Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The 'Virgin' of Isa. 7:14 and of Matt. 1:23

In the latest Biblical Archaeology Review (March/April 2012), Amy-Jill Levine (Jewish NT prof. at Vanderbilt) has an article on "What Jews (and Christians too) Should Know about the New Testament" (available free online at the moment). It's a good article, as one would expect from Levine. She places in historical context certain NT ideas that have caused antagonism (to say the least) between Jews and Christians: (a) the not infrequent accusation in the NT that the Jews have killed the Christ and/or the prophets (cf. 1 Thess 2:15; Matt. 27:25; John 8:44; etc.); (b) the idea that the man Jesus was connected to God in such a way that he himself could be considered divine and thus be worshiped; and (c) the often strange (to modern ears/eyes) interpretations of scripture to be found in the NT.

About the first two of her points, I have only praise for Levine. Whereas some scholars involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue seem to approach their task as if meaningful dialogue can happen only if "the other guy" first recognizes that his own religious traditions are stupid, bigoted, and condemnable (I'll refrain from citing anyone), Levine reads with sympathy and openness the scriptures of those with whom she fundamentally disagrees. When this is more common, true dialogue and understanding will be more common, as well.

But about her third point, I have some concerns--not from the standpoint that she's obfuscating Jewish-Christian dialogue, but just plain ole' exegetical concerns. Let me quote her. At the beginning of her third section, entitled "To fulfill what was said by the prophet...," she writes:

Some Jewish readers will reject Christian claims that the Scriptures of Israel (the Church’s “Old Testament”) predict the life of Jesus. Matthew 1:23 quotes Isaiah 7:14 as stating that “the virgin will conceive and bear a son,” but Jewish readers may respond: “Isaiah doesn’t mention a ‘virgin’ but a ‘young woman,’ and he’s not talking about something to take place centuries later, but about a current political issue.” The problem here is one of translation. Isaiah, writing in Hebrew around 700 B.C.E., uses a pregnant young woman as a visual illustration for King Ahaz. To paraphrase Isaiah’s comment: “Look at that pregnant young woman. By the time her baby is old enough for solid food, your international problems will dissipate.”
When Isaiah’s prophecies were translated into Greek (the Septuagint), probably in the second century B.C.E., the Hebrew for “young woman,” almah, was rendered as parthenos, which we know today from the Parthenon in Athens (or the replica in Nashville!), the temple of the goddess Athena. At the time, parthenos meant “young woman,” but it could mean virgin also. In the Greek translation of Genesis 34:3, the prince Shechem, after having sexual relations with Jacob’s daughter Dinah, uses the term parthenos to describe her. 
When, 200 years later, the author of Matthew’s gospel read Isaiah 7:14 in Greek, he saw a prediction of a virginal conception. That is a legitimate reading. Jews, however, reading their Scriptures in Hebrew, see no virginal conception. 
By applying Isaiah’s prophecy to his own time, Matthew is reading his Scripture in good first-century Jewish fashion. 
Levine goes on to note ancient Jewish interpretations outside the NT that we would also consider far-fetched, and so again a proper understanding of the contemporary Jewish world would help us to understand what the NT writers are doing. Yes, but...

I don't think her explanation of what Matthew is doing captures precisely his reading of Isaiah. Specifically, this sentence gives me pause: "When, 200 years later, the author of Matthew's gospel read Isaiah 7:14 in Greek, he saw a prediction of a virginal conception." Levine seems to be saying that Matthew--like any good first-century Jew--took this verse out of context, thus misinterpreting it (though Levine herself calls this reading "legitimate"), because he thought it was predicting a virginal conception when actually, unbeknownst to Matthew, it had a meaning for Isaiah's own day.

Several things about this understanding of Matthew 1:23 seem dubious to me. But let me first say, for the benefit of any Christian readers out there who haven't run across this idea before, that Levine's reading of Isa. 7:14 finds little disagreement from me. That is, she is surely correct that Isaiah was talking not about a "virgin" but about a "young woman" (thus agreeing with the Hebrew, and even the Greek, as Levine points out), and not one who would become pregnant in the future, but who was pregnant right at the time Isaiah was speaking. (Unfortunately, English translations, usually arising from conservative Christian groups, have translated Isa. 7:14 in keeping with their faulty understanding of Matt. 1:23 and thus have butchered the text, turning the woman into a virgin and inserting a future tense ["will conceive"] when none exists in the Hebrew text, which says that she "is pregnant".)

Indeed, I like very much Levine's paraphrase: "Look at that pregnant young woman. By the time her baby is old enough for solid food, your international problems will dissipate." I think that is exactly the point Isaiah was trying to get across to Ahaz, as will be clear by reading the entirety of Isaiah 7. There is just one problem with the wording here--it leaves out the crucial bit of information that the child would be called "Immanuel." I call this information "crucial" because this name for the child certainly stimulated Matthew's thinking and prompted him to connect this child of Isa. 7 to the the only child--in Matthew's mind--who could truly wear the name. It is the name "Immanuel" as much as the presence of the word "parthenos" that explains the appearance of Isa. 7:14 in Matt. 1.

Now, to Matt. 1:23, and unfortunately this post is already somewhat lengthy, so I'm going to need to return to this subject later for a fuller explanation. But let me just say briefly: if we didn't have any other passages in which Matthew quotes something in Jesus' life as a fulfillment of previous scripture, then we would probably have to read Matt. 1:23 in the way Levine does here. But we do have other quotations of scripture in Matthew, and they must be explained as well. In a later post I will look at the quotations of scripture in Matthew ch. 2 and explain why I think these help us to understand what Matthew is doing in ch. 1.

But let me go ahead and give you the conclusion. Instead of Levine's explanation, quoted above, for Matthew's use of Isaiah, I would rather put it this way: "When, 200 years later, the author of Matthew's gospel read Isaiah 7:14 in Greek, he saw an opportunity to clarify an aspect of Jesus' life as a fulfillment [or a 'filling-up' or a 'working-out' or a typological example] of something that happened previously in Israel's history."

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