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Speaking in Tongues and Virgin Births: Readers’ Mailbag September 3, 2017

I will deal with two questions in this week’s Readers’ Mailbag.  The first has to do with why some conservative Christian theologians insist that the “gifts of the Spirit” (such as speaking in tongues and doing miracles) are no longer available to believers today (doesn’t the Bible indicate that they are?), and the second about whether the Gospel of Matthew mistranslates or misunderstands the passage of Scripture that allegedly indicated that the messiah would be born of a woman who was still a virgin.

I need to unpack the first question before giving it, since it may not make sense on first reading.  The questioner is asking about the scene in the book of Acts, chapter 2, where, on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit comes upon the apostles allowing them to speak in foreign tongues.   Peter explains to the crowds that this is a fulfillment of what had been prophesied in Scripture.

Today conservative theologians are split on the question of whether the Spirit still empowers believers to speak in tongues and do other miraculous deeds.  Some say emphatically yes, others emphatically no.  The person who asks the following question refers to this as the “cessationist debate” – that is, the debate over whether the gifts of the Spirit have now “ceased” to be given.  The questioner doesn’t understand how someone would could interpret Acts this way.  This is his question:

 

QUESTION:

Can you elucidate a little on the cessationist debate with respect to Pentecost and Acts 2:39 in particular where “the promise is for you and your children” bit would seem to obviously extend beyond just the very next generation of those present?  What does the Greek seem to imply?  In your view, why did so much of believing Christian intelligentsia come to sacrifice the continuity of miracle working and accept cessationism? Was it careful reading or just confronting reality?

 

RESPONSE

I’ll give a personal response to this question.  When I was seventeen, and just heading off to Bible school, I was involved in a charismatic Christian group where we practiced speaking in tongues, and people prophesied, and healed the sick by the laying on of hands, and did other amazing things because they had the “Spiritual gifts.”

When I went to Moody Bible Institute, I was taught that these manifestations of the Spirit were in fact from the Devil, that the gifts were no longer given.  Why?  Because Paul had said in 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, in a context where he is speaking about such gifts (prophecy, tongues, healing etc.), that “Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.  For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.”  That was interpreted to mean that the spiritual gifts were given to the church only for a short time, until the perfect revelation of God, that is, the New Testament, was written.  Since now we have “what is perfect” (the Bible) then “what was imperfect” (spiritual gifts) are no longer needed or legitimate.

How committed was the faculty and administration of Moody Bible Institute to this view?  On each floor of each dormitory there was a senior student in charge, the “Resident Assistant” or RA.  Each RA had, next to the phone in his room, a card indicating what number to call in case of an emergency.  The emergencies were listed, with the appropriate phone numbers, and included “fire, medical emergency, and … charismatic activity.”  Really.

 

QUESTION:

I’ve read somewhere, in some atheist tract, that the original Biblical term for Mary was the Hebrew word “amah,” meaning “young girl.” The author of the tract went on to say that a mistranslation into Greek resulted in the word “virgin.” Any truth to that?

 

RESPONSE

This is a kind of complicated matter, and what you read was close to being right, but not exactly.  I explained the actual issue a long while ago on the blog, and this is what I said then.  The context was a discussion of the “fulfillment citations” found in the Gospel of Matthew – that is, passages where Matthew quotes a passage of the Old Testament and claims that the prophecy found there had been fulfilled by Jesus.   Matthew uses these fulfillment citations to demonstrate that Jesus really was the messiah.  One of them is in Matthew 1:22-23, a quotation of Isaiah 7:14 to show that Jesus must have been the messiah because his mother was a virgin.

There are numerous problems with these fulfillment citations.  Of most relevance to the season we are in now is the quotation of Isaiah 7:14.  As I mentioned in other posts, from what seems like many years ago (though it was just months), the author of Isaiah does not predict that a future messiah will be born of a virgin.   For several reasons.

First, Isaiah is not talking about a future messiah.  Read all of Isaiah 7 and you’ll see – the messiah is not mentioned in the passage.  That is, the world “messiah” does not occur.  And Isaiah is not talking about a future savior of any kind.  The context is quite clear.   Ahaz the king of Judea is in a bad way because the kings of Syria and Israel have ganged up upon him and laid siege to his capital city of Jerusalem.  Ahaz is in a panic and doesn’t know what to do.  He calls in Isaiah, who tells him.  He has to do nothing.   There is a young woman who has become pregnant.  Before the child to be born to her is old enough to know right from wrong, he will be eating curds and honey (that is, there will be prosperity in the land) and the two kings who are now threatening will be dispersed.  That’s the context of Isaiah 7:14, which in its original context does not say that “a virgin will conceive and bear a son” but instead “a young woman is with child and will bear a son.”

The word Isaiah uses is “ALMA,” a word that means young woman without reference to whether she has ever had sex or not (as opposed to the Hebrew word “BETHULAH” which does mean a woman who has never had sex, a virgin); and he says that the woman is already pregnant, not that she will become pregnant.

Matthew, of course, did not read Isaiah in Hebrew but in Greek, and the Greek translators (of the “Septuagint” – i.e., the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures) translated ALMA with the Greek word PARTHENOS, which also meant “young maiden” but eventually took on the meaning of “young maiden who has not yet had sex” – i.e., virgin.   Matthew read the passage that way, and interpreted it to refer not to something in Isaiah’s time but in the distant future, with reference to the messiah.

It’s hard to know whether Matthew is simply misinterpreting Isaiah as predicting the messiah would be virgin-born or if – to be more generous to him – he thinks that Jesus “fills the prophet’s words full of meaning” in the second sense of “fulfillment” I mentioned above.  In that sense, Isaiah may have one thing in mind, but the appearance of Jesus gives that thing fuller meaning, salvation again not from one’s political enemies but from the greatest enemy of all, the sin of the world.

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Problems with Some Bible Translations, including the King James: A Blast from the Past
Life in Hades

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Comments

  1. Wilusa  September 3, 2017

    “It’s hard to know whether Matthew is simply misinterpreting Isaiah as predicting the messiah would be virgin-born or if – to be more generous to him – he thinks that Jesus “fills the prophet’s words full of meaning” in the second sense of “fulfillment” I mentioned above. In that sense, Isaiah may have one thing in mind, but the appearance of Jesus gives that thing fuller meaning, salvation again not from one’s political enemies but from the greatest enemy of all, the sin of the world.”

    But if it’s the latter, did he expect his readers to believe Jesus’s mother was a virgin? If he didn’t, shouldn’t he have made it clear?

  2. Robert  September 3, 2017

    I find this charismatic stuff fascinating. So, if you do not mind speaking about this, when you went to the Moody Bible Institute did you then accept that your earlier charismatic experience was demonic in origin? Did this create conflicts with your earlier coreligionists? Or how long did you continue to believe in the authenticity of your speaking in tongues as a genuine gift of the Holy Spirit?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2017

      I was a bit torn. I basically thought that maybe tongues were not appropriate any longer, but I didn’t think they were demonic. I knew too many committed Christians who spoke in tongues to think they were possessed.

      • godspell  September 4, 2017

        Well, this is all assuming ‘demonic’ is synonymous with evil.

        Organized established religions tend to be suspicious of any form of worship they can’t regulate and control. Because they know it was precisely such forms of worship that gave rise to them–and they might well give rise to other religions that would supplant them in turn.

        Religion is often accused of encouraging superstition, when the fact is, it much more often effectively suppresses it, drives it underground. Much of the rationalist worldview that exists today was made possible by this (irony of ironies). And as organized religion fades in western society, we see all this ‘New Age’ stuff–people once more free to believe as they want. Whether it makes any sense or not.

        I have no idea if this is a good thing.

      • will6708@bellsouth.net  September 4, 2017

        ’ll give a personal response to this question. When I was seventeen, and just heading off to Bible school, I was involved in a charismatic Christian group where we practiced speaking in tongues, and people prophesied, and healed the sick by the laying on of hands, and did other amazing things because they had the “Spiritual gifts.”

        Just to be sure I understand, at seventeen while in church you heard speaking in tongues and could actually interpret what was said. Or you got filled with the holy spirit and spoke in tongues, and someone in the congregation understood what you were saying even if you didn’t. You actually heard prophesy that came about as truth. Not; Bart will be married and have children, the Jayhawks will win more games, Chester will finally get his license. I’d be the most interested if you know for a fact that in your church anyone, deacon, pastor, lay person or sister MaryJane healed anyone by the laying on of hands, ie: the deaf can hear, blind can see, broken arm is healed, let’s cut that cast off! If the “Spiritual gifts” were true and honest wouldn’t they have to given by God? (at seventeen you hadn’t yet heard the devil invoked) If given by God how could one not be a believer?

      • Robert  September 7, 2017

        “I was a bit torn. I basically thought that maybe tongues were not appropriate any longer, but I didn’t think they were demonic. I knew too many committed Christians who spoke in tongues to think they were possessed.”

        Later on, as you progressed in your more progressive academic education beyond the conservative Moody Institute, how did your view of the charismatic gifts evolve? Did you maintain contact or reconnect with other charismatic groups of Christians who spoke in tongues, prophesied, etc? Did you continue to do so yourself? Or did you simply put aside such childish things?

        “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

        • Bart
          Bart  September 7, 2017

          I ended up thinking that the charismatics were probably just wrong and a bit deceived.

  3. Jeff
    Jeff  September 3, 2017

    The author of Matthew had lots of problems with (i.e., ignorance of) Hebrew language, style and culture.

    His funniest mistake involved Jesus’ donkey ride on Palm Sunday. Apparently knowing nothing of Hebraic parallellism, Greek-speaking Matthew assumed that the prophet Zechariah (in Zech 9:9) meant TWO donkeys. Matthew even asserts that cloaks were put over BOTH animals and Jesus rode them BOTH into town! Let’s just hope the two equines stayed very close together! If Matt was a Jew he was certainly thoroughly Hellenized and undoubtedly distanced in time and place from the events of which he writes.

  4. screwtape  September 3, 2017

    I spent a couple of years praying for the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit with evidence of speaking in tongues” without success. A couple of times I even locked myself in a closet and said I wasn’t coming out until I got it. Unfortunately, I had to go to work. One day one of the elders of the church paid me a visit after I had submitted a request to be baptized in the Holy Spirit and when it wasn’t working he said I was just holding back and I should follow his lead and just try to say what he said. Didn’t sound “Biblical” to me because the Holy Spirit is supposed to just “fall on you” but I did it. Didn’t feel anything but weird at first but gradually over time it seemed like I had opened up a new dimension in my spirituality. I can still speak in tongues any time I want today and sometimes wake up in my sleep doing it.

    Obviously, the fundamentalists were right and it was demonic, since I’m now an atheist. I asked for bread and God gave me a serpent instead.

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  September 4, 2017

      I know several who went through a lot of stress and frustration trying to receive the “gift” of tongues. I actually started speaking in tongues after watching a Christian program that had Pat Boone on it as a guest. He was discussing how to receive the gift of tongues. I followed his directions and began speaking in tongues immediately. I was 13 years old at the time.

      Failing to speak in tongues in a charismatic church must take a toll psychologically and emotionally after a while.

  5. Jeff
    Jeff  September 3, 2017

    Bart, here’s a “quick and dirty” question for your Mailbag:
    In Mark 8:34 (NIV) we read: “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me…’”

    When Jesus made this pronouncement to the crowd his crucifixion was some time off in the future. He himself may have known he would die on a Roman cross but no one else there did! To the crowd, those words would have been nonsense. Their response would have been something like “Wait…what did he say? We’re to pick up a Roman method of execution and follow him? Is he daft?”

    Am I missing something here? Am I daft?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2017

      Yes, the verse doesn’t make sense in Jesus’ own context, only in the context of later readers of Mark’s Gospel. For Mark, that’s all that matters, ultimately.

      • webo112
        webo112  September 12, 2017

        I have been meaning to inquire about, this, as this line is very interesting – it obviously does not likely go back to the historical Jesus, when measured with the various historical tools, contextual reliability etc. BUT my question is what actual Greek word is used here in the Greek? is it the same word found though out the Greek new testament, in Paul’s letters etc?

        I have been wondering and researching a little trying to pin point at what stage in Christianity did the symbol of the (actual) cross become significant and the main symbol associated with Christianity. This verse, (in English translation) would imply fairly early, but if the Greek word used means more “executing steak”. then that’s different.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 14, 2017

          I’m not sure which Greek word you’re asking about. But the word for cross refers not to a straight pole but a pole with a crossbeam. (And I think you meant “stake”! 🙂 )

          • webo112
            webo112  September 19, 2017

            Yes, to clarify it was in regards to :
            In Mark 8:34 (NIV) we read: “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself and take up his *cross* and follow me…’

            I was referring to the Greek word “Stauros” as I assume this is what is used for the word “cross” in the older manuscripts?
            Is this the same word that is used in whenever “cross” is used in NT (again in manuscripts – not translations)?
            If so, doesn’t this show that since the word cross is used in early writings such as Mark (in the above context as a somewhat symbol of sacrifice that others are to do as well), that then the cross symbol had already begun being used and associated with the early Christian movement?

            Thank you in advance,

          • Bart
            Bart  September 20, 2017

            Yes, the word cross is STAUROS and it is the word used every time in the NT. As to it’s being a “symbol” I suppose it depends on what you mean by symbol There were no pictorial representations of the cross, for example, in early Christianity during the first couple of centuries. It definitely became an actual representational symbol from the time of Constantine. (Look up “labarum” for example)

          • webo112
            webo112  September 19, 2017

            ..Also, pertaining to the above comment about (early) Christians using the cross as a symbol for their religion; do think having a symbol to identify and promote the religion had a helping hand in the promotion and rise of Christianity? You don’t touch on this on the ‘Triumph of Christianity’ right?
            Just a side thought. Not really (Historical) scholarship ground, but I think the symbolism aspect should not be ignored…it seems very prevalent in many religions, sports, cults and nationalism.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 20, 2017

            Early on it would not have been a useful symbol for evangelism, kind of like using as the symbol for your group the gallows or the electric chair.

          • webo112
            webo112  September 20, 2017

            ..Ah ok, good points professor…I agree, perhaps the symbol of the cross was not used as early, even though it is spoken of “symbolically” in Mark 8:34 .
            I believe the symbol of the fish was used in early Christianity as well?
            Yes, I am aware of the use from Constantine’s time and his use of X&P (Greek letters) overlapped on his armies’ shields etc. I was trying to dwell further back in time.
            Thanks again for your input.

  6. Jeff
    Jeff  September 3, 2017

    Among many other helpful tools, the editors of The Life Application Bible inserted a section between John’s gospel and the book of Acts entitled “Harmony of the Gospels”. It consists mainly of a five column data table with 250 rows. The first column is a list of 250 significant events in the life of Christ. The remaining four columns list the citations, respectively, in each of the four gospels, where that particular event is documented.

    My first perusal of the table drew a blank; in fact it appeared to reflect anything BUT harmony. Curious, I wanted to see how these data could be examined using the power of a relational database. I located the same table on a web site and downloaded it into Microsoft Access as a database table with five variables and 250 records. I turned my attention to the synoptics.

    The pattern of the data—along with some random checks of cited passages—leaves the distinct impression that Matthew and Luke relied heavily on Mark as a source, including extensive verbatim repetition; i.e., both of the later authors were definitely looking at a copy of Mark when they were writing. Querying the data yielded the following:

    Of the 134 gospel events found in Matthew, 80 of them (59%) were evidently copied from Mark, often verbatim. (All percentages are in terms of number of events, not textual verbiage.)

    Of the 127 gospel events found in Luke, 63 of them (50%) were evidently copied from Mark, once again, often verbatim.

    To break things down farther I wrote several more queries using the “Is Null/Is Not Null” inclusion criterion to determine the number of events in each of the following groups:

    Forty-five events were recorded in Matthew but not in Mark or Luke suggesting at least one source unique to Matthew (35% of Matthew.)

    Fifty-five events were recorded in Luke but not in Mark or Matthew suggesting at least one source unique to Luke (43% of Luke.)

    Finally, nine events were recorded in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark suggesting at least one other source common to—and exclusive to—Matthew and Luke (6% of Matthew; 7% of Luke.)

    To sum up, I pose this open question with respect to the appellation “synoptic”:

    My command of Greek is still embryonic—but getting better—and this arcane expression seems utterly devoid of utility in the present context. Why not just address the elephant in the living room? These gospels are “seen together” for one reason only: duplication that, if they were not anonymous, would be categorized as plagiarism. Half of Luke and three fifths of Matthew were simply copied from Mark, largely verbatim. Wouldn’t those facts be more useful to students of the gospels than obscure jargon like “synoptic” that conveys nothing?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2017

      Yes, that’s why virtually all scholars think that Matthew and Luke used both Mark and Q. (I wouldn’t call it “plagiarism,” though; plagiarism is when one author claims the work of another for his own. But Matthew and Luke do not make that claim, since they don’t name themselves. It’s not like my taking paragraphs out of Stephen King and calling them mine. They don’t call *anything* theirs, since they are anonymous. So it’s kinda like plagiarism, but not really.)

      • Robby  September 4, 2017

        Hi Bart,
        So, using your definition of plagerism (which I agree), is the Book of Mormon, which has many parts lifted straight from the King James considered as a plagerism of the Bible?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 5, 2017

          It’s not plagiarism unless the author claims the words as his own; if he makes no authorial claim, then he’s not doing that.

      • stevenpounders  September 4, 2017

        Wait. If you wrote a book and called yourself Stephen King, that would be forgery, not plagiarism – right?
        Plagiarism would be copying huge portions of King’s “The Shining” into a book you publish under your own name without giving King any credit. Right?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 5, 2017

          Yikes. Sorry — I was responding too quickly without thinking. Yes, of course, that’s forgery. It’s if I take passages from the novel “The Stand” and claim that I wrote them that it would be plagiarism.

    • Tony  September 5, 2017

      “Finally, nine events were recorded in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark suggesting at least one other source common to—and exclusive to—Matthew and Luke (6% of Matthew; 7% of Luke.)”
      —————————————————————————————————
      Great job! But it seems to me that a simpler solution is that Luke just copied material from Matthew that was unique to Matthew – and did not come from Mark.

      In all fairness to Matthew; he was not just a copier of Mark, but also a creative writer with his own agenda. Note the birth story. There is a growing opinion that there was no Q, and that “Q” are just additions made by Matthew to Mark which were redacted into Luke. See Mark Goodacre, the case against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem.

  7. John Uzoigwe  September 3, 2017

    Dr. Bart, I would like to know whether the apostles actually spoke in foreign talk( like speaking Swahili, Chinese) or they were just making vocal meaningless sounds as it is being done today by Christians. Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2017

      In Acts they are understood to be speaking known languages — that’s the point of the story, people who are gathered around who are from all parts of the world hear them preaching the Gospel in their own languages.

  8. caesar  September 3, 2017

    Please tell me if I’m mistaken about anything in the following paragraph:

    NONE of the OT passages that are universally understood as messianic actually use the word Messiah. For example, Isaiah 11 is universally understood as messianic, but it does not use the word Messiah. In fact, in many translations, the word Messiah doesn’t appear anywhere in the OT, (or it may appear twice in Daniel nine, and that’s all.) Rather, that Hebrew word ‘mashiach’ is translated as anointed. So, for Isaiah 9 to be messianic, we wouldn’t necessarily expect to see the word Messiah.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2017

      I don’t know what you mean in your final statement that Isaiah 9 might be messianic. What would that mean if it wasn’t talking about a future messiah?

  9. Wilusa  September 3, 2017

    “When I went to Moody Bible Institute, I was taught that these manifestations of the Spirit were in fact from the Devil, that the gifts were no longer given… Each RA had, next to the phone in his room, a card indicating what number to call in case of an emergency. The emergencies were listed, with the appropriate phone numbers, and included “fire, medical emergency, and … charismatic activity.” Really.”

    When I was thinking about that extreme reaction, it made me think of something else. Do you know anything about Catholic *exorcists*? I know there have been a lot of (I assume) silly movies about such things; I’ve never looked at them. But I’ve gotten the impression exorcists really exist, and really do claim to cast out demons. Have all cases been debunked, or is there some truth in it?

    While I don’t believe in a deity (or Satanic figure), I do believe in the possibility of occurrences we’d consider “paranormal.” And in the slight knowledge I have of Catholic priests, I’ve gotten the impression they’re sincere in their beliefs.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2017

      Yes, they exist ,and yes they are sincere. I don’t know what you mean about there being “truth” in it. Someone like me, who does not believe in the existence of demons, certainly doesn’t think that these people are *really* casting out demons. (But I think the movie The Exorcist is *fantastic*, for what it’s worth)>

      • RVBlake  September 4, 2017

        It’s my understanding that when an allegation of demonic possession is reported to Church authorities, the Vatican pulls out all the stops to verify that it’s not due to emotional disturbance on the part of the “possessed.” I’ve also heard that there’s an exorcist in every diocese…Don’t know if that’s true.

      • Wilusa  September 7, 2017

        Here’s what I was trying to get at – what I meant by “truth.” I’m not sure this sort of thing ever happens! But the long-held belief in exorcists leads me to suspect it sometimes does. *If* it does…

        Suppose a Catholic layman believes he’s being tormented by demons. His relatives, also Catholic, believe in the existence of God and possibly Satan; but they don’t believe in minor “demons,” nor do they believe Satan himself would be bothered with the man. They convince him to see a psychiatrist.

        The psychiatrist, a Catholic with views like theirs, tries to help. He’s even willing to pretend to believe in the “demons.” But he can’t ethically pretend he himself is interacting with them; and ultimately, he can’t help the man at all.

        So the man finally goes to a priest/exorcist. The priest genuinely believes in the existence of those demons…*and* believes he’s interacting with them, casting them out! The exorcism is a complete success, and those particular demons are never heard of again.

        *If* that happened, would you conclude that *both* the layman and the priest were necessarily suffering from a form of mental illness…even though the priest’s “illness” enabled him to help others, and seemingly had no negative consequences for anyone?

        Or would you think it possible that even though neither “God” nor “Satan” exists, psychic entities like those demons *may* briefly exist, as thought-forms *created and maintained in existence by people’s beliefs?*

        (In a way, it’s similar to wondering whether believers’ “speaking in tongues” may sometimes make sense…and if it does, *why* it does.)

        • Bart
          Bart  September 8, 2017

          I don’t think it’s a matter of mental illness at all. It’s a matter of living according to cultural assumptions about how to make sense of realities people face. Different cultures make different assumptions, and few are as scientifically oriented as ours, so they see the world and weird phenomena in it in very different ways.

  10. dragonfly  September 3, 2017

    I would assume when Paul says “when the perfect comes” he was talking about God bringing in his new kingdom, not the new testament.

  11. Tony  September 3, 2017

    1) The Moody folks interpretation that, “when the perfect comes”, refers to the NT is beyond absurd. Paul was interested in one thing only – the imminent arrival of the celestial Jesus. Likely, that’s what Paul meant when he wrote, “when the perfect comes”.

    2) The questioner reference to “some atheist tract” may give some insight into that person’s mind-set. Nevertheless, the atheist tract is right, (they usually are).

    The creators of the gospels were no sophisticated exegeses experts. Their mission was simple. First, they mined the Septuagint for anything they could use for their fabricated Jesus narrative. Next, they’d incorporate some of these items as prophecy fulfillments. A classic one is Mt 21:1-10 where Jesus straddles both a donkey and a colt due to a misreading of scripture by the author.

    Matthew tripped over Isaiah 7:14 and looked, or cared, no further. Context, or translation error, was irrelevant. He had a winner! Not only was a virgin birth somehow predicted in scripture, but it definitely was an event that would require divine intervention! Matthew sets it up nicely in Mt 1:18 and references his Septuagint prophecy fulfillment in Mt 1:23. No further interpretation is needed. Matthew meant a literal virgin.

    • RVBlake  September 4, 2017

      I’ll clear up your “insight” into my mind-set for you. I’ve read numerous essays and books by atheists, too many to recount…Hence my use of the term “some” atheist tract – I simply do not recall the author.

      • Tony  September 5, 2017

        Thanks for the clarification. I think the first time I found out about the virgin issue was from a Bart Ehrman book.

  12. talmoore
    talmoore  September 3, 2017

    Probably the closest English word to the Hebrew “alma” is “maiden”. Up until recently the word “maiden” in English carried the tacit implication that the woman is unmarried and, therefore, still a virgin. The same implication exists in the Hebrew word. However, the context around Isaiah 7:14 does not imply that the “maiden” will give birth as a virgin. The implication is that she will conceive in the regular way (via intercourse), carry her child to term and give birth. More importantly, you’ll notice that the actual conception and birth are not “the sign” that Isaiah is prophesying. He addresses the actual sign in verse 16 — before the young man is able to know good from evil (traditionally around the time of puberty) “Forsaken shall be the land of the two kings whom you fear.” The sign is not actually the birth. The “sign” is the downfall of the “two kings,” probably the kings of Assyria and Egypt. Isaiah is saying that downfall will occur within the time it takes that maiden to marry, conceive, give birth and the child reaches puberty — presumably at least a decade out. That’s the REAL sign.

    • dankoh  September 5, 2017

      No, the closest English translation to “‘almah” is “young woman.” “‘Almah” is the female version of “‘elem” which means young man. Both words are strictly a chronological designation; they say nothing about marital or virginal status.

      There is some scholarly argument that the child about to be born was Hezekiah, which means his mother was married to Ahaz.

      Also, the time factor was not puberty but conscious of right from wrong, meaning about 3-5 years. By that time, the kings of Aram and Israel will no longer be a threat to Ahaz. (Aram could mean Assyria.)

      • talmoore
        talmoore  September 16, 2017

        “No, the closest English translation to “‘almah” is “young woman.””
        A distinction without a difference.

        “the time factor was not puberty but conscious of right from wrong, meaning about 3-5 years.”
        That’s debatable. Either way, that’s not the main point. The point is that “Isaiah” is not saying the “sign” is the birth but the clash of kings within the coming years.

  13. Rick
    Rick  September 3, 2017

    Professor,,, So I attended a (I guess) Pentecostal service many years ago with a friend who later became mainstream clergy. In the middle of the thing some guy a few rows back started to make awful sounds which I thought sounded much closer to severe intestinal distress than any language I had ever heard. From that I assumed all current day speaking in tongues was gobledegook… which doesn’t fit Acts at all – as it pretty clearly says the ensuing babel was understood by “Parthians and Medes etc.” How is current day speaking in tongues …. supposed to be done and how is it interpreted to fit with the (supposedly inerrant?) scripture?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2017

      Often it is thought that sometimes the language spoken is a human language, and other times — as intimated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14 — it is an angelic language, so that it may sound like gobledegook, but it is in fact an actual tongue.

  14. epicurus
    epicurus  September 4, 2017

    Until I read your answer I assumed the Septuagint mistranslated the Hebrew word Alma, but it sounds like it didn’t really. So is it fair to say the Septuagint does not err in using Greek Parthenos for Hebrew Alma, rather the problem, if one wants to call it that, occurs when the meaning of the Greek word evolves in usage between the Septuagint and the time of Matthew’s writing? Is there any concrete point we know of when the change or evolution of its meaning occured before Matthew got a hold of it?
    I do not know Hebrew or Greek, only rudimentary tourist German – if you need to know where the bathroom is or what time the train leaves, I’m your man.

  15. Silver  September 4, 2017

    Is it the case that what was purported to have happened at Pentecost was that the disciples were able to address their hearers in those peoples’ own languages i.e. they were suddenly able to speak Greek or whatever as well as their own Aramaic? If that is so that which goes on within charismatic circles (something you’ve said you were capable of) is of a different order. In the latter case can it be said that this is a manifestation of being ‘carried away in the spirit’, overcome with an inward joy, a transport of delight?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2017

      Right. Often today it is thought that sometimes the language spoken is a human language, and other times — as intimated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14 — it is an angelic language, so that it may sound like gobledegook, but it is in fact an actual tongue.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 4, 2017

      When you reverse-engineer the passage in Acts, it’s clear that the account is meant to be symbolic (though by Luke’s time it may have already been believed to be a genuine historical event). What does it symbolize? It symbolizes The Great Commission. God has given the post-Crucifixion Christians the gift — via the Holy Spirit — of speaking many national languages so that they can preach the Good News beyond just Palestinian Jews. The story is meant to symbolize how the followers of Jesus understood that their mission to bring about the eschaton was to go out into the world and find any and all believers in Christ, both Jew and Gentile.

      Funny enough, this contradicts the notion that Jesus told his followers to do this. If Jesus had explicitly told his followers to preach to non-Palestinian Jews and Gentiles, why would it be necessary for Jesus and the Holy Spirit to come to the Christians AFTER the crucifixion in order to inform them of something they already knew? It’s because Jesus probably never told his followers that they had to spread the Good News to Gentiles and Jews outside of Palestine! The “speaking tongues” event is meant to illustrate one of the ways the first Christians learned of their mission outside of Palestinian Jews.

      This is similar in function to Peter’s post-Crucifixion dream in which he is told that all animals are now clean to eat. Why would Peter need to be told after Jesus’ death that the kosher laws have been abrogated if Jesus had already abrogated them before the Crucifixion? Because Jesus never abrogated the kashrut before his death! Peter’s dream about the abrogation of the dietary laws is symbolic of the post-Crucifixion mission to the Gentiles (who were put off by the seemingly arbitrary rules) similar to how the gift of “speaking in tongues” was symbolic of that mission.

  16. RVBlake  September 4, 2017

    Thanks for publishing my question about “amah.” If the author of Matthew was interpreting “parthenos” to mean virgin, it appears the author of the tract I mentioned was correct. I once tried to determine the source of the Marian cult in the Catholic Church and was unsuccessful, finding only references to North African practices in early Church history. I wonder if the source could be this passage in Matthew.

  17. Boltonian  September 5, 2017

    Slightly off topic. I know that your standard answer to ‘Who wrote the gospels?’ is that we have no idea but has anybody had a stab at identifying who the possible suspects might have been? Literacy rates, as you say, were low at that time and confined to a wealthy and educated elite, and we have a good idea of the dates of composition. Is there a chance that any of the authors can be identified through other surviving contemporaneous pieces that bear a similarity in style and content?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 5, 2017

      Yes, of course. The problem is that we don’t know the names of 99% of the people who were literate at the time.

      • dragonfly  September 6, 2017

        If you’re saying we know the names of 1% of the people who were literate at the time, I think you’re being optimistic.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 7, 2017

          I meant Christians, of course. But yes, that too is optimistic.

  18. John Uzoigwe  September 5, 2017

    When you spoke in tongues in what language then did you speak since the whole idea of tongue speaking was to reach out to foreigners…

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2017

      That’s the idea of the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, but in 1 Cor. 12-14 the idea is that the language could be an angelic tongue, not a human one.

  19. JoeWallack  September 5, 2017

    “Matthew, of course, did not read Isaiah in Hebrew but in Greek, and the Greek translators (of the “Septuagint” – i.e., the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures) translated ALMA with the Greek word PARTHENOS, which also meant “young maiden” but eventually took on the meaning of “young maiden who has not yet had sex” – i.e., virgin. Matthew read the passage that way, and interpreted it to refer not to something in Isaiah’s time but in the distant future, with reference to the messiah.”

    By Jove (so to speak), I think you’ve got it.

    Regarding the supposed Virgin Birth Brown in his classic “Birth” demonstrates that GMatthew’s structure of the Annunication parallels perfectly with Jewish Bible annunciations, if you exorcise the Virgin Birth bits (154). Regrettably Brown theorizes that “Matthew” (author) inherited this narrative and than edited the Virgin Birth into it. Unfortunately, for Brown’s memory, there is no evidence of a prior narrative.

    It’s also possible that original GMatthew lacked the Virgin Birth:

    1) The only two significant Christian authors before “Matthew”, Paul and “Mark”, have no evidence of a Virgin Birth.

    2) GMatthew is the most Jewish Gospel and there is no evidence of a Jewish belief in Virgin Births at the time.

    3) We have significant Textual Criticism evidence for no original Virgin Birth in GMatthew. The orthodox themselves confess that The Ebionites, a significant early Sect, used a GMatthew that had no Virgin Birth.

    4) The Difficult Reading principle suggests that a GMatthew with no Virgin Birth might not have any children survive.

    5) GMatthew’s peer Gospel, GLuke, has similar issues.

    6) This may explain why there are no extant copies of the most popular early Gospel in the first two centuries.

    http://thenewporphyry.blogspot.com/

  20. James Cotter  September 8, 2017

    dr ehrman,

    “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”

    “are one” = 1 thing? modalism?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2017

      The text doesn’t say! So it’s a matter of interpretation.

  21. madi22  September 17, 2017

    Just to be clear bart, who do you think has interpreted the texts more accurately about the gifts of the spirit, charismatics or cessationists? Also you mentioned perfection coming in the form of the new testament in that scripture you mentioned from moody bible school, is that how the doctrine of biblical infallibility came about?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 17, 2017

      I don’t think either is accurate, simply because I don’t think there ever were actual gifts of the spirit.

  22. Jana  October 15, 2017

    Dear Dr. Erhman, lol Meaty and prolific. I’m having a hard time keeping up. In my defense, it’s been very soggy here with so many hurricanes and horrific lightning storms in the Gulf (no destruction ) … ! onward.

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