Christmas Time! Time to Investigate the Virgin Birth “Prophecy.”

Christmas Time! Time to Investigate the Virgin Birth “Prophecy.” December 10, 2012

An atheist considers a stained-glass manger sceneIn December, thoughts turn toward Christmas. In particular, to the Isaiah quote in Matthew’s narrative of the birth of Jesus: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (Matt. 1:23).

Matthew documents the fulfillment of a prophecy written 800 years earlier. Powerful evidence of the truth of the Bible?

Well … no. The first reason is the reason by which anyone would reject a claimed prophecy: the evidence of the fulfillment is not independent but comes only through authors (of Matthew and Luke) who one must assume had read the prophecy. They had motive and opportunity to claim a fulfillment where none existed. (I write more about common-sense requirements for a fulfilled prophecy here.)

But was that quote from Isaiah even a prophecy of a messiah? You’d expect something like, “The LORD God understands the burdens of His people and will send a savior. And ye shall know him by this sign: the virgin will give birth to a son” and so on.

Here’s what Isaiah 7 is actually about. In the early 700s BCE, Syria and Israel allied with other small states for protection against Assyria, the region’s 800-pound gorilla. Judah refused to join the alliance. Syria and Israel, fearing a potential enemy at its rear, moved to conquer Judah.

God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to tell the king of Judah that, with faith, his enemies would be destroyed. Isaiah tells the king to ask God for a sign of this prophecy, but the king refuses to put God to the test. Isaiah sees this as a lack of faith, scolds the king, and gives him a sign: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (7:14). Before the boy is old enough to understand right from wrong, Syria and Israel will be destroyed.

In other words, in five years or so, your enemies will be destroyed—that’s the point of the Immanuel story. The boy simply acts as a clock. And not only is Immanuel not a messiah, his three-verse story isn’t even a significant part of this chapter, which goes on to describe the impending conquest of Judah by Assyria and Judah’s painful future.

Yes, the Immanuel story is a prophecy, but it’s a prophecy that is to be fulfilled in five years, not 750. (And was the prophecy even fulfilled? Apparently not, according to the 2 Chron. 28:5–6 summary. 2 Kings 16:5 gives another history of the battle, with Judah the winner this time, but to argue that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled you must argue that the Bible is contradictory.)

The Immanuel story doesn’t even claim to be a miracle. Women are virgins before having sex, pretty much by definition. The story says that a woman who’s never had sex will then do so, become pregnant, and deliver a boy. Happens all the time. If this was a miracle prediction, you’d expect more would be made of it to eliminate the (obvious) mundane explanation.

And if Immanuel’s story is supposed to foreshadow Jesus, where does the Immanuel prediction (“before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid to waste,” Isa. 7:16) map in Jesus’s life?

To make things even more difficult for Matthew’s claim, the word “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 doesn’t really say that. First-century scholars could have had access to two versions of Isaiah, the Hebrew original and the Greek translation, the Septuagint. Since the author of Matthew was literate in Greek, he was likely more familiar with the Greek version. But these two versions use different words here—“young woman” in the Hebrew original and “virgin” in the Greek translation. The NET Bible is one that uses the older (Hebrew) term and has a thorough footnote documenting the scholarship behind this decision.

Why do most Bibles use “virgin,” even though the best sources use “young woman”? Perhaps only to avoid embarrassing Matthew.

And no one could fail to notice that, in Matthew, the baby is named Jesus, not Immanuel. Matthew prefaces his Isaiah quote by saying, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet” (1:22), but the prophecy isn’t fulfilled since Jesus is never called Immanuel—not just in Matthew but anywhere in the New Testament. In fact, the claimed fulfillment is contradicted just two verses later: “And [Joseph] gave him the name Jesus.”

Pope Benedict’s timely new book, The Infancy Narratives, emphasizes that the virgin birth is one of the “cornerstones of faith” and reassures us that it is not a myth. Though he rejects the idea that mythology entered the gospels, everybody who was anybody during that time in the eastern Mediterranean was virgin born—Alexander the Great in Greece, the Caesars in Rome, the Ptolemies in Egypt.

Despite the proliferation of virgin birth claims at the time, all were false except for the one for Jesus? That needs a lot of evidence, especially when Matthew’s argument is simply the misreading of a prophecy that expired centuries earlier.

This is the third biblical prophecy claim that I’ve studied (I’ve also written about Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22). Each has unique features, but I’m struck by one similarity: in context, each is plainly not talking about a future messiah. No serious scholarship is necessary to see this, just a willingness to let each chapter speak for itself. Only a determination to maintain the idea of supernatural prophecies, regardless of the evidence, props them up.

I pray that one day we may live in an America
where Christians can worship freely, in broad daylight,
openly wearing the symbols of their religion …
 perhaps around their necks?
And maybe (dare I dream it?)

maybe one day there can be
an openly Christian president.
Or, perhaps, 43 of them. Consecutively.
— Jon Stewart

Photo credit: Steve Day

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  • Maxximiliann

    You lost me. 2 Chronicles 28 and 2 Kings 16 don’t contradict each other, they confirm each other:

    “Consequently Jehovah his God gave him into the hand of the king of Syria, so that they struck him and carried off from him a great number of captives and brought them to Damascus. And also into the hand of the king of Israel he was given, so that he struck him with a great slaughter. At that time King A′haz sent to the kings of As·syr′i·a for them to help him.” -2 Chronicles 28:5,16

    “It was then that Re′zin the king of Syria and Pe′kah the son of Rem·a·li′ah the king of Israel proceeded to come up against Jerusalem in war and laid siege against A′haz, but they [Judah] were not able to fight. So A′haz sent messengers to Tig′lath-pil·e′ser the king of As·syr′i·a, saying: “I am your servant and your son. Come up and save me out of the palm of the king of Syria and out of the palm of the king of Israel, who are rising up against me.”” -2 Kings 16:5,17 (Bracket mine.)

    In fulfilment of the prophecy recorded at Isaiah 8:5-8, Assyria comes to King Ahaz’s rescue and the Syro-Israelite invasion is crushed.

    I sincerely hope this was just an oversight on your part …

    • Ahaz of Judah loses in 2 Chron. 28, but he wins in 2 Kings 16.

      You’re Mr. Prophecy. You’ve got nothing to say about Is. 7 not being a prophecy about Jesus? Or do we agree for once?

      I sincerely hope this was just an oversight on your part …

      As opposed to what? Lying?

      • Maxximiliann

        i. If both accounts tell us Assyria rescued Jerusalem by crushing the Syro-Israelite invasion, how exactly did Ahaz lose again?

        ii. Isaiah 7:14 had two fulfillments. First with King Ahaz then with Christ Jesus as the Apostle Matthew points out. Do you need the passage?

        • how exactly did Ahaz lose again?

          “Therefore the Lord his God delivered [Ahaz] into the hands of the king of Aram. The Arameans defeated him and took many of his people as prisoners and brought them to Damascus.”

          I thought you were comfortable using the Bible? No?

          ii. No, Isaiah 7:14 had eight fulfillments. Ahaz, then Jesus, and then 6 other dudes from the future. You’ll see.

          Hey–you’re right! It’s fun making up stuff.

        • Maxximiliann

          i. Keep reading …

          ii. Sutor, ne ultra crepidam!

  • Jerry

    Remember the Masoretic differences?

    The Jewish scholars who translated into the Septuagint knew the difference between young woman and virgin, and STILL translated it as virgin.

    It’s was only after a few centuries of Christianity where the word was translated back to young woman.

  • TheNuszAbides

    Handel gave the discrepancy a nice obfuscatory boost by making it seem more like an after-the-fact nickname/title than a given name, by prompting a bunch of people to sing it loudly over and over again along with something like “counselor”, iirc.

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  • Greg G.

    I believe the phrase “holding ones feet to the fire” refers to a torture method employed by the Inquisition. The Inquisitors would slather the victim’s feet with lard to keep the nerve endings alive longer as the feet were burnt to a crisp. Perhaps Yahweh anoints the damned with an oil squeezed out of the nut of the Tree of Life, the other tree from the Garden of Eden, to keep the nerve endings alive forever. What an asshole!