First Glance: Matthew 1:18-25

2014 Advent Wk3

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet, “the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us’)” (Matthew 1:22-23)

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary – Apostle’s Creed

The Christian confession that Jesus Christ had no earthly biological father has come under increasing critique in modern times. In particular, Matthew’s understanding of Jesus’ birth as a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 has raised some controversy. Both the legitimacy of the Christian confession and the legitimacy of Matthew’s quotation have been questioned. While I am not setting out to prove the virgin birth, I want to address three common objections to this Christian confession.

Objection #1: A virgin birth is impossible.

Reply: This objection has less to do with the reliability of the biblical witness than what is considered scientifically possible. While there have been instances of parthenogenesis (reproduction without fertilization) among other animals, there are no instances of it among humans. There is no way to explain a virgin birth in natural terms, it is supernatural.

The impossibility of the virgin birth under normal circumstances is acknowledged in Luke’s account. Mary confronts the angel with her virginity as a clear barrier to any possibility of conception. Mary herself and the biblical authors recognized that this was not simply improbable, but impossible according to the ordinary laws of creation.

Yet, the Bible (in both Old and New Testaments) repeatedly teaches that God does intervene in human history in dramatic ways, sometimes overruling the ordinary course of events. The objection that a virgin birth is impossible is not a barrier to its truth, it is precisely the point. The angel’s reply to Mary in Luke 1:37 serves as a fitting reminder: “for with God nothing is impossible.”

Objection #2: In the Hebrew, ‘virgin’ really meant ‘young woman’

Reply: In Hebrew (the original language of the Old Testament, and therefore Isaiah 7:14) there is a word for ‘virgin’- b’tulah – but Isaiah uses a different word – almah – that could be translated ‘young woman’ or ‘young maiden.’ The argument, then, is that Matthew is misreading the original intent of Isaiah by seeing it refer to Mary, a virgin, since Isaiah originally intended only a young woman (who may or may not be a virgin). If Isaiah had meant to indicate a virgin, then he would have used b’tulah instead of almah.

There are two linguistic problems with this objection. First, almah is used seven times in the Old Testament, and (according to the Jewish New Testament Commentary) “in each instance either explicitly means a virgin or implies it, because in the Bible ‘almah’ always refers to an unmarried woman of good reputation.” When Eleazer is out looking for a wife for Isaac, Rebekah is referred to as an almah (Genesis 24:43; in 24:16, Rebekah is said to have ‘never known a man’). Miriam, Moses’ sister is described as an almah in Exodus 2:8 as she watches her younger brother float down the Nile. Additionally, Matthew is quoting from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. More than two centuries before Jesus, these Jewish translators had rendered almah into parthenos in Greek, which unequivocally means ‘virgin.’ In their translation, they indicate that they understood almah to mean virgin.

The other issue with the almah vs. b’tulah argument is the word b’tulah itself. While later Hebrew does understand b’tulah to mean ‘virgin,’ its biblical usage is more ambiguous. For example, Joel 1:8: “Lament like a b’tulah girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth.” Perhaps, Isaiah’s usage of almah was to more directly indicate a virgin.

Objection #3: Isaiah was predicting a sign to King Ahaz in his own day, not the birth of the Messiah 700 years later.

This objection is centered on the nature of prophecy. If with God all things are possible and if Isaiah intended to indicate a virgin Isaiah 7:14, was the prophecy meant for immediate fulfillment or messianic fulfillment? Did the prophecy come true in the time of Ahaz (most likely through Isaiah’s son Shear-Jashub) or was it pointing to the future coming of God in Christ?

I think both can be true. The immediate context of Isaiah’s words indicate a sign that God would give to Ahaz, but also to the ‘house of David.’ I have no doubt that this prophecy was seen as fulfilled in some way during the life of Ahaz. He received a sign from God. But if, as most Christians confess, the whole of Scripture points to Christ, then the sign also pointed to Jesus Christ. There may have been an emmanuel in the day of Ahaz, but the prophecy of Emmanuel pointed ultimately to Jesus Christ, who is, in his very nature, God with us. Biblical prophecy often has a both-and quality to it in this respect.

Conclusion

In reality, the only person who could truly verify the historicity of the virgin birth with 100% certainty is Mary. I do not believe it can be ‘proved’ in any historically verifiable way. However, I believe it to be true. I believe it because of all the reasons I named above. I believe it because two independent sources (Matthew and Luke), while differing on other details, both support this claim. And I believe it because I hold the Bible to be trustworthy.

What do you believe concerning the virgin birth of Jesus?

What objections do you have/have you heard?

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