Matthew, after recounting the virgin birth of Jesus, writes in Matthew 1:22-23 (NIV):
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.
All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us".
Isaiah wrote the prediction about 700 years before Jesus was born, so at face value this does seem like an incredible example of fulfilled prophecy. So much so, that apologist Josh McDowell, in his book, Christianity – a Ready Defence, appeals to this prophecy and writes on page 187:
. . . the Bible declares that God decided His Son would have a miraculous entrance into humanity.
However, when one takes the time to read Isaiah 7:14 in different translations of the Bible, one quickly realises something odd. The Good News Bible, for example, translates the verse as follows:
Well then, the Lord himself will give you a sign: a young woman who is pregnant will have a son and will name him "Immanuel."
Notice that young woman appears instead of virgin. The same reads in the Revised Standard Version, the Revised English Bible and the Jewish Tanach. Apparently, there is some dispute over the exact translation of this verse. From what I've read, the original Hebrew word that Isaiah used in this verse is almah, which does not mean virgin specifically, but rather young woman. If Isaiah was referring to a virgin, we would have expected him to use the word bethulah, which specifically refers to virginity. Have modern Bibles erred by translating almah as virgin?
So why did Matthew use the Greek word parthenos, which can specifically refer to virginity, when he quoted Isaiah’s prophecy? The historian Richard Carrier, suggests that Matthew either took liberties with the text, or he copied the verse directly from an extinct version of the Septuagint (there were a few versions doing the rounds at the time Matthew wrote).
Reading in context
Another problem with the apologist’s claim of prophecy is that when one reads Isaiah 7:14 in the context of the rest of the chapter, the verse seems to be referring - not to an incident far in the future - but to contemporary events. Chapter 7 is a prophecy for the Judean King Ahaz, who is concerned about Israeli and Syrian forces laying siege to Jerusalem. When read in context, Isaiah seems to be predicting the birth of a child in the near future, because in verses 15-17, Isaiah claims that before the child reaches maturity, the lands of the two kings (Israel and Syria) will be defeated. This is probably why the Good News translation reads: “a young woman who is pregnant." Isaiah is not referring to a woman who will give birth far in the future, but to a woman who is currently alive and already pregnant.
If one considers the above, as well as the fact that the idea of virgin birth was somewhat alien to Jewish thinking (it was more consistent with Roman and Greek culture), doesn't it make more sense to interpret Isaiah 7:14 as a contemporary prediction, rather than a prophecy of Jesus' birth?