Does the Hebrew word ‘Almah’ mean a virgin or not? (Isaiah 7:14)

In Isaiah 7:14 it says that the virgin will conceive and bear a son. But doesn’t the word Hebrew word used there (Almah) really translate to simply a young woman and not necessarily a virgin?

Critics to Christianity often point out that the word translated virgin (Almah) in Isaiah 7:14 is not referring to a virgin as modern translations imply, but only a young girl. This is a claim that originally was brought up and popularized by Jews and has now been spread around by multiple faiths who want to do away with the virgin birth of Jesus. They state that since the word almah in Hebrew correctly translated refers only to a young woman, there was no foretelling or significance to Jesus being born of a virgin as Christians believe.

The claim is true at face value. The word almah does in fact translate to fully mean a ‘sexually mature female of marriageable age, which may or may not be sexually active.’ But it is important that we don’t simply consider this case closed because of this one fact.

When the septuagint was published, the translators rendered the Hebrew word almah as the Greek word parthenos, which is a term that specifically means ‘virgin.’ This shows that even 200 years before Christ was born, they correctly understood what the word referred to. When Matthew wrote his gospel, his application of the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy stood in accord with the well-established understanding of the word parthenos.

Also, in Matthew 1:18 it says that Mary and Joseph were betrothed; which means that they were in a formal agreement or contract to be married. But in Matthew 1:19 it refers to Joseph as the husband. Some may try to point to this as being a contradiction in the scriptures, but this is simply not so. During this period of time, marriages were planned by the parents ahead of time. After contracts and agreements were made between the parents of the son and daughter, the couple was considered legally married and were called husband and wife. Because of its legal standing, a Bill of Divorce would have been necessary in order to terminate the union.

After these arrangements were made by the parents, though being considered married, the husband and wife still did not live together nor consummate the union for the first year. This was done to ensure the faithfulness and purity of the wife. If she was found to become pregnant during this time, obviously she had not been faithful and the marriage could be annulled. But after the year was complete, so long as the woman had remained faithful, the man would go to the house of his bride and in a grand display lead her back to his home which he had prepared over the year and consummate the marriage physically. This was the period of time that Joseph and Mary were going through. So it is easy to imagine Joseph’s shock and heartbreak at hearing that his bride was with child when he had not yet slept with her.

However, in Matthew 1:19 when it says that Joseph was unwilling to put her to shame, he had resolved to divorce her quietly. Why is this important? Because according to Deuteronomy 22:23-24, if a betrothed woman was found to have had sexual relations with another man, her and the man were to be brought before the court and stoned to death. Before the angel appeared to Joseph, he had decided to divorce her quietly in hopes that she could escape the death penalty for allegedly committing adultery.

With this information we can now look at the man who repeatedly schooled the highly educated Pharisees and Sadducees, fulfilled hundreds of prophecies, performed countless miracles (including walking on water, calming a storm, healing the blind, and raising the dead), and even rose from the dead himself after being executed by crucifixion, and we can either call him the son of a whore who should’ve been put to death or the son of God. Which seems more likely?

Though the definition of the word almah does not explicitly declare the person to be a virgin, it was definitely indirectly implied. I once heard an example of a dialogue where a man is introducing his daughter to a friend.

“Hey Anthony, this is my young unmarried (almah) daughter, Sarah.”

“Oh, she’s adorable! I take it she’s a virgin?”

“She better be! She’s my young unmarried daughter!”

While the question would be extremely inappropriate, the point still stands, the word almah refers to a virgin.