Here in the lead-up to December 25, I am discussing some issues related to Jesus’ birth.  As I mentioned in my previous post, in the entire New Testament, the story of the virgin birth is found only in Matthew and Luke.  Luke has a pretty straightforward explanation of why Jesus had to be born of a virgin: it’s because he was (literally) the “Son of God.”  That is, God is the one who got Mary pregnant, as the angel tells her at the Annunciation:  read Luke 1:31-35, and notice the angels’ explanation: the Spirit of God will “come upon her … SO THAT” the child born of her will be called “The Son of God.”

Matthew, though, has a different explanation.  For Matthew Jesus had to be born of a virgin because that is what was predicted in the Old Testament. This view fits in very well with Matthew’s entire birth narrative of chapters 1-2.  Everything happens “to fulfill Scripture.”

  • Why was Jesus’ mother a virgin? To fulfill what the prophet said (he quotes Isaiah 7:14: “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son”)
  • Why was he born in Bethlehem? To fulfill what the prophet said (he quotes Micah 5:2: “And you, Bethlehem…from you shall come a ruler”
  • Why did Joseph and the family escape to Egypt? To fulfill what the prophet said (he quotes Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt I have called my son”)
  • Why did Herod have the boys two years and under killed? To fulfill what the prophet said (he quotes Jeremiah 31.15 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation”)
  • Why did Joseph and his family relocate to Nazareth? To fulfill what the prophet said (he quotes … well what does he quote, exactly? “He will be called a Nazorean.” Huh?  It’s nowhere in the OT)

These so-called “fulfillment citations” are found in Matthew and only in Matthew.  It is clear that Matthew wants to see Jesus as the fulfillment of what the Old Testament prophets of had said about the messiah Jesus’ coming into the world was all part of the divine plan.  This is clear from the opening verses of the Gospel as well, where Matthew gives his genealogy of Jesus, to which I gave a few posts a few months ago.  As we saw, according to Matthew, Jesus’ (well, his “father” Joseph’s) genealogy falls into a divinely inspired pattern.  From the father of the Jews Abraham to the greatest king of Israel, David, there were fourteen generations; from David to the greatest disaster in Israel, the Babylonian Captivity were fourteen generations; and from the Babylonian Captivity to the messiah, Jesus was fourteen generations.  Something BIG happens every fourteen generations.  Jesus’ coming into the world is all according to plan.

It is not always appreciated that…

Most readers do not notice that Matthew understands Jesus’ “fulfillment” of Scripture in two different, though related, ways.

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In some instances, a prophet predicts what will happen (in Matthew’s opinion), and Jesus fulfills what was predicted.  And so Micah predicted that a savior would come from Bethlehem, and lo and behold, that’s where Jesus’ was born; Isaiah predicts that this one will be born of a virgin, and lo and behold, he is.

In other instances Matthew sees that Jesus fills an event mentioned by a prophet full of meaning (filling full =  fulfill).  And so, for example, Hosea 11:1 is referring to the nation of Israel that escaped its slavery in Egypt, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”  The “son” here is Israel.   But Jesus too comes out of Egypt, according to Matthew (and only Matthew), and thereby “fulfills” what had happened earlier.  In the days of Moses the coming forth from Egypt was God’s act of salvation for his people.  And now God has acted again, in bringing ultimate salvation to his people, not from their foreign oppressors but from sin.  And so Jesus fulfills what happened earlier to Egypt.

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 have mentioned before, the author of Isaiah does not predict that a future messiah will be born of a virgin.   Read the verse.  In fact, read the whole chapter.  In fact, read the one before and the one after it.

First, Isaiah is not talking about a future messiah.  When you read the chapter you’ll see – the messiah is not mentioned in the passage.  That is, the word “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.

And what is striking, is that in the Hebrew, the verse does NOT say “a virgin will conceive and bear a son” but instead “a young woman is with child and will bear a son.”

The key 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.

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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.