Did Jesus fulfill Daniel’s 70 weeks?

The primary goal of this post is to evaluate the claim that the timing of Jesus’ arrival fulfills the prophecy in Daniel 9. About four months ago I started writing this as part of a series on prophecies of Jesus’ birth. As I started researching, however, I discovered the controversies surrounding the authorship of Daniel and the prophecies of kingdoms and realized that I needed to address those issues before I could discuss the 70 weeks (I suggest reading those posts first before continuing on here – this post will make a lot more sense with that background). Now, after slogging through those topics and then taking some time to step away, I’m finally ready to finish this off.

What do we know?Willem_Drost_The_Vision_of_Daniel_1650

The last four verses of Daniel 9 are commonly interpreted to show that Jesus’ life corresponds with the timing predicted for the arrival of the messiah. The passage is as follows:

” 9:24 “Seventy weeks have been determined concerning your people and your holy city to put an end to rebellion, to bring sin to completion, to atone for iniquity, to bring in perpetual righteousness, to seal up the prophetic vision, and to anoint a most holy place. 9:25 So know and understand: From the issuing of the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until an anointed one, a prince arrives, there will be a period of seven weeks and sixty-two weeks. It will again be built, with plaza and moat, but in distressful times. 9:26 Now after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one will be cut off and have nothing. As for the city and the sanctuary, the people of the coming prince will destroy them. But his end will come speedily like a flood. Until the end of the war that has been decreed there will be destruction. 9:27 He will confirm a covenant with many for one week. But in the middle of that week he will bring sacrifices and offerings to a halt. On the wing of abominations will come one who destroys, until the decreed end is poured out on the one who destroys.””

There are several additional pieces of information that are valuable input into determining whether this prophecy might have been fulfilled in Jesus.

First, we need to establish the meaning of “weeks”. The hebrew word used here is “shabuwa” (Strong’s 7620), which is elsewhere used and translated as weeks in the familiar sense, that being seven 24 hour days. Despite this, there is nearly unanimous consensus that the proper translation in this case is to view the week as a period of seven years. I agree with this assertion and there’s a good explanation of the reasoning for this at the Christian thinktank. I’m not going to give this any further discussion.

Second, this passage in Daniel, particularly the last two verses, appears to have ties to the other prophecies in Daniel. The other prophecies speak of a coming ruler who destroys, stops sacrifices after 3.5 years, brings abomination and then is defeated after another 3.5 years. See the discussion of the kingdom prophecies for details.

Third, there are multiple ways in which the the translation of the text needs to be considered:

  1. The phrasing that divides the 69 weeks into two periods of 7 weeks and 62 weeks has two divergent translations. The translation given above (from the NET) is closely aligned with the most prominent translation, as found in the KJV, NIV and NASB. In this translation, the 7 weeks and the 62 weeks are coupled together and collectively treated as the forerunners to the arrival of the anointed one. Another translation, as found in the ESV, RSV and JPS, separates the arrival of an anointed one as occurring after the 7 weeks, which is then followed by the 62 weeks of rebuilding. For example, the ESV reads: “Know therefore and understand: from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of an anointed prince, there shall be seven weeks; and for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time.” This translation is based in part on the presence of an atnah in the Masoretic version of the text, which is roughly equivalent to a semi-colon. Under this translation it is clear that an anointed one arrives after 7 weeks and a second anointed one is cut-off in the next verse after the 62 weeks. This structure would not have been evident in the original text since ancient Hebrew did not include any punctuation. The punctuation added by the Masoretes is to some extent based on Rabbinical tradition handed down through the generations.
  2. Another distinctive difference in this alternative translation is the choice of the translation for the hebrew “dabar” (Strong’s 1697). Most Christian translations render this as “decree” or “command”, whereas this alternative translation uses the more generic “word”. This generic translation is in fact the far more common translation of “dabar”, which is used extensively throughout the Old Testament in various forms. It is also used in the surrounding context in Daniel to identify the word given by the Lord to Jeremiah regarding the 70 years of exile and to identify the message given to Daniel by Gabriel.

Finally, the timeline can only be interpreted once a reference point has been established. In this case, the “issuing of the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem” is the reference. The historical context for the person of Daniel makes it clear that the restoration of Jerusalem is subsequent to the Babylonian conquest and exile, which started in 597 BCE and, after years of political struggle, eventually left the city in ruins in 587 BCE. The best options for the “command” to restore Jerusalem are as follows:

  1. The earliest date comes from the possibility that the “word” to restore Jerusalem is equivalent to the prophecy in Jeremiah 30:18 and/or 31:38, where God promises that Jerusalem will be restored and rebuilt. An exact date is not available for the text in Jeremiah, but from the context (see 28:1 and 32:1) it can be most likely placed between 593 and 587 BCE.
  2. In 2 Chronicles 36 and Ezra 1 we are told that Cyrus, in his first year (539 BCE), issues a decree to build the temple in Jerusalem.
  3. According to Ezra 7, in 460 or 459 BCE Artaxerxes I allowed any Israelite to return to Israel with Ezra and to procure resources for use in the temple. Artaxerxes I came to power in August 465 BCE. The text states that Ezra left on the 1st day of the 1st month of the king’s 7th year. The first year could have been as short as the last 40 days of the Hebrew calendar in 465 BCE, or it could have considered to be the first full year. In the first case, the second year would have started in September 465 BCE, putting the start of the 7th year in September 460 BCE. In the latter case, everything is pushed back a year, such that the 7th year starts in September 459 BCE.
  4. According to Nehemiah 2, in 445 or 444 BCE Artaxerxes I granted Nehemiah’s request to return and rebuild the city, which included letters authorizing the travel and collection of resources. Nehemiah places this in the month of Nisan in the 20th year of king Artaxerxes. As above, the first year of the king has two possibilities, such that the start of the 20th year could be either September 446 BCE or September 445 BCE. The month of Nisan pushes this to March 445 or 444 BCE.

With respect to these last two options, I should note that there is some contention and confusion regarding the historical identity of the Persian kings named throughout the biblical text (see onetwo, three). I do not plan to engage in a deeper investigation of those issues at this time but I will note that the problem is legitimate because of the chronological discrepancies that arise from a plain reading of the text. The relevant point is that we are not guaranteed that the identification of Artaxerxes I serves as a solid foundation for the assignment of dates to the events recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah.

What is the Christian interpretation of the data?

As with the discussion of the kingdom prophecies, there are several Christian interpretations for this passage. Two of these claim that the prophecy is, at least in part, fulfilled by Jesus. These views, which we will call the historicist view and the futurist view, are often put forth as some of the strongest evidence for the divine inspiration of the bible. The common element to both of these is that they agree with the translation which does not bring in an anointed one after the first 7 weeks. In both cases, the mashiach does not come on the scene until the 7 + 62 weeks are complete.

The Historicist View

Under the historicist view, the prophecy is entirely fulfilled (included the 70th week) by the life and death of Jesus. A brief summary of this interpretation is given below and the detailed explanation can be found here.

  1. The 70 weeks starts in 460 or 459 BCE with the decree by Artaxerxes I, as found in Ezra 7. Many versions of this interpretation count from the second full year and then identify the arrival in Jerusalem as occurring in the second half of the year, making it 457 BCE.
  2. The 69th week comes to completion in 483 years (69 x 7), putting the start of the 70th week in September of 24 CE, or sometime in the first half of 26 CE if the later date of 457 BCE is used.
  3. The 70th week heralds the arrival of Jesus, but in the middle of the week he is cut off (28 – 30 CE), bringing sacrifices and offerings to a halt (since the atonement eliminates the need for sacrifice).
  4. The destruction of the temple in 70 CE is seen as fulfillment of verse 26, the destruction of the city and the sanctuary. Though this verse precedes the text regarding the 70th week, it is seen as a reference to those events which will occur after the 70th week.

The Futurist View

With the futurist (or dispensationalist) view, the prophecy is fulfilled only through the 69th week. The most famous explanation was put forth by Sir Robert Anderson in 1894, and was later updated by Harold Hoehner. This specific view claims to demonstrate fulfillment by Jesus to the exact day and is cited in several apologetic resources, such as Josh McDowell’s New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. A summary of the explanation is given below and the detailed explanation can be found here.

  1. The 70 weeks starts sometime in Nisan of 444 BCE with the decree by Artaxerxes I, as found in Nehemiah 2. This decree is chosen as the starting point because it is the one that explicitly refers to the rebuilding of the city, not just the temple.
  2. The duration of the 69 weeks is based on the Jewish calendar, which has 12 lunar months totaling 360 days. This is sometimes referred to as a “prophetic year” and does not account for the leap year corrections. This duration is 69 x 7 x 360 = 173880 days. Hoehner showed that if this is properly divided into solar years, you arrive at a duration of 476 years and 25 days in the Gregorian calendar. By adding this to Nisan 1 (or March 5) in 444 BCE, you arrive at March 30, 33 CE. This was determined by Hoehner to be the date of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
  3. In some versions of this view the first 7 weeks (ending around 396 BCE) is identified as the period where “the sealing up of the prophetic vision” is accomplished. The claim is that this is about the time that Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, was written. There’s little to no support for that claim, however, so this is often excluded from the discussion.
  4. In this view, a gap of indeterminate length is inferred between the 69th and 70th week. This view agrees with the historicist view in that the destruction of the temple in 70 CE is seen as fulfillment of verse 26.
  5. The 70th week is deemed to be a still future time period and related to the events in the book of Revelation.

What is the naturalistic interpretation of the data?

This interpretation builds upon the foundation presented in the naturalist views regarding the authorship of Daniel and the kingdom prophecies. In that context, the author of the 70 weeks prophecy was writing around 165 BCE and was constructing a prophecy which culminated in the contemporary actions of Antiochus Epiphanes.

The first component of this perspective notes that the start of chapter 9 recounts Daniel’s response to his reading of Jeremiah and the realization that the desolation of Jerusalem was to last 70 years. Daniel then petitions God for mercy until he is interrupted with the message of the prophecy. It is this context which leads one to consider Jeremiah’s prophecy of Jerusalem’s restoration as a likely candidate for the “word to restore and rebuild Jerusalem”. In this case, the message from Gabriel was building upon the very scriptures that Daniel had been contemplating. Under this view, the start of the 70 weeks would then be around 593 to 587 BCE.

The relationship to Jeremiah’s prophecy is also important for understanding the choice of a 70 week duration. Within the naturalist explanation, this is an artifact of the author’s attempt to parallel Jeremiah’s prophecy rather than an exact definition of the time span. This is discussed in more detail later.

With respect to the two competing translations (the third data point in “What do we know?”), the naturalist agrees with the translation that yields two anointed ones. The preference for this translation is based on the view that it yields a better harmonization with the historical data and with the language and the surrounding text. This is supported by the following:

  1. This translation offers the best explanation for the fact that the text divides the first 69 weeks into two parts of 7 weeks and 62 weeks. Why would the 69 weeks have been split unless it was intended to demarcate two events?
  2. The division rendered by the Masoretic punctuation is the best option we have for estimating the original sentence structure since this reflects the Rabbinical tradition.
  3. If the first 7 weeks (49 years) starts from Jeremiah’s prophecy and if we take this to be around 593 to 587 BCE then that puts us somewhere around 540 BCE. Along with this, note that the first mashiach which arrives at the end of this period is qualified in the prophecy as being a prince (nagiyd, Strong’s 5057), which is used consistently in reference to a political ruler. In 539 BCE the Persians conquered Babylon and took over the kingdom. The Persian king, Cyrus, allowed the exiles to return to their homeland and, as a result, he is called God’s anointed – mashiach – in Isaiah 45. This fits well with the anointed one that comes after the first 7 weeks. In fact, it seems possible that this is inferring that God’s answer to Daniel’s petition was to reduce the 70 years to 49 years and that this was accomplished when Cyrus showed up. Under the Maccabean Thesis, the author of Daniel would have been familiar with the Isaiah text and the reference to Cyrus as mashiach.
  4. The next 62 weeks starts the period of rebuilding the temple and city after Cyrus gives the Jews freedom to return to Jerusalem. At the end of the 62 weeks the prophecy indicates that an anointed one (but not identified as a prince) is cut off. In the discussion of the prophecies of kingdoms, the naturalist view associated this person with Onias, who was murdered in the years leading into the actions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This would have occurred around 170 BCE, which is about 369 years after the alleged start of the 62 weeks (434 years). That date is about 65 years too soon.
  5. The prophecy states that after the 62 weeks “the people of the coming prince” (again, prince = nagiyd) will destroy the city and sanctuary. This is the start of the final week and the portion of the prophecy that is attributed to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid ruler. The portion of the prophecy spanning the last week carries many parallels to other prophecies in Daniel. Refer to the discussion of the prophecies of kingdoms for details.

The most obvious and significant problem with this view is that the second period is 65 years too short. The naturalist argues that it is not without warrant to suggest that the author did not properly reconcile the duration of this second period. In fact, it appears likely that the author could not have accurately reconstructed the duration and may not have been very concerned with the accuracy anyway. This argument is based primarily on the following:

  1. It appears that the first standardized Jewish system for identifying the year (minyan shtarot) was not introduced until about 312 BCE. Prior to this, years were only identified relative a king’s reign. It is not clear how an author writing in 165 BCE would have obtained an accurate determination of the number of years that had passed since a known historical event 400 years earlier. As evidence of this difficulty, note that the development of the Jewish calendar appears to have introduced multiple issues which bring it in conflict with other dating systems.
  2. It is reasonable to suspect that the author was more concerned with numerology than accuracy. Note that the first period is 7 sevens (the pervasive number of perfection) and the total period is 70 sevens (matching the 70 from Jeremiah’s prophecy). The 62 week duration of the second period may have been little more than a byproduct of the author’s realization that the historical periods seemed to fit with the desired numerology.

Lastly, the natural explanation concludes with a discussion of the use of the hebrew “mashiach” (Strong’s 4899) in the prophecy. The NET translates mashiach as “anointed one” and several other translations use the transliteration into “messiah”. It turns out that the word mashiach is never actually used anywhere in the Old Testament to refer to the eschatological figure that came to be known as the messiah. The application of the word mashiach as a reference to the eschatological figure who rises to power at the end of days only began to arise in the late second century BC. If this usage in Daniel is in fact a reference to the figure implied by other prophetic texts then this is the first and only reference which applies the “messiah” terminology, even if the later date for Daniel’s authorship is accepted. Furthermore, the prophecy of the 70 weeks does not appear to be placing the focus of the prophecy on the mashiach. The end of the prophecy, with it’s eschatological implications, does nothing to incorporate the prior references to a mashiach – in fact, it leaves the mashiach as having been cut off. If this prophecy was really about the arrival of the mashiach then why isn’t he a central figure in bringing an end to the one who destroys?

Which interpretation seems more probable?

I will often develop preliminary probabilities as I research and fill in the details of a post. In this case, my preliminary estimates had favored the Christian view. After further research, the data eventually led me to split the probabilities 50/50. It seemed to me that the Christian interpretation did the better job of fitting the timing while the naturalist interpretation did the better job of fitting the language and context. However, as I continued to dig further it became apparent that I had been working under the false assumption that the author of the text had at his disposal a relatively accurate accounting of the historical record and would have used this. This assumption was gradually defeated as I began to uncover the multitude of chronological problems. In light of those issues, it would seem that it would actually be presumptuous to think that a Jewish author writing around 165 BCE could accurately recount the number of years that had passed since events some 400 years earlier. As such, there is nothing to discredit the notion that Daniel’s 70 sevens was largely devised to mimic Jeremiah’s 70 years and was not intended to reflect an accurate passage of time. This may in fact be the most proper view of the 70 sevens.

Even so, the Christian interpretations presented above do not rely on an accurate biblical chronology – they only rely on the proper identification of the person of Artaxerxes I. If that assignment holds up, then the Christian view still does a better job of fitting the timing. There are some oddities, however, such as the starting from the second year of the king’s reign in the historicist view, or using the lunar year in the futurist view (additionally, I think that the start date might be wrong). Regardless, these views would still come out to within 5 to 10 years of Jesus’ ministry, which is pretty good considering that we’re talking about a nearly 500 year span in total. Aside from the timing, however, the Christian interpretation of the passage is difficult. The relative dismissal of the split after the first 7 weeks seems unfounded. The insistence on the translation of “dabar” as “decree” is odd, particularly when more fitting options could have been used, such as “choq” (Strong’s 2706), “tsavah” (Strong’s 6680) or “dath” (Strong’s 1881), which has an Aramaic derivative that is used in Daniel to describe royal decrees. The fact that, under the Christian view, this would be the first and only use of mashiach in reference to the eschatological figure was a surprising result. And, in the case of the futurist view, there’s no clear basis for the gap leading up to the 70th week.

When I consider everything, I feel that the naturalist interpretation does the better job of fitting the context and explaining the language. When that assessment is coupled with the fact that the author probably could not have accurately counted the years leading up to the events of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and that the timing was most likely secondary to the author’s numerological goals, I am led to believe that the naturalistic interpretation does a better job of explaining the data.


This conclusion is not without significance. The accuracy of this prophecy has long been held up as one of the most powerful evidences for the divine inspiration of the bible. If a comprehensive evaluation yields results wherein the prophetic interpretation can be considered to be less compelling than a natural explanation, that is a noteworthy outcome.


Jesus’ Birth: The Nazarene prophecy

This post is part of a larger series on Jesus’ birth. This particular post evaluates the relationship between the birth story of Jesus and the prophecy that Jesus would be called a Nazarene.

What do we know?nativity

The prophecy fulfillment is claimed in Matthew 2:23

2:19 After Herod had died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 2:20 saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 2:21 So he got up and took the child and his mother and returned to the land of Israel. 2:22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. After being warned in a dream, he went to the regions of Galilee. 2:23 He came to a town called Nazareth (Ναζαρέτ) and lived there. Then what had been spoken by the prophets was fulfilled, that Jesus would be called a Nazarene (Ναζωραῖος).

First, note that the NET’s use of “Jesus” instead of “He” at the end of verse 23 is the result of the translator’s decision to clarify the subject – the original text does not imply that Jesus was named in the prophecies.

The source of this prophecy is unknown. There are no linguistic parallels in the Old Testament. The primary candidate is Isaiah 11:1, where the Hebrew word “netser” is used for “bud” or “branch” in claiming that the Messiah will come from the line of David:

” 11:1 A shoot will grow out of Jesse’s root stock, a bud will sprout from his roots. 11:2 The Lord’s spirit will rest on him – a spirit that gives extraordinary wisdom, a spirit that provides the ability to execute plans, a spirit that produces absolute loyalty to the Lord. 11:3 He will take delight in obeying the Lord. He will not judge by mere appearances, or make decisions on the basis of hearsay. 11:4 He will treat the poor fairly, and make right decisions for the downtrodden of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and order the wicked to be executed. 11:5 Justice will be like a belt around his waist, integrity will be like a belt around his hips.”

Note that the Septuagint translated the Hebrew netser into the Greek rhabdos, so this only works if the author is referring to the Hebrew text. The word used in Matthew is Nazoraios (Strong’s 3480).

Another candidate is Judges 13:5, where Samson is identified as being set apart (Hebrew word nazir, often translated as “Nazirite”):

” 13:2 There was a man named Manoah from Zorah, from the Danite tribe. His wife was infertile and childless. 13:3 The Lord’s angelic messenger appeared to the woman and said to her, “You are infertile and childless, but you will conceive and have a son. 13:4 Now be careful! Do not drink wine or beer, and do not eat any food that will make you ritually unclean. 13:5 Look, you will conceive and have a son. You must never cut his hair, for the child will be dedicated [nazir] to God from birth. He will begin to deliver Israel from the power of the Philistines.””

Another key point is to note that the passage refers to “prophets” (plural), potentially indicating that this is a reference to either multiple prophecies, or more likely to a prophetic theme or idea. Lastly, note that this claim to fulfillment comes at the end of a series of claimed fulfillments in the first two chapters wherein all of the other claims refer to specific known passages in the Tanakh. The distinction again, however, is that those prior claims all refer to a single prophet rather than multiple prophets.

There are two primary difficulties with the passage in Matthew:

  1. The most obvious issue is that there aren’t any clear prophecies in the Old Testament to which the statement in Matthew can be tied.
  2. The accounts in Matthew and Luke that place Jesus in Nazareth are very different – the former placing him there only the result of an evasive maneuver, the latter placing his parents there prior to his birth and then returning thereafter. This was largely already addressed in the Bethlehem post, so I won’t rehash that here.

What is the Christian interpretation of the data?

From what I can tell there is little consensus as to how Christians feel that this should be interpreted. Most accounts suggest that the Judges passage is the least likely and the passage in Isaiah is often given as the most likely. A variation on the theory that this is derived from the Judges passage simply recalls the root word nazir () and the concept of being set apart. This then draws upon messianic prophecies which identify the messiah as a uniquely holy, or set apart, figure.

There is also another option that I have encountered which I personally think is the most viable of the Christian views. This essentially works from the idea that “Nazarene” is known to be derogatory term at the time of the writing and then keys on the plural use of “prophets” to recall multiple passages in the Old Testament which identify the messiah as rejected and despised. You can read the full explanation here.

What is the naturalistic interpretation of the data?

For the naturalist view I would like to build upon the commentary in the out of Egypt post. In that post, I suggested that a naturalist might view the fulfillment claim as being due to Nazarene authorship (or more likely, redaction), where the author is arguing for his view over the view of traditional Jews and other Jewish-Christian sects (e.g., the Ebionites). In the case of the Nazarene prophecy, one can’t help but suspect the same thing. One possibility here is that the author, considering himself to be a member of the Nazarene sect, is simply boldly proclaiming that Jesus was also a member of his group and that this was somehow backed by prophecy. It seems possible, if not likely, that some precursor of the Nazarene sect was present before Jesus’ ministry (perhaps including a group Jews who established Nazareth in pursuit of purity). If that were true then the naturalist would hold that the best explanation for this text is that the author is referring to prophets or traditions from within the sect which claim that the messiah would hail from their sect. Another option is that the author wanted so badly to associate Jesus with the Nazarenes, instead of other early Christian sects, that he decided to make the claim of prophetic fulfillment despite having no clear scriptural references to use. Under a naturalist view, such human behavior is not at all unexpected.

Which interpretation seems more probable?

To be perfectly honest, none of the explanations are very compelling. One of the interesting aspects of this passage in Matthew is the fact that the fulfillment of the alleged prophecies is accomplished simply by acquiring a title from having grown up in Nazareth. There’s no implied symbolism – it seems to suggest that Nazarene simply means “one from Nazareth”. We also have no other biblical references to any form of prophecy regarding Nazareth. One might suppose that the author assumed his readers would be familiar with the prophecies he referenced but, if there were well known prophecies linking the messiah to Nazareth, and everybody knew that Jesus was from Nazareth, why didn’t anybody else mention this? The proposals from the Christian perspective seem to rely on obscure inferences and the naturalist view is sensible, though still speculative. As such, I am assigning the probabilities as follows:


If you want to pursue this further then I recommend the following resources, which present good data without making any clear conclusions:


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:


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:


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.

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:


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:


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.