From Good News, vol. 6, no. 1, January 1993, p. 34.

Virgin birth debate

Dear Editor,

Josh McDowell writes that the virgin birth was not only historical fact but necessity ("Why a Virgin Birth," December). Unfortunately, he gives only very weak reasons for his view and addresses only the weakest objections he can find. He ignores more serious objections to the story:

  1. There is no virgin birth prophecy in Isaiah. McDowell cites Isaiah 7:14, quoting the New American Standard Bible: "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel." The word translated as "virgin" in this verse is the Hebrew word "almah," which is also used in Genesis 24:42, Exodus 2:8, Psalms 68:25, Proverbs 30:19, and Song of Solomon 1:3 and 6:8. In none of these other verses is the word translated as "virgin." There is a perfectly good Hebrew word, "bethulah," which means "virgin," which Isaiah uses in verses 23:12, 37:22, 47:1, and 62:5. The Revised Standard Version accurately translates "almah" in Isaiah 7:14 as "young woman." The author of Matthew thought that Isaiah 7:14 meant to refer to a virgin because he used the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, which uses the word "parthenos," which does mean virgin. The Jewish translators who produced the Septuagint did not always use "parthenos" to mean virgin, however, as can be seen from their translation of the Hebrew "yaldah" (girl) in Genesis 34:3 with "parthenos." (See Genesis 34:2; the girl in question was not a virgin in verse 3.)
  2. Jesus could not have fulfilled the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14. If you read the full context of Isaiah, beginning with verse 7:1, you will see that the child in question is to be born as a sign for King Ahaz of Judah that he will not be defeated in battle. If you continue reading through chapter 8 of Isaiah, you will see that the child is born; the prophecy is fulfilled (2 Kings 16:1-5 tells the story of Ahaz's successful battle). Jesus could not have been the child desccribed in Isaiah because his birth was about seven centuries too late for him to be a sign to Ahaz. (The author of Matthew has a habit of taking Old Testament verses out of context to find alleged messianic prophecies; I recommend looking up all of them and reading the surrounding context.)
  3. Virgin birth stories were being applied to other Old Testament figures by Hellenistic Jews in the first century A.D. Philo of Alexandria, for example, thought that various figures of the Hebrew scriptures were born of virgins.
  4. Paul and the authors of Mark and John knew nothing of the virgin birth. There is no mention of the virgin birth in the letters of Paul, or in the gospels of Mark or John. Only Matthew and Luke tell the story, and these two gospels are not independent accounts (they share over 500 verses in common). For an account of why Matthew and Luke have a virgin birth story, I recommend Robert Sheaffer's book, The Making of the Messiah (1991, Prometheus Books).

These problems are far more difficult to resolve than the ones McDowell addresses. It would be nice to see him attack something other than straw men for a change.

Jim Lippard