OLD TESTAMENT PROPHECY AND JESUS: PART TWO
As discussed in Part One of this series, Jesus repeatedly associated OT prophecies and events to events in His life. We saw that after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, His disciples, especially Matthew, used OT events and prophecies to prove Jesus was indeed the Christ, the promised Messiah to Israel. Let’s see how and why they did this. We will begin our investigation by looking at Matthew’s use of an OT prophecy to provide evidence for the virgin birth of Jesus.
The virgin birth:
In Matthew chapter one, the writer explains how Mary was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Matthew concludes his remarks by saying the following:
Matthew 1:22-23: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" --which means, "God with us."
We see in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus a reference to the fulfillment of an OT prophecy. Matthew doesn’t name the prophet he is quoting but it is apparent he is quoting Isaiah. In Isaiah chapter seven, Isaiah records an event that contains language and dynamics that speak of a virgin being with child and giving birth to a son who is called Immanuel.
Isaiah 7:14-16: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.”
The context of Isaiah 7 relates to a conflict between Ahaz, king of Judah, and Pekah king of Israel who allied himself with Rezin, king of Aram. Israel had some years earlier split into two nations, Judah to the south and Israel to the north.
King Pekah of Israel formed an alliance with king Rezin of Aram and the two kings and their armies came up to fight against Ahaz and Judah. God, through the prophet Isaiah, told Ahaz that this alliance would not succeed against Ahaz and Judah. It’s recorded that God gave a sign to Ahaz to show him the alliance would not succeed. That sign was to be a virgin giving birth to a son who will be called Immanuel.
As clearly seen, the sign of a virgin being with child and giving birth to a son who will be called Immanuel pertains to a boy living in Isaiah’s time. This prophecy relates to the conflict between Ahaz and the kings of Israel and Aram. There is nothing here pointing to the birth of Jesus 700 years later. The name “Immanuel” in the Hebrew means, “God is with us” or “God with us.” The boy being called Immanuel signified to Ahaz and Judah that God would be with them in their battle against the alliance.
Matthew writes that the virgin pregnancy of Mary and the birth of Jesus all took place to fulfill what the Lord said through the prophet about a virgin being with child and bearing a son called Immanuel. Why does Matthew do this? Is Matthew saying Isaiah was prophesying the birth of Jesus? There is nothing in Isaiah’s prophecy that would indicate Isaiah is prophesying the manner in which Jesus would be born. There is no mention of Jesus or the Christ in Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah’s prophecy appears to pertain to a boy born in his time and not a time 700 years later.
So what are we to make of this? How can Isaiah’s account of a boy born to a virgin 700 years before the birth of Jesus be prophetic of the birth of Jesus when the context of Isaiah 7 clearly shows this event relates to the time of Isaiah with no indication in Isaiah that this is also prophetic of the birth of Christ.
There are several issues here that must be addressed. We need to first look at Isaiah’s use of the Hebrew word almah which is rendered “virgin” in most English translations.
In speaking to Ahaz, Isaiah says “The virgin will conceive.” The Hebrew word translated virgin in verse 14 is almah, which has the basic meaning of a young girl of marriageable age. The Hebrew word for virgin in a moral sense is bethulah. When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, a document called the Septuagint, the translators used the Greek word parthenos to render the Hebrew word almah into Greek. The Greek word parthenos has a broader meaning than almah and can be translated virgin, marriageable maiden or young married women. Context will determine the meaning.
In quoting Isaiah in Matthew 1:23, Matthew uses the Greek word parthenos to render the Hebrew almah. Matthew may have used the Septuagint as his source for the Hebrew Scriptures which means he was simply using the Greek word the Septuagint translators used to render the Hebrew word almah into Greek. On the other hand, he may have translated directly from the Hebrew into the Greek and if he did, he used the Greek word parthenos to translate the Hebrew almah just as the Septuagint translators did. There is some evidence Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew and it was later translated into Greek. If this is the case, Matthew would have probably used the Hebrew almah and whoever translated his Gospel into Greek used the Greek word parthenos.
Since almah is not the common Hebrew word for virgin in a moral sense, some scholars believe Isaiah was not speaking of a virgin in a moral sense but was referring to a young woman of marriageable age. Therefore, it is concluded Isaiah is not speaking of a women being pregnant while still a unmarried virgin but of one who was a young virgin of marriageable age who became married and then pregnant through normal sexual intercourse. Scholars who take this approach argue that Matthew’s use of Isaiah to substantiate a virgin birth of Jesus is unwarranted.
This argument, however, is somewhat superfluous. There is nothing in the meaning of almah that prohibits an almah from also being a bethulah, a virgin in a moral sense. The Hebrew Scriptures themselves bare this out. In the account in Genesis 24 where a wife is being chosen for Isaac, both Hebrew words are used to describe Rebekah. The writer uses the Hebrew for virgin in a moral sense and the Hebrew for maiden interchangeably in referring to Rebekah.
Genesis 24:16: The girl was very beautiful, a virgin; (bethulah) no man had ever lain with her. She went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again.
Genesis 24:43-44: See, I am standing beside this spring; if a maiden (almah) comes out to draw water and I say to her, "Please let me drink a little water from your jar," and if she says to me, "Drink, and I'll draw water for your camels too," let her be the one the LORD has chosen for my master's son.'
Verse 45-46: Rebekah came out, with her jar on her shoulder. She went down to the spring and drew water, and I said to her, `Please give me a drink.' "She quickly lowered her jar from her shoulder and said, `Drink, and I'll water your camels too.' So I drank, and she watered the camels also."
It is obvious from this narrative that Rebekah was a virgin (bethulah) in a moral sense as it is said she had never laid with a man. Yet she is also referred to as a maiden (almah).
Scholars who argue that the woman in Isaiah chapter 7 was not a virgin point to what Isaiah writes in chapter 8. In Isaiah 8, Isaiah is shown as impregnating a prophetess who then gives birth to a son who is named Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (pronounced: mah her shal al hash baz) which in Hebrew means “One hastens to the plunder, one hurries to the loot.”
Isaiah 8:3-4: I then had sexual relations with the prophetess; she conceived and gave birth to a son. The Lord told me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, (pronounced: mah her shal al hash baz) for before the child knows how to cry out, ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria” (NET).
So here we have Isaiah having sexual relations with a prophetess who produced a son. Is this the same boy spoken of in Isaiah 7 where an almah is said to give birth to a son who is called Immanuel? The child in chapter 8 of Isaiah appears to also be called Immanuel just as the child in Chapter 7.
Isaiah 8:5-8: The LORD spoke to me again: "Because this people has rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloah and rejoices over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, therefore the Lord is about to bring against them the mighty floodwaters of the River -- the king of Assyria with all his pomp. It will overflow all its channels, run over all its banks 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 !"
Because of this, some believe the same child is being spoken of in both Isaiah 7 and Isaiah 8 and because in Isaiah 8 the child is clearly seen as being born of a sexual union between Isaiah and a prophetess, it is concluded the women described in Isaiah 7 was not supernaturally impregnated but became impregnated in the normal way. Therefore, Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7 to substantiate a virgin birth of Jesus is seen as highly problematical. Furthermore, it is argued that when Isaiah speaks of a virgin conceiving in 7:14, this may only mean that the woman spoken of was a virgin at the time but became pregnant in the normal manner after which she was no longer a virgin.
So what are we to make of this? Let’s take a closer look. It is instructive that the Hebrew construction of the phrase “The virgin (almah) will be with child" in Isaiah 7:14 strongly suggests that Isaiah is not saying that the "virgin" or "young maiden" will be with child but that she already is with child at the time Isaiah is speaking to Ahaz. In footnotes to Isaiah 7:14, the New English Bible (NET) points this out. This same conclusion is reached by various scholars who have studied the Hebrew construction of this passage. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates it this way:
Isaiah 7:14: Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
While Isaiah speaking about a women that is already pregnant and not a women who is about to become pregnant doesn't prove the women was still a virgin after becoming pregnant, it does better fit what is written in Matthew 1:18-23 where the author speaks of Mary already being with child at the time the angel addresses Joseph.
Matthew 1:18-20: This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
For Mary's virgin pregnancy to truly correspond to the pregnancy of the woman in Isaiah, it would appear the woman in Isaiah would have had to experience a virgin birth. Isaiah said that the birth of the child would be a sign to Ahaz that God would be with him and he would be successful against the alliance. The Hebrew word translated "sign" in this passage can mean something miraculous and is used in this fashion by Isaiah in other of his writings. A child born in the normal way would not be a very convincing sign to Ahaz whereas a child born to a virgin would get his attention.
There has been a good deal of scholarly discussion on this issue with no definitive conclusion being reached. Many OT scholars lean toward seeing the women mentioned in Isaiah 7 as becoming pregnant in the normal way and not still being a virgin after she became pregnant. Matthew, however, clearly parallels the pregnancy of Mary with what happened in Isaiah’s time (Matthew 1:22-23) and clearly sees Mary becoming pregnant through the Holy Spirit and not through sexual intercourse (Matthew 1:18-20). Luke also writes that Mary’s impregnation was supernatural in nature. When told of her becoming pregnant, Mary is quoted as saying this:
Luke 1:34-35: "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin (parthenos)?" The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
Luke doesn’t mention the account in Isaiah. Luke uses the Greek word parthenos in quoting Mary’s response to the angel. By context it should be apparent Mary sees herself as someone who has not had sexual relations with a man as she questions the angel as to how she will become pregnant. We know from Matthew's account that when Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant he was going to disown her which clearly shows he knew he had nothing to do with her getting pregnant.
For the parallel between the birth spoken of in Isaiah 7 and the virgin birth of Jesus to have validity, it would appear the pregnancy recorded in Isaiah 7:14 was supernatural in nature. If this is the case, the child born to the sexual union between Isaiah and the prophetess is a different child as this child appears to have been born of a normal sexual union. The fact that both children are called Immanuel would not be unusual because the word simply means God will be with them. Isaiah uses the same Hebrew word in 8:10 where it is said that God would be with them. Unfortunately, what makes the proposition that there were two boys involved here problematical is that there is no Scriptural identification of the mother of the first boy. Only one mother is identified and that is the prophetess Isaiah had sex with.
If indeed there were two boys involved here, the birth of both boys signified to Ahaz that God would be with Ahaz and Judah in their pending war with the alliance. This was the whole purpose of this birth or births taking place. In Matthew, were Jesus is called Immanuel, it was to signify God was with Israel by providing salvation through His Son Christ Jesus.
The more pressing question here is how Isaiah’s prophecy of a woman giving birth in his time relates to Mary experiencing a birth in her time. To repeat, there is nothing in the Isaiah account that suggests a fulfillment some 700 years later in the birth of Jesus. The fulfillment took place in Isaiah's time. If it is true the Hebrew construction of Isaiah 7:14 shows the woman Isaiah is speaking of was already pregnant, Isaiah is not prophesying anything but simply stating a fact.
The promised birth in Isaiah’s time was directed to Ahaz. Even the naming of the child Immanuel relates to the events extant in Isaiah’s time. The context of Isaiah 7:14-16, clearly shows that the son spoken of is a boy who would be living at that time and behaving in a certain way relative to the two kings being laid waste. This boy being called Immanuel was to tell Ahaz God would be with him.
When Matthew wrote that “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet,” we see that what the Lord said through the prophet is that a young maiden would bear a son who would be called Immanuel and this would be a sign to Ahaz that He would prevail over the alliance. The context is clearly the impending war between Judah and the alliance and not the birth of Jesus. Some have tried to connect Isaiah 7:14 with Isaiah 9:6-7 where the prophet appears to be prophesying the birth of Jesus. However, this prophecy is pointing to a future time when the Gospel will be taken to the Gentiles. This prophecy is in a totally different context from that of Isaiah 7. It is a real stretch to associate the virgin text of 7:14 with 9:6-7.
So why would Matthew relate the event in Isaiah’s time with the Christ event? What justification is there for Matthew doing this? What does Matthew mean in saying, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet,”
The Greek word translated “fulfilled” in Matthew 1:22 is pleeroo. This word appears 90 times in the NT and has the basic meaning of “to make full, to fill, to fill up and to fill to the full.” When Matthew writes that the virgin pregnancy of Mary was to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet, he is not necessarily saying Isaiah was prophesying Mary’s virgin pregnancy. He may only be saying that the event in Isaiah’s time was being made full in Mary.
It should be noted that it is only in retrospect that Matthew can associate the pregnancy of Mary with what happened in Isaiah’s time. Someone looking at Isaiah’s prophecy and its fulfillment during the time of Ahaz would have no reason to see in this event a foreshadowing of the virgin birth of Jesus. So by what authority does Matthew take an ancient event that has nothing contextually to do with Jesus and apply it to Jesus? As discussed in Part One of this series, Matthew got his authority for doing this directly from Jesus. It was Jesus who taught the disciples that the events in His life were fulfillment's of OT prophecies.
It was Jesus who had pointed out to His disciples the parallels between OT prophecies and events in His own life. The Greek word translated “fulfilled” in Luke 24:24 is the same word Matthew uses in paralleling OT events with events in the life of Jesus. Did Jesus teach his disciples that His birth was prophesied by Isaiah or did He teach them the circumstances of His birth was a making full, filling up or filling to the full what had previously occurred during the time of Isaiah in a different context? Let’s return to what Jesus said as recorded in Luke.
Luke 24:44: He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.
Jesus is making a very straightforward statement here. He is saying that a number of prophecies and events recorded in the OT were about Him. He says “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms?” Why does Jesus say “written about me?” Is the virgin birth connected with Ahaz and the alliance really about Jesus? How can it be said that what Isaiah wrote about a virgin birth is about Jesus when the context is all about Ahaz and the alliance and not a word is said about Jesus? The answer to this question may be in what are called types and antitypes.
Types are events that happen in a particular context and antitypes are similar or parallel events that happen in a different context. The virgin birth in Isaiah is in the context of a sign given to Ahaz to show God would be with him in his war with the alliance. The child being called Immanuel was God telling Ahaz that God would be with him. This is the type. The virgin birth of Jesus is the antitype to the Ahaz event. It is a similar or parallel event to what we see during the time of Ahaz.
Matthew appears to be using Isaiah’s prophecy of a boy being born of a virgin during the time of Ahaz as a type of the virgin birth of Jesus which becomes the antitype. Matthew tells Mary the child she gives birth to will be called Immanuel which means “God with us.” God would be with his people through Jesus just as he was present with Ahaz as signified by the son born to the virgin in Isaiah’s time being called Immanuel.
Types and antitypes are extensively found in the book of Hebrews where there is considerable discussion of how Old Covenant conventions and regulations were forerunners of what became the new order of things under the New Covenant. The writer to the Hebrews sees much of Old Covenant types being fulfilled in Christ. This should tell us that God purposely orchestrated a number of Old Covenant types to foreshadow what was to come later in His overall plan for mankind.
It is evident NT writers see a number of sayings, prophecies and events being fulfilled or brought to their full in Christ. The question this raises is whether God orchestrated these OT events in order to serve as types of Christ. For example, did God purposely bring about the events at the time of Ahaz to create a type that would be fulfilled as an antitype in Christ? Was the virgin birth in Isaiah's day really about the virgin birth of Jesus even though there is nothing in the Isaiah account about Jesus
The skeptic's response:
Some NT scholars and most Jewish scholars bristle at the conclusion that some OT events happened in the way they happened for no other reason than to foreshadow events in the life of Christ. Scholars point out that the disciples of Jesus did not by and large see a connection between OT prophecies and Jesus until after His crucifixion and resurrection.
It is this retrospective association of OT events with events in the life of Jesus that some scholars find problematical. Some consider such associations quite arbitrary and lacking in evidence that there was meant to be a relationship between what occurred in OT times with what happened in NT times.
It is argued that retrospectively seeing the birth of Jesus being a fulfillment of Isaiah 7 is an arbitrarily arrived at conclusion which can’t be proved to be valid because it is a conclusion arrived at after the fact. It is assuming the thing to be proved. It’s like saying because my father died from a gun shot and his father died from a gun shot, my father’s father dying from a gun shot was a foreshadowing of my father dying from a gun shot. There would be no reason to believe my father’s father dying from a gun shot fore-shadowed my father dying from a gun shot.
However, as already noted, it is Jesus who associates OT events and prophecies with events in His life. It would appear Matthew and others make these associations only because of what he and the other disciples learned from Jesus. Jesus is saying that certain OT prophecies and events were written with Him in mind. If Jesus is truly the resurrected Son of God, I would say we better take note when Jesus says He is written about in the OT Scriptures.
Did God with purpose of forethought bring about the conditions that led to the brink of war between Judah and the alliance? Was this war orchestrated by God so that the sign of a virgin birth could be given which would some 700 years later be seen as a type of the virgin birth of Jesus? The circumstances that led up to the pending war between Ahaz and the alliance may simply have been the result of fortuitous events associated with the times and not have had any divine involvement whatsoever. After all, conflicts between nations were as common then as they are today.
However, it would appear there was divine involvement as to the virgin birth reported by Isaiah as virgin births do not normally occur. Since it is the virgin birth in Isaiah's time that Matthew sees as fore-shadowing the virgin birth of Jesus, it is not unreasonable to see the virgin birth in Isaiah's time purposely brought about by God to not only be a sign to Ahaz in Isaiah's time but also as a fore-runner of the virgin birth of Jesus. The virgin birth of Jesus would act as a sign that God would be with His people in facilitating their salvation just as He was with Ahaz in saving Judah from the alliance..