The Institute of Midrashic Studies of the New Testament

Like a Virgin: Finding the Madonna in Midrash

Here is the abstract of Kelly Patel’s article.


The prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 is one that has separated Jews from Christians for millennia, for one simple reason: the correct translation of the word עלמה almah, a word which has proven to be the most contentious in Scripture. On the simplest level it means ‘young woman,’ however, much weight was understandably borne by this term in its original context. In antiquity, a young Jewish woman was expected to be a virgin, and there were many and varied ways of describing her ‘condition’ if she was not. It could, therefore, generally be assumed that an almah was a young woman who was also a virgin. However, this assumption came under the spotlight when the first Jesus followers co-opted LXX Isaiah 7:14; ‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign a παρθένος (a virgin) will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel’ (Matt. 1:23). Matthew used the Septuagint, and the scribes who transcribed the Hebrew Tanakh into Greek to give the Septuagint had translated almah as parthenos, but other Greek translators of the text disagreed.1 Now a precise definition of almah was of critical importance, and it was nowhere to be found in Hebrew Scripture. This paper discusses the possibility that Paul may have attempted to remedy this situation by hiding the definition for almah within the Epistle to the Hebrews utilising the interpretive technique of Midrash. Since the publication of Hays ‘Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul’ in 1989 there has been general acceptance within the academic community that Paul’s hermeneutic method applied standard contemporary midrashic methods and that this offers us the key to understanding his argumentation. This means that the Epistles were written with hidden references to the Tanakh which early Jewish Jesus followers and perhaps the catechumens who came directly after them would have understood the Epistles, at least in part, as midrashic commentary on the Tanakh. Here we limit our discussion to the possibility that Hebrews 7:17-23a (Jesus’ relation to Melchizedek) is a Midrash of Genesis 24:7-49 (Rebekah at the well), and how the lessons revealed when we explore the results of Paul’s midrashic process explain the link between the two narratives and lead us to a possible definition of the term almah.