I have really debated whether or not to post this article, but if nothing else, I hope it can be informative to some of my readers. This article is meant to be foremost a response to James Bishop’s recent post, “Why Isaiah 7:14 is Not a Prophecy of Jesus’ Virgin Birth.” Bishop operates a blog called, “James Bishop’s Theological Rationalism.” He is a Christian theist, and he has produced a number of blogs concerning theology, philosophy, and textual criticism. He is a student of theology like myself, and I appreciate his work in these areas. However, I believe he has made a misstep in producing this blog with the strong claim that Isaiah 7:14 cannot be read as a prophecy concerning the virgin birth of Christ, so I wish this response to be a friendly rebuttal to his argument. Before engaging his argument, we should examine the context of the passage.
Isaiah 7:1-2 says, “In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up to attack Jerusalem, but could not mount an attack against it. When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (NRSV).
Jerusalem has come under attack by her enemies, and Ahaz and the people were terrified. God commands Isaiah to assure Ahaz that Aram will not take Jerusalem. He also tells Ahaz to ask a sign of Himself to confirm what He says is true. Ahaz declines, but Isaiah rebukes him and says he will receive one anyway. Enter Isaiah’s prophecy, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria” (vv. 14-17).
Like nearly all prophetic material, Isaiah uses allegory and is rather cryptic instead of being forthright. What is he saying? In a short time, Jerusalem’s enemies will be no more. As anyone who attended Sunday school as a child knows, Immanuel means “God with us.” Isaiah is contending God has not left Jerusalem. Quite the contrary, by the time the young boy is of an age of moral comprehension, those attacking Jerusalem will no longer be a threat.
Bishop’s argument is rather straightforward (and quite common), so I recommend my readers acquaint themselves with his argument before moving forward. (1) He submits that because the term “almah” in Isaiah 7:14 translates properly to “young woman” and not “virgin,” the Septuagint (which is the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, but in Greek) mistranslated and therefore Matthew, pulling from the Septuagint, mistakenly applied this to Jesus. Further, the historical context of Isaiah does not point to a miraculous virgin birth or any kind of messianic prophecy, so Christians should not read either into Isaiah’s prophecy.
Part of where I believe Bishop goes wrong is his assumption that the Septuagint clearly misinterprets the term, “young woman.” The term in question is “almah.” If you open your nearest Bible, chances are the translation of “almah” will be “virgin.” The reason for this is probably because Matthew applied this same verse to the virgin birth of Christ. In fact, when the RSV Bible first translated “almah” as “young woman,” some Christians thought it was denying the virgin birth of Christ, so they burned the RSV. Today, most versions still read “virgin” while some have opted for “young woman.”
The issue between these two translations is often painted as one of either/or, but I believe it is one of both/and. Technically, both translations are correct. They simply emphasize different nuances which is hard to catch in English.
According to Bishop, if Isaiah wanted to communicate a virgin was to give birth, he would have used the term “betulah” which would be more explicit in maintaining the young woman’s virginity, but, like Bishop, I do not believe Isaiah was intentionally prophesying a virgin birth. The term “almah” is properly used of a young, unmarried woman who (coincidentally) is a virgin. This does not mean that the woman will conceive while being a virgin. What was probably on Isaiah’s mind was a young, unmarried woman who will in the coming years marry and become pregnant. For the current time, however, she was a virgin. Now, some do question whether “almah” necessarily carries within it the term virgin, but, at the very least, I believe Isaiah’s use of “almah” does.
The reason for this is Isaiah’s use of “harah.” This term means “with child” or “pregnant.” The term is most often used in the present tense (Gn 16:11, 38:24, Ex 21:22, 2 Sm 11:5, Is 26:17) with one exception where it seems to be used in the past tense (1 Sm 4:19), but most translations render Isaiah 7:14 in the future tense except for ones like the NRSV quoted above. If “harah” does denote a present tense, there is no possible way apart from a miracle that the woman could be pregnant and a virgin which means that this young woman was already pregnant and therefore married. This understanding was probably not on Isaiah’s mind. If Isaiah wanted to denote that the woman was already pregnant (which implied marriage), then he would have probably used the term “ishshah” which translates as “woman” or “wife.” The term carries a hint of maturity which is present usually in marital status or age.
Further, as the Cambridge Commentary for Schools and Colleges points out, “In the passage before us the verbs in the original are both participles, and might refer either to the present or the future. But it is doubtful if we can fairly apply one to the present and the other to the future, translating ‘is with child and shall bear.’ Since the birth is certainly future, it seems natural to take the first verb in a future sense also” (2). It seems out of place grammatically to say the woman is with child but shall bear it in the future, so taken together with both terms being future oriented, it seems the young woman has not yet conceived and is a virgin (3).
If this is the case, then when the Septuagint translated “almah” as “parthenos” (which does explicitly mean virgin), the translator was not wrong to do so. I highly doubt a miraculous virgin birth was on the mind of the Septuagint translator. In all likelihood his understanding would have been similar to Isaiah’s. As Albert Barnes argues, “Who this virgin was, and what is the precise meaning of this prediction, has given perhaps, more perplexity to commentators than almost any other portion of the Bible. The ‘obvious’ meaning seems to be this. Some young female, who was then a virgin, and who was unmarried at the time when the prophet spoke, would conceive, and bear a son” (4). So it does not seem the Septuagint mistranslated the term especially since rendering the term “almah” as “young woman” in the Greek might not have carried the same meaning present in the Hebrew. Therefore, the Septuagint translator was not saying a virgin is miraculously pregnant; rather, a present virgin will conceive (and obviously no longer be a virgin) and give birth to a son.
This conclusion might absolve the Septuagint writer from fault, but this does not mean Matthew is off the hook just yet (5). Did Matthew misapply this verse to suit a Christian purpose? This leads to my second critique of Bishop’s post: he misunderstands the nature of prophecy.
Since his argument is that Isaiah 7:14 is not a prophecy, I must delve into the nature of biblical prophecy as the early Christians seem to have understood it. I should be clear that dealing with prophecy goes beyond the field of exegesis, and I believe this is where much of the tension over this issue comes to a head. Scholars of exegesis are unable to adequately examine the meaning of a text due to the limitations of the field itself. Prophecy understood as I will argue is not subject to studying the language and meaning of a verse inherent to the text itself. At this point, the issue switches from exegesis to theology. For this reason, I do not expect my argument to convince a non-Christian unsympathetic to claims of prophecy, but I do not think Bishop is in that camp.
Bishop quotes Bart Ehrman in maintaining that Isaiah 7:14 is not referring to a messiah. He states that a person has to insert a messiah into the text to read it as such because inherent to the passage he is simply not there. He says that no one prior to Christianity understood this passage as relating to the coming messiah.
It should be stressed that this is absolutely true, but this would not have been a problem for Matthew or the other early Christians who believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament who gave new life and understanding to it. Reviving the Old Testament in light of the gospel is one of Matthew’s goals with his account, and this is present both in Jesus’ teachings and the prophecies Matthew quotes.
In Matthew 5, Jesus gives His most famous sermon: the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:17-18, 20 says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished… For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The following teachings of Jesus are echoes of this statement. The rest of chapter 5 records Jesus taking Jewish commands from the Torah and explaining and even expanding them. For example, verses 27 and 28 state, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He does the same with the Torah’s teachings on murder, divorce, oaths, and enemies.
For the early Christians, the arrival of the promised Messiah provided new avenues and new applications for the same Scriptures with which they had been raised. To say a certain Scripture could only be applied relative to the specific situation in which it was written would not have made sense in light of Christ’s claims about Himself and the aim of Scripture. This does not mean the original context of a specific text is meaningless; quite the contrary, the arrival of the Messiah gave new meaning to the Old Testament while maintaining the importance of the context in which the text was originally given. This means that prophecy could be understood as having a double meaning: one imminent and one not.
For example, Deuteronomy 21:22-23 states, “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.” Walter Brueggemann notes that the key term of this passage is “defile.”
He argues, “It may be the case that the ‘powers of death’ that swirl around the body are thought to be a special threat at night, and therefore burial is required. Or it may be that ‘sundown’ sets a limit on the time of exposure, because a decomposed body is intrinsically a threat. In any case, a dead body, certainly a dead body of one executed for a crime, is an affront to God and a threat to the community. There are, no doubt, all sorts of possible meanings to ‘death, night, and curse’ in this text. For our purposes it is enough to see the ‘YHWH’s holy people’ must keep the land ‘clean,’ so that it may function as God’s good creation (see 14:10-21)” (6).
Given the holiness of the people of Israel, it makes sense that a dead body left too long on a tree would taint their holiness which is a consistent motif throughout the Torah. But, Paul later takes these same verses and does something unique with them. He writes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'” (Gl 3:13). A mere glance at the original context of this verse and one sees that this was clearly no messianic prophecy, and Paul, as well read in the Torah as anyone, would have been aware of this fact. To say he would have utterly missed the original context of the verse he is quoting is simply an abstraction too far. For Paul, it is not a problem to reread the Old Testament in light of the risen Messiah. This does not negate the original context, but provides another layer to it since he certainly believed (as Matthew and the early Christians did as well as myself and Bishop do) that God was and is at work in Scripture.
In the same way, Matthew quotes a number of verses from the Hebrew Bible in order to make his case that Jesus of Narazeth was the fulfillment of it. To do so, he does not limit himself simply to verses which are explicitly messianic in nature (i.e Mt 2:15, 4:15-16, 8:17, 12:18-21, 13:35, 27:9-10). It seems Matthew was doing the same with Isaiah 7:14. As argued above, while a miraculous conception was certainly not present in the original context, both the Hebrew and Greek formations of the text allow for a reinterpretation of it which does not require a rewording. As with Paul, I doubt Matthew missed the original context of the verse, but his experiences with the risen Christ allowed him to understand the Old Testament like he had not before. Just as there was a virgin who would conceive and no longer be a virgin, there was a virgin who conceived and yet maintained her virginity.
This does not make these new applications of old texts necessarily arbitrary. There is an aim or a purpose to it, and that aim is the risen Lord. Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament allows for new interpretations not relative to whatever purpose suits the writer but what ultimately points to Him.
I have nothing but respect for Bishop and what he is doing, but in that same respect I would advise him to not jump the gun and assume the author of the Gospel of Matthew simply made a mistake. I find that among those who reject inerrancy of any kind (like Bishop does) simply stating there was a mistake comes before a thorough examination to see if there actually was one. I am not saying this was the case with Bishop, but I do think his strong claim of Isaiah 7:14 not being an example of prophecy goes too far.
I would probably call myself a soft contextual inerrantist (this is less a doctrinal belief and more of a textual safeguard). Nonetheless, I do not believe errors in Scripture debunk the whole of the faith (after all, Christ can still be resurrected even if Matthew got some other detail wrong), but to call something an error should not be a first resort. I find that engaging the text to see if there is an error opens up a whole new horizon of biblical knowledge. I pray all the best for Bishop and that his ministry would continue to grow as he reaches more people. Grace and peace.
“You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they testify about Me” (John 5:39, HCSB).
(3): Of course, I understand marriage and virginity are not necessarily tied to one another, but within the Jewish context of this passage, it seems ad hoc to say the young woman of Isaiah’s prophecy was unmarried yet not a virgin. There is no textual reason to think this is the case. Nor is there a reason to think this young woman has had children prior to the one mentioned in v. 14.
(5): Whether or not it was the disciple Matthew who wrote the gospel attributed to him is irrelevant for my purposes here, so I will simply refer to the author as Matthew.
(6): Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), 219.