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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

The Historical, Factual Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and she shall call His name Immanuel. Isaiah 7:14

The virgin conception and birth of Jesus Christ is one of the most well-known and universally acknowledged doctrines of Christianity. Every major branch of the visible church affirms it as a foundational article of faith, including Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Nearly all the visible church professes it in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. The Bible clearly teaches it in Luke 1:26-38 and Matt. 1:18-25. And a few other verses strongly imply or at least hint at the possibility of a child being born without a human father, such as Gen. 3:15; Jer. 31:22; Mic. 5:3; and Gal. 4:4. However, the clearest declaration of the virgin birth of Christ found outside of the Gospels is Isa. 7:14 quoted above. Thus, Matthew claims that Christ’s virgin conception and birth occurred as a fulfillment of this prophecy of Isaiah. And this is where the controversy begins.

Critics have long insisted that Matthew (and the visible church ever since) distorted this text of Isaiah. First, they claim that the Hebrew word used here, almah, does not mean virgin, but only “young woman.” And that Matthew was led astray by the Septuagint translation of the passage, which uses the Greek word for virgin, parthenos. This argument does not hold water for a number of reasons. The author of Matthew clearly knew Hebrew and so could not have been fooled by a Greek translation of Isa. 7:14. Also, while the Hebrew word almah is a general word for maiden and not the specific word for virgin, almah must mean an unmarried woman. In fact Luther once issued a challenge, “If a Jew or Christian can prove to me that almah means a married woman, I will give him 100 florins, although God alone knows where I might find them.” Moreover, the word almah is always used in a positive sense, that is, with reference to a morally upright person. Therefore, in accord with how the word is always used in the other six places of the Hebrew Bible (Gen. 24:43; Exod. 2:8; Ps. 68:25; Prov. 30:19; Sol. 1:3, and 6:8), here in Isaiah 7:14 we cannot interpret this woman as a married woman or as an adulteress or fornicator. Thus, she must be a virgin, as is also the strong implication in the other passages. Finally, if Isaiah had used the Hebrew word for virgin, bethulah, instead of unmarried woman, almah, you could understand the passage as simply referring to a virgin, upon marrying, conceiving in the usual way; but by using a word that demands an unmarried woman, you cannot understand it this way.

Another argument used to try to refute the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 claims that the verse refers to Isaiah’s wife’s son or to some unknown woman of Isaiah’s day, because 7:16-17 refers to an event that would happen in a few years: Syria and Samaria being conquered by Assyria. While this argument is more plausible in that it does not do violence to the correct meaning of the words, it also cannot stand. First, when Isaiah’s wife conceives in 8:3, God tells him to call his name “Maher-Shalal- Hash-Baz,” not Immanuel. Moreover, in 7:14 it is the woman and not a man who names the child. Similarly, the boy referred to in Isa. 7:16, who is about to come to the age of moral discernment – “know to refuse the evil and choose the good” – is Isaiah’s already born son, whom God commanded him to take with him in 7:3 when He was sending him out to speak this prophecy. God is saying that before Isaiah’s already-born son gets a little older, Syria and Samaria will be conquered. But that is not the sign referred to in 7:14-15, where a child of a virgin is born, whose eating habits will be similar to Isaiah’s son’s eating habits and for the same reason: a time of scarcity and want. Thus, the key to correctly interpreting the text is in understanding to whom God is giving this sign.

Isaiah is speaking to king Ahaz, David’s current heir, who is ruling over the nation of Judah. He has been sent to give a promise and a sign that God will not allow Syria and Samaria to achieve their boast in 7:6 of wiping out the line of David and setting up a new king and kingdom. But the Hebrew text, by the use of plural pronouns, reveals that the message and sign are not given to Ahaz personally but to the whole house of David. Thus, God warns David’s whole house of the danger of not believing and so not being established in 7:9, and then says to them in 7:13-14 (using perfectly good Pittsburgh English) “Then he said, ‘Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you’ns to weary men, but will you’ns weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you’ns a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and she shall call His name Immanuel.’” The sign of God’s keeping His promise to always have a son of David on the throne was not given to one king, but to all the descendants of David. It was a humbling sign, a rebuking sign, and a sign of God’s power. For God would keep His promise to David to raise up a future son to rule forever, even without a male descendant of David begetting that son! David’s line may have ended up being faithless, but God was still faithful to His promise: for the virgin conceived and bore a son and she, and now we, all call Him Immanuel, God with us!


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