Question: "Is 'virgin' or 'young woman' the correct translation of Isaiah 7:14?"
Answer: Isaiah 7:14 reads, "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." Quoting Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23 reads, "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel - which means, 'God with us.'" Christians point to this "virgin birth" as evidence of Messianic prophecy fulfilled by Jesus. Is this a valid example of fulfilled prophecy? Is Isaiah 7:14 predicting the virgin birth of Jesus? Is "virgin" even the proper translation of the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14?
The Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14 is "almah," and its inherent meaning is "young woman." "Almah" can mean "virgin," as young unmarried women in ancient Hebrew culture were assumed to be virgins. Again, though, the word does not necessarily imply virginity. "Almah" occurs seven times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 24:43; Exodus 2:8; Psalm 68:25; Proverbs 30:19; Song of Solomon 1:3; 6:8; Isaiah 7:14). None of these instances demands the meaning "virgin," but neither do they deny the possible meaning of "virgin." There is no conclusive argument for "almah" in Isaiah 7:14 being either "young woman" or "virgin." However, it is interesting to note, that in the 3rd century B.C., when a panel of Hebrew scholars and Jewish rabbis began the process of translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, they used the specific Greek word for virgin, "parthenos," not the more generic Greek word for "young woman." The Septuagint translators, 200+ years before the birth of Christ, and with no inherent belief in a "virgin birth," translated "almah" in Isaiah 7:14 as "virgin," not "young woman." This gives evidence that "virgin" is a possible, even likely, meaning of the term.
With all that said, even if the meaning "virgin" is ascribed to "almah" in Isaiah 7:14, does that make Isaiah 7:14 a Messianic prophecy about Jesus, as Matthew 1:23 claims? In the context of Isaiah chapter 7, the Aramites and Israelites were seeking to conquer Jerusalem, and King Ahaz was fearful. The Prophet Isaiah approaches King Ahaz and declares that Aram and Israel would not be successful in conquering Jerusalem (verses 7-9). The Lord offers Ahaz the opportunity to receive a sign (verse 10), but Ahaz refuses to put God to the test (verse 11). God responds by giving the sign Ahaz should look for, "the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son...but before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste." In this prophecy, God is essentially saying that within a few years' time, Israel and Aram will be destroyed. At first glace, Isaiah 7:14 has no connection with a promised virgin birth of the Messiah. However, the Apostle Matthew, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, connects the virgin birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:23) with the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14. Therefore, Isaiah 7:14 should be understood as being a "double prophecy," referring primarily to the situation King Ahaz was facing, but secondarily to the coming Messiah who would be the ultimate deliverer.