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Isaiah 7:14: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive!" -- The Foundational Prophecy of Christianity

Lerk

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Merry Christmas!

 

At this time of year many people will read, or will have read in their presence, the following verses:

 

  • Matthew 1:23 Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).
  • Isaiah 7:14: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

 

Matthew 1:23 is of course a quote from Isaiah 7:14. Have you ever read all of Isaiah 7 and 8? The context is fascinating! Ahaz, king of Judah, has heard that Syria and Israel are planning to join forces and attack Judah. Ahaz isn't a good king, but Jehovah isn't ready for Judah to be destroyed, so the prophet Isaiah goes to him with a message.

 

Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask for a sign, but Ahaz doesn't think it's a good idea to ask God for signs. Isaiah says "He's going to give you one, anyway!" Then comes the famous prophecy. Isaiah goes on to say (verse 16) " before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted." So a child will be born and before he's old enough to know right from wrong, Syria and Israel will not even exist as kingdoms any more!

 

But the story continues in chapter 8. There, in verses 3 and 4, we see "And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, 'Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the boy knows how to cry ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.'"

 

Are you familiar with this? There, right in the next chapter, the prophecy is fulfilled! But wait! Was Isaiah's wife a virgin? Are there two virgin births in the Bible? Here's where it gets tricky.

 

I've discussed before how most of our Old Testament translations use the Masoretic Hebrew text as their source. The English Standard Version deviates from this in the case of Deuteronomy 32 because the Qumron text (aka "the Dead Sea Scrolls"), which are older, show the Septuagint (Greek language text used in the first century, which Jesus would have read from) to be correct. Well, Isaiah 7:14 is a place where every English version uses the Septuagint. The reason? That's what Matthew quoted. The actual Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14 is almah,  which means "young woman" (and possibly one that has never had a child). So Isaiah's wife wasn't a virgin, she was simply a young woman!

 

But wait again! Why, then, does Matthew say "virgin"? If you read the Wikipedia link in the last paragraph, you'll see that the Septuagint used the word parthenos, which means "virgin." But that Greek word changed meaning over time, as words do. It was probably a perfectly good word translation when the Septuagint originated, but over time the meaning changed from "young woman who has never had a child" to "virgin."

 

So there was never a prophecy that a virgin would be with child, but by the first century the Jews read this with the new meaning of the word and thought it must be about the messiah, since no virgin had ever borne a child. Somehow they ignored the context -- all of Isaiah 7 and 8 -- which shows the prophecy to have already been fulfilled. It couldn't have been fulfilled in their view, because they knew that Isaiah "went in" to his wife.

 

"Ah!" you say, "but what about chapter 9?"

 

"6For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upond his shoulder,
and his name shall be callede
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
"

 

This indeed seems to be speaking of a messiah who will lead Judah to become a power and to create peace forever. But keep reading:

 

"8The Lord has sent a word against Jacob,
and it will fall on Israel;
9and all the people will know,
Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria,
who say in pride and in arrogance of heart:
10“The bricks have fallen,
but we will build with dressed stones;
the sycamores have been cut down,
but we will put cedars in their place.”
11But the Lord raises the adversaries of Rezin against him,
and stirs up his enemies.
12The Syrians on the east and the Philistines on the west
devour Israel with open mouth.
For all this his anger has not turned away,
and his hand is stretched out still."

 

It's still referring to the fall of Israel, only a few years from the time the sign is given. Judah was to have a messiah who would bring peace. Israel and Syria would fall, Judah would rise, and no-one would ever defeat them. Well, Israel and Syria did, indeed, disappear, but Judah never became independent, and the child born to the prophet never turned out to be a messiah. Judah became subject to Greece, then to Rome, and later (ironically, after the one Christians believe to be the messiah came) they ceased to exist, as well.

 

Matthew 1:23 is the most foundational verse of the Gospel, the reason Christians in the first century (and today!) believed that Jesus was the messiah. (Actually, that's backwards. The story that Jesus was born of a virgin likely came about because people already believed that he was the messiah: Because they expected the messiah to be born of a virgin, a story arose about Mary and the Holy Spirit.) Yet the idea is predicated upon a word whose meaning had changed over the centuries. There is no Old Testament prophecy that the messiah would be born of a virgin... the whole foundation of Christianity is based on a mistaken belief by first century Jews. It's no wonder that today's Jews don't accept Jesus as the messiah... he doesn't fit what they find in their scriptures.

 

Do you still believe this story is about Jesus? If so, why?



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