ABC Extra – “Jesus was born of a…”

December 5, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

When trying to understand a particularly puzzling or perplexing passage of Scripture, it is helpful to turn to other interpreters and study how they have interpreted the passage.  This is especially helpful in the case of Isaiah 7:14, a famous prophecy about the birth of Jesus: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call Him Immanuel.”  This passage became a source of heated debate and disagreement when the Revised Standard Version of 1952 famously translated, “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.”  Traditionally, this verse has been taken as a prophecy of the miraculous conception of Christ as one who was born of a virgin girl named Mary: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18).  It was the Holy Spirit, Matthew says, who planted the Christ child in Mary’s womb.  Mary, therefore, was still a virgin when she had Jesus.  But the RSV changed the traditional translation of Isaiah 7:14 from “virgin” to “young woman.”  Why the change?

The crux of the debate centers on the Hebrew word for “virgin,” or, as the RSV translates, “young woman.”  The word is almah.  And although almah does generally refer to a young woman who is a virgin, there are limited instances where it may refer to a young woman not in a virginal state, the most famous being Proverbs 30:18-19: “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden.”  The Hebrew word for “maiden” is almah.  In this instance, the word seems to be referring to a woman already married and, hence, no longer in a virginal state.  This is why the translators of the RSV opted for a more general translation of almah – “young woman” – rather than a more specific one – “virgin” – in Isaiah 7:14.  The difficulty with this translation, however, is that Christianity’s critics have quickly pounced on this translation to undermine the Christological implications of this prophecy.  Rather than foretelling the virgin birth of Christ, these critics maintain that this prophecy points only to events in the Isaiah’s own day.

This debate, then, leads us to this important question:  Which translation of almah is correct?  “Virgin” or “young woman”?  And make no mistake about it:  At stake here is far more than trifling lexical nuances.  At stake here is a prophecy which the gospel writer Matthew says is fulfilled finally and fully in Jesus Christ!  Indeed, Matthew cites this prophecy in his birth narrative:  “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:22-23).  Did Matthew misquote, misunderstand, or, worse yet, purposefully misuse this passage from Isaiah 7:14 when he applied it to the virgin birth of Jesus?

It is here that it is helpful to turn to other interpreters and see how they have understood this particularly puzzling and perplexing passage of Scripture.  One of the oldest interpretations of this passage comes to us via an ancient translation of the Bible called the Septuagint.  The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament, commissioned in the third and second centuries as more and more Jews, after Alexander the Great undertook his project of radically Hellenizing the whole world, were no longer able to speak and understand Hebrew fluently.  This Septuagint was a way for the Jews to maintain their religious Scriptural heritage in a language they could read and understand.  And in Isaiah 7:14, the Hebrew word almah is translated as the Greek word parthenos.  And although there may some limited linguistic ambiguity in the meaning of the word almah, there is no such ambiguity in the word parthenos.  It means “virgin.”  Thus, ancient Jewish translators, living before the birth of Christ, interpreted this prophecy Messianically, referring to a miraculously virgin born Messiah.  And Matthew, in his account of Jesus’ birth, picks up on the Seputagintal translation of this prophecy and too uses the word parthenos.  Interestingly, later Jewish Greek translations of this verse from the second century AD translate almah as neanis, meaning “young woman,” no doubt in an attempt the mute the Christian interpretation of this passage.  But before the birth of Christ, the Jews were expecting nothing less than a miraculously born Messiah – a virgin born Messiah.

Thus, this particularly puzzling and perplexing prophecy stands as it has traditionally been interpreted.  And this particularly puzzling and perplexing prophecy is puzzling and perplexing no more.  For it has been fulfilled in Jesus.

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