Jesus and his Virgin Birth

Fra Angelico

THE idea that Jesus of Nazareth was ‘born of a virgin’ appears in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Nowhere else in the New Testament, however, is it considered important enough to be mentioned or even hinted at. Matthew bases his claim on the Old Testament book of Isaiah, chapter 7, verse 14. In the King James Version  this reads, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”. There are three things worth paying some attention to.

Firstly, when the Jewish people, centuries before the days of Jesus, were taken into exile, they learned to speak the ‘common language’ which, after the conquests of Alexander the Great, was Greek. Hebrew for them began to die as a spoken language, and so the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, and called the “Septuagint”. This Greek translation, and not the original Hebrew Bible, was what was used by Matthew and Luke, who themselves spoke, and wrote in, Greek.The Septuagint, in Isaiah 7:14, uses the word ‘parthenos’, which means virgin. The problem is that there are two words in Biblical Hebrew, one of which, ‘bethulah’, specifically means ‘a virgin’, while the other one, ‘almah’, simply means ‘a young woman’. It’s reference is to age, not sexual status. It’s this second word that the Hebrew Bible uses, and the NET Bible gives a more accurate translation of the original : “For this reason the Lord himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel.”

Secondly, in determining the meaning of any particular verse, it’s necessary to read its surrounding context. In Isaiah 7, the prophet is advising King Ahaz of Judah, who is under pressure to ally himself with two other kings, not to do so, but to trust in God instead. He points to a young woman who is present, and who, rather than being a virgin, is, he says, on the point of becoming pregnant. How he knows this, is open to speculation. He tells the king that by the time her child is born, and old enough to know good from bad, the other two kings will have ceased to pose any threat to him. His words are entirely understandable in, and relevant to, their contemporary context, and give no indication of having any other reference. The idea of a virginal conception, then, isn’t found in the Hebrew Bible, but only in an arguably misleading translation in the Greek Septuagint. 

Thirdly, and just for the record, in some translations of Matthew’s Gospel, (not to mention Handel’s Messiah), we’re told that Immanuel means “God with us”, in support of the idea that God ‘became flesh’ in Jesus. In Hebrew, however, the verb to be is ‘understood’, and so the name Elijah, for example, doesn’t mean ‘the Lord my God’, but ‘the Lord is my God’. Similarly, Immanuel means ‘God is with us’. It’s simply a supportive statement made in a threatening historical situation. King Ahaz is being told, ‘God’s on our side, don’t worry, everything will turn out ok’ – and so it did ….. for a time at least.

Jesus of Nazareth, then, in my view, was conceived and born in exactly the same way as every other human being.

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