14 in all Christian Bibles), which definitely connotes "virginity" in any way. I can find various words which are derived from this sense of the root which connote age, not status of virginity, and even Strong's concordance [14] lists the word "almah" as the female counterpart of "elem" (lad), which makes no mention of virginity in its respective entry."
[3] Immanuel, "God is with us"
[4] Jesus: Joshua "Yahweh saves; Yahweh is salvation."