The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Isaiah 7:14 (Part 4)

It is hard to know just when early Christians began to view Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth, as we see in Matthew 1:22-23; it is possible, though quite uncertain, that the Gospel writer was the first to make the connection. Here I place side-by-side, the Hebrew (MT), the Greek (LXX) and Matthew, in a rather literal translation, with the Hebrew/Greek given below:

As explained in prior notes, “virgin” is not particularly appropriate for translating hm*l=u^; nor exactly is “young girl/woman”. As no English word or phrase entirely fits, I have somewhat reluctantly opted for “maiden” as the least unsatisfactory solution.

For my Lord Him(self) will give for you a sign: See—the maiden (is [becoming]) pregnant and (is) bearing a son, and (she) will call his name “God-with-us”

toa <k#l* aWh yn`d)a& /T@y] /k@l*
/B@ td#l#y)w+ hr*h* hm*l=u^h* hN@h!
la@ WnM*u! ov= tar*q*w+

Through this (the) Lord Him(self) will give you a sign: See—the virgin will have in womb and will bring forth a son, and she will call his name ±Immanû¢l

dia\ tou=to dw/sei ku/rio$ au)to\$ u(mi=n shmei=on i)dou\ h( parqe/no$ e)n gastri\ e&cei kai\ te/cetai ui(o/n kai\ kale/sei$ to\ o&noma au)tou= Emmanouhl

{first part of the verse is not cited} See—the virgin will have in womb and will bring forth a son, and they will call his name ±Immanû¢l, which is being explained across [i.e. translated] (as) “God with us”

The LXX is an accurate rendering of the Hebrew (MT), the difficulties surrounding the use of parqe/no$ notwithstanding, and apart from the very different idiom used for conception and childbirth. The citation in Matthew is identical to the LXX, but for one difference (indicated in italics above): “they will call” instead of “you will call”. The MT has regularly been understood as a 2nd person form, but most scholars today read it as a 3rd person feminine. Manuscript 1QIsaa reads arqw (“and he will call”), apparently in an indefinite sense, which may be reflected in the Syriac )rQtNw (wntqr°, “and he will be called”), and possibly is the basis for the rendering in Matthew (“they will call”). The Gospel writer also provides an explanation of the Hebrew term.

This citation in the Gospel is one of a number which occur especially in the Infancy narrative (1:18-2:23):

With the possible exception of 2:5-6 (Micah 5:2), these Scripture passages were taken and applied in a sense altogether different from the original context. This was discussed already for Isaiah 7:14; I will treat the remaining verses in upcoming Advent Season notes.

It is interesting to see how (and where) the Gospel writer introduces the prophecy: it follows directly after the heavenly Messenger’s announcement to Joseph. Note the similarity in language in v. 21: “she will bring forth a son and you will call his name Yeshua± [Jesus]”, which is nearly identical to that of Isa 7:14 (cf. the similar pronouncements in Gen 16:11 and Judg 13:5). Many critical scholars would hold that Matthew has shaped the angelic announcement to fit Isa 7:14; however, it is certainly possible that, seeing the similarity in language, the writer was led to include the Isaiah prophecy at this point. Indeed, this sort of “catchphrase bonding” abounds in the New Testament, and was a prime technique used by early Christians to join Scriptures and traditions together. The writer is also careful to distinguish the two passages: while “call his name Jesus” and “call his name Immanuel” are parallel, they are not identical—this is probably why the third person plural “they shall call” is used in the citation; it is a small adaptation, but it has an interesting effect. Joseph (the “you” of v. 21) calls him “Jesus” (v. 25), but “they” (people of Israel, believers, those who encounter Jesus) will call him “Immanuel”.  This is indeed what has happened: for believers, who ‘find’ Jesus in the Scriptures, apply those texts to him—whether or not the original context truly warrants it!

Even in the early years of the Church there were questions (by both Jews and Greco-Roman ‘skeptics’) about such use of the Old Testament, and even about the Isaian passage in particular. Isa 7:14 is not cited in the New Testament outside of Matt 1:22-23, but then the birth of Jesus in general is scarcely mentioned apart from the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. Nor is it used by the so-called Apostolic Fathers of the late-first and early/mid-second century (except for the ‘long’ form of Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians §18). By the late-second and into the third-century it appears more frequently, corresponding both with an increased interest in traditions regarding Jesus’ birth, as well as more ‘systematic’ attempts to defend (proto-)orthodox Christian beliefs in the face of Jewish and pagan objections. Justin Martyr gives perhaps the earliest [c. 140-160], and most noteworthy, surviving treatments of Isa 7:14: in his First Apology §33, and especially in the Dialogue (with Trypho) §§43, 66-67. The Jewish interlocutor “Trypho” in §67 (at first) offers an interpretation of Isa 7:14 similar to that of modern scholars (that is, according to the original historical sense); Justin has no interest in responding to this view, but rather reacts to the notion that beliefs such as the Virgin Birth are derived in imitation of pagan myths, provoking a lengthy discussion. While earlier generations of critical scholars occasionally posited similar explanations for the “origin” of the Virgin Birth, they have been almost entirely abandoned by serious commentators today.

In conclusion, let me return to the interpretive crux—believers, including the earliest Christians (and the inspired Gospel writer), have applied Isaiah 7:14 to the (virgin) birth of Jesus, even though the original context of the passage relates to the Syrian-Ephraimite crisis facing Ahaz and the kingdom of Judah in c. 735-4 B.C. I regard this as one of the great wonders and beauties of the sacred Writings: that prophet and people, author and hearer (or reader) alike respond to the word[s] of God and the work of the Holy Spirit as part of a profound creative process. The eternal Word, stretching from the 8th-century crisis facing the people of Israel, touching those who experience the miracle and mystery of Jesus’ birth, reaching all the way down to us today—all who are united in the Spirit of God and Christ—speaks that remakable, nearly unexplainable phrase, that one name: la@ WnM*u! “God-with-us”.