What the Virgin Birth Means & Why Rob Bell Is So Tragically Wrong

So tomorrow is Christmas. I won’t be posting on Christmas day, so this counts double.

The miracle we celebrate on Christmas is the incarnation, which depends in biblical terms on the virgin birth (or, perhaps more accurately, the virgin conception). We know that things like the cross and the empty tomb are of importance to Christian faith. But seriously, does the virgin birth really matter? Or is it this odd little teaching of the Bible that we could take or leave?

Some will recall that Rob Bell, the very gifted and very controversial ex-pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, famously wrote in Velvet Elvis a few years back that the virgin birth is not essential to our faith. It’s not that important, according to Bell:

What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus has a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births? 

He continues:

I affirm the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more. . . 

But if the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn’t that strong in the first place, was it? (26-27)

The Christian faith does not “fall apart” if we “rethink one spring.” Praise God, Christianity isn’t one bit changed if we monkey around with it. But we will be. If you relinquish one part of biblical theology, do you spiritually crumble to ash on the spot? No. But you set yourself up for spiritual disaster. This is compounded 100,000 times if you are a pastor and major Christian leader as Bell was. The recent New Yorker profile of Bell made very clear that releasing one’s grip on one pearl of Christian doctrine can quickly lead to the unstringing of the whole chain. This, of course, is not a new way to be Christian, but an old one. The heresies the early church faced two millennia or so ago are alive and well. The liberal Protestants of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries trod this path not a hundred years ago.

This is one of the funniest things about our modern sages giving us a “new spin on an old faith” or things like that: it’s not new at all. If you really want to dig into the disastrous trajectory of modern Protestant liberalism, see Gary Dorrien’s trilogy (Dorrien actually belongs to this tradition, but he’s a rigorous scholar). Or, if you want a shorter take, read Richard Wightman Fox’s illuminating essay in a dense volume edited by Harry Stout and D. G. Hart. Trust me–Fox’s chapter is worth the book.

These matters aside, the Bible is very clear on the truthfulness of the virgin birth. See Matthew 1:22-25, which is the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

This text answers Bell’s original question. Jesus did not have a father named Larry. The Bible is clear: Mary gave birth to Jesus through the miraculous conception of the Holy Spirit. If we buy into this idea of “mythologizing” on this point, then we have little reason to trust other accounts of the gospel writers. Either the text is true or it is not. This is a common parlor trick of those who want the Scripture to say something it does not: they go behind the text to find a cultural reason for the biblical author throwing in an idea that is not divine but is man-made. This idea happens to subvert the plain testimony of the Bible. This is hermeneutics by minority report–actually, not even minority “report”–minority “conjecture.”

Trust the text. It is authoritative. Reconstruction, however interesting and in some cases noteworthy (even beneficial), is not. This is not a matter of theological cliff-jumping, of closing one’s eyes to other realities in blind faith in the Bible. This is a matter of survival, of life and death. Either the Bible is true and right or it is not. There are diverse genres in Scripture, of course, and not every statement is to be read on equally literal terms. But the gospels of the New Testament are history, or what one could call theological history (the reporting of the past through unapologetically typological lenses). They are to be read and trusted. Again, if one text is mythic, how do we know that any are truthful? God has given us a better way of interpretation: trust. Informed trust, yes, but ultimately that: trust.

With that all said, there’s something else. Bell’s harmful, erroneous teaching leads to this: we miss an astounding display of God’s sovereignty if we pooh-pooh the virgin birth. The virgin birth, you see, is not incidental to our faith. It shows us that God must initiate the salvation of humanity. We could not undo our sin; God alone could rescue us. The virgin birth is not an odd blip in the history of the person and work of Jesus; it is a thunder-clap from heaven, God initiating his rescue plan. Salvation, the Lord is saying, is his work. He alone can carry it out; he alone will carry it out. We have no part in getting ourselves saved; we cannot undo the curse, not one percent.

So the first issue is scriptural fidelity. The Bible teaches the virgin conception; we must believe it, therefore, and love it. But here’s something else: if we downplay this event, we miss a breathtaking part of God’s work to redeem a sinful people. The virgin birth is the catalyst to everything that follows. It signals that there is something heavenly about this child. He is the God-man. He is fully human (born of Mary) but fully God (conceived by the Holy Spirit). There is no other child like him. He is God’s agent of mercy, sent into the world by the will of the Lord. And there is a profoundly Trinitarian note to the virgin birth as well that is thrown into the trash heap by those who devalue it. The Spirit gives conception to Mary, carrying out the Father’s plan. This is why it is hugely important that “Larry”–Bell’s proverbial first-century Jew–not be the father of Jesus. Larry is not a member of the Trinity (just to make that clear).

So if you rework the virgin birth, you not only lie about Scripture. You lose the way that God is declaring to the cosmos that salvation belongs to him–and you lose the display of Trinitarian fiat seen in a humble stable in Bethlehem. It is not unimportant that all members of the Trinity are involved in Jesus’ birth; it is profoundly important. The members of the Godhead are working in different roles but in concert to effect the salvation of the lost. How glorious this is, and how essential to our faith.

We can hope that Bell and others will see the beauty, the aesthetic and theological power, of the virgin birth. Few areas of our theological history so show that God is working in the world of men to save sinners. This is cause for trust, and hope, and rejoicing. And that is just what we do on Christmas–celebrating a faithful virgin woman cradling the child who will redeem her, and us, and (we pray) those who depart from the solid rock of scriptural truth (Matthew 7:24).

  • Pingback: Rediscovering Christmas Truths … in Prison – Huffington Post (blog) | urbandestruction.com

  • Josh

    It seems as though you’re missing Bell’s point, missing the forrest for the trees… in your quote right there, Bell affirms the virgin birth, and it’s importance and stresses it’s mentioning as simply an example. By throwing out a challenging hypothetical concept, Bell is asking readers to accept more responsibility for their whole faith, and not just take things for granted. In many of his writings, Bell stresses context and challenges the reader that reading scripture with a modern, western approach to the world, it’s likely many of the meanings can be misinterpreted or missed. By using the virgin birth as a shocking hypothetical, Bell is preparing readers to challenge preconceived notions about other aspects of biblical interpretation which might be due largely to the inability to fully read the scriptures with the same perspective as it was originally written.

    You seem to have gotten stuck on the hypothetical and that’s likely because with a PhD in Theological Studies, you probably weren’t Bell’s target audience. With younger generations leaving the church at an alarming rate, easily moving from the false security which comes from “this is what I was taught growing up, I know it to be true, why investigate or question it?” This type of foundational thinking means tough questions like “what type of merciful God would allow this tragedy to happen” or “what do you mean the earth isn’t 6,000 years old?” can be very challenging and lead to “well, if this thing I know to be true, isn’t, then what else isn’t true about my faith?”

    I understand where you’re coming from; the virgin birth is an essential element of Christianity and a REALLY important aspect of Catholicism, however it seems as though the premise for your article, that Rob Bell doesn’t think it’s important, and therefore lying about scripture, is a flawed one. There’s plenty of things to argue about theologically with Rob Bell, however in this instance, you’re missing the point.

    • ostrachan

      Hi Josh–appreciate your irenic tone. I’ve heard this kind of point a number of times, and it doesn’t comport with me. Yes, Bell is asking questions that are tough, but he does so in a way that undermines biblical doctrine.

      I’m not against hard questions and hypotheticals per se. It’s when they’re asked from a spirit that tears down, rather than one that shores up confidence in the faith. If you don’t think that’s where Bell’s theology leads, I’m afraid there’s abundant proof of this trajectory in Bell’s own life. I read the New Yorker’s profile of him with sadness. It shows that he really has deconstructed his faith to a serious extent. He’s not just asking hard questions, in other words; he really is questioning core doctrine. As I say in the essay, this is exactly what the liberal Protestants did a hundred years ago. It’s not some bold, exciting, fresh move; it’s worn, tried, and shown to lead to theological disaster.

      • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

        Here’s the thing I think you are missing – you make a good argument for the importance of the virgin birth, but many people who don’t agree with your particular ideas about scriptural inerrancy won’t ever hear it. No one needs you to abandon your own beliefs, but by basically insisting that everyone must agree with you on something like the historically novel and new idea of a restrictive biblical inerrancy you render yourself silent to all but those who already agree with you. If your goal is to make yourself always clearly righteous according to your own understanding, that’s great. But if your goal is to bring truth to those who might need it, you fail miserably.

        Ask yourself which is more likely; that someone would read your words and decide to change their minds about the authority and inerrancy of the bible. Or that if you left that issue to the side and simply made your point about the virgin birth, someone might see the wisdom and benefit of the virgin birth to humanity and view that old stuffy theology and bible with a little more respect?

        And don’t feel too sad for Rob Bell, even if he’s deconstructed his faith all to hell, Jesus promised he’d go back for that one sheep that got lost. Unless you think Jesus had some exceptions he failed to mention, but that would have been rather careless and cruel of him, don’t ya think?

        • Mike Tisdell


          Neither you or I can know whether Bell is a lost sheep or a goat. Bell could be, as you have indicated, a lost sheep who Christ will someday bring back to himself or he could be one of those to whom the Lord says “I never knew you.” For you or I to decide where Bell’s ultimate eternal destination will be would be presumptuous. Christ’s promise is only to those he truly knows and neither you or I can know if Rob Bell is one of his sheep. It is just as presumptuous to assume Bell will be with God in eternity as it is for other to assume that he will spend eternity in Hell.

          What we can know is that Bell is now teaching things that are contrary to what is taught to us in Scripture and there is a cost for teaching a lie. The path Bell is following right now is one of rebellion and the church should call him to repentance. We cannot know if his rebellion is a reflection of a heart that has temporarily turned away from its first love or a reflection of a heart that has never known God’s grace; only God can truly know a man’s heart. What we can know is that what he is teaching today does not reflect the heart of God communicated to us though his word.

          • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

            Did you know that in the early church the vast majority of Christians believed that the bible taught the eventual salvation of practically everyone? And that depictions of Jesus carrying a goat in his role as the good shepard was a regular motif of Christian art for a very long time?

            Whatever the current state of Rob Bell’s spiritual life – which I won’t presume to speculate on – at the very least it is clear that he started off seeking to serve God. If that doesn’t make him a sheep then the salvic work of Christ is not, as the bible claims, even better than the original sin from Adam as unlike original sin, it can be lost. It’s odd that a theology so contrary to that of the early church – one of a God so weak that sin is more powerful than his salvation or his son’s blood – has become so widespread, don’t you think? And for the record, there’s a difference between being wrong and telling lies. The rest of the world knows that but their ongoing conflation in many Christian minds is part of why we have so little credibility with the rest of the world. If we can’t even tell the difference between a mistaken belief and a lie and are so willing to eat our own if they go astray, then what is the rest of the world to make of the Christian faith except that it makes people who they don’t very much want to be like?

          • Mike Tisdell


            Having read much of the works by the early church fathers, I know that “the vast majority of Christians DID NOT believe that the bible taught the eventual salvation of practically everyone?” Yes, there were some, like Origen, who hinted at such a belief but those views were rejected by the vast majority of the early church. The early church’s view of soterology is very much the same as the views held by the church today and very much in opposition to the teaching of Bell. Although it is difficult (because Bell doesn’t provide reference to back up the claims he makes) I would suggest you take the time to verify Bell’s claims before repeating them.

            Also, the church does not view sin as being more powerful than God. Because God does not act in a way that you think he should act does not mean he is weak, it just means his ways are not your ways and that is something Scripture states is true for all of us.

            And while I don’t know whether Bell has deliberately and knowingly lied about Scripture or has mistakenly repeated a lie because of his own misunderstanding, what he has said has been a lie. The intention of his heart does not change that fact. Knowing a little about Bell’s educational background, I do find it very difficult to believe that some of Bell’s misinformation was not deliberate but only God himself can know for certain why Bell has communicated the lies he has communicated.

            Last, Scripture is clear that there will be many who appear to have been seeking God while their hearts were still in rebellion against him. We should never presume to know who is saved and who is not but rather we should keep pointing everyone to the truth found in God’s word. Those who reject that truth are clearly on very dangerous ground and the proper thing for the church to do is warn them. To do anything else would be unloving.

          • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

            Mike, I’ve never read a single word Bell has written (at least not that I recall). In all honesty, I don’t know what exactly Bell has to say about the matter. (Although I did read Chan’s TERRRIBLE book claiming to refute Bell’s Love Wins. It was so fact free that I was honestly shocked at it. Shoddy doesn’t even begin to describe it.) Rather, I’ve actually read what we have left of the early church fathers. Origin didn’t simply hint at universal reconciliation. His ENTIRE theology was build around it. Likewise with Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa and Theodore of Mopsuestia among other early heavy-hitters. There were 6 schools in the early church (similar to seminaries), 4 of them were openly universalistic. One (Rome) believed in eternal hell. One (Ephasus) taught annihilation. As late as 400, both Jerome and Augustine say that “many” and “very man” Christians held to universalistic teachings. Augustine believed in eternal hell, he admits that such belief was orthodox and not inconstent with scripture. It wasn’t until the common language moved from the original language of scripture – Greek – to Latin that the teaching of eternal hell really took hold. Universalism wasn’t even brought up as a potential heresy until the 6th century despite the massive amounts of work which went into arguing against a myriad of heresies almost right from the start of the church. Even then it was only condemned at the command of the Emporer Justinian at a small, regional meeting. It has never been declared a heresy by the Eastern Orthodox church.

            Again, the world judges us by us – by our love and good works. You say we need to point to God’s word, but God is love and if we do not understand love, then our understanding of Love’s word (scripture) is nearly useless. The Devil knows scripture front to back and can happily point people to it at will. It’s love that makes the difference. That’s the mark of a disciple, according to Jesus – they will know you are my followers by your love for one another. If a person is at rebellion in their hearts, it’s not scripture or doctrine that they will be rebelling against, it’s the demands of love that they will be refusing to submit to.

            An inability to tell the difference (or care about the difference) between a lie and an error is a mark of a people with no humanity. It is the way of a harsh, graceless people who care more about being right than about love or good works or any of those things Jesus actually said we’d be known and judged by. Even if it were theologically correct (and it’s not by a long shot), it’s a TERRIBLE witness. We make ourselves and not the risen Christ a stumbling block when we insist that we can declare what is clearly weak as strong, a mistake a lie or refuse to assume the best of someone who simply asks a question. When we declare the simply proposing of a question to be a dangerous act, we are telling anyone who is watching that rather than being a solid rock, our God is weak, ineffectual and relies on human keepers to stay afloat. If all we’re interested in is preserving what we deem to be important for our own faith, then fine. But that’s really no different than the servant who buried his talent so it wouldn’t be lost. It betrays a profound lack of trust and understanding of the God we claim to be following.

            And the world is watching. Trying to convince them that it doesn’t matter if it’s a mistake or a lie or that it’s perfectly OK that our faith is so weak that it can be destroyed by the asking of questions and that we have bible verses which we can use to justify eating on of our own isn’t going to work. If we want to see why the church has no influence, we need to stop kidding ourselves and take a good, hard look in the mirror. The world isn’t looking at us saying, “screw those loving, grace filled people who seek after everyone’s good but their own.” They are saying, “look at those people who hate each other and can’t agree on anything and get upset with people just for asking questions and insist that up is down and good is evil and weak is strong and intentions don’t matter. Why in the world would I want to be part of that lot? I can find more loving, humane and selfless people at the local truck stop.” We’re doing it wrong.

          • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

            BTW that verse about God’s ways not being our ways is so misused. What are human ways? They aren’t love. They aren’t acceptance. They aren’t tolerance, empathy and understanding. They aren’t forgiveness. They aren’t grace. They aren’t letting someone get a free pass. They aren’t allowing others to go first. Yet everytime someone tries to say that a good God would behave at least as well as, if not even better than a human being who was loving, accepting, tolerant, empathetic, understanding, forgiving, gracious, etc we get told that it’s a misunderstanding on our part – that God’s ways aren’t our ways. No kidding. Because our ways are to be stingy in love, tolerance, empathy, understanding, forgiveness, grace and to insist that everyone be held to account. That’s the human way of doing things. But oddly when we try to attribute more love and generousity and such to God, we get told that’s a human concept (as if!) and that God’s ways are different. Actually, we’re told, God’s ways are just as stingy and conditional as our human ways – only since he’s God he gets it right. According to this mindset, it’s not God’s ways that are different – it’s just where he draws the boundaries that’s more perfect. Again, the rest of the world sees right through it.

          • Mike Tisdell


            While I don’t have time to look up all the references to the early church fathers, I have provided a few quotes below that demonstrate your characterization of their beliefs are inaccurate.

            “Divinely and weightily John says, “He that loveth not his brother is a murderer,”8 the seed of Cain, a nursling of the devil. He has not God’s compassion. He has no hope of better things. He is sterile; he is barren; he is not a branch of the ever-living supercelestial vine. He is cut off; he waits the perpetual fire.” Clement of Alexandria, Salvation of the Rich Man

            “O the prodigious folly of being ashamed of the Lord! He offers freedom, you flee into bondage; He bestows salvation, you sink down into destruction; He confers everlasting life, you wait for punishment, and prefer the fire which the Lord “has prepared for the devil and his angels.”13 Wherefore the blessed apostle says: “I testify in the Lord, that ye walk no longer as the Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind; having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart: who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness and concupiscence.”14 After the accusation of such a witness, and his invocation of God, what else remains for the unbelieving than judgment and condemnation?” Exortation to the Heathen, Clement of Alexandria

            “And when He says to those on His right hand, “Come, ye blessed of My Father,” etc.; “for I was an hungered, and ye gave Me to eat; I was athirst, and ye gave Me to drink,”4 it is exceedingly manifest that He gives the promises to these as being deserving of praise. But, on the contrary, to the others, as being censurable in comparison with them, He says, “Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire!”5 And let us observe how Paul also converses6 with us as having freedom of will, and as being ourselves the cause of ruin or salvation, when he says, “Dost thou despise the riches of His goodness, and of His patience, and of His long-suffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? But, according to thy hardness and impenitent heart, thou art treasuring up for thyself wrath on the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; who will render to every one according to his works: to those who, by patient continuance in well-doing, seek for glory and immortality, eternal life; while to those who are contentious, and believe not the truth, but who believe iniquity, anger, wrath, tribulation, and distress, on every soul of man that worketh evil; on the Jew first, and on the Greek: but glory, and honour, and peace to every one that worketh good; to the Jew first, and to the Greek.”7 There are, indeed, innumerable passages in the Scriptures which establish with exceeding clearness the existence of freedom of will.” Origen De Principiis.

            Also for someone who says that they have not read much of Bell’s works, I do find it an interesting coincidence that the quotes you provided i.e. “many” and “very many” are so similar to the types of quotes Bell provides i.e. the actual quoted text is so small and so ambiguous and there are no references provided; This makes it impossible to locate the references.

            I also find your characterization of Chan’s book quite interesting i.e. I read both Bell’s and Chan’s book and while Bell ALMOST NEVER cites any references, Chan provided several pages of endnotes at the end of each chapter. Additionally, Chan co-authored this book with a scholar of first century Judaism and early church history in order to make sure that he could support his arguments. Unlike Chan’s other books, this book was extremely well documented.

        • ostrachan

          Interesting points, Rebecca. Appreciate the critical engagement.

          A lot of what the church needs to do, frankly, is defend the faith. Read 2 Timothy 1 again on this point. We’re not only supposed to promote the gospel in the Matthew 28 sense; if we don’t defend the gospel in a 2 Tim 1 sense, there won’t be any gospel to promote, right? So teaching and defending biblical truth has immense value. We’re not in an echo chamber if we do so; we’re strengthening one another in godliness.

          Jesus does seek the lost sheep–how amazing that he does. But he has strong words of condemnation for those who turn away from truth, as does the apostle Peter. It’s quite clear that there are many who turn away from the truth and who will surely face eternal death if they persist in their unbelief.

  • Hilary

    Then what is your answer to anybody who points out the mistranslation of alma/young woman v. betulah/virgin? Anybody with a Hebrew/English Tanakh (Jewish Scripture) can read Isaiah translated from the original Hebrew, and his prophecy is nothing like what Matthew implies.

    There’s no way you can’t know about this – what is your answer for it?


    • Brian S

      I think that Matthew and the Septuagint translators knew a lot more than you do about what is the accurate translation here. (It can be translated both ways.) Besides, it should have occurred to you that Matthew had plenty of opportunity to discuss this with Mary herself. Who better than those who experienced the fulfillment of prophecy to tell us what it means.

      • Hilary

        Well, that’s one way to answer my question.

        • Mike Tisdell


          One of the most dangerous ways to read Scripture is by using a Hebrew Interlinear (or Strong’s concordance) and mistakenly coming to the conclusion that you can understand the text as well as the scholars who have spent their life learning the language. There is so much in the text that simply cannot be seen in a concordance or interlinear. The interlinear text itself is nothing more than a translation and while some of these translations are reasonably good, some are terrible. There are Hebrew English interlinears that do use the word “virgin” in their translation of this verse but referring to them as proof for the proper translation of Is. 7:14 would be just as much a mistake as using a different interlinear to prove that it had been mistranslated.

          When we try to understand almah or betulah in Hebrew, we need to understand that neither term is a direct translation of “virgin.” However, both generally refer to an unmarried woman with an understood expectation of their virginity. One of the serious mistakes that is often made when people argue against the idea that Isaiah was referring to a “virgin” is the assumption that promiscuous sex in their culture was analogous to promiscuous sex in our culture, it was not. A promiscuous woman in the culture of the OT was called a zonah (harlot) and not an alma (or betulah). Because of the cultural setting of the OT, they did not have a word that specifically described the sexual history of a woman in the way that “virgin” does in English today. Betulah, despite the claims made by some, is no better of a choice than almah when trying to describe the virginal status of a woman. Like Alma, the usual understanding would include an expectation of virginity but their are also exceptions. In Esther, the woman of the harem are called betulah before and after they spend the night with the king and in Joel a betulah is said to weep for her husband.

          The question about how to translate the term ‘alma’ into English really has nothing to do with with whether the author wanted to communicate the woman’s virginity or not. The difficulty is that there is more than ‘virginity’ communicated in the term ‘almah’. In English, a ‘virgin’ can be an ‘old woman’ i.e. a spinster but an ‘almah’ in Hebrew is always a ‘young woman’. In the Hebrew culture, virginity was an expectation for a young woman, but unfortunately in our modern culture it is not and so the modern translator is faced with a challenge that Isaiah did not face i.e. do I communicate the idea of her young age or do I communicate the idea of her sexual innocence?

          One example I often use to demonstrate the dangers of “translation” by lexicon can be seen in the following two requests:

          בוא לביתי ואתה תיאכל
          בוא לביתי ואתה תאכל

          Both phrases use the exact same Hebrew root i.e. אכל and you would find the definition for this word in the exact same entry in the a Hebrew/English lexicon but one says. “come to my home and you will eat” and the other says “come to my home and you will be eaten” I think it would be very important to understand this subtle difference if this were the invitation given to you, don’t you agree?

          • Hilary

            I was using my JPS Tanakh that I got at my Bat Mitzvah, and I do trust the translators at the Jewish Publication Society to know what they are doing. I translated it myself using the Merriam-Webster Hebrew/English dictionary. But even beyond translating one word, the whole chapter doesn’t seem to fit the story Matthew was telling. Do any Christians ever talk about how the whole chapter 7 of Isaiah relates to Christ?

            The Virgin Birth can’t be proved as historically, scientifically accurate, it’s a matter of faith. There is no neutral, independant third party or gynacologist to state it one way or another, so basically people believe what they are conditioned to believe. Jews have as much a vested interest in not seeing Jesus in Isaiah as Christians do in saying Jesus is a perfect fulfilment of Isaiah. I have no problem with the role of the Virgin Mary and the Virgin Birth in the lives of people who believe in that. But if Matthew is going to claim that something is in fulfilment of what a prophet of the Torah has said, the claim of the prophet and the claim of Matthew had better line up, and I don’t see that happening here.

            But like I said, it’s a matter of faith, not a verifiable point of data from a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Arguing about it is fun, but not much more then an intellectual exersize that doesn’t change the heart of someone already convinced one way or another.


          • Mike Tisdell


            I didn’t say that the JPS translation was wrong, it just doesn’t convey all of what Isaiah intended just like the word “virgin” doesn’t convey all that Isaiah intended. There is not a one to one relationship between “almah” and either of these English translations. Words in one langauge seldom have an identical semantic range of meaning as the words used to translate them in another.

            As far as the context of 7:14 is concerned, couldn’t a similar argument be made for Is. 9:5(6)? And yet even the Talmudic literature recognizes this passage as a prophetic passage concerning the coming Messiah. However, because of the difficulties this passage raises for Jewish theological thought about the Messiah, the resulting translations have been very interesting to say the least. The original JPS didn’t even translate these titles, they were simply transliterated.

            JPS Isaiah 9:5 For a child is born unto us, a son is given unto us; and the government is upon his shoulder; and his name is called Pele- joez-el-gibbor-Abi-ad-sar-shalom;

            The modern JPS has produced a translation that cannot be supported by the underlying Hebrew text i.e. it reads:

            Isaiah 9:5 For a child has been born to us, A son has been given us. And authority has settled on his shoulders. He has been named “The Mighty God is planning grace; The Eternal Father, a peaceable ruler” — (Isa 9:5 TNK)

            The difficulty with this latter translation is two fold, first it completely ignores the nekkud placed in this text by the Masorites and second it ignores basic Hebrew grammar rules i.e. if the object proceeds the verb, the object would need to be definite and proceeded by the particle ‘et’. Additionally, such a translation also destroys the parallelism that is such a distinct part of Hebrew poetry.

            One must wonder why these translations have chosen to hide these titles in transliteration, as was done in the original JPS or produce such a convoluted translation as the modern JPS has done?

    • Moshe Atzamot Shakhor

      Isaiah 7:14 proves the virginity of Miriam about as much as it proves life on Mars.

      Not only does almah not mean virgin, but in Isaiah 7:14 Isaiah is sent to Ahaz (king of Judah/house of David) who is scared because Rezin (king of Syria) has Just allied with Pekah (king of Israel/Ephraim, son of Remaliah) and attacked Judah. God tells Isaiah to go to Ahaz and comfort him, and to tell him that Syria and Israel with not be able to take Judah. He then tells Ahaz to ask for a sign so that he may know he is telling the truth. Ahaz refuses a sign, saying he “won’t tempt God.” God says you’re getting a sign anyway; An almah shall give birth, and his name will be called “God is with us,” and before he is old enough to choose between good and evil (13 yrs?) Israel and Syria will lose their kings.

      Pekah was assassinated about 3 years later and Rezin some time shortly before that.

      If Ahaz’s sign is to take place 700 years in the future, it’s not much of a comfort to him at all. Suddenly the whole conversation and event makes no sense. …Some speculate, that given the context of chapter eight, Isaiah’s son (not the one who was already with him) fulfilled the prophecy. Maybe, but his name wasn’t Emanuel either, and either way that’s not exactly the point, though it may punctuate the prophecy.

      (To get the whole picture of this story you have to read some of 2 Kings.)

      Sorry, I have a much better, more complete and articulate “schematic” of this written out that I could have copied and pasted, but this pretty much sums it up.

      How distracted from the beauty that is Messiah and our God, do we become defending so much peripheral doctrine?

      Paul never mentions the virgin birth, though he refers to Yeshua’s birth twice (Galatians 4:4, Romans 1:1-4). His letters predate the Gospel accounts. Why did he not mention this miraculous birth if it’s so important? All those letters to all those churches with midrashim (exegesis) on all those doctrines and never once did he mention it. In fact he says virtually the opposite. Twice in his Gospel account Yohanan refers to Yeshua as the son of Yoseph without apology. Yohanan never mentions the virgin birth and never clarifies Yoseph in any other light than that of Yehsua’s father for his readers. This leaves the reader of Yohanan to regard Yeshua as the son of Yoseph only, with no reason whatsoever to think otherwise. So Paul and Yohanan, either didn’t think it was important, or didn’t know it, or didn’t write it because it’s not the case. Mark also never mentions Yeshua’s birth, leaving the reader to never have the thought enter their mind.

      The only two places it’s mentioned is in Matt and Luke. I’m not sure if your familiar with the history of synoptic gospels, but Mat and Luke are copies of Mark. So the authors of Mat and Luke (as the actual author of Mat is not known), decided to later add the virgin birth to the story. This much is commonly not disputed.

      Both Mat and Luke give genealogy for Yoseph only, to prove that Yeshuah is born of the seed of David. If Yoseph is not his father, then why even bother? Miriam has no tribal affiliation written in the bible except that her cousin was a Levite. Mashiyach must be a Jew (of the tribe of Judah), so Miriam has no recorded historical affiliation with the required lineage of the Mashiyach. Not a problem though, since birthrights are through the paternal line. The genealogies for Yoseph in Matt and Luke do not match. I believe it’s Luke that lists the cursed line of David. Why they don’t match we can only speculate. All we know for sure is that taken in literal context, one of them is wrong. Some believe that one is Miriam’s genealogy in disguise. Maybe, but if that’s the case then we have an even larger issue at hand, that of deciphering encrypted texts.

      Now, it is argued by some Christians (not Jews) that the Mashiyach cannot have been a son of Adam or else he cannot break the “Adamic curse” for mankind. (This is actually the crux of most arguments defending the virgin birth.) I find fault with this on at least two, possibly three accounts. 1) More than 70 times in the four accounts, he is referred to or refers to himself as The Son of Adam. 2) We have no prophesy or writing stating that he cannot be the son of Adam. It’s pure conjecture with no biblical evidence. All we have is Isaiah 7:14. 3) If Yoseph is not his father, then he is not a Jew of the seed of David, as we just broke the paternal line. (This is something that always sat in the back of my mind.) Paul says that Yeshua was born from the line of David according to the flesh. Lastly, without the honor of a number, I don’t have a clear enough understanding of the “Adamic curse” to say what is required for God to save us from it, but I speculate off hand, that if God wants to he will and that his restrictions are very few. I may very likely be wrong on that, but first we have to get through the first three obstacles.

      There’s more. For some reason, Mat, when quoting Isaiah 7, quotes it from the Septuagint (the Greek copy). This is the only place he quotes from the Septuagint. Why, of all places, does he here quote here from the Septuagint, a copy of Tenakh used by the Hellenists, who were WIDELY known for incorporating pagan mythology into their Judaism? We don’t even know who actually wrote the gospel of Matisyahu. The attribution to Matisyahu was virtually arbitrary at the time of it’s canonization and has ever since been debated.

      • ostrachan

        Hello friend–Isaiah 7:14 doesn’t settle the issue, no. It doesn’t have to be translated “virgin.” But Matthew’s account makes clear that Jesus was born of a virgin. The translation source is not the ultimate issue here, as you know. It’s what Matthew, writing under the influence of the Holy Spirit, hands down. The Virgin Birth is not only in Scripture, it’s necessary. The hypostatic union which I alluded to in my post derives from the virgin birth–conceived by the Spirit, but born of the virgin. God in human form–fully God, fully man.

  • Jon from GR

    Bell gives this as an extreme example to show a point. This provoking style is often uncomfortable for others as it usually involves asking tough, taboo questions about faith and doctrine. But his point is often – as in this case – not literal. Another case of wasted “blog space” attacking Rob Bell due to the blogger’s misinterpretations.

    • ostrachan

      See above comments on Bell’s style. Questions are often more than just questions. Bell most certainly is undermining the virgin birth, though he doubles back by saying he affirms it. The proof is in the pudding. Read the New Yorker piece. His deconstruction of evangelical doctrine has most definitely worked–in his own life. It’s very sad, obvious, and makes me pray for his soul.

    • Mike Tisdell

      Bell does often ask provoking questions but far too often those questions also demonstrate a very poor understanding of biblical history, culture, and langauge; they are either horribly ignorant or deliberately misleading. For example Bell, in an interview defending his ‘Love Wins’ book, claims that Jonah used the word ‘olam’ to refer to a period of three days and while bell (as usual) does not cite the verse he references, the verse is very easy to find because there is only one such reference in the book i.e. 2:7. Here is the verse:

      לקצבי הרים ירדתי הארץ ברחיה בעדי לעולם ותעל משׁחת חיי יהוה אלהי

      No Hebrew scholar would support the claim Bell has made about this verse, it is absurd! This verse makes absolutely no sense if ‘olam’ (as Bell claims) means only “three days.” One has to wonder, does Bell just make this stuff up in order to deceive people or is he, despite his theological training, really this inept when trying to engage the biblical texts?

  • TWM

    I’m a Bell fan, but I must admit that I was troubled by his comments. Josh’s comments seem to be the most plausible explanation of what he’s doing.

    A lot of people predict that Bell is a flash in the pan. I’m anxious to see how history judges him.

  • Hilary

    Does anybody ever talk about the rest of Isaiah chapter 7 and how it relates to Jesus Christ? Because even more then the young woman/virgin translation dispute, it’s the fact that the whole chapter isn’t talking about a Virgin Birth several hundred years in the future to save all mankind from sin that makes me sceptical about the Isaiah prophasy.

    I think Matthew would have had a stronger case to just say that the Virgin Birth happened, rather then try to tie it to Isaiah. We can’t prove or disprove it happening, but we can check against an earlier text and see if it makes sense in the overall context.

    Christians? Got any thing to answer my question?


    • Mike Tisdell

      On my phone the posts are ordered by date but I see here that my answer proceeds your question which is a little confusing. Sorry for the confusion.