Born Of A Virgin?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 1 (A Repost)

On the heels of a brief discussion that previous post brought up, namely, controversies surrounding the birth of Jesus, I thought I'd start a brief series during Advent that explored, in context, that very subject. Since I was asked to decipher some of the language pertaining to the nativity story, particularly that of the "virginal" conception / birth, I am going to start there. I should say here that I am very excited about this series and that I have already made a lot of headway on it. I hope some of the posts provoke good discussion (and, perhaps, debate).

So, here, I want to start by addressing the use of Isa. 7.14 in Mt. 1.23. No doubt, scores of scholars have spent much time on this very issue throughout history. The majority of the conversation has focused on whether or not the Hebrew term 'almah, found in Isaiah, rendered "parthenos" in the Greek LXX (Septuagint, that is, the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) and subsequently in Mt., mean "virgin" or not? Not to burst anyone's evangelical bubble, but the truth is, the term 'almah, has a wide range of meanings. For example, the term is used in the OT many times in reference to music! It can also mean "to conceal". Just as well, it can be used in a masculine sense, as it was of King David and Jonathon, and thus, have no sexual connotations attached to it whatsoever. In Isa. 54, it used to speak of widows who are barren. Thus, even the Isaianic author(s) can use it differently.

What, then, are we to make of its use in Isa. 7? Well, as I have already said, it does not have to be translated as "virgin"; even extra-biblical resources prove this to be the case. However, it can be translated that way, as many OT examples prove (if you want all of these Scripture references just ask for them and I will provide them, otherwise, I'm not going to cite a verse here every time I mention something; that gets tedious.) I should also say that there are other terms denoting virgin too! Thus, Isa. could have readily used different, and less ambiguous words.

As most (sadly, not all) Isaianic scholars have noted, the socio-political context of Isa. 7 is important to consider when reading and interpreting it. In short, the social circumstances are that Syria is about to wage war on God's people, of whom Ahaz is king. The prophet Isaiah is sent to Ahaz to tell him that if he trusts in God, there will be no reason to worry, however, he should not trust in Assyria as an ally (thereby, eschewing God). He even tells Ahaz to ask for a sign (though Ahaz is reluctant). Isaiah suggests that a woman, known both to himself and Ahaz, will bear a "sign" (Hebrew "ot"). Isaiah says, in the verse in question (7.14): "The Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, an 'almah will conceive and bear a son and she shall call his name Immanuel."

So, should the term 'almah be translated there as "virgin" or "young woman"? Well, let me posit that, at this point, that's not the right question to ask or to focus on. What is important, however, is the "sign". What is the sign? Is it something natural or super-natural? Does it have to be one or the other? Well, the text doesn't suggest that it has to be one or the other, so, it could be either. In my view, the sign, according to the verse (and context) is the "naming" of the child. Of course, in OT times, names were often very important. Indeed, in Isa. 7-9, we notice that 3 children are named and that each of those children have names that reflect the socio-political climate of the time.

Now, if you read Mt. 1-4 (NOT JUST MT. 1.23!!!), you will notice that Isa. 7-9 is cited twice. The point is: Mt. is not simply citing Isa. 7.14 as a lone verse, no, what he is doing is importing the entire conext of Isa. 7-9 into Mt. 1-4. In other words, Mt. is not suggesting that something akin to a "messianic prophecy" is being fulfilled. Instead, what Mt. is doing is comparing his current socio-political situation with that of Isaiah and Ahaz's. To put it more succinctly: Just as the 3 children and their names are of paramount importance in Isa. 7-9, reflecting their current socio-political climaxes and what will become of them, the same is true of Jesus, who will be "called" Immanuel.

In Isa., the name Immanuel was representative of a child that would be born at a time concurrent with the overthrow of Ahaz's enemies. In short, the current political regime was to fall. In Mt., the same thing is being suggested. But here's another link: Just as in Isa., where if God is rejected, there will be judgment, the same is true in Mt. It's up to Matthew's hearer's to figure out which side they are on (e.g. the judgment side or the deliverance side). Thus, the opposite of "God with us" must be "God not with us" or "God against us". Taking all of this into consideration, it seems clear to me that the most important reason for Matthew to draw on Isaiah was to make a connection between how the "names" were representative of the current socio-political contexts. And for both Isaiah and Matthew, it appears that they believed God was very involved in those contexts!!!

In my view, this type of contextual reading does a few things: 1) It properly orients us as to Matthew's reasons for using Isaiah, 2) It shows the similarities between the socio-political contexts, which readily allowed Mt. to draw on Isa. (because there were so many similarities), 3) It moves the discussion away from debates over 'almah and parthenos (among other terms), 4) It reminds us that there is an immediate context in both stories and that this is not "messianic prophesy", and 5) That God, in a major way, is involved in the situations of His people and is more than willing to be such. For me, the last supposition (#5) is of paramount importance, especially if we are going to use this narrative during Advent.

We cannot miss the larger and more important point (that God is for His people) at the cost of talking only about a "virgin" or "young woman". But then again, that very issue is probably why you've read this far. So, to take up that question in light of all of the contextual information above, Was Mary a virgin and Was Jesus conceived of virginally? To that, all I can say is that according to Matthew, that sure is a possibility. But for him, the bigger picture is that in some way, similar to that of the past, God is going to deliver His people from an oppressive empire if they trust in Him, an oppressive spiritual evil (satan) if they hope in Him and final judgment if they call on Him. If they don't, they face impending judgment. So, what Matthew is doing in the infancy narrative is laying out a choice for his hearers: Which side are you choosing to be on, "God with us" or "God against us"? It seems like a no-brainer! Which side do you find yourself on this Christmas season?

Now, I should note before I totally end this post that I purposefully did not answer the question of the title fully here because I hope to make my view on the issue more clear with subsequent posts. So, I hope you will continue reading and discussing this matter.

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