Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Messianic Expectation

Messianic Interpretation and Expectation in the New Testament

The very name and title Christ (Xristo/$), “Anointed”, signifies the fundamental Christian belief that Jesus is the “Anointed One”, the Messiah (Heb. j^yv!m*). Early Christians generally followed Jewish tradition in their expectation of Messianic figures (Prophet, Davidic Ruler, Heavenly Deliverer), adopting many Scripture passages, which had been interpreted in a Messianic sense, and applying them to Jesus. We see this throughout the New Testament, and I have discussed the subject in considerable detail in my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”. The process, in fact, goes back to the earliest layers of Gospel Tradition and the words of Jesus himself.

However, Christians today, in considering the “Messianic” passages and prophecies in the Old Testament, tend not to view them as eschatological. This is due to the time (nearly 2,000 years, and counting) which has passed since Jesus’ death and resurrection. The various Scripture passages may be seen as prophecies of Jesus (his birth, death, resurrection, etc), but it is difficult to regard them as referring to the End Time per se. The situation was quite different for the earliest believers, for whom Messianic and Eschatological expectation were closely connected. According to the Jewish belief and tradition at the time, the coming of the Anointed One—any/all of the Messianic figure-types—was linked to the end of the current Age. Early Christians generally retained this outlook, though adapting it in several key ways due to the unique circumstances of Jesus’ life, and, especially, his death, resurrection, and departure to God the Father in heaven. As he did not fulfill many of the traditional Messianic roles during his lifetime, these would have to wait until his subsequent return, which was felt would take place very soon, and could occur at any time.

In order, then, to understand the eschatology of the New Testament, it is important to include, and emphasize, the Messianic expectation of early Christians. This will be discussed at various points in this series, but it will be helpful to begin with a survey of the Scripture passages which had been interpreted in a Messianic sense during the first centuries B.C./A.D., and which were applied to Jesus by early believers. As most of these have been examined in some detail in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, I will address them only briefly here. There are, of course, many other passages which were understood as prophecies concerning Jesus, but I include here only those which clearly were regarded as Messianic by at least some Israelites and Jews of the time.

The Key Passages

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

In the Old Testament, especially in Deuteronomic tradition, Moses is viewed as a Prophet—indeed as the ideal and greatest Prophet (Deut 34:10-12). In Deuteronomy 18:15ff we find the famous prediction that another Prophet will (eventually) arise who is like Moses and who will take his place. In the same manner, Elisha took the place of Elijah, being anointed by his predecessor (1 Kings 19:16) and possessing his spirit and character (2 Kings 2:9, 15). Eventually, this prediction was given a future, eschatological interpretation—at the end-time, a Prophet-like-Moses would arise to instruct the faithful of Israel.

This expectation probably underlies the notice in 1 Maccabees 14:41 (“…until a trustworthy Prophet should arise”), as well as the reference to “the unique Prophet” in Testament of Benjamin 9:2. In the Qumran texts, Moses was clearly regarded as a Prophet, as in the “Apocryphon of Moses/Pentateuch” writings—cf. especially 4Q375 column 1 (in line 7 the phrase “trustworthy prophet” appears); in 4Q377 column 2, line 5, Moses is referred to as God’s “Anointed (One)” [jyvm]. Deut 18:18-19 is cited in 4QTestimonia [4Q175] lines 5-8, in what is likely an eschatological/Messianic context. The expected Prophet of 1QS 9:11 (“…until the coming of the Prophet and the Anointed [Ones] of Aaron and Israel”) presumably draws upon this Moses tradition as well.

The same may be said of passages in the New Testament which contain a reference to “the Prophet” (Jn 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40; Luke 7:16, 36 v.l. etc); in Jn 1:21-25, “the Prophet” seems to be understood as a separate figure from “Elijah”, possibly an indication that the Moses-tradition is involved. John the Baptist explicitly denies being “the Prophet” (Jn 1:21), but that Jesus was thought to be so by people on numerous occasions is indicated by several of the references above. In Acts 3:18-24 (sermon-speech of Peter), Jesus is identified specifically with the coming “Prophet like Moses” of Deut 18:15ff (cf. also Acts 7:37). Within early Christian tradition, Jesus is identified or associated with Moses in a number of ways. For more on this, cf. Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Malachi 3:1ff; 4:5-6

The Messianic “Elijah tradition” derives from Malachi 3:1, combined with the explanatory interpretation of Mal 4:5-6 [Hebrew 3:23-24] which many scholars consider to be a (later) editorial gloss (see my supplementary note on the original context of Mal 3:1). In any case, already by the time of the completion of Malachi (and, presumably, the collection of the Twelve Prophets [Hosea–Malachi] as a whole), the “Messenger” [Ea*l=m^] of Mal 3:1 was identified as Elijah, who will (re)appear just prior to the “Day of YHWH” to bring repentance to people before the Judgment. Over time, this belief was given greater eschatological emphasis—”Elijah” would appear at the end-time, prior to the last Judgment—expressed already in Sirach 48:10 (early-mid 2nd century B.C.). Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, evidence for this belief at Qumran is rather slight, though it is attested in the fragmentary 4Q558 (fragment 1), but is perhaps reflected more prominently in a text such as 4Q521 (cf. below). Evidence for this tradition is found specifically in Mark 9:11-13 (Matt 17:10-12), the citations and allusions to Mal 3:1; 4:5-6 in Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27; Matt 11:10-14, and may be inferred from other references listed below. Also worth noting is Sibylline Oracles 2:187ff (Christian expansion/adaptation of earlier Jewish material).

While Christians came to apply this Messianic figure to John the Baptist, there is some evidence in the earlier strands of Gospel Tradition that people also identified Jesus with the Prophetic figure-type. Indeed, Jesus is connected with Elijah in various ways in the Gospels. For a discussion of this subject, again cf. “Yeshua the Anointed” (Parts 2 and 3).

Psalm 2 (esp. verse 7-9)

This Psalm, drawing upon the ancient religious symbolism of the king as God’s “son” (vv. 7ff), was applied to Jesus at a very early stage of Christian belief. There are allusions to it in the account of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11 par), and the voice from heaven actually quotes it in some manuscripts of Luke 3:22. More commonly, it was associated with Jesus’ resurrection (and exaltation) in early Christian preaching (Acts 13:33, cf. Rom 1:4 etc); the author of Hebrews continues to use it this way (1:5; 5:5), though, by this point, the idea of Jesus’ pre-existence and eternal Sonship was also in view. The overall context of the Psalm (vv. 1-2ff) fit the Messianic portrait, and was applied to Jesus as well (Acts 4:25-28, cf. also Luke 22:66-23:25).

2 Samuel 7:8-16 (cf. also 2 Sam 22:44-51 / Ps 18:44-51, and Psalm 89:3-4, 9-37ff)

The narrative in 2 Samuel 7, with the oracle by the prophet Nathan, is the primary Scripture passage which established the Messianic association with David—i.e., a ruler from the line of David who would appear at the end-time. Together with Psalm 2 (cf. above), it allowed the idea of the Messianic ruler-figure to be identified as “Son of God”. In Jewish tradition, this is best exhibited in the so-called Florilegium (4Q174) from Qumran, which blends together Psalm 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14 (along with other passages) in what is clearly both a Messianic and eschatological context. Another key Qumran text is the Aramaic 4Q246 (i. 9, ii. 1) with its striking parallels to Luke 1:32-35. There would seem to be references to Psalm 89 in 4Q252, and also (possibly) the fragmentary 4Q458. Important allusions are also to be found in the 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon (mid-1st century B.C.). For more on the Davidic ruler figure-type, and the title “Son of God”, cf. Parts 68 and 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Psalm 110:1-4

The opening verse(s) of this Psalm were central to early Christian understanding of Jesus as both the Messianic (Davidic) ruler and “Son of God”. It also was enormously influential in establishing the title “Lord” (ku/rio$), in a divine sense, for Jesus. As in the case of the title “Son of God” in Psalm 2:7, verse 1 of Psalm 110 was associated primarily with the resurrection of Jesus, following which he was exalted to the right hand of God the Father in heaven. The verse is quoted specifically in this context in Acts 2:34-35, but there are certainly allusions to it throughout the New Testament (Mark 14:62 par; [16:19]; Acts 2:25; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; 1 Pet 3:22, etc). The author of Hebrews quotes it, along with Psalm 2:7 (vv. 5ff), in 1:13, where the idea of divine pre-existence is also present (cf. also 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2).

Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1 in a definite Messianic context (Mark 12:36ff par), making it all but certain that Jews at the time were interpreting it this way. However, contemporary evidence for this is slight indeed. The Qumran text 11QMelchizedek [11Q13], drawing upon traditions regarding Melchizedek (in a Messianic context), would suggest some dependence on Psalm 110, but there are no specific quotations or allusions in the surviving fragments. The interpretation of the figure Melchizedek in Hebrews 7, relying heavily upon Psalm 110, also suggests that there were significant interpretative traditions, perhaps Messianic in nature, which might have been familiar to Jews and Christians of the time. It is also possible that Psalm 110 was influential in shaping the distinctive Messianic tradition, best seen in certain of the Qumran texts, of an Anointed Priestly figure, with a blending of royal and priestly characteristics.

Psalm 118:26

The fact that this verse is quoted both by Jesus (Matt 23:39; Luke 13:35), and by the crowds at his “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem (Mark 11:9 par), suggests that it was understood in a Messianic sense by Jews at the time. However, corresponding contemporary evidence outside of the New Testament is extremely slight. It would have related to the same (Davidic) royal figure-type discussed above.

Isaiah 9:1-6

This passage, along with 7:10-14ff (cf. Matt 1:22-23), came to be interpreted as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth (cf. Luke 2:11). Matthew specifically quotes Isa 9:1-2 as a way of introducing the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (4:14-16). The characteristics of a special royal birth, as well as the message of (future) promise, made Isa 9:1-6 a natural candidate for Messianic interpretation; however, there is little evidence for this in contemporary Jewish writings. Perhaps the closest example is the allusion to verse 6 in the Qumran Hymn 1QH 3. Cf. my earlier Advent/Christmas season study on 9:5-6.

Micah 5:2-4

Likewise, there is little contemporary evidence for a Messianic interpretation of Micah 5:2-4, though it is an obvious candidate. The context of Matthew 2:1-6ff makes no real sense if a Messianic understanding of this passage were not in existence among Jews in the 1st century B.C./A.D.

Amos 9:11

This verse is given a Messianic interpretation in both the Damascus Document (CD 7:14-21) and the Qumran Florilegium (4Q174 3-4). This helps to establish the background of its use in the speech of James (Acts 15:15-18), where it is quoted in very different sense, though still retaining something of a traditional Messianic (and eschatological) context.

Zechariah 9:9-10

The use of this passage, with its royal symbolism and eschatological orientation, in the Gospels, at the “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus (Mark 11:2-10 par, with a specific citation in Matt 21:4-5 and John 12:14-15), would indicate that it may have been understood as a traditional Messianic passage. However, there is little or no contemporary Jewish evidence to support this. Moreover, the singular importance which Zech 9-14 holds in the Gospel Tradition, and the influence it had on shaping the (Passion) narrative, increases the likelihood that this is a uniquely Christian interpretation. This will be addressed a bit further in the upcoming articles.

Daniel 7:13-14; 9:24-27

These important eschatological (and Messianic) passages, so influential for Jews and early Christians both, will be discussed in detail in the upcoming articles.

The Servant Songs of Isaiah

Special attention must be given to the “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah (so-called “Deutero-Isaiah”), usually delineated by four passages: Isa 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12. Only the first and last of these played a central role in early Christian belief. However, it is worth noting that the Isaian “Servant” figure came to be understood and interpreted in a Messianic (or quasi-Messianic) sense by Jews in the first centuries B.C./A.D. The extent of this is indicated, not only by the many (and various) allusions (in the Dead Sea texts, etc), but by the way in which the thought and language of these passages has shaped and colored the texts themselves.

A good example of this may be found in the Qumran Hymns (1QH), especially those which are often attributed to the “Teacher of Righteousness”, an historical (but at least partly Messianic) figure with certain parallels to Jesus (cf. Part 4 of “Yeshua the Anointed”). In these hymns, the speaker repeatedly refers to himself as God’s servant (db#u#)—cf. Hymns IV. 11, 23ff; V. 24; VI. 8, 11, 25; VIII. 19, 21, 23ff; XIII. 15, 28; XV. 16; XVII. 11; XVIII. 29; XIX. 27, 30, 33; XXII. 16; XXIII. 6, 10 (Blenkinsopp, pp. 270-2). There are numerous allusions to the Servant songs, and related Isaian passages, throughout (cf. below).

Isaiah 42:1-9

It is verse 1 which has been most influential for Messianic thought:

“See, my servant—I hold on(to) him, my chosen (one whom) my soul favors; I have given my Spirit upon him, (and) he shall cause justice/judgment to come forth for the nations.”

The words in italics are particularly noteworthy. First, the substantive adjective yr!yj!B= (“my chosen [one]”), rendered in Greek as o( e)klekto/$ mou. This title is parallel, in many ways, with “my anointed [j^yv!m*] (one)”, and can serve as similar Messianic title, as is clear from texts such as the (fragmentary) Qumran 4Q534. There is unquestionably an allusion to Isa 42:1 in the words spoken by the voice from heaven in the Baptism and Transfiguration scenes (Mark 1:11 par; Matt 17:5 par). In the Lukan version of the latter (according to the best manuscript evidence) we read:

“This is my Son, the (one) gathered out [e)klelegme/no$, i.e. chosen]…” (9:35)

Similarly, in the Johannine description of the Baptism, we have the Baptist’s declaration (corresponding to the heavenly voice in the Synoptics):

“…this is the Son of God” (1:34)
though in some MSS the reading is:
“…this is the (one) gathered out [e)klekto/$, i.e. chosen one] of God”

In the New Testament, both the verb e)kle/gw (“gather out”) and the related noun e)klekto/$ are typically used in reference to believers, not Jesus. This suggests that the Gospel usage in such passages where it is applied to Jesus (cf. Luke 23:35) reflects early (Messianic) tradition.

On the second italicized portion above, cf. the discussion on Isa 61:1ff further below.

Isaiah 49:1-6

This Servant Song appears to have influenced Messianic thought and expression at two points: (1) the idea of a sword coming out of the Servant’s mouth (v. 2), and (2) the twin themes of restoration and salvation in v. 6. On the first point, the idea of the sword from the mouth overlaps with the (Messianic) portrait in Isa 11:4 (cf. below); there is an apparent allusion to this in Revelation 1:16 (cf. also Heb 4:12). It is possible that there is a general (Messianic) reference to verse 2 in the Qumran text 1QSb (5:23f).

The theme of the restoration of Israel in verse 6 certainly fits the main contours of traditional Jewish eschatological (and Messianic) thought, even though it is difficult to find contemporary use of the verse to support this. Early Christians, however, understood it in this light, including the second half of the verse, indicating that the Servant will be made “a light to the nations” (cf. Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47).

Isaiah 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12

These two songs introduce the theme of the Servant’s suffering, which early on was interpreted by believers as referring to the suffering and death of Jesus. The famous “Suffering Servant” passage in 52:13-53:12 is central to episode recorded in Acts 8:32-35 (and note the interesting critical question by the Ethiopian official in v. 34). In the Gospels, it is cited directly only at Matt 8:17, in the context of Jesus’ healing miracles, not his death. However, the passage likely influenced the way that the Passion narrative was told and understood, corresponding (rather clearly) in certain details to Isa 53:3-9. The identity of this Servant figure in Isaiah, in terms of its original context, continues to be debated by scholars and commentators.

There is relatively little evidence for the use of Isa 52:13-53:12 at Qumran; unfortunately, the surviving portions of the Commentary (pesher) on Isaiah do not cover 52:13-53:12. Nor would there seem to be any evidence for these Scriptures being interpreted in a Messianic sense prior to their use in the New Testament. The closest we find to a Messianic interpretation would appear be an allusion to Isa 53:3-5, 11-12 in the Qumran text 4Q491c (line 9), which is thought to be related to the Hodayot hymns (1QH) in some way (cf. 1QH 7:10; 8:26-27, 35-36; 9; Blenkinsopp, pp. 278-9ff). There is also an allusion to Isa 52:7 in 11QMelchizedek [11Q13] 2.16, where there is a connection with a Messianic interpretation of Isa 61:1ff, etc (cf. below).

In many ways, the emphasis on the suffering of the Messiah is uniquely applicable to Jesus. Early Christians had to explain how, and why, the Messiah would endure such suffering and the shameful death of crucifixion. This came to be an important point of emphasis in the Gospel Tradition (Mark 14:21, 49 par; Luke 18:31; 22:37; 24:25-26, 44-46), and the earliest (Jewish) Christian missionaries (such as Paul) would have to work hard to establish a sound Scriptural basis for such an idea (cf. Acts 5:42; 9:22; 13:26ff; 17:3; 18:5, 28, etc). Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is one of the only passages in the Old Testament which could be cited in this regard. For more on the idea of the suffering and death of Jesus, in a Messianic context, cf. Part 11 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, as well as a supplementary article on the subject.

Other Passages

There are several key Messianic passages which are surprisingly absent from the New Testament; two of these are—Genesis 49:10, part of the blessing of Jacob over his sons (Judah, vv. 8-12), and Numbers 24:17-19, in Balaam’s fourth oracle (vv. 15-24). Both of these passages use the word tb#v@ (“stick, staff”), as a symbol of rule (i.e. “scepter”), and this came to be an important Messianic motif, in texts such as the Damascus Document (CD) 7:19-20 (= 4Q266 3 iv.9), and 1QSb 5:27-28; 1QM 11:6-7; 4Q161 ii 19; 4Q521 2 iii. 6, etc, at Qumran. Numbers 24:17 was especially prominent as a Messianic prophecy in the Qumran texts, with both “star” and “staff” serving as key symbols (CD 7:19-20; 4Q175 12, etc). Yet, this Scripture is not cited in the New Testament, though it may, possibly, form part of the background of the Star/Magi episode in Matthew 2. Somewhat later in time, but presumably reflecting older traditions, Num 24:17ff does appear as a Messianic prophecy in the Targums (Onkelos, Jonathan), and was famously applied to the quasi-Messianic revolutionary leader Ben-Kosiba (“Bar-Kokhba” = “Son of the Star”), cf. j. Ta’anit 68d.

The relative absence of Isaiah 11:1-9 in the New Testament is also a bit surprising, since this passage, along with Psalm 2, would be extremely influential in the development of the Davidic Ruler figure-type. The prophecy begins with the declaration “A branch [rf#j)] will go out from the stem of Jesse, a fresh/green (sprout) [rx#n@] will grow (out) from his roots”. These words and phrases became foundational motifs for beliefs regarding the coming Davidic ruler in Messianic thought. In particular, this passage associated the Davidic ruler with the defeat/subjugation of the nations and the end-time Judgment. Here also we find the idea of Judgment (vv. 3-4) followed by a new Age of peace (vv. 6-9), common to much Messianic thought.

Among the many texts in the 1st centuries B.C./A.D. which draw upon Isa 11:1ff, we may note the Qumran (pesher) commentary on Isaiah (4QpIsaa [4Q161] 11-12), as well as 1QSb 5:23ff, and important allusions in 4Q285 and 4Q534. The classic portrait of the militant Davidic ruler is found in the 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon (mid-1st cent. B.C.), and also features prominently in the 13th chapter of 2/4 Esdras (mid-late 1st cent. A.D.). It is perhaps this militant character of the Messiah which kept it from being applied to Jesus by early Christians; Paul does allude to verse 4b in 2 Thess 2:8, in a clear eschatological context. In relation to Jesus, more appropriate to the Gospel portrait, we may note the reference to the Spirit of YHWH resting upon him (v. 2a, cf. Isa 61:1, below).

The Davidic promise is given new form in the oracles of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, in the historical context of the fall of Judah and the Babylonian exile. Jer 23:5ff declares that God will raise for David “a righteous sprout [qyD!x* jm^x#]” who will rule as king. The same expression and message is found in Jer 33:14-16ff. That these prophecies point to the future, in contrast to the historical circumstances in the prophet’s own time, is indicated by the surrounding context (cf. Jer 22:30; 33:19-26). In Ezekiel 34:23-24, there is a similar promise that God raise up for Israel “one shepherd, my servant David”; cf. also Ezek 37:24-25. In the early post-Exilic period, Zerubbabel appears to have been seen as a fulfillment of the restoration of Davidic rule (Haggai 2:21-24; Zechariah 4:6-14, cf. also 3:8; 6:11-14). Ultimately, of course, the true fulfillment had to wait for a future coming King, as indicated in the (later) oracle Zech 9:9-10ff. All of these passages formed part of the fabric of Messianic thought in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

Isaiah 61:1ff

Of all the Messianic passages, regarded as such at the time, it is perhaps that of Isaiah 61:1ff which best fits the Gospel portrait of Jesus, especially during the time of his earthly ministry. In Luke 4:17-21, Jesus quotes vv. 1-2, and alludes to them again in 7:22 (“Q” par Matt 11:5). Thus, during his ministry (in Galilee), the Messianic figure with whom Jesus specifically identifies himself is the anointed Prophet/Herald of Isa 61. Luke’s positioning of the episode at Nazareth, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, almost certainly is meant to draw a connection between the Spirit-anointing of Isa 61:1 and the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism (3:22 par). Following the baptism, Jesus moves about in the guidance and power of the Spirit (4:1, 14).

The phrase “in the power of the Spirit” is probably meant to indicate Jesus’ own Prophetic status (cf. Lk 1:17; Acts 10:38)—specifically as an Anointed Prophet. Even though the noun jyv!m* [m¹šîaµ] / xristo/$ [christós], is not used in Isa 61:1 (rather it is the verb jv^m* / e&xrisen), this verse does seem to have been extremely influential toward the idea of a Messianic Prophet. The figure in Isa 61:1ff certainly does not appear to be a king or ruler of the Davidic mold, nor a priest, but rather a prophet like Isaiah himself. It describes a herald who announces a message of good tidings (in Hebrew, literally “fresh” tidings) to the poor and oppressed.

By the time of Jesus’ ministry, there is evidence that Isa 61:1ff was already being understood in an eschatological sense, with the anointed figure of verse 1 identified as a Prophet-Messiah. This is seen most clearly in the Qumran text 4Q521, where in fragment 2 (column ii, line 1) we read: “…[the heav]ens and the earth will listen to [i.e. obey] his Anointed (One)”. What follows in lines 2-14 etc is a blending of Isa 61:1ff and Psalm 146; but the idea of heaven and earth obeying God’s Anointed is suggestive of a Prophet in the manner of Elijah who “shut up the heavens” so that it would not rain and brought down fire from heaven (1 Kings 17:1ff; Sirach 48:2-3; James 5:17); Jesus of course exhibited a similar authority over the elements (Mark 5:35-41; 8:45-52 pars). Moreover, in column iii of fragment there is an allusion to Mal 4:5-6 and the (end-time) role of Elijah in bringing people to repentance.

Isaiah 40:1-5

Finally, we should note the famous prophecy in Isa 40:1-5 (esp. verses 3ff), which was foundational for the religious self-identity of both the Qumran Community and the earliest Christians. For the Community of the Qumran texts, the key passage is in the Community Rule (1QS) 8:14-15f, where Isa 40:3 is cited and applied to the Community. The association of the same verse with John the Baptist and his ministry (Mark 1:2-3 par; Matt 11:10 par; John 1:23; cf. also Luke 1:17, 76 and the connection with Mal 3:1ff) has, among other factors, led a number of scholars to posit some sort of relationship between John and the Qumran Community. For early Christians, it is likely that Isa 40:3 influenced the use of “(followers of) the Way” as a self-designation (cf. Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).

It should be noted that the use of Isa 40:3-5 in the Gospel Tradition, and among early Christians, is Messianic only in a special, qualified sense. For the most part, early believers identified the herald (“one crying out [in the desert]”), like the Messenger of Mal 3:1ff, with John the Baptist, rather than Jesus. And, while it is likely that some Jews at the time regarded John as a Messianic figure (Jn 1:19-27; 3:26-30, etc), the issue quickly disappeared from Christian thought. The twin passages of Isa 40:3-5 and Mal 3:1ff were interpreted, not in the original context of a chosen (Messianic) Prophet/Herald appearing before the coming of the Lord (YHWH), but in terms of John the Baptist preparing the way before the coming of the Lord (Jesus).

References above marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Opening the Sealed Book: Interpretations of the Book of Isaiah in Late Antiquity (Eerdmans: 2006).

“He opened to us the Scriptures”

This article is a supplement to the recently posted series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”. In a previous post, I discussed two striking scenes in the Lukan Resurrection Narratives which speak of Jesus’ “opening the Scriptures” to his disciples (24:27, 32) or “opening their mind” to understand the Scriptures (24:45ff). It is clearly indicated in these passages that Jesus expounded or explained the Sacred Writings, in relation to their foretelling (or prefiguring) his suffering, death, and resurrection (cf. esp. v. 26 and 46). However, it is never specified exactly which Old Testament passages he used, or what manner of exposition he applied. This silence is tantalizing, and perhaps worth exploring a bit further, which I shall do directly below. First, a follow-up note on verse 44, where Jesus reiterates earlier teaching to the disciples that “it is necessary to be fulfilled all the (things) having been written in the Law of Moses and in the Prophets and Psalms about me”. This theme of the fulfillment (literally “to be made full, to be filled [up]”) of Scripture is a key theme throughout the Gospels (and the rest of the New Testament as well). A concrete sense of the metaphor would depict the Writings (Scriptures) as a space or container which is filled up—that is, up to the brim, leveled off. Implied in this image, is that the Life and Person of Christ is what “fills up” the space. A more abstract sense of “filling up” is to “complete” or “accomplish” some goal or task; “filling” can also have an intensive connotation (i.e., “abundance”, “fullness”). I should wish to consider this “filling up” of Scripture from two vantage points:

    1. Details in the Gospels (esp. related to his death/resurrection) which Jesus himself speaks of as, in some sense, fulfilling Scripture
    2. Use of specific Old Testament passages by the Gospel writers (or their underlying sources)

1. Details in the Gospels which “fulfill Scripture”, according to Jesus’ recorded words:

To which, one might also add:

  • Matthew 5:17f — Jesus specifically states he has come to fulfill the Law and Prophets
  • John 5:39 — Jesus says of the Scriptures that they “bear witness about me”
  • Matthew 11:10; par. Luke 7:27 — John the Baptist as “My Messenger” (Mal. 3:1, cf. Mark 1:2-3)
  • Matthew 12:8 & par. — Jesus (the Son of Man) is “Lord of the Sabbath” (a ‘fulfillment’ of the Sabbath?)
  • Luke 9:31 — during the Transfiguration Jesus is described as conversing with Moses and Elijah about his way out [“going out”, e&codo$] which was about to “be fulfilled” in Jerusalem (the language is Luke’s, not necessarily Jesus’ own)
  • Mark 10:18-21 & par. — following Jesus can be seen as a kind of ‘fulfillment’ of the commandments (law of love/sacrifice)
  • Mark 11:2-3 & par. — Jesus’ instructions may be intended to fulfill Zech 9:9ff
  • Mark 11:17 & par. — Jesus ties his ‘cleansing’ of the Temple with Isa 56:7 (his actions could also relate to Zech 14:20-21); the parallel account in John has a slightly different Scripture import
  • Mark 12:35-37 & par. — Jesus’ short, cryptic, discussion of Psalm 110:1 (see a similar discussion involving Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34ff)
  • Mark 14:24f & par. — Jesus identifies his blood as the “blood of the [new] covenant”
  • Mark 14:62 & par. — reference to the future appearance of the Son of Man (cf. Daniel 7:13 ff)

Perhaps also:

  • Mark 1:15 — “the time/season is fulfilled” and the Kingdom of God has come near (in the Person of Christ)
  • John 7:38 — belief in Christ related to “rivers of living water” (but the exact Scripture reference is unclear)
  • John 18:9, 32 — the reference is to Jesus’ word being fulfilled; whether this refers also to a Scripture passage is unclear

Others could perhaps be added to the list. For Scriptural references in the Discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John, see below.

2. Use of Old Testament passages by the Gospel writers (and/or their sources):

MATTHEW: This Gospel makes by far the most extensive use of a citation-formula to indicate the fulfillment of specific Old Testament passages. A number of these citations state directly that what has occurred fulfills Scripture (1:22; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 21:4). A fair number are also unique to Matthew among the (canonical) Gospels (1:22-23; 2:5-6, 15, 17-18; 4:14-16; 12:17-21; 21:4-5; 27:9-10). However, there can be no doubt that the basic citation-formula was part of the common Gospel tradition. Even John has a distinctive use of it: in addition to a cluster of citations in the Crucifixion scene (19:24, 28, 36-37), there are several verses (2:22; 12:16; 20:9) stating that the disciples did not at first understand that what they hear or witnessed was a fulfillment of Scripture (even upon witnessing the empty tomb [20:9]!).

JOHN: A different approach is utilized throughout the fourth Gospel, particularly in the great Discourses—at every turn Jesus identifies himself with key themes and images (we might call them “types”) from Scripture. This occurs at two levels:

(1) The Feasts, which are the setting for most of the Discourses and a number of narratives:

  • Three different Passover settings: (a) Cleansing of the Temple (2:13-22), (b) Feeding of the Multitude & Bread of Life Discourse (chapter 6), (c) Passion Week (chaps. 12-13, [14-17], 18-20). John also makes clear allusions to Passover in the Crucifixion scene (19:14, 29, 31-36).
  • Sukkoth (Feast of Booths/Tabernacles): This is the setting of chapter 7, and, presumably 8:12-59; the motifs of “living water” and light definitely seem to echo ritual imagery associated with Tabernacles (cf. esp. Zech 14:8).
  • Dedication/Hanukkah (e)gkai/nia, “renewal”) is the setting of 10:22-39
  • An unspecified Feast (Pentecost?) is the setting of chapter 5; more important is detail that it was a Sabbath, emphasizing the work of the Son and the Father, especially in regard to the life-giving power (5:19-29) they both share.

(2) Archetypal Old Testament motifs and symbols (others could probably be included):

One should also note the following:

(3) In a number of passages, Jesus seems to be identified with Scripture itself (see especially 5:39). The Light/Darkness motif would appear to echo traditional OT/Jewish language for the Torah, which is often identified with Divine/personified Wisdom (the Word of God). This association is clearest in the Gospel’s prologue-hymn (1:1-18).

(4) Finally, of course, we have the famous “I Am” (e)gw\ ei)mi/) sayings of Jesus, which certainly could have been included in the lists above. It is not always clear how often this usage is meant to be taken absolutely (as an identification with the Name of God, cf. Exodus 3:14), but in passages such as 8:58 it is unmistakable.

LUKE: This Gospel adopts what I would call a literary-creative approach, whereby the core narrative traditions (inherited from Mark and/or other sources) have been given an interpretive layer shaped largely by Old Testament language and images. This is perhaps seen most clearly in the Infancy Narratives (Luke 1:5-2:52): the canticles are replete with Scriptural references (the Magnificat echoes Hannah’s song [1 Sam 2:1-10]), the angelic appearances (as in Matthew) follow Old Testament patterns, and overall the narratives seem to have been influenced and shaped especially by the stories of Samuel’s birth/youth (1 Sam 1-3). One could point to many other passages; for example, details unique to Luke’s presentation of the Transfiguration (cf. 9:29, 31, 34). In the Passion and Resurrection narratives, perhaps the following details might be noted:

  • The context of the Last Supper (22:14-23) may more closely reflect the Passover ritual (especially if vv. 19b-20 are original)
  • The angelic appearance to Jesus in the garden (if verses 43-44 are original)
  • Emphasis of the role of Herod during Jesus’ trial is possibly influenced by OT passages such as Psalm 2:1-2 (cf. Acts 4:25-26)
  • The placement of the rending of the Temple curtain—right after mention of the darkness (and before Jesus’ death)—is probably meant to enhance the apocalyptic imagery of the scene and to emphasize the theme of judgment (rel. to the destruction of the Temple—cf. Ezek. 10, etc. and later Pseudepigraphic passages such as 2 Baruch 6, 8).
  • Instead of the cry of dereliction from the cross (quoting Psalm 22:1), Luke records (23:46) quite a different utterance of Jesus (quoting Psalm 31:6). This shows clearly how selection/application of various Scriptural allusions or details can create a very different (though not necessarily contradictory) portrait.

What Scripture passages did Jesus “open” for his disciples in Luke 24:26-27, 32, 45ff? We have no way of knowing for certain; however, based on other New Testament passages and ancient Jewish traditions, here are some likely candidates (esp. those related to Jesus’ Suffering, Death and Resurrection):

  • Genesis 22:1-14: The Binding/Sacrifice of Isaac (Aqedah). It is not entirely clear if the NT writers themselves made the association here between Isaac and Jesus, but by the middle of the 2nd century Christians clearly had done so (cf. Barnabas 7:2, Melito of Sardis [On the Pascha]).
  • Exodus 12: The Passover ritual and sacrifice (in the context of the “Exodus”, cf. Luke 9:31). There can be no doubt that the Synoptic tradition and the Gospel of John both saw the connection (cf. especially John 19:14, 29, 31-36).
  • Numbers 21:4-9: The bronze serpent (cf. John 3:14-15).
  • Deuteronomy 18:15-22 (esp. vv. 15, 18-19 [Exod 20:21 SP]): The “Prophet like Moses” whom God will raise up. By Jesus’ time, this passage had been understood to refer to an eschatological Prophet, in a quasi-Messianic context (see esp. the Qumran testimonia 4Q175; also 1QS 9; CD 6; and John 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40). It was definitely understood as a prophecy of Christ (Acts 3:22; 7:37-38). The refusal to listen to the Prophet (Deut 18:19) is tied in both to the Passion of Christ (Acts 7:39ff, 51-53) and the coming eschatological judgment (Acts 3:23).
  • 2 Samuel 15:13-37: The narrative structure and sequence of the Passion (on the Mount of Olives) seems (at the level of the common tradition) to have been influenced by the story of David’s departure from Jerusalem. Matthew’s account of Judas’ death (27:3-5), in this context, may have been influenced by 2 Sam 17:23 (death of Ahithophel).
  • Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (Servant Song): The chapters of so-called Deutero-Isaiah (40-66) were a rich trove for early Christian interpretation. Already John the Baptist had made use of Isa 40:3-5; Jesus applied Isa 61:1-2 to himself as he spoke in the Nazareth Synagogue (Luke 4:16-21ff); Matthew (12:18-20) cites Isa 42:1-4 (another “Servant Song”). As far as 52:13-53:12 is concerned, there can be no doubt that: (a) early believers recognized details related to the Passion, and also (b) that these details helped to shape the Passion narratives. A parallel can be found in nearly every verse (esp. vv. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 12). In Acts 8:26-39, Philip interprets Isa 52:13-53:12 to the Ethiopian Eunuch in much the same manner, perhaps, as Jesus instructed the Disciples.
  • Psalm 2:1-2 (see Acts 4:25-27): Very likely these verses also influenced Luke to emphasize the role of Herod in Jesus’ trial (a detail not found in the other Gospels). Luke 23:13 especially may echo verse 2 of the Psalm.
  • Psalm 16:8-11: Cited in Acts 2:25-28ff (and again in Acts 13:35) as a prophecy of the death and Resurrection of Christ.
  • Psalm 22: There can be no question that this Psalm had a profound influence on early Christians’ understanding of the Passion and Death of Jesus. In addition to Jesus’ own cry of dereliction (quoting Psalm 22:1-2) as recorded in Matthew-Mark, verses 7, 16, 18 offer explicit parallels to specific details.
  • Psalm 31: In Luke 23:46, instead of the cry of abandonment, Jesus addresses the Father by quoting Psalm 31:5 [Heb./LXX v. 6]. Other verses in the Psalm (e.g., 7-8, 11, 13, 17-18, 22) also may have been related to the Passion.
  • Psalm 41:9 [Heb./LXX v. 10]: Already cited (on Jesus’ lips) in John 13:18 as a prophecy/prefiguring of Judas’ betrayal
  • Psalm 42:5, 11 [Heb./LXX v. 6, 12]: These verses seem be a source both for Jesus’ own words (Mark 14:34 par.) and the overall atmosphere of the Passion scene in Gethsemane.
  • Psalm 69 (esp. verse 21 [Heb./LXX v. 22])
  • Psalm 110:1: Jesus’ himself cites this verse (Mark 12:35-37 par.); but certainly early Christians saw in it a reference to the Resurrection and Exaltation of Christ (Acts 4:34-35, etc).
  • Psalm 118:22: “The stone which the builders rejected”, applied by Jesus to himself (Mark 12:10-11 and par.); also verse 26 is used by the crowds (a festal/pilgrimage setting) at the Triumphal Entry, and by Jesus himself in a word of lament and judgment toward Jerusalem (Matthew 23:39).
  • Ezekiel 37:1-14: The ‘Valley of Dry Bones’ prophecy likely was viewed early on as prefiguring the Resurrection (see Matthew 27:52-53 and the language in John 5:25-29)
  • Daniel 7:13: Jesus draws upon the Son of Man imagery in the session before the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:62 par.) and in the Eschatological Discourse (set during Passion week, Mark 13:24-27 par.)
  • Daniel 9:24-27 [esp. v. 26]: “the Anointed (One) shall be cut off…”
  • Zechariah 9-14: As with Psalm 22 and Isa 52:13-53:12, these chapters had a tremendous influence on the interpretation of the Passion, and in shaping the narratives. (a) Zech 9:9: Seen as a prophecy/prefiguring of Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem (cited directly in Matthew 21:5; John 12:15). Jesus’ own detailed instructions (as recorded by the Synoptics, Mark 14:13-16 par.) may indicate that he himself had this passage in mind. (b) Zech 9:11: a reference to the “blood of [your] covenant” (cf. Mark 14:24 par.) (c) Zech 9:16 and chapters 10-11: true/false Shepherd imagery (see John 10:1-18, 25-30, with reference to Christ’s death/resurrection in vv. 11, 15, 17-18); see also on Zech 13:7. (d) Zech 11:12-13: the “thirty pieces of silver” thrown into the “house of the Lord, to the potter” (Matthew 26:15; 27:5-10). (e) Zech 12:10: “they shall look on me whom they have pierced…” (John 19:34-37) (f) Zech 13:7: cited by Jesus as a Passion prediction (Mark 14:17 par.); see also Zech 11:17. (g) Zech 13:1; 14:8: a fountain and “living water” in Jerusalem (see the discourse of Jesus in John 7-8 [esp. 7:37-39]). The Sukkot/Tabernacles setting pervades these chapters (14:16-19; cf. also the request for rain in 10:1). (h) Zech 14:20-21: These verses would seem to provide the background for Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (esp. Mark 12:15-18); did Jesus himself have them in mind?

Jesus must have expounded at least some (if not all) of the above passages. Often the interpretation described by Jesus in Luke 24:26-27, 32, 45ff has been overlooked by scholars. Critical commentators will look long and hard for explanations as to how early Christians came to associate certain Old Testament passages with the death and resurrection of Christ. Perhaps they have missed another possible explanation: that the disciples could have been introduced to them by Jesus himself.

March 22: Luke 9:22

The first “Son of Man” saying in Luke which I will be examining in this Easter season note (cf. the prior introduction) is Luke 9:22—the first of three Passion predictions in Synoptic tradition where Jesus is recorded announcing (prophetically) his own suffering and death.

Luke 9:22

In all three Gospels, this first statement follows Peter’s confession of Jesus as the “Anointed (One)” (o( xristo/$, ho christós, i.e. “the Christ”); for more on the idea of Jesus as the “Anointed (One)” (‘Christ, Messiah [j^yv!m* m¹šîaµ]’), cf. throughout the study series “Yeshua the Anointed“. The episode in Luke 9:18-20 (par Mark 8:27-29; Matt 16:13-16), culminating in Peter’s confession, is central to this identification in early Gospel tradition. Here, for the first time, Jesus’ own disciples begin to come to grips with who he is (note the question, “who do you count/reckon me to be?”); Peter clearly gives the answer. In fact, it may be possible to detect a development of Gospel tradition right in this passage. If we compare the three [Synoptic] versions (Mk 8:29 / Lk 9:20 / Matt 16:15-16), each has an identical question by Jesus: u(mei=$ de\ ti/na me le/get ei@nai; (“and who do you count/reckon me to be?”); however, Peter’s answer differs somewhat:

  • Mark has the shortest and simplest version:
    su\ ei@ o( xristo/$ “you are the Anointed (One)”
  • Luke’s version contains a bit more:
    to\n xristo\n tou= qeou= “(you are) the Anointed (One) of God
  • In Matthew it is expanded considerably:
    su\ ei@ o( xristo/$ o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou= tou= zw=nto$
    “you are the Anointed (One), the son of the living God

In the view of many critical scholars, the italicized portions reflect subsequent belief about Jesus in the early Church, rather than Peter’s own words per se—that is, as a kind of gloss or commentary on Peter’s statement. Indeed, it is most unlikely that Peter had in mind a developed doctrine of Christ’s deity at such an early stage; however, it is certainly possible for an Israelite or Jew in the first century to have understood an Anointed figure (Messiah) as the “son of God”, at least in a qualified sense. The Aramaic text 4Q246 from Qumran would seem to confirm this (col. ii, line 1, cf. Lk 1:32, 35). Bear in mind also that Matthew records Peter’s answer (stated by Jesus) to be an inspired utterance by God (Matt 16:17); Peter may well have not understood the full force of what he was saying. Following this confession, the Synoptic tradition has the interesting notice that:

“laying a charge upon them, he gave along the message [i.e. instructed them] to tell this to no one” (Lk 9:21, par. Mk 8:20 / Matt 16:20)

On purely objective grounds, this instruction not to tell anyone he was the Anointed One (Messiah)—the so-called “Messianic secret”—must be historical and factual; it is extremely unlikely that such a tradition would have been produced (subsequently) by the early Church. Various suggestions have been made by commentators as to why Jesus would want to keep his identity a secret. Perhaps the most reasonable (and best) explanation is that it would (prematurely) result in the expectation that he would fulfill a particular idea of the Messiah—i.e., as a Davidic ruler who would restore the (earthly) kingdom of Israel (cf. Lk 17:20; 19:11; Jn 6:15; Acts 1:6, etc). Many of Jesus’ sayings and teachings about the kingdom (of God) reflect a very different idea. In any event, a follower who expected Jesus to fulfill the eschatological role of a triumphant Messiah-king, would certainly have been shocked by the Passion prediction by Jesus which comes in the next verse. I set the Lukan version side-by-side with Mark/Matthew in the context of the Synoptic tradition:

Luke 9:22

ei)pw\n o%ti dei= to\n ui(o\n tou= a)nqrw/pou polla\ paqei=n kai\ a)podokimasqh=nai a)po\ tw=n presbute/rwn kai\ a)rxiere/wn kai\ grammate/wn kai\ a)poktanqh=nai kai\ th=| tri/th| h(me/ra| e)gerqh=nai

“…saying that it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many (things) and to be removed from examination [i.e. be rejected] from [i.e. by] the Elders and Chief Sacred-officials and Writers and to be (set forth to be) killed, and, on the third day, to be raised (from the dead)”

Mark 8:31

kai\ h&rcato dida/skein au)tou\$ o%ti dei= to\n ui(o\n tou= a)nqrw/pou polla\ paqei=n kai\ a)podokimasqh=nai u(po\ tw=n prebute/rwn kai\ tw=n a)rxiere/wn kai\ tw=n grammate/wn kai\ a)poktanqh=nai kai\ meta\ trei=$ h(me/ra$ a)nasth=nai

“and he began to teach them that it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many (things) and to be removed from examination [i.e. be rejected] under the Elders and the Chief Sacred-officials and the Writers and to be (set forth to be) killed, and, after three days, to stand up (out of the dead).”

Matthew 16:21

a)po\ to/te h&rcato o(  )Ihsou=$ deiknu/ein toi=$ maqhtai=$ au)tou= o%ti dei= au)to\n ei)$  (Ieroso/luma a)pelqei=n kai\ polla\ paqei=n a)po\ tw=n presbute/rwn kai\ a)rxiere/wn kai\ grammate/wn kai\ a)poktanqh=nai kai\ th=| trith| h(me/ra| e)gerqh=nai

“from then Yeshua began to show his learners that it is necessary for him to go (away) from (there) into Yerushalaim and to suffer many (things) from the Elders and Chief Sacred-officials and Writers and to be (set forth to be) killed, and, on the third day, to be raised (from the dead)”

In the Lukan version, Jesus described four things which will happen, presented with a string of (aorist) infinitive forms. Here is the structure of the sentence:

  • dei= “it is necessary”
    • to\n ui(o\n tou= a)nqrw/pou “(for) the Son of Man”
      {the sequence of infinitives follows, linked by polla\ [“many things”, i.e. suffer many things]}
      • paqei=n “to suffer (many things)”
      • a)podokimasqh=nai “to be considered unworthy, i.e. be rejected”, literally something like “to be thrown out from the test”
        —rejected by [a)po\ lit. “from”] the Elders and Chief sacred-officials (“Chief priests”) and Writers (“Scribes”), i.e. members of the Council (Sanhedrin) in Jerusalem
      • a)poktanqh=nai “to be killed (off)”, that is, “se(n)t away to be put to death”
      • e)gerqh=nai “to be raised (up) in/on the third day

If we take this statement as authentic prophecy (by Jesus), then it provides an accurate summary of the events which would take place, as recorded in the Gospel narrative:

    • paqei=n—that he would suffer “many things” (polla/), covering the next two terms as well, but also including specifically Jesus’ suffering in the garden, along with his subsequent arrest (Luke 22:39-53 par).
    • a)podokimasqh=nai—the use of the verb a)po)dikma/zw indicates an examination, someone or something being taken under consideration or put to the test, etc. This certainly fits Jesus’ appearance before the Sanhedrin (Luke 22:54-65 par). Contrary to popular belief, the meeting of the Sanhedrin presumably was not an official trial, but an ad hoc tribunal of sorts, in response to what was deemed an urgent situation. The prefix a)po indicates someone being taken away from consideration, removed from the test, i.e. being rejected, in this instance by the members of the Sanhedrin (the Elders, Chief Priests and Scribes).
    • a)poktanqh=nai—his being “killed off”, or, more precisely, being taken away and put to death—which includes all of the proceedings of the Roman governor (Pilate) leading to the execution (at the stake, i.e. crucifixion), Luke 23:1-49 par.
    • e)gerqh=nai—the resurrection, his being raised (from the dead), Luke 24:1-12ff par.

What of Jesus’ use of the expression “the Son of Man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) here? Given Peter’s declaration in verse 20, we might have expected him to have responded that “it is necessary for the Anointed (“Christ”) to suffer many things…”, which is the language he is recorded as using in Lk 24:25-26, 46f, after the resurrection. Instead here he uses “the Son of Man”, as also in the other two Passion predictions (Lk 9:44; 18:31-32 par; cf. also 24:7). For the moment, I can only offer a tentative interpretation—a more complete explanation must wait until the other two passages have been discussed; but there are several possibilities which may be considered:

    1. Jesus simply uses the expression as a way to refer to himself, i.e. “the son of man” is equivalent to “I”. In a number of the Son of Man sayings, Jesus is clearly speaking of himself, and that is likely how the early tradition understood it here, judging by the parallel in Matt 16:21. There is some evidence for the use of “son of man” (<da /b / vna rb) as a circumlocution for the pronoun “I” or “you” in direct address, but it is relatively slight, and it is by no means clear that it was common practice in Jesus’ time. Such usage stems from the general or indefinite sense of the expression, i.e. “a(ny) man”.
    2. He may be identifying himself specifically with humankind, that is, in terms of his own human ‘nature’—here, especially, of mortality, including suffering and death. The idea, then, might be a kind of representative or collective identification, such as would be developed doctrinally in the early Church (cf. Romans 5:12ff; 8:3f, 17; Heb 2:10-18, etc).
    3. If he is drawing upon the image of a divine/heavenly figure (taken primarily from Daniel 7:13f; 10:5, 15), as appears to be the case in a number of the Son of Man sayings we will be examining (cf. Lk 9:26, etc), then Jesus may be indicating a striking contrast—instead of coming in (eschatological) glory and power, the “Son of Man” (that is, Jesus himself) will first suffer and be put to death. Only with the resurrection, will he appear subsequently in a glorious, victorious form.
    4. There may also be a specific contrast with Peter’s identification of Jesus as “the Anointed One” (Christ/Messiah), especially if understood in the (traditional) sense of an end-time Davidic ruler who will judge the Nations and restore the kingdom to Israel. It is abundantly clear, both from the New Testament and other Jewish writings of the period, that there was no expectation that the ‘Messiah’ would suffer and be put to death. Such an idea appears to be unique to Jesus’ own teaching, and must have come as something of a shock to his followers at the time. This is presumably the basis for the sharp exchange with Peter in Mk 8:32-33 / Matt 16:22-23, which is omitted by Luke. Of course, we cannot be sure exactly what Peter may have said; the verb e)pitima/w (also used by Jesus in Mk 8:33 [to Peter], and previously in Lk 9:21 par), has a fairly wide range of meaning—to place honor (and/or blame) upon someone, to place a charge upon someone; more generally, to rebuke, admonish, threaten, forbid, etc., depending on the context.

The Birth of Jesus and Virgil’s 4th Eclogue

One of the most interesting Greco-Roman parallels to the birth of Jesus is found in the famous fourth Eclogue of Virgil. Written at the time of the Peace of Brundisium (40 B.C.), following decades of civil war, it is an ode to a coming “Golden Age” (for the cycle of Ages—Gold to Iron—cf. Hesiod, Works and Days ll. 106-201, and the similar concept in many cultures worldwide).

SICILIAN Muses, let us sing a somewhat loftier strain. 2Not all do the orchards please and the lowly tamarisks. 3If our song is of the woodland, let the woodland be worthy of a consul.
4Now is come the last age of the song of Cumae; 5the great line of the centuries begins anew. 6Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; 7now a new generation descends from heaven on high. 8-10Only do thou, pure Lucina, smile on the birth of the child, under whom the iron brood shall first cease, and a golden race spring up throughout the world! Thine own Apollo now is king!
11-12And in thy consulship, Pollio, yea in thine, shall this glorious age begin, and the mighty months commence their march; 13under thy sway, any lingering traces of our guilt 14shall become void, and release the earth from its continual dread. 15He shall have the gift of divine life, 16shall see heroes mingled with gods, and shall himself be seen of them, 17and shall sway a world to which his father’s virtues have brought peace.
18-22But for thee, child, shall the earth untilled pour forth, as her first pretty gifts, straggling ivy with foxglove everywhere, and the Egyptian bean blended with the smiling acanthus. Uncalled, the goats shall bring home their udders swollen with milk, and the herds shall fear not huge lions; 23unasked, thy cradle shall pour forth flowers for thy delight. 24The serpent, too, shall perish, and the false poison-plant shall perish; 25Assyrian spice shall spring up on every soil.
26But soon as thou canst read of the glories of heroes and thy father’s deeds, 27and canst know what valour is, 28slowly shall the plain yellow with the waving corn, 29on wild brambles shall hang the purple grape, 30and the stubborn oak shall distil dewy honey. 31Yet shall some few traces of olden sin lurk behind, 32-33to call men to essay the sea in ships, to gird towns with walls, and to cleave the earth with furrows. 34-35A second Tiphys shall then arise, and a second Argo to carry chosen heroes; a second warfare, too, shall there be, 36and again shall a great Achilles be sent to Troy.
37Next, when now the strength of years has made thee man, 38-39even the trader shall quit the sea, nor shall the ship of pine exchange wares; every land shall bear all fruits. 40The earth shall not feel the harrow, nor the vine the pruning-hook; 41the sturdy ploughman, too, shall now loose his oxen from the yoke. 42Wool shall no more learn to counterfeit varied hues, 43but of himself the ram in the meadows shall change his fleece, 44now to sweetly blushing purple, now to a saffron yellow; 45of its own will shall scarlet clothe the grazing lambs.
46“Ages such as these, glide on!” cried to their spindles the Fates, 47voicing in unison the fixed will of Destiny!
48Enter on thy high honours—the hour will soon be here—49O thou dear offspring of the gods, mighty descendant of Jupiter! 50Behold the world bowing with its massive dome—51earth and expanse of sea and heaven’s depth! 52Behold, how all things exult in the age that is at hand! 53O that then the last days of a long life may still linger for me, 54with inspiration enough to tell of thy deeds! 55-57Not Thracian Orpheus, not Linus shall vanquish me in song, though his mother be helpful to the one, and his father to the other, Calliope to Orpheus, and fair Apollo to Linus. 58-59Even Pan, were he to contend with me and Arcady be judge, even Pan, with Arcady for judge, would own himself defeated.
60Begin, baby boy, to know thy mother with a smile—61to thy mother ten months have brought the weariness of travail. 62-63Begin, baby boy! Him on whom his parents have not smiled, no god honours with his table, no goddess with her bed!
(transl. H. R. Fairclough, Loeb edition, 1916).

This “Golden Age” is connected with the birth of a child, somewhat similar, perhaps to situation in Isa 7:14 and 9:6-7 (cf. the earlier articles on these passages). Indeed, there are a number of images and motifs in this poem that could almost have been lifted out of Isaiah. It has been suggested that Virgil is drawing upon Jewish or related Near Eastern sources in some fashion (note the details in lines 18-25); though overall the idyllic pastoral picture owes more to Theocritus and other Greco-Roman poets than it does to foreign works. As with Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7, the identity of the child here is uncertain; many proposals have been made, the most common of which are:

  • The son of Asinius Pollio (the consul in lines 3, 11-12)
  • A son of Octavian (Augustus)—his wife Scribonia was pregnant at the time (but she would bear a daughter)
  • The child is symbolic of the Golden Age

Certainly, Augustus would come to be associated with a reign of peace (Pax Augusta) and be called “savior of the world” (on this Imperial background to the birth of Jesus esp. in the Gospel of Luke, see a previous Christmas season note). Not surprisingly, some Christians saw in this poem a (pagan) prophecy of Jesus’ birth (e.g., Lactantius, Institutes 7:24; Oration of Constantine §§19-21; but cf. Jerome, Epistle 53, for a contrary opinion). There are likely several reasons for this:

  • Reference to the Cumaean Sibyl in line 4—the Sibyls were seen as predicting the coming of Christ in other early Christian traditions (see below)
  • The “Virgin” in line 6 (here the virgin is ‘Justice’)
  • The child’s connection to the new age, especially the miraculous fertility which comes upon the earth (lines 18-25ff, 40-45)
  • Divine (honorific) attributes seem to be given to the child in lines 15-17
  • The (very) rough similarities with details in Isaiah 7:14ff (cf. the time indicators related to the child’s age in lines 26ff, etc)
  • The depiction of the birth and connection with the mother in lines 60-63 may have conjured up associations with Mary and the virgin birth.

Mention of the Sibyl, along with the possibility of Jewish (or Near Eastern) influence in parts of the poem, have led some scholars to theorize that Virgil may have had access to Sibylline “oracles” similar to those which have come down to us today (cf. especially the 3rd book of the Sibylline Oracles). As I discussed in a previous note, these surviving books are a mixture of pagan, Jewish and Christian material—the pseudepigraphic Christian books and sections are largely a reworking of the Jewish oracles, meant to integrate the birth and life of Jesus into the fabric of biblical and world history.

The Birth of Jesus and the Sibylline Oracles

Early Christians, having found evidence for Jesus Christ in any number of Old Testament passages (see prior Advent notes and articles), began to look toward other writings—Jewish and pagan—for signs which foretold the coming of Christ. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman empire, more such material became increasingly known and made available. A large portion of this Jewish literature comes under the umbrella term “Pseudepigrapha”—a rather unfortunate label which has nonetheless been almost universally adopted (for more on the meaning and use of this term, see the explanatory article on Pseudepigraphy and Pseudonymity).  These writings draw heavily upon the Old Testament books (thereby the qualifier Old Testament Pseudepigrapha), but are typically kept distinct from other writings of the period which also rely upon the OT Scriptures, namely: (a) the Dead Sea Scrolls, (b) works of Jewish philosophers and historians (such as Philo and Josephus), (c) the New Testament books, (d) similar works which draw upon the NT (in imitation of OT Pseudepigrapha), and (e) works of Rabbinic Judaism (Mishnah, Talmud and Midrashim). The Pseudepigrapha are primarily the product of Hellenistic and Greco-Roman Judaism, most being written in Greek (with some originally in Hebrew or Aramaic). They cover a wide range of material, with dates spanning from the 3rd century B.C. to the 7th century A.D. (or later). The standard critical collection (in English) is the 2-volume set edited by J. H. Charlesworth (1983), originally published as part of the Anchor Bible Reference Library.

It is mainly due to the efforts of Christian scribes (whatever their intentions), that the Pseudepigrapha have come down to us today. This fact of transmission and preservation has created additional complications for analyzing these writings. With regard to their relationship to Christianity, one may outline four distinct situations—works which are:

  1. Entirely Jewish (or very nearly so)
  2. Primarily Jewish, but which contain significant passages considered to be Christian interpolations
  3. Primarily Christian, but which are most likely built upon earlier Jewish material
  4. Entirely Christian, composed in imitation of Jewish models

In terms of Pseudepigraphal works which provide (apparent) prophecies of Christ, including prophecies of his birth, the so-called Sibylline Oracles are perhaps the most noteworthy. The Sibyls were ancient prophetesses described in Greco-Roman literature; already in the Classical-period (5th-4th centuries B.C.) they were shrouded in legend, and it is difficult to say to what extent they represent real historical persons. However, their purported oracles were widely consulted and referenced, and a number of collections were drawn up over the centuries, the most notable being the official collection kept in Rome (lost in a fire 83 B.C.). The set of fourteen ‘books’ of the surviving Sibylline Oracles is itself a mixture of pagan, Jewish and Christian material, dating variously between the 2nd century B.C. and sometime after 500 A.D. The following oracles (or books) are generally regarded as Christian productions or adaptations:

  • Book 6: A short hymn to Christ of 28 lines, cited by Lactantius (c. 300 A.D.) in the 4th book of his Divine Institutes.
  • Book 7: A set of oracles touching upon world history and prophesying the coming Judgment (lines 29-39, 64-75 explicitly speak of Christ); also cited by Lactantius.
  • Books 1 (and 2): A Christian expansion/adaptation of a Jewish oracle spanning Biblical history (see below)
  • Book 8: An extensive Christian expansion upon a (Jewish?) anti-Roman oracle. In addition to the famous acrostic (lines 217-50), there are two lengthy sections on the life of Christ (see below); this oracle is cited by Lactantius (Institutes bk 7, etc), and the acrostic poem in Augustine’s City of God (18:23).

The principle passages (abridged) which speak of the birth (or incarnation) of Christ are:


Then indeed the son of the great God will come,
incarnate, likened to mortal men on earth….
331Christ, the son of the most high, immortal God….
334Priests will bring gifts to him, bringing forward gold,
myrrh, and incense….


The one who has believed in him will have eternal life.
For he will come to creation not in glory, but as a man,
pitiable, without honor or form, so that he might give hope to the faithless,
and he will fashion the original man,….
269Mindful therefore of this resolution, he will come to creation
bearing a corresponding copy to the holy virgin,….


In the last times he changed the earth and, coming late
as a new light, he rose from the womb of the Virgin Mary.
Coming from heaven, he put on a mortal form…
469….A word flew to her womb.
In time it was made flesh and came to life in the womb,
and was fashioned in mortal form and became a boy
by virgin birth. For this is a great wonder to men,
but nothing is a great wonder for God the Father and God the Son.
The joyful earth fluttered to the child at its birth.
The heavenly throne laughed and the world rejoiced.
A wondrous, new-shining star was venerated by Magi.
The newborn child was revealed in a manger to those who obey God:
cowherds and goatherds and shepherds of sheep.
And Bethlehem was said to be the divinely named homeland of the Word.

Besides the Sibylline Oracles, one should also note the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: a Jewish collection of prophecies, patterned after Genesis 49, composed for the most part sometime during the late (?) 2nd century B.C. (there are fragments of similar ‘Testaments’ among the Qumran texts, most notably 4QTLevi ar). The work as a whole underwent a Christian redaction at some point, for there are a dozen or so passages which would seem to be Christian modifications or interpolations. Since the Jewish material already contained a number of ‘Messianic’ passages, it is somewhat difficult to determine definitively all of the Christian changes. In terms of prophecies of the birth of Jesus, the most significant passages are (in abridged form):

Testament of Levi 18:

2And then the Lord will raise up a new priest….
3And his star shall rise in heaven like a king;
kindling the light of knowledge as day is illumined by the sun.
And he shall be extolled by the whole inhabited world.
This one will shine forth like the sun in the earth;
he shall take away all darkness from under heaven,
and there shall be peace in all the earth.

Testament of Joseph 19:8-12:

And I saw that a virgin was born from Judah, wearing a linen stole; and from her was born a spotless lamb….
9And the angels and mankind and all the earth rejoiced over him…
11….will arise the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world, and will save all the nations, as well as Israel.
For his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom which will not pass away…

Other passages from the Pseudepigrapha which describe in some fashion the birth or coming of Christ:

Ascension of Isaiah 11; Testament of Isaac 3:18; Testament of Adam 3:3; Testament of Solomon 23:20; Ladder of Jacob 7; Treatise of Shem; 2 Enoch 71 (J); 4 Baruch 9:15ff; History of the Rechabites 12:9a ff; note also Apocalypse of Adam 7:9ff.
See also Pseudo-Philo (Biblical Antiquities) 9:9ff (on the birth of Moses), 42 (on the birth of Samson); Lives of the Prophets 2:8ff.

Translations above of the Sibylline Oracles are by J. J Collins, those of the Testaments are by H. C. Kee (both from the Charlesworth edition V.1, pp. 318ff and 776ff).

The Sibylline Oracles will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming “Ancient Parallels” article.

The acrostic poem from the Sibylline Oracles 8:217-50, cited by Augustine in the City of God (18:23), made its way into the Christian liturgy as the “Song of the Sibyl” (better known by its Latin title Iudicii signum). Accompanied by a pseudo-Augustinian homily, the Song became part of a lesson chanted in the night office (matins) for Christmas (eve), until it was eventually banned as part of the Council of Trent’s liturgical reforms. It continues to be performed today, especially in the popular Catalan version. A reference to the Sibyl remains in the Dies Irae: the “day of wrath”, which was prophesied by both “David and the Sybil” (teste David cum Sibylla), a reflection of that interest in pagan lore—side by side with Christianity—which, having first appeared in the early Church, resurfaced powerfully during the Renaissance.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Isaiah 9:5-6 (Part 2)

Assuming the historical setting of Isa 6:1-9:6 to be the years leading up to 732 B.C. (and prior to 722), a Messianic interpretation of the child in vv. 5-6 [EV 6-7] would seem to be out of the question (in terms of the primary meaning of the passage [see previous study]). Can we then identify the child with a particular historical figure? The grandeur of the titles in v. 5, and reference to the “throne of David” in v. 6, would require, at the very least, a king of Judah (that is, from the Davidic line). The only person from Isaiah’s own time (c. 735-700) who seems to fit is Hezekiah, son of Ahaz. The birth and/or accession of a new king could be a time of great hope and promise, but also of tremendous danger, as princes and vassals may see the moment as an opportune time for revolt (cf. Psalm 2). Following the reign of his father, Ahaz (who “did not do what was right in the eyes of YHWH”), Hezekiah is a positive figure, even under the withering judgment of the book of Kings (2 Kings 8:3ff: he finally removed the “high places”, which his ancestors failed to do). He will also become a central figure in the book of Isaiah, and focal point of the key historical moment: the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem under Sennacherib in 701 B.C.

Some scholars would identify Hezekiah also as ±Immanû-°¢l (“God-with-us”) of the prophecy in 7:10-17 (cf. also 8:5-10). Arguments in favor would be: (a) parallel with 9:5-6, as both prophecy the birth of portentous children containing a promise of salvation; (b) the name is suggestive of the words of 2 Kings 8:7 (“and YHWH was with him…”); (c) the subsequent use of the name/phrase in 8:8,10. Arguments against: (a) there is nothing in the two passages which specifically identifies the two children; (b) the other symbolic names in chs. 7-8 still seem to be real names applied to specific children, so Immanuel, if a real name, most likely belongs to a different child than Hezekiah; (c) Immanuel as a child of Isaiah (or even as a purely symbolic/collective name) remains a possibility. I am by no means convinced that Immanuel, even if a child of Ahaz, is the same as the (royal) child of 9:5-6. In some ways there is even a closer parallel between the child of 7:14-17 and Isaiah’s child in 8:1-4, but few (if any) commentators would equate the two.

As far as arguments against identifying Hezekiah with the child of 9:5-6, three are especially significant:

  1. The message of deliverance and restoration in vv. 1-4 was not fulfilled in Hezekiah’s reign, particularly not for the Northern kingdom (the territories mentioned in the setting of 8:23). And, while Hezekiah was a good and faithful ruler (according to the testimony of 2 Kings 8:3-7ff), achieved some military success (2 Kings 8:8), and stood against Assyria (2 Kings 8:7, 13–chap. 19 and par.), an appraisal of his reign would not seem to match the glowing language of Isa 9:6. Indeed, in 2 Kings 20:16-19 [par. Isa 39:5-8], Isaiah himself prophecies the future Babylonian captivity—there will be only limited “peace and security” (20:19, contrasted with Isa 9:6). However, these points are weakened somewhat if one considers the character of the oracle in 9:1-6, which does not seem to carry the same predictive force found earlier in chapters 7-8: there are almost no specific historical details, no time indicator, indeed no clear sign of an immediate fulfillment. The perfect verbal forms, typically understood as prophetic perfects (indicating the certainty of what God will do), could also have a gnomic sense (indicating what God always does).
  2. It has been said that the weighty titles listed in Isa 9:5 are too lofty to be applied to a human king. However, similarly lofty, theologically significant names and titles were regularly applied to rulers in the ancient Near East. The most extensive evidence comes from Egypt, and the names applied to the Pharaoh during enthronement rituals (some of which are roughly parallel to those in Isa 9:5). No similar ritual is recorded as such for kings of Israel/Judah in the Old Testament, but there are a few hints in the Psalms and elsewhere; Psalm 2 is perhaps the most striking example, a setting similar to that in the Egyptian ritual, where the Deity addresses the new ruler as His “son” (Ps 2:7). For more on this Psalm, see below.
  3. The very lack of specific historical details (see point 1 above) could be taken as a strong argument against identifying the child with Hezekiah. Certainly, it could apply at least as well to later rulers (such as Josiah) or a future Messiah. If one accepts the basic interpretation of 9:5-6 as reflecting the enthronement/accession of a new king (that is, the language and symbolism of it), it has a timeless quality which could apply to any anointed king (the same is true of Psalm 2, etc). Only the historical context of the passage (c. 730-700 B.C.) would make it apply specifically to Hezekiah.

What of the titles or names in Isaiah 9:5? There are four: the first two have nouns in juxtaposition, the second two are effectively construct forms:

  • Ju@oy al#P# (pele° yô±¢ƒ), typically translated “Wonderful Counsellor”
  • roBG] la@ (°¢l gibbôr), typically “Mighty God”

However, the English rendering is a bit misleading, as if the first words were adjectives modifying the second. The nouns juxtaposed are not related syntactically in quite this way. The noun al#P# refers to something extraordinary, i.e. a wonder, marvel, miracle, etc. The relation between the nouns is perhaps better expressed by a comma, or hyphen: “Wonder, Counsellor” or “Wonder–Counsellor”. The noun roBG] refers to a strong (man) or warrior. la@, usually translated “God” (El), has an original meaning something like “mighty” (“Mighty [one]” = “God”); the plural form <yh!l)a$ (Elohim) is probably an intensive plural, roughly “Mightiest”. “God Warrior” is a fairly accurate rendering of the second name, or, translating even more literally “Mighty One, Warrior”.

  • du^yb!a& (°¦»î±ad), familiar translation “Everlasting Father”
  • <olv*Árc^ (´ar-sh¹lôm), “Prince of Peace”

In the third name, the two words have been joined (without a maqqeph [‘hyphen’]), the second of which is difficult to translate. du^ indicates, more or less literally, the passing or advancing of time, either in the sense of (a) into the distant past, (b) into the [distant] future, or (c) in perpetuity [i.e. continually]. As such, it is roughly synonymous with the word <lou (see v. 6). “Everlasting” is not especially accurate, but it is hard to find an English word that is much better. In the context of a royal title, something along the lines of “long life” is probably implied (similar to Egyptian titles, i.e. “living forever”, “good in years”, etc). This would create a parallel with the two names: “Father of ‘Long-life'”, “Prince of Peace”—two aspects of the promised time of renewal. However, there is a sense of du^ which also indicates “ancient” or “eternal” (Hab 3:6, etc) as long as one is careful not to infuse the latter rendering with an exaggerated theological meaning.

These four titles are included under the formula: “and he/they will call [or has called] his name…” Let us also consider the prior three elements of verse 5:

  • Wnl*ÁdL^y% dl#y# yK! (“For a child has been born to/for us”)—the etymological connection of dly is lost in translation: “a (thing) born has been born”, “a (thing) brought-forth has been brought-forth”. The particle yK! clearly connects vv. 5-6 with 1-4, but in what way precisely? Is the birth of the child (or accession of the king) the means by which God will bring about the things detailed in vv. 1-4? Are 8:23-9:4 the reason for the birth? Or are the events of vv. 1-4 juxtaposed with the birth as parallel aspects of God’s action?
  • Wnl*Á/T^n] /B@ (“a son has been given to/for us”)—a point of poetic parallelism with the previous phrase.
  • omk=v!Álu^ hr*c=M!h^ yh!T=w~ (“and the rule has come to be upon his shoulder”)—the exact meaning of hr*c=m! is uncertain, it may be related to rc^ (translated “prince”, see in the fourth title at end of the verse). This phrase is parallel to the fourth: “and he has called his name [or he/they will call his name]…”—the name and the ‘rule’ (probably in the sense of symbolic emblem[s] of rule) being two ritualized aspects of sovereignty.

Even though Isa 9:5-6 is not cited in the New Testament, 8:23-9:1 [EV 9:1-2] are quoted in Matthew 4:15-16, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee; and, though not specified, an identification of Jesus with the child in 9:5-6 would seem to be implied. This is certainly how early Christians would come to understand the passage (Justin is perhaps the earliest surviving witness [c. 140-160], cf. First Apology §33 and Dialogue §76). More broadly, it would come to carry a Messianic interpretation, though there is little surviving pre-Christian Jewish evidence of this. A comparison of Isa 9:1-6 [esp. vv. 5-6] with Psalm 2 (discussed above) is noteworthy:

  • Both passages are understood (in their original context) as relating to the enthronement/accession of a new (Davidic) king. The positive side of the event (light, joy, deliverance from [current] oppression) is stressed in Isa 9:1-6, the negative side (danger from rebellious princes/vassals/allies) in Ps 2.
  • Both speak of a birth (Isa 9:5; Ps 2:7). This may mean that the ‘birth’ in Isa 9:5 is symbolic of the king’s accession/enthronement, rather than a literal physical birth.
  • Both speak of (the king) as a son. The king as God’s son (i.e., “son of God” though the phrase is not used) is explicit in Psalm 2 (cf. also 2 Sam 7:14), while only implied, perhaps, in Isa 9:5-6.
  • Following the ‘announcement’ of birth/sonship, both passages have God’s declaration of royal inheritance and sovereignty (Isa 9:6; Ps 2:8-12)
  • Both passages came to be understood as Messianic prophecies, and were applied to Jesus by early Christians—Ps 2 (along with Ps 110) already, on several occasions, in the New Testament itself.

An examination of these parallels is also instructive for understanding how the language and imagery of the Old Testament developed over time, from the original historical context and meaning, to a broader symbolism related to the idea of the Davidic kingship and covenant; then follows the hope/promise of a restoration of Davidic rule (in the post-exilic period) under a new Anointed figure (Messiah), traditions of which are preserved and transmitted in Jewish thought and belief, until the time of Jesus Christ (Yeshua the Anointed [Messiah]).  In the light of this new (incarnate) revelation, new meanings and applications of the Scriptures were opened up to believers—it is hardly surprising that at least a few of these would appear to relate so beautifully to the marvelous birth of our Savior.

Even though no commentary on Isa 8:23-9:6 [EV 9:1-7] survives from Qumran, there is an allusion to v. 5 in the “Thanksgiving Hymns” (Hodayot) 1QH. In Hymn 9 [XI, formerly III], the author compares his distress to that of a woman giving birth (verse 7ff): “9and the woman expectant with a boy is racked by her pangs, for through the breakers of death she gives birth to a male, and through the pangs of Sheol there emerges, 10from the «crucible» of the pregnant woman a wonderful counsellor with his strength, and the boy is freed from the breakers”. He goes on to contrast the (righteous) birth of a boy with the (wicked) birth of a serpent (verse 12ff), a reflection of the strong ethical dualism found in many of the Qumran texts.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Isaiah 9:5-6 (Part 1)

Having dealt at length with Isaiah 7:14 in a previous four-part study, I will treat the next passage in somewhat briefer fashion, a passage perhaps even more famous: the prophecy of Isaiah 8:23-9:6 [English versing 9:1-7]. Forever immortalized (for English speakers at least) thanks to Handel’s oratorio The Messiah, verses 5-6 [EV 6-7] are among the best-known verses of the Old Testament, appearing in any number of situations during the Christmas season. However, as with Isaiah 7:14, these verses, in being applied to the birth of Jesus, are generally taken out of their original context, as a careful study of 8:23-9:6 (and the wider section 6:1-9:6) will indicate. It may be useful to outline and summarize the overall context:

  • Isa 6:1-13: The “call” and commission of Isaiah, accompanied by a vision of God in the Temple, said to have occurred the year of king Uzziah’s death (c. 740/39 B.C.). The words of commission (vv. 9-10 cited famously by Jesus [Mark 4:10-12 par.]) are harsh and foreboding: Isaiah’s preaching will only harden the people, leading to judgment, destruction and exile, but with a final promise—that which is left standing in them is “the seed of holiness” (v. 13).
  • Isa 7:1-9: The alliance of Aram-Damascus and the Northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim), along with their attack on Jerusalem, is summarized (vv. 1-3). What follows is set in the face of the (impending) siege: Isaiah is called to meet the young king Ahaz (grandson of Uzziah), bringing along his own son (named “a remant will return”), with a message for the king not to be afraid but to trust in God, for YHWH will not allow their attack to succeed. A time indicator for the destruction of Ephraim appears in v. 8-9, but the text here may be corrupt or a later gloss. The setting of this scene would be c. 735-4 B.C.
  • Isa 7:10-17: A second scene between Isaiah and Ahaz, which may have occurred at a different time (though the same basic setting c. 735-4 B.C. is implied). This section, and especially v. 14, has been discussed extensively in the prior studies. It is a similar message: that Ahaz should trust God in the face of attack, for within 2-3 years YHWH will bring judgment on Aram and Ephraim through the king of Assyria. This prediction essentially came to pass by 732 B.C.
  • Isa 7:18-25: A separate oracle of judgment: God will ‘whistle’ for the king of Assyria to come and ‘shave’ the land in humiliating fashion. Assuming the position of the oracle in its overall context, the target is most likely the Northern Kingdom, which would suffer greatly under the advances of Tiglath-pileser III (734-2 B.C.) before being conquered and destroyed finally in 722.
  • Isa 8:1-4: A sign-oracle with some remarkable parallels to that of 7:10-17 (esp. vv. 3-4 with 7:14-17), involving: (1) conception and birth of a child [from “the prophetess” instead of “the maiden/virgin”], (2) a temporal indicator based on the early growth of the infant [i.e. within a year or two], and (3) a prophecy of judgment against Aram-Damascus involving the king of Assyria. A setting again of roughly 734 B.C. is implied.
  • Isa 8:5-10: A compact oracle with several different interlocking levels: (a) judgment against the Northern kingdom in its alliance with Aram-Damascus [v. 6], (b) warning against the leaders and people of Judah who would save themselves by submitting to Aram-Damascus [v. 6-8], (c) the destructive advance of the king of Assyria [v. 7-8], and (d) a message of hope and promise for Judah/Jerusalem [with a warning to the nations], set around the name la@ WnM*u! “God-with-us”:
    • “God-with-us” [end of v. 8]
      • O nations—”come together”, “gird yourselves” and “be shattered” [v. 9]
      • (Your) counsel will break apart, your word [i.e. plan] will not stand [v. 10]
    • For “God-with-us” [end of v. 10]
  • Isa 8:11-15: A message to Isaiah himself to trust YHWH and not to follow the fearful way of the people.
  • Isa 8:16-22: A symbolic scene, involving: (1) testimony and instruction from Isaiah which has bound/sealed for safekeeping, (2) his sons [presumably the two mentioned in 7:3; 8:1,3; but does this include “Immanuel”?], (3) a warning to trust in the message and signs given by God to Isaiah rather than various kinds of divination commonly practiced in the ancient world [vv. 18-22]. Some commentators would divide vv. 16-18 and 19-22 into separate scenes.
  • Isa 8:23-9:6: Best understood as a prosodic introduction (v. 23), followed by a poem (9:1-6), though it is also possible to treat 8:23b-9:6 as a single poetic oracle (applying 8:23a to the previous section). There are a myriad of textual and interpretative questions involving this passage: I will address, briefly, several of them before discussing vv. 5-6 in more detail.

Isaiah 8:23a[Wum* can be derived from [ou (“fly, flutter”) or [ou (“be dark”); the former would indicate a negative situation (“there will be no flying/fluttering” [that is, release/escape, or perhaps poetically as “daybreak”]), the latter a positive one (“there will be no darkness”). The referent for the feminine suffix Hl* is unclear: it could refer to any of the feminine nouns in verse 22 (Jr#a# [“land”], hk*v@j& [“darkness”], or parallel hr*x*/hq*ox [“distress, oppression”]), or it could look forward to the “land” of 8:23b/9:1. The preposition could have the sense of “for her” or “from/by her”.

Isaiah 8:23b—Does /ovar!h* (“the head” [i.e. the first, former]) modify the prior common/feminine noun tu@ (i.e. “as at the first/former time, [when] he…”), or does refer to an implied (masculine) subject (i.e. “as at the time [when] the first/former one…”); this affects the parallelism with /orj&a^h* (“the following” [i.e. the later]): is it a former/later time or former/later person? The verbs llq and dbk (in the Hiphil) mean “make light” and “make heavy” respectively; the former can either have the sense of “treat with contempt/dishonor” or “lighten, make easier”, the latter “treat with honor” or “make heavier [i.e. more difficult]”. Then, is the parallelism synonymous or antithetical? In the historical context, how do these verbs relate to the territories of Zebulon, Naphtali, the Transjordan and Galilee?

These questions are important for establishing the basic context for the poetic oracle that follows. Compare the very different renderings of two modern critical commentaries (by J. J. M Roberts [Hermeneia, 2015, p. 144] and Joseph Blenkinsopp [Anchor Bible, 2000, p. 245-6]:


…Surely it will be without daybreak to the one distressed by it.

As at the former time he treated with contempt
<The Sharon and the land of Gilead,>
The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali,
So at the latter time he has honored the way of the sea,
Trans-jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who were walking in darkness
Have seen a great light…


There is no gloom for her who is oppressed. At that time the earlier ruler treated with contempt the territory of Zebulon and Naphthali, and the later one oppressed the way of the sea, the land across the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people that walk in the dark
Have seen a great light…

There are fewer problems of interpretation in the poem proper, the stanzas of which can be outlined as follows:

  • V. 1: Light shines for those in darkness
  • V. 2: Joy will be increased, with two-fold motif: (a) harvest, (b) army dividing spoils
  • V. 3: Three connected symbols of oppression—yoke, cross-bar, and rod/whip—will be smashed
  • V. 4: The signs and remains of warfare and conquest (shoes, blood-caked garments) will be burned
  • V. 5: Announcement of the birth of a child (son), along with symbol(s) of government and (royal) titles
  • V. 6: A promise to establish/maintain the greatness and (eternal) rule of the Davidic kingdom

With regard to this poem, critical scholars have given various dates to it, ranging from Isaiah’s own time (c. 730-700 B.C.) down to the post-exilic period. An exilic or post-exilic date would make a Messianic orientation much more plausible, but I find little evidence in these verses for such a setting. The closer one comes to Isaiah’s own time, the much less likely a future (Messianic) interpretation would be as the primary sense of the passage. This is particularly true if we take seriously the overall context of Isa 6:1-9:6, which is set rather securely in the period c. 740-732 B.C. Assuming this context still applies to 8:23, the regions mentioned (Zebulon, Naphtali, Transjordan [Gilead], Galilee and the northern coastal plain [“way of the sea”]) represent areas which suffered under Assyrian attack 734-732 B.C., and were effectively annexed to become Assyrian provinces. The message of 9:1-6 is directed, in part, to the Northern kingdom (“the people who walk in darkness”)—there is no indication that Samaria has fallen completely yet. Of course, Assyria still threatened the Southern kingdom of Judah, and would launch a devastating attack some years later (this will become the central event of the remainder of the first half of the book [up to ch. 39]). Here God promises (expressed in the prophetic perfect: “he has increased joy”, “he has smashed”, etc.) to deliver Israel/Judah from her enemies, bringing a renewed period of peace and prosperity.

It is within this context that one must address the nature and identity of the child announced in vv. 5-6;  this I will do in a second study.

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”.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Isaiah 7:14 (Part 3)

Having discussed the translation of the Hebrew word hm*l=u^ in Isaiah 7:14 (see Part 2), it remains to explore the equally difficult interpretive question as to the identity of woman (and child) in the prophecy. To begin with, it is vital that one look for clues first in the immediate context of chap. 7 (and the section 6:1-9:6) before seeking them elsewhere. However, it worth noting the three main interpretive approaches (see also the note regarding the interpretation of prophecy in general):

  1. Futuristic—that is, in retrospect, the child refers to a figure (usually understood as Messianic) who would only appear many years after the time of Isaiah. This has been the traditional Christian view, but, as indicated in the previous studies, it more or less ignores the original context of the prophecy. Still, there are (or have been) a number of ways to retain it as a secondary or supplemental interpretation. The wider application of the “sign” to the ‘house of David’, makes some sort of Messianic interpretation at least possible on textual grounds.
  2. Historic—in that it relates to the present circumstances involving Ahaz and the kingdom of Judah. This is the view favored by most critical or otherwise serious scholars today, with two differing positions being commonly held:
    a) It is the wife (or bride) and child of Isaiah. The close parallel of 8:1-4 is a strong argument in favor of this view, as is the fact that the prophet gave symbolic names to two other children (7:3; 8:3) relevant to the circumstances and fate of Israel/Judah. However, these other children create a problem, as does the fact that hm*l=u^, it seems, would not normally be used of a married woman (though it might be of a young bride). The “prophetess” of 8:3 appears to be different woman from that of 7:14, which is another complication; though we really don’t know enough about Isaiah’s personal life to be sure of the details.
    b) It is the wife (or concubine, etc) and child of Ahaz. In the context of the passage, the prophecy is addressed to the king (as head of the ‘house of David’), so an application to Ahaz, rather than Isaiah himself, seems to make more sense. In Song 1:3; 6:8, hm*l=u^ seems to be a technical term for girls in the royal court (or harem), and this may also be the sense here. The promise of the name “God-with-us” is, perhaps, more appropriate for a royal figure; and the parallel of 9:5-6, if applicable, would also be an argument in favor of this view.
  3. Symbolic/collective—referring to the people or kingdom of Israel/Judah as a whole. The strongest argument here is the subsequent use of the name/phrase “God-with-us” (la@ WnM*u!) in Isa 8:8, 10; however, this is perhaps better viewed as an application of the symbolic name given in 7:14. Even if the child represents the king (‘head’), the woman could be symbolic of the people (recall the use of hm*l=u^ in Gen 24:43 for Rebekah, the mother of Israel/Jacob).

In terms of the original meaning of the prophecy, I would say that 2b is the best solution, though certainly not without its own difficulties. However, it seems to fit the context overall: a specific girl (hm*l=u^h*), belonging in some respect to the royal court (circumstances unknown to us), is (or is soon to become) pregnant and will give birth to a son; by the time the child has been weaned, and is old enough to choose between good and evil, Aram-Damascus and Ephraim (the Northern Kingdom) will suffer at the hands of the king of Assyria and no longer threaten Judah (a prediction which more or less came to pass by 732 B.C.). Whether such a son of Ahaz should be identified with the (positive) figure of Hezekiah is a separate question; though accepted by some scholars, I am by no means certain that such an identification is correct.

Is a virginal birth as such indicated? I do not see anything in the original Hebrew text, nor in the context of the passage, which necessarily implies a miraculous birth. However, three textual points need to be considered:

  1. Whether the use of hm*l=u^ here does indicate specifically a chaste young woman, as the LXX translation would suggest. Unless the word here is otherwise a technical term related to the royal court, such an implication is possible, even likely, but not certain (as discussed in the previous study).
  2. The force of the verbal adjective hr*h*: does this mean she is already pregnant, or that she will soon become so? Judging from similar instances (Gen 16:11; 38:24-25; Ex 21:22; Judg 13:5, 7; 1 Sam 4:19; 2 Sam 11:5; Isa 26:17; Jer 31:8), the present tense is perhaps more likely. The closest parallels to the prophetic formula of Isa 7:14 are Gen 16:11 and Judg 13:5—the present tense seems more appropriate in the former, the future tense in the latter.
  3. The significance of toa (“sign”): the word can occasionally refer to a wondrous portent or omen. As indicated previously, the LXX translator may have understood this as a miraculous event (use of parqe/no$ to indicate a virginal birth, so understood in Matt 1:18ff). However, the use of toa elsewhere in Isa 6:1-9:6 (7:11; 8:18) and in the book as a whole (19:20; 20:3; 37:30; 38:7, 22; 44:25; 55:13; 66:19) would speak against this (only in Isa 38:7 is does a special miracle seem to be indicated).

As a short answer to each question, I would state: (1) I do not think that virginity as such is emphasized in the use of hm*l=u^ [nor is it in any way contradicted]; (2) hr*h* probably indicates that the woman is currently pregnant; (3) the ‘sign’ (toa) is the child itself [rather than the nature of the birth], cf. 8:18—the sign carries two primary points of signification: (a) the name “God-with-us” [cf. esp. 8:8, 10], and (b) the temporal indicator based on the development of the infant [7:15ff].

What of this name “God-with-us” (la@ WnM*u! ±immanû-°¢l)? Some believers may feel that such a momentous name could only apply to a Messianic (or even Divine) figure, rather than an ‘ordinary’ human (king). However, theologically significant names were common in Hebrew, often using “God” (°El) or Yahweh (shortened or hypocoristic form “Yah[u]”). This is more or less obscured in English translations, where names are typically given an anglicized transliteration rather than translated. For example, Isaiah (Why`u=v^y+, Y§sha±y¹hu) ought to be rendered “Yah-will-save” or “May-Yah-save!”; similarly, Ahaz is probably a shortened form of Jehoahaz (zj*a*ohy+, Y§hô°¹µ¹z) and would mean something like “Yah-has-seized” or “Yah-has-grasped [hold]!”. So, a name such as “God-with-us” (la@ WnM*u!) could certainly be applied to a significant person or ruler (though at this time, Yah-names are much more common than El-names). Isaiah himself gave elaborate symbolic names for his two (other) sons: bWvy` ra*v= (Sh§°¹r-y¹shû», “[a] Remnant will return”, Isa 7:3), and zB^ vj* ll*v* rh@m^ (Mah¢r-sh¹l¹l-µ¹sh-baz, “Hurry [to] seize booty! hasten [to] take spoil!”, or something similar)—both names relating to the impending/future judgment on Israel.

In the historical context, the name “God-with-us” has a very specific meaning: Ahaz and the southern Kingdom faced an imminent attack by Aram-Damascus and the Northern Kingdom, along with the looming specter of an Assyrian invasion. From a practical political-diplomatic view, the young king had two options: submit to the Syria-Ephraim alliance, or seek aid from Assyria to fend of the attack (effectively becoming an Assyrian vassal or tributary). Judging from the account in 2 Kings 16:7ff (and the rather different parallel in 2 Chron 28:16ff), as well as the Assyrian annals (cf. ANET, 282-4), Ahaz appears to have chosen the latter. Isaiah’s counsel in chapter 7 was to trust in God, for God is with Jerusalem and his people in Judah, and within just a year or two the threat from Aram-Ephraim will be eliminated. The use of the name “God-with-us” in Isa 8:5-10 is even more dramatic and telling, for the warning (and promise) of ±Immanû °El (vv. 8, 10) extends to all the surrounding nations (even to the Assyrian Empire): “take counsel (for) counsel and it will break apart, give word (to) a word and it will not stand! For God (is) with us!”. In this final exclamation, we have moved clearly from the sign (the child) to what it signifies—that God Himself is with us. Little wonder that early Christians would have applied this name (and this passage) to the person of Jesus Christ: “and the Word [logo$] came-to-be flesh and set-up-tent [i.e. dwelt] among us…” (John 1:14a).

It is to this Christian interpretation that I shall turn in the next, and concluding, study on Isa 7:14.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Isaiah 7:14 (part 2)

In the first part of this study, I discussed briefly the original context of Isaiah 7:14. Now I must address the most notorious points of translation and interpretation in the verse: (1) translating hm*l=u^ (±almâ), and (2) identifying the woman and son of the prophecy.

To begin with the translation, I should first point out that dozens of studies on this verse (and the translation of it) have been made, in recent decades alone; I am breaking no new ground here. The feminine noun hm*l=u^ occurs 6 times in the Old Testament, apart from Isa 7:14:

Three references in the plural (all from poetry):

  • Psalm 68:26 (English v. 25)—describing a ritual procession in the Sanctuary, women (toml*u&) are among those playing instruments following the singers.
  • Song of Songs 1:3—the bride/beloved sings: “your name is oil [i.e. perfumed ointment] poured out, upon this [i.e. therefore] toml*u& love you”.
  • Song of Songs 6:8—the man/lover/bridgegroom sings of the beloved: “sixty queens they (are), and eighty <yv!g=l^yP!, and (of) toml*u& there is no counting, [v. 9] (but) one she (is), my dove…”. The second plural noun in the series is usually translated “concubines”, but the exact derivation is uncertain.

One reference in the single, without the article:

  • Proverbs 30:19—One of a list of three/four things ‘too wonderful to understand’ is the way of a rb#G# with an hm*l=u^. rb#G# here refers to a “strong” (in the sense of vibrant, virile) young man, and hm*l=u^ may have something of the same basic meaning (see below).

Two other references in the single, with the article (as in Isa 7:14):

  • Genesis 24:43—the servant of Abraham, looking for a bride for Isaac, prays to God for a sign, “…it shall be [i.e. let it be] the hm*l=u^ coming out to draw water, and I say to her…”
  • Exodus 2:8—the reference apparently is to Moses’ sister Miryam, who upon her request of Pharaoh’s daughter is told to “go” and fetch the child’s [that is Moses’] mother; the narrative simply states “and the hm*l=u^ went and called…”.

Several points can be determined from the data:

First, that the instances in the plural all appear to represent at least semi-technical terms (ritual musicians, women in the royal court or harem); the term[s] may correspond to “virgins”, but not necessarily specifically so (except perhaps in Song 6:8). Instances in the singular, on the other hand, appear to be used in the more general sense of a girl or young woman, especially in the case of Exodus 2:8.
Second, with the exception perhaps of Exodus 2:8 (and Ps 68:26?), the references have a clear sexual implication. At the very least, the idea of sexual maturity (and attractiveness) seems to be implied. Proverbs 30:19 may draw upon an original sense of “strength”—that is, the sexual strength or virility of a young woman, parallel to the word rb#G#. There is a corresponding male term <l#u# (±elem) for a ‘strong’ young man (1 Sam 17:56; 20:22, etc), and abstract noun <ym!Wlu& (±¦lûmîm) with the sense of “youthful strength/vigor” (Job 20:11; 33:25; Psalm 89:46; Isa 54:4).
Third, all references using the singular form can be understood in terms of female youths who have reached, or are just coming into, adolescence—that is, of physical/sexual maturity. In Genesis 24:43, and presumably Prov 30:19, an age suitable for marriage is indicated. Whether these conditions apply equally to the technical usage in Psalms and the Song of Songs is not as readily apparent.
Fourth, while a marriageable age may be implied, in no instance (singular or plural) is hm*l=u^ clearly and specifically used of a married woman.
In conclusion, I would say that hm*l=u^ (in the singular and/or general sense) most accurately refers to a young teenage girl, sexually mature, who, according to the cultural norms of the period, is at the age suitable for marriage.

From this, it should be clear that “virgin” in modern English is not a suitable term overall for translating hm*l=u^; the word hl*WtB= is the correct term for a virgin per se (as countless Jewish, Christian, and secular scholars have pointed  out). However “virgins” may, perhaps, fit the technical sense of the plural, at least in Song 1:3; 6:8, but even this is by no means certain. On the other hand “young woman” or “(young) girl”, while correct in the most generic sense, is more appropriate for translating hr*u&n~ (as Jerome [Against Jovinian 1:32] and others had already pointed out many centuries ago). “Maid(en)” is perhaps better as a compromise translation, but it is still not entirely accurate. The fact is, no term in English properly captures the meaning of hm*l=u^, which leaves the translator in something of a quandary.

Let us consider how the word was rendered in the Greek:

In the Septuagint (LXX) version, in 5 of the 7 instances hm*l=u^ is translated by nea=ni$ (pl. nea/nide$), which in turn would be translated “young girl/woman”, “female youth”, etc. Prov 30:19 uses the cognate word (fem. of neo/th$). parqe/no$ more commonly translates hl*WtB=, to indicate a (chaste) unmarried woman or “virgin” per se. Interestingly, parqe/no$ originally seems to have much the same basic sense as hm*l=u^, that is, for a young sexually mature girl of a marrying age. The LXX does translate hm*l=u^h* with h( parqe/no$ in Gen 24:43, presumably to indicate a chaste girl (a “virgin” as such).

Famously, the LXX also translates hm*l=u^h* with h( parqe/no$ in Isa 7:14. Subsequent Greek versions (Symmachus, Aquila, Theodotion), attempting to keep closer and more consistently to the Hebrew, use h( nea=ni$ instead. It is difficult to know the intention of the translator here, particularly since the LXX books were almost certainly translated by different people (in different places?) over a considerable number of years. It is possible that in Gen 24:43 the ‘original’ sense of parqe/no$ is meant (see above), and perhaps also in Isaiah 7:14. Since the Isa 7:14 prophecy speaks of a “sign” (shmei=on, for Hebrew toa), which can, occasionally refer to a wondrous event or omen, the translator may have a miracle in mind (certainly this is how Matt. 1:22-23 and the early Church understood it). Scholars have occasionally suggested that parqe/no$ is a gloss by later Christian scribes. More likely, I think, is that it is an “interpretive gloss” by the original (Jewish) translator, in order to clarify the chaste condition of the “young woman” in question. The same may be true in Gen 24:43—the purity of the mother of Israel, just as that of mother of the prophesied child, is being safeguarded, to avoid any possible misunderstanding. It would be as if to say “the young girl, who is chaste”. Indeed, if Matthew had used nea=ni$, early Christian scribes almost certainly would have modified it to parqe/no$ themselves, in order to avoid having readers misconstrue the meaning. In the any event, the Gospel writer (Matt 1:22-23) uses h( parqe/no$, as in the LXX, clearly indicating a miraculous (virginal) birth (cf. vv. 19, 25 and also the wording [and variants] in v. 16).

In conclusion, I would make two fundamental points:

  1. “Virgin” does not seem particularly appropriate to translate hm*l=u^ in Isaiah 7:14 (nor exactly does “young woman”)
  2. This fact, in and of itself, does not affect the traditional Christian understanding of the verse (in spite of frequent protestations to the contrary).

To demonstrate this more clearly, it is necessary to delve deeper into the identity of the woman and child in the prophecy, as well subsequent Messianic (including Christian) interpretations of the verse, which I will do in part 3.

English Translations which departed from the traditional rendering of “virgin” in Isa 7:14 have endured sharp criticism and protest at times from religiously and theologically conservative circles, including publicized incidents where copies of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) were burned. According to a certain level of religious logic, using another word or phrase (instead of “virgin”) to translate hm*l=u^ is tantamount to denying the virgin birth of Jesus. However, this need not (and certainly ought not) to be the case.