A Virgin Birth – Or Not?

By Neil Earle

Because the guest room where they intended to stay in Bethlehem was occupied, Joseph and Mary were put in a room next to the courtyard. There Mary gave birth to a son and, for a cradle, laid him in a feeding trough.

The teaching that Jesus Christ was born miraculously of a virgin is a part of the soon-coming Christmas story that gets little attention from the general population who will hear the familiar Bible readings on December 25.

It has not been that way, however, among Bible scholars and teachers who conduct a raging debate about what is meant by the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin shall be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call his name Immanuel.”

Orthodox Christians have always taken this verse as being straight-forwardly fulfilled in the only two passages where the virgin birth is alluded to in the New Testament. First, Matthew 1:18: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph; but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because her husband Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”

The Road to Chalcedon

Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of his human mother is alluded to in Romans 8:3 about God “sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Naturally, Christians were asked questions about the God-Man – how could this be? In the end three different positions emerged.

First, the Monophysite (Mono=one; physic=nature) teaching that Jesus had only one nature. The divine simply absorbed and overwhelmed the human. Second, Jesus had two natures dwelling apart in the one person. And the majority opinion that Jesus was one person with two natures mystically commingled.

It took centuries to sort out this dispute, in part because there were those heretics always trying to push it in the direction that Jesus wasn’t really human and didn’t really suffer (Monophysite) or that the man Jesus was only confirmed as God at his baptism.

The dispute finally reached critical mass at Chalcedon, outside Constantinople, in 451 AD. The resulting statement "wasn’t pretty" as we say today, but it was a more defined and accurate rendering of the reality that had shocked the world with the coming of Immanuel. It read in part:

“This self-same One is perfect both in deity and in humanness…actually God and actually man…of the same reality of God as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality as we ourselves as far as his humanness is concerned…one and only Christ-Son in two natures, without confusing the two, without transmuting the one nature into another, without dividing them into two separate categories…both natures concur in one person and in one hypostasis.”

Doctrinal statements are not as much elegant as functional; they are designed to safeguard the church from heretical teachings that place too much emphasis on one aspect of truth at the expense of another. Thus clarified, the church can better carry out its primary mission of preaching the gospel free of doctrinal encumbrances.

The next is Luke 1:26-37 when the angel Gabriel makes the birth announcement to Mary in Nazareth: ”Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus’…’How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God…For nothing is impossible with God.’”

Lingering Enigmas?

The accounts in the evangelical-leaning New International Version of the Bible (NIV), quoted above, simplify some of the slightly more modest translations in the King James Bible (KJV). The NIV has the more direct “divorce” rather than the KJV’s “put her away.” The NIV says “pledged to be married” rather than the KJV’s “betrothed.” And NIV’s “virgin” for Mary’s self-description in Luke 1:34 is more concrete than the KJV’s “I know not a man” (“know” here meaning sexual relationships). Inside those seemingly minute differences lie hints of hidden enigmas for many scholars.

As the noted commentator William Barclay points out, the Jewish people of the First Century BC divided up courtship and marriage into “engagement,” which could start when the people involved were still children – still true in many Middle Eastern countries. Then came “betrothal” which was a formal period lasting one year before marriage when the couple could be considered husband and wife but not yet have consummated their relationship. Hence the allusion to “her husband Joseph” in Matthew 1:18.

But the phrase “her husband Joseph” has been taken by some to mean there is more to it than that. Some claim God worked on Joseph in a creative way to carry out his purpose since God often used natural processes to effect a miracle – e.g. 5 barley loaves feeding 5000 people. This is one reason, it is claimed, that Mary cites Joseph to Jesus as “your father” in Luke 2:46.

This sounds more than a little like hair-splitting to some. But there are other questions as well. Jewish scholars, among others, have always been concerned (and rightly so) about how too many Christians rashly rush in to lay claim to their sacred text, the Old Testament. And the fact is that there are some things about the context and setting of the Isaiah 7:14 “Virgin Birth” scripture that need clarification. For one thing the text is set amid one of the more difficult historic passages in the Book of Isaiah. For another the Hebrew word Isaiah uses for “virgin” is somewhat ambiguous at first blush.

How so?

“To The Sources”

One of the mottos of the Reformation was “to the sources” and the source here – Isaiah 7:14 – is set among a complicated whirligig of international politics, scheming alliances, deals and counter-deals and egotistical maneuvers worthy of our current brutal world politics. The setting of Isaiah 7 is a time of conflict between the nation of Judah's King Ahaz down in Jerusalem and a rapidly-forming Israelite-Syrian Alliance to the north (7:1-7). The northern nation of Israel and the king of Syria are trying to stop the incursion of the dreaded Assyrians into the Middle East. Ahaz did not join the alliance because he had been already considering a private deal with Assyria that he thought would secure him the peace (2 Kings 16:7-8). .

Israel-Judah-Syria about the 700s BC.

Isaiah the prophet tells Ahaz, Don’t worry-these two nations will be chopped down very shortly (7:8-9, 16). Isaiah repeats his basic message “Trust Yahweh and all will be well.”

No, Ahaz would rather trust in the Assyrian alliance and embrace the paganism of the great Empire to the north. So Isaiah does one of the things Biblical prophets rarely do. Isaiah tells the king to ask for a sign. Ahaz is on the spot. He self-righteously poses as a devout Yawheh worshipper – “No, not me. I couldn’t tempt God that way” (7:12).

Then comes Isaiah’s famous declaration: “Then God will give you a sign. A Virgin shall conceive and bear a son and call his name Immanuel” – the Christmas passage (7:14).

So far, so good but one of the complications here in this admittedly complex game of Prophet versus King is the word Isaiah uses for virgin. The word is “almah" in Hebrew and the word almah simply means "a young woman of marriageable age.” Defenders of the Virgin Birth have an answer for this, of course. The fact is that every time “almah” is used in the Old Testament it never refers to a married woman. See Genesis 24:43, Exodus 2:8, 1 Chronicles 15:20, Psalm 46:2, 68:26, Proverbs 30:19, Song 1:3, 6:8. (John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39, page 210).

That seems pretty conclusive. Especially when the Greek translation of the Old Testament – the Septuagint from about 350 BC – uses the word “parthenos” which always means a virgin. However, scholars counter that there was an unambiguous Hebrew word for virgin named “betulah.” Also, even Barclay admits that three later revisions of the Septuagint use the Greek word “neanis” which again means a young woman of marriageable age (The Apostles Creed, page 59).

What is going on here? Christians regularly used the Septuagint in their preaching to the rank and file of the Roman Empire. Why almah instead of betulah?

"A child is born" – Christmas prophecy inscribed 2700 years ago.

Multiple Fulfillments

John Oswalt in his Isaiah commentary pays attention to what all careful Bible readers must learn to do – that is, consider the original meaning of the prophecy in its own place and times. To simply jump ahead to First Century Nazareth when this teaching is discussed leaps over the heads of Isaiah, King Ahaz and the people of Jerusalem – ordinary people very much worried about losing their city to Syria-Israel.

In other words Isaiah 7:14 had a meaning for the people who first heard and read it some 740 years before Jesus was born. This is not to take away from the Jesus and Mary meanings but it is to enjoy the prophecy with all the complications in view and to learn more how Bible prophecy works. Isaiah 8 is the prior fulfillment of this prophecy as far as Ahaz and his people are concerned. The prophet’s wife bears a son and they name their child not Immanuel but with the most difficult name in the Old Testament (maher-shalal-hash-baz). This means “speeding to the plunder, hurrying to the spoil” a name whose intended meaning is loosely that of “the Assyrians are coming – take warning all you petty kings.”

Jewish commentators usually apply Isaiah 7:14 to the son of Ahaz, Good King Hezekiah. In his day Jerusalem was delivered from the Assyrians by a staggering and miraculous deliverance in response to Hezekiah’s faith (Isaiah 37-38).

Now the choice of “almah” makes sense, argues Oswalt. If Isaiah had used “betulah” Ahaz might have been more mesmerized than convicted by the prophecy. “A virgin? Giving birth?” But “almah” (the young girl of marriageable age), while it still fits Mary of Nazareth, also focuses on the fact that there will be hope for Jerusalem in the next generation IF they will embrace it.

Oswalt also shows that these two births – his wife’s and that of crown prince Hezekiah must have taught Isaiah an important lesson. Israel’s salvation will come through the birth of a special child. And not just Israel and Judah’s but salvation for the whole world, as indicated by more child-themed references in Isaiah 11:1-9. Through all this activity “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord.” Hence the importance of that famous Christmas text embedded in the midst of all this – Isaiah 9:11, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder.”

A child as a symbol of deliverance? Salvation through a divinely watched over birth? Hey, that’s the true Christmas message. But it goes beyond Ahaz and Jerusalem and is now for all people. Linking Isaiah 7:14 to Isaiah 9:6 in this separated section of the book allows the prophecy to shift from Maher-shala-hash-baz to crown prince Hezekiah and then – creatively – to Jesus the Christ.

Early Christians caught on to this teaching very quickly.

Ignatius of Antioch wrote about 110 AD that Christians are “fully persuaded as touching our Lord that he is truly of the race of David according to the flesh, but Son of God by the divine will and power, truly born of a virgin.” Ignatius knew that if John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, then Jesus, Immanuel, had to be even more miraculously brought into this world – conceived by the Holy Spirit. Well may Christians at Christmas time sing the words of Charles Wesley with gusto, “late in time behold him come, offspring of the virgin’s womb.”

Let it be so.