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A Virgin Birth? The Importance of Context

I continue to be writing up a storm, making just the progress I’ve wanted on my Bible Introduction. Gods willing, I will finish chapter 8 tomorrow, which is all of the chapters dealing with the Hebrew Bible. I was eager to finish this part of the book before the weekend, because on Monday I head overseas for the rest of the summer (Sarah and I spend a good chunk of every summer in London; she’s a Brit, and has been there already for a couple of weeks, teaching a Duke summer school program abroad). I hope to finish the NT section while I’m there, but that won’t take as much work, in a sense, since I have, well, written about the NT before. (In another sense it takes a lot more work — about 35 years worth altogether). While I’m away, I will certainly keep this blog going full steam. In case you wondered!

Below is a little section from my opening chapter of the Intro. Remember: this book is for 19 year olds, most of whom will know NADA about the Bible. Early on I want to surprise them and to get them to think. And to realize that a historical approach to the Bible is different from a devotional approach they may have had taken before, if they grew up in a religious community.

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One of the fundamental lessons we will be learning throughout the course of our study is that if want to understand something, we have to put it in its proper context. Any time you take something out of context, you misunderstand it. Nowhere is that more obvious or important than with the Bible. This can easily be illustrated.

In the book of Isaiah, written in the eighth century BCE, there is a prophecy that has historically been very important to Christians thinking about the birth of Jesus.   In some English translations of the passage, we read:  “The Lord himself shall give you a sign.  A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call him Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).   Because this same verse gets quoted in the Gospel of Matthew 7:14, it is typically understood by Christians to be a prophecy about the messiah: his mother will be a virgin.   According to this reading, Isaiah was looking forward to the coming of the savior of the people – the messiah  (which literally means “anointed one” – referring to the one favored by God whom God sends in order to save his people) – who will come into the world not in a normal way, but by a virgin birth.

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Rice  July 13, 2012

    Good post. Laid out very well.

    How does Luke’s narrative tie into the virgin birth? Any reason why both of the accounts tell a similar but different story?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 13, 2012

      Yes, lots of reasons. I think I devoted a post to that – I’ll have to look. But there are key differences as well, that are telling. (Big one: in Matthew Jesus is born of a virgin to fulfil prophecy; in Luke it is because he was literally the son of God)

  2. Avatar
    Dennis Steenbergen  July 13, 2012

    I have to admit when I learned about this very issue in “Jesus Interrupted”, it was the lynch-pin to the whole enchilada for me. I saw the bible as not the word of God but an invention of man. It showed me that whoever wrote Matthew, they had a specific agenda. When you understand this fact, John makes much more sense. Surely Dr. Metzger knew this too. How did he explain this mis-translation?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 13, 2012

      I believe he thought that the meaning of a text was not necessarily restricted to its “original intent.” And there are lots of literary critics who would fully agree!

  3. Avatar
    maxhirez  July 14, 2012

    What always strikes me is how little “prophecy” about the Messiah actually made it into the OT (or actually I should say how little I remember of it.) It seems like it takes a lot of intellectual disingenuousness to get an interpretation of the Torah or the Talmud that seems to predict that Jesus was the one they were expecting. It’s a little like claiming that Frank Herbert’s “Dune” predicted the rise of George Bush Jr. IMHO.

    Does anyone have any direct examples from the Bible (before the gospels, ordinally) that actually spell out “the messiah will be such-and-such and will do this-and-that?”

    • Avatar
      simonelli  July 17, 2012

      A young woman to me is one who has just entered the child bearing age, so why not a virgin? Read Luke1:34-38.
      and the virginity of Mary is right at home, or if you like in context. 2Timothy 2:14, is telling us what not to do for we read. “Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words. which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers.
      In other words if you wrangle with words your precious faith will vanish. Unfortunatly many writers have chosen that path of destraction.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  July 18, 2012

        Well, you may be right about Luke, but not about Isaiah. And, well, aren’t you wrangling about words?

      • Avatar
        Skeptic59  September 28, 2012

        “Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words. which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers.”

        This seems to go hand-in-hand with with the command to ‘have faith,’ which basically means to believe in something (in the Christian, religious sense) without first examining it for signs of logic or rationality. In this case, this verse can be whipped out when someone *has* refuted the logic concerning the explanation for something that he/she has been urged to ‘just believe,’ rather than think about.

  4. Avatar
    CuriousKat  July 18, 2012

    One argument against the whole virgin question (which you may already have answered elsewhere) is that a young woman of that time period (Jesus or Isaiah) had very well better been a virgin else she would have been stoned. So as the story goes, since young women were supposed to be virgins then it doesn’t matter what the literal translation of either the Greek or Hebrew word was, she was therefore, ergo sum, a virgin.
    Otherwise, contextually, very different story as to what Matthew recorded (I realize “Matthew” and the other gospel authors were probably not who we were led to believe they were) and what Isaiah was after. So much yucky obfuscation! Kinda of makes me itchy this early in the AM!
    Thanks again, Bart.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 18, 2012

      Yes, unless the young woman happened to be a married young woman!

      • Avatar
        CuriousKat  July 18, 2012

        Excellent riposte! Sometimes I still feel as though I am bound up in “their” rules of life and scholarship. It’s been a long road and many thanks again for your help.

  5. Avatar
    Pat Ferguson  July 19, 2012

    Re: “Matthew interpreted in a very different context and read Isaiah 7:14 in reference to the coming of Jesus into the world.”
    When reading Isa. 7:14 in the Hebrew OT and Greek LXX, where the definite article is seen (העלמה and ἡ παρθένος, respectively) and which is incorrectly translated as an indefinite article in some English renderings (e.g., the KJV), I get the impression that Isaiah might have been referring to a young woman who was present when he was speaking to Ahaz. Too bad the prophet Isaiah didn’t foresee the need to provide more info about any such young woman. He might have prevented many needless arguments related to Isa. 7:14 and Matt. 1:23.

    • Avatar
      Pat Ferguson  July 19, 2012

      Come to think of it: since Matt. 1:23 isn’t seen in any extant mss (that I can locate) prior to Codex ℵ/01, any argument regarding Isa. 7:14 and Matt. 1:23 is apparently pointless.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  July 19, 2012

        Ah, not sure I agree there! Unless there is some reason for thinking that all the later mss of Matthew got it wrong at this point!

        • Avatar
          Pat Ferguson  July 19, 2012

          Oops! I re-checked and found Matt. 1:23 in P1 verso (ca. III CE). My bad 🙂 I blushingly withdraw my last statement.

    • John4
      John4  July 1, 2015

      Thanks, Pat! 🙂

      This is the first time I’ve run across a discussion of the definite article in Isa. 7:14. Very helpful 🙂

  6. Avatar
    Richunix  December 7, 2012

    A while back, I heard the Monk Augustine in translating the Gospel, decided through design or by accident that JESUS birth was to be divine vice human conception.

  7. Avatar
    Mohy  March 4, 2014

    Dear Bart i searched the arabic bible it is still written as The Lord himself shall give you a sign. A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call him Immanuel
    KJV too.
    but in RSV it has changed, i wonder if u know how the arabic bible and other translations i mean not the english one have been translated , i mean what is the source for arabic translation?

  8. Avatar
    Blackie  October 17, 2014

    As you rightly point out there is no necessity for Jesus to be born of a “virgin” or that she had to remain so and not have other children. Even if God conceived the child to be the incarnate son or if Jesus is elevated to divinity by God – there is surely no need for Mary to be a virgin. The Marian dogma that some Christian Churches insist on makes Mary into the venerated mother of God(and a man as well). This dual nature is a hard doctrine to understand hence the numerous Christological interpretations. When I read Karl Adam’s “The Christ of Faith: the Christology of the Church” ; I first came across the diversity of concepts about the true nature of this figure. It was only recently that I learnt that Menno Simons did not believe in the dual nature of Jesus in a position similar to monophysitism. So the virgin birth is not vital to Christian belief except to those who made the doctrine vital to their dogma. I am grateful for all the textual clarification of your writings that shed light on what remains cloudy to so many. But there are those who can reconcile contradictions – however the language and history of the text must be examined. Much thanks to those who can read the ancient texts for clarity and convey them to us. .

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