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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