- Religion and Philosophy
Sweet Baby Jesus in a Manger! What's Wrong with the Christmas Story? (The Prophetic Problem cont.)
I saved this one for last both because it deserves the closest inspection of all the prophecies I've listed, and because it is a strong point of contention between Christian apologists and Biblical scholars. Here is the debate in a nutshell: According to Fundamentalist Christians, Isaiah 7:14 prophesies that the Christ will be born of a virgin. According to unbiased Biblical scholars and native Hebrew speakers, Isaiah's passage does not concern the Messiah at all, and doesn't even contain the word "virgin." Let's dive into this.
The “Virgin Birth" Prophecy
Matthew chapter 1 describes a dream Joseph has where an angel of the Lord is speaking to him, telling him Mary’s unexpected pregnancy is due to the work of the Holy Spirit. The angel then commands Joseph, “…You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) Actually, “Jesus” only means “God is salvation,” and as it was one of the most common names given at that times, this is a rather paltry explanation as to why it should be bestowed upon the expected Savior Of the World. Approximately one in every 5 or 6 Jewish males were given this name at the time, implying that they too would save the people from their sins. (Why would a name with such an important inherent meaning be given to so many people? How special can a name be when it is shared with 20% of the population?) After the angel leaves Joseph, Matthew inserts into his narrative that,
“All this took place that it might be fulfilled what was written by the prophets…’Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which means, ‘God with us.’’” (1:23)
Matthew cites this prophecy from Isaiah 7:14 correctly (for once), but to one major detriment: he is not citing the original Hebrew (Masoretic) texts as his source; rather, he's citing the Greek translation (the Septuagint), which, according to native Hebrew speakers, contains 2 enormous translations errors. We have 2 issues to sort through here: one of translation, and one of context. Let's translate this passage properly and then we'll put it back in the context Isaiah intended. Again, this is how the passage reads in English (after being translated from the Latin Vulgate, which came from the Greek, which came from the Hebrew):
“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
This is how the Jewish Bible reads (and how all Hebrew speakers unanimously agree it should read):
“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a young woman has conceived, and shall bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
1. The verb in this sentence rendered "to conceive" is 'harah,' in this instance conjugated in the Hebrew perfect tense. This tense always denotes past or completed action, meaning the correct translation is not "will conceive," but "has already conceived."
2. The word in this sentence rendered as "virgin" is 'almah,' which is actually just a generic Hebrew word applicable to married women or single, sexually active or not. It's closest English equivalent is approximately maiden (though maiden doesn't account for married women in English). Almah is primarily used to denote the age of the girl in discussion - someone of marriageable age - not her sexual history. Hebrew has a very specific word to refer to a virgin, one who has never had a sexual contact with a man: 'bethulah.' This is the word used throughout the books of Moses whenever they're talking about virgins. If the author truly meant to indicate the miraculous occurrence of a virgin conceiving a child without ever having sexual intercourse, the word ‘bethulah’ would leave no doubt as to the author’s intent. Since ‘almah,’ is used, there is absolutely no reasonable explanation as to why it was rendered virgin, unless, that is, the particular audience it was rendered for needed it to read that way. That this is the probably the case is quickly and easily demonstrated.
The Septuagint was rendered for a Greek audience, and the New Testament in general was written for Greek and Roman audiences. Common to both Greek and Roman mythology at the time - but utterly foreign to Hebrew culture - was the concept of Virgin Births. The VIrgin Birth was another of the 22 common literary elements of the Mythic Hero Archetype. Among the pantheon of ancient figures from Greece, Rome, Africa, and India said to be born of virgins were: Julius Caesar, Augustus, Aristomenes, Alexander the Great, Plato, Cyrus, the elder Scipio, some of the Egyptian Pharaohs, Horus, the Buddha, Krishna, Baal, Dionysus, Zoroaster, Hermes, Mithra, Attis, Adonis, Hercules, Cybele, Demeter, Leo, and Vulcan to name just a few of the more notable ones on the lengthy list. In short, a virgin birth was a prerequisite of the ancient pagan world for any prominent figure - real or imagined - to substantiate and legitimize their claims to authority, be it temporal, religious, militaristic, or philosophical authority. For this reason, when the Hebrew stories were made available to pagan Greek-speaking cultures, the Greek translators jumped on an opportunity to weave this common and familiar pagan idea that heroes, gods, and other saviors had to be born of a virgin into their story, even at the expense of compromising the integrity of the original text.
Now that we know what the passage actually says in Hebrew, let's examine the surrounding context of the pronouncement, since Matthew just ripped it out all by its lonesome. Here is Isaiah 7:14 in its surrounding context (vs. 10-17)
“Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, ‘Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or the highest heights.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.’ Then Isaiah said, ‘Hear now you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The young woman has conceived and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat butter and honey, and before he is old enough to tell right from wrong, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid to waste. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah - he will bring the king of Assyria.’”
What is Isaiah ranting on about? Let me give you the historical setting (which I encourage you to look up on your own. Read the entire chapter of Isaiah 7) Around 742 B.C., King Ahaz was relatively new to the throne of Judah when he was attacked by a military alliance between Rezim, the King of Syria, and Pekah, the King of Israel. Their initial attack failed, but Ahaz was deeply afraid of future attacks against his kingdom. Isaiah then encourages Ahaz to ask God for a sign that his fears will not be realized. Ahaz declares that he will not tempt God by asking for a sign, so Isaiah tells him what the sign will be: behold, a young woman – who has already conceived - will soon give birth to that child, and before the boy is old enough to tell right from wrong (5-6 years old?), both Pekah and Rezim would be destroyed at the hand of the Assyrians. The young woman would call the child “Immanuel,” meaning, “Yahweh (God) is with us,” and as Ahaz saw Pekah and Rezim being destroyed by the Assyrians, he would know that God was with him.
Christians want this passage to be a reference to Jesus (well, not the whole thing...just that one sentence that was mistranslated), but even the Fundamentalists are cognizant enough to realize that a virgin birth wasn't the only stipulation in the prophecy. Virgin birth or no, the child was to be born in Ahaz's time (not 750 years later), he was to be named Immanuelle (which Jesus wasn't, even though the angel told Mary to), and before he was old enough to tell right from wrong he was to usher in the destruction of an Israel/Syria alliance at the hands of the Assyrian army (the Assyrians vanished from the earth around 600 B.C., so it's highly doubtful Jesus could have fulfilled this part, even had he tried to). Since no part of Isaiah 7 suggests that the boy in question is to be the Messiah, I'm not sure how Christians are able to so quickly slap this prophecy onto the heels of Jesus, what with all the other virgin-born figures running around at the same time. (Needless to say, reading on one discovers that regardless of whom Isaiah’s prophesy was actually intended for, it failed miserably.) And even assuming that this passage was not mistranslated, Jesus failed to fulfill 2 of its 3 stipulations.
Two millennia of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus is based on an out-of-context mistranslation, for the purposes of a pagan audience, of a single verse that was never referring to the Messiah in the first place.
So what have we learned about the prophecies Jesus allegedly fulfilled in the Nativity story? Let's recap.
Christian Claim #1: There is an OT prophecy that the Messiah was to be born of a virgin
Answer: Nope. There are no prophecies anywhere in the OT calling for anyone to be born of a virgin. The mistranslated passage used here predicts a child - already conceived - whose birth will usher in the destruction of Israel.Syria by the the Assyrians (which never happened anyway).
Christian Claim #2: There is an OT prophecy that the Messiah was to be born in the city of Bethlehem in the province of Judea
Answer: Nope. There is a prophecy that a ruler who was to defeat the Assyrian army was to be born from the clan of Bethlehem Ephrathah in the "State" of Judah, and Matthew mangled the quote.
Christian Claim #3: There is an OT prophecy that the Messiah's birth was to be accompanied by a slaughter of infant boys at the hands of Herod
Answer: Nope. The prophecy this passage was ripped out of called for a national homecoming from slavery in Babylon some 540 years before the birth of Jesus. There is nothing in the Old Testament predicting a slaughter, King Herod, or anything remotely related.
Christian Claim #4: There is an OT prophecy that the Messiah will come out of Egypt
Answer: Nope. No such prophecy exists. There is a statement God makes in reflection of his "son," the Israelites, as He reminisces about them leaving Egypt, worshiping idols, and sacrificing to Baal.
Christian Claim #5: There is an OT prophecy that the Messiah was to dwell in Nazareth and be called a 'Nazarene'
Answer: Nope. There is no such prophecy anywhere in existence.
Hopefully now, as we all celebrate the holiday season, we can be a little bit more sophisticated in our separation of historical fact from literary mythology. Don't get me wrong, I still love the beauty and simplicity of the "Halmark" Christmas pageants. I think it's warm and engaging and even inspiring. I just don't think it's true. But then, that's not the point. Something doesn't have to be literally true to inspire us, motivate us, transform us, and bring out the best in us in the true spirit of the season. Don't read these stories like a news piece. Read them like you would Aaesop's fables, focusing on the message instead of the plot. You won't be disappointed.