Fortune tellers predict your future; sports writers and political pundits pick winners. Sometimes these modern day prophets hit it, sometimes they miss completely. Old Testament prophets faced the same problems: men like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah were constantly predicting the future for the Kings of Judea.
About 720 years before the birth of Christ, King Ahaz of Judea was being attacked by two enemies and his prophet, Isaiah, made a prediction. Isaiah was as confident as a Bulldog fan before the Georgia Tech football game. He pulled Ahaz aside and pointed at one of the King’s young wives, and said something like this: “See that woman? She will conceive and bear a son and before the boy is 12 years old, these two enemies of yours will be destroyed.” (Is.7:14) Isaiah was dead right; his prediction came true.
But a strange thing happened that Isaiah could never have predicted. Hundreds of years later, his story was translated from the original Hebrew into Greek and when the Greek translator came to the word “woman” (ha almah) in Hebrew, he wrote “virgin” (Parthenos). The Hebrews had a word for virgin (bethulah); in fact, Isaiah uses it a few chapters later (Is.62:5), so it’s a mystery why this Greek word was chosen.
But it gets even stranger. About 200 years after this mis-translation, Matthew uses this same Greek error to say that Isaiah was predicting the virgin birth of Jesus. Now we know that Isaiah was not talking about that; he was talking to Ahaz about his two enemies. His prediction centered on the next few years—not 720 years later. And Matthew was no dummy; he could read and write in Greek and Hebrew when most people around him were illiterate. And he knew his Bible (he called it the Tanakh) backwards and forwards. Matthew knew exactly what Isaiah meant. So what was Matthew doing?
Well, one thing’s for sure: Matthew was not reading his Bible literally. The literal interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 is so clear that any child can understand it. Literally, the prediction is that a young woman (not a virgin) will conceive and bear a son, and that this boy will not be more than 12 years old when the two enemies of the King are defeated. And this prediction was literally fulfilled.
So what was Matthew doing? Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were writing “good news.” That’s what “gospel” means. I know many of my readers want the Evangelists to write history, and sometimes they did, but not always. Not here, for sure. Matthew is certainly not stating that Isaiah’s prediction 720 years ago was “historically” a prediction about the Virgin Birth; he knew it wasn’t. So what’s he saying?
The Old Testament is full of prophesies about the coming of the Messiah. In fact, just two chapters later, (9:5) Isaiah predicts the Messiah will be called: “Wonderful, Counselor, and Mighty God.” The New Testament writers were completely confident that Jesus was that Messiah and they felt comfortable in pulling out passages anywhere that sounded like him. In Matthew’s short thirty verse account of the birth of Jesus, he quotes five “proofs” from the Old Testament, and only two of them have anything to do with the Messiah, but it doesn’t matter. They all sound like him, and that’s just part of the good news.
Reading the Bible is not like reading the Story of Civilization by Will Durant. It’s a whole different style and a whole different culture, and a completely different mode of writing. It doesn’t mean it’s not true. Truth comes wrapped in various packages; this is just one of them.
However—as my friend Don McGouirk at 13WMAZ used to say: “That’s my opinion; what’s yours?”