The Virgin Birth in the Revised Standard Version

The great historic fact that our Lord Jesus Christ was "conceived by the Holy Ghost: born of the Virgin Mary," entirely apart from any generation on the part of man, has been one of the fundamental truths of Christianity from the very beginning of Christian history. The so-called "Apostles' Creed" has borne witness to this fact continuously throughout at least 1,800 years of church history; and belief in the Virgin Birth is affirmed by repetition of the "Creed" every Lord's Day throughout wide areas of Christendom, even in religious bodies whose leaders have rejected it as an essential truth.

As to the Biblical basis for the truth of the Virgin Birth, there is considerable material. Although some of this material is more or less indirect in its testimony, there are at least three main passages which bear witness very clearly and directly: First, there is the account in Matthew 1:18-25 giving the story from the standpoint of Joseph. Second, there is the account in Luke 1:26-38 written evidently from Mary's standpoint. Third, there is the great prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 quoted by Matthew as having been fulfilled by the Virgin Birth of Christ.

Now what has the RSV done with this important material? In answer, first, let it be said that the makers of this recent version apparently made no attempt to remove or alter either the received Hebrew text in Isaiah 7:14 or the Greek text in the Virgin Birth stories of Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38. As a matter of fact, no group of men with any pretense of responsible scholarship dared attack any of these passages on textual grounds. But while these revisers could not attack directly on textual grounds the truth of our Lord's Virgin Birth in the crucial passages, they did move against the doctrine by what might be called indirect assault. The evidence is as follows:

I. In the Isaiah Passage, the RSV Moved Against the Virgin Birth by Mistranslation

In the King James Version (KJV) Isaiah 7:14 reads, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." In the American Standard Version (ASV) the passage is translated exactly as above, but the word "maiden" is put in the margin as an alternative translation. But since English dictionaries define "maiden" as "a virgin," the meaning is not changed.

The new RSV takes the word “virgin” out of Isaiah 7:14 and translates as follows: "Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." The word "virgin" is then relegated to a footnote as a secondary alternate translation. Thus, the revisers raised a serious question at least about any reference in the prophecy to our Lord's Virgin Birth and revealed clearly their own attitude toward that great truth. For if they believed that Christ was born of a virgin, and if the word "virgin" was a possible translation, then there could be no valid reason for not leaving the word "virgin" in the verse, unless they were determined to exclude from the prophecy any reference to the birth of Christ. Let us now consider the evidence against the RSV translation of Isaiah 7:14.

First, the Gospel of Matthew declares in unmistakable terms that Isaiah 7:14 was a prophecy of the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ, and the makers of the RSV were well aware of this fact, for when they came to translate Matthew's account, they could do nothing else but translate it as follows: "All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel'" (1:22-23 RSV, italics mine). Certainly, if the makers of the RSV believed in the inspiration of the Bible in any real sense of the term, they would have felt compelled to pay some attention to Matthew's declaration on this important point.

Second, the Hebrew word "almah," translated "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14 by the KJV, is used at least seven times in the Old Testament. Four times it is rendered "virgin," twice "maid," and once "damsel" (KJV). No one has ever been able to prove in any one of these occurrences that "almah" ever means anything else than "virgin." Dr. Robert Dick Wilson, probably the greatest scholar of his generation in languages related to Biblical history, after prolonged research of all the evidence, gave his unqualified support to the KJV translation of "virgin." It was also supported by the late Dr. James Orr, a scholar of immense learning. And the challenge of Luther still stands, "If any Jew or Christian can prove to me that in any passage of Scripture 'almah' means 'a married woman" I will give him 100 florins, although God alone knows where I might find them!"

Third, the theological bias of the makers of the RSV is clearly seen in the fact that in no less than four out of the seven occurrences of the word "almah" they have translated it by the word "maiden" which is still perfectly good English for "virgin." Yet when they came to Isaiah 7:14, after rejecting the word "virgin," they refused to put in its place the word "maiden" which they had already used as a proper translation of the Hebrew "almah" in four other texts! Why was the great prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 selected as a place where neither "virgin" nor "maiden" would be allowed, but instead they translate "a young woman"? Does this not provide very clear evidence that in the thinking of these revisers the "young woman" in question was not a "virgin"?

Fourth, about 200 B. C. some Jewish scholars made a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek for the benefit of the dispersed Jews who could no longer either speak or read the Hebrew. This translation is called the Septuagint. Now it is a remarkable fact that in this translation the Hebrew "almah" is translated by the Greek word "Parthenos," the meaning of which cannot be disputed. It means "virgin." To any person with a fair share of common sense it would seem that those Jewish scholars living 200 years before Christ should have known better how to translate their own language, and specifically the Book of Isaiah, then men far removed in time by 2,000 years from them. And if there should be any remaining doubt about the proper translation of the Hebrew "almah" in Isaiah 7:14, it should be settled forever by the fact that Matthew in his account of the Virgin Birth quotes the prophecy in Greek using the term "parthenos" (Matt. 1:23). And Matthew wrote by immediate inspiration of the Holy Ghost. But even this does not settle the matter for the RSV translation committee. One of these gentlemen. Dr. Harry M. Orlinsky, a Jewish scholar who of course rejects Jesus as the Christ, when faced by the fact that scholars of his own race and religion used the proper Greek word for "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14 2,000 years ago, actually argued that "the Christians" were responsible for changing the text of the Septuagint and inserting the word for "virgin" (see Intro, to RSV of O.T., p. 30). But the Septuagint was made by Jewish scholars 200 years before there were any Christians! When recently I pointed out Orlinsky's curious argument to a scholar who was inclined to defend the new version in a mild sort of way, He did not hesitate to characterize it as "sheer idiocy"! Certainly it could not be called "scholarship."

Finally, on the assumption accepted by the destructive critics, namely, that the "almah" of Isaiah 7:14 was not a "virgin" but only a "young woman" who in the days of the prophet bore a child by natural generation of a human father, it is difficult to see how this event could possibly have been any kind of a "sign" of unusual significance to "the house of David." The words of Isaiah 7:14 indicate that the "sign" to be given by "the Lord himself" would be something beyond and above anything in the ordinary world. How could such a sign be fulfilled by the birth of a child as the result of a man and a woman coming together? One might argue, with some justification, it would be a much greater sign if no child were conceived and born in such an event!

II. In the Matthew Account of the Virgin Birth, the RSV Has Insinuated a Doubt by the Introduction of a Misleading Footnote

For this particular piece of skullduggery (not an unfair characterization), the makers of the RSV kept outside the actual Virgin Birth passage which appears in Matthew 1:18-25, and centered their attention on verse 16. In both the KJV and ASV this verse is translated, "And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ." And this is exactly what the Greek says. The RSV, with its much publicized antipathy to the verb "begat," omits this word and puts in three words, "the father of," which have nothing to represent them in the Greek. But otherwise the verse is left intact, reading in part, "Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ." In English the pronoun "whom" is ambiguous and might be singular or plural, masculine or feminine. But the Greek pronoun is singular and feminine, pointing clearly to Mary alone.

But consider now a very curious footnote which the RSV has placed in the margin in connection with verse 16. This footnote reads as follows: "Other ancient authorities read Joseph, to whom was betrothed the virgin Mary, was the father of Jesus who is called Christ." This reading, of course, clearly asserts that Joseph was the father of Jesus. Let us examine this specimen of modernistic scholarship.

First, they say that this reading occurs in "other ancient authorities." This sounds very impressive. But what are these "ancient authorities," and how many are there? Well, the answer is that there is not even so much as one manuscript of the Greek New Testament that contains the above reading! It is found only in an old version, the Sinaitic Syriac discovered in 1892.

Second, it should be pointed out that if all the insignificant variant readings which may be found in the ancient versions, to say nothing of the more important ancient manuscripts, had been included in the footnotes of the RSV New Testament, most of it would be foot- notes! As any reader can easily see, very few of these variants are included in the footnotes. Why then, out of all the many thousands of variants, did the makers of the RSV put this one in, a reading with almost a complete lack of worth-while evidence? Again, there is no answer except the stubborn theological bias of the translators against the Virgin Birth.

Third, worst of all for the revisers committee, this particular footnote was not in the RSV New Testament which was published in 1946, but it was slipped into the final product when the entire Bible was published in 1952. Again, one cannot help wondering just why it happened this way. Could it be that the restraint which kept it out of the New Testament in 1946 was the fear of having such a shocking footnote appear on the first page of the first book which the readers would meet when they opened the RSV New Testament? Certainly it was easier to put it into the 1952 publication of the entire RSV Bible after the earlier 1946 New Testament had been examined critically, and when the attention of readers would be concentrated on the Old Testament. As a matter of fact, its presence was not known to some men who thought they knew what was in the RSV New Testament because they had examined it with great care when first issued in 1946. A great deal has been made of the so-called willingness of the revisers to make suggested changes of any of their work that needs correction, as indicated by some 80 alleged changes made between the 1946 and 1952 editions of the New Testament.

Well, the introduction of this unbelieving and unwarranted footnote is one change which does not augur well for future changes.

III. In the Luke Account of the Virgin Birth, the RSV Has Weakened the Testimony of Mary by Putting in Her Mouth Words She Did Not Speak

As I have already shown above, the RSV has sometimes rejected grammatically possible translations which would have been in harmony with the clearly taught general doctrine of the Word of God on some subjects. In Isaiah 7:14 they rejected "virgin" which by every rule of scholarship was a possible translation. But in Luke 1:34 they actually violate the ordinary rules of grammar to insert a translation which seriously weakens the testimony for the Virgin Birth on the part of the one person in the world who knew the most about what actually happened. I refer to the Virgin Mary.

When the angel Gabriel came to announce to Mary the coming conception and birth of our Lord, she in her chaste innocence asks the angel, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" (Luke 1:34, KJV and ASV). What did the makers of the RSV do to this question? They change it as follows: "How can this be, since I have no husband?"

Now as anyone can see. there is a world of difference between these two translations. Many a woman, unfortunately, has become the mother of a child when she had no husband. There is nothing new about this, tragic as the case may be. But in all the history of the world, no woman, save Mary alone, ever bore a child when she had not previously known a man.

Worst of all for the reputation of the RSV translators, almost any first-year Greek student can easily see that Mary did not say, "I have no husband." She did say, "I know not a man." The Greek language has verbs which express possession with no ambiguity, but Mary did not use one of these. She used the verb "ginosko," which occurs 223 times in the New Testament and in the KJV is translated 196 times by the English word "know." Never once is it translated with the idea of "have." Furthermore, such lexicographers as Thayer and Green do not even mention such a possible meaning. Generally, the verb "ginosko" means "to know" intellectually or spiritually. A secondary meaning is to know carnally in the sense of sexual experience, which is the way Mary used the term, a very well-known usage throughout the Bible. See Genesis 4:1, "Adam knew Eve his wife: and she conceived."

Why did the RSV change the verb from "know" to "have," in defiance of all lexicographic authority? Two answers have been suggested by its defenders. One is that ordinary readers might not understand the secondary meaning of "know." The other is that, assuming that readers might understand the sexual meaning of "know," the revisers wanted to use terms which would be in better taste! Both these suggested answers are demolished by the simple fact that the RSV itself used the word "know" in its carnal sense both in the Old Testament and the New (see Gen. 4:1 and Matt. 1:25).

Of course, it is possible that the revisers felt at liberty to cut loose from mere grammar and make what is called an "idiomatic" translation. But any such translation dare not cut loose from the original meaning of the passage. And when Mary said, "I know not a man," these revisers had no right to put into her mouth the words, "I have no husband." Of course, Mary had no husband when the angel came to her as any fool would understand who reads the story. But that is not the point of her testimony. What she said was that she had not known any man sexually. I am very much in favor of discussing such matters in the language of good taste, but I insist in this case that Mary's personal testimony regarding her own good reputation is vastly more important than literary good taste.

The RSV translation of Mary's words is utterly indefensible on any grounds of grammar. And it should be condemned without reservation on moral grounds, to say nothing of its possible theological implications.

— By Dr. Alva J. McClain (1888-1968). Originally published in the February 28, 1953 issue of The Brethren Missionary Herald, pp. 137-139