The Virgin Birth

In Matthew 1: 20, the Gospel author cites a prophecy from Isaiah 7:14 concerning a “virgin” (Gk. parthenos) who would give birth to a child. Matthew seems to be citing the Septuagint (LXX), a 3rd century B.C. translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, which also has parthenos. Why does this matter? The issue, which was raised in ancient discussions of the Biblical text, by both Jewish and Christian scholars, is that the Hebrew text does not have the equivalent of the Greek parthenos, but a term, almah, which is best translated as “young girl” or “young woman.” Other ancient scholars suggested that a better Hebrew term for virgin would have been betulah or na’arah.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />


All of these terms point to a young woman, or, from our perspective, a girl on the verge of or just passing puberty. This was the time when girls got married in the ancient world. So, what would be the significance of saying that a girl or young woman would give birth? And did the Hebrew text point to a virgin birth or simply state that a young woman would give birth to a child who would be known as Immanuel, “God with us”? The issue was significant enough that late in the 4th century, St. Jerome dealt with this textual issue concerning the virgin birth of Jesus Christ in two treatises, The Perpetual Virginity of Mary (Against Helvidius) 4 and Against Jovinianus. <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" /><?xml:namespace prefix = st2 ns = "urn:schemas:contacts" />Book I.32.


Jerome focused on showing that parthenos and almah were basically the same terms, arguing in fact that almah implied a kind of “hidden virgin.” His approach is not very convincing, at least not to me, but did the first Jewish readers of Isaiah’s prophecy imagine that a virgin would give birth? Perhaps, as the LXX translators do render the term as “virgin” in Greek, but it must be said that the heart of the prophecy seems to be on the child who is to be born and not his mother or the miraculous manner of his birth. Almah might be the equivalent of parthenos, but ancient Jewish scholars seem not to have fixed on this as an issue in interpretation.


Yet, there is another, more general issue at stake: how can a prophecy which emerged in a particular historical and literary context, which was then translated into Greek hundreds of years later,  apply to a situation in quite another particular historical context? A couple of posts ago, Felix Just mentioned in this blog that prophecy is not primarily prediction about the future. I agree. Most prophecy concerns the time in which it was written, which applies to Isaiah 7 also, but this should not lead us to ignore that the prophets do speak of the time to come, in ways which the human authors themselves might not fully understand. I would want to stress too, though, that even where Biblical prophecy is about the future it is incorrect to see it as “prediction,” if by this is meant a sort of chronological account of the day and time on which a prophecy will come to fulfillment.


The nature of the prophet is to speak the Word of God, to whatever time period (or periods) to which it applies. The prophets speak in the idiom of symbol, of God’s fulfillment, not generally describing in temporal terms how God will bring something to pass. And this, to me, is the key to understanding prophecy: God will bring it to pass in ways that confound human understanding. God, as the true author of Scripture, imbues it with meanings which baffle human desires, claims or pretensions. Perhaps Isaiah the Hebrew prophet would have balked that  almah should be translated as parthenos – had he been on earth to witness it – and the LXX translators who did choose  parthenos might not have had in mind the future birth of the Messiah by a virgin hundreds of years before that first Christmas.


But if we accept the divinely inspired origin of Scripture – its divine intent made manifest through the work of human hands and minds – then we must admit that God did know. We must acknowledge that as Matthew states, the child Jesus was born of a virgin in Bethlehem, fulfilling a divine plan revealed in the Scriptures hundreds of years before but brought to fruition in a way that might have surprised even those who wrote and translated the words. For the prophecy to be understood, one thing was necessary: the birth of the savior by his virgin mother. Matthew revealed the full meaning of the prophecy to all: the almah was a parthenos, and through her God became incarnate for our salvation.


John W. Martens

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