Monday, December 21, 2009

Isaiah 7:14...Christmas Hermeneutics

The "Jewish Study Bible" (Jewish Publication Society, Oxford University Press, 1999, p.798) makes this comment on Isaiah 7:14 : "Young woman (Heb "almah"). The Septuagint translates as 'virgin', leading ancient and medieval Christians to connect this verse with the New Testament figure of Mary. All modern scholars, however, agree that the Heb merely denotes a young woman of marriageable age, whether married or unmarried, whether a virgin or not."

This comment completely ignores the New Testament, as might be expected in a Jewish commentary. It overlooks the fact that not only did "ancient and medieval Christians" make this connection to the virgin birth of Jesus, but that the New Testament itself does so in Matthew 1:23, which is why Christians have followed the teaching. The implication of this statement from the Jewish commentators is that the New Testament is wrong in Matthew 1:23, because it makes an invalid connection between Isaiah 7:14 and the birth of Jesus the Messiah. In other words, Matthew "reinterpreted" Isaiah 7:14 to fit his "Christian" purposes.
There are at least three more things wrong with the "Jewish Study Bible" (JSB) comment. (1) The Hebrew word "almah" is used throughout the Old Testament to refer to an unmarried virgin (Genesis 24:23, Exodus 2:8, Psalm 68:25, Proverbs 30:19, Song of Solomon 1:3, 6:8), not merely "a young woman of marriageable age". (2) The comment implies that the Septuagint translation had to be wrong. (3) To state that "all modern scholars" agree on this is simply not true, in fact would not be true of "all modern scholars" on anything! It does allow the Jewish Study Bible commentators to call anyone who disagrees with them "ancient" or "medieval", that is, out of touch with current scholarship and reality.

But, the sadder issue is that there are Christian commentators who have done exactly what the JSB has accused them of doing. Trying to acknowledge the historic setting of this section of Isaiah, it is insisted that the virgin is Isaiah's wife (see 8:1-2), and the son is Isaiah's son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz of his prophetess wife (see 8:3), and that Isaiah's son is called Immanuel (8:8,10). In doing this, as for example Herbert M. Wolf does in "Interpreting Isaiah" (Zondervan, 1985, p.91), it becomes necessary for such commentators to conclude that Matthew has used a "reinterpreting" kind of hermeneutic when referring to Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23. Wolf puts it this way, "In the New Testament, Isaiah 7:14 was used in a fuller sense and applied to Mary and Jesus. Mary, unlike the virgin in Isaiah's day, was still a virgin even after becoming pregnant." Did you hear it? Wolf is saying that Matthew is giving a "fuller" meaning to Isaiah 7:14 than what was actually present in the text. Thus, he is implying that New Testament writers can treat Old Testament texts in a different way than the Old Testament writers intended them, as long as the treatment is filtered through the grid of their Christian purposes (Jesus and the Gospel). If you take this approach, I suspect the JSB commentators have just had you for lunch.

It would be much better to recognize Isaiah's actual intent in Isaiah 7, and realize that Matthew is using Isaiah 7:14 in exactly the same way that Isaiah intended it to be used. When Ahaz rejected any sign from the Lord through Isaiah (7:11-12), the Lord by-passed Ahaz and gave the sign to the "House of David" (7:13). The prophesied son is not the son of Isaiah, but a royal son, in accordance with the theme of Yahweh's faithfulness to Zion and David, and fitting with the idiom "curds and honey" as royal food (7:15,22). While Isaiah's son in chapter 8 may be seen as typologically portraying to some extent the meaning of Immanuel in 7:14, the son of 7:14 is in fact the Messiah, Israel's King, not Isaiah's son. As Andrew H. Bartelt points out ("The Book Around Immanuel", Eisenbrauns, 1996, pp.115-117), "The consequences of this message, however, as they were to be played out in the subsequent history of Judah are perceived by Isaiah himself to be long-range rather than immediate." I would add for the sake of the JSB guys, that Bartelt represents some of the very latest scholarship, so "all modern scholars" are not on their side.
An excellent survey of various "evangelical" approaches to the New Testament use of the Old Testament can be seen at, and in an article by Darrell Bock. Elliot Johnson, S.Lewis Johnson, and Walt Kaiser all represent the authorial intent/single meaning hermeneutic. Though Bock distinguishes between the approach of the Johnsons and the approach of Kaiser, there is in fact little difference between them. Concerning Isaiah 7:14, they would all agree that Matthew is using the text exactly as Isaiah intended. It is edifying to read their articles, footnoted in Bock's article (Bock disagrees with them, by the way). Kaiser's article, "The Promise of Isaiah 7:14 and the Single-Meaning Hermeneutic" can also be found in an appendix of John Ankerberg's "The Case For Jesus The Messiah" (Harvest House, 1989).

What value is this discussion to us? Precisely this - the prophet Isaiah intentionally and accurately predicted the virgin birth of Jesus Christ more than seven hundred years in advance. Matthew 1:23 accurately records the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. This is not a mere Christian "reinterpretation", this is historical fact. This is truth. Our sovereign God, Who alone knows the end from the beginning, has worked out the details of His plan in His Word in such a way that the proof is documented. Let us worship Him in wonder at the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, Who came to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).

Friday, December 11, 2009

Incorrect Hermeneutics Lead to the Denouncement of Israel

In todays news from Israel is an amazingly clear illustration of the impact of one's interpretation of the Bible on world politics.

Those of us who acknowledge the importance of agreeing with the author's intent for a Bible passage as a principle of assessing validity in interpretation (as in E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation, Yale, 1967) just took a major hit today from some Palestinians who think of themselves as Christians. These Palestinians do not consider it acceptable to allow the Old Testament to speak for itself with its own intent.

Note their position on hermeneutics, clearly stated in the article " 'Christians' of the Holy Land Denounce Israel " (found at . . . "The (Palestinian "Christian') leaders then took aim at Evangelical Christians around the world that support Israel based on biblical precepts. 'Jesus came with a new teaching (Mk.1:27), casting a new light on the Old Testament on the themes that relate to our Christian faith and our daily lives, themes such as the promises, the election, the people of God, and the land. For this reason it is unacceptable to transform the Word of God into letters of stone. This is the precise error in fundamentalist biblical interpretation that brings us death and destruction when the Word of God is petrified and transmitted from generation to generation as a dead letter. This dead letter is used as a weapon in our present history in order to deprive us of our rights in our own land."

Observe that Mark 1:27 does not illustrate, support, or teach the concept that they seem to be trying to derive from it.

The hermeneutical approach they use to justify denouncing Israel is this - Jesus cast "a new light on the Old Testament". This is the same dangerous hermeneutic as proposed by George Eldon Ladd years ago within evangelical, "covenant" premillenialism, namely, "But precisely here is our basic hermeneutic. Jesus, and the apostles after Him, REINTERPRETED the Old Testament prophecies in light of Jesus' person and mission" (see Ladd, "The Last Things", Eerdmans, 1978, p.17).

Those of us who have the principle of authorial intent/single intent in our hermeneutical understanding of the Old Testament find the notion of the New Testament "reinterpreting" the Old to be inaccurate and dangerous. Does the New Testament give further information and clarity of Old Testament passages in light of the progress of divine revelation? Of course. But does the New Testament change the intended meaning of any Old Testament passage into a different meaning, i.e. "reinterpretation"? Absolutely not. For New Testament writers to do so would be to deny or contradict the intended meaning of the Old Testament, which is to say that they would have gotten it wrong, because they would have been using an invalid hermeneutic. Such would, by the model of New Testament writers, set all meaning in any text into a sea of interpretive relativity.

In the Israel Today news article, the result of this "reinterpretation" is for Palestinians to change the meaning of "Israel" to something else (or someone else, namely themselves), and to change the meaning of the land of Israel into something else (namely, "our rights in our own land"). Such "reinterpretation" of the meaning of Israel is the same thing that Ladd designed his hermeneutic to do (see chapter of "The Last Things" entitled "What About Israel?").

Do sound hermeneutics matter? In the world scene of today, more than ever. For both Jews and Christians in Israel today, their lives depend on it.

Monday, December 7, 2009


This news just came in from Joel Rosenberg, and I thought readers should see it and pray.

(WASHINGTON, D.C., December 7, 2009) -- The battle to divide Jerusalem is intensifying this week. Sweden is pushing hard to pass an initiative this coming Sunday to persuade 27 foreign ministers of European Union states to endorse a plan to recognize unilaterally East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian State. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, is doing everything he can to counter the Swedish effort.

The Bible teaches that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob loves Israel's neighbors, but has specifically chosen Jerusalem to be the capital of the Jewish people and His own prized possession. It is not to be carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey.

In Psalm 132:13-16, we read, "For the Lord has chosen Zion; He has desired it for His habitation. 'This is My resting place forever; Here I will dwell, for I have desired it. I will abundantly bless her provision; I will satisfy her with bread."

The Bible also teaches that the Lord will judge the nations who seek to divide Israel and Jerusalem. In Joel 3:1-2, we read, "When I restore the fortunes of Jerusalem [in the last days] I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the valley of Jehoshaphat. Then I will enter into judgment with them there on behalf of My people and My inheritance Israel whom they have scattered among the nations and they have divided up My land."