Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Virgin Birth

I wrote the following article last year:

In his “Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism” John Spong, writes the following:

“When I became aware that neither the word “virgin” nor the concept of virginity appears in the Hebrew text of Isaiah that Matthew quoted to undergird his account of Jesus’ virgin birth, I became newly aware of the fragile nature of biblical fundamentalism. The understanding of “virgin” is present only in the Greek word “parthenos,” used to translate the Hebrew word “almah” in a Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew word for virgin is “betulah.” “Almah” never means “virgin” in Hebrew. I had to face early on in my priestly career the startling possibility that the virgin tradition so deep in Christianity may well rest on something as fragile as the week reed of a mistranslation.” (pg 16)

There are two primary manuscript sources for the Old Testament. The first is the Masoretic Text (MT) which is the Old Testament in Hebrew. The second is the “Septuagint” (LXX) which is the Old Testament in Greek.

When translating the Old Testament into English or another language you might naturally think that the MT ought to serve as the foundation for translation rather than the LXX. The problem is that generally speaking the extant Greek manuscripts are more ancient than the extant Hebrew manuscripts.

Thus, again generally speaking, translators will use both the MT and the LXX in their translations, comparing and contrasting the two texts to come up with the most accurate representation of the original possible.

But the text of Isaiah is something of a unique story. The Great Isaiah scroll found in the caves at Qumran in 1948 dates to the first century. When compared to the second earliest Hebrew manuscript of Isaiah (about 1000 years later), there are amazingly few textual discrepancies.

This lends a great deal of weight and credibility to the current MT because it testifies to the extreme care taken by Hebrew scribes in the process of transmission.

At the same time the LXX version of Isaiah still predates the Great Scroll by some 200 years at least.

That means that the use of the word “Almah” found in MT text of Isaiah 7:14 does not necessarily trump the use of the Greek word “parthenos” in the LXX.


Because the Greek manuscript was based on an even older (now lost) Hebrew manuscript that may well have used the Hebrew word “betula” or “virgin.”

However, even if the Hebrew word “almah” is taken as primary the word is not mutually exclusive of and rather quite congenial to the concept of virginity because in Genesis 24:43 the word is used to refer to a young woman “about to be married,” a maiden.

Young Hebrew women about to be married were, as a matter of law, economics, and cultural necessity, virgins.

And if you actually look at the word, whether “virgin” or “young woman” in the context of Isaiah 14, you will see that it really makes little difference.

Isaiah probably did not intend to foretell the Virgin birth of the messiah in Isaiah 7:14. In context, Isaiah was apparently using his own betrothed, as a sign and a portent for King Ahaz of Judah who was afraid of being attacked by an alliance of surrounding kingdoms. King Ahaz was told to ask God for a sign but he refused, not wanting to put God to the test. But nevertheless God gave him a sign through Isaiah. Isaiah essentially said to the king, “Before the young woman to whom I am pledged to be married (necessarily a virgin at the time the sign is given) has a child, the enemies you fear will be laid waste...”

Whether the MT or LXX is preferred, the concept of virginity is almost certainly assumed.

And yet, it is tangential. Isaiah, again, was not suggesting that a future savior would be born of a Virgin.

Rather, Matthew, inspired by the Holy Spirit, applied this text, as a sort of typological foreshadowing, to Mary.

The question then becomes why would he do this?

The revisionist answer puts the cart before the horse. They assume that Matthew superimposed Isaiah 7:14 over the true story of Jesus’ natural (if violent) conception because of the use of parthenos in the LXX (the version of the Scriptures with which he was most familiar).

But this makes no logical sense. It was not expected or necessary (at least by Jews of the first century) for the Jewish messiah to be born of a Virgin. In fact, it would complicate matters somewhat as the coming King was supposed to be a direct descendant of David. There was, therefore, no motive to take Isaiah 7:14 out of context and impose it on the birth narrative.

Other revisionists suggest that Isaiah 7:14 was employed in Matthew’s gospel to point to Jesus’ “divinity.” A virgin birth, they suggest, would put Jesus’ on par with members of the Greek pantheon of gods.

But that Matthew, whose gospel was obviously written from within a Jewish context for the benefit of Jewish readers, would feel the need to import a pagan concept like the pairing of a god and a human female into his text and defend it by taking Isaiah 7:14 out of context, is inexplicable unless facts on the ground forced him to rethink the text.

This is, in fact, NT Wright’s argument in his article God’s Way of Acting. It is far more likely that the fact of the virgin birth drove Matthew, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to reassess Isaiah 7:14 than that the text of Isaiah 7:14 compelled him to falsify his birth narrative.

“No one used Isaiah 7:14 this way before Matthew did. Even assuming that Matthew or Luke regularly invented material to fit Jesus into earlier templates, why would they have invented something like this? The only conceivable parallels are pagan ones, and these fiercely Jewish stories have certainly not been modeled on them. Luke at least must have known that telling this story ran the risk of making Jesus out to be a pagan demigod. Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk-unless they at least believed the stories to he literally true?"

It is important at this point to note that the claim found in Matthew and the claim found in Luke are generally thought to represent two distinct traditions rather than one.

In general scholars tend to think that Mark was the first gospel and that both Luke and Matthew used Mark as the foundation of their own narratives. However, they did so separately. Matthew and Luke share the Markan material but little else. The rest of their gospels represent relatively independent narrative strands.

That means that together the virgin birth narrative in Luke and that in Matthew provide “multiple attestation.” They represent two distinct and/or independent witnesses to a single event.

In strictly historical terms, all things being equal, this ought to lend both birth narratives a great deal of weight and credibility. That two distinct contemporary witnesses from two distinct narrative traditions publicly testify with one voice to a single event within 70 to 80 years of its occurrence and that one witness (Matthew) likely published within the very region and among the very people who would have been able to falsify the account, would, under normal circumstances, provide more than enough substantiation.

But, of course, we are not operating under normal circumstances. The attack against the doctrine of the Virgin Birth has much more to do with a general attack on classical theism than it does the historical veracity of the biblical text.

Let’s face it, if God exists and his character is consistent with theistic claims, then the Virgin Birth, Miracles, and Bodily Resurrection, attested as they are in the text of the New Testament, are not only possible, but, given the NT witnesses, are highly likely. And if these are true, then the arguments against the verbal inspiration of the text itself begin to crumble. That would mean that the actual words of scripture represent the actual Word of God. And, in turn, that means that mainline liberal Protestantism in general is all wet.

So, you see the stakes.

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