The Virgin Birth and the Allegorical Sense of Scripture
Yesterday, we were discussing Richard Dawkins flat-footed reading of Isaiah 7:14 and the amazingly-common notion that the Church’s faith in the Virgin Birth came from some scribe reading it, rubbing his eyes in amazement, and suddenly deciding then and there that Jesus was born of a virgin, to the enthusiastic credulity of, well, everybody in the whole wide Church. It is an amazing thing to believe when put so baldly, but since so many atheists and skeptics do accept this Oral Tradition from each other without a hint of skepticism, I thought it might be helpful to discuss how early Christians, who were not 2000 years stupider than us, actually read their Bibles and make the case that they were considerably more sophisticated than the yokels Dawkins and reddit.atheism give them credit for being.
Here then is the beginning of Chapter 7 of Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did, on how the early Church really read Isaiah 7:14:
This means something. This is important. – Roy Neary (Contemplating his sculpted pile of mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)
As we mentioned in the last chapter, one of the standing temptations of the biblical student is to oversimplify by seizing on one truth and using it to discount other, equally important truths. One such oversimplification consists of the habit some modern people have of exalting the primacy of the literal sense of Scripture into a flat denial of the possibility of any other senses of Scripture at all. This posture of “liberal fundamentalism” says, in effect, “The human author said it. There’s nothing more to it. That settles it.” According to this notion, all attempts to seek any second meanings in Scripture are to be dismissed (in the words of one modern scholar) as “a sort of weasel word” whereby the reader can make the biblical text mean anything he likes.
This denial of a second sense in Scripture can lead to curious results, as a friend of mine discovered one evening watching one of those “Mysteries of the Bible” shows on TV. On the show were a couple of theologians eager to get their fifteen minutes of fame. So rather than talk about the Faith, they obligingly told the camera that Jesus was not born of a virgin and based their claim on the allegation that Matthew misunderstood the prophet Isaiah.
It’s like this, said the scholars: A couple of centuries after Isaiah wrote (and a couple of centuries before Jesus was born), the Hebrew Bible (including the book of Isaiah) was translated into Greek (since most Jews were spread over the Greek-speaking ancient world and were forgetting their Hebrew just as European immigrants to the United States forgot their Yiddish in an English-speaking culture). This Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (that is, the Old Testament) is called the Septuagint.
Now in the original Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 we read the prophecy that an “‘almah’ shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel'” “Almah” means in Hebrew “young woman” and refers to any young woman, virgin or not. But when the Jewish translators of the Septuagint translated Isaiah into Greek (centuries before the birth of Christ), they did not translate the term as “young woman” but as “parthenos” which means “virgin.” Later on, after Christ comes, Matthew is reading this Greek translation, not the original Hebrew, when he declares of the Virgin Birth, “All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel'” (Matthew 1:22-23). “But,” said the TV theologians, “we now know Matthew was mistaken to believe in the Virgin Birth since Isaiah did not say “virgin” but ‘young woman’.”
So my friend was wrestling with what seemed an inevitable set of conclusions: a) the Septuagint translation is flat wrong; b) Matthew was ignorant of the actual meaning of Isaiah; c) he therefore derived his belief in the Virgin Birth from a mistaken translation of Isaiah and d) the Church therefore erred in defining its dogma of the Virgin Birth of Christ by following Matthew’s lead.
This is however, to enter into a whole complex of mistakes, not clarifications. To find out what’s really going on, let’s look again at the New Testament use of Old Testament Scripture.
The first and most obvious point is this: when you want to know the circumstances of somebody’s birth, where do you go? To the book of Isaiah? No. You ask their mother. The source of the story of the Virgin Birth is the Virgin Mary herself, not the book of Isaiah. It is because of her word, not Isaiah’s, that the Church comes to believe Jesus was born of a Virgin.
The second is this: Why would you be asking about the circumstances of somebody’s birth? It’s not a normal conversation starter (“Pardon me, Mrs. Smith, but are you a virgin?”). Most of us don’t know the circumstances even of our friends’ births. Usually there has to be something very unusual about a person to make us want to delve that deeply into such personal details. And in the case of Jesus, there emphatically is. However, the unusual attention-getter for the apostles is not the beginning of his life, but the end. The apostles come to be interested in Jesus’ origins, not because they saw the Virgin Birth, but because they saw the risen Christ. This risen Christ, as we saw previously, is the one who did not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17). Moreover, after his resurrection, he tells his disciples that “Moses and all the prophets” had written “concerning himself” (Luke 24:26-27). This is where the apostles get the idea that the whole life and ministry of Christ “fulfilled the Scriptures.” So far so good.
What is not so good however is that it is easy for the modern reader to adopt a kind of “checklist” mentality about messianic prophecy, as though every first-century Jew had an agreed-upon set of “Messianic Verses” in the Old Testament against which all messianic claimants were measured. Indeed, many books of Christian apologetics today layout precisely this sort of schema:
|The Messiah must be …||(OT)||(NT)|
|born in Bethlehem||Mic. 5:1||Matt 2:1, Lk. 2:4-7|
|adored by great persons||Ps. 72:10-11||Matt. 2:1-11|
|sold for 30 pieces of silver||Zech. 11:12||Matt. 26:15|
and so forth. One could easily get the impression that all a first-century Jew had to do was follow Jesus around, ticking off prophecy fulfillments on his Old Testament Messianic Prophecy Checklist and he ought to have known everything that Jesus was going to do before he ever did it.
But, as we have seen, the New Testament makes plain that the prophecies of Messiah were not so much revealed by the Old Testament as they were hidden there. This is precisely why Paul writes that the New Covenant was “veiled” until the gospel took away the veil (2 Corinthians 3:14)· It is also why he declares the gospel was “not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:5). In short, Paul insists the deepest meaning of the Old Testament was seen only after the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
This is why nobody before these events says, “Why, it’s plain from Scripture that the Messiah will be born of a virgin, rejected by the chief priests, handed over to Gentiles, crucified with thieves, risen, ascended, and that he will abrogate the circumcision demand for Gentiles as he breaks down the barrier between man and woman, slave and free, Jew and Gentile.” Even the disciples themselves, close as they were to Jesus, make it clear they did not anticipate the crucifixion, much less the resurrection, one little bit—even when Jesus rubbed their noses in it (Mark 9:9-10). As John says, they did not understand from the Scripture that the Messiah had to rise from the dead, even while they were standing in the mouth of the empty tomb gawking at his grave clothes (John 20:1-10).
And yet, these same apostles speak of the resurrection (like the Virgin Birth) as a “fulfillment” of the prophecies. What then do they mean if they do not mean the prophecies were “predictions” upon which everybody based their understanding of Messiah?
They mean that Christ fulfilled, brought to fruition, and was the ultimate Case in Point toward which all the Old Testament was straining and pointing. They mean he was the One toward whom the law and prophets were being pointed by his Spirit even when the sacred writers themselves did not know quite what they were pointing toward (1 Peter 1:10-11; 2 Peter 1:20-21). This is why the early Church never had difficulty with an issue which often vexes modern minds: namely, why the New Testament often takes Old Testament texts out of their immediate context and sees them as applicable to Christ. For the early Church does not see the Old Testament as talking about something different from Christ, but rather sees it in relationship to him. What appear to us to be separate themes and events in the Old Testament, appear to the New Testament writers as so many spokes on a wheel all connected to the Hub who is Christ.
So, for instance, Hebrews 2:13 quotes the Septuagint version of Isaiah 8:18: “Here am I, and the children God has given me.” In its literal sense, Isaiah is speaking about his own disciples. Yet the author of Hebrews sees Christ, far more than Isaiah, fulfilling the text. Why? Because Christ and his Church are, most fully, what Isaiah and his disciples were in a kind of foreshadow. Isaiah, the great prophet of the Messiah, prophesies him not only in the words he writes, but in the life he lives. The words of the book of Isaiah, like all words, are signs signifying something, in this case Isaiah and his own disciples. But Isaiah and his own disciples are, in their turn, also signs signifying something even greater: Christ and his Church. For Christ and his Church are the ultimate Case in Point of what Isaiah and his disciples were: “signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion” (Isaiah 8:18). Isaiah and his disciples do indeed fulfil the passage in an immediate and literal sense. But the early Church sees no particular reason why this forbids the God whom Isaiah worshipped from fulfilling it even more profoundly when he becomes incarnate and establishes his Church. Therefore the author of Hebrews, reading the Isaian passage with hindsight through the lens of the entire life and ministry of Christ, sees an allegory hidden in it by God of the Messiah Isaiah foretold. What was true of the prophet was truer still of the Messiah he prophesied.
Likewise, with Isaiah 7:14, we find that the passage has a much more immediate fulfillment than the birth of Christ. The Immanuel Prophecy comes in an hour of national crisis during the reign of Ahaz, one of the lousier kings of Judah and descendants of David. The northern kingdom of Israel has formed an alliance with Syria against Ahaz’ southern kingdom of Judah and as a result the Judeans are in a muck sweat about the future of their country. So Isaiah goes to Ahaz, tells him not to worry about the alliance since God will take care of the house of David, and offers Ahaz the chance to “ask a sign of the Lord your God” (Isaiah 7:10) to assure him that everything will be fine. Ahaz refuses, ostensibly because he is too pious to put God to the test, but really because he does not trust God. It is then that the Immanuel Prophecy is given: “Behold the almah shall conceive and bear [or ‘is with child and shall bear’] a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [which means ‘God with us’].” (Isaiah 7:14). What does Isaiah mean?
Most immediately and literally, Isaiah seems to have in mind the promise of a successor to Ahaz, namely Hezekiah, who will carry on the line of David so that, as Nathan had prophesied to David long ago “your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). In other words, Isaiah is telling Ahaz that “God is with” the Davidic throne just as he had promised David centuries before and that, for the sake of that promise, Ahaz’ kingdom will not be defeated by the menacing alliance to the north. And this prophecy is fulfilled. The alliance against Judah fails and Hezekiah is indeed born. The prophecy, in its most immediate sense, is fulfilled, not by a virgin birth, but by the pregnancy of the wife of Ahaz and the birth of a new “son of David” to carry on the Davidic line.
However, there remains in pre-Christian Jewish tradition a persistent belief in larger and second meanings in its Bible. As we have seen, there is, for instance, a growing sense that the prophecy of Nathan to David in 2 Samuel 7 (despite these immediate fulfillments) speaks not so much of an everlasting political rule, but of some higher and greater Throne. That is why, when the political rule of the house of David finally does fail, Israel continues to remember Nathan’s words and wonders what deeper meaning they might have. In the same way, Israel is told to await a Prophet by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15) and, indeed, many prophets appear. Yet Israel, instead of seeing them as the final fulfillment of Moses’ promise, instead comes to believe that some Great and Ultimate Prophet is coming; an august Somebody of whom the Old Testament Prophets are just dim images or foreshadows. This is why the Jews asked John the Baptist if he was “The Prophet” (John 1:21). And so, as we have seen, the Jews slowly develop over time the strong belief that there is, in the Bible, a mysterious inner meaning as well as the slowly dawning awareness that Somebody is coming—some Anointed One or Servant or Prophet or Son of David or Son of Man (the titles are fuzzy in the Old Testament)—who will make clear the tantalizing hints and “utter things hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matthew 13:35). And so far from keeping his mind focused entirely in the political intrigues of his own time, Isaiah is one of the principal figures in the Old Testament who encourages exactly this kind of messianic anticipation, promising that “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1)—that is, an heir of the Davidic throne (Jesse was David’s father) will save Israel, even when the house of David’s political fortunes are destroyed by the Babylonian Exile and Captivity.
There is then, both clarity and obscurity concerning the messianic message of the Old Testament in the time of Christ. Certain texts (like the prophecy of Nathan concerning the covenant with David, or the promises in Isaiah of a coming “Anointed One” from the house of David) are clearly understood by most Jews to be messianic. Yet at the same time, other passages are never dreamed of as referring to a Messiah until after Jesus of Nazareth’s astounding career is over. Nobody understands Psalms 69 and 109 beforehand as a prophecy of the Election of Matthias to the office vacated by Judas, nor understands the unbroken bones of the Passover lamb as a prophetic image of Christ’s unbroken bones, nor sees in advance that Isaiah 53 bears witness to his crucifixion and resurrection. If they had, says Paul, they would never have crucified the Lord of Glory (1 Corinthians 2:8). All these things are only seen after the fact as eerily prophetic of Christ and his Church. They fill out the picture dimly sketched by the more widely acknowledged messianic prophecies, but only in hindsight.
This is why, rather than viewing their Hebrew Bibles as a source of proof texts to be strung together into a checklist, the early Christians see the Old Testament bearing inspired witness to the extraordinary man who had dwelt among them. They did not, for instance, read “Zeal for your house will consume me” in the Septuagint version of Psalm 69:9 and then decide “The Messiah, whenever he shows up, will overturn the table of the moneychangers in order to fulfil this random passage from the Psalms.” On the contrary, Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers first (John 2:13-16) and then afterwards his disciples remember the verse and are struck by how it “fits” the event. This happens again and again in the New Testament. The disciples are as surprised as anybody else when Jesus heals the sick or raises the dead. They do not foresee the miracles of Christ by reading the Old Testament. Rather, the ministry of Christ happens and they then see an uncanny connection between what Jesus does and the weird way in which it fits the Old Testament. When Jesus is sold for thirty pieces of silver or his hands and feet are pierced on the cross, the apostles do not discover this by sticking their noses into the book of Zechariah or Psalm 22. Rather, after Jesus is raised, they remember that these things were written and, blinking their eyes in amazement, say “It was staring us in the face all along and we didn’t see it!” The Old Testament is not the basis of their belief in these things, it is the witness to these things.
And so, back to my friend and his worries about the Virgin Birth. First off, the translators of the Septuagint did not make a “wrong” translation of “almah” into “parthenos.” Recall that the translation was made just a little bit before the sexual revolution in the 1960s. Hence, it was commonly assumed in the culture of the translators that a young woman, assuming she was unmarried, would also be a virgin. The translators of the Septuagint, faced with a choice between the Greek word for “young woman” and Greek word for “virgin” opted, for whatever mysterious reasons, to use the latter. From a purely linguistic viewpoint, it was not the smartest move in the world. But neither was it wildly beyond the pale. Words seldom mean one thing and one thing only. Second, whatever may have been the mistaken (or was it providential?) motivations of the Septuagint translators, Matthew did not, in any event, derive his belief in Mary’s virginity from Isaiah 7:14. He did not sit down one day, read Isaiah, and say to himself, “Let’s see. Isaiah says something about a virgin here. So if I’m going to cook up a Christ figure, I’d better make him the son of a virgin so it’ll fit with this text.” On the contrary, the apostles encounter a man who does extraordinary things like rising from the dead and, when they inquire about his origins—which they could only have known if Mary volunteered them—find he was born of a virgin. They then look at their Septuagint Bibles, run across this weird passage in the Greek text of Isaiah and see him reflected in this verse (because Jesus had told them that the law and the prophets are, in their deepest sense, about him). They realize that the birth of the little “son of David” Hezekiah foreshadows the birth of the Ultimate Son of David Jesus. So they point to the passage as another instance of Jesus being the Messianic fulfillment of the promised made to house of David. It was so that he could be born of a virgin that Hezekiah, his ancestor, was born of the almah. The Church’s faith in the virginity of Mary originates not in a textual misunderstanding, but in the historical fact of the Virgin Birth of Christ to which the Septuagint translation bears curiously providential witness. The basis of the Church’s Faith, then as now, is Jesus Christ himself.
 J. A. Fitzmyer, S.J., quoted in Scott Hahn: “Coming to Our Senses: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Spiritual Exegesis”, Lay Witness, September 1998, p. 6.
 I take this example from The Jewish New Testament, tr. David H. Stern (Clarksville: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1989), pp. xxvi-xxix. One can also find the same sort of checklist in some of the works of Josh McDowell.