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Faith, History, and Isaiah 7

A QUESTION ARISING OUT OF MY DISCUSSION OF FAITH AND HISTORY, IN REFERENCE TO AN EARLIER POST ON ISAIAH AND THE VIRGIN BIRTH

QUESTION:

I know that you posted something on the virgin birth in Isaiah in the past (which I think was in fact an excerpt from your forthcoming Bible Intro book) – but can you elaborate how you will apply your approach you discuss here with passages such as Isaiah 7 where there is debate around whether it is a prophecy referring to Jesus or not. Will you take a hardline interpretation and saying it must not be referring to Jesus, or will you just outline the major interpretations and stay neutral so the reader doesn’t know how you personally interpret it?

RESPONSE:

It’s a good question, and I do indeed have a firm opinion about it.  My opinion is not very idiosyncratic; it is simply rooted in the “historical method” that I prefer to use when reading ancient texts.   If you look at Isaiah of Jerusalem living in the 8th century BCE, writing to people of his time, and read what he has to say, then it is clear that Isaiah 7 is not predicting something that is going to happen in the distant future.  I don’t believe that there is any debate about this among scholars of Isaiah.  All one needs to do is read the context (in the book itself).   The Syrians and Israelites (called Ephrahamites too) have banded together and invaded Judah.  The king Ahaz is very disturbed.  Isaiah tells him that this conflict will turn out right.  There is a young woman who has already conceived a child (he does not say that she is a virgin, and he does not say that she will conceive; he says she has already conceived).   She will bear the child and they will call him Emmanuel (which means “God is with us”).  Before the child is old enough to know right from wrong, the two kings (and their armies) that are threatening Jerusalem will return home and the threat will end.

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Jesus and the Historical Criteria
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  1. Avatar
    kmazurek  September 27, 2012

    In Judaism Isaiah is talking about his own child (in chapter 8). Immanuel has three names: Immanuel, Maher-Shalal, and Hash-Baz. Isaiah 8:3, and Isaiah 8:8. Each of the bad names known by each of the kings because G-d was against and went against their kingdoms (Maher-Shalal and Hash-Baz to Aram and Israel, which the names mean Swift is the Booty and Speedy is the Prey), and the child was known to the people of Judah as Immanuel because he was a sign that G-d was on the side of Judah, thus the name G-d with us.

  2. Avatar
    toddfrederick  September 28, 2012

    Thanks…From your discussion I think I better understand the distinction of reading a text for theological meaning and reading the same text for historical meaning.

  3. Avatar
    Adam  September 28, 2012

    This does make sense and I also interpret the text this way. The question was basically a reflection on your question of “how to write a critical introduction to the Biblical literature from a strictly historical perspective without being so offensive to students who have a high view of Scripture that they get turned off already in the first chapter and simply refuse to believe anything in the entire book.”

    Since a lot of your main readers will be young evangelical Christians (who have no familiarity with the theological and historical debates going on in the academy, many of these readers will interpret your statement that “Matthew interpreted in a very different context and read Isaiah 7:14 in reference to the coming of Jesus into the world … he took the words of Isaiah out of context” as a direct attack against Christianity. Many will think this is an attack because in their minds Matthew was a historian rather than a theologian – that he’s interested in what his historically true–in what historically happened in the past and what will historically happen in the future. As a result, they may now view you has having the primary agenda of attacking or disproving Christianity from the onset (which I don’t think is actually the case).

    I could be wrong…

  4. Avatar
    timber84  September 28, 2012

    I think with some creative thinking you can make bible verses say just about anything you want theologically.
    In addition, theologians adjust their theology in light of new historical conclusions.

  5. Avatar
    jimmo  September 28, 2012

    I remember reading a debate a while ago about “will call him Emmanuel”. One person was saying that Jesus was not named “Emmanuel”, so this is obviously not about him. The other is saying that people *do* refer to Jesus as “God with us”, so it *does* talk about Jesus. The first person said that the Hebrew says his *name* will be “Emmanuel” or that he will be named “Emmanuel”, and not just “will call him”. The difference here being like calling him “Dubya”, but he was named “George”. In my mind, if Isaiah is saying “will be named” as opposed to “will call him”, it adds a lot to claims this is not about Jesus.

    What is your take?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 29, 2012

      It’s complicated, in no small measure because the text says “his name shall be called Emmanuel” (!).

  6. Avatar
    maxhirez  September 29, 2012

    Are there any places in the Old Testament that explicitly mention who the Messiah will be, where he’ll be from, what he’ll do, etc. that aren’t describing the apocalypse itself? Daniel 9 is the only place my KJV/Stongs App can find that even contains the word “Messiah” in the OT. Otherwise it seems to me that you could, as a thought experiment, read Oddeseus as predicting Alexander in exactly the same way that Micah, Jeremiah or Isaih are said by some to have predicted Jesus as messiah. I’ll let Thomas Paine finish my comment:

    “I have examined all the passages in the New Testament quoted from the Old, and so-called prophecies concerning Jesus Christ, and I find no such thing as a prophecy of any such person, and I deny there are any.”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2012

      The word messiah occurs several times. E.g., Psalm 2 (about the king at his inauguration) or 2 Isaiah (about Cyrus, king of Persia!).

  7. Avatar
    DavidJ32  September 29, 2012

    I feel compelled to chime in here (even though I may be beating a dead horse)… To help people who may feel sorta tripped up over the “historical” vs “theological” thing.. (and I may not be entirely correct so please correct me if I’m wrong…) I think some people are getting BELIEF about reality confused with CONCLUSIONS that are arrived at using a given method.

    For example: Let’s say we find an old piece of paper that describes a historical event in great detail, and this piece of paper says “Event A will happen TOMORROW. So BELIEVE this paper for it is TRUTH.” Okay, what to make of this? You will EITHER believe it or NOT believe it. But you can arrive at 2 different conclusions if you qualify those conclusions with “this is historical method” or “this is theological method”.

    Historical Method: Assuming miracles are the least probable thing that would happen, that piece of paper had to be written AFTER the fact.

    Theological Method: Assuming some theological principle is true, then that piece of paper had to be written BEFORE the fact.

    Either one is true, OR the other is true. It is up to you to decide what you believe at the end of the day. But just because you believe one or the other doesn’t mean you cannot VALUE both methods of arriving at conclusions.
    For example, you surely wouldn’t get away with using the theological method for evaluating evidence in a court case.

    Again, I’m no expert by any means, but I hope this helps someone who reads it… please add to it if I’m wrong about this!

  8. Avatar
    bobnaumann  October 3, 2012

    I see that Matthew’s interpretation of Isiah led the the idea of the virgin birth but if I understand the Jewish concept of the blood atonement, the sacrificial lamb had to be without flaw. When it was believed that Jesus was to serve the role of the lamb in order to atone for the sins of mankind, to be perfect he needed to be free of the sin of Adam and therefore could not be confirmed by a human seed. Of course this was before it was known that the woman contributed her genes.

    Was this a contributing factor the virgin birth concept, or did the perfect lamb concept come about later?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 3, 2012

      I think the idea of a perfect sacrifice probably came *before* the idea of a virgin birth.

  9. Avatar
    bobnaumann  October 3, 2012

    I meant “conceived” not “confirmed”. Damned spell checker.

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