Link to column: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/990730.html
Heaven forfend that I should contradict the Master; I have only a minor addition to a comment in the column.
Cecil says: “Now some would have you believe that ‘virgin’ as used in the New Testament (in Greek, parthenos) merely meant ‘unmarried woman’ and lacked our modern connotation of a woman who has not had sexual intercourse.”
I don’t think the Greek is the source of the confusion or mistranslation. I think the confusion arises from the Hebrew (notably Isaiah 7:14) that precedes the Greek.
The Isaiah verse announces the timely birth of a child to a “young woman”-- Hebrew is almah. The word almah appears elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible in a context that is independent of virginity – for instance, Genesis 24:43, Exodus 2:8, Proverbs 30:19. The usual word in the Hebrew Bible for “virgin” is bethulah.
The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew bible, around 270 BC) uses the Greek word parthenos as the translation of almah in Isaiah 7:14. Normally, the Septuagint uses parthenos as the Greek translation of bethulah, hence “virgin,” but it is also is used as the translation for almah in Genesis 24:43. The conclusion is that the Septuagint used the word parthenos freely, and did not necessarily imply literal virginity.
Other Greek versions use “maiden” (Greek: neanis in the Isaiah line, which is more accurate.
So the question of whether the word means “virgin” or “young woman” is not focused around the Greek parthenos but around the Hebrew almah.
The problem then arises because Matthew 1:22-23 cites the Isaiah line: "Now all this took place to fulfill the word spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Emmanuel.’ So the use of the word parthenos to imply the fulfillment of the Isaiah prophecy.
The dispute in translation is therefore not whether Mary was a virgin – the New Testament text is fairly clear on that – but on whether the Isaiah prophecy (that Jesus’ birth purportedly fulfilled) is about a virgin.
Hope that clarifies.
[Note: This message has been edited by CKDextHavn]