On the Interpretation of Prophecy

It may be helpful to outline various ways Christians have sought to deal with the (predictive) prophecies found in the Old Testament Scriptures—as these are still the primary methods for applying such passages today. A particular difficulty comes in regard to those Scriptures taken by early Christians (and even the New Testament authors themselves) to apply to Christ and the Church—events often centuries removed from the original historical context, and, not infrequently, with a meaning quite different from that of the original passage.

Bear in mind, these interpretive approaches only relate to those readers and commentators who wish to maintain the validity of both the original meaning of the Old Testament passage (according to the grammatical-historical sense) and the traditional (and/or New Testament) Christian interpretation.

  1. The grammatical-historical sense of the passage, focusing on the original context alone, is the (only) proper mode of interpretation as such (or is by far the most important, primary mode). All other ‘interpretations’ are secondary applications or adaptations (whether unconscious or intentional) to the circumstances of later readers. From a theologically conservative point of view, such interpretations in the New Testament are still valid, but in a qualified sense as “inspired applications” in light of subsequent revelation.
  2. There are two equally valid sets of meaning for the original passage: (1) one present, i.e. related to the circumstances and worldview of author and ancient audience, (2) the other future (primarily christological or eschatological) applicable to a far distant time (age of the New Testament or present day, etc).
  3. The original historical context is maintained as primary (and exclusive) for the ancient author and audience, but the inspired text contains ‘hidden’ within it a special meaning (which is, or becomes, primary) for future audiences. In this regard, some might debate whether: (a) the inspired prophet knew or glimpsed this future meaning, or (b) was essentially unaware of it, being the secret work of the Spirit (that is, he spoke ‘even better than he knew’).
  4. The primary meaning of at least certain passages is futuristic (that is, related to Christ, the Apostolic age, or the present day), and it is actually the ‘original’ historical context that is secondary or incidental to the circumstances, language and thought-world of ancient author and audience.
  5. One should also perhaps mention the so-called dispensational method—that each prophecy applies specifically (that is, exclusively, or at least primarily) to a particular period in time (or ‘dispensation’), sometimes identified with specific covenants established throughout biblical history.

One could perhaps delineate other kinds of approaches, however, I suspect they would end up being just slight variations on the five (particularly the first four) I have outlined here.

Approach #2, would, I think, be favored mainly by traditional-conservative commentators concerned with upholding the doctrinal view that all of Scripture (Old & New Testament) is equally inspired. As such, I would consider it valid, with a few possible exceptions, only in a terminological sense. Practically speaking, it can be extremely difficult to maintain, especially for instances where a New Testament author cites an Old Testament passage in a completely different (even opposite!) sense from its original meaning and context.

#4 was, effectively, favored by many theologians and commentators in the early (and medieval) Church, particularly those who gave emphasis to an allegorical-typological or spiritual-mystical mode of interpretation, virtually to the exclusion of the grammatical-historical sense (as we would seek to establish it). This sort of emphasis has largely been abandoned today—indeed, the pendulum, often enough and sadly, has swung overly far in the opposite direction!

#5 has been (and remains) popular in many circles, whether applied loosely or in a highly systematic fashion. However, in my view, the common modern “dispensational” approach, is highly flawed, and the attempt to fit prophecies into specified ‘dispensations’ (often in an eclectic manner) tends to create more problems than it solves.

In my estimation, #1 and #3 are much to be preferred, in every respect, both as a method of interpretation, and as an aid in treating the question of the nature and extent of inspiration. Approach #1, on the whole, is probably closer to being correct, as long as one emphasizes that the creative adaptation of Old Testament passages by New Testament authors (and other early Christians) is a vital aspect of the nature (and extent) of inspiration (in the theological and doctrinal sense). However, I must confess that aspects of #3 are most attractive and should not be ignored, as this approach is, I think, relatively close to the New Testament authors’ own understanding of the matter (3a moreso than 3b).

Pseudepigraphy and Pseudonymity

Pseudepigraphy refers to written works “falsely ascribed” to an author. Pseudonymity refers to works “falsely named” by an author. I prefer to regard pseudonymity as a type of pseudepigraphy. For works generally considered “pseudepigraphic”, one may distinguish several types, broadly speaking:

  1. Pseudonymous works—that is, works in which the (true) author has written under the guise of a more famous figure. Such writings today are often referred to as literary “forgeries”.
  2. Works which are anonymous, or where the authorship is otherwise unknown or uncertain. In the process of transmission and preservation, scribes and editors would occasionally ascribe such writings to a presumed author; sometimes the attribution simply developed as part of a wider tradition.
  3. Works which are written as representing the words of a main character (usually a central, and famous figure). This is distinct from pseudonymity, though related to it in some ways.
  4. Works which present additional events and exploits of a famous character as authentic historical or biographical material. In other words, these are narrated from the point of view of an eyewitness, as opposed to legendary accounts or “historical fiction” in the modern sense.

While these criteria can be applied to any writing, they relate specifically (and primarily) to discussions of ancient and medieval literature. Things are further complicated by the fact that the term “Pseudepigrapha” tends to be used in a very definite sense: referring to a collection of Jewish (and Christian) writings (c. 300 B.C. to 700 A.D.) which draw heavily upon the Old Testament (hence the qualifying label “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha”). These writings are centered on the Patriarchs of Israel, the Prophets, David and Solomon, and so forth, often purporting to be (or at least written as they are) their authentic words. Much of this literature can be classified as apocalyptic—as meant to convey special revelation of future events; in such instances the Old Testament personage is really a literary device to couch the prophecies within the context of biblical (and/or world) history.

However there is much pseudepigraphic material (Jewish and Christian) beyond the “Pseudepigrapha” proper, including: (a) portions of the so-called (Old Testament) “Apocrypha”; (b) a good number of Dead Sea texts from Qumran; (c) New Testament “Apocryphal” books, many written in imitation of Jewish pseudepigrapha; and (d) a number of prominent Rabbinic works.

Especially sensitive is the question as to whether, or to what extent, pseudepigraphy and pseudonymity occur in the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The traditional-conservative view is reluctant to admit any such occurrence, but many scholars (and most critical commentators) believe that it applies to a good many books. A few examples (the number indicates the type of pseudepigraphy, 1-4, listed above):

  • The Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy) is essentially anonymous, but authorship has been traditionally attributed to Moses (#2), and Moses is the speaker of nearly all of Deuteronomy (#3).
  • Again all the books of the Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi) are technically anonymous, but clearly claim to represent almost entirely the words of the Prophets whose names are indicated in the opening verses (#3, possibly #2 to a lesser degree).
  • The Psalms are attributed to various authors in the superscriptions, the accuracy (and even inspiration) of which is debated (#2).
  • The Proverbs (much of it), Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs are attributed to Solomon in the text (though the opening verse of the Song does not as clearly indicate authorship); nearly all critical scholars hold that Ecclesiastes and the Song, particularly, were written considerably later (#3, perhaps a bit of #4).
  • The four Gospels, Acts and the Johannine epistles are all anonymous, but the traditional authorship was ascribed to them very early on (early-mid 2nd century at the very latest in the case of the Gospels); it is impossible to judge objectively whether they were applied at the original publication (#2).
  • Critical scholars are nearly unanimous in the view that the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy, Titus) and 2 Peter are pseudonymous; many hold the same opinion regarding Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians (#1).

It remains an open question as to whether pseudonymity is, in fact, entirely incompatible with a sound, reaonable doctrine of inspiration. Early Church fathers and officials generally condemned the practice; but it certainly took place, for we have examples of both ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretical’ works from the early centuries which are almost certainly pseudonymous. A famous example from the early middle Ages is the writing of so-called Pseudo-Dionysius—a heady mixture of Christian mysticism and Greek ascetic philosophy, which many later Fathers viewed as authoritative to some degree, due to its apparent authorship by the Pauline disciple Dionysius the Areopagite. If they had ever thought it was a pseudonymous work (a “pious fraud”), orthodox theologians such as Thomas Aquinas would not have tried so hard to make it fit into their system of belief. Subsequent centuries have viewed pseudonymity even more harshly, as an attempt to deceive readers or appropriate another author’s prestige. If seen in this light, pseudonymity would seem to create an ethical problem for any writing purported to be divinely-inspired. However, it is worth asking, to what extent is the pejorative and negative value judgment attending such descriptions as “false”, “fraud”, “forgery”, etc., actually warranted? Should authorship be viewed in terms of literary device or historical fact? These are important questions as we seek to study carefully the text of Scripture with both clear mind and open heart.

“On objective grounds…”

This is a phrase (“on [purely] objective grounds”) I use rather frequently in the notes and articles posted here. The purpose of the phrase is to indicate when a saying, narrative, or other tradition recorded in Scripture may be considered as authentic on the grounds of critical scholarship, without resort to any doctrine regarding the inspiration or historical reliability of Scripture. Similarly, it is used to judge the greater likelihood of various (critical) theories related to the development of tradition and how the Scriptures (the Gospel narratives, especially) came to be composed. For more traditional-conservative commentators, and for many devout believers in general, the accuracy and authenticity of the Scriptures is self-evident—is assumed or taken for granted—and requires no (objective) critical analysis to confirm the matter. However, even for those who hold, or tend toward, the traditional-conservative position, the observations and insights of critical scholarship can be most beneficial: it is foolhardy (in the worst sense) to ignore or disparage them, and, I should say, unworthy of the believer who wishes to be a serious student of the Scriptures.

The qualifying term “objective” implies verifiable evidence, both internal and external to Scripture, which can be analyzed, agreed upon, and accepted, by all commentators—believer and non-believer alike—apart from what one personally believes or thinks about the Scripture. This is contrasted with (or, one may say, complemented by) interpretation on “subjective” grounds—that is, the personal (whether unique or shared by a wider community) opinion or belief of the commentator. Examples of “objective” evidence include: word usage, the development and particular meaning of a word or phrase, historical parallels to a word or passage, similarities of usage in other writings, signs of historical/literary development in a narrative, and so forth. Complete objectivity may or may not be possible for a scholar or commentator, but it remains a noble goal, and one which ought to be pursued in faith and humility.

“Tradition” and “Authentic Tradition”

The word “tradition” (from Latin traditio, tradere) means that which is “given over, delivered, transmitted, passed on”. In Greek, the corresponding term is para/dosi$ (parádosis), from paradi/domi (paradídœmi), lit. “give along”. A tradition is something which is passed along, i.e. from one generation to the next, within a specific cultural matrix or community. In particular, one may speak of religious traditions passed down within a community. So it is with much of the material which we find preserved in the Scriptures—lists, genealogies, narratives, words and speeches, and any number of related historical and/or tribal/community details. In many instances these traditions were passed down orally, perhaps for generations, taking on fixed or well-established forms, before ever being written; then, several written stages may have occurred before being given definitive shape in the Writings which have come down to us. Often the Scriptures themselves bear witness to a wider tradition (regarding, e.g., the Patriarchs, the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles, etc), of which only a small portion has been preserved.

Gospel Tradition(s)” is a term regularly used by critical scholars, especially, to refer to the various sayings and narratives (and occasional lists, etc) which have been preserved and recorded in the Gospels. “Jesus Tradition(s)” is a parallel term referring specifically to sayings of Jesus, narratives and historical details involving Jesus, which have been preserved—primarily in the four canonical Gospels, but also in other New Testament and extra-canonical writings.

“Authentic Tradition”

For those familiar with the notes and articles posted here, this is a qualified term I use quite frequently. By it I mean a tradition which has been transmitted from the time, and from within the cultural milieu, indicated. For example, an authentic Gospel (Jesus) tradition will have been passed down from Jesus’ own time, originally by his followers (and/or their close associates). An authentic tradition is not necessarily (strictly speaking) historical or factual in every detail—even though such traditions would (originally) stem from persons who may have been ear/eye-witnesses (or nearly so), the possibility of distortion and/or adaptation during the process of transmission must be taken into account. For many Christians, a doctrine of inspiration of Scripture presumes that the process of transmission would (or must) be completely accurate and reliable in (every) detail. However, this rather depends on how one understands the nature and extent of inspiration (a vital question, sadly neglected today), and the force of the claim could certainly be debated.

For the purposes of these notes and articles, I use the term “authentic tradition” in the sense indicated above. It should be pointed out, however, that many (critical) scholars also use the term “authentic saying” (that is, of Jesus) in a specific technical sense. This has been a significant area of Gospel Criticism in the past two centuries, tied to the idea of the “historical Jesus”—authentic (i.e., actual, genuine) sayings and actions of Jesus are often contrasted with sayings and narrative events viewed as (in whole or in part) the product of the early Church. To this end, critical scholars have developed a number of “criteria for authenticity”, several of the most important are:

  • Multiple Attestation: Sayings or episodes which are attested in multiple, unrelated sources (i.e., Synoptics, Gospel of John, Pauline epistles, extra-canonical sources) are more likely to be authentic.
  • Dissimilarity: Sayings/episodes which are significantly different from the language, style, theology, etc. found elsewhere in the early Church (or Judaism of the period) are more likely to be authentic. A subcategory of this criterion is that of embarrassment—i.e., sayings which proved difficult or ’embarrassing’ to the early Church are more likely to be authentic.
  • Coherence: Sayings/episodes which cohere or conform to other material judged to be authentic (on other grounds).

While such analysis has led to many useful insights, I find the search for “genuine” vs. “inauthentic” sayings and actions of Jesus to be, on the whole, exaggerated and overextended, with critical scholars often engaged in considerable speculation. However, in presenting something of the critical approach and viewpoint in these articles, I feel it both it both necessary and helpful to point out when a narrative or tradition can, on objective, critical grounds, be judged as authentic, and where, by contrast (or complement), an early interpretation may be attached to a tradition within the text of Scripture.

“Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative”

I have regularly used the labels “Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative” as a short-hand description for two general approaches to handling and interpreting Scripture. The reality is more complex than the labels would suggest, and, of course, there is a wide middle ground of opinion and analysis; however, fundamental differences exist which are distinct enough to warrant some basic form of demarcation.

“Critical”

For the term “criticism” in general, I would recommend the three-part article Learning the Language, introducing the subjects of Biblical Criticism and, in particular, Textual Criticism. “Criticism” of Scripture simply means informed judgment and analysis of the sacred Writings, in terms of: Text, History (and Historicity), Literary Form and Genre, Composition (and Redaction), Authorial Purpose/Intent, Development and Transmission, etc.—that is, everything meaningful which one could study and analyze about a particular literary document. All commentators engage in “criticism” at some level. What distinguishes a specific “Critical” approach, as such, to Scripture, is the willingness to apply to sacred Writings the same methods and techniques one might apply to any other writing from the ancient world. In so doing, there is no doctrinal presumption, no resort to supernatural agency in explaining how the text came to be—for the most part, entirely ordinary, natural means of production and development are assumed. On the one hand, this allows the commentator freedom in analyzing the text—every aspect (authorship, historical accuracy, theology, etc) can be examined apart from any religious doctrine regarding the text. On the other hand, this detachment can blind the commentator to the very religious and spiritual dimension which caused the text to be preserved and treated as sacred in the first place. Indeed, it is unfortunate that one can read page after page of critical commentary without any suggestion of unique, Divine inspiration (however one understands this precisely) at work in the text of Scripture.

“Traditional-Conservative”

As the label indicates, there are two aspects which I emphasize:

“Traditional”—This implies that the Christian tradition regarding the Scriptures is generally accepted, unless there is strong reason to reject it. This is opposed to the “Critical” approach, which tends to be skeptical, willing to question and examine every tradition (before accepting it outright). In particular, traditions regarding authorship (Moses for the Pentateuch, Matthew/Mark/Luke/John for the Gospels, etc), are assumed. See also the separate article on “Tradition”.

“Conservative”—Because of the highly polemical, partisan nature of this term in many circles, I use it somewhat reluctantly. I mean by it the tendency to accept—to take at face value—everything one finds in the Scriptures. This may be driven by a theological/doctrinal viewpoint, a religious/credal viewpoint, or both. Especially, when authorship is indicated in the Scriptures (e.g., Isaiah, Daniel; Paul in the “disputed” epistles [Pastorals, Ephesians]; 2 Peter), it is accepted more or less without reservation. Most controversial are questions regarding the historicity/factuality of the Old Testament and Gospel narratives; much of modern-day “apologetics” is devoted to defending the details of the Scriptural narratives against critical-skeptical ‘attacks’.

The Traditional-Critical view, at its best, demonstrates a sensitivity to the value of tradition, and to the religious/spiritual environment which produced the Scriptures (with recognition of the reality of inspiration); at its worst, however, it tends to close off important paths of inquiry, and risks distorting and misrepresenting the very sacred text it seeks to defend.

To demonstrate a basic difference between the two approaches, consider the concept of Gospel tradition in relation to the canonical Gospels which have come down to us. The Critical approach generally assumes multiple layers of development in the Gospel tradition, during which many modifications, accretions, interpretive expansions, etc. have occurred:

  • Stage 1: The words and actions of the historical Jesus and his contemporaries
  • Stage 2: These words and actions as described and transmitted orally among the earliest believers
  • Stage 3: Early collections of sayings and narratives (oral or written, perhaps translated into Greek)
  • Stage 4: Early Gospels (or Gospel fragments)—sayings and narratives connected within a larger framework
  • Stage 5: The sayings and narratives as recorded in the four canonical Gospels

The Traditional-Critical view, by comparison, would tend to compress these layers so that Stage 5 is more or less equivalent to Stage 1—i.e., the Gospels as we have them preserve (with minimal modification) the words and actions of Jesus just as they originally took place.

The thoughtful and sensitive student of Scripture will recognize the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches—by holding them in balance, in true humility, and under the guidance of the Spirit, we may faithfully explore and expound God’s Word in the Scriptures (and the Scriptures as God’s Word).

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.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Isaiah 7:14 (part 1)

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). Yet, an examination of the verse in its original context shows clearly enough that it had little to do with a miraculous ‘messianic’ figure of the distant future. What is one to make of this?

The original setting of Isaiah 7:14—indeed, I would say, 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 shall discuss (along with the identity of the ±almâ) in a subsequent note.

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.)

In light of this, one must turn to the traditional Messianic and/or Christian interpretation of the verse 14, especially as it relates to the citation in Matthew 1:22-23: for the Gospel writer applies the verse to the (virgin) birth of Jesus, apparently without any regard for the original historical context. If the (inspired) New Testament author treats the passage thus, why should we be so concerned to understand and appreciate the ‘original context’? Looking at it from the opposite side, if there is no clear reference to Christ (or a future Messiah) in the Isaiah passage, should we continue to accept the traditional Christian/Messianic interpretation without exception?

In response to the first question, I would suggest that believers in each place and each generation must study and contemplate the Scriptures anew. There is available to us today a wealth of information—linguistic, historical, archeological, and so forth—which earlier generations did not possess. We approach and use texts in many respects very differently than did early Christians in the ancient Near East. Protestant readers and commentators, in particular, tend to emphasize an “historical-grammatical” approach as the primary (and fundamental) mode of interpretation; on the whole, I agree with this. I would add that the first goal of interpretation then is to analyze and consider what the (ancient) text would have meant to the (ancient) author(s) and audience; without at least a basic sense of this, any secondary interpretation or application runs the risk of distorting the fundamental meaning. We ignore or disregard these factors very much at our own peril.

With regard to the second, opposite question, I find there to be at least as great a danger in ignoring the ways in which Christians have (traditionally) made use of the Scriptures. We see today, for example, a tendency to disregard completely earlier mystical-spiritual or allegorical-typological modes of interpretation, so prominent and vital to the thought and spiritual life of the early Church. Even with regard to the New Testament, we often fail to appreciate just how creatively the authors (and/or their sources) made use of the Old Testament Scriptures. Scores of examples could be cited where the wording (and even the basic sense) of the original passage were altered by the (inspired) author. If this be admitted, we must always be careful to examine how, and for what purpose, the Scriptures were adapted. Surely inspiration, as the work of the Spirit, far exceeds the limitations of any one view.

With this in mind, let us explore Isaiah 7:14 in relation to the birth of Jesus in a little more detail, in the next study

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).

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus (introduction)

This Advent series offers a study on key Old Testament passages which relate to the birth of Jesus—or, more precisely, to the Infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The notes and articles in this series cover three areas:

  1. Specific Scriptures cited by the Gospel writers (and/or traditions they inherited)
  2. Scriptures related to the Messianic background of the narrative, and
  3. Old Testament parallels consciously utilized by the author and/or the underlying Gospel tradition

We will begin with two famous passages from the book of Isaiah—7:14 and 9:5-6—understood by early Christians in a Messianic sense, applied specifically to Jesus as prophecies of his birth.

After this, we will undertake an exegetical survey of relevant verses in the Lukan and Matthean narratives, examining at each point the important Old Testament passages involved.

Along the way, we will touch on issues related to the interpretation of prophecy, and also consider briefly several important extra-biblical texts which help us to understand the cultural and religious background of the Infancy narratives.

NOTE: This series was originally posted on the previous Biblesoft Study Blog. It has been modified and reworked slightly here.

Saturday Series: John 1:18

This is the first installment of the the new Saturday Series on this site. Each Saturday I will focus on a specific Scripture passage or area of study, with the intention of providing guidance for those who wish to learn the value of an in-depth critical-exegetical approach to studying Scripture, and how one might begin to go about it. As previously mentioned in the introduction to this Series, it is necessary to begin with the original text of Scripture—in the case of the New Testament, this means the original Greek. However, before one can do that, one must first know just what that text is. As you may be aware, no two manuscripts (hand-copies) of the New Testament are exactly alike; the copies contain many differences between each other. Most of these differences are slight and rather insignificant—i.e., variations of spelling, obvious copying mistakes, etc. However, others are more substantial, and some genuinely affect the meaning of a passage. In such cases, it is necessary to determine, as far as one is able, what the most likely original form or version of the text is.

This part of Biblical study (criticism) is called Textual Criticism—analysis of the text, its variants (differences) and determination of the original form (when possible). I have devoted an introductory article, in three parts, to this subject, which I recommend you read; it is entitled “Learning the Language” (Parts 1, 2, 3). In most English Bible translations (the reputable ones), substantial differences, or variant readings in the text are indicated by footnotes. The most likely original reading (according to the translators) appears in the main portion, while other known readings are given in the footnotes. Unfortunately, people tend to ignore or gloss over these textual footnotes; but I would urge you to get in the habit of paying attention to them and examining them. This is one of the first steps toward an in-depth study of the Scriptures.

Occasionally a situation arises where the evidence in favor of certain textual variants (variant readings) is more evenly divided. In such cases, it can be most difficult to determine which form of the text is more likely to be original. Here the student and commentator of Scripture (let us begin with the New Testament) must proceed carefully, considering all of the possibilities. To demonstrate this, I will use two examples from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. I like to use the Gospel of John, and the first chapter especially, because it tends to make the theological significance of the textual variants more readily apparent. In addition, the Johannine Prologue is a fitting area of study for Advent season, with its theme of the incarnation of the Word/Son of God—i.e. the birth of Jesus.

John 1:18

The first example comes from the famous “Prologue” to the Gospel (1:1-18)—indeed, from the climactic final statement in it. Here is verse 18, in a literal rendering, followed by a more conventional English translation:

“No one has ever yet seen God; (but) the only <..> (who has) come to be—the (one) being in the lap of the Father—that (one) has brought Him out (to us).”

“No one has ever yet seen God; (but) the only[-born] <..>, who is in the lap of the father, he has revealed him (to us).”

The words in parentheses technically are not in the text, but have been added to fill out the passage to make it more readable and intelligible in English. The angle brackets represent the point where the key textual variant occurs. There are three versions of this textual unit (in italics above):

  • monogen¢s theos (monogenh\$ qeo/$)
  • monogen¢s huios (monogenh\$ ui(o/$)
  • monogen¢s (monogenh/$)

All three versions contain the word monogen¢s, which happens to be quite tricky to translate. Literally, it means something like “(the) only one (who has) come to be”. Sometimes this specifically refers to a person coming to be born (i.e. a child or son); but often it means simply “only one, unique, one-of-a-kind”, or the like. The second version above is the most straightforward, as it essentially means “only son”, i.e. the only son born (to a mother/parent). This is presumably also the meaning where monogen¢s is used alone—”only (son)”. The first version above is more difficult, and has been translated three different ways:

  • monogen¢s theos =
    • “(the) only/unique God”
    • “(the) only-born [or only-begotten] God”
    • “God the only(-born) Son”

Which reading more likely represents the original text? And is there any significant difference between them? Let us address the first question, considering the arguments in favor of each reading, in reverse order from how they are listed above.

  • monogen¢s (monogenh/$)—”only (one) [born]”
    There is essentially no Greek manuscript support for this reading; it is attested in the writings of several early Church Fathers (commentators/theologians such as Origen, Epiphanius, and Cyril of Alexandria). However, it is attractive as a way to explain the other two readings (with “God” or “Son”). If the text originally read just monogen¢s, scribes (copyists) and commentators would have been inclined to explain it, expanding the text, more likely (and often) by adding “Son” as the natural meaning in context (“[the] only Son [born]”).
  • monogen¢s huios (monogenh\$ ui(o/$)—”only Son [born]”
    This is the most common and widespread reading, including that of some important early manuscripts (such Codex Alexandrinus [A]). It also happens to make the most sense. Jesus refers to himself (or is referred to) as “(the) Son [huios, ui(o/$]” quite often in the Gospel of John, and almost always in relation to (God) the Father. The word monogen¢s is used in this context earlier in the prologue (verse 14); moreover, elsewhere in the New Testament it is almost always used in combination with “son” (or “daughter”)—see Luke 7:12; 8:42; John 3:16, 18; Heb 11:17; 1 John 4:9.
  • monogen¢s theos (monogenh\$ qeo/$)—”only God [born]” or “God the only [born Son?]”
    This is the reading of some of “the earliest and best” manuscripts, including the early (Bodmer) papyri 66 and 75, Codex Vaticanus [B] and the original copyist of Codex Sinaiticus [a]. It must also be considered the most difficult reading—what exactly does the expression “only (born) God [theos, qeo/$]” mean? An important principle in textual criticism follows the saying difficilior lectio potior (“the more difficult reading is preferred”). The idea is that copyists would be more likely to change the text (whether intentionally or unintentionally) to a reading that was easier to understand or which made more sense. As noted above, “only (born) Son” is a much more natural expression.

I would ask you to consider and to meditate upon these three different readings, in the context of John 1:18 (and the Prologue as a whole—read through it carefully). Do you see any difference in meaning or emphasis, in terms of what the author may be trying to convey? If so, what are the differences? Next Saturday I will follow up on this discussion, by examining briefly certain details in verse 18 which I believe are essential to a proper understanding of the passage. At the same time, we will consider our second example from the Gospel of John.

Saturday Series (Introduction)

This post introduces the Saturday Series feature on this website. In it I will be taking a somewhat lighter, introductory approach to the study of Scripture. Readers who may find the level of (scholarly) detail in the notes and articles on this site a bit daunting, will, I think, appreciate the approach to be taken in this series—which will feature a new article each Saturday. Overall, the focus will be the same: biblical criticism and what has been called the grammatical-historical method. It may help to define both of these terms.

Biblical Criticism

The word “criticism” in modern English can be quite misleading, as it typically suggests something negative, even mean-spirited. But this is scarcely how the word should be understood here, in its proper sense. The word, ultimately derived from the Greek verb kri/nw (krínw), refers to judgment and discernment—i.e., the process of analysis, sorting, sifting, separating (the fundamental meaning of the verb). A person engaged in Biblical criticism is simply examining and analyzing the text of the Biblical passage in detail—separating out the words and phrases, the grammar, historical background, the purpose of the author, how the original audience would have understood it, how it has been understood and interpreted throughout the years, and so forth. Each element or aspect of the text is studied and analyzed in turn, so far as one is able, and to the extent that relevant information (for comparison, etc) is available.

Grammatical-Historical Method

This refers to a particular mode or orientation in the analysis and interpretation of Scripture. The first word (“grammatical“) means the language of the text, i.e. its syntax and grammar—the particular words and phrases, and how they are used. This really requires that the text be studied in its original language (Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament, Greek for the New). One cannot properly engage in Biblical criticism working from a translation. This presents a problem, since many Christians who earnestly desire to study the Scriptures at a deeper level do not know Hebrew and Greek, or have only a rudimentary familiarity with those languages, perhaps just beginning to learn them. One of the main purposes of this website is to help guide interested readers and students through those difficult first steps of Biblical study—the examination of the text in its original language. Here in the Saturday Series, I will refer to the Hebrew and Greek less often, focusing on specific verses in more detail, giving more explanation—through the use of both literal (glossed) translation and more conventional renderings—to the basic meaning of the words and phrases as they are used in context.

The second word (“historical“) can be taken several ways. Primarily it refers to the original historical context and setting of the passage (and the book) being studied. This means that attention must first be given toward, not what the text means to me, but what it meant to the author and (so far as it can be determined) to the original audience. Secondarily, “historical” refers to the historical background of certain words, phrases, images, and ideas in the text. Here it is important to consider, whenever possible, parallels in other writings contemporary with the Scriptures. It is also useful to examine how the meaning and significance of words and forms may have developed over time. This helps to highlight the specific and distinctive way the author makes use of them in a particular passage or setting. And, thirdly, some attention must be given to the process of composition of a text—how it has developed and taken shape over time. This is especially important because many of the books of Scripture are to be characterized as traditional literature;  that is to say, they are comprised of numerous traditions which have been passed down, in oral and/or written form, from person to person, generation to generation. This last aspect touches on a specific type of criticism, usually referred to as historical criticism.

This is not the only way to study and interpret the Scriptures. Other methods and approaches may be taken; however, it is best to begin with a thorough grammatical-historical approach to the text. From there, on that solid foundation, one may venture into more imaginative and creative modes of study.

The first study in this series will begin this Saturday (December 7th).

NOTE: The initial posts will reproduce articles from the earlier Biblesoft Study Blog, where the Saturday Series was introduced. If you missed these, it will be a good opportunity to find them again here, and to familiarize yourself with the study approach. After the start of the year, I will begin posting brand new articles in the Series.

Before you embark on this series with me, I strongly recommend that you read through the three-part article (“Learning the Language“). It covers all the main topics and terminology related to Biblical Criticism (and, in particular, Textual Criticism). It may help you to understand better the approach I am taking; and, if you have any fears or apprehensions about the idea of “Biblical Criticism”, that article may alleviate them.

Please consider joining me on this series, and I hope to see you here next Saturday.

Blessings, in Christ