Jesus’ Birth: The infanticide prophecy

This post is part of a larger series on Jesus’ birth. This particular post evaluates the relationship between the birth of Jesus and the prophecy of Herod’s infanticide.

What do we know?Massacre of the innocents

The fulfillment of prophecy is claimed in Matthew 2:16-18

 2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and throughout the surrounding region from the age of two and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men. 2:17 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: 2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud wailing, Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone.”

The referenced passage is found in Jeremiah 31:15

” 31:10 Hear what the Lord has to say, O nations. Proclaim it in the faraway lands along the sea. Say, “The one who scattered Israel will regather them. He will watch over his people like a shepherd watches over his flock.” …  31:14 I will provide the priests with abundant provisions. My people will be filled to the full with the good things I provide.” 31:15 The Lord says, “A sound is heard in Ramah, a sound of crying in bitter grief. It is the sound of Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are gone.” 31:16 The Lord says to her, “Stop crying! Do not shed any more tears! For your heartfelt repentance will be rewarded. Your children will return from the land of the enemy. I, the Lord, affirm it! 31:17 Indeed, there is hope for your posterity. Your children will return to their own territory. I, the Lord, affirm it!”

The infanticide is not referenced anywhere else in the New Testament and there is no other record of the event. As before, the difficulty here is that the passage in Jeremiah is claimed to be a prophecy of the infanticide when a plain reading of the text sees the pronouncement as an allusion to the Babylonian exile of the Jews.

There is also a bit more information that might help us interpret the prophecy:

  1. Ramah was located about 5 miles north of Jerusalem, near Gibeah. Bethlehem is about 5 miles south of Jerusalem.
  2. Ramah is located in the territory allotted to the tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin was the youngest of the 12 tribes of Israel and one of two sons born to Rachel (the other being Joseph).
  3. Rachel was buried somewhere near Bethlehem. (Genesis 35:19)
  4. Ramah was a staging area for the Jews that were being exiled to Babylon after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 40:1)
  5. The context of the passage in Jeremiah is a larger prophecy of Israel’s restoration.
  6. A similar event is recorded Exodus 1:15-22, when Pharaoh commands that all newborn boys be killed.

What is the Christian interpretation of the data?

The Christian view here is very similar to the view given for the out of Egypt prophecy, which is to see the passage in Jeremiah as a foreshadowing of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Support for this view comes from a few possible connections:

  1. In Matthew, Rachel could be seen to be symbolic of the mothers in Bethlehem. Rachel birthed Benjamin at a location near Bethlehem and was then buried there after dying in childbirth, thus establishing a connection with the mothers of Bethlehem.
  2. In Jeremiah, it’s not exceptional that Rachel is identified as the matriarch crying in Ramah since she is the mother of Benjamin and Ramah lies within Benjamin’s territory.
  3. Some commentators have suggested that since Ramah was a staging area before deportation to Babylon, it may have also been the site of mass executions of Jews. This would be a parallel to Herod’s infanticide.
  4. The context of the passage in Jeremiah is a prophecy of a future restoration of Israel and the joy that will be found despite the tragedy over which Rachel was weeping. This again would be a parallel to the salvation brought through Jesus in the period after Herod’s horrible massacre.

I should also point out that a common objection to the claim in Matthew is that there isn’t any historical corroboration of the slaughter of innocents. The Christian apologist’s response is that the population of the area affected by the decree would not have been very large, so the number of infants put to death might actually have been relatively small and, as such, would not rise to the level of meriting mention by the likes of Josephus.

What is the naturalistic interpretation of the data?

A naturalist view asserts that this is just another example of a larger theme in Matthew wherein the author is injecting meaning in order to establish a link between Jesus and the Old Testament. In this case, the most likely candidate is that the author is trying to reinforce Jesus as the messiah in two ways.

First, one must recognize that Moses was regarded as a prototype of the coming messiah. He was the first deliverer, prophet and ruler for the Jews. By reflecting on the events surrounding Moses’ birth it is not difficult to see how the infanticide event may have been introduced in order to present a parallel between Jesus and Moses, wherein both are spared from an infanticide and then grow to become the savior of Israel. The result is to reinforce Jesus as the messiah.

Second, the context of the passage in Jeremiah is clearly prophesying the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian exile. The restoration is intimately connected to prophecies of Israel’s rise to dominance and prophesies of the restoration and the rise of Israel are also often associated with the arrival of the messiah. By suggesting that Jesus’ birth parallels the passage in Jeremiah, the author may be suggesting that the messianic kingdom is imminent and, by association, that Jesus is the messiah. This argument would be directed toward the Jews of the day who did not accept Jesus as the messiah.

Regarding the lack of external corroboration of the slaughter, in this case the naturalist sticks to the idea that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” and so does not affirm that the event never occurred. Even so, the parallel to Moses provides clear motive for fabricating such an event and if the event was so insignificant that it was not well known then it seems an odd choice for divine foreshadowing.

Which interpretation seems more probable?

As with the out of Egypt prophecy, the passage quoted in Matthew is clearly taken out of context in the sense that the text in Jeremiah is mostly plainly read as a reference to the conditions during the Babylonian exile. However, unlike the Egypt prophecy, there are some additional parallels that can be used to argue for a connection between the text and Jesus’ birth. Ultimately, I find the notion of divine foreshadowing to be an unsatisfactory explanation and it is not difficult to see the author’s motivation for introducing the story as a parallel to Moses and then supporting it by claiming it as fulfillment of prophecy. When the text in Jeremiah is viewed on its own, irrespective of the claims in Matthew, it in no way implies the type of fulfillment that is claimed in Matthew. The connection feels forced and to accept it requires one to ignore the obvious discrepancies. In this case, I am assigning the probabilities as follows:

Christianity
30%
Naturalism
70%
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Jesus’ Birth: The out of Egypt prophecy

This post is the third in a series on Jesus’ birth. This particular post evaluates the relationship between the birth of Jesus and the prophecy of the escape to Egypt.

What do we know?Jesus in Egypt

The fulfillment of prophecy is claimed in Matthew 2:15

“2:13 After they had gone [the Magi], an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” 2:14 Then he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and went to Egypt. 2:15 He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”

The referenced passage is found in Hosea 11:1

” 11:1 When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt. 11:2 But the more I summoned them, the farther they departed from me. They sacrificed to the Baal idols and burned incense to images. 11:3 Yet it was I who led Ephraim, I took them by the arm; but they did not acknowledge that I had healed them. 11:4 I led them with leather cords, with leather ropes; I lifted the yoke from their neck, and gently fed them. 11:5 They will return to Egypt! Assyria will rule over them because they refuse to repent!”

The escape to Egypt is not claimed anywhere else in the New Testament, nor is Jesus linked to the passage in Hosea. The obvious difficulty here is that the author of Matthew appears to have taken something completely out of context and linked it to Jesus. The passage in Hosea is most clearly read as a historical reference to the return of the Hebrew nation to the land of Israel after their enslavement in Egypt. The text also appears to have no prophetic content until 11:5, which suggests that Israel will be ruled by Assyria.

What is the Christian interpretation of the data?

The Christian view here is very simple: the passage is Hosea was in fact a foreshadowing of Jesus and this is revealed to us through the gospel of Matthew. This view fits within the larger idea that Jesus’ work on the cross is the culmination of everything we see in the Old Testament and, as such, we should not be surprised to find allusions to Jesus throughout the text. In this case, the allusion is to Jesus as the son of God and when Hosea says that God “summoned my son out of Egypt”, the author of Matthew is showing us that the exodus from Egypt was a foreshadowing of Jesus’ escape to, and return from, Egypt. Or, put another way, the major events in the history of Israel can be viewed as a symbolic parallel that holds a clue to recognizing the messiah.

In anticipation of the assertion that the story was invented to support the prophecy, the Christian points out that the difficulty with fitting this passage as a messianic prophecy makes it an unlikely choice for such behavior. This, in turn, makes it more likely that the story in Matthew is based on real events and that the link to Hosea was inspired by those events.

What is the naturalistic interpretation of the data?

From a naturalist perspective, this issue can be attributed to the personal motives of the author of Matthew and his desire to assert two ideas: that Jesus is the messiah and that Jesus is the son of God, and that these claims are supported by his fulfillment of the passage in Hosea. This is actually similar to the Christian view given above except that the naturalist claim is that the author is injecting fulfillment where there actually is none and that this is only done to support the author’s claims. Given the conflict with the birth account in Luke (see the Bethlehem post), it’s reasonable to believe that the “escape to Egypt” event may have been constructed solely for this purpose (and maybe to also help explain how Jesus ended up in Nazareth).

The historical events referenced by the passage in Hosea are important for understanding the author’s motives for introducing this event into Jesus’ birth story. Moses was considered a prototype of the messiah, an idea allegedly introduced by Moses himself in Deuteronomy 18:15. By placing Jesus in Egypt after escaping an infanticide and then leaving Egypt to come to Israel the author has drawn a parallel between Moses and Jesus, which serves to reinforce the idea that Jesus is the messiah.

Regarding the claim of Jesus as God’s son, it is necessary to consider the fact that the text of Matthew is clearly directed to Jews and that there is good reason to believe that Matthew originated with Jewish Christians that still observed Jewish law (called Nazarenes in Acts and several early church sources). In addition to believing Jesus to be the messiah, the Nazarenes differed from traditional Jewish beliefs in several ways, one of which was a belief that the messiah was divine – the son of God. This is in contrast to another Jewish group which held that Jesus was the messiah but denied several central tenets that were common between Nazarenes and those that would eventually be known as Christians. In particular, the Ebionites generally rejected the divinity of Jesus and viewed the title “son of God” under an adoptionist view, which was to have occurred at Jesus’ baptism. The text in Matthew, however, supports the idea that Jesus was the son of God prior to his baptism.

In light of all of this, if this portion of Matthew has origins in some form of Nazarene tradition then it makes sense that the author would be compelled to find ways to argue for his messiahship and divinity by way of reference to the Tanakh text, upon which the Nazarenes, Ebionites and Jews agree. This is certainly motivation enough to cause one to inject meaning where there is none.

Which interpretation seems more probable?

There’s no denying that the passage in Hosea is speaking of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. It is difficult, however, to further contend that it can also be considered a prophecy of an event in Jesus’ infancy that has no record anywhere else. Even so, I agree with the assertion that this text would have been a poor choice to use as the basis for inventing the trip to Egypt. This makes it unlikely that the Hosea passage is the sole motivation behind the record and requires additional explanation if we are to believe that it was an invention. However, the cultural context of Matthew’s authorship provides a reasonable backdrop for understanding the additional motivations which explain why the story and claim of fulfilled prophecy would have been introduced. Ultimately, when all is considered, I find it difficult to see this as a legitimate prophecy. This leads me to assign the following probabilities:

Christianity
20%
Naturalism
80%

It’s worth noting that the Christian view has no problem with Matthew being written by a Nazarene source who was strongly arguing for Jesus as the messiah. The Christian simply agrees with the Nazarene interpretation of the Old Testament references in Matthew and doesn’t see this as something that was injected by the author.

Lastly, given that I made several references to Nazarenes and Ebionites and the origins of Matthew in this post, I need to point out that I will be discussing those topics in greater detail at some point in the future. The ideas raised here are based on much more information than was presented. I will try to cross-link and update when that time comes.

Updated Jan 8, 2014: In light of a post by Tim McGrew, I have incorporated the argument that the text in Hosea is a poor choice for the author to have used as the basis for constructing the events in Matthew. I did not adequately incorporate this into my original post. Though it is valid objection, I have offered other motivations and it does nothing to support the claim that the relevant text in Hosea is a prophecy in the first place. Even so, this addition shifted my assigned probabilities from 10 / 90 to 20 / 80.
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Jesus’ Birth: The Bethlehem prophecy

This post is the second in a series on Jesus’ birth. This particular post evaluates the relationship between the birth of Jesus and the prophecy of the messiah coming from Bethlehem.

What do we know?Bethlehem

The fulfillment of prophecy is claimed in Matthew 2:5-6

 2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem 2:2 saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 2:3 When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him. 2:4 After assembling all the chief priests and experts in the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 2:5 “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, “for it is written this way by the prophet: 2:6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are in no way least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

The referenced prophecy is found in Micah 5:2

” 5:1 But now slash yourself, daughter surrounded by soldiers! We are besieged! With a scepter they strike Israel’s ruler on the side of his face. 5:2 As for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, seemingly insignificant among the clans of Judah – from you a king will emerge who will rule over Israel on my behalf, one whose origins are in the distant past. 5:3 So the Lord will hand the people of Israel over to their enemies until the time when the woman in labor gives birth. Then the rest of the king’s countrymen will return to be reunited with the people of Israel. 5:4 He will assume his post and shepherd the people by the Lord’s strength, by the sovereign authority of the Lord his God. They will live securely, for at that time he will be honored even in the distant regions of the earth. 5:5 He will give us peace. Should the Assyrians try to invade our land and attempt to set foot in our fortresses, we will send against them seven shepherd-rulers, make that eight commanders. 5:6 They will rule the land of Assyria with the sword, the land of Nimrod with a drawn sword. Our king will rescue us from the Assyrians should they attempt to invade our land and try to set foot in our territory.”

The birth in Bethlehem is also presented in Luke 2:4-7

“2:1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes. 2:2 This was the first registration, taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 2:3 Everyone went to his own town to be registered. 2:4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David. 2:5 He went to be registered with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him, and who was expecting a child. 2:6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

There are two primary difficulties with the fulfillment of this prophecy:

  1. Matthew and Luke seem to imply very different circumstances that place Jesus in Bethlehem. Matthew seems to assume that Mary and Joseph were already living there and remained there until the flight to Egypt, whereas Luke indicates that he was only born there during a brief visit between residing in Nazareth.
  2. The prophecy suggests that the Messiah would have a political and military presence that was never realized by Jesus.

It’s worth noting that John 7:41-43 also points out that the Jews of the day recognized a problem that Jesus was known to be from Nazareth but the prophecy was that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem.
“7:41 Others said, “This is the Christ!” But still others said, “No, for the Christ doesn’t come from Galilee, does he? 7:42 Don’t the scriptures say that the Christ is a descendant of David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” 7:43 So there was a division in the crowd because of Jesus.”

What is the Christian interpretation of the data?

In a Christian worldview the default position for every prophecy is to submit to the authority of scripture and contend that the prophecies are genuinely fulfilled in Jesus’ birth. The remaining discussion is then toward resolving the difficulties outlined above.

Mary and Joseph’s Residence

It’s not too difficult to mix the two accounts from Matthew and Luke to construct a cohesive timeline. It starts with Luke 2:1, where Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem in accordance with the census. Shortly after their arrival, Jesus is born in a temporary shelter. They make their stay semi-permanent and stay long enough for the presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem, which is not far from Bethlehem (Luke 2:22-23). The ceremony would have occurred when Jesus was 1 month old (per Numbers 18:15-16). Around that same time, while still in Bethlehem, the Magi arrive and Herod gets wind of the new king (Matthew 2:1-12). This takes the new family down to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-18) and eventually back to Nazareth after Herod’s death (Matthew 2:19-23). It might help to review a “road” map to understand the geographic relationship between Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth. The journey from Nazareth to the Jerusalem area is about 70 miles.

The attributes of the Messiah

I’ve included the surrounding context of Micah 5:2 so that we can see the entirety of the prophecy. The prophetic elements can be dissected as follows:

  1. He comes from Bethlehem (5:2)
  2. His origins are in the distant past (5:2)
  3. All remaining exiles will return to Israel (5:3)
  4. He will lead the people in peaceful times (5:4-5)
  5. He will protect against the Assyrians (5:5-6)

In applying this to Jesus, the birth stories in Matthew and Luke place him in Bethlehem to fulfill #1. Jesus’ divinity fulfills #2. There’s no way to say that the rest of the Israelites ever returned from Babylon to Israel because so many willfully remained in Babylon after it’s fall, so #3 has no clear fulfillment unless it is viewed as a future event. Elements #4 and #5 are not always attributed to Jesus. There are, however, two primary ways that these verses are applied in some circles. Some see this simply as an allusion to the peaceful leadership of Jesus. Others push the fulfillment to the second coming and associate Assyria with some modern day region or as a non-specific reference to any outside presence that wars against Israel. It appears that the most common interpretation is to split this into two fulfillments, one at Jesus’ birth and the rest at his second coming.

What is the naturalistic interpretation of the data?

From a naturalist perspective, the difficulties outlined above are the natural byproduct of purely human authors recounting events from different sources. The remaining discussion from this perspective, then, is to show that these difficulties are not easily resolved and that this serves to reinforce the premise that the text is not divinely guided.

Mary and Joseph’s Residence

Despite the harmonization given in the Christian interpretation, the naturalist argues that a plain reading of the text gives rise to significant conflicts regarding the family’s time in Bethlehem:

  1. In Matthew, the story does not say where Joseph and Mary are living but states that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Nowhere does it indicate any travel for the birth. The assumption is that they were already there. After escaping to Egypt, they plan to return to the land of Israel but didn’t go into Judea for fear of the ruler (Matthew 2:21-22). This indicates that they were planning to return to their original home in Bethlehem. However, in Luke, Mary and Joseph are explicitly said to be living in Nazareth and only travel to Bethlehem shortly before Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:4).
  2. In Luke, the family is said to return to Nazareth after they had “performed everything according to the law” (Luke 2:39). The redemption of the first born male was to occur at 1 month, so their return would have likely been between 1 to 2 months after Jesus’ birth. In Matthew, the family is in Bethlehem at least until the arrival of the Magi at a house (Matthew 2:9-12). Shortly after this the family flees Bethlehem for Egypt and stay there for some time until Herod’s death (Matthew 2:13-15). At this point, they travel back into Israel but end up in Galilee to avoid Herod’s son (Matthew 2:19-23). Presumably, the presentation at the temple would have also occurred within Matthew’s timeline. The additional collection of events in Matthew (Magi, escape to Egypt, Herod dies, return from Egypt) simply don’t match up with Luke’s account of returning home to Nazareth after performing their ceremonial duties.

The attributes of the Messiah

For this, we will build upon the 5 prophetic elements outlined in the Christian interpretation above.

  1. The ascent from Bethlehem can be applied to Jesus only if the Matthew and Luke accounts are correct, but the previous section shows how those conflict.
  2. The origins in the distant past is the author’s way of saying that this person is the long awaited messiah.
  3. The return to Israel cannot be applied to Jesus because a plain reading of the prophecy places this in concert with the arrival of the messiah, which did not happen. To the naturalist, the argument that this is a still future event is simply a convenient way to avoid the problem.
  4. The prophetic role of a ruler over the people was not fulfilled by Jesus because he never held any political leadership position. Regarding the possibility of future fulfillment, see #3.
  5. The prophetic protection against Assyria builds upon the fact that the Assyrian conquest ushered in the period of Israel’s constant dominion by outside empires that was still ongoing at the time of the writing. Clearly Jesus did not fulfill this role in any sense. Regarding the possibility of future fulfillment, see #3 again.

Ultimately, the entire prophecy disintegrates under the naturalist view because the Bethlehem birth story appears to have been injected into the gospels in order to support the prophecy and because the subsequent elements of the prophecy, which appear to be intended to be concurrent, simply don’t fit with the historical Jesus.

Which interpretation seems more probable?

There’s little contention that Micah 5:2 is anything but a messianic prophecy. This would explain why the authors of Matthew, Luke and John were compelled to address it (whereas only Matthew addresses other less obvious birth prophecies). Under the Christian interpretation, one is forced to provide work-arounds for the apparent conflicts and I find those work-arounds to be quite unsatisfactory. The harmonization of the birth accounts seems forced and there’s no justification for splitting the prophecy into a past and future fulfillment, especially when a plain reading of the text seems to imply that all the elements are concurrent. This leads me to assign the probabilities as follows:

Christianity
25%
Naturalism
75%
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Jesus’ Birth: The virgin birth prophecy

This post is the first in a series evaluating the birth story of Jesus and is specifically focused on the relationship between the birth of Jesus and the prophecy of a virgin birth. For the record, I started this before Christmas but obviously didn’t finish in time.

What do we know?mary_statue

The fulfillment of prophecy is claimed in Matthew 1:22-23 (all quotations use the NET translation)

“1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 1:19 Because Joseph, her husband to be, was a righteous man, and because he did not want to disgrace her, he intended to divorce her privately. 1:20 When he had contemplated this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 1:21 She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 1:22 This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: 1:23 “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”

and the prophecy comes from Isaiah 7:14

7:13 So Isaiah replied, “Pay attention, family of David. Do you consider it too insignificant to try the patience of men? Is that why you are also trying the patience of my God? 7:14 For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel. 7:15 He will eat sour milk and honey, which will help him know how to reject evil and choose what is right. 7:16 Here is why this will be so: Before the child knows how to reject evil and choose what is right, the land whose two kings you fear will be desolate. 7:17 The Lord will bring on you, your people, and your father’s family a time unlike any since Ephraim departed from Judah – the king of Assyria!””

Mary’s virginity is also presented in Luke 1:26-35

“1:26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, 1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. 1:28 The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you!” 1:29 But she was greatly troubled by his words and began to wonder about the meaning of this greeting. 1:30 So the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! 1:31 Listen: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. 1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.” 1:34 Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?” 1:35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.”

There are two primary difficulties associated with Jesus’ fulfillment of the virgin birth prophecy:

  1. The Hebrew word in the Isaiah passage in ‘almah’. In some translations, including the NET above, this word is translated to ‘young woman’ instead of virgin on the contention that this the more accurate translation.
  2. The context of the prophecy in Isaiah (as is provided above) seems to imply that the birth of the child is an impending event and that child’s life serves as a reference point for the timing of the predicted desolation of Syria and Israel.

These issues will be the focus of the evaluation from the Christian and naturalist viewpoints.

What is the Christian interpretation?

In a Christian worldview the default position for every prophecy is to submit to the authority of scripture and contend that the prophecies are genuinely fulfilled in Jesus’ birth, as asserted in Matthew. Even so, the difficulties noted above need to be addressed in order to support this view.

Almah translated as virgin

A quick search shows a lot of effort has been put into this word study and I’ve yet to encounter a definitive conclusion. It’s difficult to find an even handed discussion of the topic. Everything I’ve found is arguing to show that the Christian interpretation is either right or wrong. In the end, the strongest argument in favor of the ‘virgin’ translation is the fact that this is the translation in the Septuagint, which is the Old Testament translated to Greek by Jewish scholars before the birth of Jesus. That then is claimed to show that a scholarly, unbiased translation by those most familiar with the text and culture yielded a translation to ‘virgin’.

There is also a theory, which is affirmed by several early church fathers, that the original text of Matthew was in Hebrew and not Greek. In that scenario, the author would have simply used the same word as was used in Isaiah but, from the context, with the clear implication that it meant ‘virgin’. The theory that Matthew was originally in Hebrew is bolstered by the text’s obvious interest in demonstrating Jesus’ link to the Jewish tradition. Ultimately, this means that the author of Matthew understood the original passage to mean ‘virgin’ regardless of the translation.

The prophetical context

The most common explanation for the apparent “taking out of context” invokes a dual fulfillment, which relies on the subsequent chapters in Isaiah to show an intermingling of messianic and present day events. The present day fulfillment was said to be achieved in the birth of Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz in Isaiah 8. The messianic fulfillment was achieved in the birth of Jesus. Under this view the claim of fulfillment by Matthew is not in error but rather a revelation of the divine foreshadowing in Isaiah.

What is the naturalistic interpretation?

A naturalist contends that the difficulties arise because the Old Testament authors have no supernatural means to foretell future events and that the prophecy can only be fulfilled by as a matter of coincidence, misinterpretation or deceit.

Almah translated as virgin

The primary argument levied by those who contend that almah is best translated as ‘young woman’ instead of ‘virgin’ stands on the fact that the Hebrew word ‘bethulah’ is the better choice. This is supported by the fact that bethulah is used 50 times in the Old Testament and is usually translated as virgin. Almah is used only seven times and is usually translated as ‘maiden’ or ‘girl’, though the King James often uses ‘virgin’.

Ultimately, the most likely explanation under a naturalist view is that there was in place an oral tradition for Jesus’ virgin birth (perhaps inspired in part by other demi-god legends) and that the author (or more likely, a redactor) of Matthew was familiar with some form of the Septuagint and used that as the basis for establishing the link to the passage in Isaiah. This is bolstered when one considers the cultural aspects surrounding Matthew’s authorship. There is good reason to suspect that some of the text in Matthew originated in Nazarene circles, where the contention of the messiah’s virgin birth would have been important as an argument against the non-virgin interpretation held by Jews and Ebionites. We are told that both the Nazarenes and the Ebionites held an early version of Matthew and that the Ebionite version did not include the nativity. We are also told the Ebionites held to an adoptionist Christology. The virgin birth serves as a critical link in the claim that Jesus’ was divine from the start. When these aspects are considered, the passage in Isaiah which at first appeared to be an unlikely candidate for claiming messianic fulfillment suddenly becomes important in arguing for the author’s (or redactor’s) view.

The prophetical context

Without assuming that Jesus needs to fulfill the role of the child in Isaiah 7:14 the text can be read plainly to imply an impending birth. This also fits with the traditional Jewish interpretation, which does not assign a messianic role to the child. Also, without the assumption of divine inspiration for the text in Matthew, the claim of fulfillment can be seen as a human attempt to fit Jesus into the role of the messiah by hijacking the prophecy as messianic. As noted above, it is likely that some existing oral tradition had claimed that Jesus was born of a virgin and the writer in Matthew was trying to fit that into a prophecy to reinforce Jesus’ position as both the messiah and son of God. Alternatively we might suppose that the oral tradition was initiated in order to fulfill prophecy. This, however, is unlikely because there is no reason to believe that the messiah was ever previously expected to be born of a virgin.

Which interpretation seems more probable?

I don’t think that the controversy around the translation of ‘almah’ is very persuasive one way or the other. Neither translation seems unreasonable and the quotations in Matthew are mixed in their agreement with the Septuagint, so it’s hard to say whether it had any influence. However, the text in Isaiah seems to me to be quite clearly addressing an impending event. The introduction of double fulfillment to apply this to Jesus simply isn’t satisfying. The more rationale explanation is that the author of this particular text in Matthew was trying hard to support his own view by linking Jesus to the messiah and establishing his divinity from birth, and so took the verse out of context to support this. This leads me to assign the probabilities as follows:

Christianity
30%
Naturalism
70%

Note that the authorship of Matthew will be reviewed in more detail at some point in the future. I think that information can have significant implications in understanding the potential motivations behind the text.

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Efficacy of prayer: A demographic analysis of prayer for healing

Praying handsFirst, a clarification. I am not evaluating healing that results from an interaction with an individual that claims to have the gift of healing. To this end, when I say “prayer for healing” I intend it to mean prayer that is offered up by everyday people that requests divine intervention to heal a physical ailment. This does not include the laying on of hands, slapping people in the forehead, etc… Consideration for the gift of healing will be addressed elsewhere.

If you do some research to find evidence of the efficacy of prayer for healing you will undoubtedly encounter the numerous attempts to test this through scientific studies, which yield widely varying results that are selectively praised and dismissed by both sides. You’ll also encounter several objections to those studies:

  1. God wants people who are compelled to true love, which is grounded in faith, not scientific evidence. As such, God may withhold interceding in the context of a scientific study.
  2. The compulsory prayers offered up in a study are not as genuine as unsolicited prayer.
  3. The patients typically have friends and family that are praying separate from the study, which invalidates the control arm of the study.
  4. Patients who are aware that they are receiving prayer may alter their behavior or attitude accordingly, which affects their outcome.

Given these objections and the controversy that surrounds those studies, I’m electing to not rehash that content but rather to look for alternative input into this topic. In particular, I’m suggesting that one way we can look for evidence of healing is to compare mortality rates for a relatively indiscriminate ailment in populations that are distinctly divergent in their faith but with similar physiology and treatment options. In this way we can avoid most of the issues associated with the conduct of a particular study. To do this analysis, we look at one of the most indiscriminate of ailments, cancer. To further avoid physiological bias, we will look only at colorectal cancer, which has the lowest variance between racial groups. I will also look at female breast cancer, which is one of the only cancers that affects whites more than blacks.

What do we know?

The tables below present the mortality per incidence (MPI) for colorectal cancer and mortality per incidence for female breast cancer, partitioned by the five most and least prayerful states in the US.

Data for the five most prayerful states
State Prays Daily Colorectal Cancer MPI Breast Cancer MPI
Percent Rank (46) Percent Rank (50) Percent Rank (50)
Mississippi 77% 1st 38.8% 15th 20.8% 4th
Louisiana 76% 2nd 37.7% 20th 20.5% 7th
Alabama 73% 3rd 37.4% 21st 18.3% 24th
South Carolina 72% 4th 40.8% 5th 18.6% 20th
Kentucky 70% 5th 36.0% 33rd 19.3% 13th
Data for the five least prayerful states
State Prays Daily Colorectal Cancer MPI Breast Cancer MPI
Percent Rank (46) Percent Rank (50) Percent Rank (50)
Maine 40% 46th 32.1% 47th 17.5% 32th
Massachusetts 41% 45th 37.2% 26th 17.0% 34th
Alaska 41% 44th 31.0% 48th 23.2% 1st
New Hampshire & Vermont* 43% 43rd 32.9% 47th 13.8% 49th
Connecticut & Rhode Island* 47% 42nd 31.7% 48th 15.5% 43rd

* These states were combined in the prayer study. The cancer statistics use a weighted average based on population size to derive the mortality per incidence, which is then translated into a ranking.

I did not know what to expect before I looked at the numbers but I will admit that this was a bit unexpected. Not only is there not a link between population prayerfulness and lower mortality per incidence, but the relationship is actually reversed. These numbers clearly show that the mortality per incidence rate is almost always lower in the less prayerful states. This warrants some further discussion, which I’ll cover in the interpretations.

A couple additional points about this data:

  1. The better statistic would be something like the 5-year survival rate, or even better, a remission rate. I was unable to locate data which provided those statistics within geographic partitions. If anybody out there can summon that data, I’ll gladly accept the contribution. Regardless, the statistic I use here, mortality per incidence, looks at the death rate (cancer deaths per 100,000) over the incidence rate (cancer diagnoses per 100,000). I content that, assuming there are not dramatic changes in the cancer statistics from one year to the next, this provides a reasonable estimate of the percentage of cancer patients who end up dying as a result.
  2. The prayerfulness study is likely not reflective of the percentage of people who would pray for somebody that they know has cancer. That would certainly be skewed to much higher levels in all populations. However, the relative differences are substantial enough (78% higher in the prayerful states) that it should still give a good indicator of the relative likelihood that any particular cancer patient is being prayed for. That is, patients in the most prayerful states are almost certainly more likely to be prayed for than the patients in the least prayerful states.
  3. Hey, Alaska – it looks like you might want to investigate why you suck at treating breast cancer but are good at treating other cancers.

What is the Christian interpretation of the information?

The mortality per incidence analysis appears to be a poor result for one who believes in the power of prayer for healing. However, I also foresee a couple ways that the result could be interpreted to more closely fit the Christian worldview:

  1. In Christianity, death is the transition from being trapped in an imperfect, temporary body to being joined with God for eternity. In that sense, death is not a bad thing. In fact, this view could even be used to suppose an expectation that mortality rates could be higher in the more religious states, as was found to be the case. God would be rescuing these individuals from the pain that was being inflicted by their imperfect body.
  2. The apparent lack of effectiveness of prayer was also put in a positive light in a Christianity Today article which focused on the results of the STEP study. In short, the article suggests that Christians should be glad that God is not withholding his aid to those who are not receiving prayer. That is, God is being fair because He loves everybody equally and this is consistent with his nature.

Within the context of a Christian worldview, I would not consider either of these responses to be invalid, though they’re not very satisfactory. They also raise a significant question – if either of these are the proper interpretation then why pray for healing? This led me to look into why this is an accepted practice in Christianity. In short, the biblical case for healing through prayer looks to me to be weaker than one might expect. In fact, I was only able to locate one verse that specifically links prayer with healing, James 5:14-15

“5:14 Is anyone among you ill? He should summon the elders of the church, and they should pray for him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 5:15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up – and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”

This is a pretty clear statement, but it is also carries hints of what we might call “the gift of healing” rather than the more common prayer for healing that I’m interested in here. Also, some would interpret this verse to speak to spiritual healing (focusing on the forgiveness part – see one, two, three). There is a strong indication throughout the rest of the New Testament, and in particular in Jesus’ ministry, that physical healing is primarily a means to spiritual healing. The theme is that God is really only concerned with our soul, and so physical healing is only valuable if it serves a spiritual purpose – that is, toward securing somebody’s salvation. A sampling of the indicators for this is below:

  • Jesus used physical healing as confirmation of his authority to forgive sin (Mark 2:5-12)
  • Jesus stated that some afflictions existed so that he could use physical healing to demonstrate God’s power (John 9:1-7, 11:4)
  • The gospels often record Jesus’ affirmation of somebody’s faith as part of the act of physical healing (John 4:47-53, Matt 8:13, 9:22, 9:29, 15:28, Luke 17:19, 18:42)
  • Jesus suggested that self-mutilation (anti-healing, if you will) would be preferable to losing one’s soul (Matt 5:29-30)

This leads me to suggest a third interpretation of the apparent lack of efficacy of prayer for healing:

  1. God’s primary, and perhaps only, purpose for physical healing is to bring spiritual healing. In that case we would expect healing to be relatively more frequent in the less religious areas (as was found in the analysis). This also points toward a form of indifference toward the need for physical healing when salvation is not at stake, which would tend to make it a somewhat infrequent occurrence.

This appears to me to be the most biblical and consistent Christian interpretation of the apparent lack of efficacy of prayer for healing in the prior analysis.

What is the naturalistic interpretation of the information?

A naturalist should also be a bit surprised by the analysis. In the absence of other factors, a naturalist would expect a lack of correlation between prayerfulness and mortality per incidence. A negative correlation is troubling, though perhaps not as much as a positive correlation. As such, a naturalist would seek out other explanations for the reverse relationship.

Hypothesis #1: Poverty rates

One can’t help but notice that, at a glance, the most prayerful states would seem to map to some of the poorer states and the least prayerful states would seem to map to some of the richer states. If this is the case, then that could reasonably contribute to the observed discrepancy due to the fact that the poorer population is less likely to obtain supplemental care beyond that which is covered by insurance, and are also more likely to have no insurance at all, or lower quality insurance. It’s also reasonable to expect that the health care facilities in more affluent areas have more resources that enable better care. Any or all of these would impact the care that patients receive. The ranks for the median household income of the most prayerful states are Mississippi (50th), Louisiana (41st), Alabama (46th), South Carolina (40th) and Kentucky (47th). The ranks for the median household income of the least prayerful states are Maine (36th), Massachusetts (6th), Alaska (4th), New Hampshire/Vermont (7th/20th) and Connecticut/Rhode Island (3rd/18th). This supports the notion that the states which are most prayerful are also definitively less wealthy and demonstrates feasibility for the hypothesis that the higher mortality per incidence may be at least partially explained as a function of wealth.

Hypothesis #2: Those with faith are less likely to fight against death

As noted in the Christian interpretation, a Christian sees death as a transition and, though they may fear death, their belief in an afterlife is likely to dampen that fear relative to a non-believer. Fear is an incredible motivator and if somebody is more fearful of death, they will likely put more effort into avoiding it. This may offer additional insight into why the mortality per incidence rates are lower for the least prayerful states, though I’m not sure how to provide evidence for this. Even so, it is not an unrealistic hypothesis to help explain the observed discrepancy.

Which interpretation seems more probable?

If it were theologically evident that Christians should expect God to intercede in response to prayers for healing then I would identify the naturalistic view as being far more probable. However, it seems likely to me that the popularized view of prayer for healing may not be in line with biblical theology and that a prayer which is not focused on spiritual matters is not well aligned to God’s will. Despite this, it seems that Christians are extremely reluctant to espouse views that might in any way indicate that we shouldn’t pray for physical healing. I get the sense that this is for fear of positing a God that is either incapable of healing or a God who is not moved with compassion at our physical suffering (either of which would clearly contradict Jesus’ ministry). Similarly, I see the athiest position as one which misrepresents the Christian view by over-emphasizing the expectation of healing as a result of prayer. What we get then is that the most common views of prayer for healing come from either the traditional Christian view, which errors on the side of not undermining God’s power, or from the athiest view, which exaggerates a God who is dutifully obligated to respond to all prayers. I think that both of these may have missed the mark.

I should also point out that if the Christian view I presented above is true, where healing only occurs to bring about faith then, to be blunt, the majority of prayers for healing can be considered to be pointless and misguided. This would also underscore the division and differences within the church as to the proper application of prayer. This conflict in views and lack of agreement counts against the acceptance of the Christian interpretations I provided.

In the end, I find that both worldviews can present reasonable interpretations of the data but the naturalistic explanation is more easily supported and does not carry with it the kinds of conflicts that are present in the Christian interpretation. This leads me to assign the probabilities as follows:

Christianity
45%
Naturalism
55%

Lastly, as this is my first topical post, I also need to point out that I do not intend these posts to be static. As discussions arise and new information is gathered I fully expect to update the posts and even change the probabilities I have assigned.

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