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).


  1. not arguing with the points of Isaiah 7 at all, so I want to make sure that is clear.

    while i can understand why "reinterpreting" would make any of us nervous, did i also pick up that you don't like the term "fuller meaning?" isn't that dynamic exactly what 1 peter 1:10-12 was talking about? the new testament does not change the meaning of the old testament at all, but it seems that the new testament authors (and us) have the privilege of a better grasp of some of the prophecies than the very author.

    i know you agree with that, but what term would you use, if you prefer to not use "fuller meaning?"

    thanks keith.

  2. Hi Danny . . .

    The phrase "fuller meaning" is actually historically loaded. It is the same thing as "sensus plenior" in a hermeneutical debate largely with the Roman Catholic hierarchy (but also within liberal and neo-orthodox Protestantism, and carried over by some "evangelicals"), who would hold that God (the ultimate author) can intend a meaning of a text beyond what the human author intended. In Roman Catholicism the "magisterium" has the perceived right to know the "fuller sense" of God beyond the text, which then becomes "tradition". Interestingly enough, in our region here the Mennonite hierarchy does virtually the same thing.

    Since you asked for a term, I would suggest something like "increased understanding". Yes, the New Testament can use Old Testament texts with increased understanding even than Old Testament writers had. But, all of the "meaning" was already there in the text even though it was not understood. "Meaning" is in the text, not in our "understanding" of the text.

    I would suggest that the same is true of our understanding of the New Testament. We can have increased understanding of NT texts (even beyond that of the NT writers) due to accumulated exegesis over the centuries. This does not add meaning to the text, nor imply there is meaning that we give to the text, it merely acknowledges that our understanding of the text continues to develop as we function as a "hermeneutical community".

    If you have not read Hirsch's "Validity in Interpretation", I would suggest it, and that you note his distinction between "meaning" and "significance".

    Hope this helps. Merry Christmas!

  3. I just posted on Bill Ulrich's blog. Matthew 1:23 doesn't talk about the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for virgin. It talks about the translation of the word Emmanuel.

    Regardless of whether Matthew had written "the virgin will bear a son" or "the woman will bear a son", Matthew is showing how Isaiah 7:14 is fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.

    Jesus is God with us because his Father is the Holy Spirit, not a man. This is how God gets to become a man right along with the rest of us: a human mother and a divine father - no sexual intercourse.

    Matthew's focus is not on the word choice for Mary, but on the word choice for Christ. The word "virgin" is incidental, perhaps word play, perhaps a fuller meaning, perhaps a bad or selective translation of the Hebrew, ... but not at all key to what Matthew is telling us about the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14.