Can a Virgin Get Pregnant?

Kohanim and Kohen Gadol

At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Emor, we learn of the various requirements and obligations placed upon the priestly class of kohanim. For the high priest in particular, he must marry only a virgin (Leviticus 21:13). The Talmud asks a perplexing question on this law: is a kohen gadol allowed to marry a virgin who is pregnant? (Chagigah 14b-15a) At first glance, the question seems silly and irrelevant, for how could a virgin ever be pregnant? However, when placed in context, the question has major theological significance.

The question of the pregnant virgin appears in the Talmud (Chagigah 14b-15a) immediately after the story of the four Sages who ascended to the Heavenly realms, Pardes. It was posed specifically to Shimon ben Zoma, one of those four mystics, upon his return. To understand it, we must remember that the Pardes event took place some time in the first third of the second century CE. This was an era when Christianity was already spreading rapidly and, as discussed in depth before, one of Ben Zoma’s contemporaries that went to Pardes with him, Elisha ben Avuya, subsequently became a Christian! Of the four that went up, Shimon ben Azzai never came back, Elisha ben Avuya became a Christian, while Rabbi Akiva became fiercely anti-Christian (as explored in the Apocrypha series of classes). So, the question of the pregnant virgin fittingly went to the neutral Ben Zoma—what did he think about the possibility of an “immaculate” conception?

Before presenting his answer, the Talmud takes a brief aside to remind us that the sage Shmuel—who was a key leader in the next generation of rabbis, and was known for his medical and anatomical knowledge—once stated that he could get a virgin pregnant. Shmuel held that there is a way biologically for a woman to get pregnant with hymen intact, without having ever seen any bleeding after intercourse. This is certainly true biologically. So, a woman could appear to be a virgin and still retain “signs” of virginity, despite not actually being one. Scientifically speaking, this is correct.

We then get Ben Zoma’s answer: he concedes that while Shmuel is biologically accurate, his position represents a rare case. It would not apply to the majority of women. Nor could the vast majority of men—who are not experts like Shmuel—figure out how to “get a virgin pregnant”. Still, Ben Zoma says that a virgin could get pregnant a different way, by conceiving “from a bath”. Recall that in those days, people didn’t have plumbing in their homes and washed in public bathhouses. The Romans in particular were famous for their elaborate and state-of-the-art bathhouses, which often served as focal points of a Roman village and a place for a great deal of social, political, and economic activity.

The thinking back then was that if a woman entered a public bath immediately after a man who had done some lewd things in there (which the Romans often did!) she might get pregnant from the contaminated bathwater. Now, Shmuel counters that this is impossible and, again, he is totally right scientifically speaking. Nonetheless, the Talmud insists that it may be possible, siding with Ben Zoma over the more logical and scientific Shmuel. Why would the Talmud do that?

Considering the time period, and that the biggest question of the day was the “Judaism vs. Christianity” debate—Rabbi Akiva vs. the “Other”, Elisha ben Avuya—the whole Talmudic passage seems to read like a polemic against Christianity. The Talmud affirms that a virgin pregnancy is physiologically possible, and the supposed miraculous conception of Jesus means nothing. (Today, in a world of IVF possibilities, virgin pregnancies have become somewhat common, and even trendy!)

Interestingly, the Talmud and Midrash sometimes refer to Jesus as “Ben Pandera” or “Ben Pantera” (although many manuscripts omit the name because of Christian censorship, or replace it with “Ben Stada”). The origin of “Pantera” is subject to debate. We know that “Pantera” was actually a very common Roman name in the first and second centuries CE, and have numerous Roman records and Roman tombstones bearing that name. So, some believe the Sages of the Talmud were insinuating that Jesus was the illegitimate child of Mary and a Roman officer named Pantera. (Sadly, rape of Jewish women by Roman soldiers was not uncommon under the Roman oppression.)

Others believe that pantera is really just a corruption of the Greek word parthenos, “virgin”! In other words, the Sages are referring to Jesus as that “son of the virgin”. Or, perhaps the Sages are using a play on words, deliberately twisting ben parthenos to ben pantera, the son of a panther or the son of a Roman soldier. Going back to Shmuel’s point, Mary could have gotten pregnant from a liaison with a man (Roman or otherwise, willingly or not), and still retained her virginal signs, as we know is biologically possible. So, Jesus is being referred to as a son of that so-called “virgin”. But there is a big surprise here.

The Greek word parthenos has a rabbinic usage far older than the Talmud. In fact, it is found in the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Tanakh produced by seventy (or seventy-two) of our Sages some time in the 2nd century BCE. The translation of the Torah into Greek was seen as a terribly tragic event, and it is one of the reasons for fasting on the Tenth of Tevet. Most surprisingly, the sages of the Septuagint happened to use the word parthenos when translating the word almah in that famous (infamous?) prophecy of Isaiah, the very source that Christians use for their messiah’s supposed virgin conception.

(Im)maculate Conception

Isaiah 7:14 tells us that “Therefore, my Lord will give you a sign: Behold, the young woman [almah] is pregnant and will give birth to a son, and she shall name him ‘Immanuel’”. Christians see this verse as a prophecy about the messiah, and that he will be born miraculously of a virgin, as presumably Jesus was. The name Immanuel literally means “God is with us”, which Christians further use to argue that God literally came to Earth in the form of Jesus to be among humans. Now, the Septuagint does indeed translate almah into Greek as parthenos, “virgin”. And it was the Septuagint that was used almost exclusively by the early Christians, the Gospel writers, and the Church Fathers. They had minimal knowledge of Hebrew, and relied on the old Greek translation.

The classic Jewish response is to ignore the Greek Septuagint and argue that almah does not mean virgin, but simply “young lady”. After all, the exact Hebrew word for a virgin is betulah, and that is the usual word for “virgin” in Tanakh, including in this week’s parasha where the high priest is instructed to marry a virgin. This is a good argument, but it has major holes. For instance, in Genesis 24, Rebecca is described as a betulah (v. 16), but then as an almah (v. 43) when the story is repeated, the terms seemingly used interchangeably. In Song of Songs 1:3, King Solomon speaks of alamot in the plural, and Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105) comments that alamot means betulot! Apparently, Rashi holds that almah could mean “virgin” sometimes. That would explain why the Septuagint sages translated Isaiah’s almah as parthenos.

The truth is, in the context of Isaiah 7, it does makes sense that God gives a special sign in the form of some kind of immaculate conception. If not, what’s the miracle? Where’s the sign? Just another “young lady” getting pregnant is no big deal, and not a special “sign” at all. But a young lady who is a virgin suddenly becoming pregnant is indeed a miraculous sign. So, it isn’t entirely out of the question that Isaiah 7 might be speaking about a virgin birth—but it has absolutely nothing to do with the messiah!

The Scroll of Sin

To understand the prophecy of the “virgin birth”, one need only read the entire chapter from the beginning:

In the reign of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel marched upon Jerusalem to attack it; but they were not able to attack it. Now, when it was reported to the House of David that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, their hearts and the hearts of their people trembled as trees of the forest sway before a wind.

But the Lord said to Isaiah: “Go out with your son She’ar-Yashuv to meet Ahaz at the end of the conduit of the Upper Pool, by the road of the Fuller’s Field, and say to him: Be firm and be calm. Do not be afraid and do not lose heart on account of those two smoking stubs of firebrands, on account of the raging of Rezin and his Arameans and the son of Remaliah. Because the Arameans—with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah—have plotted against you, saying, ‘We will march against Judah and invade and conquer it, and we will set up as king in it the son of Tabeel.’

“Thus said my Lord God: It shall not succeed, it shall not come to pass. For the chief city of Aram is Damascus, and the chief of Damascus is Rezin; the chief city of Ephraim is Samaria, and the chief of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. And in another sixty-five years, Ephraim shall be shattered as a people. If you will not believe, for you cannot be trusted.” The Lord spoke further to Ahaz: “Ask for a sign from the Lord your God, anywhere down to Sheol or up to the sky.” But Ahaz replied, “I will not ask, and I will not test the Lord.”

“Listen, House of David,” [Isaiah] retorted, “is it not enough for you to treat men as helpless that you also treat my God as helpless? Therefore, my Lord will give you a sign: Behold, the young woman is pregnant and will give birth to a son, and she shall name him ‘Immanuel’. By the time he learns to reject the bad and choose the good, people will be feeding on curds and honey. For before the lad knows to reject the bad and choose the good, the ground whose two kings you dread shall be abandoned…”

What the Tanakh is describing here is an alliance between the northern Kingdom of Israel and the Arameans against the southern Kingdom of Judah, the result being the Judeans trembling in fear of the impending war and massacre. God tells them: don’t worry, I will give you a sign that everything will be okay. God promises that the two kings (of Ephraim and Aram) will not bother Judah for long—before the little boy Immanuel is even weaned—and the northern kingdom will be destroyed and exiled in 65 years. The latter, of course, did indeed happen, with Assyria soon conquering both Aram and Israel, destroying the northern kingdom and exiling most of its people.

Clearly, Isaiah is speaking about a contemporary event in his own time. He is not talking about the distant future, nor is he saying anything at all about Mashiach! Moreover, this is not a “double-level” prophecy as we sometimes find in Tanakh, where a prophet is speaking of a contemporary event but also weaves in allusions to future events for the End of Days. Here, there are no allusions to the End of Days, and the timeline is clear: a boy will be born very soon under special circumstances, and before he is weaned Ephraim and Aram will be defeated for good. Sixty-five years hence, Ephraim will cease to exist entirely. God says the miracle child should be called “Immanuel” to show that “God is with us”, that He has not abandoned his people, and will save Judah from destruction.

The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167) explains much of this in his commentary on the verse, and says he is puzzled how anyone could ever suggest these verses refer to Jesus. Ibn Ezra presents one argument that little Immanuel was a son of King Ahaz—since Isaiah says the sign was specifically for Ahaz, who refused to ask God for a sign and feared “testing” God. Perhaps it was one of the young ladies in King Ahaz’s harem that miraculously conceived, or another young lady serving in his palace.

Ibn Ezra then gives his own opinion, saying he thinks that Immanuel was a son of Isaiah. After all, the very next chapter begins with God commanding Isaiah to go and have a child and give him a symbolic name. (We find the same with Isaiah’s contemporary, the prophet Hosea, whom God commanded to have children and give them various symbolic names.)  We are then told that Isaiah was intimate with a prophetess (8:3) and “she conceived and bore a son”. Rashi, too, comments that this child was Immanuel. What was miraculous about the conception is that the almah—that young lady—became a prophetess! A divine spirit had suddenly rested upon her. She was clearly no virgin though, since the Tanakh explicitly says that Isaiah was physically intimate with her! God says to give this child another name, one in the vernacular language so that all the people could understand it: Maher-Shalal-Shach-Baz.

Funnily enough, the verse says God told Isaiah to write this new name on a gilayon, a “scroll”. And the Sages use this word in particular to comedically explain the Christian term Evangelion (the root of “Evangelical”). The Greek term evangelion means “good news”, ie. the supposed “good news” of the messiah’s coming. It is equivalent to “Gospel”, which is Old English for “good news”. The rabbis, however, read the Greek evangelion as the Hebrew avon-gilayon, literally “the scroll of sin”! (Shabbat 116a) After all, the Gospels drew people away from true Torah understanding and observance towards a new religion that abandoned God’s Law and turned a dead Jewish man into an idol to be worshipped.

Christianity was built through the twisting and misinterpretation of Tanakh verses, taking specific lines like Isaiah 7:14 entirely out of context. Sadly, the “New Testament” has very much become an avon-gilayon, a “scroll of sin” that pulls people towards a false belief in a false messiah. To paraphrase Martin Buber, the Christian is the naïve mind that believes the Redemption has already come in a world so obviously un-redeemed. Mankind is still plunged in darkness and evil, idolatry and immorality, and none of the Biblical prophecies about what should happen after Mashiach comes have yet to materialize. Hopefully we will see them materialize soon, and it will finally put an end to all the many messianic cults who will recognize their folly, “And YHWH will be King over the entire Earth. In that day, there will be one God with one name.” (Zechariah 14:9)