The Christmas story in Matthew includes a Matthean “formula quotation” that makes many Christians uneasy. They’re uneasy because they fear Matthew is placing too much weight on Isaiah 7:14, which in Matthew’s Greek Bible reads, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”
Matthew, along with most Greek-speaking Jews in the Ancient Near East, read the Septuagint (LXX), a Greek translation of the Old Testament. Whenever New Testament writers quote scripture, they’re quoting from LXX. In our Western church tradition, however, we follow the tradition of Judaism and use the Masoretic Text (MT), an earlier Hebrew version of the Old Testament, as the basis of our English translations. Although the LXX and the MT are substantially the same, there are some occasional differences, including in this verse from Isaiah.
The best translation of Isaiah 7:14 is found in the NRSV: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” In other words, the Hebrew word underneath Matthew’s quotation from LXX is not “virgin” (Hebrew: bethulah) but “young woman” (Hebrew: almah). It’s certainly true that Isaiah’s “young woman” doesn’t exclude the possibility that she’s also a virgin, but that’s beside the point.
The point is this: If Matthew is trying to “prove” the virginal conception of the Messiah using this Old Testament reference, he seems to be on shaky ground. Doesn’t he seem to be hanging a lot of weight on one word, which may be a mistranslation in the first place? The NIV and many other evangelical translations—perhaps fearing this discrepancy—continue to translate “young woman” as “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14, noting the discrepancy in a footnote.
(I read somewhere that the Southern Baptist Bible scholar who translated the Good News Bible gained credibility in the world of scholarship by properly translating almah as “young woman” instead of “virgin,” not without some controversy.)
Aside from Matthew’s possible mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14, he also seems to be running roughshod over the original scripture’s plain meaning. In context, Isaiah isn’t talking about a future Messiah at all. He’s talking about a young woman, perhaps King Ahaz’s own wife, who would soon bear a child.
King Ahaz, king of Judah—the southern kingdom of divided Israel—is afraid for his kingdom and his life. The king of Israel (the northern kingdom) and the king of Aram (or Syria) are in a military alliance against Assyria, and they want King Ahaz and Judah to join them. Ahaz refuses, and now these two kings are threatening to overthrow Ahaz unless he relents.
Isaiah, who rightly understands that this alliance against a large and powerful Assyria is foolhardy and destined to fail, encourages Ahaz to stand firm. Ahaz and his kingdom will survive, Isaiah assures him. In fact, as unlikely as it seems, both the northern kingdom of Israel and Syria will be destroyed, and soon—before this child is weaned.
The child, therefore, was a sign of this prophecy, which was fulfilled within a few years of its being spoken.
So the question remains: Was Matthew wrong to cite Isaiah 7:14 as the fulfillment of prophecy?
Here’s why: Matthew isn’t proof-texting. He isn’t simply latching onto this Isaiah text because he remembers that it said something about a “virgin” having a child, and… oh look! That sounds like it could be talking about Jesus!
On the contrary, Matthew knows his Bible. He knows the context of Isaiah 7. In fact, he’s counting on his readers also knowing the context. He wants them to remember that for Isaiah the conception and birth of this child was a sign of hope, deliverance, and salvation to Israel. Likewise, the conception and birth of this new child, Jesus, is also a sign of Israel’s hope, deliverance, and salvation—but even more so. Jesus’ kingdom represents the culmination of Israel’s hope, the end of Israel’s long exile, and the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises.
We can also know that Matthew isn’t proof-texting because he has nothing to prove. He isn’t making a case for Jesus’ being the Messiah. Why would he be? He’s writing to Christians who are already convinced.
If it’s true that Matthew—who writes most freely of Jesus’ fulfilling Old Testament promises—avoids careless proof-texting, how much more so for other New Testament writers, such as Paul? Whenever a New Testament writer cites a verse or two from the Old Testament, we can be sure that he’s using this scripture to represent the full story in context.†
At the very least, this means that we Christians ought to be reading the full story, too—not just the New Testament.
† That reminds me… In the Nicene Creed, when the Church says that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead “in accordance with the Scriptures,” they don’t mean that this or that verse prophesied Jesus’ resurrection; rather they’re speaking broadly of scripture, in the same way as Matthew. Jesus’ victory over sin, evil, and death—as represented in his resurrection—was anticipated by the Old Testament, which reveals a God who is faithful to God’s covenant promises.