Posted by: Johnold Strey | October 6, 2008

Virgin Birth?

Too many theologians put a question mark where God puts a period.

Other times, they just take out their red pens and strike whole sections of text.

So where are these introductory comments coming from?  This week we began our newest Sunday morning adult Bible study at Gloria Dei.  We’re covering the New Testament Gospel of Matthew.  Last week Sunday (9/28/2008) we had an introductory class, and yesterday (10/5/2008) we actually began the Gospel with chapter one.

With the field of apologetics becoming an interest of mine in the past few years, I now tend to teach Bible classes differently than I used to.  I’ve always taught what the verses mean and how they apply to our lives, but now I also like to inform the class how modern biblical critics view the text they’re reading, and then to equip them with the knowledge that will help them to respond intelligently to modern biblical criticism.  That apologetic focus was prevalent in our session today on Matthew 1:1-25.  The first seventeen verses cover Jesus’ genealogy, which has plenty of issues worth discussion–and for which we had plenty of discussion!  The last section, verses 18-25, deals with the birth of Jesus, and there is quite a bit to discuss there as well.  I’d like to take just one of those apologetic items from Matthew’s opening chapter and discuss it further here.

Matthew 1:23 wraps up Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth with a quotation from Isaiah 7:14: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.”  The big issue surrounding this verse is the word for “virgin.”  The Hebrew word that is used here is almah.  The vast majority of the time, the word almah means “virgin,” but it’s possible that the word could simply mean, “young woman.”  And that’s where the critics have their fun.  Isaiah wasn’t predicting a virgin birth at all, they claim.  Some (including the critical commentary that I’m reading along with my Bible Class preparations) have gone so far as to say that we have no indication that the Jews were expecting a virgin birth.  This is just unthinking conservatives’ Bible-thumping hype.

Not so fast.  Before the time of Christ, the Jews made a translation of their Old Testament Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek.  That translation is often called the Septuigent (and is sometimes abreviated “LXX”).  So how did the Septuigent translate almah in Isaiah 7:14?  Remember, if anyone’s insights are going to be helpful here, it’s the insights of those who spoke the language and lived in that era of history.  Well, it just so happens that the Hebrew word almah is translated into Greek with the word parthenos, which means “virgin” and only “virgin” – not “young woman.”  And this makes the critical commentary I read look as if it has egg on its face when it says that no one among the Jews was expecting a virgin birth.  Such a statement doesn’t stand up to the facts.

As I work through the Matthew Bible Class here at Gloria Dei the next several months, I’m sure more of these critical issues will come up.  And I’m sure some of those issues will turn into apologetics blog posts.  But for now, I hope this first entry reminds you of an important rule of thumb.  If you hear statements about the Bible’s inaccuracy or unreliability, don’t panic or assume the worst.  Check out the claims first in a fair and scholarly way.  You might be surprised what you discover.  In this case, it’s the prophecy of a virgin birth, with a period, not a question mark.

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Responses

  1. Isaiah’s prophecy and fulfilment in the first instance was to do with contemporary events.

    Matthew saw in Jesus a second fulfilment of part of Isaiah’s prophecy.

    If “the prophecy in Isaiah referred to a virgin,” then there must have been 2 virgin births.

    The fact is the words Isaiah spoke never siad anything about a virgin. Nor could he change his prophecy 500 years after he died (LXX translation).

  2. The likelihood of the Hebrew word almah meaning merely “young woman” in most contexts is highly unlikely. Possibility is not probability.

    Matthew, an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry and one of his apostles, surely would not have stretched this prophecy out of its intended meaning (double fulfillments are not uncommon among Old Testament prophecies), created a false concept that Jesus was divine, that Jesus subsequently rose from the dead, and then died for what he (Matthew) would have most certainly known to be a lie. People die for lies when they think the lie is true; they fess up when they know what they are promoting is false.

    The Septuigent (LXX) translators, who operated in the “B.C.” era with no Christian bias, can tell us far more about the original meaning of the word than postmodern skepticism can some two and a half millennium after Isaiah.

    Finally, the footnotes on this verse from the Concordia Self-Study Bible speak to this matter:

    7:14 sign.… virgin … son … Immanuel.† A figurative way of predicting that within nine months it will be so evident that God is with his people that she will name her son Immanuel, which means “God is with us.” By the time he reaches the age of discretion (“knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right,” v. 16) the enemy will have given up the design of conquest and will have been laid waste by the Assyrian empire (vv. 16–17). The Hebrew word ‘almah occurs six times in the OT and in each case refers to a young woman of marriageable age who is still in the state of virginity (Ge 24:43; Ex 2:8; Ps 68:25; Pr 30:19; SS 1:3; 6:8). Mt 1:23 understood the woman mentioned here to be a type (a foreshadowing) of the Virgin Mary. Immanuel.† The name “God is with us” was meant to convince Ahaz that God could rescue him from his enemies. See Nu 14:9; 2Ch 13:12; Ps 46:7. “Immanuel” is used again in 8:8, 10, and it may be another name for Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (8:3). If so, the boy’s names had complementary significance (see note on 8:3). Jesus was the final fulfillment of this prophecy, for he was “God with us” in the fullest sense (Mt 1:23; cf. Isa 9:6–7). See Hos 11:1; Mt 2:15 for another example of God’s direction of Israel’s history in such a way as to let the event foreshadow what he would do in the life of his incarnate Son.

  3. T Crosthwaite,

    You are like Gideon who asked for a sign from God, but then realized that the sign he requested was rather ordinary. At least Gideon had the sense to ask for a better sign. (Judges 6:36-40).

    Ahaz refused to ask for a sign; so God comes up with His own sign, and according to you He can’t do any better than Gideon on his first attempt. A young woman (who is not a virgin) will have a baby. That seems like a rather mediocre sign.

    Maybe God should read Joel Osteen’s new book: “Your Best Sign Now.”

    When man wasn’t looking for a Savior, when he refused to even ask for a sign; God promised, and sent the best sign ever. “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14). That sign was a promise of a much greater victory to come. Just as a virgin birth is a much greater sign than a normal birth, so also is Jesus’ victory greater than a normal victory.

  4. Rick and Johnold Strey,

    You both comment on Isaiah’s sign.

    Johnold mentions “double fulfilments,” and from this I assume he acknowledges that Isaiah’s prophecy had 2 fulfilments.

    My questions to you both:

    1) What was Isaiah’s sign in relation to the first fulfilment (700 years before Jesus)?

    2) What does the latter part of Isaiah’s prophecy (vs 15-16) tell you about the sign?

    3) Do these 2 verses have anything to do with the second fulfilment (Jesus)?

    3. If these 2 verses are relevant to the second fulfilment, why didn’t Matthew include these verses in his quotation of Isaiah?

  5. T.C.,

    Based on your website, it appears that the premise behind your questions has to do with the different nature of the two fulfillments.

    Permit a quotation from the Concordia Self-Study Commentary (a different source than the Concordia Self-Study Bible, quoted above):

    The NT establishes the ultimate meaning of the Immanuel sign. It was given to foretell that God would let His Son be born of the Virgin Mary by the operation of His Holy Spirit. “Born of woman,” one who had “no husband,” the incarnate Son of God was indeed Immanuel, “God with us,” for He came to “save his people from their sins,” their greatest enemy. (Gl 4:4; Lk 1:34; Mt 1:21)

    The context of the prophesied virgin birth of the Savior provides for a preliminary fulfillment of the sign: deliverance from the “two kings” (16) threatening the destruction of Jerusalem. Within the nine months that a young woman of marriageable age who was presumed to be a virgin before her wedding (cf. Dt 22:13–21) conceives and gives birth to a child, it will be so evident that God was with His people to deliver them that she will call her son Immanuel, i.e., “God is with us.” By the time he “knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good,” i.e., the age of discretion, the enemy not only will have given up his design of conquest but his own “land … will be deserted,” laid waste by the emerging Assyrian empire (15 f.). See Hos 11:1 (Mt 2:15) for another example of God’s direction of Israel’s history in such a way as to let the event foreshadow what He would do in the life of His incarnate Son.”

    The nature of the first fulfillment is debated among scholars.

    [A] The previous CSSC quote assumes it is simply an expression of a particular amount of time.

    [B] Norman Geisler suggests that Isaiah 8:3 was the first fulfillment, and that Isaiah’s wife would have been a virgin prior to their child’s conception (which would assume that Isaiah was a remarried widower, since another son is mentioned in 7:3).

    [C] Edward Young, who picks up on the fact that “to you” in Hebrew is plural, does not focus much on an initial fulfillment as much as the fulfillment in Christ. He writes,

    Ahaz has refused to ask for a sign and he has gone on with his court to weary God; therefore, for that reason, the Lord takes the matter out of his hands, withdrawing, as it were, the offer, and Himself gives the sign. Ahaz might have asked for any sign that would have satisfied him. By hypocritical unbelief, however, he cast away this privilege and so wearied God. Therefore, he is no longer to enjoy the privilege, but will have to receive whatever sign God chooses to give. A sign which Ahaz might have asked for would have been for his benefit. No longer, however, is there any choice. He must receive such a sign as God will give him, one which will have a relationship to his own lack of faith and hence will be a pledge of doom.

    Ahaz’ wickedness is seen in the fact that by his stubbornness he was in fact rejecting the very foundation of the covenant. God had promised to be a God and a Deliverer to His people. Syria and Israel, therefore, will not overthrow the Davidic dynasty, for if they could succeed in so doing, the promises of God would be rendered void and salvation would not ultimately be accomplished through the Messiah. In effect, Ahaz, by his refusal, is asserting that God is not faithful to His promise. In fearing that Syria and Israel could actually depose him, he is expressing disbelief that “there shall not fail thee a man in my sight to sit on the throne of Israel” (1 Kings 8:25). A son of David is willing to reject the covenant. God therefore must take over, and give a sign of the greater deliverance, as well as of the proximate deliverance from Syria and Israel.

    We may paraphrase Isaiah’s words: “ʾadon will give to you a sign, and the sign which He will give is this: Behold! a virgin.…” But the sign is not for Ahaz alone. Previously, Ahaz had been commanded, “Ask for thyself.” Now, leaving Ahaz, Isaiah addresses the nation generally. “To you,” he says, turning not merely to the king, but also to the court and all the nation. The sign, therefore, is intended for all the people and not for Ahaz alone. Inasmuch as it is given to all the nation, all the nation must receive and believe it.

    In language of deep beauty and mystery, the prophet directs us to the virgin and her Child. He uses a form of language similar to that which had been spoken to Hagar in the wilderness, “Behold thee—pregnant, and about to bear a son, and thou shalt call his name Ishmael” (Gen. 16:11). Somewhat similar is the declaration made of Sarah, “Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac” (Gen. 17:19). To the mother of Samson also an announcement was made, “Behold! now thou art barren and hast not borne, but thou shalt become with child and thou shalt bear a son” (Judg. 13:3).

    Assuming the [A] or [B] perspective from above, vv. 15-16 refer to the short time frame before Aram and Israel (the northern kingdom) no longer threatened Judah (the southern kingdom). Because “you” in verse 16 is singular, this suggests its application is toward the first fulfillment but not the second. From the standpoint of perspective [C] and the switch from “you” (plural) to “you” (singular), v. 14 would be a Messianic prediction and vv. 15-16 would switch the subject but pick up on the literary imagery to describe the time frame for the demise of Judah’s enemies.

    Your two question 3’s seem to assume, as does your website, that the fulfillments must be perfect parallels. I see nothing in the text that suggests that. All historical events are by their very nature unique and unrepeatable. Expecting a perfectly parallel fulfillment would assume too much as far as I can tell from the text, especially given the shift in the personal pronouns.

    Finally, although you do not ask about it, I’ll offer a quotation from the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament regarding the Hebrew word almah, since that is at the heart of the matter.

    Since bĕtûlâ is used many times in the OT as a specific word for “virgin,” it seems reasonable to consider that the feminine form of this word is not a technical word for a virgin but represents a young woman, one of whose characteristics is virginity. This is borne out by the fact that the LXX translates it as parthenos in two of its seven occurrences, and that its use in Isa 7:14 was quoted to Joseph by the angel as a prediction of the virgin birth.

    Some translators interpret Mt 1:22–23 as being simply a comment by Matthew, but it is more reasonable to consider that the argument that convinced Joseph was the fact, pointed out to him by the angel, that such an event had already been predicted by Isaiah. There is no instance where it can be proved that ˓almâ designates a young woman who is not a virgin. The fact of virginity is obvious in Gen 24:43 where ˓almâ is used of one who was being sought as a bride for Isaac. Also obvious is Ex 3:8. Song 6:8 refers to three types of women, two of whom are called queens and concubines. It could be only reasonable to understand the name of the third group, for which the plural of ˓almâ is used, as meaning “virgins.”

    A closing thought on this point from Christian apologist John Warwick Montgomery, from his Tractatus Logico-Theologicus (4.12241):

    A modern English translation of the Isaiah prophecy, such as the RSV, which substitutes “young woman” for “virgin,” does violence to the original text — since well before the Christian era the Jews themselves, in translating from Hebrew to Greek (the Septuagint, produced in Alexandria, 300-100 B.C.), employed the Greek parthenos to translated the Hebrew almah; parthenos means “virgin,” not merely a young woman.

    Note: T.C. has requested that I mention the following: I have chosen to end the discussion of this post with these (previous) comments. I believe that neither of us are likely to convince the other of our position, and with only so many hours in a day, it would be best to conclude the discussion at this point.


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