|The Annunciation of Cortona (1433-34, Fra Angelico; |
Museo del Prado, Madrid) (firstname.lastname@example.org)
To 21st century Western ears—just like, reading between the lines of such texts as Mark 6:3 and John 8:41, not to mention later anti-Christian arguments recounted in writers such as Origen (Against Celsus 1.28, 32), it was to ancient ones—the most distinctive (and most difficult to swallow) element of the infancy narratives of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 is their stunning description of the modus operandi of Jesus' conception, viz., that he was conceived in Mary's uterus directly by the power of the Spirit without the required exigency of sexual intercourse having taken place. To be sure, partial parallels in Greco-Roman sources, such as the famous account of the miraculous conception of Alexander the Great (Plutarch, Alex. 2), have led even some evangelical scholars (e.g., A. T. Lincoln in his spanking new Born of a Virgin?) to posit literary and/or theological motives for the Matthean and Lukan accounts, obviating the somewhat uncongenial task of affirming or defending their putative historicity. Nevertheless, more than 80 years ago J. Gresham Machen demonstrated that the theory of pagan derivation was, upon thorough examination, far weaker than is often supposed, a view supported even by such deniers of the virginal conception as W. D. Davies and Dale Allison in their magisterial ICC volumes on Matthew (1:214-17). What is more important, as Allison writes, "Matthew, we can be sure, believed in the virginal conception of Jesus" (1:221). And what little evidence we have for the earliest post-apostolic Christianity reflects the same belief (e.g., Ignatius, Eph. 18.2-19; Smyr. 1.1-2). Ultimately, of course, the virginal conception made its way both into the so-called Apostles' Creed and the definitive Niceno-Constantinoplitan Creed of 381.
Some time ago I wrote a couple of posts dealing with the problem of the virginal conception's historicity. In the first, I pointed to N. T. Wright and Charles E. B. Cranfield as examples of two eminent historians who, while recognizing the obvious fact that such a "miraculous" birth could hardly be "proven" by the strictures of modernist historiography, nevertheless can, in good conscience and by reasoning historically, affirm it to be a warranted belief. In the second, I pointed to a real life Sheldon Cooper, Cambridge theoretical physicist-turned-Anglican vicar, John Polkinghorne, as an example of a decidedly not fundamentalist Christian who, like C. S. Lewis before him, understands the virginal conception historically and literally as an example of an enacted myth. I have nothing new to add at this point, other than to say that I too am able to confess the words of the great creeds ex animo and without reservation.
What often gets lost in the discussion, however, is the point of it all. Why did Jesus have to be conceived virginally? What, in other words, is the theological logic behind the event (or the narrative, if one decides to suspend belief)? Recently Doug Wilson put his two cents' worth in with a post succinctly entitled "Why a Virgin Birth? Wilson prefaces his answer by rather pugnaciously (as is his wont) declaring that in Isaiah 7:14, the text cited by Matthew as being "fulfilled" in Jesus' conception/birth (Matt 1:22-23), "Isaiah prophesied that a time would come when a virgin would conceive and bear a son."
The text, in the NIV, reads as follows: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." And thus it would appear, on a cursory reading, to indicate just that. But, as always, things aren't as simple as they initially appear. In this case, the problems begin with the Hebrew term translated "virgin." It is ‘almâ, which even evangelical scholars recognize refers to a "young woman of marriageable age" (e.g., John Walton, NIDOTTE, s.v., 3:416-18), not bĕtûlâ, the normal term for "virgin." Thus Old Testament scholars and mainstream English translations (e.g., the NRSV) regularly render the term "young woman" here and search for a referent closer in context and in time to the 8th century prophecy itself. Wilson, however, is not impressed. He sneers at so-called "liberal scholars" who like to point out this lexical point—certainly not a small one, I might add—and condescendingly say to their more conservative brethren, “You conservatives ought to think about this a bit harder, and join the rest of us in the 21st century as soon as you are able.” In answer to such presumed liberal "snobbery," Wilson has one presumed trump card: the Greek LXX translation, which rendered ‘almâ by parthenos, which can only mean "virgin," instead of neanis, "young girl" (later Greek versions, such as those of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, represent ‘almâ by neanis in apparent reaction to the Christian apologetic use of Isa 7:14). By doing this, so Wilson argues, the LXX reflects the fact that "centuries before there was any Christian agenda around to influence the story, the expectation among the Greek-speaking Jews (at a minimum) was that a virgin would conceive and bear a son."
Wilson may well consider me a liberal, though my membership in the Evangelical Theological Society and graduate degrees from the famously conservative Dallas Seminary would belie such a presumption. Nevertheless, his argument, despite its venerable conservative pedigree (e.g., E. J. Young, The Book of Isaiah [NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965] 1:288-94), simply fails to hold up to sustained scrutiny. For starters, the supposed Jewish expectation of a virginally conceived Messiah is notable only for its absence in every other strand of Second Temple literature available to us. Moreover, post-Christian Jewish sources are unanimous in their rejection of such an understanding of the prophecy (e.g., Trypho: "The passage is not, 'Behold the virgin will conceive ...' but 'Behold the young girl will conceive ...'" [Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 67.1]). Indeed, even if the LXX translation reflects an implied virginity in the reference to the "young woman" in Isaiah 7:14, it still need not have necessarily entailed a virginal conception, for the virginity could have referred to the girl's assumed state at the time the oracle was spoken.
More significantly, a close reading of Isaiah 7-8 demands a referent of the prophecy closer to home, as it were. In context, Isaiah promises, as a "sign" to King Ahaz of Judah, the birth of a son in whose early years (7:15-16) the two kings dreaded by Ahaz (i.e., those of Israel and Syria) would suffer ruin. Most later Jewish exegesis understood the prophecy as pointing to Hezekiah (e.g., Trypho, in Justin, Dial. 67, 77; Exod. Rab. on 12:29; Num. Rab. on 7:48). More plausibly, however, is the suggestion that it refers to Isaiah's own son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz (cf. Isa 8:3-4: "Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, 'Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria'."; cf. 8:1-10 as a whole).
If so, then what justification did Matthew have for claiming this prophecy was "fulfilled" in Jesus' virginal conception? Certainly the Evangelist was not simply inventing an "event" to match a presumed scriptural or national expectation of such a conception in ignorance of the original context of the prophecy. Nor did ignorance of the original Hebrew text lead him naively to believe in a one-to-one correspondence between the Isaianic prophecy and its coming about in Jesus (for the text-forms of Matthew's "fulfillment citations" [see below], which often diverge from the LXX under the influence of the Hebrew text, see Bob Gundry's now almost 50 year old Manchester thesis, The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew's Gospel with Special Reference to the Messianic Hope [SNT 18; Leiden: Brill, 1967]). Rather, sustained reflection leads one to conclude that he was operating with prophetic categories more subtle and profound than the simple prediction/fulfillment paradigm most modern Westerners assume.
Matthew's citation of Isaiah 7:14 is not sui generis. Indeed, it is but the first of ten (eleven, if one includes the citation of Micah 5:1 [5:2 in English versions] in Matthew 2:5) such quotations in his Gospel which are prefaced by an editorial comment that the cited text was "fulfilled" (plēroō) in Jesus. Taken together, these citations underscore his fundamental conviction that the events of Jesus' life and death are the "fulfillment" of what God had promised in the scriptures. Years ago Doug Moo articulated the force of Matthew's notion of "fulfillment" as follows: "The word is used in the New Testament to indicate the broad redemptive-historical relationship of the new, climactic revelation of God in Christ to the preparatory, incomplete revelation to and through Israel" ("The Problem of Sensus Plenior," in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon [ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986] 191).
In short, I would argue that Matthew understands Isaiah 7:14 to be a typological anticipation of Jesus. In Biblical Theology, "typology" involves the recognition of correspondences and patterns in God's progressive unfolding of salvation history, with "typological" foreshadowings (events, persons, offices, liturgy, etc.) designed to anticipate God's ultimate saving action in Christ, whose "antitypical" completions of these patterns are marked by heightenings or escalations of the original patterns.
In the present case, typology works as follows: just as the birth of "Immanuel" (Maher-shalal-hash-baz?) was a sign to Ahaz of God's direct intervention ("God with us") to judge the wicked (Isa 7:15ff.!) and deliver his covenant people—which would, in the flow of Isaiah's prophecy, ultimately come in the golden age promised in Isa 9:2-7 and 11:1-16—so the miraculous birth of Jesus signified that God would finally act to bring this "golden age" precisely through Jesus' saving of his people from their sins (Matt 1:22). As the late Raymond E. Brown noted:
... [T]he sign offered by Isaiah was not centered on the manner in which the child would be conceived, but in the providential timing whereby a child who would be a sign of God's presence with his people was to be born precisely when that people's fortunes had reached their nadir (The Birth of the Messiah, 2nd ed. [New York: Doubleday, 1993] 149)The validity of Matthew's use of Isaiah 7:14 here is tied, as I see it, to two important factors in the text of Isaiah itself. First, in Isaiah 7:13 the sign given to Ahaz is addressed to "the house of David." Second, in Isaiah's prophecy the ultimate hope of Israel is tied to one called a "son" or "child" (Isa 9:2-7; 11:2-16). Thus the "Immanuel" prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 is organically connected in Isaiah's prophecy both to the birth of the royal child who would be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace" (Isa 9:6), whose coming would herald the dawn of the long-awaited and darkness-dispelling great light (9:2-3), and to the shoot from the hacked-off stump of Jesse, on whom the Spirit would rest, enabling him to reign in righteousness, justice, and faithfulness (Isa 11:1-9). Matthew, we can be sure, drew these connections, and did so rightly.
But why was Jesus born of a virgin? What theological significance attaches to this seemingly strange event once it is divorced from any necessary role in an apologetic, proof-from-prophecy scheme? It will be the aim of our next post to discuss this problem.