Isaiah 7:14
Glenn Miller
Skeptic Jim: There are a number of alleged messianic prophecies about Jesus' birth: prophecies about the location, manner, and time of his birth, about his genealogy, and about events which were to occur at the time of his birth. Probably the most famous of these prophecies is the prophecy that Jesus would be born of a virgin.
"Controversial"--YES!; "famous"--Maybe. I personally think the Bethlehem one is more 'famous' because the Pharisees try to use it AGAINST Jesus in the gospel of John. Just my opinion, though.

Before we get too far into this, let me first comment on the significance of this prophecy for the Christian belief-system, and then for its significance in 'apologetic' endeavors.

I accepted this passage as being Messianic initially on the testimony of Matthew. I consider him to be a MUCH BETTER JUDGE of the prophetic 'status' of an OT passage than I, due to his cultural continuity with the OT, his closeness to the 'sources' of that understanding, his special 'status' in Jesus' establishment of the early church--that of an major recorder, and his superior knowledge of the languages (relative to mine). If he understands 'almah' as 'virgin', I am not sure I have a better base of data from which to 'argue him down'.

Without his remarks on Is 7.14, I am not sure that I would have seen a close connection between the virgin birth of Jesus and the Immanuel passage. (As I will show later, this 'lack of perception' on my part would probably have been INCORRECT, due to the exegetical clues in the passage itself.)

So, WITHIN the Christian worldview (which for me is validated by other means than the fulfilled prophecy of Is 7.14!!!!), I accept the messianic status of the passage on reasonable grounds, relative to my paradigm community.

Now, OUTSIDE the Christian worldview, in perhaps the realm of apologetic discussions, Isaiah 7.14 is NOT A PASSAGE I would adduce to PROVE either the supernaturalness of the Bible (from fulfilled prophecy) NOR the messiahship of Jesus. The data it gives us is too easily 'suspended' on the basis of general exegetical considerations, some of which Jim will articulate below. To at least my Western mind, the connection does 'jump out at me' like perhaps Micah 5. 2 or Zech 11. So, although I will interact with Jim on this passage (for I DO think the data is AGAINST his grounds for dismissal of it), I do NOT want to give the impression that I consider this passage a STRONG ARGUMENT for Christian claims.

Skeptic Jim: The gospels of Matthew (1:18-25) and Luke (1:26-35) both claim that Jesus was born of a virgin, but only Matthew (1:23) appeals to the Hebrew scriptures as an explanation for why this should be the case. The verse appealed to is Isaiah 7:14, which reads: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel."

There are a number of difficulties with this passage. As many have noted, the Hebrew word translated as "virgin" in this verse is "almah," which is more accurately translated simply as "young woman." The Hebrew word "bethulah" means "virgin." In the book of Isaiah, "bethulah" appears four times (23:12, 37:22, 47:1, 62:5), so its author was aware of the word. In the New American Standard translation of the Bible, all other appearances of "almah" are translated simply as "girl," "maid," or "maiden" (viz: Genesis 24:43, Exodus 2:8, Psalms 68:25, Proverbs 30:19, Song of Solomon 1:3, 6:8). Thus the claimed fulfillment adds a biologically impossible condition which is not even present in the original prophecy.[2]

Here we get into the first issue.

Quite simply, this position is false (although Jim's overall position is not really dependent on it). The data from the OT usage of BOTH words, as well as the ANE cognate languages, indicates that almah was JUST AS ACCEPTABLE AS (and probably more so than) bethulah, for conveying the idea of 'virgin'.

First the data from the ANE cognate languages...

[for the critical and scholarly work on this, see : G.J. Wenham, "Bethulah: A Girl of Marriageable Age", Vetus Testamentum, 22:326-48; Tsevat, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, II: pp338-43; C.H. Gordon in Jrnl of Bib. and Religion 21:240-41; Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament , I:137-138; R.K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, p482f.]


Tsevat concluded that the word "does not mean 'virgin' in any language exclusively (Aram.), mainly (Heb.), or generally (Akk/Ugar.)" (p.340).

Now let's turn to the use of Bethulah in the OT...

It CAN be used to denote a virgin, as in Lev 21 and Ezek 44, but it generally is non-specific in this area (e.g. Dt 32.25; II Crn 36.17; Ps 148:12) However, there are several passages where it REFERS to a NON-virgin...

In short, it is incorrect to say that "bethulah" is the word that would have been used, if 'virginity' was a major issue of the passage. It generally means 'young woman' (with OR without virginity), although it IS used as 'virgin' in a number of places as well.

Now, let's turn to the word Isaiah used...almah...

The linguistic data is fairly straightforward. This word, in contradistinction to bethulah, is NEVER used of a non-virgin (either in the OT or in cuneiform Caananite texts). It STILL GENERALLY means 'young woman' but always includes the notion of virginity and non-marriage (see A.A. Macrae, "'lm" in TWOT II: 672).

Some of the passages in which the idea of virginity is definitely at the forefront are Gen 24:43, Ex 2.8, and Song 6.8 (where the almah is contrasted with queens and concubines).

But of considerable MORE INTEREST is its context in ANE religious thought.

There is one other 'odd' line of evidence to support the meaning of 'virgin' as a core idea in this passage: the dream of Joseph. In Matt 1 there is good evidence (from other Announcement passages in Mt.) that it was THE ANGEL that gave the Isaiah quote in the dream to Joseph (in spite of how most English Versions render it as an editorial comment by Matthew). The force of the perfect tense in v. 22 ("all this has happened...") would HAVE BEEN the BEST WAY to assure Joseph to continue the marriage to a pregnant virgin(!)...with its pointing to an awesome prophecy of this exact situation. And Joseph, as a son of David himself (v. 20) would have seen himself in a far-reaching stream of God's actions in history.

There is another important consideration that should be addressed here. COULD Isaiah have used bethulah JUST AS EASILY as almah (by giving it a specific spin toward the virgin-issue)? He certainly uses it elsewhere in his works (23.12; 37.22; 47.1; 62.5).

At a base linguistic level, he probably could; but the problem with doing that was that BETHULAH WAS FAST BECOMING A TECHNICAL, PROPHETIC FORMULA/TERM by then. Of the four times Isaiah uses the word, THREE times it refers to a nation! ("O Virgin daughter of X"), and the fourth one is used as a pattern argument FOR the nation. [This pattern is also repeated in Jeremiah/Lamentations, in addressing nations (e.g. 14.17; 18.13; 31.4; 31.21; 46.11; Lam 1.15; 2.13).]

My point here is simply this: If Isaiah had used bethulah here, his readers might have thought him to be referring to the nation Israel (as some commentators suggest) or even some OTHER nation. To avoid this misunderstanding, and to still retain the core concept of virginity, almah would be the best choice.

To sum up: the linguistic data argues quite strongly that almah is a better word to use than bethulah, if the aspect of virginity is an important part of the semantic intent in Isaiah 7.14 (as would be indicated by Matthew's use of 'virgin' and, circumstantially, the LXX translation). And the cultural data in the ANE suggests a 'loaded' word-choice, indicating something perhaps 'strange' is going on in the passage.

Skeptic Jim: Another problem is that nowhere in the New Testament does Mary, Jesus' mother, refer to him as "Immanuel." Thus we have no evidence that one of the conditions of the prophecy was ever fulfilled.
I am surprised this argument is used here--it is quite weak. A couple of quick pieces of evidence to show this: This is where the discussion gets good...the two points above are easily 'disposed of', but the REAL CHALLENGE (as Jim indicates) is in the relationship between the historical context and the possible prophetic content--an issue that has to be worked through in EVEN the most straightforward of messianic announcements (e.g. Deut 18.15 -- questions about fulfillment in THEIR lifetime, "among your brothers", '"like unto me"--surround even such a 'vanilla' prophecy), and even fulfillment details of strictly "local" prophecies (e.g. I Kings 20:13-21 -- there is no mention of "Ahab" going first; does that mean the prophecy was NOT fulfilled 'in full'?...not at all...we have the same issue of summarization and selection of 'which details are important' we have in ALL the text.) So let's dive into this fascinating text...
Skeptic Jim: But the most serious problem with this alleged messianic prophecy is that it has been taken out of context. Looking at the entire seventh chapter of Isaiah, it becomes clear that the child in question is to be born as a sign to Ahaz, King of Judah, that he will not be defeated in battle by Rezin, King of Syria, and Pekah, son of the King of Israel. Jesus' birth was some seven centuries late to be such a sign.
Jim is quite right to point out that passages MUST be taken in context. What is NOT clear is that Jim's understanding of the context is entirely accurate (or at least, complete).

His understanding of the HISTORICAL situation IS accurate. Rezin and Pekah, in alliance, ARE threatening Judah, and it is clear that Jim's statement is correct when applied to 7.1-9. The section of 7.1-9 is God's reassurance to him that IF (and ONLY IF!) HE STANDS FIRM IN FAITH, his kingdom will endure (otherwise, "NOT"). Ahaz was not known for his faithfulness to YHWH(see the DRAMATIC context below!), so this is a gracious offer on God's part, in honor of Ahaz' membership in "the house of David" (7.2). It is NOT an unconditional promise, but one DEPENDENT upon Ahaz' faithfulness.

[NOTE: Therefore the similar statement in "Jury" is "off" by this 'dependency' issue:

"The promised child, Immanuel, was meant as a sign to King Ahaz that his kingdom would not be destroyed by Israel and Syria."
The reason I bring this up, is that later in the "Jury" passage we find this:
"II Chronicles 28:1-6 clearly states that Ahaz was defeated by Syria and Israel, thus rendering the prophecy false. This makes Isaiah a false prophet by the standard of Deuteronomy 18:22. It is doubtful that we will be receiving prophecies from Yahweh through a false prophet. "
This statement fails in the face of the CONDITIONAL nature of God's assurances to Ahaz. Even the passage in 2 Chron REPEATEDLY points out (e.g. 1, 5, 6, 19, 22) that his defeat was due to his lack of faithfulness to YHWH--present in OUR Isaiah text.--ENDnote]

This is the HISTORICAL context.

The DRAMATIC context puts a bit of a 'spin' on this. What happens now, in 7.10-25, follows up on that gracious offer in v.9. Ahaz is addressed "again" (7.10), but by this time he has NOT followed instructions! Instead, he has tested the 'patience' of God with his faithlessness--v.13. God still gives him 'another chance' commanding him to ask for a 'you name it/you got it' kind of sign--to encourage his weak faith (v. 11). Ahaz disobeys (while mouthing a bible quote!), and Isaiah proceeds to deliver an altogether 'un-asked for' sign--a sign of judgment on the House of David! So the DRAMATIC context is one of AHAZ's failure as Davidic king, and of YHWH's displeasure with (and coming judgment on) him.

The LITERARY context breaks down like this.

  • The Prophetic Word to Judah (7.1-9.7) forms a unit, organized around the use of kid's names as prophetic devices (7.3; 8.1-5, 18; 9.6,7)
  • The Prophetic Word to Ephraim (9.8-11.16) shows close parallels to the above (further arguing for the unity of 7.1-9.7):
  • (See J.A. Motyer, "Context and Content in the Interpretation of Isaiah 7:14," Tyndale Bulletin 21:118-25)
  • The 'Immanuel' child, promised in 7:14, has some 'odd' characteristics, throughout this literary unit:
    1. He will possess the land (Isa. 8:8 "and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it, passing through it and reaching up to the neck. Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land, O Immanuel !" )
    2. thwart all opponents (Isa. 8:10 "Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted; propose your plan, but it will not stand, for God is with us". )
    3. Possess the throne of David and represent "The Mighty God" among us (Isa. 9:6-7: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom)
    4. He is the only child promised AT ALL in this unit, and so the natural reference of 7.14 is this 'larger than life' figure of chapter 9.
    So the literary context suggests (even without 7.14!) a child-figure that has characteristics MUCH LARGER than any 'normal' kid!

    With these various contexts in mind, let's look at a few of the details of the passage:

    The upshot of all this is this: In response to Ahaz' failure to exercise his royalty in line with Davidic mandates of loyalty and trust, God will step in to provide a TRUE Davidic king, Immanuel. This king will appear AFTER the consequences of the failure of Ahaz and family have manifested themselves in history, with the invasion of Assyria extending even to Judah (but stopping short of Jerusalem--cf. 8.8c). This Immanuel-child will appear with a 'larger than life' birth (to an unknown virgin) and manifest a 'larger than life' set of abilities/responsibilities, and function as a sign to the entire House of David, that God is active in delivering his people (in spite of Ahaz' unbelief).

    This understanding of the text seems to do the best justice to the various historical contexts and literary details in the passage [notice, WITHOUT invoking notions of 'double fulfillment' , 'multiple senses', etc.--I may need those later, but not in this passage...;>) ]

    Skeptic Jim: In Isaiah 8:3-4, a prophetess gives birth to a son--Maher-shalal-hash-baz--who is clearly described as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14.[3]
    Actually, not only is it NOT 'clearly described', there are in fact, NO TEXTUAL REASONS to equate Immanuel and the child of 8.3! They differ in virtually EVERY detail:
  • They have different names! And the passage in 8 is NOT cited as a 'fulfillment', as would have been typically done HAD it been a fulfillment (e.g. 1Kgs. 12:15; 1Kgs. 2:27; 2Kgs. 15:12; 1Kgs. 14:18; 2Kgs 7.17; 2 kgs 23.16)
  • Immanuel's name is positive and encouraging; Maher-shalal-hash-baz (i.e. "quick to the plunder, quick to the spoil") is ominous, alluding to the Assyria swift-power, which was soon to overtake Ephraim and Judah (v. 6-8).
  • The mother of Immanuel is an unknown virgin; Maher's mom is Isaiah's wife.
  • Immanuel is keyed to a moral or dietary spec; Maher is keyed to linguistic ability ("mama")
  • Immanuel is related to the larger destruction of the land; Maher is related to Damascus and Samaria (v.4)
  • Immanuel is from the house of David (9.7); Maher, as a descendent from Isaiah, probably was not. (although Jewish tradition says Isaiah was of royal stock)
  • Maher shows up as a 'bit' player (like his brother in 7.3); Immanuel is in the middle of passages that sweep wide spans of history (8.8,10).

  • Skeptic Jim: J. Edward Barrett (1988, p. 14) points out evidence that early Christians rejected the virgin birth.

    I am not familiar with Barrett's work, so I will have to wait until I can get a copy of his article, BUT I AM familiar with the historical data and find it very ODD for someone to make this claim.

    The main writings of the early post-NT church--100 ad to 140 ad--[e.g. Ignatius (Smyr 1:1); the Apology of Aristides; Justin (Dialogue with Trypho, e.g. 43f, 68, 84); Irenaeus (Haer., 3, 21, 4f. and 9; 3, 22, 1-4); The Old Roman Creed] very vigorously defend the teaching of the virgin birth against two heretical movements: early gnosticism and Ebionism. This 'defense' shows that it was an accepted part of the mainstream church. If Barrett is calling the Ebionites and gnostics 'early Christians' and building an argument that they represented some 'mainstream faction', he is seriously mistaken!

    Skeptic Jim: One piece of Barrett's evidence is that in 1 Timothy 1:3-4, the writer (who may or may not be the apostle Paul) advises that his audience "instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith."
    I have seen many strange examples of exegesis in my day, but this one ranks way up there in terms of implausibility!

    A couple of quick points here:

    1. The word translated 'genealogies' here is used only twice, here and in Titus 3.9;
    2. This is most likely to have referred to Jews propagating pre-Christian gnosticism (with its endless genealogies of aeons between God and man--cf. Irenaeus on the mythical Ophite genealogies, in Haer.1, 30, 9);
    3. Early church witnesses (Irenaeus and Tertullian) supposed this to be a reference to the cosmological genealogies of Valentinianism.
    4. The phrase "myths and genealogies" had been used pejoratively from Plato on (see. The IVP Bible Background Commentary--New Testament).
    5. The apocalyptic literature of first-century Judaism had developed quite elaborate mythological treatments of OT genealogies (along the allegorical methods of some Alexandrian Jews).
    In short, there are plenty of plausible historical referents for this phrase--no need to invent one!
    Skeptic Jim: The earliest gospel, Mark, lacks an account of Jesus' birth, as does John, the latest gospel.
    This is, of course, an argument from silence, with the assumption that if ALL FOUR of the writers didn't mention something (for whatever reason), THEN the early church must not have believed it!

    For some reason, these arguments don't ever seem to be satisfied. If we have N witnesses to a event, they want "N+1"...And if EVERY SINGLE WRITER talks about the event in EXACT detail, they are accused of "collusion" and "conspiracy". And if EVERY SINGLE WRITER talks about the event, but uses different vocab, style, levels of precison, of selection of details, THEN the antagonists complain about 'contradictions' and 'disagreements'! What's a mother to do?!!!!

    (I am always amused at these 'argument from silence' literary positions and the ability to spoof it are difficult to resist: "Since Jesus never spoke his own name in the Gospels, he must not have known it!").

    But more seriously, there is no reason at all why ANY event has to be in EVERY gospel...even if it WAS important to the church. These authors knew about the others' works; the "synoptic problem" is ample witness to this!

    And, for what its worth, there is some grammatical evidence indicating that Paul knew of, and alluded to, the special circumstances around Jesus' birth. Scholars recently have noticed that Paul used a special vocab to talk about Christ's birth:

    "Whenever Paul speaks of the birth of Jesus Christ, he uses the verb ginomai , which has the broad meaning of "come to be." This is particularly significant in Gal 4:4, 23f. Jesus Christ "comes to be" by a woman, whereas Isaac and Ishmael, born of two women, are begotten and born, since the vb. gennao, used here, carries overtones of the father's act. Paul uses the same general word in Rom 1:3 ("came of the seed of David according to the flesh") and Phil 2:7 ("coming to be in the likeness of men"). On each occasion, Paul avoids the normal word for born, which is understandable if, as the traveling companion of Luke, he knew that Jesus was born miraculously."
    (J. Stafford Wright, "Son", in Dictionary of New Test. Theology, p.661)

    Skeptic Jim: Virgin birth is obviously quite relevant to genealogy, and both Matthew and Luke present Jesus' genealogy in close proximity to the story.

    It is NOT AT ALL "obvious" to me--esp. in the context of Jewish legal practice (but more on the genealogy issues later). The virgin birth passage in Is 7.14 is used STRICTLY as a messianic prophecy fulfillment, not as an argument over lineage or sinlessness or human nature (or any of the other things the church has tried to make it into!). The link with the genealogy is strictly 'locational'--in other words, one normally groups material about a common theme (e.g. background and birth) together in the same general literary 'location'. There are no explicit links, no alluded links, no theological links present in the assert otherwise requires a least a little evidence.

    Conclusion: When the linguistic, historical, literary, and cultural factors are considered in looks messianic to me! ("If it LOOKS like a duck, and SOUNDS like a duck,...") 

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