Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Support for the Virgin Birth

Since it is the Christmas season, it seems appropriate to tackle a question/challenge that was brought up to me a few weeks ago.

There has been some question in the past about the New Testament's attestation of the virgin birth of Jesus. It is said that Matthew translated Isaiah 7:14, he translated the Hebrew word for "young girl" (almah)more explicitly as virgin (parthenos, in Greek), when the Old Testament text was not saying that.

This challenge is true, at least on the surface. So, does it follow that the virgin birth was based on a mistranslation from the Old Testament and that there was no virgin birth?

Here are a few points in evidence for the validity of the virgin birth, by Dr. Wave Nunnally:

1. The Hebrew word almah can definitely have the nuance of “virgin” because young women were expected to be virgins and because in order to be a “sign”, the young woman MUST be a virgin. Otherwise, it would be a matter of nature taking its normal course and no one would recognize the birth as a sign of anything.

2. The Septuagint or LXX, that is, the Greek Translation of the Old Testament, definitely understood it this way because it uses the more specific Greek term parthenos. It is important at this point in the discussion that it be pointed out that the LXX was a PRE-CHRISTIAN, JEWISH production untainted by NT usage. It is also important that there are no textual variants that would suggest that the original reading was something more generic like gunae, which later Christian scribes were able to subvert. If this was the case, there would be manuscripts that didn’t undergo this subversion that would attest to a more “original” generic reading.

3. When Matthew quotes Isa. 7:14 in 1:23, almost all scholars are agreed that he is NOT quoting from the Septuagint. Rather, this is one of the 12 OT quotes within Matthew that scholars have isolated as coming from the “Testamonia” source, which consists of 12 usually messianically-oriented prophetic texts for which a fresh Greek translation is offered in the text of Matthew. This is significant because now we have not one (the LXX) but TWO sets of ancient authors looking at the same Isaiah text and translating it with parthenos because of the context.

4. Luke makes reference to the same textual tradition in 1:27 and 34. In the first passage, Luke uses the term parthenos to describe Mary’s status; in the second passage, Mary describes herself by the same term. Whether this phenomenon can be described as two independent sources can be debated, but that it is a separate tradition from the Matthean tradition is not a subject for debate. This material is classic “L” (content found only in Luke) material not shared by Matthew or the other two gospel writers for that matter. Thus, it is legitimate to conclude that Luke is yet a third ancient textual witness to the interpretation of almah as parthenos.

5. Whether Matthew is “correct” in his interpretation and application of Isaiah or not is a completely separate issue with respect to the question of the historicity of his report of the virginal conception. Therefore, it is logically acceptable to reject Matthew’s interpretation and application of Isaiah 7:14 and still accept the historicity of his assertion that Mary conceived while still a virgin. All Matthew is doing here is asserting that Mary’s virginal conception took place in such a way that it fulfilled prophecy. Interestingly, Luke makes the same historical assertion WITHOUT reference to Isaiah 7:14, which confirms the feasibility of accepting the historicity of the account without the support of the OT passage.

6. The absence of sexual union is explicit in passages such as Matt. 1:18, 20, 23, 25; Luke 1:27 (x2), 34-35; implicit in 2:5; 3:38. So the case for the virgin birth is certainly made apart from this one "mistranslation."

In conclusion, it is generally accepted that Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, and was interested in making the case that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. We see this thread throughout Matthew. This is certainly the purpose for referencing the passage in Isaiah, not to "prove the virgin birth." Thus, it is difficult to discredit the virgin birth based on this reference. In addition, Matthew, a first century Palestinian Jew who spoke several languages, including Hebrew and Greek, certainly has a better grasp on how the language was used in the first century than we do. It is a bit arrogant to assume that we can tell Matthew a thing or two about his native tongue.

30 comments:

Chip Burkitt said...

What is odd is Matthew's application of Is 7:14 to the birth of Jesus. Read in context, it appears to have nothing to do with the coming Messiah. Isaiah tells Ahaz that he has nothing to fear from the alliance between Samaria and Damascus. He tells him that a woman who at the time was a young girl (or virgin) would have a child named God-with-us. Before the child was old enough to tell right from wrong, the land of the two kings Ahaz feared would be laid waste. So Isaiah is talking about something expected to happen within a few years.
Matthew takes verse 14 out of context and applies it to the birth of Jesus. This was (and is) a common exegetical practice, but it leaves me feeling somewhat doubtful about how to approach biblical interpretation myself.

Mark said...

From what I gather, it was an error in translation by a scribe that the church has perpetuated as doctrine...

"As early as the second century B.C.," says the distinguished Hebrew scholar and critic, Salomon Reinach, "the Jews perceived the error and pointed it out to the Greeks; but the Church knowingly persisted in the false reading, and for over fifteen centuries she has clung to her error." (Orpheus, p, 197.) The truth of this accusation of conscious persistence in known error through the centuries is proved by confession of St. Jerome, who made the celebrated Vulgate translation from the Hebrew into Latin, and intentionally "clung to the error," though Jerome well knew that it was an error and false; and thus he perpetuated through fifteen hundred years the myth of the "prophetic virgin birth" of Jesus called Christ...

So the Greek Father or priest who forged the false "virgin-birth" interpolation into the manuscript of "Matthew," drags in maybe ignorantly the false Septuagint translation of Isaiah vii, 14, which the Latin Father St. Jerome purposely perpetuated as a pious "lie to the glory of God." The Catholic and King James Versions purposely retain this false translation; the Revised Version keeps it in, but with a gesture of honesty, which is itself a fraud, sticks into the margin in fine type, after the words "a virgin" and "shall conceive," the words, "Or, the maiden is with child and beareth," -- which not one in thousands would ever see or understand the significance of. So it is not some indefinite "a virgin" who 750 years in the future "shall conceive" and "shall bear" a son whose name she "shall call" Immanuel, Jesus; but it was some known and definite young female, married or un-married -- but not a "virgin" -- who had already conceived and was already pregnant, and who beareth a son and calleth his name Immanuel, ...who should be the "sign" which "my lord" should give to Ahaz of the truth of Isaiah's false prophecy regarding the pending war with Israel and Syria, as related in Isaiah vii, and of which the total falsity is proven in 2 Chronicles xxviii, as all may read.


Source: HEBREW HOLY FORGERIES

Nick said...

Chip,

You are right. We often see the scripture writers "playing it fast and loose" with OT scripture, at least by our standards. It does make us think about how we translate it.

Mark,

What suggest (cited) seems to me even less likely than what I was defending against. The idea is too well attested in literature to be simply the church perpetuating as doctrine. These canspiracy theories hold little water, time and time again.

Mark said...

Nick, when you summarily dismiss evidence against a virgin birth as a conspiracy theory, you kill the conversation.

Nick said...

Yeah, you're right, Mark. I'm sorry. Conspiracy theory is not the right phrase.

It seems to me to be quite a stetch, though, in light of the support for the virgin birth, and that a group of people who would eventually give their lives for the cause they were protecting, to forge it.

Mark said...

I'd say that the virgin birth has no support from an empirical standpoint. It's a violation of nature's laws. From that perspective, I'd have to say that St. Jerome is telling the truth.

"Which is more likely: That the whole natural order is suspended? Or that a Jewish minx should tell a lie?"

- David Hume (on the virgin birth)

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim said...

Chip,

I'm glad that you see that disconnect in the context. It frustrates me so much during Christmas time when that Isaiah 7:14 verse is used in a Christmas scripture reading alone. The context of that verse, as well as other Isaiah prophecies, needs to be shown that they were prophecies for the time of Isaiah, and not just the Messiah. If these events did not take place in current time, then the prophecies would fail the test God gave the Israelites in Deuteronomy 18:14-22.

The key to using the Isaiah prophecies to also point to the Messiah is that, like the entire Biblical narrative of God's love and redemption of His people, prophecies and the events they speak truth about can be cyclical.

I know that I'm not really adding to the conversation about virgin birth or not, but I thought I'd add these comments. BTW - I'm cool with the virgin birth. The immaculate conception is a whole other story...

Matt Brinkman said...

Mark, I would tend to agree with you that the Virgin Birth is "a violation of nature's laws." I'm not sure what point you are trying to make, however. You would be hard pressed to find a Christian who believes that the Virgin Birth was a natural phenomenon. They would tend to side with Aquinas who wrote, "those things are properly called miracles which are done by divine agency beyond the order commonly observed in nature."

If you are interested in the topic, you may also want to look beyond Wheless as a sole source. Wheless's interpretation that Jerome "knew that it [the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 7:14] was an error and false," is more than slightly unfair to Jerome insofar that the claim is belied by Jerome's writings. (You can find his principal writings here, along with the works of many of the early church fathers.)

Mark said...

Hi Matt. Yeah, that's my own perspective on the virgin birth. I find it highly unlikely that the natural order was suspended therefore, the virgin birth is neigh impossible. In essence, I agree with Hume and I think that his argument against the Virgin Birth is MUCH stronger than the Biblical one I presented. But Christians dismiss this argument because they believe, as a matter of faith, that natural law can be suspended. I was trying to speak in the language of Christians with the Biblical translation error and it seems I have failed miserably.

Matt Brinkman said...

Mark, do you hold to Hume's general position (no miracles ever) or did you mean to limit yourself to the particular topic at hand (no Virgin Birth)?

Mark said...

Well, I think the position (no virgin birth) and (no miracles ever) go hand in hand. I don't believe in divine miracles though and Christians do, so there is a disconnect there.

Matt Brinkman said...

Well, I think the position (no virgin birth) and (no miracles ever) go hand in hand.

Going in one direction (i.e., no miracles -> no virgin birth) I would agree with you--I did not mean to imply otherwise. One could, however, believe in all sorts of other miracles and yet still not believe in the virgin birth. (For example, most Christians believe in all sorts of miracles, yet do not believe in Mohammed's Mi'raj.)

I don't believe in divine miracles though and Christians do, so there is a disconnect there.

Could you be convinced otherwise or do you hold to the Humian view that absolutely no evidence would suffice to convince you that divine miracles could/did occur?

Mark said...

"For example, most Christians believe in all sorts of miracles, yet do not believe in Mohammed's Mi'raj."

I don't believe in either. I think the only reason Christians believe in their own miracles is because it's in their doctrine. That's why Muslims believe in their own set of miracles. They've both been taught to believe it. Christians and Muslims apply standards, principles, rules, etc. to the miracles of others while assuming by faith that their own miracles are exempt; without providing adequate justification for the exemption. Neither the Bible or the Qu'ran provide evidence of their own miracles. They say they occur, but saying so does not make it evidence.

"Could you be convinced otherwise..."

Yes, I could be convinced otherwise but it would have to be a clear demonstration like if all the people who have been dead for thousands of years came back to life. This isn't an unreasonable request in the context of Christian miracles. Isn't something similar supposed to happen during the rapture?

Matt Brinkman said...

I think the only reason Christians believe in their own miracles is because it's in their doctrine.

I'm not speaking for all Christians, mind you, but a number of people I know believe in miracles because they have had first hand experiences with the miraculous. While this does not, in itself, provide direct evidence of historical miracles, it does lend some credibility to the concept.

Neither the Bible or the Qu'ran provide evidence of their own miracles. They say they occur, but saying so does not make it evidence.

In a historical document, if you are excluding eyewitness testimony, what would constitute evidence?

Yes, I could be convinced otherwise but it would have to be a clear demonstration like if all the people who have been dead for thousands of years came back to life.

OK. I was just checking to see if you were taking Hume's absolutist position on this.

Mark said...

"While this does not, in itself, provide direct evidence of historical miracles, it does lend some credibility to the concept."

Perhaps, but I tend to put miracle testimony in the same category as people who testify they were abducted by aliens. Both are just so improbable.

"In a historical document, if you are excluding eyewitness testimony, what would constitute evidence?"

I don't think the Bible or Qu'ran are historical documents. They seem more religious in nature to me. While they both incorporate real history in the fabric of the stories they tell, so does "A Tale of Two Cities."

"I was just checking to see if you were taking Hume's absolutist position on this."

About, Hume. He is a very reasonable man. If he saw people who have been dead for 1,000 years come back to life, I'm sure he too would admit miracles happen and natural law can be overturned. Defying great odds is not miraculous in the sense it defies nature. True miracles defy nature.

Nick said...

Great conversation, guys. Keep it up.

I have to interject a comment. i think you have both been very reasonable. For a scientifically minded person who has trouble beliving in the supernatural (I hope that is a fair description, Mark), we would expect him or her to be extremely skeptical of miracles.

Thus, we look at the ministry of Jesus and the early apostles: very often their testimony and message was accomanied by a miracle. Take the guy who was lame since birth in Acts 3. If you had been that guy, or someone who knew him, or had passed him everyday and saw him begging by the gate, and then one day saw him jumping around and proclaiming that he had been healed by God through the apostles, it would certainly give some credibility to the gospel they were sharing.

Fast forward 2000 years. How much more credible would our message be to unbelievers if miracles accompanied our message? we cannot blame them for doubting our powerlessness.

Just a thought.

Matt Brinkman said...

Nick, sorry for hijacking your thread and then skipping out. Life got busy.

Anyway, I believe (heh) the topic of miracles still has some legs left to it, but I'm not sure whether anyone else feels the same (there are few things more boring than one person droning on and on in a thread that is old).

Nick said...

I'm cool with continuing, Matt, if you are interetsed.

Matt Brinkman said...

OK. As a quick conversation restarter, I would like to provide the beginning of an answer one of Nick's questions and get feedback from others.

Nick asked, "Fast forward 2000 years. How much more credible would our message be to unbelievers if miracles accompanied our message?"

I've heard this argument put forward before, and my immediate answer used to be that manifesting miracles would have a great impact on witness. Now, however, I am not so sure.

Historically the record is spotty at best. As Christians we believe that for three years that the Christ performed numerous miraculous works throughout Judea. In the end, however...

Although he had performed so many signs in their presence they did not believe in him, in order that the word which Isaiah the prophet spoke might be fulfilled: "Lord, who has believed our preaching, to whom has the might of the Lord been revealed?" -- John 12:37-38

I am not sure that today's generation is more open to the miraculous than were the people Isaiah wrote to or the the Jews in the time of Jesus.

Nick said...

I am not sure that today's generation is more open to the miraculous than were the people Isaiah wrote to or the the Jews in the time of Jesus.

Interesting point, Matt.

I'm not going to disagree with you much, only to say that I am a bit of an optimist, and I'd love to see this tried. You may be right, and to some degree I'm sure you would be, but I'll maintain my optimism until I see it fail.

I guess when it comes to evaluating this theory, we would have to look at the cultures. Is spirituality (in a general sense)the key stat? So, if we were more spiritual now than 2000 years ago we would be more impressed by miracles, or vice versa. Im not sure, just thinking out loud.

Nick

Tim said...

I'll jump in here real quick and give testimony that I have seen a real miracle take place, and I was with 25,000+ other people at the time.

When I was at Urbana 96 (tri-annual conference of InterVarsity), there was a speaker who was giving a talk about combating the powers of evil through our witness around the world. About 5-10 minutes into his 60 minute talk, he completely lost his voice. There was no hint of his voice going before he lost it.

Someone brought him water and a throat drop, but no avail. He was literally speechless. The director of the conference came up to his as cheers around the crowd were saying "Pray! Pray!" to which he confirmed that he was indeed going to do that. During that part, a woman came up behind the stage and started to pray with arms held up similar to the Old Testament story of Moses (right?) holding his arms up and bringing the Israelites victory and when they fell, they would start losing so others had to hold Moses' arms up for him. Others likewise came to hold her arms up for her.

After about 1 minute or so of prayer and silence, the speaker tried again to speak, and now his voice was louder than even his beginning. I have never been witness to anything like that before or since. Immediately after his talk ended, he had no voice for 3 days. To me, and many of those whom I spent this conference with, it was a miracle granted for us to witness.

I can't give you scientific evidence, but only this testimony. But even that said, 11 years since that time, I would say that my skepticism of witnessing a similar miracle has grown exponentially. But just having this conversation to remember this one miracle I did witness takes some of that skepticism away. So thanks, guys!

Mark said...

The guy pretends to lose his voice. You all pray for him. He gets his voice back. That's a miracle?

Tim said...

The key to this example can be summed up in one word: integrity. So if he was faking it, then everything else he would have said that night, or an other time, would have been a farce and lacked credibility. But since he had a significant reputation of integrity and honesty and spiritual depth, I am confident that he was not pretending.

Matt Brinkman said...

Mark wrote, The guy pretends to lose his voice. You all pray for him. He gets his voice back. That's a miracle?

Aye, there's the rub.

If Tim had said that the man was examined by a doctor at the session, and the doctor verified that he had a severe case of laryngitis, Mark's response would have probably been either collusion or confusion (please correct me if I am wrong). And this is fair enough, because Mark has already stated that he doesn't find miracle testimony to be particularly credible evidence.

So this brings us back around to the question of what one considers credible evidence of the miraculous. Mark, you have already stated that you can be convinced that miracles occur by a "a clear demonstration." What I am not clear on, however, is what you mean by a clear demonstration? Would you adopt something akin to Justice Potter Stewart's "I know it when I see it" definition of pornography, or is there something more qualitative?

*I do admit that I hope that your previous example of seeing the raising of the dead from ages past is not a minimum requirement.

Mark said...

"What I am not clear on, however, is what you mean by a clear demonstration?"

A miracle, as defined in the dictionary, is the occurrence of any event apparently contradictory to and unexplainable by the laws of science, and usually attributed to God.

An example of this would be Joshua 10:12-14 (The sun stood still at Joshua's command), Kings 6:5-6 (An iron ax floated on water), Exodus 7:17 (The waters were turned to blood), Matthew 16:8-10 (Jesus fed the multitudes with a few loaves and fishes)... I could go on.

A miracle is not something that happens against great odds like someone surviving an avalanche, etc. A miracle is supposed to be an impossible natural occurrence, hence the word "miracle." What's considered a miracle today, like someone getting his voice back, pale in comparison with the biblical miracles of yore. I won't lower the minimum requirement for miracles because by definition, at a minimum, naturally impossible is what a miracle is. It's telling that spectacular Biblical miracles don't happen anymore. So what's changed? Not physical law, which is the same now as it was then. Perhaps it's God's willingness to work miracles that's changed. Which do you think is more probable, that these miracles only happened during a specific period of time or that they never happened at all?

I think they never happened at all. I for one, would love to have seen Balaam's talking donkey. Though, I did see a Coca Cola guzzling donkey in Mexico once, it didn't appear to be miraculous in any sense of the word, though it was unnatural. :)

Tim said...

Mark, I'm curious by your last comment. Maybe you wrote this in a previous comment and I missed it, but if you don't believe the miracles described in the Bible happened, what is your view/belief of what those descriptions actually are or what might have really happened?

I had a religion studies teacher describe the post-crucifixion appearances by Jesus to the disciples were hallucinations similar to what is describe these days as effects of post-traumatic stress disorder after all their leader of 2-3 years was just killed. So I'm curious what you think actually happened instead of those miracles or maybe how the authors of those gospels came up with them and why.

Mark said...

"...but if you don't believe the miracles described in the Bible happened, what is your view/belief of what those descriptions actually are or what might have really happened?"

I view them like I do the descriptions of Greek, Viking, or Islamic miracles. They are myths. Most religions have their own miracles. Christianity is no exception. Religions use miracles as "proof" of divine intervention. Miracles give their gods credibility because they are viewed by the faithful as evidence the God of (insert religion here) exists.

Matt Brinkman said...

Mark wrote, "A miracle, as defined in the dictionary, is the occurrence of any event apparently contradictory to and unexplainable by the laws of science, and usually attributed to God."

I'm still not sure I understand fully your definition. So if you wouldn't mind working from an example, I think it would help clear up your definition for me.

The following is a story that was related to me by a couple of people who experienced it first hand. (One of the people was a staff scientist at Lawrence Livermore Lab, so this wasn't a tale form a collection of the gullible, nor could I imagine them lying to me about it.)

As part of a missions trip a group of Christians were camping out in a natural hollow in a field in Mexico. During the middle of the night a wind-whipped wild fire encircled the hollow and threatened to engulf the campers. In response they prayed, the winds shifted, and physical harm is averted.

In this case the means of rescue--namely the shifting of the wind--is not contrary to any law of nature. On the other hand, winds are not known to obey human desires, so if there was a cause and effect between prayer and the shift, this would not be normal. Would the second part alone be enough to constitute a miracle?

Please note, I am not asking you to believe this was a miracle--I grant that it all could well have been a coincidence. I am asking if in your mind a miracle must violently contravene the laws of nature, or if a conscious volition working through natural means could also be considered a miracle?

Let me answer one of your questions, "Which do you think is more probable, that these miracles only happened during a specific period of time or that they never happened at all?"

I think it is more probable that these miracles only happened during a specific period of time. This is, however, based on personal experience which led me to conclude that miracles do occur. If you don't share that conviction then your answer might well be different.

Mark said...

"As part of a missions trip a group of Christians were camping out in a natural hollow in a field in Mexico. During the middle of the night a wind-whipped wild fire encircled the hollow and threatened to engulf the campers. In response they prayed, the winds shifted, and physical harm is averted."

No, I wouldn't count that as a miracle. Following this rational, if native Americans did a rain dance and then it rained, that too would fall under the umbrella (pun intended:) of "miracle. Precipitation is not known to obey human desires, so if there was a cause and effect between the rain dance and the precipitation, this would not be normal. I'd have to say both cases are more likely coincidence than divine interventions from Jesus or Native American spirits, etc.

"This is, however, based on personal experience which led me to conclude that miracles do occur."

I guess it depends upon how you are defining miracles. If you define them as I do, then there have been no recorded miracles by science. If you defined miracles as you did above, then miracles happen all the time; from wind shifts, to lottery winners, to collapsed mine survivors. The believers, call it miracle. The skeptics, call it luck.