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Virgin' On The Miraculous

What is the background to the virgin birth of Jesus?

The virgin birth of Jesus. On the one hand we have the orthodox Jews, secularists and liberal Christians telling us to "get a life" and stop believing in this impossible craziness. On the other, some traditional Catholics have stretched out the doctrine to the curious extreme of asserting that Mary stayed a virgin for the rest of her life, even after she gave birth to Jesus!

It's clearly a key doctrine. So where does the truth lie? Well, it lies in the content, context and interpretation of a single verse in Isaiah.

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" (Isaiah 7:14)

There are three objections given by Jewish scholars to this verse being fulfilled by the virgin birth of Jesus. Firstly the context indicates that this verse was referring to events at the time of Isaiah, secondly that the original Hebrew does not refer to a virgin, but that the Christians have mistranslated it and finally that it refers to a chap called Immanuel, not Jesus. I shall deal with the first two here and the third next week.

The context of the verse is Isaiah meeting up with the King of Judah, who was troubled by the threat from the Northern kingdoms. Isaiah reassured him that the Lord would not let this happen and, to prove it, would supply a sign. A child would be born and before he came of age the threats would be no more, in fact the Northern kingdoms would be laid waste themselves.

You can hear the objections. So this child was surely born normally. And how could Christians dare to take this verse out of context and read into it an event far off in the future?

To answer this, first read Chapter 7 of Isaiah for yourself, paying particular attention to the Hebrew grammar. Of course, we are reading an English translation from the original Hebrew, so you are going to have to take my word for it. The fact is that this passage contains two separate prophecies, for two different groups of people. The reason we know this is through investigating the Hebrew grammar, in particular the use of singular and plural words. Without going into complex detail on this, when Isaiah is talking to the King, the words are in the singular, but, in verses 13 and 14, he is speaking, in plural, to the House of David. So we can envisage the scene. Isaiah is attempting to prophesy to the King, who is being obstructive, so he moves the focus away from the King, uttering an awesome prophesy to the House of David, Jewish people in general, speaking of a future man, born of a virgin. Having made this proclamation, he returns to the present, finishing his word to the King. So, two prophecies were given, an immediate one to the King and his current concerns and a future one to the House of David.

Having covered the context, we move to the most critical point of contention - does the Hebrew word almah, used in the passage, translate as "virgin" or "maiden"? The only other occurrences of this word in Scripture, in Genesis 24:43, Exodus 2:8, Proverbs 30:18,19, Psalm 68:25, Song of Songs 1:3 and Song of Songs 6:8, all make more sense translated as "virgin". So it is perfectly reasonable for us to do so here, too. Let's return to our verse.

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. (Isaiah 7:14)

The word used for sign here, "ot", always refers to a genuine supernatural miracle. It appears in Exodus, with Moses’ rod becoming a serpent and his hand leprous. It is also the word used when the sun's shadow changed direction as a sign to King Hezekiah. So the scene is set. The Lord's sign is going to be a supernatural event, a true miracle. A virgin birth certainly fits the bill, any other translation of almah does not speak of anything other than a commonplace occurrence - after all there's nothing special about an ordinary lady producing a son and then naming him. Further evidence is provided in the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek by Jewish scholars in the Third Century BC, the Septuagint. They translated almah as parthenos, a Greek word that only has the meaning of "virgin", with no axe to grind, as Jesus wasn't to appear for hundreds of years.

This brings us to a clincher, an argument provided by the Jewish critics themselves. If, as they say, the Gospel writers fabricated their accounts by declaring the virgin birth of Jesus as a mark of his Messiahship, then there must have been an expectation in the First Century that the Messiah would be born of a virgin and not just any young maiden.

It's worth a thought.

Steve Maltz
March 2012

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book 'Jesus Man of Many Names')

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