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A Virgin-Birth Prophecy?
by Kenneth E. Nahigian


1993 / March-April



Prophecy is a muddy science, and Bible prophecy more muddy than most. Take those Old Testament prophecies. Evangelists never tire of telling us that hundreds were fulfilled in the life of Jesus, far too many to be called coincidence. But how many of these are real, and how many are prophetia ex eventu--prophecies constructed after the fact, products of careful selection and interpretation?

To get an idea, let's look at the most famous, the prophecy of the child Immanuel as presented in the Gospel of Matthew:

Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us (1:22-23 , KJV).

Most good Christians take this at face value, assured that the prophet Isaiah did indeed describe Jesus' miraculous conception and birth seven hundred years before. But did he? Authorities are nearly unanimous. The answer is no.

What did Isaiah really say? Turning to Isaiah 7:14 (Masoretic text), we find his precise words:

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, ha'almah shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Matthew's interpretation of this passage has several problems, the largest hanging on the Hebrew word 'almah. Writing in Greek, the gospel author turned almah into parthenos , a word usually (but not always) meaning "virgin." In fact, he had a precedent for this; the Septuagint, a translation of the Old Testament used by Greek-speaking Jews of his day, did indeed use parthenos in the Isaiah passage. But the Septuagint was for the most part a notoriously sloppy translation, and its version of Isaiah was generally more error-ridden than the rest. By the Middle Ages, the Jews had abandoned the Septuagint, and later Greek translations, by Aquila, Theodotion, Lucien and others, did not use the word parthenos. (The Septuagint, commonly known as the LXX, is still favored by Eastern Orthodox churches.)

Assuredly, the Hebrew Old Testament predating the Septuagint used 'almah, so what did the word mean? While rare in the Hebrew Bible, almah does occur here and there, notably in Genesis 24:43 and Exodus 2:8 , but an examination of the contexts of these passages will show nothing to suggest that the noun imputed virginity.

On the other hand, a male youth in the Old Testament was called na'ar or elem, the feminine forms of which were na'arah and 'almah respectively. The limited usage of elem (lad or stripling) in the Old Testament nowhere implied sexual purity; thus an 'almah was an adolescent female, virgin or not, just as an elem was an adolescent male. In fact, one verse does seem to use 'almah in reference to a nonvirgin. This is Proverbs 30:19 , which listed four things too marvelous to understand: the way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship in the sea, and the way of a man with a maiden ( 'almah). To say the least, "the way of a man with an 'almah" would certainly jeopardize a state of sexual purity, but more damaging than this rather obvious fact is the comparison that the writer went on to state: "Such is the way of an adulterous woman: she eats, wipes her mouth, and says, 'I have done no wrong'" (v:20 , NAB). It seems odd writer that the author would use 'almah to denote sexual purity and then compare it to the ongoing affairs of an adulterous woman. More likely the author's point was that all these things have one element in common: they do not leave much of a trace.

Aside from this, the Torah does, in fact, have an explicit word for virgin (betulah or bethulah), which is always used where the context requires virginity. (For confirmation, see Genesis 24:16 , Leviticus 21:14 , and Deuteronomy 22:15-19 ). Even Isaiah used it in 62:5 . Its nonuse in the "Immanuel" passage is a rather loud hint that Isaiah spoke only of a young woman, not specifically of a virgin.

More to the point, nearly all modern commentaries agree with Talmudic scholars that Isaiah's "sign" had nothing to do with a messiah. Reviewing half a dozen for this article, I found only one dissenter. Significantly, it was one that spouted the fundamentalist party line on every other issue. Interested readers can jaunt to the library and peruse the massive Interpreter's Bible (Vol. 5, pp. 217-22), one of the most authoritative works in the field. Or more succinctly, try the popular Harper's Bible Dictionary (Paul J, Achtemeier, gen. ed., 1985), page 419, where this statement is found:

It is clear, however, that... Isaiah 7:14 did not speak of the miraculous birth of Jesus centuries later.... The sign of Immanuel offered by the prophet to Ahaz had to do with the imminent birth of a child, of a mother known to Ahaz and Isaiah, and signified God's presence with his people....

Indeed, Isaiah's word for "sign" was 'ot, which in the Hebrew Bible invariably indicated an imminent sign or omen, not one in the far future. Keep reading, in fact, and you will see Isaiah's sign appear just a few verses later (Is. 8:3-4 ), when a certain prophetess gives birth to a son--a child whom God called "Immanuel" in verse 8. By contrast, nowhere in the New Testament did any character ever call Jesus Immanuel. Why the confusion? Of course, the author of the Gospel of Matthew had a vested interest in the nascent church and wanted to ground the new Christian mythos in Jewish prophecy whenever possible. Almost all scholars agree this "Matthew" was not the apostle but rather a Greek-speaking Christian living in or near Antioch of Syria, who wrote about A.D. 90, about two generations after the crucifixion. Very likely, he was familiar with only the Septuagint version of Isaiah. (That Matthew wrote the first gospel was a tradition started by Bishop Papias of Hieropolos in the second century.)

Also, of course, the early Christians would have liked a virgin-born savior anyway, out of sheer competitiveness, because so many other rival religions had one. (Mithra, Zoroaster, Adonis, and Dionysus were just a few.) More- over, we know the gospel writers were not adverse to massaging and even manufacturing details in order to "flesh out" the Jesus story. That is why, for example, you find such conflicting genealogies for Jesus in Matthew 1:1-16 and Luke 3:23-38 .

All things considered, it is hardly surprising that "Matthew" would pull Isaiah a bit out of context and try to wring a new meaning from it. What is surprising is that this literary sleight of hand grew to become such a cornerstone of Christendom and still has modern fundamentalists so befuddled. So let's dust off our Bibles (I like the New Revised English Bible best for clarity and the Revised Standard Version for beauty) and reread the Immanuel prophecy--in context.

The setting is the Syro-Ephraimite war (ca. 734 B.C.). Wicked King Ahaz of Judah was frantic about Ephraim (another name for the northern kingdom, Israel) and Damascus (capital of Syria), which were plotting a preemptive strike. Isaiah enters, offering a sign. Ahaz demurs. Isaiah storms at him for his lack of faith and then provides a sign anyway: A male child would be born. Before this child is old enough to know to "refuse evil and choose the good," Assyria would lay waste both Samaria and Damascus (7:16 ). [This sub-prophecy, in fact, came true in 2 Kings 16:9 ; 17:5-6 .] Then, to punish Ahaz, Assyria itself, with Egypt, would arise as a far greater threat.

Think about this. If Ahaz was concerned with an imminent attack from Samaria and Syria, why offer a sign that would not occur for seven centuries? To Ahaz this would be no sign at all. Also, if the Immanuel child was God incarnate, how could Isaiah speak of a time when Immanuel would not know enough to choose good over evil? What about divine omniscience? Note also the striking parallel between verses 7:16 and 8:4 . Here is Isaiah prophesying almost identically about both children. The more closely you look, the more difficult to deny that these two are identical. You can hardly blame evangelicals for seeing a special significance in the name Immanu'el, Hebrew for "God with us," but such language and imagery was right at home in the world of old Jewish nomenclature, where every other proper name seemed a reminder of God's presence. Thus we have Isaiah, which means "God's help"; Michael , "Like unto God"; Israel," "Striving with God"; Elihu, "He is my God"; Adonijah , "Yahweh Lord"; and a host of others.

Then again, some apologists try to rescue their favored exegesis by equating both Immanuel and Jesus with the child mentioned a bit later in chapter 9, "Unto us a child is born...." It is tempting. This section, while obscure, is in fact one of the most powerful and poetic passages in the Old Testament. It may well be an early messianic prophecy (I like to think it is), but in fairness, note that most Jewish scholars (who should know better than evangelicals) insist it is an ode praising Hezekiah, Ahaz's righteous son (2 Chron. 29 ), who came to the throne in 720 B.C. and centralized the worship of Jehovah at Jerusalem. The various titles ascribed to him, such as "Prince of Peace" and "Everlasting Father," were apparently honorifics used by the ancient Jews for favorite kings. (You find the same sort of bread-buttering in Egyptian hymns to the pharaoh and in Babylonian royal eulogies.) Hebrew scholars also remind us, gently, that the key Hebrew verbs in Isaiah 9:6 are in the past tense.

A moot point. For reasons stated earlier, we cannot use the child in Isaiah 9:6 as a bridge connecting Immanuel to Jesus. As Old Testament prophecies of the Christian Messiah go, this one, like so many others, has been overrated.

(Kenneth E. Nahigian's e-mail address is appalonius@netzero.net.)
 



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