This entry is part 30 of 135 in the series: Tough texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 1:27 – a hint of male headship?
- Genesis 2:23 – Does naming imply authority?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 9:20-25 – the ‘Curse of Ham’
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 15:16 – ‘The sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit’
- Genesis 19 – What was the sin of Sodom?
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 18:22; 20:13 – Homosexual acts prohibited?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Deuteronomy 23:6 – ‘Never be kind to a Moabite’?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- Ruth 3:6-9 – Did Ruth seduce Boaz?
- 1 Samuel 16:14 – ‘An evil spirit from the Lord’
- 1 Samuel 28:7-14 – Did Samuel visit from the grave?
- 2 Samuel 1:26 – ‘More special than the love of women’
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Isaiah 14:12 – Is Satan a fallen angel?
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Mt 3:17/Mk 1:11/Lk 3:22 – What did the voice say?
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:22/Luke 9:60 – ‘Let the dead bury their dead’?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Mt 10:28/Lk 12:4f – Whom should we fear?
- Matthew 10:28 – ‘destroy’: annihilation or everlasting punishment?
- Matthew 10:34 – ‘Not peace, but a sword’?
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Mt 12:30/Mk 9:40/Lk 11:23 – For, or against?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Mt 16:28/Mk 9:1/Lk 9:27 – “Some standing here will see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Mt 24:34/Mk 13:30 – ‘This generation will not pass away’
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10 – The unpardonable sin
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2 – Was Joseph from Nazareth, or Bethlehem?
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 2:39 – No room for a flight into Egypt?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 4:18 – “Good news to the poor”
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- Luke 14:26 – Hate your family?
- Luke 22:36 – ‘Sell your cloak and buy a sword’
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- Mt 1:24f/13:55/Jn 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- Mt 21/Mk 11/Lk 19/Jn 2 – When (and how many times) did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 10:8 – “All who came before me were thieves and robbers”
- John 10:34 – “You are gods”
- John 14:2 – “Many dwelling places”
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Jn 20:22/Acts 2 – How many Pentecosts?
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 1:6 – a misguided question?
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Romans 1:26-27 – ‘Natural’ and ‘unnatural’ sexual relations
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 10:4 – ‘Christ is the end of the law’
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- Romans 16:7 – ‘Junia…well known to the apostles’
- 1 Corinthians 7:14 – Sanctified spouses, holy children
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:28 – ‘The Son himself will be subjected to [God]’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Philippians 2:10 – ‘The name that is above every name’
- 1 Cor 11:3/Eph 5:23 – ‘Kephale’: ‘head’? ‘source’? ‘foremost’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Thessalonians 4:17 – a pre-tribulation ‘rapture’?
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:11f – ‘I do not allow woman to teach or exercise authority over a man’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 1:4 – ‘Partakers of the divine nature’
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- 1 Jn 5:16f – The sin that does, and the sin that does not, lead to death
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
Isaiah 7:14 ‘Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel.’
Matthew 1:22 This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: 1:23 “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”
The issue here is that Matthew (following the LXX) takes the Heb. ‘almah’ (young woman) to mean ‘parthenos’ (virgin). This is regarded as a simple, but far-reaching, mistranslation by sceptics such as Jonathan Pearce (The Nativity: A Critical Examination, ch. 1).
There are several things here that invite discussion.
What is the meaning of ‘Almah’ (‘young woman’?
Kidner (NBC) comments that ‘the nearest English equivalent is “girl.” The Hebrew word describes a potential bride in Gen 24:43, and the young Miriam in Ex 2:8; it presumes rather than states virginity and is a term outgrown at marriage. Before its NT fulfilment its miraculous implications would pass unnoticed.’
Watts concludes his word study by referring to ‘two different and contrasting semantic implications which provide an invitation to double entendre. The one implies the spotless candidate for marriage. The other implies a type of available sexual partner not condoned by Yahwistic norms or the Law. The common meaning signifies one who is sexually mature. It is difficult to find a word in English that is capable of the same range of meaning. “Virgin” is too narrow, while “young woman” is too broad.’
It might be wondered why the word almah is used, rather than bethulah, which, it is claimed, unambiguously means ‘virgin’. Yet, if the meaning of bethulah is so unamibuous, why does the narrator in Gen 24:16 feel the need to add, with reference to Rebekah, that ‘she had never known a man’? And does not bethulah in Joel 1:8 clearly refer to a married woman?
Childs: ‘The term ‘almāh (“maiden”) has in the past evoked much controversy, initially because of its translation in Greek by the LXX as parthénos (“virgin”), and its subsequent role in Matt. 1:23. The noun is derived, not from the root “to be concealed” as suggested already by Jerome, but from a homonym, meaning “to be full of vigor,” “to have reached the age of puberty.” Thus the noun refers to a female sexually ripe for marriage. The emphasis does not fall on virginity as such and, in this respect, differs from the Hebrew betûlāh. However, apart from the controversial reference in Prov. 30:19, the women in all the other references to an ‘almāh do actually appear to be virgins (e.g., Gen. 24:43; Ex. 2:8; Ps. 68:26). It is very unlikely that a married woman would still be referred to as an ‘almāh. In sum, the English translation of the Hebrew by the AV as “virgin” is misleading in too narrowly focusing on virginity rather than on sexual maturity. Conversely, the preferred modern translation of “young woman” (NRSV) is too broad a rendering since it wrongly includes young wives.’
It is sometimes objected that this word, often translated ‘virgin’, does not necessarily bear this meaning, and only denotes a young woman, or maiden. However, the context seems to emphasise the unmarried state (and by implication, virginity). After all, what would be miraculous (i.e. a ‘sign’) about a young woman having a baby? There is no known instance where the word is used definitely to refer to a woman who is not a virgin. The Septuagint certainly understood the word to mean ‘virgin’, rendering it ‘parthenos‘ (and Matthew, in quoting this, gives us clear authority for this translation, Mt 1:23). On the other hand, it is significant that the Jews themselves do not seem to have applied this prophecy at any time to the Messiah – a circumstance which tends to disprove the theory that it was this text that suggested the story of a virgin birth to the early church.
According to Harper’s Bible Commentary, ‘Martin Luther allegedly offered a hundred gulden to anyone who could show a reference in the OT to a married woman designated by this term.’ (The one possible exception is Prov 30:19).
Who is the ‘young woman’ referred to in Isaiah 7:14?
‘Based on Matthew’s quotation (Mt 1:23), Christian tradition has identified the young woman in Isaiah 7 as the Virgin Mary. The identity of the young woman in Isaiah’s original context has been variously identified as Isaiah’s own wife (Isaiah’s sons received symbolic names [Is. 7:3; 8:3–4]) (Gottwald), the wife of King Ahaz (Scullion) or even a random young woman whom Isaiah can point to. O. Kaiser interprets it collectively: women will name their sons “Immanuel” in gratitude and praise for the nation’s deliverance.’ (Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, art. ‘Women and Female Imagery).
Webb (BST) concludes that the woman is Zion (cf. Isa 1:8), and that her son would be ‘the faithful remnant who will emerge from her sufferings’. His name, ‘Immanuel’, would reflect God’s continued presence with his people. This would be supported by Mt 1:23, where Jesus Christ, ‘Immanuel’, is (in Jackman’s words), ‘the personification and fulfilment of the remnant promises.’
Notice that the description carries the definite article. So, some particular person is being referred to. Perhaps Isaiah is referring to some maiden in the crowd.
It is reasonable to assume that the young woman was at the time betrothed to Isaiah, and a virgin at the time. Isa 8:1-4 seems to refer to their marriage and the conception of their son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. It may be significant that she is called a ‘prophetess’ in Isa 8:3.
Who is the child?
We cannot be sure of the identity of the child of Ahaz’s time. We are given no information about the father, and the mother is spoken of in only the most general terms. Some (e.g. Watts) think that the reference is to the birth of Hezekiah. However, he was 25 years old at his accession in 516 (2 Kings 18:2) and was therefore born in 741, at least six years before these events. In any case, there would be no reason to refer to his mother – already married – in this way. Another alternative is that the child is Maher-shalal-hash-baz. However, the description of this same child in Isa 9:6,7 shows that the ultimate fulfilment is in the Messiah.
Is this a messianic prophecy?
Some interpreters, including Hill and Brown, think that there is no Messianic element here, and that the reference is to a child (possibly Hezekiah or Maher-Shalal-Hashbaz) born to a young woman in Ahaz’ day. An implication of this interpretation would be that Mt 1:23 is mistaken in positing a prophecy/fulfilment link between this this verse and the birth of Jesus.
According to Goldingay (Isaiah For Everyone), Isaiah’s words may mean ‘a virgin will get pregnant’, but even this (he says) does not imply a miraculous birth, because it may simply mean that a girl who is at present a virgin will marry and conceive in the usual way. This writer adds: The point is that by the time a few months have passed and the girl has had her baby, the crisis that preoccupies Ahaz will be over. It will have been proved that “God is with us,” and she will be able to call her baby God-is-with-us, Immanuel.’
Goldingay continues: ‘Hundreds of years later, Jesus came and was born of a girl who was a virgin when she conceived and whose baby turned out to be “God with us” in a more personal sense, and Matthew can utilise the words in Isaiah to help his Christian readers understand something of the wonder of that event.’
It is clear that Goldingay does not regard this passage as a Messianic prophecy. In UBCS he writes that the ‘reapplication’ of OT passages found in Matthew 1-2 ‘do not depend on a link with the actual meaning of the passages in question. They are inspired reapplications of the inspired words. This particular reapplication may have been encouraged by the fact that the Greek translation of the OT, which Matthew likely knew, translated ‘almah by Greek parthenos, which means “virgin.”’ We think that this is a one-sided recognition of biblical inspiration: allowing ‘inspired’ interpretation by Matthew, while disallowing ‘inspired’ prediction by Isaiah.
Others, including Young, Motyer and Harman, think that this is a prophecy that refers only to a far distant event. Harman notes (among other things) the close proximity of this prophecy to that recorded in Isa 9:6f, which speaks uniquivocally of the divinity of the Messiah. (Harman also notes some difficulties with this interpretation: notably that a far-distant birth could hardly serve as a sign to Isaiah’s contemporaries). It may also be observed, in support of this interpretation that Ahaz’s son Hezekiah had already been born at this time, and that Isaiah’s wife, who had already born children, could not now be called a maiden/virgin.
Osborne (in his commentary on Matthew) says that there is a ‘growing consensus’ concerning a view between these two extremes. ‘The prophecy was given to Ahaz and introduced by “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign.” In other words, it was mainly intended for Ahaz that God would destroy the kings he dreaded (Isa 7:14–17). So at least a partial fulfillment is indicated for Ahaz’s time. Yet the larger Isaianic context indicates also that a greater picture was envisaged as well. This promised “Immanuel” would bring a dawning of a great light (9:2–3) and would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6). He is the “shoot from the stump of Jesse,” the “Branch” on which the Spirit rests (11:1–11), showing a distinct messianic longing.’
Osborne adds: ‘The LXX recognized this greater thrust and chose to interpret ʿalma with the narrower “virgin” (παρθένος), thus emphasizing the supernatural manifestations of the child’s birth. Matthew utilized this Septuagintal emphasis and applied it to the virgin birth of Jesus.’
This is, in essence, the view of Calvin (who thought that this passage refers to two births – the Messiah in v15 and another (possibly Shear-jashub) in v16), J.A. Alexander, and Grogan.
The contributor to Harper’s Bible Commentary detects a Messianic ‘trajectory’: ‘The unusual name “Emmanuel” (Heb., “God with us”) now harbors in it prophetic implications for the destruction of Judah as well as Syria and Ephraim (Isa 8:6–8) and, finally, for the nations in the future that will so threaten Judah (Isa 8:9–10). The “child sign” seems to continue in Isa 9:1–7, where the birth of a child (Isa 9:6) portends a comparable claim of God’s presence with Israel (Isa 9:4) in the period after the Exile, when “the people walked in darkness” (Isa 9:2). Even if the original tradition of Isa 9:1–7 was once an independent, nonmessianic “royal psalm,” its present context in the book invites a messianic interpretation.’
Carson (on Matthew) agrees that ‘Isa 7:1-9:7 must be read as a unit – i.e. 7:14 must not be treated in isolation. The promised Immanuel, Isa 7:14, will possess the land, Isa 8:8, thwart all opponents, Isa 8:10, appear in Galilee of the Gentiles, Isa 9:1, as a great light to those in the land of the shadow of death, Isa 9:2. He is the Child and Son called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” in 9:6, whose government and peace will never end as he reigns on David’s throne forever, Isa 9:7.’
Childs remarks that ‘the mysterious name of Immanuel in Isa 7:14 receives clarification in two passages in chapter 8 that belong roughly to the same period of the Syro-Ephraimite crisis (cf. below). The judgment announced by Isaiah will come and cover the whole land, but the remnant has hope because the land belongs to Immanuel (Isa 8:8). Again in Isa 8:9ff., in spite of the evil plans of distant nations their counsel will not prevail because God has so willed it through Immanuel (v. 10). In sum, Immanuel is no longer the unborn child of Isa 7:14, but the owner of Israel’s land and the source of the divine force that brings the plans of conspiring nations to naught (Ps. 2:1ff.). Notwithstanding the extraordinary mystery and indeterminacy surrounding the giving of the sign of Immanuel, there are many clear indications that it was understood messianically by the tradents of the Isaianic tradition, and shaped in such a way both to clarify and expand the messianic hope for every successive generation of the people of God.
‘Isaiah 8:3, introducing this son, echoes the language of 7:14 as Isaiah goes to his wife, and she conceives and then gives birth to the child with this symbolic name (“quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil” [NIV mg.]). The next verse repeats the sense of 7:15, describing how the wealth of Damascus (in Aram) and Samaria (in Israel) will be plundered before the child can say “My father” or “My mother” (8:4). This same son is called “Immanuel” in 8:8, which is explained in 8:10 as “God with us,” accounting for Matthew’s linking the two portions of Isaiah together. In 8:18 Isaiah describes his two sons, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz and Shear-Jashub (cf. 7:3), as “signs and symbols in Israel,” which description ties back in with the sign God promised in 7:11, 14. But in 9:1–7 the more distant future is in view, as exiles are once again restored to Galilee. Here, in 9:6, another description of the birth of a wonderful child appears, one who can be called “Almighty God,” “Eternal Father,” and “Prince of Peace,” who will rule from David’s throne and establish universal justice forever—prophecies that scarcely could have been fulfilled in a mere earthly king.’ (Blomberg, in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament)
‘For Isaiah and his followers the Immanuel sign meant the promise of God’s protecting presence and the eventual fulfilment of God’s good purposes for his people. The preservation of the remnant in Isaiah’s day was part of a process which led finally to the coming of Jesus, the perfectly faithful and righteous one, in whom all God’s promises come to fulfilment. So Matthew was right to see the ultimate fulfilment of the Immanuel saying in Jesus Christ.’ (Webb)
Oswalt says that if it were not for Matthew’s use of this saying, it would have provoked little controversy. ‘On the surface the sign seems to be that before a child conceived at the time of the saying is twelve years of age, the two nations that so frighten the house of David will be destroyed, Isa 7:16. However, there are three factors in the sign itself that raise some question about this apparently straightforward interpretation:-
1. God himself urges Ahaz to ask for a remarkable sign. On the surface, there seems nothing remarkable about the sign that God actually gives.
2. The second unusual feature is the choice of the word used to identify the mother of the child. The word is not the normal one for “woman” or “girl,” but a relatively unusual one meaning “young woman of marriageable age.” When we discover that the LXX translates the word with “virgin,” the mystery is deepened.
3. Finally, the choice of a name for the child is a bit strange since its immediate relevance to the historic situation is not clear, whereas there is a direct relevance in the names of the other two children mentioned, Isa 7:3, 8:3. The mentioned of this second child highlights another oddity. The verbs describing the conception, birth, and naming of that child are the same as those in 7:14.’
Oswalt concludes that there is more to this prophecy than first meets the eye, and that Matthew was not wrong in appropriating the text to his own day. The text has ‘a single meaning but a double significance. Its meaning is that God is with us and we need not fear what other human beings may do to us. The first significance is for Ahaz’s own day. He need to go to Assyria because God is with Judah…In its first significance the virginity of the mother at the time of the announcement of the sign is all that is being intended. Thus, the typical word for “virgin” is not used; it would have called too much attention to itself. Yet for the real significance of the sign to be realised, the virginity of the mother at the time of the birth is critical. Thus, the common words for “woman” or “girl” cannot be used.’
As further alternative approach, Webb says that ‘if the “young woman” is Zion cf. Isa 1:8, then her son is the faithful remnant who will emerge from her sufferings cf. Isa 66:7f. That is why he is given the name Immanuel, “God with us.” God will be with the faithful remnant who gather round Isaiah, cf. Isa 8:16, not with the unbelieving Ahaz and the rebellious nation as a whole.’
Alan Richardson (TWBB) offers the following weak support to the predictive element in prophecy: ‘It would be false to the standpoint of the NT if we were to say that the significance of OT prophecy consists solely in “forth-telling” and to discount the element of “foretelling” altogether. The “argument from prophecy” is still impressive when it is restated in the light of modern knowledge. We can indeed no longer imagine that the OT writers were given a miraculous “preview” of the events of the life and death of Jesus, or that detailed predictions of his ministry and passion were divinely dictated to them; nor shall we look for precise fulfilments of particular OT texts, as writers in the pre-critical period have done ever since the days of the author of St. Matthew’s Gospel. (e.g. Mt 1:22-23; 2:5-6,15,17-18,23, etc.) We shall notice rather that the prophets, standing in the midst of the stirring events of their times, discerned therein the character and purpose of God, more particularly his judgement and mercy. The pattern of his action, both for judgement and salvation, was discerned and forth-told by them in their declaration of his will. As their sense of God’s unfolding purpose deepened, they came increasingly to look forward to a denouement, a climax of Israel’s history, a “day of the Lord” in which those things which were now but partially revealed should be fully and finally made manifest.’ (Art. ‘Prophecy’)
It is with similar scepticism that C.F.D. Moule says that Matthew’s use of the Old Testament ‘to our eyes [is] manifestly forced and artificial and unconvincing.’
Robert Miller (cited by John Loftus in God or Godless?) claims that Matthew:-
- attributes meanings to the prophets that they did not intend
- interprets their words in ways that are impossible in their own contexts
- relates prophecies to events that never happened
- invents a prophecy that did not exist
It is the last of these objections that most clearly shows the bankruptcy of such scepticism. Miller is obviously thinking of Mt 2:23. It is absurd that suppose that Matthew, steeped as he was in the scriptures, did not know (or thought his readers would not know) that there is no passage in the Old Testament that contains the actual words, ‘He will be called a Nazarene’. Sceptics need to try a little harder to determine what sense might be made of such a statement before dismissing it so lightly.
As Wright says: ‘people have suggested that Matthew made his story up so that it would present a ‘fulfilment’ of the passage he quotes in verse 23, from Isaiah 7:14. But, interestingly, there is no evidence that anyone before Matthew saw that verse as something that would have to be fulfilled by the coming Messiah. It looks rather as though he found the verse because he already knew the story, not the other way round.’
It is well-known that the original Hebrew of Isa 7:15f did not specify ‘virgin’, but rather young unmarried woman. As Macleod (The Person of Christ, p26) says, the point is ‘rather academic since young, unmarried women would be expected to be virgins’ (cf. Deut 22:1ff). The LXX translation used the word ‘parthenos‘, which more definitely implies virginity. Matthew, himself writing in Greek, quotes from the LXX. So, even though the original text in Isaiah did not specifically predict a virgin birth, and no such expectation developed in Jewish thinking, Matthew found such a meaning latent in the prophet, supported by the line that the LXX had taken.
So, as Macleod remarks, ‘whatever the merits of Matthew’s exegesis, his assertion of the virgin birth is quite independent of it. Isaiah 7:14 may be difficult to interpret. Matthew 1:18,25 are not.’ Furthermore, ‘Matthew cannot be accused of trying to accommodate the truth to the expectations of his readers. The Jews never applied Isaiah 7:14 to the Messiah: not even after the Septuagint had rendered ‘alma by parthenos.’ Then again, whatever problems there may be in the exegesis of Isa 7:14, it is clear that the birth referred to there was to be a ‘sign’. A sign requires some unusual circumstance, ‘and what more unusual than that the child should be born from one who was an ‘alma/perthenos in the natural meaning of these terms?’
Michael Heiser (I Dare You Not to Bore Me With The Bible) points out that a more precise word – betulah (בתולה) – was available for ‘virgin’ (as in Lev 21:3; Judg 21:12; Deut 22:23, 28; Exod 22:15). In most of the passages where almah (עלמה) is used, there is no clue as to the sexual status of the woman referred to [this is disputable: in most, if not all cases, virginity is implied]. In Song of Solomon 6:8, however, almah is used in a way that suggests virginity (queens and concubines were, of course, sexual partners of the king, and so it can be assumed that the third category, ‘virgins’ (alamot) were not sexually active. Rebekah is referred to as both betulah (Gen 24:16) and almah (Gen 24:43), showing that the two terms do overlap in meaning, and to that extent are synonymous.
Aside from such word studies, Heiser writes, ‘In an ancient patriarchal culture, a “woman of marriageable age,” like Mary, was a female who had at least reached puberty and so was capable of bearing children. Daughters in such a culture were under close supervision and restraint. Even in today’s sex-saturated culture, a significant number of girls in their teen years are virgins—how much more those in a patriarchal culture? Matthew was raised in this culture—and with the book of Esther—so it should not surprise us that he saw no incongruity in understanding almah (עלמה) to mean “virgin.”’
‘The reference in Isa 7:15-16 to the short period of time in the promised child’s life before the kings Ahaz dreads are destroyed seems to require at least a partial fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah’s day. Nevertheless, the LXX translation of almah as parthenos (both words often though not always mean “virgin,” though the Greek term is less equivocal) shows that some Jews already two hundred years before Christ favored an interpretation in which this immediate fulfillment was not seen as exhausting Isaiah’s prophecy. Further exegetical clues in Isaiah support the LXX’s interpretation. Isa 8:4,8 seems to equate Immanuel with Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, but Isa 7:11 8:18 suggests that this child will be a “sign,” a term that regularly in Scripture refers to a more remarkable event than the simple birth of a child to a normally impregnated woman. By the time one reaches Isa 9:6, the prophet is speaking of a child, naturally taken as still referring to Immanuel, who is the “Mighty God.” In no sense can this prophecy be taken as less than messianic or as fulfilled in a merely human figure. So it is best to see a partial, proleptic fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in his time, with the complete and more glorious fulfillment in Jesus’ own birth.’ (Blomberg)
‘Matthew is operating typologically. Old Testament events, viewed as of crucial significance in the history of salvation, are seen to display patterns of God’s activity, which are being repeated in the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Such parallels can be attributed only to God. A text that may well have had a previous historical referent is seen as being completed or filled full, a common meaning of the verb plero (“fulfill”). Much controversy in an often polarized and heated debate concerning Matthew’s use of Isa 7:14 in Mt 1:23 could be defused if these hermeneutical principles were recognized.’ (Blomberg)
The Virgin Birth was neither anticipated within Judaism, nor can it be paralleled within paganism. ‘It appears that Judaism never understood Isaiah 7:14 as messianic or describing a virgin birth and that Philo, a first-century Jewish scholar, never imagined a literal divine betting in his allegorical understanding of the birth of several Old Testament characters (cf. On the Cherubim, 40–52). Pagan parallels are scarcely more fitting. Greek and Egyptian mythology, for example, depict lustful pagan deities begetting male offspring through carnal relations with women. The New Testament accounts, in contrast, mention no father figure. God is not described as procreator or as sexually desiring Mary. The virgin birth is solely a creative work of God through his Holy Spirit. Comparative religions offer no precursor that remotely parallels the special theological features of the New Testament virgin birth stories; it suggests nothing that could have logically and naturally given rise to them.’ (EDBT)