It is the season of Advent, which means it is time for critics of Christianity to try to poke holes in the Christmas story, as people scramble to put up what is left of their Christmas decorations, fill their Amazon cart with last minute gifts, and believers in Jesus prepare for the celebration of the Incarnation of the Son of God.
Dr. Bart Ehrman, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, New York Times bestseller author, and perhaps the most well-known public skeptic of Christianity, has been making the rounds on various atheist YouTube channels, promoting a new seminar regarding “Other Virgin Births in Antiquity,” just in time for the holidays.
In one particular promotional video, on the atheist Paulogia channel, Paulogia asks Dr. Ehrman to interact with a video by Dr. Michael Heiser, an evangelical expert in Semitic languages, and perhaps my favorite Old Testament scholar. I posted a blog article asking “Is the Virgin Birth Prophecy a Mistranslation?,” back in 2016, which at the end featured the full-length video of Dr. Heiser’s lecture.
In the recent 20-minute video, Paulogia states in the subtitle: “Dr Bart Ehrman joins us to determine if [Dr. Michael Heiser’s] work is scholarly… or just more Christian apologetics.” Of course, this assumes Dr. Ehrman’s work is purely scholarly with no biased apologetics of his own…. NEWSFLASH: Every scholar has their biases, using their own style of apologetics to defend their views, including Bart Ehrman.
However, if you are interested, the recent 20-minute Paulogia interview with Dr. Ehrman, critiquing the Heiser video can be viewed here. You could just read on for now, and come back to it at a later time:
The Virgin Birth Prophecy…. Did Matthew Botch the Whole Thing?
To my knowledge, this is the only YouTube presentation where Dr. Ehrman interacts with Dr. Heiser’s material. I only want to highlight the main controversy here, as it has to do with the famous Virgin Birth prophecy found in Matthew 1:23, which quotes Isaiah 7:14, indicating that the birth of Jesus fulfills this prophecy, made about 700 years earlier.
The English Standard Version (ESV) translation, starting in Matthew 1:22, reads as follows to describe the very first Christmas:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
This closely mirrors what the ESV has in Isaiah 7:14. However, compare the same passage in something like the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition (NRSVue), for Isaiah 7:14:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.
The highlighted portion demonstrates the controversy. Both Dr. Ehrman and Dr. Heiser agree that the NRSVue rendering is the accurate translation of the original Hebrew. The Hebrew has the word “almah,” which generally means “young woman,” or “young maiden.” However, these two scholars then begin to differ.
Bart Ehrman argues that treating the Hebrew word “almah” to mean “virgin” is a mistranslation. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, produced a few centuries before Jesus, by a group of Jewish scholars near Alexandria, Egypt, then carried this “mistranslation” into that Greek text, which Matthew borrows and places in his Gospel.
Michael Heiser argues otherwise. For the term “almah” is actually a rather ambiguous word in the Hebrew lexicon. Yes, it does generally mean “young woman.” However, an “almah” might also be considered to be a “virgin,” depending on the context. The concept of “virgin” is more restrictive, in the sense that it could refer to a “young woman” who has not yet experienced sexual relations. In other words, you simply can not rule out the idea that “almah” could mean “virgin.”
What the Paulogia video neglects to tell viewers is that there is a clear instance in the Bible when “almah” does mean “virgin,” a translation which Dr. Heiser explains in a separate article, that I will summarize here: In Song of Songs 6:8, the ESV reads:
There are sixty queens and eighty concubines,
and virgins without number.
This verse is talking about the women in the king’s harem, where the Scripture writer delineates three different classes of women. You can ignore the obvious moral difficulty of a king having a number of women at his disposal to focus on these three classes. A “queen” would be a wife of the king. A “concubine” would be a “secondary wife” or “slave woman.” That last category, “virgin” corresponds to that Hebrew word “almah,” for reasons that the Orthodox Jewish Bible gives in a footnote:
….the word means explicitly or implicitly “virgin” and where “young woman” is not an adequate rendering, in this case, since the King was hardly interested in only young women in his harem, but demanded “virgins”; the older Jewish translations like Harkavy’s so translated the word as “virgin” in this verse until it became politically incorrect to do so in later, more liberal Jewish translations into English].
I like to use the online StepBible as a great tool for exploring such a word study, as in how the Hebrew word “almah” is translated throughout the whole Bible, to see this for myself. While Matthew’s method of Old Testament prophecy interpretation may sound weird to us, he was far from being careless or clumsy.
…..So much for Dr. Ehrman’s critique against Dr. Heiser on this point….
On the Nature of Bible Prophecy: Why the “300+ Prophecies of Jesus” Can Be Misleading
Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that Bart Ehrman does raise an important issue that is often neglected: There is a specific Hebrew word for “virgin” found in the Old Testament: “betulah.” If the prophet Isaiah really meant “virgin” to be the word here in Isaiah 7:14, why did he choose the ambiguous word “almah” and not the more specific word “betulah?”
To answer that question you have to think more deeply about the nature of biblical prophecy. Both Dr. Heiser and Dr. Ehrman agree in the video that it would have been completely absurd for Isaiah to have one and only one meaning in mind regarding Isaiah 7:14, looking hundreds of years into the future, simply based on the original context of the passage.
A closer look at the whole chapter, in Isaiah 7, demonstrates what is going on. In the 8th century B.C.E., King Ahaz of Judah is being threatened by two kings from the land to the north. Verse 2 even says that Ahaz was “shaking” in fear. Would the God of Israel deliver Ahaz from this military threat?
Ahaz says that he will not test the Lord in this moment, but the prophet Isaiah is not buying into Ahaz’s fake piety. Isaiah then makes his famous prophecy, but then in verses 15-16, Isaiah says that before the promised child is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, those two northern kings will no longer be a threat to Ahaz.
Just think about it. If Isaiah was only prophesying the coming of Jesus, would that have really made any sense to Ahaz? Imagine such a conversation that Isaiah would have had with Ahaz, if this indeed was the case:
“King Ahaz! I have great news for you. Seven hundred years from now, a child will be born, and before that child reaches an age of moral maturity, those two kings that are causing you to shake in your boots now will no longer be a threat to you!”
What type of comfort would that really give to Ahaz? He would be long dead before the prophecy would have any meaning for him.
Unfortunately, there are many Christians who never really think about this problem at all…. and it is a real problem. I had been a Christian for nearly several decades before I realized that this was indeed a problem. It does not help that there are a handful of evangelical scholars who perpetuate this idea that Isaiah 7:14 is solely a messianic prophecy, whose only purpose is to predict the coming of Jesus, at the first Christmas, nearly 700 years after Isaiah and Ahaz were living.
I presume they mean well, but I do not understand the full thinking process used by such scholars who promote this “single messianic prophecy” view. Assigning a prophecy to have a purely future, single meaning to it is attractive, in that it is simple to understand: Isaiah predicts the birth of Jesus… end of story.
But it comes across as a kind of wishful thinking approach to biblical prophecy. While there is not anything necessarily harmful in wanting something to be true, it becomes a serious problem when the evidence is either completely lacking or leads to nonsense, or far worse, the available evidence contradicts with the proposition that we want to believe to be true.
Many Christians familiar with at least some form of Christian apologetics are often told that at least some 300 prophecies in the Old Testament have been fulfilled by Jesus. In fact, several friends of mine have told me that they became believers in Jesus because of those 300+ prophecies. Understandably, many Christians want to see how Jesus fulfills centuries of Old Testament prophecies, hundreds of years into the future. But the story is more complicated than what you get in a typical Sunday morning sermon, particular during the season of Advent…. and frankly, the story is far more rich and profound.
Many imagine Jesus was probably walking around at some point in his life with clipboard underneath his tunic, checking off things to make sure they were being fulfilled: “Born in Bethlehem…. CHECK…. Born of a Virgin…. CHECK…. Avoiding the wrath of Herod by escaping to Egypt with Joseph and Mary and then returning…. GOT THAT, TOO!”
Well, it just is not that simple. While there are some prophecies that have a single, direct fulfillment in view, such as most probably with Micah 5:2’s prediction that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the weight of the evidence overall points to something more nuanced.
More often than not, both Second Temple-period Jewish and early Christian interpreters used a particular form of Bible interpretation to understand how prophecy works: typology. A typological interpretation of prophecy suggests that there is a “type” or pattern of prophecy fulfillment or partial fulfillment that anticipates a later, full fulfillment of the prophecy, or the “real thing” being prophesied. Some scholars refer to this as a “double-fulfillment” view of prophecy, but the terminology of “typology” is a theologically richer way of thinking about it.
Perhaps the best example is in Roman 5:14, when the Apostle Paul describes Adam as the type of the one who was to come, namely Jesus. In this example, Adam is the “type” while Jesus is the “real thing.” Or to put it another way, Jesus is the “Second Adam.” The curious thing about a lot of typology is that it is typically not that easy to figure out how a particular statement in the Old Testament anticipates its New Testament fulfillment, just by reading the Old Testament itself.
Most Jews today associate Isaiah 7:14 with a more near-term fulfillment of the prophecy, namely in the birth of Ahaz’ son, Hezekiah, the future king who would live beyond the deaths of those two northern kings who threatened Ahaz. When the Jew Trypho had his famous 2nd century C.E. debate with the Christian apologist Justin Martyr, Trypho made the case that Isaiah 7:14 prophesied the coming of Hezekiah, whereas Justin argued that it was Jesus who was prophesied.
However, many scholars have since argued that the prophesy initially referred to the birth of Isaiah’s own son, described in Isaiah 8, who actually receives the name of “Immanuel” in Isaiah 8:8-10.
Furthermore, there is nothing specific in the Old Testament that links Isaiah 7:14 to any particular, future messianic expectation. Also, we have no demonstrable pre-Christian Jewish texts after Isaiah that associate Isaiah 7:14 with a future coming Messiah, according to Beale and Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.
However, when the Septuagint translators translated “young woman” into “virgin,” this might indeed suggest that at least some Jews eventually began to think that there was something more to the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy, as a future son having some type of supernatural conception, centuries beyond the days of Isaiah, Ahaz, or Hezekiah. It is difficult to know for sure.
Nevertheless, Matthew in the New Testament ultimately settles the matter by linking the “virgin” to Jesus’ mother, Mary. For in Matthew’s mind, Jesus does more than simply deliver two northern kings from threatening King Ahaz, back around the 8th century B.CE. Instead, Jesus delivers the whole world from the deadly grip of sin, from Satan, and other powers of darkness.
The Cryptic Nature of Bible Prophecy: A Lesson from World Cup Soccer
Back to the discussion by Bart Ehrman that raises an important question: Why so cryptic?
Why is it that the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 is so ambiguous? If the whole point of Isaiah 7:14 was to point to Jesus, why did Isaiah not settle the matter himself and use the word “betulah” to describe the mother of the promised child?
The answer is found here: … think about World Cup penalty shootouts.
As I am writing this, the 2022 FIFA World Cup tournament in Qatar is wrapping up. Once you get into the semi-final and final rounds, games where the score is tied is settled by a penalty shootout. Each team brings up a shooter against the other team’s goalie. The standoff is almost all mental. Both the shooter and the goalie has to somehow anticipate what the other is going to do. Will the shooter feign a shot to the right, when the shot is really meant to go into the left side of the goal? Will the goalkeeper dive to his right, anticipating that the shooter will try to put the ball in that side of the net? Will the shot come low and straight-on, or will it go high and up to a corner?
It is all a battle of wits and skill, trying to read what the other player plans on doing.
In other words, the key to success in a penalty shootout in the World Cup is in trying to be as cryptic as possible, regarding what one intends to do.
The lesson of World Cup penalty shootout strategy can help us to understand why Bible prophecy is so cryptic: The key to understanding it is not by saying that Isaiah 7:14 was mistranslated, or that Matthew misused Isaiah’s prophesy. Instead, it is to recognize that the cryptic nature of the prophecy was cryptic by design. It was not some “mistake” that crept into our Bibles, sneaking under the radar of the early church fathers who affirmed the New Testament canon of Scripture. Instead, Matthew does what he does on purpose, to make a theological point. The Apostle Paul explains why this was the case in 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 (ESV):
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.
The big clue here is the meaning of “the rulers of this age.” Some suggest that these are political rulers in Paul’s day, but Paul is thinking of a bigger, supernatural picture here. In Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm these “rulers of this age” are supernatural beings that seek to challenge the authority of the God of Israel, and who wish to derail God’s program to reveal the messiah to the world through the person of Jesus of Nazareth (Kindle location 2134).
In order to thwart these dark powers who wish to thwart the one True God’s plan to bring about the redemption of humanity, God veils his plan in the Old Testament to reveal Jesus as the Christ in such a way that these “rulers of this age” would not be able to figure out what God was up to, until after the fact. By then, the “rulers of this age” would be powerless and too late to stop God’s redemption plan. The only way you would then be able to discern what God was doing was through hindsight. This was what Matthew was doing by understanding in hindsight what the prophet Isaiah was getting at with Isaiah 7:14, whether Isaiah himself was fully aware of this added typological dimension or not.
In other words, the powers of darkness thought that God would strike the ball hard and low to the right side of the net, but instead, God feigned a move and then cranked the ball into the upper left hand side of the net.
While this way of interpreting Isaiah 7:14 may not be as exhilarating as the “single messianic prophecy” view propagated by some Christians, it is still a defensible position to hold, given the available evidence. The “single messianic prophecy” view faces the onslaught of critics, like a Bart Ehrman, who can tear down such a indefensible thesis into shreds, which he manages to do in the Paulogia video.
On the other hand, a more nuanced, typological reading of Isaiah 7:14 is supported by the weight of evidence that undergirds it, and it can withstand the volley of criticisms that skeptics might throw against it. Plus, it makes sense of the broader contour of the Bible’s story, of how God has sought to reveal his plan of redemption through the history of Israel, despite the opposition of the powers of darkness.
SO… back to the question in this blog article title, “Did Matthew Botch Christmas?” Hopefully the case has been made that the answer is “NO.”
At Christmas, the light of Christ breaks through the darkness to show to a hopeless world that there is still hope, and that Jesus himself is the living incarnate expression of that very hope. The powers of darkness, intent on destroying God’s plan, were caught off guard, unaware of the deeper reality of God’s plan of redemption. Recipients of God’s mercy and grace instead benefit from that Good News. With that truth in mind, we have a wonderful reason to celebrate a Merry Christmas!
If you want a deep dive look at this, consider Dr. Michael Heiser’s full presentation regarding Isaiah’s Virgin Birth prophesy, as opposed to Paulogia’s heavily edited version with Bart Ehrman above. While I am not saying that the truth of Christianity rises and falls on the Virgin Birth story, I am saying that Christianity makes more sense with the Virgin Birth than without it. For that reason, I would consider the Virgin Birth to be an essential doctrine of the Christian faith, a hallmark of orthodox faith and belief. However, I would also add that Christians should learn that there are defensible ways of upholding the Virgin Birth, that we should consider, and let go of certain wishful thinking fantasies that simply can not be defended…… But before you check out the Dr. Heiser video, you can re-live the moment when Argentina beat the defending champions, France, in a World Cup penalty shootout in the 2022 Final!