At Christmas, we’re reminded of the Bible’s best-known prophecy claim, the virgin birth. We’re told that the birth of Jesus fulfilled a prophecy written 750 years earlier in the Old Testament book of Isaiah.
The first problem with this claim is that the evidence of the fulfillment is not independent but comes through the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the authors of which would have read the prophecy. A fulfilled prophecy would have improved the Jesus story, so how do we know they didn’t read about a prophecy and then just write that it was fulfilled?
The three relevant verses in Isaiah 7 are not even a prophecy of a messiah. Here’s the story in that chapter: in the early 700s BCE, Syria and Israel allied with nearby countries for protection against Assyria, the local bully that was vacuuming up smaller states. Judea refused to join the alliance, and Syria and Israel, fearing a potential enemy, moved to conquer Judea.
God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to tell the king of Judea that, with faith, his enemies would be destroyed. Isaiah gave him a sign: “The young woman will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.” Before the boy is old enough to understand right from wrong, Judea’s enemies will be destroyed.
In other words, in five or ten years your enemies will be destroyed—that’s the point of the Immanuel story. The boy is simply a living clock. And not only is Immanuel not a messiah, his three-verse story isn’t even a significant part of this chapter, which goes on to describe Judea’s painful future after conquest by Assyria.
Isaiah prefaces the prophecy to the king with, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.” This sign was obviously a near-term event since it had to come during the king’s lifetime. The Immanuel story is a prophecy, but it’s a prophecy to be fulfilled in a few years, not 750 years.
Remember the Immanuel prophecy: “Before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid to waste.” This doesn’t map onto Jesus’s life. And where do we find the crucifixion and resurrection in Immanuel’s life?
The story doesn’t even have a miraculous birth—a virgin woman will have sex, become pregnant, and deliver a boy. This isn’t miraculous or even surprising. If this prediction involved a miracle, we’d expect more to be made of it to eliminate the (obvious) mundane explanation.
Isaiah doesn’t even use the word “virgin.” Since the author of Matthew was literate in Greek, he was likely more familiar with the Greek translation of scripture, the Septuagint. The original Hebrew term meant “young woman.” While modern Bibles often use “virgin” in Isaiah, that seems intended only to preserve the imagined prophecy.
As a final irony, Matthew rejects his own prophecy. The baby isn’t named Immanuel, as Isaiah requires; he’s named Jesus!
Image credit: Chester Cathedral (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia
Virgin birth: The virgin birth story is not unique to Jesus. Alexander the Great in Greece, the Caesars in Rome, and the Ptolemies in Egypt claimed to have been virgin born or divinely conceived. The Jesus version probably came out of this zeitgeist rather than being a fact of history.
Septuagint: The Septuagint, also called LXX (for 70), is a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The Pentateuch (first five books) were translated in around 250 BCE and the remainder about a century later. Legend says that 70 Jewish scholars in Alexandria were charged with the translation, and they independently came up with identical translations.
Matthew and Luke: Matthew 1:22–3 and Luke 1:31–5.
The three relevant verses: Isaiah 7:14–16.
he’s named Jesus: In Hebrew, his name was Yeshua. Through first Greek and then Latin, we get our English name “Jesus.” From a variant of Yeshua we get the related name Joshua.