Saturday, December 21, 2013

Why a Virginal Conception? A Response to Doug Wilson (Part 1)

The Annunciation of Cortona (1433-34, Fra Angelico;
Museo del Prado, Madrid) (
Fifty years ago the late Andy Williams expressed a common sentiment when he sang, with reference to the Advent/Christmas season, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." The little child that still lurks within my breast would heartily agree. Nor would the theologian that serves as my semi-public persona quibble overmuch. Jester Hairston may have been exercising a little artistic license when, a mere seven years before, he wrote the charming Christmas song "Mary's Boy Child," with the refrain, sung so memorably by Harry Belafonte, "And man will live forevermore, because of Christmas Day." I know, of course, that good theology would place the emphasis instead on Jesus' death and resurrection. Nevertheless, New Testament scholars have rightly coined a helpful expression, "the Christ event," to denote the entire nexus of events from Jesus' birth to the outpouring of the Christ's Spirit at Pentecost, which together constitute God's decisive saving act in Christ. All the constituent parts, in other words, hang together, and draw their complete significance in light of each other. In particular, Jesus' death could never have had the universal significance attributed to it by the New Testament unless his birth in 5/4 BCE was, as the fourth Evangelist put it, the "incarnation" or enfleshment of the eternal Word of God (John 1:1, 14).

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.


  1. From your student Corey J. McLaughlin (check out "about" page to see the growing fam...we have TWINS now!)

    1. Thank you for your challenging and insightful words here. So refreshing to read a thinking blog!

    2. Mathew’s use of the OT: Typology is certainly a legitimate interpretation and one that I think fits better than double fulfillment or sensus plenoir but maybe we gave away too much ground here back in the 19th century to liberal scholars pressing for an answer to the supposed historical contradiction in Isaiah 7. Matthew is very plain in saying, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (1:22). A claim he makes 15 or so times. He began his Gospel with a genealogy for a reason, to link Jesus to the OT as the most complete fulfillment. He follows the royal line of Judah (important for the context of Isaiah 7) and then continues on citing four fulfilled prophecies up to chapter 2:23. I do think it can carry a larger semantic range than 1:1 predicative prophecy and certainly seems to emphasize the idea of completion or end goal. Hence Christ is the fulfillment of the Law & Prophets (Matt. 5:17) which rabbi Paul rightly understands to mean that he is the “end of the law” (Rom. 10:4). Even the Hosea passage which is typically relegated to typology or analogical correspondence seems more intentional on Matthew’s part than we first allow. Christ is the completion of Israel’s redemption from sin only partially realized in Israel’s historical return from Egypt but fully realized in Christ the truer Son escaping Egypt and bringing salvation with Him. I would argue that Matthew’s fulfillment language is stronger than mere typology when we really take the time to drill down on his understanding of the deeper context and putting the texts he uses in their full OT redemptive historical context.

    3. Liberals claim Matthew didn’t know Hebrew and didn’t understand the OT context of Isaiah 7, but what if, we give Matthew the benefit of the doubt and say he was a pretty smart fella and maybe WE are the ones that missed something here. Isaiah 7 isn’t just about Ahaz as everyone claims, but also collectively about “the house of David” (7:2). If Assyria steam rolls over Judah what will happen to the promise that God gave in 2 Samuel 7 to always keep a man on the throne of David? What will happen furthermore to the messianic line, the lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of Jesse? This conflict has the potential of altering redemptive history. So, God gives two prophecies not one. Something we may not have seen immediately if Matthew did not call our attention to it.

    Isaiah 7:13 is addressed to the “house of David” followed by the use of plural “you” forms ending in v 15 and is intended as a future prophecy for a promised ruler/messiah named Immanuel. A second prophecy in vv 16-17 plays off from the previous language but this one is for Ahaz in particular and meant as a more immediate answer to the threat (note that v 16 “you” is singular indicating a change in audience). In the second prophecy Isaiah refers to a “boy” or a “lad” which could be the son God commanded that he bring with him (whose significance is never really explained, Shear-jashub in 7:3), or even more likely Maher-shalal-hash-baz in the next chapter in 8:3-4. In the context then, Immanuel in 7 at first appears supernaturally special but that line of reasoning is only confirmed when we read of Immanuel’s titles in chapter 9 as “mighty God” etc. Taking Isaiah on his own terms and using 8-9 as the interpretive key to 7:14 leads us to the conclusion of a virgin born divine messiah. This is Gary Smith’s argument in the NAC (google books p. 212-216, also note 282) along with some translation changes to the Hebrew in 16-17 for further support.


  2. 4. Overstated case on almah culturally: Is there a case in the OT where “young woman of marriageable age” is not a virgin? Culturally/contextually almah carries the connotation of virgin in a Patriarchal society where said age may be as young as 12. If a woman is marriageable it is implied that she is a virgin, otherwise, who would marry her?

    5. Overstated case of almah linguistically: The claim that betulah is some how more technical of a word for virgin then almah does not do justice to the available OT and historical evidence. Sometimes betulah is used and still requires clarification that the women is a virgin. Genesis 24:16 describes her as a Betulah and then adds “whom no man had known.” Why clarify it if it is some supposed technical word? Interestingly, almah is used just a few verses later in 24:43 without any need to clarify that she is a virgin. Depending on your rendering of Joel 1:8, betulah there would mean a young women who has been married (i.e. NOT a virgin), “mourn like a betulah in sackcloth, grieving for the husband of her youth.” Cyrus Gordon argues that the cognate term of almah in Ugaritic is used describe a virgin goddess with similar construction as Isaiah 7:14 (so “Almah in Isaiah 7:14, JBR 21 (1953): 106). I think this is a stronger line of evidence then appealing to the LXX since it is the earliest witness of the parallel word used in a cognate language.

    6. Understated need for a sign: God told Ahaz to ask for a sign “deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (7:11). Something truly supernatural, extraordinary, & amazing. Yet when he refuses, we are supposed to believe that God then delivered him a humdrum, natural, normal, “sign” of a women giving birth to a child? Is God the wizard behind the curtain? Promising something fantastic but delivering a man in a suit pulling levers? Or, far more likely, did God give the house of David a supernatural sign that they could not even wrap their heads around, something truly deeper than Sheol and higher than heaven. Something they had never heard of, dreamed of, imagined, or conceived. A pure virgin would suddenly become pregnant and bear a son carrying the divine name Immanuel, a sure sign of God keeping his covenant promise. And in fact, far from being irrelevant because it is sooo far in the future, that’s just the point, the farther away it is the MORE SURE Judah can be that they wills survive to see this sign come to fruition.

    Just my gut reaction, I’m open to more research, prayer, and thinking on the matter. Thanks for getting me going! We still talk about your class and the impact you made on us. Are you teaching somewhere?


  3. Thanks for your work on this. I look forward to part 2.