About that Virgin

Isaiah 7:14 is a very popular verse during Christmas but it is also one of the most controversial verses in the Bible. The reason why it is loved is the same reason why it stirs up so much trouble. The gospel of Matthew famously quotes it as the prophecy that is fulfilled by Jesus’ virgin birth to Mary.

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). – Matthew 1:23 ESV

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. – Isaiah 7:14 ESV

The problem is a matter of translation. The contention is that the Hebrew word “almah” that is translated as virgin in Isaiah 7:14 by the English Standard Version and many other translations means something else. It means a young woman without reference to her sexual experience. This raises some obvious difficulties. The responses to them have largely been determined by whether you are sympathetic to orthodox Christianity or not.

For those who are not believers (or are not particularly committed to preserving orthodox positions) they accuse Matthew of deliberately misquoting Isaiah in order to manufacture a prophetic poof text supporting the virgin birth. Orthodox Christians on the other hand try to make semantic arguments for why it is legitimate for Matthew to use virgin and to translate almah as virgin in Isaiah.

This debate has a long history stretching back to at least the 2nd century AD with Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho. Instead of boring you with the details which you can find here, I will cut to the chase on the verdict of the lexical debate: There is no valid exegetical reason to translate almah as virgin. In fact, modern versions of the Bible like the New Revised Standard Version, which is popular among scholars, translate is as “young woman.” The only reason why popular contemporary translations continue to mistranslate it is because they do not want to deal with the backlash from orthodox Christians who form a significant portion of their customer base. The meaning of almah is no secret so why was it translated as virgin by Christians?

It was and continues to be motivated by Matthew’s quotation, which seems to offer the only clear-cut Old Testament support for the necessity of the virgin birth, an important tenet of creedal orthodoxy (see the Apostles Creed for example.) There is no evidence that prior to the start of the Jesus movement that Jewish people were reading Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy of a literal virgin birth. If Isaiah really wanted to say a virgin was going to give birth he could have used the proper Hebrew word for virgin, betheulah, which is used in Isaiah 47:1 for example. The question then is, why did Matthew say use “virgin” instead of “young woman”?

Things get even more complicated here. Matthew was quoting the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint, abbreviated as LXX. This was in fact the “Bible” of the early church. The LXX translates the Hebrew almah as parthenos, which is the Greek word for virgin. This only pushes back the question to why the LXX decided to do that. No one really knows. The Greek word parthenos clearly meant a woman (and sometimes by extension a man) who has never engaged in sexual activity (see Robinson’s Analytical Lexicon of New Testament Greek.) There was Greek available to them to translate the word more appropriately yet for some reason they translated a host of Hebrew words that do not mean virgin as parthenos. For example it refers to Dinah after she was raped as parthenos.

Now granted the awkwardness of the LXX still no one, until the Christians came along, ever thought it indicated a miraculous virgin birth. They were therefore reading it as “the woman who is now a virgin will have sex and conceive and give birth to a son [just like every other woman.]” This was the most obvious way to read it because that is simply how children come in to the world. The ancients were certainly not ignorant of the birds and the bees. When you read the following passages it explicitly speaks of other prophetic children being born the old fashioned way (Isaiah 8:3.) Even if they were tempted to read it as conception without sex, they had access to the Hebrew version the Greek was based on which clearly does not say “virgin.”

So now we are squarely back with Matthew, still wondering what he was playing at. Some think it was him being deliberately misleading to promote Christian propaganda. Others would level the less severe charge of incompetence. There is no point in trying to deny Matthew has an agenda, he is upfront about it himself (Matthew 1:1.) However, that does not necessarily mean he was wrong, after all many of his detractors similarly want to push a particular interpretation of scripture that is in direct competition with the popular Christian interpretation. I also find the idea of Matthew fumbling with scripture just untenable. This has nothing to do with believing he was inspired or some commitment to inerrancy. When you read through his gospel, you can see had extensive, deep knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures. Besides, he was a 1st century Jew and his people were soaked in scripture all their lives. The Tanakh is a crucial element of Jewish identity. It is a way of life that continues to this day. Apart from that, only a few people in the ancient world were literate. So being able to write sophisticated prose like he did shows he was an intelligent, well educated person. Granted that we know Matthew was not dumb and there is no semantic justification (in spite of the best attempts at linguistic gymnastics by Christians over the ages) for the “virgin” translation, it seemingly leaves us at an impasse.

I believe there is valid interpretive option that breaks the dead lock which both Christians and critics have not explored. Over the last few decades the field of literary criticism, that is studying the Bible as literature, has really blossomed and provided many wonderful results. Unfortunately, many of these breakthroughs are yet to trickle down to the pews in both churches and synagogues. In terms of New Testament studies, arguably the leading name in the study of the New Testament’s literary use of the Hebrew Bible is Dr. Richard B. Hays, whose work I have referenced and featured many times on this platform. I believe his work on figural reading, which he calls “reading backwards” holds the key to making sense of what Matthew was doing.

Figural interpretation as a literary technique is not peculiar to the Bible. It was first properly identified by German literary scholar Erich Auerbach as he was studying the great works of the European literary heritage. He saw it from Homer to Shakespeare. It is a way of seeing a connection between too events separated in time, where the later event fulfills the former while the former event anticipates the latter, without disregarding the distinct significance of each event on its own. So it is a typological reading of scripture which the New Testament and other Jewish writings of that period are littered with. (A type, which is a symbolic foreshadowing, is different from a rote, deterministic prediction.) This is a pretty dense explanation which you can find Dr. Hays himself unpacking here.

For the purposes of this particular matter, the take away from this way of reading and using texts is that you do not have to sacrifice the plain meaning of the text. In other words, Matthew expected you to know that Isaiah’s original prophecy did not mean a literal virgin birth. The way he quoted Isaiah, he employed a literary device known as metalepsis, which is referencing an entire section of literature by quoting an important part of it. So Matthew expects you to know the entire context of that particular prophetic word as well.

God through the prophet Isaiah was giving a sign to the skeptical King of Judah, Ahaz, that not only was he going to rescue Judah in the Syro-Ephraimite War, he would completely overthrow his enemies. This was a promise that God would save his people. Just as the original prophesied child called Immanuel was the sign that God was among his people to deliver them, so was Jesus’ birth. God saving his people is a regular theme though out the Bible. So why was Matthew so keen on that particular reference?

The Syro-Ephraimite War is significant because it was the beginning of the end of God’s people. It was the start of a chain of events that led to the Assyrian Exile of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and then eventually the Babylonian Exile of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The prophetic commentary on the reason for these events was they were expelled from the land because of their unrepentant idolatry and attendant evils, just as it was written in the Law of Moses. It was the consequence of covenant unfaithfulness in defiance of incessant prophetic warnings. Now Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy that sets up Jesus as God’s long awaited Messiah who will reverse the long exile and truly restore the nation of Israel. So in the narrative he is named Jesus, which literally means “Yahweh saves,” because God was going to use him to save his people from their sins, the very thing that brought Israel to ruin and from which they had never fully recovered.

It goes without saying the virginal conception was clearly a unique event that in the Jewish mind only the creator of heaven and earth could do. The angel explained, as all Jewish people knew, that God was not in the habit of doing miracles simply because he can. It was an ominous sign he was doing something unprecedented in the world. Matthew reflecting on these events, what happened to Mary and what happened in the scriptures, saw a startling biblical connection between these two prophesied children. I call it “startling” because Matthew was banking on his audience knowing what “the virgin shall be with child” originally meant in the context of the peculiar LXX translation of the Hebrew and how God was putting a twist on it by literally causing a virgin to conceive. For Matthew God was himself adding a new layer of meaning to that strange little phrase by doing something incomparably strange that ultimately fulfils the original promise of salvation in Isaiah 7.

There is further evidence that Matthew was using specific literary techniques. For example he does not perfectly quote the passage. This is a common technique by Jewish writers of that period in developing certain points they wanted to get across using the text by quoting it differently. In the Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 it says a bit ambiguously “and shall call his name Immanuel” without a clear pronoun indicating who will do the naming. In the LXX, it tries to remove that bit of ambiguity and says “you shall call his name Immanuel” where “you” is King Ahaz who the prophet Isaiah was adressing. Now Matthew quotes it as “they shall call his name Immanuel” where they in context is the people Jesus will be saving. This was Matthew’s way of saying those people will come to know Jesus as God incarnate when he comes to do only what God can, that is, rescue his people from their sins against him. Sometimes it is a straight up paraphrase and others time it is more subtle like in our text from Matthew, but this non-identical quotation is part of a larger phenenomenon in the way ancient scripture is constructed.

There is a general principle in scripture and its interpretation that the Hebrew Bible scholar Robert Alter pointed out, which I think is equally true of the New Testament. Even though it initially seems redundant repetition is an important feature of scripture. It purposefully repeats without perfectly replicating. Sometimes this type of repetition is as subtle as an echo, as direct as a quote, as obvious as a parallel line or as complex as a type scene. When scripture repeats something it wants you to pay attention to the differences because no matter how slight those differences are, that’s how it is conveying extra meaning or nuance to what is communicating. It only works when you are familiar with what the original actually was or you will not notice what’s different when it is repeated and miss what was being said the second time. Non-identical repetition is a way scripture demands our attention. (Perhaps it is designed in such a way that those who are not serious about grappling with it will miss it (Isaiah 28:13).)

Figural reading also trades on recognizing similarities and differences and from that finding the connections. Even though they are temporally distinct, the latter event brings to fullness the significance of the first event and because of that the former event helps explain the latter. This is what happened between the Isianic Immanuel and the Mattean Immanuel, Jesus son of Mary. God was doing something more than Isaiah or anyone else could have anticipated but in retrospect we can see how God had always intended to do that. According to Matthew a literal virgin birth was how God would forever dwell among his people (Matthew 28:20.)

The New Testament’s belief in Jesus’ divine origin does not hinge on the virgin birth. There are multiple ways the New Testament authors talk about the Galilean Messiah being Israel’s God incarnate. Only Matthew and Luke bother offering us accounts about the real world circumstances of his coming via virgin birth. This is not to say the virgin birth doesn’t matter. We have to properly weight its theological and christological significance according to how the New Testament actually talks about it. The contention of Dr. Hays work is that a close literary reading of the gospels shows they all present Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s God in fulfilment of their scriptures. If Jesus had not been raised from the dead and ascended to the right hand of God, the virgin birth would not matter. It was his exaltation to divine glory which for the New Testament authors was the definitive proof of his pre-human existence. So it was actually in reading back from the ascension to the virginal conception, and then further back to the sign of Immanuel found in Isaiah, that Matthew realised and duly explained that it was God incarnate to the rescue of his people just as he had promised. This is further proof that an overtly literal reading of a “virgin shall conceive” was not apparent because neither the angel or Joseph referenced it in the moment. It was Matthew who later supplied that novel interpretation reflecting on scripture and its relationship to what happened to Jesus.

Like we just saw, with figural interpretation we have a tiny window into what was going on in the mind of the New Testament author as he reflected on events and came to amazing retrospective insights. This is a prime example of biblical revelation at work. Yet in our zeal to defend creedal orthodoxy, we failed to pay close attention to what the biblical author was doing and tried to fit him in to our exegetical schemes instead of learning from him how to read scripture. As New Testament scholar David I. Starling so deftly put it in the title of his wonderful book that develops that exact thesis, we should think of Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship.

I have spent four pages trying to show that Matthew was doing something that was OK. Some might argue this is overly complicated and is fully of many contrivances. First of all the issue is not how difficult it is but whether it is a fair portrayal of what the author was trying to accomplish. The evidence from scholarship I think definitively shows that such literary conventions were in use by Jewish and non-Jewish writers of the period. They have been carefully studied and conditions identified to detect when they are in play. What is a real stretch is rather to think that ancient literature must conform to our modern standards. The reason why we don’t readily notice all ancient literary techniques is because it is simply not a part of our culture.

I think the other aspect is what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery. We find it hard to believe ancient writers are capable of sophisticated writing so we read the Bible über simplistically. We can’t fathom there being true literary brilliance in the Bible that demands our intelligence and respect. How could Matthew or any other biblical author pack so much meaning into a few passages? Unlike modern literature which is verbose and full of extraneous detail (I still love it though), ancient writing, particularly biblical writing, was far more economical with words due to technological and financial restraints. They therefore relied on these literary techniques to convey rich meaning all the while being frugal with words.

You may not still not agree with the Christian reading of the Old Testament. That is fine. What you cannot deny is that “creative” exegesis was a legitimate way to approach texts in that era. By creative exegesis I mean a group of literary techniques including figural interpretation, prosopological exegesis, gezerah sawa, and others, that do not reject grammatico-historical exegesis but are not limited to it. The reality is Jewish writers, Christian or otherwise, did not interpret texts only according to their historical context. (Matthew Novenson’s study of messianism is a good example of dialogue between different interpretations of passages and events according to different interpretive viewpoints using the same ground rules of interpretation.) If you are a Christian or practice Judaism it means you accept some form of creative exegesis because both beliefs are built on it. We must assess Matthew and every other New Testament author on those terms, using the literary and hermeneutical practices of their day in making sense of what they had witnessed.

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