We’ve spent the first seven parts of this series focused on the New Testament authors and their words about the birth and family background of Jesus. But there are alleged specific Old Testament references as well. By which I mean, we can argue the entire OT points to Jesus, and that we can find types of Christ all over the Hebrew Bible. But I’m thinking of two passages in particular that Matthew cites as pointing toward the specific circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth.
Matthew 1:23 argues Jesus’ virgin birth fulfills prophecy, and Matthew 2:6 argues his birth in Bethlehem does, as well. Let’s look at those.
We all know that in Matthew 1:23, the author quotes Isaiah 7:14 this way:
“Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will call him, Emmanuel.”
The problem is that’s not what Isaiah says. Or, more accurately, that’s not what Isaiah says in the Hebrew text. Matthew is using the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew, which is sometimes a little spotty in its faithfulness to the original texts. In this case, it takes the Hebrew word for “young woman” and flips it over to the Greek word for “virgin.”
It should be clear, based on Matthew’s eyebrow-raising use of Hosea 11:1 as a supposed messianic prophecy (Matt. 2:15), that he does not have a modern view of historicity in mind. Peter Enns does a great job in both Inspiration and Incarnation and The Evolution of Adam about how the life-changing effects of knowing Jesus radically transformed his apostles’ views of the Hebrew Bible. In short, they saw pretty much every text as relating in someway to the Messiah, even if that clearly was not the context the original author had in mind.
In the case of Isaiah 7:14, a look at that passage’s context makes clear Isaiah had no notion of predicting the arrival of a capital-M Messiah. He was speaking to King Ahaz about a specific geopolitical situation. Judah was under attack by an alliance of Israel and Syria. The allied armies besieged Jerusalem, and “the hearts of their people shook as the trees of a forest shake when there is a wind (Isa 7:2).” God tells Isaiah to go tell Ahaz that Judah will not be destroyed by the likes of these invaders.
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: “Ask a sign from the Lord your God. Make it as deep as the grave[b] or as high as heaven.”
But Ahaz said, “I won’t ask; I won’t test the Lord.”
Then Isaiah said, “Listen, house of David! Isn’t it enough for you to be tiresome for people that you are also tiresome before my God? Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel. He will eat butter and honey, and learn to reject evil and choose good. Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned. The Lord will bring upon you, upon your people, and upon your families days unlike any that have come since the day Ephraim broke away from Judah—the king of Assyria.”
Note the bold. Isaiah’s comment about the coming boy Immanuel is clearly based in the world of 735 B.C.E. with no thought to the events of 800 years later. Again, that’s not to say Matthew is being dishonest. The culture is different, and his understanding of the Hebrew Bible had been transformed by encountering Jesus, the fulfillment of the entire narrative of the Old Testament. (It’s also unclear what is meant in the bolded part. The land of Syria and Israel was never abandoned, and the current residents would not be deported from those lands for another 14 years – well after the boy in question would know good from evil or, as Edwin D. Freed argues this means, know what food he likes and doesn’t like.)
But it also means that while Matthew says Jesus was conceived in the womb of a virgin to fulfill prophecy, he’s mistaken. There is no prophecy mandating that anyone be born of a virgin.
The other big prophecy Matthew cites is the one predicting Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah.
Freed, in his book The Stories of Jesus’ Birth: A Critical Introduction, notes that Matthew 2:6 plays with the wording of the actual prophecy in Micah 5:2. Here’s the original:
As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
And here’s Matthew’s rendering:
You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,because from you will come one who governs,who will shepherd my people Israel.
Notice the difference? In Micah, Bethlehem is “the least significant.” In Matthew, Bethlehem is “by no means” the least. It’s the exact opposite! Not a big deal, but it gives some insight into what Matthew is doing when he cites the Old Testament. He’s not interested in 21st-century notions of objectivity and historicity. In any case, he finds in the Old Testament a reason to place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, something Mark, the earliest writer, never mentions – Mark calls him “Jesus of Nazareth” in 1:9.
It should be noted that Bethlehem as the messianic birthplace is a distinctly Christian viewpoint. For what it’s worth, the Jews never interpreted – and clearly still don’t – Micah 5:2 as predicting the Messiah’s birthplace. Rather, the notion of Micah, Freed argues, was that the Messiah would come from the line of David, whose own birthplace was in Bethlehem. Which makes the whole notion of Matthew 2:3-6, in which Herod asks the Jewish scribes where the Messiah is to be born and they respond by quoting Micah 5:2, hard to believe. Matthew has turned the Jewish scholars into Christians!
I could keep going on about the various critical questions raised by the Matthean and Lukan narratives, but this would become book-length, and, well, there have already been plenty of books written about this subject. I think this closes for now our look at the actual text of the Bible. After many promises, I’m finally ready to move on to theology.