Birth of the Messiah: Isaiah 7:14; 9:5-6

The Immanuel Prophecies in Isaiah:
A uniquely Christian adaptation of Messianic Tradition

Isaiah 7:14 is one of the most familiar verses of the Old Testament, mainly due to its association with the birth of Jesus, an application which goes back to at least the time of the composition of the Gospels (c. 70-80), if not several decades prior, for the Gospel of Matthew cites it explicitly (1:22-23). Similarly famous are the words of Isaiah 9:5-6 [EV 6-7], forever immortalized (for English speakers at least) thanks to Handel’s oratorio The Messiah, and appearing in any number of situations each Christmas season. I have dealt at length with Isaiah 7:14 in a previous four-part study, and also 9:5-6 in a two-part study; this article draws upon the results of those studies, and is divided a follows:

    • Survey of Isaiah 7:14
    • Survey of Isaiah 9:5-6 [6-7]
    • Messianic Application and Interpretation in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

The first point to note is that the verses of both passages, in being applied to the birth of Jesus, are generally taken out of their original context, as a careful study will make clear. It may be useful to outline and summarize the overall context of this material in the book of Isaiah:

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

Isaiah 7:14

As noted above, the original setting of Isaiah 7:14—and of the larger section 6:1-9:6—is the so-called Syro-Ephraimite crisis of 735-4 B.C.:

Threatened by Assyrian advances (under Tiglath-Pileser III), Aram-Damascus (led by king Rezin) and the Northern Kingdom of Israel (“Ephraim”, led by the usuper Pekah [“son of Remalyah”]) formed an alliance (along with the city of Tyre) in hopes of repulsing Assyria, similar to the coalition which resisted Shalmaneser III at the battle of Qarqar a century earlier. It was most likely for the purpose of forcing the Southern Kingdom of Judah (led by Aµaz) into joining the alliance, that Rezin and Pekah marched and laid siege to Jerusalem (Isaiah 7:6 indicates that they planned to set up a new king, “son of Tab±al“). Isa 7:1 states that they were “not able to do battle against” Jerusalem, perhaps in the sense of being unable to prevail/conquer in battle (so the parallel account in 2 Kings 16:5, but 2 Chronicles 28:5ff tells rather a different story).

Isaiah 7:3-9 and 10-17ff should be understood as taking place prior to the main event summarized in verse 1. Verses 10-17, in fact, need to be read in tandem with vv. 3-9, and in context with the larger section 6:1-9:6. Here is a fairly literal translation of vv. 10-17:

10And YHWH continued to speak to Aµaz, saying 11“Ask for you(rself) a sign from YHWH your God—made deep (as) Sheol or made high (as) from above [i.e. the sky]”. 12And Aµaz said, “I will not ask and will not test YHWH.” 13And he [i.e. Isaiah] said, “Hear ye, house of David: (is it) a small (thing) from you to make men weary, that you would also make weary my God? 14Thus (the) Lord himself will give for you a sign—See! the ±almâ (becoming) pregnant will bear a son and (she) will call his name ‘God-with-us‘. 15Curds and honey he will eat to (the time of) his knowing to refuse by the evil and to choose by the good; 16for by (the time) before the youth knows to refuse by the evil and choose by the good, the land, which you dread from the faces of her two kings, shall be forsaken! 17YHWH will bring upon you—and upon your people and upon the house of your father—days which have not come from [i.e. since] the day (of) Ephraim’s turning (away) from alongside Judah—the king of Assyria!”

Note that I have translated the name la@ WnM*u! (±immanû °¢l), and have temporarily left untranslated the word hm*l=u^ (±almâ). This latter word has been variously translated “virgin” or “young girl”, etc.—a point of longstanding dispute and controversy, which I have discussed (along with the identity of the ±almâ) as part of the earlier study (Parts 2 & 3). As neither “virgin” nor “young girl” quite captures the meaning of the Hebrew hm*l=u^, I have opted for “maiden” as the best solution, and one which can serve as an accurate enough translation.

Apart from the overall historical context, a number of details in the passage speak clearly against the child as a (messianic) figure coming only in the (distant) future:

    • It is meant to be a sign for the “house of David” (that is, the kings of Judah) which they, and presumably Ahaz in particular, would be able to recognize (in their lifetime)—v. 11, 13-14.
    • The use of the definite article (hm*l=u^h*, the ±almâ), would seem to indicate a woman already known to Isaiah and/or Ahaz—v. 14
    • The interjection hN@h! (“see/behold!”), as well as the construction td#l#)yw+ hr*h* (verbal adjective + Qal participle) seem to imply an immediacy (i.e. “see! the ±almâ, being pregnant, is about to bear…”)
    • The key temporal detail of the prophecy vv. 15-16, would seem to specify that within 2-3 years of the child’s birth, the main event will take place.
    • The event so indicated has a two-fold reference:
      a) The land of the ‘two kings’, which (currently) causes you dread, will be forsaken (“the land” primarily in reference to Aram-Damascus)—v. 16
      b) YHWH will bring the king of Assyria (with special reference to judgment on the Northern Kingdom [“Ephraim”])—v. 17
      This prediction was fulfilled, to large degree, in 732 B.C. (that is, within 2-3 years), with the fall of Damascus and the effective loss of much of the Northern kingdom (conquest of territory, deportations, installment of a puppet king, etc.)

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); cf. further below.

Isaiah 9:5-6 [EV 6-7]

While there are certain textual questions involving the opening of the section (8:23 [9:1], cf. below and in the earlier study), the lines of the main oracle poem (vv. 1-6 [2-7]) are relatively straightforward and may be outlined as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messianic Interpretation

Given the importance of these Isaian passages for the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the Messiah (cf. below), we might expect to find a similar Messianic interpretation and application in other Jewish writings of the period. However, this is not the case, at least in terms of the texts that have come down to us, both from Qumran (the Dead Sea scrolls) and elsewhere. Indeed, I am aware of no direct citation or allusion to either Isa 7:14 or 9:5-6, in a Messianic context, in these writings. The situation would likely be different if the relevant portions of the Qumran Commentary (Pesher) on Isaiah had survived, but, unfortunately, this is not so. The closest we have are the highly fragmentary comments on 8:7-8ff in 4Q163 fragment 2; sadly, the text breaks off just when the commentary is being introduced (“the interpretation [pesher] of the word upon [i.e. concerning]…”). We may gain some sense of the missing interpretation by comparing the citation of Isa 8:11 in the Florilegium text (4Q174), a chain of Scriptures which are given a Messianic and eschatological interpretation—relating to the deliverance of the righteous (the Qumran Community) and the defeat/judgment of the wicked in the last days (Fragment 1, col. i, lines 15ff). The surviving fragments of the Isaiah Commentary text 4Q163 pick up again at Isa 9:11, but much of the specific interpretation of the passage, in context, remains missing.

There is an allusion to 9:5 [6] in the “Thanksgiving Hymns” (Hodayot) 1QH. In Hymn 11 [XI, formerly III], the author compares his distress to that of a woman giving birth (verse 7ff): “9and the woman expectant with a boy is racked by her pangs, for through the breakers of death she gives birth to a male, and through the pangs of Sheol there emerges, 10from the «crucible» of the pregnant woman a wonderful counsellor with his strength, and the boy is freed from the breakers”. He goes on to contrast the (righteous) birth of a boy with the (wicked) birth of a serpent (verse 12ff), a reflection of the strong ethical dualism found in many of the Qumran texts. This is not a Messianic use of the passage per se, but it may related to the eschatological tradition of the end time as a period of suffering and persecution for the righteous, prior to the great Judgment, and known in Jewish tradition as “the birth pains of the Messiah” (cp. Mark 13:8 par, and the context of Rev 12:2-6, 13-17).

The Gospel of Matthew, of course, in the Infancy narrative (Matt 1:22-23) cites Isa 7:14, applying the verse specifically to the (virgin) birth of Jesus. He also makes use of the name “God-with-us” (la@ WnM*u! ±immanû-°¢l). This application is generally Messianic, however the emphasis is more properly on the identity of Jesus as the Savior of his people (1:21). This theme of salvation is very much part of the original oracles in Isa 7-9 (cf. above). Matthew does not use Isa 7:14 to identify Jesus with the Davidic Messiah—that is achieved primarily through the quotation of Micah 5:2 (along with 2 Sam 5:2) in 2:5-6.

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”.

It is also in Matthew’s Gospel that the Isa 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] oracle is referenced. Even though Isa 9:5-6 is not cited specifically (nor anywhere else in the New Testament), 8:23-9:1 [EV 9:1-2] are quoted in 4:15-16, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee; and, though not specified, an identification of Jesus with the child in 9:5-6 would seem to be implied. This is certainly how early Christians would come to understand the passage (Justin is perhaps the earliest surviving witness [c. 140-160], cf. First Apology §33 and Dialogue §76). More broadly, it would come to carry a Messianic interpretation, though there is little surviving pre-Christian Jewish evidence of this, as noted above. A comparison of Isa 9:1-6 [esp. vv. 5-6] with Psalm 2 (discussed in the previous article) is noteworthy:

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

The Lukan Infancy narrative may allude to both Isa 7:14 and 9:5[6], by way of the wording of the Angelic announcements in 1:28 and 2:11, respectively; however, this is not entirely certain. In any case, the use of such passages is instructive for understanding how the language and imagery of the Old Testament developed over time, from the original historical context and meaning, to a broader symbolism related to the idea of the Davidic kingship and covenant; then follows the hope/promise of a restoration of Davidic rule (in the post-exilic period) under a new Anointed figure (Messiah), traditions of which are preserved and transmitted in Jewish thought and belief, until the time of Jesus Christ (Yeshua the Anointed [Messiah]).  In the light of this new (incarnate) revelation, new meanings and applications of the Scriptures were opened up to believers—it is hardly surprising that at least a few of these would appear to relate so beautifully to the marvelous birth of our Savior.

Believers, including the earliest Christians (and the inspired Gospel writer), have, for example, 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”.

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There is a rough extrabiblical parallel to the “God-with-us” prophecy of Isaiah 7:10ff, from earlier in the 8th century (c. 785): the Zakkur (or Zakir) stele. Another ruler (of Hamath in Syria [“Aram”]) is besieged by an enemy force, and the seers deliver a message from the deity to the king which reads, in part: “Do not fear, for I have made you king, and I shall stand by you and deliver you” (transl. from ANET, 501-2).

January 3: John 1:12-13, 14

John 1:12-13, 14

The prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18) is probably the most famous and distinctive exposition of the divine pre-existence of Jesus, and of his identity as the Son of God, anywhere in the New Testament. This familiarity belies the complexity of the passage, both from a literary and theological standpoint. Most commentators have note the poetic, hymnic character of the prologue (most of it), and many consider it to have been a Jewish-Christian hymn which the author adapted. If so, then the substance of the prologue pre-dates the Johannine Gospel itself, which is generally regarded as the latest of the four Gospels (c. 90 A.D.), though containing many earlier traditions.

The prologue differs from the Gospel proper in a number of ways, with the poetic verses (and strophes) distinguished from the several prose statements (by the Gospel writer). The main additions by the author would seem to be the two statements regarding John the Baptist (vv. 6-9, 15), which function as comments, likely in response to adherents of the Baptist who viewed him as the Messiah, etc, instead of Jesus. Nowhere in the Gospel tradition is there such a pronounced contrast between John and Jesus (1:19-34; 3:22-30ff), with the Gospel declaring the superiority of Jesus in no uncertain terms.

Verses 13 and 17-18 are probably also explanatory statements by the Gospel writer that have been added to the earlier hymn; these statements enhance the theological and Christological dimension of the poem. If, indeed, the bulk of the prologue represents a pre-existing hymn, or poem, it would seem to reflect Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom traditions that have been applied to the person of Jesus Christ. In this regard, it is similar in style and tone with two other Christological ‘hymns’ in the New Testament—Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4 (cf. the previous note)—and may have been written at about the same time (c. 60-70). In his now-classic Commentary on the Gospel of John, Raymond E. Brown, following the work of earlier scholars, divides the poetic prologue into four parts or strophes (pp. 3-4), which I have further annotated here:

    • Strophe 1 (vv. 1-2)—Pre-existence: The Son (as the Word) with God in eternity
    • Strophe 2 (vv. 3-5)—Creation by the Word of God, which is also the Light
    • Strophe 3 (vv. 10-12a)—Response of humankind to the Word/Light
    • Strophe 4 (vv. 14, 16)—The presence of the incarnate Word with humankind (believers)

According to this sequence, the third strophe (vv. 10-12a) describes the entry of the Word (lo/go$) into the world (ko/smo$). While this alludes to the incarnation of Christ, it is not limited to that historical phenomenon. Rather, the orientation is wider, reflecting traditions regarding the presence of God’s Wisdom in the world; in particular, verses 10-11 draw upon the theme of Wisdom seeking a place among human beings on earth and finding none (cf. 1 Enoch 42:2). Since Jesus is the eternal Word/Wisdom of God, this traditional language and imagery is entirely appropriate:

“He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, and (yet) the world did not know him. Unto his own (thing)s he came, and his own (people) did not receive him alongside.” (vv. 10-11)

Only a few (the wise) accept Wisdom, even as only the righteous few accept the Word of God. Within the Johannine writings, this is understood in terms of what we would call election—that is, there are those who belong to God, chosen by Him, and it is they who are able to accept the Truth. Those who belong to God the Father, and who accept His truth, will be drawn to Jesus the Son, and will accept him (cf. 3:20-21; 18:37, etc). This theology underlies the statement in v. 12a:

“But as (many) as received him, he gave to them the e)cousi/a to become offspring of God”

The Word gives to the elect (i.e. those who receive him) the ability to become the offspring, or children, of God. Again, this is only realized within the Gospel context of the ministry of Jesus and the presence/work of the Spirit. The noun e)cousi/a, difficult to translate in English, refers (literally) to something which comes out of a person’s being, i.e., something one is able to do. To give e)cousi/a thus means giving someone the ability to do something, often in the sense of authority given by a superior to one who is subordinate. Verse 12b-13, which may represent an explanatory comment by the Gospel writer, expounds the idea of believers as the children (or offspring, te/kna, lit. those produced) of God:

“…to the (one)s trusting in his name, the (one)s who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out of (the) will of man, but out of God, came to be (born).”

This is a uniquely Johannine way of describing believers (“the ones trusting”), using the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”). In the First Letter, the verb occurs 10 times, always (with just one exception) in the special sense of believers being born out of God; especially important is the articular (perfect) participle, used to define the identity of the believer— “the (one) having come to be born out of God” (3:9; 5:1, 4, 18). Only with the aorist participle in 5:1 is it used of Jesus, as the one born out of God (i.e., the Son); that peculiar usage is presumably meant to emphasize Jesus’ Sonship as the basis for our own (as children of God). The main Gospel passage expressing this is Jn 3:3-8, where the verb occurs 8 times. Here, coming to be born “out of God” (e)k tou= qeou=) is defined two-fold as being born “from above” (a&nwqen, v. 3) and “out of the Spirit” (e)k tou= pneu/mato$, vv. 6, 8). Being born “out of the Spirit” is contrasted with an ordinary human birth (“out of water”); there is a similar (three-fold) contrast with being born “out of God” in 1:13:

    • “not out of blood [pl. bloods]” —in the Semitic idiom, the plural usually refers to “acts of blood(shed)”, but here it may indicate the more general physiological idea of “actions involving (the) blood” (i.e., menstruation, etc)
    • “not out of the will of the flesh” —the will of the flesh signifies primarily the sexual drive
    • “not out of the will of man” —i.e., the intention and activity of the parent(s)

These three, taken together, refer to the ordinary (physical/biological) birth of human beings; this is very different from the spiritual birth of believers as sons/children of God. Interestingly, the only time in the Gospel when the verb genna/w is used of Jesus (in 18:37) it generally refers to his birth as human being; this is also the sense of what follows in 1:14 (using the related verb gi/nomai):

“And the Word came to be [e)ge/neto] flesh and put down (his) tent among us, and we looked (closely) at his splendor—(the) splendor as (the) only (one) coming to be [monogenh/$] (from) alongside (the) Father, full of favor and truth.”

This is the climactic moment of the Prologue (the poem), describing the incarnation of the eternal Word, i.e. his birth as a human being. This birth is implied by the specific wording, especially the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), from which also the compound adjective monogenh/$ is essentially derived. The adjective is notoriously difficult to translate in English; literally, it means “only (one) coming to be”, and, while it can refer to an only child, it more properly denotes something like “one of a kind”. Here, it refers to the incarnate Word (Jesus) as the unique Son (ui(o/$) of God. Indeed, in the Johannine writings, ui(o/$ is never used of believers; it is reserved for the one Son (Jesus), and, instead, the plural te/kna (“offspring, children”) is used when referring to believers as the sons/children of God.

The Johannine Prologue, especially with the concluding verses 14-18, represents the pinnacle of the expression of early Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God, blending the doctrines of divine pre-existence and incarnation together in the most powerful way, within the matrix of Jewish Wisdom tradition (cp. 1:14 with Sirach 24:8ff). It is also most remarkable how the Gospel writer, in developing and expounding his traditional material, combines the idea of believers as the sons/children of God with that of Jesus as the unique Son. This is very much a Johannine emphasis (in both the Gospel and Letters), but one also shared by Paul (in his Letters), indicating that it was a part of a natural development in early Christian thought. It is this that we will explore further in the next note—how early Christians understood believers in Christ to be born as “sons of God”.

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The reference to the birth of believers in 1:12-13 was apparently confusing, and/or problematic, for many readers and copyists. Some early witnesses (primarily Latin) read the singular in v. 13 instead of the plural, beginning with the relative pronoun (o%$) and including the form of the verb genna/w; thus vv. 12b-13 would be translated as follows:

“…to the (one)s trusting in his name, the (one) who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out of (the) will of man, but out of God, came to be (born).”

The entire relative clause would then refer back to the subject of “his name”, rather than to “the ones trusting”, that is, to the birth of Jesus, rather than the spiritual birth of believers. The distinction was not lost on Tertullian, who accepted the singular as original, and accused Gnostics of altering the text to eliminate the idea of Jesus’ miraculous birth, replacing it with their own ‘spiritual’ birth (as gnostics), cf. On the Flesh of Christ 19. Tertullian, however, is almost certainly mistaken on this textual point, the reading with the singular being instead an example of an “orthodox corruption” (cf. B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture [Oxford: 1993], pp. 26-27). To be sure, it is understandable how the variant reading might come to be reasonably well-establish, offering as it does support for the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, and perhaps, at the same time, reflecting a certain unease among the orthodox regarding the identification of believers as the sons/children of God. I have discussed this in more detail in earlier notes.