Friday, May 18, 2007

Bible Study: The virgin birth prophecy

Did the Old Testament predict Jesus' virgin birth? According to some Christian apologists, it did. In Isaiah 7:14 the prophet writes (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.

Matthew, after recounting the virgin birth of Jesus, writes in Matthew 1:22-23 (NIV):

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?

Additional reading:


Laughing Boy said...

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?

AFAIK, virgin births were completely alien to Jewish thinking. I mean, they knew where babies came from even back then! That's one argument apologists use to show that the nativity story was not made up. Why begin a story you're going to try to pass off as true with something everybody would be very (very, very) highly skeptical of. The Greeks had stories of gods having sex with mortal women (and men), therefore the resulting conception can not be considered a virgin birth.

As far as the contemporary prediction I think you have a point. In context of Isaiah 7, Isaiah is saying God will provide a sign to Ahaz. The birth of Christ 700 years later could not be a sign to Ahaz about the destruction of his enemies Rezin and Pekah!

Here's a link to a good article about Matthew's use of Isaiah by Craig Blomberg, which is copiously footnoted with references to other scholars with other viewpoints, so it can serve as a jumping off point regardless of your POV.

He specifically deals with the Isaiah 7:14 passage in the first section and it's only two paragraphs long, so go read it.

But for your convenience let me quote briefly:


"It is no longer controversial to observe that the 'almah of 7:14 simply refers to a young woman of marriageable age, without settling the question of her virginity. Thus it seems most likely that the child of 7:14 is Isaiah's son, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. Isaiah 8:4 reinforces this equation, with language carefully reminiscent of 7:15-"Before the boy knows how to say 'My father' or 'My mother,' the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria."...

...At the same time, 7:14 also refers to the enigmatic child as Immanuel, "God with us," the name that recurs in 8:8 and 10. This name likewise links the child with Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz but also points forward to a more distant time when the plans of Israel's enemies will be thwarted.

This "bifocal vision" prepares the reader for 9:1-7, which is all about restoration after the punishment begun by Assyria. In this context appear the words musically immortalized by Handel, "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given" (9:6a). Against the current critical consensus it is difficult to identify this son, who is an heir to David's throne, "Mighty God," "Everlasting Father," "Prince of Peace," and governing eternally (9:6b-7), with anyone other than Israel's royal Messiah, and we ought not be surprised to learn that that is precisely how the post-Christian Jewish Targum understood it. ...We do not know why the translators of the LXX chose parthenos—a term that does imply sexual virginity—to render 'almah, but it seems reasonable to assume that part of the reason was that they too recognized Immanuel was no ordinary child whose fulfillment was exhausted in the life of Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz."


Blomberg goes on to cite nine other examples of Matthew's quoting of Isaiah and in conclusion suggests:

"...that we ought to pay more careful attention to a phenomenon, at the very least important in Isaiah, but probably also in at least some other OT texts, in which neither the older, classic conservative model of straightforward prediction and fulfillment nor the critical consensus' claim of no messianic intent proves adequate. Instead, in these instances, the prophetic author recognizes and expects his audience to recognize both a preliminary fulfillment during the course of OT history and a more distant fulfillment accompanying the future messianic age."

Anonymous said...


It's Don from Canada. Sorry I haven't figured out how to become a blogger but will look into it.

The point you raise is a very well known hermeneutical issue relating to prophecy. Many, many prophecies in the OT have a now and a future focus. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for the virgin birth to address a current situation as well as a future one. Many prophecies have this characteristic.

Lots of OT scholars can explain this much better than I.

Kevin Parry said...

Thanks to you both for excellent comments. I've heard the dual prophecy argument before, but I always wonder if Isaiah wrote the prophecy knowing its dual nature. If he did know, then why wasn't he more specific on the 'future' (ie, birth of Jesus) part of the prophecy? If he didn't know, then weren’t early Christians simply forcing the prophecy to fit current events? If they were, then this verse can not be considered prophecy, as it was interpreted after the event (ie, Jesus’ birth) happened.

Bruce said...

1. The mistranslation is interesting and could well cut one of the big mystical legs out of the whole Xian mythology.

2. Prophesied 700 years before? Where does that sit in relation to Mithra and all the other "born of a virgin" sons of whatever god? Not so impressive if the prophesy could have been worded "someday our god will be born of a virgin...just like all those other ones were".

3. And how would the Big J be both "of god" (God is Daddy) and "in the line of David" (Joseph is Daddy)?

It's all contradictory and,yes, stupid.

Bridget said...

I think I love this blog. I too and furthering myself from not only the Catholicism in which I was raised, but seemingly from Christianity itself. I do consider myself Agnostic, but that's about as committal as I get.
I'm in a religious studies graduate program and need to give a presentation next week on this issue of Matthew using a nonMessianic prophecy as a Messianic prophecy. If Matthew was Jewish, then he should have known the meaning of Isaiah's verse, right?
Of course if the Jews had been waiting for a Messiah for some time, they had some bit of years after Jesus' death, before even Paul started writing, to look up texts in the Hebrew Bible for verses to fit their agenda.
Not to say that this Jesus guy was made up or anything, and I dont doubt the disciple's faith, but it just seems like nothing fits.
And yes, the idea of a virgin birth is not original to Christianity..
oh and to the last comment, mary is from David's house too, and one's Jewish heritage is passed through the mother. Luke covered his bases ;)
Peace and Love

Anonymous said...

I have read your comments and am saddened by the fact that you are trying to understand God purely from an intellectual point of view and not on a relational level. I can testify to the fact that once you have had an encounter with the living God, it is very difficult to walk away from Him. If you truely desire to know the truth, seek Him with all your heart, mind and soul not just your mind. I'll pray for you.

Anonymous said...

In view of your comments about virgin birth, you may find the website of interest. It shows that the Bible actually names the father of Jesus.