My first semester of college I took a lecture hall class called Folklore and Mythology from Dr. Glickman, a rock star educator if there ever was one. At the start of each session, 350 students would hush as Dr. G entered, wind from nowhere ruffling his graying fringe. “A myth is something that cannot be proven,” Dr. G proclaimed, “therefore this class is about everything!”
The biggest myth of all, according to Dr. G, was Christianity, especially the myth of Jesus’ divine birth. So right before Christmas (oops, “Holiday”) Break, he treated us to a spiritual debunking:
For centuries, he said, the Church had taught that Jesus was divine—due almost entirely to the mistranslation of a single word! They’d translated the Hebrew word almah (in Isaiah 7:14) and its Greek equivalent parthenos (in Matthew 1:23) as “virgin,” when, in fact, the words simply meant “young woman.” Thunderous applause rewarded the stately pedagogue’s surgical extraction of this false fact from our poor, religiously inflamed consciousnesses. And then Dr. G sent us off to have appropriately belief-free “happy holidays!”
Having never read the Bible, and being a devoted atheist at the time, I was delighted to acquire this new bit of ammo to use on my deluded Christian friends. I’ve seen many atheists use it since.
Seven years later, however…
I read the Bible for the first time, and everything—including my opinion of Dr. Glickman—changed. I was becoming increasingly impressed with the life and teachings of Jesus. But suddenly Dr. G’s “proof” that Mary wasn’t a virgin came back to me. So I began to study the passages Dr. G had used.
And here’s what I learned:
The Hebrew word almah literally means “hidden” or “veiled.” Used only a handful of times in the Old Testament, it can be translated “maiden” or “young woman,” but always signifies celibacy, since those who had lost their virginity were no longer allowed to wear a veil; in fact, according to Jewish law, they were to be stoned to death. Its Greek equivalent is identical in meaning. Hence, Greece’s Parthenon was called that because it was served by parthenos—young virgins–and later became a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
But does everything hang on the words almah and parthenos? Hardly. In Luke 1:28-34 the angel Gabriel comes to Mary, telling her she is going to conceive a child. Her response? “How can this be, since I have never known a man?” (Apparently Dr. G missed this passage.) “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” Gabriel explains, “and that which shall be born shall be called the son of God.”
And what about Joseph, the poor-but-honorable carpenter to whom Mary was betrothed? According to Matthew 1:18-23, “Before they came together (in other words, they hadn’t had sex yet), she was found to be with child.” Oops! Joe prepared to quietly break it off so that Mary wouldn’t be disgraced (or stoned to death). But then an angel appeared to him, saying, “That which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” in order that Isaiah’s prophecy of “Emmanuel, ‘God with us’ might be fulfilled.”
You may choose to disbelieve the Bible, Dr. G. But let’s not have any more of this nonsense about what it actually says, okeedokee?
And “Merry Christmas!” by the way,
From your formerly atheist student, Mitch