This is my last post on my studies on Isaiah 7:14 and the Sign of Immanuel. The conclusions I offer in this post are based on the textual evidence I have presented in previous posts. If you have not read my previous posts, I strongly suggest that you read them before you read today’s post. The conclusions I offer here may not be fully understood without the textual background I offered in my previous posts. The links for the previous posts are listed at the end of this post.
Before we study Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 and how the sign of Immanuel is related to the birth of Christ, it becomes necessary to consider five important factors that must take priority in any interpretation of Isaiah 7:14.
1. Isaiah 7:14 and the sign of Immanuel must be interpreted within the context of the Syro-Ephraimite war, as I discussed extensively in my first post.
2. The sign of Immanuel was a historical sign given to King Ahaz at a crucial time in the history of Judah. In order for the sign to have any significance to Ahaz and the people of Judah, the sign must first find a historical fulfillment in Ahaz’s days. After the sign of Immanuel is understood in its historical context, then and only then can the sign of Immanuel be understood in relation to the birth of Christ.
3. Isaiah 7:14 and the sign of Immanuel must be interpreted within the narrative that appears in the book of Isaiah, chapters 7 and 8 and in 2 Kings chapter 16. These three texts refer to the same historical event and must be used in understanding and interpreting Isaiah 7:14 and the sign of Immanuel.
4. The Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 must have priority over translations of this verse found in the Septuagint and in English translations such as the King James Version (KJV), the New International Version (NIV), and many others. After all, no translation is inspired by God; only the biblical text is inspired.
5. Since the Gospel of Matthew applies Isaiah 7:14 to the birth of Christ, then the sign of Immanuel given to Ahaz must also have a significant application to the events related to the birth of Christ.
These five understandings listed above should guide any interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 and the sign of Immanuel.
The Jewish Silence about the Virgin Birth
I begin with Edward Fudge’s statement concerning the Jewish silence about the Virgin Birth. He wrote:
But what of Isaiah 7:14.and its mention of a virgin who becomes pregnant and delivers a son? Didn’t anyone think of`that? Apparently not-at least not before the fact. Not in the Mishnah, the Targums or the Talmud. Not in the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran. Not in the Apocrypha or the Pseudepigrapha. Not in any of the Jewish writings between Daniel and the birth of Jesus.
The question I raised in my first post was: why are all the Jewish sources silent about the prophecy of the virgin birth as mentioned in Isaiah 7:14? The answer is found in . . . Isaiah 7:14. Look again at what the text says:
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
The NET Bible: “For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son.”
Nowhere in these translations of Isaiah 7:14 does the text mentions a virgin. As I mentioned in one of my posts, the Hebrew word ‘almah does not mean “virgin.” The word means “a young woman.”
It is for this reason that most Jewish sources do not talk about a virgin giving birth to a child. When they do, these sources are reacting to the Septuagint or to Christian interpretations of Isaiah 7:14. As Fudge wrote: “So far as the evidence shows, when the Jews happened to read Isaiah 7:14, they did not think of either miracles or messiahs.”
Matthew 1:23 reads: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” (Matthew 1:23 NRSV). Matthew is not quoting from the Hebrew text; he is quoting from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew text.
As I discussed in one of my posts, the Septuagint mistranslates Isaiah 7:14 and it is this mistranslation of the Hebrew text that has influenced most English translations of Isaiah 7:14.
Take, for instance, the translation of Isaiah 7:14 that appears in the New International Version (NIV): “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
This is the translation that most Christians are familiar with, because it follows the classical translation of Isaiah 7:14 found in the KJV. However the use of the word “virgin” in the NIV and in the KJV is not correct.
In his introduction to The NIV Interlinear Hebrew-English Old Testament, John R. Kohlenberger wrote:
In Isaiah 7:14, because the NIV translators chose “the virgin” to translate the Hebrew word הָעַלְמָ֗ה [‘almah], the interlinear translation reflects this choice rather than “the young woman,” which might be the better option linguistically, contextually, and theologically. This “proves” only that the NIV agrees with the word choice of such versions as the King James, the New American Standard Bible, and the Living Bible, as opposed to the Revised Standard Version, the Jerusalem Bible, or the Good News Bible. It does not prove that הָעַלְמָ֗ה means “the virgin.”
This is what most people do not understand. Both the KJV and the NIV are not following the Hebrew reading of the Masoretic Text; they are following the translation found in the Septuagint and this translation has colored the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 7:14.
But, then, how to understand Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14? I think Fudge has a good explanation. Fudge wrote:
Now, back to Matthew, busily writing his Gospel and looking for every opportunity to show Jesus “fulfilling” the Jewish Bible. As it happens, Matthew is telling the story of Mary’s miraculous conception. Suddenly it is as if he remembers language from Isaiah 7:14 in his Greek Bible that sounds exactly like what he wants to say. The Spirit apparently approves the decision and Matthew uses the Greek word to tell, quite literally and for the very first time, what has actually taken place.
As Fudge wrote, the writer of Matthew “remembers language from Isaiah 7:14 in his Greek Bible that sounds exactly like what he wants to say.” So, the language about a virgin birth does not come from the Hebrew text of Isaiah; it comes from the Septuagint.
Now, we come to the most important question: how does Isaiah 7:14 relate to the birth of Jesus Christ? As I wrote before, Isaiah is not talking about the fact that a virgin is going to give birth to a child. Rather, he is saying that God is going to give a sign to King Ahaz and to the people of Judah. This is what Edward Fudge emphasized on his post. He wrote:
“The main event is not a miraculous conception, The earth-shaking, heaven-shimmering, for-us-and-for-our-salvation event is the Incarnation. Compared to that, the virgin birth is only the mechanics.”
The emphasis of Isaiah is not on a virgin birth, but on the birth of a child. The sign of the child Immanuel meant that God was with his people to save them. God was present in their faith, in their prayers, and in the assurance of his promise. This spiritual presence of God was the assurance that God would fulfill his promise and deliver his people.
In the birth of Christ, the sign of Immanuel is fulfilled again, this time literally, in a very real way. In Christ, God is with us. “God was in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19). “The Word was God . . . the Word became flesh” (John 1:1, 14). “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son . . . who has made him known” (John 1:18).
The greatest promise of Isaiah 7:14 is not the virgin birth; “the virgin birth is only the mechanics,” as Fudge wrote. The greatest significance of the sign of Immanuel is the Incarnation: Immanuel, God is with us.
How about the miraculous conception? As the New Testament affirms, the miraculous conception of Jesus Christ is affirmed in Matthew and in Luke. The fact that all the other books of the New Testament are silent on this issue is not surprising. Who would believe that a woman would conceive a child without having sexual relations with a man? Many people in the twenty-first century still do not believe Mary’s story. Who then, would believe such a story two thousand years ago?
But, I believe there is an indirect reference to the virginal conception in the New Testament. When Jesus was discussing with the Pharisees about his work and his relationship with the Father, twice the Pharisees refers to Jesus’ father. In John 8:19, the Pharisees asked: “Where is your father?” Then, in John 8:39, the Pharisees said to Jesus: “Abraham is our father.”
Although scholars say that the Pharisees are not questioning the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth, it is possible that their words are an indirect reference to the fact that no one knew who Jesus’ father was, since Joseph married Mary after she was already pregnant. If the Pharisees’ words are an indirect reference to the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth, this would be another confirmation to what Matthew and Luke wrote about the birth of Jesus.
In conclusion, the New Testament affirms that Jesus was born of a woman who was sexually a virgin. However, the Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 is not announcing that a virgin will give birth to a child. Rather, the prophet is announcing that God would be present with his people to save them. It is this prophecy of God’s presence that is fulfilled in Christ. In Christ God is with us to save us from our sins.
Immanuel, God is with us.
Studies on Isaiah 7:14 and the Sign of Immanuel
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Kohlenberger, John R. III. The NIV Interlinear Hebrew-English Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993.