Thursday, October 14, 2010

Does the Bible say the Lord Jesus was born of a Virgin?

Genesis 3:15

An orthodox Jew once asked a Jewish Christian, “Suppose a son were born among us today, and it was said of him that he was born of a virgin, would you believe it?” “Yes,” replied the other, “I would believe it if he were such a son!”

Truly, the whole truth of the virgin birth of Christ, revolves around the Person of Christ. If Christ is who He is, and we are willing to believe Him, surely to believe in His virgin birth will only follow as a natural requirement. However, for many so-called Christian ‘scholars’ the issue seems to be reversed. For them, if the virgin birth can be proved, or disproved, the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth would be established. And very often, for the most part, the majority of all such ‘scholars’, either set about disproving the deity of Christ or the veracity of the Scriptures that mention His miraculous virgin birth.

Our purpose will be to first take a look at the prediction of the virgin birth in the Old Testament scriptures, and based upon our understanding of these predictions, examine the New Testament scriptures to see if they indeed fit the picture we presented with of Jesus of Nazareth. We believe a correct understanding of the scriptures themselves will lead to a correct understanding of the who Jesus Christ really is. For you see, if He was not really born of the virgin, that would put him, as far as His human origin as least is concerned, on the same level of other men, born into this world. True, God could in some mysterious way still cause His birth to be unique. However, our own conviction is that a careful examination of scripture will no doubt lead our readers to uphold the truth of Christ’s virgin birth.

To begin, let’s take a look at Genesis 3:15; that most famous of verse in the first book of the Bible which reads, “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”

Most commentators believe that the expression “seed of the woman” really is a veiled reference to the Messiah, who would be born of a woman without the intervention of a man; else the expression would have been “seed of the man”, as also generally speaking it is the man’s seed that is usually spoken of whenever the word ‘seed’ occurs in connection with the human family.  For example, one writer says,

“The phrase...“her seed” is not found elsewhere in the Bible. Well over one hundred times we read of “the seed” and “seeds”, but in all cases the seed of the man is meant. But the seed of the woman is a unique concept and can be interpreted only as a foreshadowing of the virgin birth of our Lord. If He was not to be born of a virgin, then Adam would have been referred to: “his seed”, not “her seed”.

Of course the writer of the above words did not literally mean that the word ‘seed’ is never mentioned in the Bible in connection with a woman; for it is. For example, Ruth 4:12 reads, “And let thy house by like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore unto Judah, of the seed which the LORD shall give thee of this young woman.” Revelation 12:17 reads, “And the dragon was angry with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” In the first verse quoted, the meaning really is that the LORD should grant ‘children’ or ‘descendants’ to Boaz through Ruth. And the second verse quoted really means that the Devil turned his attention to wage war with the ‘remnant of her offspring’, or the rest of her children who keep the commandments of God and continue to hold the testimony of Jesus Christ. Obviously, the expression ‘her seed’ could not be a reference to the Messiah. Nor could it be argued that the words taken in context should mean the remnant of the Messiah, as though here the words ‘her seed’ was a veiled reference to the Messiah; and that therefore the remainder or ‘remnant’ of ‘her seed’ are the remnant of the Messiah – a minority group still owning the Messiah. No, such a construction would do violence to the text and would completely mar the true and simple meaning of these words.

Nevertheless, it is true that the words ‘her seed’ is rather singular in its usage in Genesis 3:15. Adam Clarke, believing it to be so, comments,

“But there is a deeper meaning in the text than even this, especially in these words, it shall bruise thy head, or rather, הוא  hu, He; who? the seed of the woman; the person is to come by the woman, and by her alone, without the concurrence of man. Therefore the address is not to Adam and Eve, but to Eve alone; and it was in consequence of this purpose of God that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin; this, and this alone, is what is implied in the promise of the seed of the woman bruising the head of the serpent.”

However, as pointed out earlier, the appearance words ‘her seed’ does not necessarily mean that here is a direct prophecy pointing to the virgin birth of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. C.F. Keil & F. Delitzsch in their commentary on Genesis say,

“although in the first clause the seed of the serpent is opposed to the seed of the woman, in the second it is not over the seed of the serpent but over the serpent itself that the victory is said to be gained. It, i.e., the seed of the woman will crush thy head, and thou (not thy seed) wilt crush its heel. Thus the seed of the serpent is hidden behind the unity of the serpent, or rather of the foe who, through the serpent, has done such injury to man. This foe is Satan, who incessantly opposes the seed of the woman and bruises its heel, but is eventually to be trodden under its feet. It does not follow from this, however, apart from other considerations, that by the seed of the woman we are to understand one solitary person, one individual only. As the woman is the mother of all living (Gen 3:20), her seed, to which the victory over the serpent and its seed is promised, must be the human race. But if a direct and exclusive reference to Christ appears to be exegetically untenable, the allusion in the word to Christ is by no means precluded in consequence. In itself the idea of זרע, the seed, is an indefinite one, since the posterity of a man may consist of a whole tribe or of one son only (Gen 4:25; Gen 21:12-13), and on the other hand, an entire tribe may be reduced to one single descendant and become extinct in him. The question, therefore, who is to be understood by the “seed” which is to crush the serpent's head, can only be answered from the history of the human race.

However, they go on to comment, bringing out as they do the full significance of the verse in question. We cannot here do better than to once again quote them at length for the benefit of our readers.

“But a point of much greater importance comes into consideration here. Against the natural serpent the conflict may be carried on by the whole human race, by all who are born of a woman, but not against Satan. As he is a fore who can only be met with spiritual weapons, none can encounter him successfully but such as possess and make use of spiritual arms. Hence the idea of the “seed” is modified by the nature of the foe. If we look at the natural development of the human race, Eve bore three sons, but only one of them, viz., Seth, was really the seed by whom the human family was preserved through the flood and perpetuated in Noah: so, again, of the three sons of Noah, Shem, the blessed of Jehovah, from whom Abraham descended, was the only one in whose seed all nations were to be blessed, and that not through Ishmael, but through Isaac alone. Through these constantly repeated acts of divine selection, which were not arbitrary exclusions, but were rendered necessary by differences in the spiritual condition of the individuals concerned, the “seed,” to which the victory over Satan was promised, was spiritually or ethically determined, and ceased to be co-extensive with physical descent. This spiritual seed culminated in Christ, in whom the Adamic family terminated, henceforward to be renewed by Christ as the second Adam, and restored by Him to its original exaltation and likeness to God. In this sense Christ is the seed of the woman, who tramples Satan under His feet, not as an individual, but as the head both of the posterity of the woman which kept the promise and maintained the conflict with the old serpent before His advent, and also of all those who are gathered out of all nations, are united to Him by faith, and formed into one body of which He is the head (Rom 16:20). On the other hand, all who have not regarded and preserved the promise, have fallen into the power of the old serpent, and are to be regarded as the seed of the serpent, whose head will be trodden under foot (Mat 23:33; John 8:44; 1Jo 3:8). If then the promise culminates in Christ, the fact that the victory over the serpent is promised to the posterity of the woman, not of the man, acquires this deeper significance, that as it was through the woman that the craft of the devil brought sin and death into the world, so it is also through the woman that the grace of God will give to the fallen human race the conqueror of sin, of death, and of the devil. And even if the words had reference first of all to the fact that the woman had been led astray by the serpent, yet in the fact that the destroyer of the serpent was born of a woman (without a human father) they were fulfilled in a way which showed that the promise must have proceeded from that Being, who secured its fulfilment not only in its essential force, but even in its apparently casual form.

Clearly, although we cannot pin down the words ‘her seed’ to be a direct reference to Christ and therefore a hint to His virgin birth, the verse itself does not preclude this idea.

Isaiah 7:14

Let us now consider the one passage in the Old Testament where a direct reference to the virgin birth is mentioned. Isaiah 7:14 reads, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (It may be objected that we have given here the definite article ‘the virgin’ instead of the indefinite article ‘a virgin’ as given in the KJV. However, a quick look at the original dispels all doubt. Darby has translated it with the definite article, in keeping with the Hebrew original and also the LXX translation)

The bone of contention here is the word ‘virgin’; whether the word in the original Hebrew has such a bearing, designating one not yet married – a virgin in the strict sense of the word. Some translations render it ‘the young woman’. Such is the translation of the Jewish Publication Society Bible and The Revised Standard Version, to name a few.

Such a translation of the Hebrew word almah is unnecessary and misleading. The word almah occurs 6 other times in the Old Testament – Gen 24:43; Exo 2:8; Psa 68:25; Pro 30:19; Son 1:3, 6:8. There is another word that is strictly reserved for a female who is a virgin and that is the word bethulah (see Genesis 24:16 where this word is used in the Hebrew along with the definition “And the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, bethulah neither had any man known her...” Darby has it “a virgin, and no man had known her” ). For instance this word is used in Deu 22:23 (& 28) – “If a damsel who is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city...” Clearly, here a virgin in the strict sense of the word is meant. And in Isaiah 62:5 “For as a young man marrieth a virgin...” again this same word bethulah is used.
So why isn’t this word used in Isaiah 7:14? And what significance does the word in this place have to the virgin birth?

Firstly, let it be said that from the word almah itself we cannot ascertain whether a woman is a virgin or not; for this other considerations will have to be taken into account. Strictly speaking the word bethulah would refer to a woman who is a virgin in the sense in which we today understand the term. The word almah only emphasised the fact that the woman was of a marriageable age and is therefore not a minor. In order words, she is old enough to bear a child, something a young female child cannot. Now this meaning is borne out in every instance of the word in its context in the Old Testament.

For instance, the first time this word occurs is in Genesis 24:43. Here Abraham’s servant recounts his prayer to God earlier that day saying, “Behold, I stand by the well of water; and it shall come to pass, that when the virgin cometh forth to draw water, and I say to her, ...” Here Abraham’s servant is asking God to guide him to the right girl for his master’s son Isaac. Of course, the girl would have to be of marriageable age; needless to say a virgin too. It is impossible to image that the servant’s prayer would have precluded such a vital requirement in a bride for his master’s son. Obviously, the servant was expecting to see, not a young female child, nor an old woman but a youthful lady, still in her virginity.

In Exo 2:8 the context doesn’t require any such qualities in the maid mentioned, nor in Psa 68:25.  Proverbs 30:19 is rather interesting in that it says, “...the way of a man with a maid.” Although Adam Clarke has pointed out the possibility of translating the expression “the way of a man in his youth” as found in certain MSS., with which the LXX translation also seems to agree, the words as appearing in our authorised version seems best taken as it is. Here again the word itself may not explain much. However, it is interesting to note that even here it is the way of a man with a woman of some maturity, not a female child of tender age that is implied. Once again the meaning we have attached to the word almah makes sense.

Strictly speaking the word in Son 1:3 may not refer to virgins, however, this distinction seems to be at least hinted at in Son 6:8 “There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number.” If here the word almah merely refers to young married women, the point of distinguishing them from queens and concubines is pointless. Obviously in this verse, virgins, in the strict sense of the word is implied, though not proved.

From the above observations, it is clear that the word almah in itself may not necessarily mean a virgin, as we understand it. That it may also include the idea of virginity, however, cannot be negated. Every young woman of marriageable age need not be a virgin, but every young virgin may be of marriageable age. Therefore the word definitely excludes the idea of a younger female child, a minor, and would refer only to young marriageable girls, virgin or otherwise.

The word bethulah is used in Exo 22:16 “And if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed...” Darby has it “And if a man seduce a virgin that is not betrothed...”. Clearly, the word bethulah here describes a young virgin girl of marriageable age but not even engaged to be married. And in this verse too the LXX uses the word parthenos.

Interestingly, the translators of the LXX in translating the word almah in Isaiah 7:14 into the Greek language of their day used the word parthenos, which word meant a chase virgin in the strict sense. This is also the word they used in Genesis 24:43. This word is also used in Isaiah in two other places; Isa 37:22 & 47:1 each of which occurrence is translated in our English versions as ‘virgin’. This word is also used in Deu 22:23 “if a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband..” however, in the previous verse describing a married woman a different word is used – gunaikos. This is the word that is invariably always used to describe a woman in general as distinguished from a man, also as the wife of a husband. Note that verse 23 talks about a damsel who is a virgin (parthenos) albeit married to a husband. In other words, she is engaged, which the Jews considered as good as the marriage bond, although not yet living with the husband.

Listing out our observations we may state

1.       The word bethulah could refer to a virgin not yet betrothed to a husband (Exo 22:16)
2.       The word bethulah could also refer to a virgin betrothed to a husband (Deu 22:23)
3.       The word bethulah never refers to a woman already living with a husband
4.       The word ishah is used in Deu 22:23 to describe a married woman already living with her husband
5.       Every time the word almah is used, the idea of a young girl of marriageable age who can bear a child is predominant, with no reference to her being married or not
6.       It cannot be proved beyond doubt that each time the word almah is used, a married woman was ever referred to

Furthermore, from the LXX we may observe in line with the above

1.       The word parthenos is used in Exo 22:16
2.       The word parthenos is used in Deu 22:23
3.       The word gunaikos is used in Deu 22:22 to describe a married woman already living with her husband
4.       The word gunaikos is used to refer to a woman in general as opposed to a man

So although some might argue that in Isaiah 7:14 the word bethulah should have been used, the fact that the other word almah is used makes more sense, when we consider the scope of Isaiah’s prophecy; which was at once also a sign to King Ahaz. Since the usage of the word bethulah would have precluded the idea of a woman already living with her husband which would also therefore render her not a virgin, the other word almah is used. And as we have already seen, this word almah does not necessarily rule out the fact of virginity in the woman, however, it is also open to the idea of the woman (whoever she might have been at the time the prophecy was spoken) living with her husband. If bethulah would have been used, the King would have been hard pressed to figure out just how a virgin could bear a son without living with her betrothed husband or without having known a man! For this word bethulah strictly referred to a virgin, one who has never known a man. And this, far from being a sign, would have been a mystery to him.

Although the word bethulah therefore would have been the most appropriate word to describe the future miraculous birth of the promised Messiah, it would be out of place in the context of the present crises King Ahaz was facing and of the assuring sign (and doubtless, bethulah could have been employed, were the prediction only for the distant future, not also a sign for the present). This is so especially in the light of the following verses in chapter 7, verses 15-16. However, the word almah creates no such problems. Since the word itself could refer to a young woman living with her husband or a woman who is unmarried and still a virgin.

Isaiah’s words therefore to King Ahaz would have been reassuring in view of the land’s speedy deliverance from their enemies. Isaiah told the King, “For before the child (connecting the child to verses 14 & 15) shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorest shall be forsaken by both her kinds” (Isa 7:16). If by this prophetic verses, Isaiah and therefore through him, the Spirit of God, meant to refer only to their future Messiah, the sign would have been no sign at all, as far as King Ahaz was concerned! On the other hand, if these verses were meant only to serve the purpose of a sign in the immediate future for King Ahaz, the prophetic element would be lost.

Some have suggested that ‘the child’ of verse 16 is none other than the prophet’s own son, whom he told to take along with him to meet with King Ahaz (see verse 3). However, the connection of ‘the child’ in verse 16 and 15 is so closely tied up with verse 14, that such a suggestion does violence to a natural understanding of the text. No, these verses serve as a sign, when first spoken to the King, and they were also meant to have a prophetic import.

We therefore believe the Spirit of the Lord chose a word that would fit the immediate context as well be applied in future. The word bethulah would have been, although most fitting to predict the future virgin birth of the Messiah, completely out of place and without sense as a sign for King Ahaz. On the other hand, almah serves both purposes. In the immediate context a woman, unknown perhaps now to us, but known to the King and to the prophet, would bear a son and before he was old enough to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land of Judah would be delivered of her present enemies. Moreover, the world almah leave open the possibility of a woman while still a virgin, miraculously giving birth to a son. And it is in this sense Matthew quotes this verse in his Gospel.

Under the circumstances, we cannot think of a better way to handle both situations than by using a word to describe the woman living at the time of Isaiah and at the same time would also describe the one, who in future would bring in the virgin-born Messiah. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counsellor? Indeed, our God is a great God and He does all things well.

To sum up, the translators of the LXX obviously understood Isaiah 7:14 to refer to a virgin not yet living with her husband, else they could have used the word gunaikos. Isn’t it rather significant that they understood this verse to be speaking about a virgin in the strict sense of the word and not a married woman already living with her husband! And with this Matthew agrees and therefore is led by the Spirit of God to link this verse with Jesus’ birth through the virgin Mary, betrothed though she be to Joseph though not living with him yet. 

In conclusion we cannot do better than close with the summary of G. Rawlinson in his exposition on the book of Isaiah on these prophetic verses.

            “The subject is far from being exhausted. It is still asked:
(1) Were the mother and son persons belonging to the time of Isaiah himself, and if so, what persons? Or,
            (2) Were they the Virgin Mary and her Son Jesus? Or,
(3) Had the prophecy a double fulfillment, first in certain persons who lived in Isaiah’s time, and secondly in Jesus and his mother?

I. The first theory is that of the Jewish commentators. Originally, they suggested that the mother was Abi, the wife of Ahaz (2 Kings 18:2), and the son Hezekiah, who delivered Judah from the Assyrian power. But this was early disproved by showing that, according to the numbers of Kings (2 Kings 16:2; 18:2), Hezekiah was at least nine years old in the first year of Ahaz, before which this prophecy could not have been delivered (Isaiah 7:1). The second suggestion made identified the mother with Isaiah’s wife, the “prophetess”of Isaiah 8:3, and made the son a child of his, called actually Immanuel, or else his son Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isaiah 8:1) under a symbolical designation. But ha-’almah, “the virgin,” would be a very strange title for Isaiah to have given his wife, and the rank assigned to Immanuel in Isaiah 8:8 would not suit any son of Isaiah’s. It remains to regard the ‘almah as “some young woman actually present,” name, rank, and position unknown, and Immanuel as her son, also otherwise unknown (Cheyne).  But the grand exordium, “The Lord himself shall give you a sign — Behold!” and the rank of Immanuel (Isaiah 8:8), are alike against this.

II. The purely Messianic theory is maintained by Rosenmüller and Dr. Kay, but without any consideration of its difficulties. The birth of Christ was an event more than seven hundred years distant. In what sense and to what persons could it be a “sign” of the coming deliverance of the land from Rezin and Pekah? And, upon the purely Messianic theory, what is the meaning of ver. 16? Syria and Samaria were, in fact, crushed within a few years of the delivery of the prophecy. Why is their desolation put off, apparently, till the coming of the Messiah, and even till he has reached a certain age? Mr. Cheyne meets these difficulties by the startling statement that Isaiah expected the advent of the Messiah to synchronize with the Assyrian invasion, and consequently thought that before Rezin and Pekah were crushed he would have reached the age of discernment. But he does not seem to see that in this case the sigma was altogether disappointing and illusory. Time is an essential element of a prophecy which turns upon the
word “before” (ver. 16). If this faith of Isaiah’s disciples was aroused and their hopes raised by the announcement that Immanuel was just about to be born (Mr. Cheyne translates, “A virgin is with child”), what would be the revulsion of feeling when no Immanuel appeared?

III. May not the true account of the matter be that suggested by Bishop Lowth — that the prophecy had a double bearing and a double fulfilment? “The obvious and literal meaning of the prophecy is this,” he says: “that within the time that a young woman, now a virgin, should conceive and bring forth a child, and that child should arrive at such an age as to distinguish between good and evil, that is, within a few years, the enemies of Judah should be destroyed.” But the prophecy was so worded, he adds, as to have a further meaning, which wan even “the original design and principal intention of the prophet,” viz. the Messianic one. All the expressions of the prophecy do not suit both its intentions — some are selected with reference to the first, others with reference to the second fulfilment — but all suit one or the other, and some suit both. The first child may have received the name Immanuel from a faithful Jewish mother, who believed that God was with his people, whatever dangers threatened, and may have reached years of discretion about the time that Samaria was carried away captive. The second child is the true “Immanuel,” “God with us,” the king of Isaiah 8:8; it is his mother who is pointed at in the expression, “the virgin,” and on his account is the grand preamble; through him the people of God, the true Israel, is delivered from its spiritual enemies, sin and Satan — two kings who continually threaten it.

With the view of Bishop Loweth we fully agree. The passage in Isaiah 7 indeed has such a double character – a sign for King Ahaz during his time, and also a prediction of the Messiah’s virgin birth. The Messiah alone, when born among men, could be truly and literally called Immanuel, God with us. And with this Matthew agrees quoting Isaiah 7:14 in his Gospel in connection with Mary giving birth to our Lord Jesus Christ, who was indeed born of His mother the virgin Mary.

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