December 18, 2008

Immanuel - Son of a 'virgin' or son of a 'young woman'?

Christmas time is here...happiness and for all, that children call...their favorite time of y...

Sorry. I just watched "Merry Christmas Charlie Brown" a couple of nights ago! Best Xmas cartoon ever! [Note: It's okay to write "Xmas" because 'X' is the Greek letter "chi" which is the first letter in "Christ"...which is how early Xians abbreviated it sometimes.]

Anyway, while Linus' epic homiletical slam dunk pulled exclusively from Luke's Gospel, there is another account of the announcement of Jesus' birth found in Matthew's Gospel that is equally famous:

"Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, "Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel," which translated means, "God with us." (Matthew 1:22-23, New American Standard Bible)

So Matthew is saying that the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah predicted that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, right? That's what most people who read or hear this passage at Xmas assume.

But it's not true.

"Sure it is! Look at Isa.7:14: Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.' (NASB, KJV, NIV, ESV). It's right there in black and white!"

Not so fast though.

Look at this passage in the Revised Standard Version (along with the New Revised Standard Version): "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."

Is this just a case of the RSV and NRSV, which are often labeled by Fundamentalists as "liberal", "heretical" and even "wicked", mistranslating the text in order to take away from the Gospel message?


Hebrew-literate skeptics have pointed out that the Hebrew word for "virgin" is:


However, in the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah, we don't find the b'thulah. Rather, we find:


Now an 'almah could be a virgin (because most young women who weren't married were virgins), but the word itself speaks of the age of the woman, not her virginal status. So the translation "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14 many Jewish friends have pointed out for centuries! "Young woman" is, in fact, the more acccurate translation.

So why, when he was writing his Gospel, did Matthew (*yes I believe Matthew wrote it and the arguments for late-dating, Q, and other such conjectures don't stand up to close scrutiny*) use the Greek word for "virgin"

[parthenos] when he came to this passage in Isaiah? Was he deliberately trying to make the Hebrew Bible foretell Jesus' virgin conception in order to fool the biblically-illiterate??


Over a century before Jesus was born or Matthew picked up his quill, the Hebrew Bible was translated into the Greek language--which had become the common language throughout the mediterranean in the wake of Alexander the Great's conquests--in order for Greek-speaking Jews who no longer spoke or read Hebrew to be able to read and understand the Scriptures. This translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek came to be known as the "Septuagint" or "LXX" (literally: "the seventy"because it was said to have been translated by a group of 70 Hebrew scribal experts...though this may be more urban-legend than fact.) And what word did the LXX translators use to translate 'almah in Isaiah 7:14 years and years and years before Jesus was born?

You guessed it! Parthenos

And it was the LXX translation which Matthew used in writing his Gospel. So Matthew was not twisting, mistranslating or misinterpreting Isaiah in order to write about Jesus' virgin conception. But from the first century on, most Christians have translated the Isaiah passage using the LXX's reading of Isaiah 7:14, whereas Jewish translations (and some Christian translations) have kept the Hebrew original's "young woman".

What makes things REALLY interesting is that when you read Isaiah 7:14 in its original context, it is NOT predicting the birth of the Messiah, NOR is it predicting something that would happen long after Isaiah's time (Isaiah lived more than 700 years before Jesus' birth!). Rather, it's predicting that a young woman would give birth to a child in Isaiah's day as a sign to King Ahaz of God's deliverance from the threat of Assyrian invasion.

So what is Matthew doing saying that Jesus' virgin conception somehow fulfills this prophecy??

Why do Christians read it every Xmas?

Why do some English Bibles still insist on translating "young woman" in Isaiah 7:14 as "virgin"??

Stay tuned to the Dojo to find out sometime next week...



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