Pages 13-14, 16: spring 1993
A VIRGIN-BIRTH PROPHECY?
Kenneth E. Nahigian
Prophecy is a muddy science, and Bible prophecy more muddy than most.
Take those Old Testament prophecies. Evangelists never tire of telling us
that hundreds were fulfilled in the life of Jesus, far too many to be called
coincidence. But how many of these are real, and how many are prophetia ex
eventu--prophecies constructed after the fact, products of careful selection
To get an idea, let's look at the most famous, the prophecy of the child
Immanuel as presented in the Gospel of Matthew:
Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was
spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin
shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall
call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us
Most good Christians take this at face value, assured that the prophet Isaiah
did indeed describe Jesus' miraculous conception and birth seven hundred
years before. But did he?
Authorities are nearly unanimous. The answer is no.
What did Isaiah really say? Turning to Isaiah 7:14 (Masoretic text), we
find his precise words:
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold,
ha'almah shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name
Matthew's interpretation of this passage has several problems, the largest
hanging on the Hebrew word 'almah. Writing in Greek, the gospel author
turned almah into parthenos, a word usually (but not always) meaning "vir-
gin." In fact, he had a precedent for this; the Septuagint, a translation of
the Old Testament used by Greek-speaking Jews of his day, did indeed use
parthenos in the Isaiah passage. But the Septuagint was for the most part a
notoriously sloppy translation, and its version of Isaiah was generally more
error-ridden than the rest. By the Middle Ages, the Jews had abandoned
the Septuagint, and later Greek translations, by Aquila, Theodotion, Lucien
and others, did not use the word parthenos. (The Septuagint, commonly
known as the LXX, is still favored by Eastern Orthodox churches.)
Assuredly, the Hebrew Old Testament predating the Septuagint used
'almah, so what did the word mean? While rare in the Hebrew Bible, almah
does occur here and there, notably in Genesis 24:43 and Exodus 2:8, but an
examination of the contexts of these passages will show nothing to suggest
that the noun imputed virginity.
On the other hand, a male youth in the Old Testament was called na'ar or
elem, the feminine forms of which were na'arah and 'almah respectively. The
limited usage of elem (lad or stripling) in the Old Testament nowhere implied
sexual purity; thus an 'almah was an adolescent female, virgin or not, just as
an elem was an adolescent male. In fact, one verse does seem to use 'almah
in reference to a nonvirgin. This is Proverbs 30:19, which listed four things
too marvelous to understand: the way of an eagle in the air, the way of a
serpent on a rock, the way of a ship in the sea, and the way of a man with
a maiden ('almah). To say the least, "the way of a man with an 'almah"
would certainly jeopardize a state of sexual purity, but more damaging than
this rather obvious fact is the comparison that the writer went on to state:
"Such is the way of an adulterous woman: she eats, wipes her mouth, and
says, 'I have done no wrong'" (v:20, NAB). It seems odd writer that the
author would use 'almah to denote sexual purity and then compare it to the
ongoing affairs of an adulterous woman. More likely the author's point was
that all these things have one element in common: they do not leave much of
Aside from this, the Torah does, in fact, have an explicit word for virgin
(betulah or bethulah), which is always used where the context requires
virginity. (For confirmation, see Genesis 24:16, Leviticus 21:14, and Deuter-
onomy 22:15-19). Even Isaiah used it in 62:5. Its nonuse in the "Immanuel"
passage is a rather loud hint that Isaiah spoke only of a young woman, not
specifically of a virgin.
More to the point, nearly all modern commentaries agree with Talmudic
scholars that Isaiah's "sign" had nothing to do with a messiah. Reviewing
half a dozen for this article, I found only one dissenter. Significantly, it
was one that spouted the fundamentalist party line on every other issue.
Interested readers can jaunt to the library and peruse the massive Inter-
preter's Bible (Vol. 5, pp. 217-22), one of the most authoritative works in
the field. Or more succinctly, try the popular Harper's Bible Dictionary (Paul
J, Achtemeier, gen. ed., 1985), page 419, where this statement is found:
It is clear, however, that... Isaiah 7:14 did not speak of the
miraculous birth of Jesus centuries later.... The sign of Imman-
uel offered by the prophet to Ahaz had to do with the imminent
birth of a child, of a mother known to Ahaz and Isaiah, and
signified God's presence with his people....
Indeed, Isaiah's word for "sign" was 'ot, which in the Hebrew Bible invaria-
bly indicated an imminent sign or omen, not one in the far future. Keep
reading, in fact, and you will see Isaiah's sign appear just a few verses later
(Is. 8:3-4), when a certain prophetess gives birth to a son--a child whom
God called "Immanuel" in verse 8. By contrast, nowhere in the New Testament
did any character ever call Jesus Immanuel.
Why the confusion? Of course, the author of the Gospel of Matthew had a
vested interest in the nascent church and wanted to ground the new Chris-
tian mythos in Jewish prophecy whenever possible. Almost all scholars agree
this "Matthew" was not the apostle but rather a Greek-speaking Christian
living in or near Antioch of Syria, who wrote about A.D. 90, about two
generations after the crucifixion. Very likely, he was familiar with only the
Septuagint version of Isaiah. (That Matthew wrote the first gospel was a
tradition started by Bishop Papias of Hieropolos in the second century.)
Also, of course, the early Christians would have liked a virgin-born savior
anyway, out of sheer competitiveness, because so many other rival religions
had one. (Mithra, Zoroaster, Adonis, and Dionysus were just a few.) More-
over, we know the gospel writers were not adverse to massaging and even
manufacturing details in order to "flesh out" the Jesus story. That is why,
for example, you find such conflicting genealogies for Jesus in Matthew 1:1-16
and Luke 3:23-38.
All things considered, it is hardly surprising that "Matthew" would pull
Isaiah a bit out of context and try to wring a new meaning from it. What is
surprising is that this literary sleight of hand grew to become such a corner-
stone of Christendom and still has modern fundamentalists so befuddled. So
let's dust off our Bibles (I like the New Revised English Bible best for clarity
and the Revised Standard Version for beauty) and reread the Immanuel
The setting is the Syro-Ephraimite war (ca. 734 B.C.). Wicked King
Ahaz of Judah was frantic about Ephraim (another name for the northern
kingdom, Israel) and Damascus (capital of Syria), which were plotting a
preemptive strike. Isaiah enters, offering a sign. Ahaz demurs. Isaiah
storms at him for his lack of faith and then provides a sign anyway: A male
child would be born. Before this child is old enough to know to "refuse evil
and choose the good," Assyria would lay waste both Samaria and Damascus
(7:16). [This sub-prophecy, in fact, came true in 2 Kings 16:9; 17:5-6.]
Then, to punish Ahaz, Assyria itself, with Egypt, would arise as a far great-
Think about this. If Ahaz was concerned with an imminent attack from
Samaria and Syria, why offer a sign that would not occur for seven cen-
turies? To Ahaz this would be no sign at all. Also, if the Immanuel child
was God incarnate, how could Isaiah speak of a time when Immanuel would not
know enough to choose good over evil? What about divine omniscience?
Note also the striking parallel between verses 7:16 and 8:4. Here is Isaiah
prophesying almost identically about both children. The more closely you
look, the more difficult to deny that these two are identical.
You can hardly blame evangelicals for seeing a special significance in the
name Immanu'el, Hebrew for "God with us," but such language and imagery
was right at home in the world of old Jewish nomenclature, where every other
proper name seemed a reminder of God's presence. Thus we have Isaiah,
which means "God's help"; Michael, "Like unto God"; Israel," "Striving with
God"; Elihu, "He is my God"; Adonijah, "Yahweh Lord"; and a host of oth-
Then again, some apologists try to rescue their favored exegesis by
equating both Immanuel and Jesus with the child mentioned a bit later in
chapter 9, "Unto us a child is born...."
It is tempting. This section, while obscure, is in fact one of the most
powerful and poetic passages in the Old Testament. It may well be an early
messianic prophecy (I like to think it is), [see VIRGIN, p. 16] but in fair-
ness, note that most Jewish scholars (who should know better than evangeli-
cals) insist it is an ode praising Hezekiah, Ahaz's righteous son (2 Chron.
29), who came to the throne in 720 B.C. and centralized the worship of
Jehovah at Jerusalem. The various titles ascribed to him, such as "Prince of
Peace" and "Everlasting Father," were apparently honorifics used by the
ancient Jews for favorite kings. (You find the same sort of bread-buttering
in Egyptian hymns to the pharaoh and in Babylonian royal eulogies.) Hebrew
scholars also remind us, gently, that the key Hebrew verbs in Isaiah 9:6 are
in the past tense.
A moot point. For reasons stated earlier, we cannot use the child in
Isaiah 9:6 as a bridge connecting Immanuel to Jesus. As Old Testament
prophecies of the Christian Messiah go, this one, like so many others, has
(Kenneth E. Nahigian's address is 2411 Tyrolean Way, Sacramento, CA
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