May 22: Luke 1:35; Matt 1:18, 20

In this series of daily notes on the Holy Spirit in the Gospel Tradition, it is now time to turn our attention to the Holy Spirit references in Luke-Acts. As we shall see, the Spirit is such an important theme, developed throughout the two-volume work, that it is important to study the Gospel and Acts in tandem. However, it is necessary first to begin with the Holy Spirit in relation to the key tradition of Jesus’ miraculous birth (properly, his conception).

The Conception/Birth of Jesus (Luke 1:35; Matt 1:18, 20)

It is generally agreed by commentators that the Infancy narratives in Matthew 1-2 & Luke 1-2 represent a later level of Gospel tradition than, for example, the Passion and Resurrection narratives or most of the sayings/parables of Jesus, etc. This does not mean that they are unhistorical, only that the traditions likely were collected, developed and given basic written/narrative form at a slightly later point in time. As a basic estimate, if the core Passion narrative took shape c. 30-40 A.D., then the Infancy narrative(s), by comparison, may have developed c. 50-60 A.D. This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that no reference is made to the birth of Jesus in early preaching recorded in the book of Acts (at the historical level, c. 30-50+ A.D.), and is scarcely mentioned in the letters of Paul, etc. The story of Jesus’ birth would seem to have played little or no role in the earliest Christian preaching and instruction. Despite this fact, it is clear that both Matthew and Luke draw upon a common set of basic traditions regarding Jesus’ birth, which must pre-date by a number of years the written Gospels (i.e. sometime before 70 A.D.). A central tenet and belief in this Gospel tradition is the role of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ birth. This is recorded in three verses—twice in Matthew’s narrative, and once in Luke (part of the famous Angelic annunciation to Mary):

Matthew 1:18—Following an introductory genealogy (vv. 1-17), the Infancy narrative proper begins in verse 18:

“The coming-to-be [i.e. birth] of Yeshua (the) Anointed was thus: His mother Maryam being called to mind (for marriage) [i.e. betrothed/engaged] to Yôseph, (but) before their coming together, she was found holding (child) in (the) womb out of [i.e. from] (the) holy Spirit.”

Matthew 1:20—Verse 19 briefly narrates Joseph’s character (di/kaio$, “just/right[eous]”) and his decision to loose Mary from the engagement quietly/secretly. In verse 20, a Messenger of the Lord (i.e. Angel) appears to Joseph in a dream and makes the following declaration:

“Yôseph, son of Dawid, you should not fear to take along Maryam (as) your woman [i.e. wife]: for the (child) coming to be (born) in her is out of [i.e. from] (the) holy Spirit.”

Both passages use the specific phrase “out of the holy Spirit” [e)k pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou]. For the idea of being born out of the Holy Spirit, see the important references in John 3:5-6, 8, where it is applied to believers. Here it refers to Jesus, and to his actual (physical/biological) birth. When we turn to the Lukan narrative, we find the reference to the Holy Spirit in a very similar context—as part of an Angelic announcement, but to Mary rather than Joseph.

Luke 1:35—This is part of the famous Annunciation passage (Lk 1:26-38), which we may outline as follows:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 26-27)—summarizing the setting for the heavenly Messenger Gabriel’s appearance to Mary
    • The Angel’s Greeting (v. 28)
      —Mary’s response: surprise and uncertainty (v. 29)
    • The Angel’s announcement (vv. 30-33), prefaced by the traditional assurance (“Do not fear…”)
      —Mary’s response: question (“How will this be so…?” v. 34)
    • The Angel’s response: the sign (vv. 35-37)
      —Mary’s response: acceptance (v. 38)
    • Narrative conclusion (v. 38b)

This follows the basic narrative pattern in the Old Testament for Angelic appearances (including birth announcements), as I have discussed in prior notes (and cf. R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL]: 1977, 1993,  pp. 155-60, 296-8). The core announcement of verses 30-33 may further be divided:

    • Assurance (v. 30)—”Do not fear, Maryam, for you have found favor alongside [i.e. before] God”
    • Birth announcement (v. 31)—”And, see! you will take/receive together in (the) womb and you will produce a son, and you will call his name ‘Yeshua'”
    • Fivefold promise/prophecy of the child’s future (vv. 32-33)—
      • “he will be great”
      • “he will be called ‘Son of the Highest'”
      • “the Lord God will give to him the (ruling) seat of his father Dawid”
      • “he will rule as king upon [i.e. over] the house of Ya’aqob into the Age”
      • “there will be no completion [i.e. end] of his kingdom”

There are unquestionable Messianic phrases and concepts in the prophecy of vv. 32-33. Mary’s response (question) relates to the apparent impossibility of her having a child: “How will it be so, seeing (that) I do not know a man?” (v. 34). Here the verb “know” preserves a Semitic idiom for sexual relations, and expresses the tradition of Mary’s virginity prior to bearing Jesus (also found in Matt 1:18 [above]). In verses 35-37 the Messenger gives a three-fold sign, explaining or confirming the truthfulness of the announcement:

    • Prophecy regarding the Divine source of Jesus’ conception (v. 35)
    • The miraculous conception by Elizabeth, who (being old/barren) similarly could not naturally bear a child (v. 36)
    • A declaration of the power of God to bring about anything he has uttered, i.e. through His Messenger (v. 37)

The reference to the Holy Spirit is in the prophecy of verse 35:

“The holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Highest will cast shade upon you—therefore the (child) coming to be (born) also will be called Holy, (the) Son of God”

The first part of the verse presents two synonymous phrases in (poetic) parallel:

  • The holy Spirit—will come upon [e)pi] you
    The power of the Highest—will cast shade upon [e)pi] you

Despite an orthodox tendency to relate these two phrases with different members of the Trinity (“power” being associated with the Son), there can be little doubt that “holy Spirit” and “power of the Highest” are more or less synonymous expressions here. In Old Testament and Israelite tradition, the Spirit was not so much a distinct person as a manifestation of the presence and (life-giving) power of God (YHWH). This is important in light of how the concept and theme of the Holy Spirit is developed throughout Luke-Acts. The Infancy narratives preserve much of the Old Testament/Jewish background from which the new Faith (Christianity) would come forth—indeed, Jesus is the fulfillment of all the important religious forms and patterns found in Old Testament tradition. The reference in Matt 1:18, 20 (“out of the holy Spirit”) simply indicates the divine source of Jesus’ conception, without saying anything about how this takes place. By contrast, in Luke’s account, the Angel provides vivid and colorful imagery—but how exactly should we understand these two verbs (e)pe/rxomai [“come upon”], e)piskia/zw [“cast shade upon”]) as they are used here?

e)pe/rxomai (“come upon”)—of the nine New Testament occurrences of this verb, seven are in Luke-Acts, most notably a parallel reference to the Holy Spirit coming upon believers in Acts 1:8. This prophecy by Jesus, similar and with a position in Acts comparable to the prophecy of Gabriel, will be discussed in an upcoming note. The verb can have the sense of something literally (physically) coming upon a person, but more commonly in the general sense of something happening (i.e. coming near) which will dramatically affect the person. It is used several times in the Old Testament in a sense similar to that of Acts 1:8 (cf. 1 Sam 11:7; Isa 32:15 LXX).

e)piskia/zw (“cast shade upon”)—this verb really only occurs 3 times in the New Testament (with two parallel references), including twice in Luke-Acts in a context that is especially relevant to its use here:

  • Luke 9:34 par—the cloud in the Transfiguration scene is said to “cast shade/shadow upon” the three disciples; this image, of course, alludes to the Old Testament theophany of YHWH at Sinai and in the Desert (cf. Exod 13:21ff; 19:9, 16). For the verb used of the divine Cloud in the LXX, cf. Exod 40:34f.
  • Acts 5:15—it is related that Peter’s shadow was thought (by the people) to bring healing to the sick when it “cast shade/shadow upon” them. It is not clear from the context of the narrative whether this genuinely took place, or reflects a popular belief associated with Peter.

These two occurrences inform its use in Lk 1:35; the basic meaning is two-fold, as a vivid expression for the manifestation to human beings of (a) the presence of God (i.e. the Cloud), and (b) the power of God. It is unwise to read anything further than this into the text. The result of this divine “overshadowing”, of course, is declared in the last portion of verse 35: “therefore the (child) coming to be (born) also will be called Holy, the Son of God”. It is probably best to read the adjective a%gio$ (“holy”) as a substantive in apposition to “Son of God”, both being predicate to the verb “will be called”; in other words, we have here two names or titles which (will) belong to Jesus:

The Birth of Jesus and the Odes of Solomon

There are some notable and important (extra-canonical) early Christian works which have come down to us from the period 90-150 A.D. (the so-called ‘Apostolic Fathers’); however, in my view, most of them pale in comparison beside the mysterious Odes of Solomon. This collection of 42 poems (or hymns) survives nearly complete in two Syriac manuscripts (N and H), with five of the Odes also preserved in Coptic, and one (Ode 11) as well in Greek. Early on, they came to be ascribed to Solomon and are usually grouped together with the Psalms of Solomon (a separate, unrelated Jewish text)—an example of the pseudepigraphy that often attends many works which are otherwise anonymous. There is a range of opinion regarding the date (mid-1st century to late 3rd century), original language (Greek or Aramaic/Syriac) and provenance (Jewish, Jewish-Christian, Syrian-Christian, Gnostic) of these poems. With regard to the date, there is now a general consensus that they were produced sometime between 100 and 125 A.D.; as for the original language, scholars and specialists are divided, with current opinion perhaps favoring Greek. The Odes can probably best be described as Jewish-Christian, having most likely been composed in Syria (perhaps in the region of Antioch).

Given the tremendous beauty and power of these poems, it is somewhat surprising that they are not cited or mentioned more often in Christian literature and in the manuscript tradition. There is no definite citation of them prior to Lactantius (c. 300 A.D.), and not much thereafter; and, as indicated above, they survive in just four manuscripts. However, they appear in at least two canonical lists (6th-9th century), paired with the Psalms of Solomon, under the category of “disputed” books (antilegomena); so it is likely that they were regarded as authoritative Scripture, for a time at least, in parts of the Church. Their association with “Gnostic”-sounding language and ideas is probably the main reason for their relative disappearance from Church history. So-called Gnostics almost certainly did value and use the Odes, but the label “Gnostic” is anachronistic—for the Odes have at least as much, if not more, in common with the Gospel of John and the letters of Ignatius. They also reflect Jewish thought from the 1st century B.C./A.D., such as we find in the Qumran texts (especially the Thanksgiving Hymns [Hodayot, 1QH] and the Manual of Discipline [1QS]), and in apocalyptic literature of the period. The “Gnosticism” of the Odes is still relatively close to the orthodox “Gnosis” of the Johannine writings and 2nd-century Church Fathers such as Ignatius and Clement of Alexandria.

Although the Odes do not cite the New Testament explicitly, quotations and allusions abound. With regard to the birth of Jesus, the clearest reference can be found in Ode 19. As these intense, almost mystical poems can be extremely difficult to translate in places, I here present three standard English versions:

Harris-Mingana (1916)

1 A cup of milk was offered to me;
And I drank it in the sweetness of the delight of the Lord.

2 The Son is the cup,
And He who was milked is the Father;
And He who milked Him is the Holy Spirit.

3 Because His breasts were full;
And it was not desirable that His milk should be spilt to no purpose.

4 And the Holy Spirit opened His bosom
And mingled the milk of the two breasts of the Father,

5 And gave the mixture to the world without their knowing:
And those who take (it) are in the fulness of the right hand.

6 The womb of the Virgin took (it)
And she received conception and brought forth:

7 And the Virgin became a mother with great mercy;

8a And she travailed and brought forth a Son without incurring pain:
8b For it did not happen without purpose;

9 And she had not required a midwife,
For He delivered her.

10 And she brought forth, as a man, by (God’s) will:
And she brought (Him) forth with demonstration
And acquired (Him) with great dignity;

11 And loved (Him) in redemption;
And guarded (Him) kindly;
And showed (Him) in majesty.


Charlesworth (1977)

1 A cup of milk was offered to me,
And I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.

2 The Son is the cup,
And the Father is He who was milked;
And the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him;

3 Because His breasts were full,
And it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released.

4 The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom,
And mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.

5 Then She gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing,
And those who have received it are in the perfection of the right hand.

6 The womb of the Virgin took it,
And she received conception and gave birth.

7 So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies.

8 And she labored and bore the Son but without pain,
Because it did not occur without purpose.

9 And she did not require a midwife,
Because He caused her to give life.

10 She brought forth like a strong man with desire,
And she bore according to the manifestation,
And she acquired according to the Great Power.

11 And she loved with redemption,
And guarded with kindness,
And declared with grandeur.


Lattke (2009)
translated from the German

1a A cup of milk was offered to me,
1b and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
2a The Son is the cup,
2b and he who was milked, the Father,
2c and [the one] whoa milked him, the Spirit of holiness.

3a Because his breasts were full
3b and it was not desirable that his milk should be poured out/discharged for no reason/uselessly,
4a the Spirit of holiness opened his [viz., the Father’s] bosom
4b and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.
5a And she/it gave the mixture to the world, while they did not know,
5b and those who receive [it] are in the pl¢rœma of the right [hand].

6a The womb of the Virgin caught [it],
6b and she conceived and gave birth.
7a And the Virgin became a mother in great compassion
7ba and she was in labor and bore a son.

7bb And she felt no pains/grief,
8 because it was not useless/for no reason.
9a And she did not require a midwife,
9b|10aa because he [viz., God] kept her alive | like a man.

10ab She brought forth by/in the will [of God]
10b and brought forth by/in [his] manifestation
10c and acquired by/in [his] great power
11a and loved by/in [his] salvation
11b and guarded by/in [his] kindness
11c and made known by/in [his] greatness.


This remarkable poem can be divided into two main parts:

  • Vv. 1-5: The Father “gives birth”, i.e. pours out the Son (by means of the Spirit)
  • Vv. 6-11: The Virgin mother receives (the Son) and gives birth

The first part contains the unusual, almost shocking, image of God the Father as a female being milked by the Holy Spirit (lit. Spirit of Holiness). His two breasts are full and the mixture of the milk (from the two breasts) is poured in to the ‘cup’ of the Son and given to the world. Verse 5 seems to echo something of the Johannine Prologue (John 1:1-18, cf. especially vv. 9-13).

It is possible that Odes 19:1-5 and 6-11 represent two separate poems that have been joined together; if so, this connection is clearly seen in v. 5b-6a:

5b: those [i.e. believers] who receive it [i.e. the milk/cup]
6a: the Virgin received/caught it [and conceived…]

One may also see here a conscious parallel being drawn:

  • God the Father brings forth the Son like a woman (vv. 1-5)
  • The Virgin mother brings forth the Son like a man (vv. 6-11)

This may seem strange, but it rather reflects the oft-repeated (theological) dictum that Jesus was begotten in eternity by the Father (without a mother), and was born on earth by a mother (without a father).  We can, I think, qualify the parallel:

  • In bringing forth the Son, God is both Father and Mother (the Spirit [fem.] only assists the milking), even to the point having ‘full breasts’
  • The Virgin experiences none of the normal pain and travail of childbirth, as this is all governed according to the will and power of God

There can be no doubt that the traditional Virgin Birth is assumed here, though applied in a spiritual-symbolic, rather than biological-historical, sense.

Verses 6-7 of this Ode were quoted by Lactantius (Institutes 4:12), though the Latin differs noticeably in the translation of the first two verbs in v. 6.

For other passages which either allude to the birth of Jesus, or use language drawn from the Lukan Infancy narrative, see Odes 28:1-2, 17; 29:11; 32:3; 41:10, 13ff

The Birth of Jesus in Romans 1:3-4 & Galatians 4:4-5

We are blessed with such wonderfully vivid and detailed accounts of the Nativity, it is rather surprising that, apart from these Infancy Narratives (Matt 1-2, Luke 1-2), there is scarcely any mention of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament at all. To judge from the book of Acts and the Letters (Epistles), the Virgin Birth was not an essential component of the earliest Christian preaching (kerygma) and teaching (didache). This should serve as note of caution for theologians and apologists today against exaggerating the importance of the doctrine. On the other hand, a number of scholars have questioned whether the apostle Paul, for example, even knew of (or accepted) the Virgin Birth as such: traditional-conservative commentators generally take for granted that he did, some critical scholars have their doubts; there is precious little evidence, looked at objectively, to decide the issue either way.

In the Pauline Letters, there really are only two passages which speak of the birth of Jesus—Romans 1:3-4 and Galatians 4:4-5.

Romans 1:3-4:

These verses—part of the opening greeting in vv. 1-7 (a single Greek sentence)—are regarded by many critical scholars as an early credal fragment which Paul has incorporated. The basis for such a view is two-fold: (a) the formulaic structure of the verses, and (b) a number of words and ideas which do not occur elsewhere in Paul’s letters (at least the ‘undisputed’ letters), such as Jesus as the ‘son of David’ (but cf. 2 Tim 2:8). There is a very precise parallelism to these verses, which makes for a powerful christological statement. To establish the context, I would outline verses 1-7 as follows (joining elements I have highlighted in bold):

  • V. 1: Paul, a servant [lit. “slave”, dou=lo$] of Christ Jesus—(a) called (to be) an apostle; (b) set apart unto the Gospel [lit. “good message”] of God
    • V. 2: which He announced [lit. “gave as message”] before(hand) through His foretellers [i.e. Prophets] in (the) holy Writings
    • V. 3-4: about His Son …{see below for these verses in detail}… Jesus Christ our Lord
      • V. 5: through whom we have received grace and ‘apostleship’ unto (the) hearing of trust [i.e. ‘obedience of faith’] in/among all the the nations, under His name
        • V. 6: among whom even you [pl.] are called of Jesus Christ
          • V. 7: to all (the ones) who are in Rome, (be)loved of God, called holy (ones)…

Note the structure of verses 3-4:

peri\ tou= ui(ou= aut)tou=
…(about) His Son

tou= genome/nou
the (one) coming to be
{aorist mid. participle}
tou= o(risqe/nto$
the (one) set by boundary [i.e. appointed] (to be)
{aorist pass. participle}
e)k spe/rmato$ Daui\d
out of [i.e. from] (the) seed of David
ui(ou= qeou= e)n duna/mei
(the) son of God in power
kata\ sa/rka
according to (the) flesh
kata\ pneu=ma a(giwsu/nh$
according to (the) Spirit of holiness
e)c a)nasta/sew$ nekrw=n
out of (the) standing up [i.e. resurrection] of (the) dead [pl.]

  )Ihsou= Xristou= tou= kuri/ou h(mw=n
Yeshua Anointed {Jesus Christ} our Lord

“His Son” and “Jesus Christ our Lord” form an inclusio, within which we find credal statements summarizing the “two natures” of Christ—his humanity (“seed from David”) and his deity (“son of God…”). The italicized portions above on the right are thought by some scholars to be Pauline additions to the (earlier) line; in any event, the phrases do expand and qualify the formula (on the “Son of God” side). A close study reveals a number of interpretive difficulties (such as the meaning and force of the participle o(risqe/nto$), complicated by the possibility of two layers of meaning at work—that of Paul and that of a (possible) earlier credal formula. Unfortunately a detailed exposition will have to wait for a later article (cf. the standard critical Commentaries).

Galatians 4:4-5:

These verses occur about halfway through the main portion of the letter (3:1-4:31), which is effectively a long exposition of the principal theme (stated powerfully in 2:15-21): that in Christ believers are freed from the burden (and curse) of the Law (the Mosaic covenant and legal code). More specifically, Gal 4:1-7 expounds the argument in 3:26-29, which can be summarized as follows: in Christ we are children (and heirs) of God according to the promise made to Abraham (that is, by faith); we are no longer in slavery (to the Law), but are free. Paul will develop this theme further in a subsequent argument (the allegory in 4:21-31)—Hagar/Sarah, slave-woman/free-woman, earthly-Jerusalem/Jerusalem-above, Sinai-covenant/new-covenant, slave-children/free-children. In 4:1ff, the argument is adapted by the illustration of the heir who is not yet of age: while still a child he is under the tutelage of servants and guardians (the Law), which means he is still under a kind of ‘slavery’ (even though the true heir). Paul is aware that this illustration would seem to apply only to Israelites (Jews), and so extends the analogy with the truly provocative idea that the Law is comparable to the “elements (stoixei=a) of the world” which hold both Jew and Gentile in (equal) bondage (v. 3). However, this period of ‘bondage’ lasts only until the appointed time (v. 2) the Father has set: once the heir comes of age, he is truly free and inherits everything which belongs to the Father.

This is the context of Gal 4:4-5, verses which, like Romans 1:3-4 (see above), are sometimes thought to reflect an earlier credal statement. There is certainly a strong symmetry and parallelism, with structure and wording which might lend itself well to preaching and basic instruction (catechism):

o%te de\ h@lqen to\ plh/rwma tou= xro/nou
e)cape/steilen o( qeo\$ to\n ui(o\n au)tou=
but when the fullness of time came,
God set off from (him) his Son

geno/menon e)k gunaiko/$
geno/menon u(po\ no/mon
coming to be out of a woman
coming to be under (the) Law

i%na tou\$ u(po\ no/mon e)cagora/sh|
i%na th\n u(ioqesi/an a)pola/bwmen
that he might buy out [i.e. ransom] the (ones) under (the) Law
that we might receive from (Him) the position of son

Verses 6-7 function in a similar manner, and serve to summarize the entire argument. Here I outline verse 6 chiastically:

But because you are sons (o%ti de/ e)ste ui(oi/)

God has set out from (him) the Spirit of his Son
e)cape/steilen o( qeo\$ to\ pneu=ma tou= ui(ou= au)tou=
into our hearts crying (out):
ei)$ ta\$ kardi/a$ h(mw=n

“Abba, Father!” (abba o( path/r)

I treat verse 7 as a parallel chiasm:

Therefore no longer are you a slave (w(ste ou)ke/ti ei@ dou=lo$)

but a son (a)lla\ ui(o/$)
and if a son (ei) de\ ui(o/$)

(Then) even an heir [lit. lot-holder] through God (kai\ klhrono/mo$ dia\ qeou=)

Relation of both passages to Jesus’ birth:

In each passage, one particular phrase can be isolated:

  • “[His Son] the (one) coming to be out of the seed of David” (tou= genome/nou e)k spe/rmato$ Daui\d), which is qualified by kata\ sa/rka (“according to [the] flesh”)—Rom 1:3
  • “[His Son], coming to be out of a woman” (geno/menon e)k gunaiko/$)—Gal 4:4

In both instances the key verb is an (aorist middle) participle of the verb ginomai. There are two closely related verbs—gennaw and ginomai—both of which have the basic meaning “come to be, become”, and both of which can have the sense of “coming to be born“, though the former (gennaw) tends to carry this meaning more specifically than the latter. Some scholars have thought that the use of ginomai here may suggest knowledge of the virginal birth (or conception) of Jesus—that is, a normal human birth would more likely be indicated by gennaw. However, there are number of instances where a ‘normal’ birth/begetting is expressed by ginomai—cf. John 8:58; Wisdom 7:3; Sirach 44:9; Tobit 8:6, etc. Moreover, it seems clear enough that the context of verse 4, with the parallel participles of ginomai, refers to the human condition in general, rather than to a special form of birth:

geno/menon (“come to be”)

e)k gunaiko/$ (“out of a woman”) u(po\ no/mon (“under the Law”)

For the phrase “come to be (born) out of a woman” as a locution for human nature or the human condition, see also Matthew 11:11 (gennaw rather than ginomai).

Interestingly, in the second-century both Rom 1:3-4 and Gal 4:4-5 were cited by theologians and apologists for this very purpose—namely, to confirm that Jesus was truly born as flesh and blood (i.e., that he was fully human). This was done to combat the “gnostic” or otherwise heterodox (docetic) view that Jesus was only partially, or only seemed to be human—cf. Irenaeus (Against Heresies III.22.1, V.21.1) and Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ §20, 22). One also finds variants in both passages, where gennw/menon is read for geno/menon, further emphasizing the reality of the birth.

The Birth of Jesus in the Johannine Writings

The third Day of Christmas (Dec 27) coincides with the holy day (feast) of St. John the Evangelist—this is John the Apostle who is traditionally regarded as author of the Gospel that came to bear his name. The Gospel of John does not contain an Infancy narrative (as in Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2), but begins with the ministry of John the Baptist (as in Mark 1:2ff), to which is joined the marvelous Prologue (John 1:1-18). By an interesting circumstance, however, a number of scribes and theologians in the 2nd century came to understand John 1:13 as a reference to the (virgin) birth of Jesus. Here is the (accepted) Greek text of vv. 12-13, with a literal translation:

o%soi de\ e&labon au)to/n e&dwken au)toi=$ e)cousi/an te/kna qeou= gene/sqai toi=$ pisteu/ousin ei)$ to\ o&noma au)tou= oi^ ou)k e)c ai(ma/twn ou)de\ e)k qelh/mato$ sarko\$ ou)de\ e)k qelh/mato$ a)ndro\$ a)ll’ e)k qeou= e)gennh/qhsan
12but as many (as) received him, to them he gave exousia to become tekna of God—(to) the (ones) trusting into his name, 13the (ones) who, not out of blood [pl.] and not out of the will of flesh, and not out of the will of man, but out of God have come to be (born)

e)cousi/a (exousia) is difficult to render into English literally; it carries the basic meaning of ability to do something, either in the sense of power or permission; often it is translated “authority” or “power”. te/knon (teknon) is also a bit difficult to translate—literally it indicates something brought forth [i.e. often something “born”]; typically the plural (te/kna) is rendered “children”.

This is the reading of all surviving Greek MSS (and virtually all other witnesses). However, at least one Old Latin MS (b), and a few Church Fathers, read the singular relative pronoun and verb in verse 13. To see the difference, look at the two versions side by side (in more conventional translation):

but as many as received him, to them he gave authority to become children of God—to those trusting in his name, they [i.e. believers] who were born not by blood nor by the will of flesh nor by the will of man, but by God but as many as received him, to them he gave authority to become children of God—to those trusting in his name, he [i.e. Christ] who was born not by blood nor by the will of flesh nor by the will of man, but by God

The majority reading connects the relative pronoun back to “as many as…/children of God”; the variant reading, on the other hand, connects it to “his name”, making it refer very much to the birth of Jesus. For more on this variant reading, see the article on Jn 1:13 in the series “The Birth of the Son of God”.

It is interesting to consider the use of the closely related verbs gi/nomai and genna/w in the Gospel of John; both carry the general sense of “become, come to be”, but the latter especially means “come to be born” (passive) or “cause to be born [i.e. beget, bear]” (active). Noteworthy instances of genna/w are:

  • John 3:3-8 (8 times), part of the discourse with Nicodemus; note especially the phrases “born from above” (vv. 3, 7) and “born out of the Spirit” (vv. 5-6, 8)
  • John 8:41: the Jews disputing with Jesus claim to be “children” (te/kna) of Abraham (v. 39) and in answer to Jesus’ rebuke in vv. 39b-41a further state that they were not born “out of fornication” (e)k pornei/a$). Their coming-to-be born (genna/w) is contrasted with Jesus coming (e)rxomai) “out of God” (e)k tou= qeou=, v. 42).
  • John 16:21: Jesus likens the anguish of a man coming-to-be-born to the temporary sorrow of the disciples (in a little while they will see him again) (v. 22)
  • John 18:37: in answer to Pilate, Jesus declares his purpose: “unto this I came to be born {gennaw} and unto this I came {e)rxomai} into the world: that I should witness to the truth; every (one) that is out of [i.e. from] the truth (e)k th=$ a)lhqei/a$) hears my voice”

The verb gi/nomai is used a number of times in relation to the incarnation of Christ. Consider the usage in the Prologue (1:1-18):

  • It occurs 3 times in verse 3 (once again in v. 10), referring to creation (things made), and once in verse 6 (John the Baptist); contrast this with the use of ei)mi in vv. 1-10.
  • In verse 12: those who believe come-to-be {ginomai} children of God, parallel to coming-to-be-born {gennaw} out of God in v. 13 (see the discussion above)
  • Verse 14: “and the Word [lo/go$] came to be [i.e. became] flesh and set up tent [i.e. dwelt] in/among us…”—a central and dramatic reference to the Incarnation (to use the later Christological term)
  • Verse 15: John the Baptist’s testimony: “the (one) coming {e)rxomai} in back of [i.e. after] me came to be {ginomai} in front of me, because he is/was {ei)mi} first (for) [i.e. before] me”—this is a difficult statement; note carefully the three verbs used (a kind of step-parallelism)
  • Verse 17: the Law given {di/dwmi} through Moses is contrasted with “grace/favor and truth” which came-to-be {ginomai} through Jesus Christ

The First Johannine Epistle (1 John) is also traditionally ascribed to John the Apostle, and certainly is written in a language and style very similar to that of the Gospel. In particular the verb gennaw appears ten times, as follows:

  • 7 times in the phrase “born out of God [e)k tou= qeou=]” (1 Jn 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18), just as in John 1:13, as a locution for true believers in God (and Christ), though the second instance in 1 Jn 5:18 is not entirely clear (see below).
  • 2 more times in the phrase “born out of [i.e. from] Him [e)c au)tou=]” (1 John 2:29; 5:1) with the same meaning.
  • One other instance (also in 1 Jn 5:1) uses the active form to speak of God as the one who “caused to be born [i.e. begat]”, again in the same context.

The second occurrence of the phrase “born out of God” in 1 Jn 5:18 is a source of some textual and interpretive difficulty. The verse can be read two ways:

We know that every (one) that has come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but the (one) come to be (born) out of God [i.e. Christ] watches him [i.e. the believer] and the evil does not touch him We know that every (one) that has come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but the (one) come to be (born) out of God [i.e. the believer] watches him(self) and the evil does not touch him

A later scribal emendation reads, for the last half of the verse, “the coming-to-be-born [o( ge/nnhsi$, i.e. the {new} birth] watches him…”. But assuming that the form gennhqei/$ is correct, the textual issue hinges upon the pronoun—whether it is personal (au)ton) or reflexive (e(auton). The reflexive is the majority reading, but there is strong manuscript support as well (A* B 330 614 r vg syrh boh al) for the personal, and this is preferred by most commentators and textual critics today.

What the Angelic Chorus Said…and other Notes on the Christmas Story

The Christmas Story (that is, the so-called Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke) is perhaps the most widely read and beloved portion of the entire Bible. Every year in the Christmas season, believers and non-believers alike hear and read those words, sing them in popular carols, present them visually in all manner of decoration, and so forth. In this article I will be discussing some notable textual variants, along with a few interesting critical and interpretive issues, from the Infancy Narratives (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2) and several additional passages related to the Birth of Jesus.

It is generally thought that the Infancy Narratives are among the latest portions of the Gospel tradition to develop, after the Passion and Resurrection Narratives, collections of Sayings of Jesus, accounts of the Miracles, etc. Only two of the canonical Gospels contain such narratives, and, somewhat surprisingly, the Birth of Jesus is hardly mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. However, that it quickly gained importance in the Early Church is clear from: (1) the Extra-canonical gospels from the second-century (and later), (2) its place in apologetic and polemical writings of the second and early third centuries (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen), and (3) variant readings in the New Testament MSS, most of which must have occurred in this same period (by the early third century).

As a matter of fact, the original text of the Matthean and Lukan Infancy Narratives is reasonably well-established, with fewer substantive textual variants than in many other portions of the Gospels. However, in at least two areas scribes were prone to introduce variant readings:

1. The high density of Old Testament citations and allusions in these passages resulted in a range of variants. Besides the explicit quotations in Matthew, the annunciation and birth narratives clearly draw upon Old Testament forms and imagery to tell the story. Luke uses what has been called a highly “Semitized” Greek, especially in the canticles, patterned after Old Testament, and perhaps later Jewish(-Christian) poetry. Occasionally Greek-speaking scribes had difficulty understanding the language, and modified the text in the process. Of course, there was always a tendency to make OT quotations conform to the standard Greek version (LXX) as well.

2. An interest to clarify and safeguard the reality of Jesus’ birth and the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. These modifications—intentional, or at least purposeful—occur in several different contexts, and will be discussed below. Not surprisingly, in virtually every instance in the New Testament where Joseph is referred to as Jesus’ “father” (or Mary and Joseph as his “parents”), the text was altered by at least one scribe, in order to avoid any misunderstanding as to the nature of Jesus’ birth.

I will begin with the Matthean Narrative, then the Lukan, and will close with a few supplemental passages.

Matthean Infancy Narrative (Matt. 1-2 [includes the Genealogy, 1:1-17])

Matthew 1:16

For the majority of witnesses, this verse reads:  )Iakwb de e)ge/nnhsen ton  )Iwshf ton a&ndra Mari/a$, e)c h!$ e)gennh/qh  )Ihsou=$ o( lego/meno$ xristo/$ (“…and Jacob caused to be [born] Joseph the man/husband of Mary, out of whom came to be [born] Jesus, the [one] said/counted to be [the] Anointed”), and it is almost certainly original. Matthew’s alteration from the regular formula used in the genealogy seems specifically intended to avoid misunderstanding Joseph’s role in Jesus’ birth. However, a number of witnesses (Q f13 788 1346 l547, and some Old Latin MSS, etc) read:  )Iakwb de e)ge/nnhsen ton  )Iwshf w! mnhsteuqei=sa parqe/no$ Mari/a e)ge/nnhsen  )Ihsou=$ ton lego/menon Xristo/n (“…and Jacob caused to be [born] Joseph, to whom being betrothed Mary caused to be [born] Jesus the [one] said/counted to be [the] Anointed”). Here Mary is specifically called a virgin (parqe/no$) and her relationship to Joseph is stated more precisely (as “betrothed”).

A more peculiar reading is found in the Old Syriac (Sinaitic) MS, which reads, in conventional translation: “…and Jacob begot Joseph; Joseph, to whom was betrothed Mary the virgin, begot Jesus who is called the Anointed”, seemingly implying that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus. Some slight additional Syriac and Arabic support has been attested for this reading, but, most likely it is a singular reading. Nevertheless, a few critical scholars have suggested that this represents the original text, which scandalized scribes subsequently altered—a scenario which is highly unlikely. More plausibly, the Sinai MS scribe was either careless, or sought to bring the text into conformity with Matthew’s overall genealogical formula. From the ancient Near Eastern (Semitic) perspective, in the context of a genealogy, the term “beget / cause to be [born]” could be understood to apply symbolically to legal (rather than biological) paternity. Cf. the ancient custom of “levirate” marriage, which is likewise a popular solution advanced for the discrepancies in the Matthean (1:1-17) and Lukan (3:23-38) genealogies. For a good, detailed discussion of this variant, see the Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek NT (2d edition, pp. 2-6).

It worth mentioning one further sub-variant in this verse: a few witnesses (64 [d] k, the Curetonian Syriac, and the Dialogue of Timothy and Aquila) omit the participle (and article) o( lego/meno$. The Greek can be variously translated “the (one) counted/said/considered to be…” or, following the Semitic idiom “the (one) called…” Possibly these words fell out by accident; but, if omitted intentionally, it could be a product of the Christological climate in the 2nd-3rd centuries—scribes may have sought to avoid misunderstanding, by emphasizing that Mary truly bore the incarnate Son of God (Christ) rather than a man who was merely “called” Christ. For more on the idiom “to call / be called…” see on Luke 1:32, 35 below.

Matthew 1:18

There are two significant variants in this verse:

(1) The majority of manuscripts and witnesses read tou= de  )Ihsou= Xristou=, but a few Greek MSS and Church Fathers read tou= de Xristou=  )Ihsou= (B Origen Jerome) or tou= de  )Ihsou= (W), while tou= de Xristou= is read by a number of Church Fathers, Old Latin and Syriac MSS. The fact that Ihsou appears in different positions is an indication that it might be secondary, while the compound name Ihsou Xristou with the article is peculiar; therefore is possible that Xristou alone was present originally. Whichever way the alteration occurred, it is conceivable that there were doctrinal reasons involved. The compound name occasionally was emphasized against “Gnostics” who ‘separated’ the divine Christ from the man Jesus (there is a similar variant at Matt. 2:1 in a few MSS). On the other hand, the title “Christ/Anointed” (Xristo$) early on became a kind of shorthand for referring to the incarnate Son of God; so a change from the compound name to Xristo$ alone could help emphasize the idea that the Son of God was truly born in human flesh (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.16.2). In any case, there is much interchange and confusion between all these divine Names and titles of Christ in the manuscripts, which was only increased by the use of abbreviations (the so-called nomina sacra) to represent them.

(2) Many of the early and best manuscripts (Ë1 a B C P W D Q f1 syrh, pal copbo arm etc.)  read ge/nesi$, while the majority of witnesses read ge/nnhsi$. Now both Greek words—nearly identical in sound and spelling—ultimately derive from gi–g—nomai (prim. meaning “come to be, become”), with ge/nnhsi$ from the causative verb gennaw (lit. “cause to be”, primarily in the sense of “generate, engender, give birth”: to “beget” when a man is the subject, to “bear” when a woman). Both words could indicate a coming-to-be (i.e., a “birth”), but the latter word (ge/nnhsi$) more commonly was used for a biological birth. Ge/nesi$ can more broadly refer to something made, created, produced, or generally as the “beginning” of something. For this reason, apart from the solid textual evidence, it is more likely that ge/nesi$ was changed to ge/nnhsi$ than the other way around; and, while the change may have been accidental, or conventional, it is widespread enough to suggest a possible doctrinal motive or purpose. Two possibilities: (a) ge/nesi$ could be interpreted as a “beginning” for Christ (that he was created, or made), susceptible to an Arian point of view; (b) ge/nnhsi$, as the more common term for a human birth, would also make clear that the Christ was truly born.

Matthew 1:19, 20, 24, 25

In a few instances in the versional witnesses (Old Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Diatessaron), references to Mary as Joseph’s “wife” (1:20, 24) or Joseph as her “husband” (1:19) are altered, again to avoid any misunderstanding about the Virgin birth, but also most likely to safeguard the tradition of the perpetual virginity of Mary. This belief was already well-established by the mid-second century (cf. the Protevangelium of James), as also seem clear from changes made to v. 25 in both the Old Latin and Old Syriac tradition—the Greek clause kai ou)k e)gi/nwsken au)thn e%w$… (“and he did not know her [i.e., have sexual relations with her] until…”) is omitted, probably to avoid the suggestion that Mary and Joseph did have sexual relations (and children) after the birth of Jesus. The Diatessaron reads “he lived with her purely [i.e., chastely] until…”. Virginity, celibacy, and encratite purity (celibacy in marriage) were especially emphasized in the Syrian Church.

 Matthew 1:23

The citation from Isaiah 7:14 is interesting because, like many quotations from the Old Testament, it does not correspond precisely to any known Greek version (or Hebrew text). Here Matthew is set parallel to the LXX (according to B [Vaticanus] and the Lucianic recension):

i)dou h( parqe/no$ e)n gastri e%cei kai te/cetai ui(o/n, kai kale/sousin to o&noma au)tou=  )Emmanouh/l i)dou h( parqe/no$ e)n gastri lh/–m—yetai kai te/cetai ui(o/n, kai kale/sei$ to o&noma au)tou= Emmanouhl

The differences (highlighted) are minor: Matthew has e)n gastri e%cei (“shall have in [the] womb”), the LXX e)n gastri lh/–m—yetai (“shall receive in [the] womb”). It should be noted that other LXX MSS (a A) also read e%cei, but these may be harmonizations (by Christian scribes) to Matthew.  Also Mt. reads “they will call his name…” instead of “you [sing.] will call his name…”, though a few manuscripts have harmonized the text to the LXX. Again, the Hebrew (MT) is not quite the same, among other differences, it reads “she will call his name…” (though this is not absolutely certain for the consonantal text, it is most likely). How are these differences to be explained? Generally there are four possibilities in such instances: (1) the NT author is working from a different Greek version, (2) the author is working (translating) from a different Hebrew text, (3) it is a free/faulty quotation (from memory?), or (4) the quotation has been adapted to the context in which he is writing. In nearly all instances, I believe this last is the best explanation, and is so here with the quotation from Isa 7:14. e)n gastri e%cei is the more common Greek (and LXX) idiom for conception, and was already used by Matthew in 1:18. For the second difference, the LXX is probably a (mis-)translation of the Hebrew, but there are also variants among the Dead Sea Scrolls including 1QIsa, which could be translated “he will call his name…” or “his name will be called…”, in which case it generally corresponds in meaning to Matthew’s Greek. More to the point, since the angelic announcement is to Joseph, who has just been told “…you will call his name Jesus” (1:20), it perhaps would have been confusing in context to hear “…you will call his name Immanuel”, as though it were being addressed to Joseph; the more generic form “…they will call…” fits better.  For a good discussion on all this, see R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, pp. 143-153.

Matthew 2:18

Quite a few MSS and witnesses have, it would seem, harmonized Matthew’s klauqmo$ kai o)durmo$ to the LXX (qrh=no$ kai klauqmo$ kai o)durmo$) in the quotation from Jer. 31:15 [38:15 LXX].  This sort of harmonization occurs quite often throughout the NT. It is sometimes difficult to determine which direction the change occurs, though more often than not, the reading that corresponds more closely with the LXX is secondary.

Matthew 2:23

Matthew’s quotation here is not from a single Old Testament passage, but appears to be a combination of at least two verses:
1) Isaiah 4:3: “He will be called holy” (LXX: “They will be called holy”)
2) Judges 16:17 (of Samson): “I have been a Nazîr (Nazirite) of God”—but note especially the LXX variants:
LXX B: “I am a holy one of God”  LXX A: “I am a Nazirite (Nazirai=o$) of God”

The exact reference and meaning of Nazwrai=o$ here is still debated. The principal context clearly indicates that it refers to Nazareth (i.e., a “Nazarene”). There are two forms used in the NT: Nazwrai=o$ and Nazarh=no$. But it is also very possible that Matthew draws on the allusion to a N¹zîr (Nazirite)—not that Jesus was a Nazirite in the technical sense, but the idea of dedication to God, with the parallel to being “called holy” would make such an association appropriate. Also possible, but less likely, is that there is an echo of the term n¢ƒer (“branch”), which had become an important Messianic term (cf. the key passage Isaiah 11:1 ff). Several centuries later, Jerome (Epistle 57 to Pammachius) cites this verse in relation to Jesus (“…from his root will grow [the] Nazorean”). For a good overall discussion see Brown, Birth of the Messiah, pp. 209-213, 223-225.

Lukan Infancy Narrative (Luke 1:5-2:52)

Luke 1:15, 17, 76

Here in the angelic announcement to Zechariah (1:15, 17) and in the canticle of Zechariah (the Benedictus) (1:76), it is prophesied of John that he will be e)nw/pion (“before”, lit., “in the sight of”, “in the face of”) the Lord (ku/rio$). The textual witnesses show some confusion here, and, in part, this is an interpretive question which remains for commentators today: who is the kurio$ (“Lord”) mentioned here—God the Father (Yahweh), Jesus Christ, or both? In the Old Testament passages alluded to (esp. Mal. 3:1, 23), it is clearly Yahweh whom the Messenger/Elijah “goes before”. However, in the Gospels, with the familiar role of John preceding and baptizing Jesus, Luke probably understood the “Lord” here as Jesus. Here are the three passages:

1:15: e&stai gar me/ga$ e)nw/pion [tou=] kuri/ou (“for he will be great before/in-the-sight-of [the] Lord”). This is the majority reading, and is most likely original. But a number of MSS (Q Y f13 157 700, etc.) read …e)nw/pion tou= qeou= (“…before/in-the-sight-of God”)

1:17: kai au)to$ pro[s]eleu/setai e)nw/pion au)tou= (“and he will go before him”, lit., “and he will go before in his face/sight”). In addition to a variant in the verb (proeleu/setai, “go before” is more likely original), at least one MS (D) specifies e)nw/pion kuri/ou (“before/in-the-sight-of [the] Lord”).

1:76: Kai su de/, paidi/on, profh/th$ u(yi/stou klhqh/sh|: proporeu/sh| gar e)nw/pion kuri/ou e(toima/sai o(dou$ au)tou= (“And you, child, shall be called prophet of the Highest; for you shall go before in-the-sight-of the Lord to prepare his ways”). Again, in addition to a small variant (pro prosw/pou vs. e)nw/pion), at least one MS (Palestinian Syriac) reads “before your God” instead of “before the Lord”).

There are two possibilities for the change from kuri/ou to qeou= (assuming it is an intentional/purposeful change): (1) to make clear the OT context that the “Lord” is Yahweh (God); (2) to identify the “Lord” (Christ) with Yahweh (God). Only in v. 15 is there anything like solid textual support for the reading qeou=, and, given the commonplace confusion and interchange regarding these divine names/titles, the variants here may simply be accidental.

Luke 1:32, 35

In the angelic announcement (Annunciation) to Mary, at 1:35 the most reliable text reads dio kai to gennw/menon a%gion klhqh/setai ui(o$ qeou= (“and therefore the [child] coming to be [born] shall be called holy, [the] son of God”; or, alternatively, “and therefore the [child] coming to be [born] shall be holy, he will be called [the] son of God”). However, a number of MSS (C* Q f1 33 pc ita, c, e, r1 vgcl syrp, and various Church Fathers) have the variant to gennw/menon e)k sou (“the [child] coming to be [born] out of you”). While this variant may simply be a natural accretion to the text, a doctrinal motive for adding it is at least possible. Second-century apologists such as Irenaeus and Tertullian fought hard to define the reality of Christ’s birth against various Gnostic-Docetic beliefs; in numerous places in their writings they emphasize that Jesus Christ was born “from/out-of” (e)k) Mary’s flesh, and did not merely “pass through” (dia/) her (cf. especially Irenaeus Against Heresies I.7.2; V.1.2; also Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ 20).

Note should also be made here of titles used of Jesus in the Annunciation, at v. 32 and 35: me/ga$,  ui(o$ u(yi/stou and ui(o$ qeou=, since they have appeared together in a fascinating text from Qumran—the so-called “Son of God” text (4Q246). Surviving only in a few fragments, it is an apocalyptic work, influenced by the book of Daniel or perhaps part of a wider (Pseudo-)Daniel tradition. Of a coming king or princely figure it is declared (in Column 1, line 7) “[…he shall be] great upon the earth”; (Column 1, line 9) “…he shall be called [the holy one] of the [G]reat [God/King], and by His name he shall be named”; then (in Column 2, line 1) “He shall be hailed Son of God, and they shall call him Son of the Most High” (modified translation from J. A. Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins, 2000, p. 45). Though it is sometimes questioned whether this is a “Messianic” figure (or a non-Messianic Jewish ruler, even a wicked anti-Messiah), the general context seems clear enough, for this person appears to parallel the rise “of the people of God… His kingdom (shall be) an everlasting kingdom, and all his ways (shall be) in truth” (see parallel in v. 33). It is doubtful that Luke borrowed from this text, rather the angelic announcement uses messianic language and imagery already current in Palestine in the first century.

Luke 1:46

Who spoke the famous canticle of Lk 1:46-55? In the vast majority of witnesses, it is Mary. However, in a few Old Latin MSS (a b l*) and Latin translations of the Fathers Irenaeus, Origen, and Nicetas of Remesiana (and the Armenian transl. of Irenaeus), the song is attributed to Elizabeth. Despite its meager textual support, this would seem to be the more difficult reading—would not later scribes be more likely to change the attribution to Mary, rather than the other way around? Scholars such as Loisy and Harnack defended such a view more than a hundred years ago, and others have followed suit. And yet the textual evidence for Mary is so overwhelming, that it really is hard to justify. More plausible, and tempting, is the idea that no name was originally present, but simply read kai ei@pen… (“and she said…”). It is perhaps worth mentioning in this regard, the growing critical view that the Lukan canticles (especially the Magnificat and Benedictus) were pre-existing (Jewish-Christian?) hymns which Luke inserted in context in the narrative to give expression to the thoughts and feelings of Zechariah, Mary, etc. The more traditional-conservative view, on the other hand, assumes the canticles are recorded more or less as actually spoken, the poetry being the product of an inspired utterance.

Luke 1:67

I should note in passing that here (in the context of Zechariah’s inspiration prior to the Benedictus), that the words “Holy Spirit” (pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou) are without the definite article. Similar anarthrous forms occur throughout the Infancy Narratives (Luke 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25; and Matthew 1:18, [20]). Some commentators have sought to translate this as “a holy Spirit” rather than “the Holy Spirit”, prior to the development of the doctrine of the Spirit in the early Church. However, given the prominence of the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts, it seems all but certain that Luke intends it here in the Infancy Narrative as well (similarly for Matthew). It is hard to imagine an early Christian understanding it any other way.

Luke 1:78

The textual evidence is fairly evenly divided between the aorist (e)piske/yato) and future (e)piske/yetai) forms of the verb. Since elsewhere here aorist forms are regularly used, it is perhaps more likely that the future form was changed to the aorist. The preponderance of aorist verb forms in the Magnificat and Benedictus are perhaps deserving of comment, since to a large extent these canticles (particularly the Benedictus) are presented as prophecy. It would seem natural, in context, to take them as prophetic aorists (describing future events), or perhaps as gnomic (regular or timeless actions). However, two points should be noted: (1) If Luke is indeed utilizing pre-existing (Jewish Christian) hymns (see note on Luke 1:46 above), then there is no problem understanding these as ‘ordinary’ aorists—they give expression to things God has already done for believers in the person and work of Christ; (2) They may simply refer in a general way to God’s salvific work overall, which would primarily include all that he has done to help His people.

There is also a small interpretive crux in this verse: the word a)natolh/ (“rising”) seems in context to refer to the sun (or light) rising in the sky, coming to those who are in darkness. However, the word is also used in the LXX to translate jm^x# (ƒemaµ, “branch, shoot”), cf. Zech 3:8; 6:12. Parallel to the word rx#n@ (n¢ƒer, see the note on Matt. 2:23 above), both of which were already familiar Messianic terms at the time of Luke’s writing. Is it possible that Luke (or Zechariah as inspired speaker) is playing on both meanings?

Luke 2:4

The majority text reads that Joseph went to Bethlehem (with Mary) dio to ei@nai au)ton e)c oi@kou kai patria=$ Dau[e]i/d (“…because [of] his being out of the house and family of David”). However, at least two MSS (348 1216) instead read the pronoun au)tou$ (“they/their”), implying that Mary also was from the line of David (there is a similar reading “both” in the Old Syriac [Sinaitic] version). This came to be a common belief in the early Church, even though the Lukan narrative itself states that Mary’s relative Elizabeth was from the priestly line of Aaron (Lk. 1:5). Most likely the tradition of Mary as a Davidid developed as a way to strengthen Jesus’ own Davidic origin—Rom. 1:3, for example, would seem to suggest an actual biological (rather than a legal paternal) connection.

Luke 2:14

What did the Angelic Chorus say? The first line is uniform in the textual tradition:

Do/ca e)n u(yi/stoi$ qew=|
“Glory in the highest [places] to God”

However, there is a major variant in the second line:

kai e)pi gh=$ ei)rh/nh e)n a)nqrw/poi$ eu)doki/a[$]

Is the final word the genitive (eu)doki/a$) as read by many of the oldest and best witnesses (a* A B* D W pc vgst copsa etc), or is it the nominative form (eu)doki/a) as read by the majority of witnesses (ac B3 K L P D Q C Y f1, 13 et al.)? The former has traditionally been translated “and on earth peace among men of good will”, while the latter as the familiar “and on earth peace, good will to men”. The external textual evidence would tend slightly to lean toward the genitive, and so most modern commentaries and translations understand it, especially now that the argument in favor of it has more or less been clinched by the manuscript discoveries at Qumran. A similar phrase occurs (in Hebrew) in the Hodayot (Thanksgiving Hymns): wnwxr ynb (b§nê r§ƒônô, “sons of his favor” 1QH 4:32-33) and hknwxr ynb lwkl (l§kôl b§nê r§ƒôn§k¹, “for all [the] sons of your favor” 1QH 11:9), and more precisely in Aramaic [h]twur vwnab (be°§nôš r¢±ût[¢h], “in/among men of [his] favor” 4Q545 [Visions of Amramc] column II frag. 3,5). The Greek word eu)doki/a is virtually a product of the LXX, used to translate Hebrew /oxr* (r¹ƒôn, “favor, pleasure, acceptance, will”). Eu)doke/w literally means “to think well of” someone or something, and may have both emotional (“desire, pleasure, satisfaction”) and volitional (“accept, determine, decide, select, will”) connotations. However, it is clear from the Old Testament and Jewish examples, that it is not human beings, but God who is the subject of eu)doki/a//oxr*, and so here should be translated “…men of (His) favor”, as in the examples from Qumran above. And while onoxr= (“his favor”, with pronominal suffix) would properly be translated into Greek as eu)doki/a au)tou=, it can also be translated without the pronoun (as in Sirach 15:15; 39:18). The English translation “good will” is rather misleading, and is better rendered as “favor” or “(good) pleasure”—”men of his good pleasure” or “men of his favor” indicates those whom God favors or with whom he is pleased (lit. those he “thinks well of”), and, judging from the Qumran examples, probably carries the sense of gracious election. How did the textual change occur (from eu)doki/a$  to eu)doki/a)? Most likely the idiom with genitive came to be poorly understood by scribes, and was replaced early the history of transmission; however, it is also possible that the final sigma dropped out by accident, particularly if it occurred in the MS at the end of a line (see Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary, 2d ed. p. 111 for a visual demonstration).

Luke 2:22

Here the majority text reads kai o%te e)plh/sqhsan h(me/rai tou= kaqarismou= au)tw=n… (“and when the days of their cleansing were filled up [i.e. fulfilled]”), and is likely original. Note the plural pronoun (au)tw=n), which is certainly peculiar, since it would indicate that the purification ritual applied to both Mary and Joseph (or Mary and the child Jesus). Many critical scholars attest this as one (of a number) of Lukan inaccuracies, since the rite of purification following childbirth (both in the Mosaic covenant and later Jewish tradition) only applies to the mother, not to the husband or child. However, the plural pronoun here may simply be grammatical (not strictly factual), since the plural is used in the following clause to indicate that both parents “brought him [Jesus] up into Jerusalem…”. In any event, some confusion seems to have prompted several scribes to modify the text: a few MS (D 2174* syrs copsa ms) read au)tou= (“his” – Jesus? Joseph?), at least one MS (76) reads au)th=$ (“her”), while the Old Latin and Vulgate could read “his” or “her”.

Luke 2:27, 33, 41, 43, 48

As indicated earlier, scribes variously modified instances where Joseph is referred to as Jesus’ “father” or where Joseph and Mary are called Jesus’ “parents”. Most of these occur in the Lukan Infancy Narratives 2:21-40 and 2:41-52 — the Presentation at the Temple and the Episode of the Boy Jesus in the Temple.

2:27: kai h@lqen e)n tw=| pneu/mati ei)$ to i(ero/n: kai e)n tw=| ei)sagagei=n tou$ gonei=$ to paidi/on  )Ihsou=n tou= poih=sai au)tou$ kata to ei)qisme/non tou= no/mou peri au)tou= (“and he [Simeon] came in the Spirit into the temple; and (as) the parents brought in the child Jesus, for them to do according to that which is customary of the law about him…”)
This passage was modified far less frequently, perhaps because they are not specifically called “his parents”. Still “the parents” was omitted in a few MSS (245 1347 1510 2643 ?), and altered (to “Joseph and Mary” or simply “they”) in minor versions of the Diatessaron.

2:33: kai h@n o( pathr au)tou= kai h( mh/thr qauma/zonte$ e)pi toi=$ laloume/noi$ peri au)tou= (“and his father and mother were wondering/marvelling upon the [things] said about him”)
In the majority of MSS and versions o( pathr au)tou= was modified to [o(]  )Iwsh/f (A K X D Q P Y 053 f13 23 33 565 892 et al.). Despite the strong attestation, this reading is most likely secondary, as o( pathr au)tou= is by far the more difficult reading, as it could easily be (mis)understood to imply that Joseph was Jesus’ biological father. A few Vulgate MS instead read oi( gonei=$ au)tou= (“his parents”).

2:41: kai e)poreu/onto oi(  gonei=$ au)tou= kat’ e&to$ ei)$  )Ierousalhm th=| e(orth=| tou= pa/sxa (“and his parents would go up according to [the] year into Jerusalem, to the feast of the Pascha [Passover]”)
One Greek MS (1012) and a few Old Latin (a b c ff2 g1 l r1) read, with some variation, o(  )Iwshf kai h( Maria/m, “Joseph and Mary” instead of oi( gonei=$ au)tou=.

2:43: …u(pe/meinen  )Ihsou=$ o( pai=$ e)n  )Ierousalhm, kai ou)k e&gnwsan oi( gonei=$ au)tou= (“…Jesus the child remained in Jerusalem, and his parents did not know”)
A wide range of witnesses (A C E P Y 0130 565 f13, along with the majority Byzantine MSS, Old Latin, syrp, h, copbo pt) read  )Iwshf kai h( mh/thr au)tou= (“Joseph and his mother”), instead of oi( gonei=$ au)tou=.

2:48: …i)dou= o( path/r sou ka)gw o)dunw/menoi e)zhtou=me/n se (“…see, your father and I, [being] in pain, search for you [i.e., anxiously search for you]”)
A few MSS have altered o( path/r sou ka)gw/ similarly to oi( suggenei=$ sou ka)gw/ (“your relatives and I”), while the Old Latin (a b ff2 g1 l r1) and the Curetonian Syriac read simply h(mei=$ (“we”).

Additional Passages

In conclusion, I will very briefly mention a few other New Testament passages related to the birth of Jesus:

Romans 1:3; Galatians 4:4

These two verses are among the only references to the birth of Jesus outside of the Infancy Narratives. They both use the aorist middle participle of gi/–g—nomai (“come to be, become”), in the sense of “being born“.

Rom 1:3: peri tou= ui(ou= au)tou= tou= genome/nou e)k spe/rmato$ Dauid kata sa/rka, (“…about his son the [one] coming to be out of the seed of David according to the flesh…”)
Gal 4:4: o%te de h@lqen to plh/rwma tou= xro/nou, e)cape/steilen o( qeo$ ton ui(on au)tou=, geno/menon e)k gunaiko$, geno/menon u(po no/mou (“but when the fulness of the time came, God sent his son, coming to be out of [a] woman, coming to be under [the] law”)

For both of these verses, a few witness (61* pc syrp, and apparently some Old Latin MSS, for Rom 1:3) and (K f1 etc. for Gal 4:4) read the (passive) participle of genna/w (causative stem derived from gi/[g]nomai), which is the more common verb for bearing/begetting a child. See the discussion under Matthew 1:18 above, and the references to Irenaeus and Tertullian (both of whom specifically cite these verses).

Luke 3:22

At the baptism of Jesus, instead of the majority text (su ei@ o( ui(o/$ mou o( a)gaphto/$, e)n soi eu)do/khsa, “you are my son, in you I have [good] pleasure”), some Western witnesses (D a b c d ff2 l r1) and quite a few early Church Fathers read ui(o$ mou ei@ su/, e)gw gege/nnhka/ se (“you are my son, today I have caused you to be [born] [i.e., begotten you]”). The first reading generally harmonizes with the account in Mark (and Matthew), while the latter reading quotes the second Psalm (Ps. 2:7). While this passage in Luke does not relate to the Virgin Birth as such, it is important in terms of understanding how the early church viewed the ‘birth’ of Jesus as the Son of God. I will be providing a more detailed discussion in a later note.

John 1:13

The majority text reads: oi^ ou)k e)c ai(ma/twn ou)de e)k qelh/mato$ sarko$ ou)de e)k qelh/mato$ a)ndro$ a)ll’ e)k qeou= e)gennh/qhsan (…”the [ones] not out of blood[s] nor out of the will of the flesh nor out of the will of man—but out of God—have come to be [born]”), and this reading is almost certainly original. However, an interesting variant developed in the early Church, found in the Old Latin MS b and in a number of early (Western) Church Fathers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Ambrose, Augustine, etc): here there is a singular relative pronoun (o^$) instead of plural, with a corresponding change in the final verb (to e)gennh/qh)—”…the [one] not out of…but out of God has come to be [born]”. Instead of referring to the spiritual birth of believers, this Western reading apparently refers to the (supernatural) birth of Jesus.

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 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.