When I was very young, I remember once hearing a bit of a conversation my Dad, who was a Lutheran pastor, had with someone regarding Bible Translations. This would have been around 1970, I think. About that time, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was the common translation used in a lot of churches, but there were a lot of traditionalists who insisted that if the King James Version was good enough for Moses, St. Paul and Martin Luther then by God it was good enough for them too.
I don’t remember much about that conversation, except for one little factoid: That the KJV translated the famous passage in Isaiah often cited at Christmas as “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son…” but the RSV rendered it: “a young woman shall conceive…”
As much as it irritates the traditionalists, the RSV translation really is the more accurate. So why is there this discrepancy in the first place? How did the young girl become a virgin? (Well, yeah, that is how they start out; but still.) And why do many modern translations follow the KJV?
The answer gets a bit complicated. Let’s start by jumping ahead to the Gospel of Matthew.
I like to think that the writer of Matthew had a mind like mine. I have a tendency to collect weird little factoids, and to connect them with other bits of trivia. It’s a quirk which has both amused and I’m sure aggravated more than one pastor of mine, and it’s one of the driving forces behind this series. I think Matthew did too, because he was always making connections between the events of his narrative and earlier passages from Scriptures.
One of these is the passage that frequently gets quoted during the Christmas season:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:22-23 NIV)
I like to envision Matthew recording the story of Christ’s Virgin Birth and thinking, “Holy cats! Isn’t there a prophecy in Isaiah like this?” And then citing the verse in his narrative. (Well, I doubt he said “holy cats”, but the rest of it sounds reasonable).
Now, a cynical mind might suggest that Matthew invented the story of the Virgin Birth in order to fit the prophecy, but I don’t think that’s the case. I’m not sure that the Isaiah prophecy was even regarded as a Messianic one until Matthew made that connection; but we’ll get there later.
Matthew was writing in Greek, and when he quoted from Scriptures he used the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that had been made in the Third Century BC. In the Septuagint, the word in question is “parthenos”, meaning “virgin”.
In the original Hebrew, however, the word is “almah”, meaning “a young woman of marriageable age”, which is not necessarily the same thing.
Traditionalists will tell you that such a young woman usually would be a virgin in that culture, so it’s the same diff; and that in most other places in the Old Testament where the word “almah” occurs it’s understood that the girl is still a virgin. And, for what it’s worth, the Jewish scholars of the Septuagint chose “parthenos” to translate the word.
(In researching this piece, I came across one translation that tries to split the difference. It reads: “Watch for this: A girl who is presently a virgin will get pregnant…” Meaning she was a virgin… up to the point where she got preggers.)
Later translations, such as the Vulgate, Jerome’s Latin translation of the Middle Ages, and King Jim followed the Septuagint, partially because that was the best version of the Hebrew Scriptures they had available, but mainly, I think, to keep the Isaiah passage consistent with the way Matthew quotes it. And, as someone I know once observed, a young woman who wasn’t a virgin getting knocked up isn’t that remarkable a prophecy, now is it?
But then again, we’re used to hearing the verse lifted out of its context and uttered by cherubic-faced children too young to know what a virgin is in Sunday School Christmas pageants. Let’s go back to Isaiah.
Isaiah chapter 7 starts out with King Ahaz of Judah facing an imminent threat from Pekah, the king of Israel to the north, and Rezin or Aram, in what we now call Syria. Pekah and Rezin were trying to pressure Ahaz in to joining them in a coalition against Assyria to the northeast.
The Lord sends Isaiah to King Ahaz with a prophecy, telling him not to panic, and to remain calm and resolute, because both Israel and Aram were “smoldering stubs of firewood”. They intended to invade Judah and divide it between themselves, but they would never get the chance. Assyria was going to crush both of them.
Then we get to the meat of the passage.
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test,” Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of God also?” (Isaiah 7:10-13 NIV)
I like this bit. It’s irrelevant to the story, but I can just picture Isaiah coming to the king all ready to lay some spectacular Signs and Wonders on him, only for Ahaz to say, “Nah, don’t bother.” Isaiah gets pissed and says that the king is going to get his sign whether he wants it or not. “The Lord himself will give you a sign…” and then we get the familiar verse quoted by Matthew. But the prophecy does not stop there:
“…He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” (Isaiah 7:15-16)
And then Isaiah goes on to describe what will happen when Assyria comes in to kick everybody’s butt. But the child is not the significant part of the prophecy; at least not the prophecy as Ahaz hears it. And the prophecy says nothing about the Messiah, whenever he might come. Instead, it tells Ahaz what will happen to his kingdom and to the kingdoms of his enemies in the near future.
The kid in the prophecy is used to give Ahaz an idea of a timeframe. By the time the kid knows right from wrong – this could refer to the age of his bar-mitzvah, when a boy is officially regarded as an adult, or maybe a younger age when he has learned enough to be halfway responsible – he will be eating curds and honey. Later on in the prophecy, Isaiah expands on this, explaining that war will ravage the countryside and destroy the fields and vineyards, forcing people to rely more on the dairy products from what livestock they can save for their diet. And even before that, both Israel and Aram will be destroyed.
So the kid in the prophecy gives us a timeline. Twelve or thirteen years tops, or maybe only two or three, depending on what Isaiah meant by knowing right from wrong, until these things come to pass.
Some Hebrew scholars have suggested that this child was Ahaz’s own son, Hezekiah; but another possibility comes up in a parallel prophecy in the very next chapter.
The LORD said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz [“quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil”] And I will call in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me.”
Then I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. 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.” (Isaiah 8:1-4)
So perhaps the child spoken of in the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy was Isaiah’s own. I’d hate to be named “Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz”, though. If nothing else, it would be hell to have to fill in the bubbles on those standardized tests in school.
Isaiah’s reference to his wife as “the prophetess” is also interesting. Was it because the woman he married was also a prophet, or was she just called that the same way some pastor’s wives might sometimes be informally called “Mrs. Pastor”? Frustratingly, Isaiah tells us very little of his family life, other than that she evidently permitted him to give their kids some really weird names.
But whether the kid of Isaiah 7:14 is Hezekiah, or Isaiah’s kid, or some purely hypothetical infant; his mother doesn’t have to be a virgin for the prophecy to work; at least not the prophecy regarding Assyria that Ahaz was most interested in.
Then does that mean that Isaiah’s prophecy had nothing to do with the Messiah after all? Well, Matthew obviously thought it did. And possibly he was connecting it in his mind with the prophecy in Isaiah chapter 9, (“For to us a child is born…” Isaiah 9:6) which definitely does look forward to an anticipated Messianic age.
But I think that we Christians often make the mistake of assuming that the Bible is a Code and that each verse has exactly One Meaning and One Meaning Only. This is obviously not the case, or else clergymen would have a much harder time coming up with new sermons every week. The Bible is richer than that, and a single passage may hold many facets and inspire many thoughts.
I don’t have a problem with considering that God might have given multiple-purpose prophecies with meanings that reverberate beyond the immediate occasion of their delivery. Heck, most of the End Times prophecies are like that.
Matthew found a particular meaning in this verse. The Chucrch has latched on to his interpretation as The Interpretation of what Isaiah was saying; but I think that other interpretations have their validity too. Still, I can’t say that the meaning he found is wrong.