1. He was a just man
2. He was the Son of David
3. He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him
The Angel’s Speech
1. Why does Matthew use the Greek word for ‘virgin’ in his quote of Isaiah?
2. What was the original meaning of Is 7:14?
3. Why did Jesus need to be born of a virgin?
a. The source of Jesus
b. The Fallen Nature
Natural sons after Jesus
In one sense, the nativity in Matthew’s Gospel is strange for the author does not outline any events connected with the specific day of Jesus’ birth relying, rather, in 1:18-25 on a pre- and, in 2:1-23, a post-nativity event.
Luke, on the other hand, gives more details concerning the pre-nativity events (Luke 1:1-80) before speaking of the visitation of the shepherds which took place on the actual day (Luke 2:1-20) and going on to show that the baby Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the Law regarding entrance into the Jewish nation (Luke 2:21-39).
But it’s to the pre-nativity events that we now turn - events that are presented to the reader from Joseph’s viewpoint rather, as Luke, from Mary’s.
The reader should acquaint themselves with the facts of the passage under consideration before reading this commentary as I have tended to outline certain phrases and comment on them to give background rather than systematically deal with the story line.
We often read the Scriptures and overlook certain aspects of the narrative which could illuminate us as to the background of the current events or which colour the situation thus presented to us. This entire passage now under consideration is one such example for we often think of the ‘betrothal’ of Mary to Joseph (Mtw 1:18) in much the same way as our modern ‘engagement’ when it was different and just as binding as marriage when it came to the need for faithfulness.
A bill of divorcement was just as necessary if a betrothal was to be annulled as one when marriage had been secured between a man and woman. Indeed, Deut 22:23-24 shows us that a betrothed woman was regarded as a wife and not a free agent - faithfulness being a requirement even before the final union took place. Even in the Gospel, Joseph is referred to as the ‘husband’ at a point before the final marriage has taken place (1:19) and Mary as the ‘wife’ (1:20).
The rabbis taught (Kiddushin 1:1) that a betrothal could be effected by three events - either through the payment of money, through a writ or by sexual intercourse (the latter following a much more Scriptural line than most christians it should be noted when it comes to what constitutes marriage) - even the man or woman’s agent being able to act on their behalf to secure the betrothal though, in the case of sexual intercourse, this would not have been permitted!
Matthew tells us that Mary was found to be pregnant (1:18)
‘...before they came together...’
and the sense here means sexual intercourse. Therefore, Joseph and Mary’s betrothal would have been either through the issuing of a writ or through the payment of some money or possession rather than the third option.
This could mean that Mary was betrothed to Joseph through the intermediary of her father and she may not have known too much about the man she was going to eventually marry. This, of course, is speculation, but it is not fixed that Mary felt that Joseph would be a good father and then went about seeking to get herself betrothed to him - the entire arrangement may have been outside her control and may even have been secured before she was even of an age to have children (Kiddushin 2:2 - the exact time here given is between 12 years and one day of age and a date a further six months afterwards).
Once betrothal had taken place - as it had in the case of Joseph and Mary - the woman (Ketuboth 4:5) continued
‘...within the control of the father until she enters into the control of the husband at marriage’
thereby showing that, in these circumstances, Mary was still likely residing with her immediate family until the day when the marriage would take place and she would have left her household to reside with Joseph. There is one qualifying Scripture here, though, in Luke 1:39,56 where we read that, upon Mary becoming pregnant, she went to the hill country of Judea where Elizabeth and Zechariah dwelt, and resided there for some three months before returning to her home in Nazareth. If we allow sufficient time for the travelling involved, the time period may well have been nearer to four months.
Most commentators consider the period of the betrothal to be about a year in duration but there does not appear to be any generally accepted time period in the Mishnah so it could, in effect, have been a short time in which the arrangements for the marriage day were being made.
When the time came for the marriage to take place, the Scripture is explicit to inform the reader that Joseph did not have sexual intercourse with his wife until after Jesus had been born (Mtw 1:25) thus preventing the reader from thinking that it was a misunderstanding that made Joseph and Mary think that pregnancy had taken place and that the first-born child to them was, indeed, the result of their own sexual union.
But why did Joseph decide not to have intercourse with Mary? What was there to be gained by his abstention that would be lost if they came together before the birth of the baby?
The Scripture remains silent on this matter even though it notes that the fulfilment of Scripture came about through his commitment not to go in to his wife until after the birth (I will deal with this prophecy below) but the angel’s instructions are silent on this matter and Joseph does not appear to have been forbidden to do such a thing. Implicit in the angel’s words is the phrase ‘take Mary’ which would suggest sexual intercourse.
However, Mary may well have been quite well advanced into her pregnancy when the couple finally sealed the marriage and became united. When it says that Mary ‘was found to be with child’ (1:18) it would appear that we are either speaking of the cessation of the menstrual cycle or of the increase in size of the young girl’s belly which was a sign that she was carrying the child - she certainly couldn’t have nipped down to the local women’s hospital for a scan!
Once Joseph had found out that Mary was pregnant, he agonised over what to do and, after settling himself that marriage was the Lord’s will, he would then have had to have arranged the marriage ceremonies adding further to the delay.
We may have been looking at a woman who was exceedingly round on her wedding day and that, culturally, it was not considered right to risk the baby through sexual union at a certain stage of the foetus’ development. As pointed out above, some four months had probably already elapsed between Mary falling pregnant and her arrival back in Nazareth following her journey and stay with Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.
Maybe, even, Joseph was concerned to have the trump card up his sleeve should someone point the finger at Mary and say she had committed adultery to be able to allow a midwife to inspect and confirm that Mary was still a virgin?
Certainly, by just living inside the same dwelling as Mary with no outsiders being present in the house, sexual intercourse between the pair would have been assumed (hence the Rabbinic instruction found in Kiddushin 4:12), therefore it would probably have been seen that Mary was already pregnant before this event took place.
Unfortunately, there are no written records to the proposals outlined above which would hint at Joseph’s reasons so we are left largely in the dark.
Joseph, the step-father of Jesus, is only a very small character in the Bible if the occurrence of his name and the descriptions of his character are anything to go by. Apart from the occurrences in chapters 1 and 2 of Matthew, he only appears in seven other places in Scripture, six of which only give us the name with no action attributable to it (Luke 1:27, 2:4, 2:16, 3:23, 4:22 John 1:45, 6:42).
Only in Luke 2:4 do we read of anything that Joseph did, it being recorded here for us that it was at the instigation of Joseph and because of the census that had been commanded, that he journeyed with his wife, Mary, to the town of Bethlehem to be enrolled as required.
Luke fails to mention Joseph’s side of the matter, relying solely on the incident from Mary’s viewpoint. Matthew reverses this situation drastically and mentions only Joseph’s side at the expense of Mary, thus prompting commentators to suggest that Matthew is using written records that rely upon Joseph’s authorship and Luke, Mary.
This needn’t be the case, however, but the contrast is quite stark.
It is Matthew, then, who provides the main body of information from which we build our picture of the man Joseph. It’s too easy to gloss over the accounts and think of him no more than ‘God’s choice’ regardless of his character - it was solely because of his personality and his traits that God saw in Joseph a man who would do what was right and obey all that He was about to command him, being the heir by right to all that his forefather David had been promised.
There are three specific areas, then, that are highlighted in the text that describe Joseph to us:
1. He was a just man
In the original Greek, there is no word for ‘man’, the text simply saying that Joseph was ‘just’ (Strongs Greek number 1342) but this doesn’t simplify matters as to the meaning for the word could equally well be translated ‘righteous’ which, to many, would throw an entirely different meaning on the sentence than the former word would.
On this entire word group, I noted in my notes on ‘Justification’ (here) that
‘There is a conflict amongst scholars as to whether the subject of “righteousness” is to be understood in either legal or moral terms. That is, we need to find an answer to the questions:
‘Is righteousness a virtue, a characteristic of a godly life?
‘Or, is it solely a verdict pronounced by a court of law upon an individual?
‘The correct answer is probably that it is both, even though most commentators usually opt for one or the other interpretation. There are occasions when the concept of “virtue” seems the best interpretation (even though this concept appears to have been Greek, and not Jewish, in origin), though there are many more occurrences where the word is best understood as a legal term.
‘So it holds equally true that “righteousness” in God's eyes can be the result of the way a person lives their life before Him, in the things they do and say, and that it can be the pronouncement of God upon an individual even when the entire life is not being assessed’
As Vines notes:
‘In the NT, [the word] denotes “righteous”, a state of being right, or right conduct, judged whether by the divine standard, or according to human standards, of what is right’
Kittels, on the other hand, at the beginning of its section on the use of the word in the NT, notes that its use
‘...draws on the OT and differs sharply from the Greek use (based on the idea of virtue) except in customary or traditional modes of expression which are not closely connected in any case with the Greek conception’
Unfortunately, this tells us little and fails to define the word for us when used. The point is this though - the NT writers lived in the Greek world and it is not illogical to presume that, on occasions, they used words which held the same meaning that their Gentile hearers would expect to be present. Therefore we should expect to find the Greek word group saying very similar to both the Greek and Hebrew concepts behind the word.
Here, in Mtw 1:19, various meanings could be implied by Matthew’s use. The passage reads that, even though Joseph had discovered that his betrothed, Mary, had become pregnant (and, because visitation by angels and immaculate conceptions were not your regular everyday occurrence), he naturally thought she’d been unfaithful to him and that
‘...being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, [he] resolved to divorce her quietly’
We could read the passage either that Joseph stood in a right relationship with God and so, from this, his course of action flowed, or that, being a man who was sensitive to the situation that Mary found herself in, he decided not to cause her the pain of humiliation that would have come from the widespread public knowledge of the event. Commentators who insist that Mary would have been subject to stoning are greatly overexaggerating her dilemma - though the requirements of the Law would demand such a thing, the Jewish authorities did not have the power to commit someone to death, even though their outrage at Stephen’s preaching put this limitation to one side (Acts 7:54-60).
Either concept - a right relationship with God or a moral uprightness that dictated the way he dealt with people - work perfectly well here and neither should be chosen in preference to the other when a right relationship with God is probably what defined his moral character.
Joseph knew what was right to do - that’s the bottom line. He had been wronged by Mary, so he thought, because she’d broken the vow between them but, even now, he was trying to find a way so that she would be prevented from having to suffer the public humiliation that would be hers if word got out to the general populace.
The Mishnah makes quite a song and dance over what one is to do with the suspected adulteress (the subject of the tractate ‘Sotah’) and many have purposed to show that Joseph could have put Mary away from him through the participation of two witnesses and the drinking of the bitter water (Sotah 1:1 Cp Num 5:11-31) but Sotah 4:1 later goes on to state definitively that
‘A woman that is betrothed...may not drink [the bitter water] or receive her Ketubah [the pledge of money given to the wife in case she should be divorced by the husband]...’
so that the Mishnaic reference is being somewhat laboured to make it apply to the situation. However, as we will see later, such a position is possible from other passages. There were only two ways that a woman could be free from the marriage according to the rabbis - either through the death of the husband or through the husband issuing the wife with a bill of divorce (Kiddushin 1:1).
Grounds for divorce were varied and some reasons may seem peculiar to us in this present day. For instance, when one of the parties married was a deaf-mute, it seems as if the man could put the other away solely on these grounds of physical impairment even though he had married her in the condition - either himself or his wife being the mute (Yebamoth 14:1).
Similarly, grinding flour, baking bread, washing the man’s clothes, cooking his food, breast-feeding her children, making the bed and working in wool were all requirements of the woman and, therefore, it follows that, should these be neglected, divorce could follow (Ketuboth 5:5). Husbands could even put away their wives because they were barren (Gittin 4:8) even though we now know that the problem may have lay in the man rather than the wife.
The rabbis were not absolutely certain, however, just what constituted grounds for divorce (Gittin 9:10). The school of Shammai stated that the only grounds were unchastity whereas the alternative school of Hillel went so far as to say that the divorce could be justified
‘...even if she has spoiled a dish [of food] for him...’
One rabbi even said that, from Scripture, divorce was justified if the husband found one who was more attractive than his present wife. This does appear to be rather an extremist view, however!
Certainly, in the situation that we are currently looking at, Joseph was well within his rights to divorce Mary (Gittin 9:10) because her pregnancy was virtual proof of her unfaithfulness.
The exact procedure for the divorce was somewhat varied and may have required no set formula apart from the actual bill of divorcement (the tractate Gittin should be read here for those who are curious as to what needed to be done in which circumstances) but there seems always to have been the necessity of a witness for Gittin 8:9-10 speaks about a witness being defective and what needed to be done should this be so, Gittin 9:6 implying that there must be two present to put their names on the divorce paper.
The actual paper had to have the words (Gittin 9:3)
‘Lo, thou art free to marry any man’
written on it though, even here, there was some dispute as to exactly what should be included, rabbi Judah pronouncing that the phrasing should rather be
‘Let this be from me thy writ of divorce and letter of dismissal and deed of liberation, that thou mayest marry whatsoever man thou wilt’
Matfran, Mathen and Matmor all see Joseph as having two options at this juncture - either following the bill of divorcement procedure as above (though Mathen fails to notice that two witnesses needed to be obtained which would debar the possibility that he would be able to dismiss Mary ‘quietly’) or instigating a complicated legal trial at which Mary would be formally accused and put on trial. Matfran (my italics) writes
‘Joseph...could, and perhaps should, have [divorced Mary] by an accusation of adultery resulting in a public trial...’
But I was unable to find any reference to such an occurrence in the Mishnah’s tractate Gittin (except Gittin 4:2 but this refers to a practice which was only used in times past at the time of writing and, even then, was only for those men who were resident overseas who were attempting to divorce their wives who were still resident within Israel) - let alone a procedure - so that the supposed event may be somewhat fanciful on the part of the scholars.
We should go on to consider how Joseph must have been agonising over how it would be possible to put Mary away when the rabbis required that he at least write out some sort of divorce paper and have two witnesses put their names to it.
Perhaps he was, even before the angel appeared to him, trying to come to grips with some other way that he could think through which would humiliate Mary as little as possible. This seems to be the sense of 1:19 where we read that he was
‘unwilling to put her to shame’
and that he
‘resolved to divorce her quietly’
Maybe, even, Joseph was trying to find grounds for the divorce of Mary on some of the more minor issues of the day, things which he would have overlooked up until now but which he was attempting to use to cover up the charge of adultery which would have destroyed the young girl’s life.
These things were proof enough that Joseph was ‘just’ - that he tried to do what was the best in each and every circumstance that he found himself in. No matter to himself that he had been wronged - or so it seemed to him - he was concerned to make sure that his betrothed was not to suffer any more shame than she was already under for committing adultery against him.
Before he can carry out the intentions of his heart, though (if he did, in fact, have such a plan well formulated in his mind!), the angel of God appeared to him via a dream and gave him both understanding concerning the situation and instructed him what he should now do.
2. He was the son of David
While considering what should be done, an angel of God appears to him by a dream and tells him what he is to do. Joseph, who seems to be unphased by this occurrence as he is by the other times when God speaks to him directly, understands the situation and obeys the angel’s command - it wouldn’t be surprising if he did a little dance for joy round his house for the solution saved him from doing something that he did not wish to perform for the sake of Mary.
Significantly, though, the angel addresses him as ‘son of David’, a title of the Messiah who Mary was to give birth to (Mtw 9:27, 12:23, 21:9, 22:42), a title given because of God’s sworn covenant with King David that one of his descendants would sit on his throne forever (II Sam 7:12-16, Ps 89:3, 89:35-36, 132:11).
When David’s ‘dynasty’ came to an end, the Jews naturally looked to the Son of David to come as King and rule from Jerusalem out into all the world.
But the point here is that it isn’t Jesus who is being referred to as the son of David, but Joseph. Joseph, then, seems to have been God’s chosen legal heir of all that David had rightfully by inheritance and, being the heir, passed all that his ‘throne’ contained on to his (step)son, Jesus.
Matmor comments that
‘The expression is one of dignity, and Matthew perhaps records it as emphasising the royal line of Jesus’
‘In the fulfilment of the Messianic promise Joseph, viewed as legal heir of David and as the one who transmits this honour to Jesus, is not bypassed’
Matfran (my italics) going on to note (either rightly or wrongly) that Joseph was required to name his son once born (Mtw 1:21) to
‘...formally acknowledge Jesus as his son, and thus to constitute Jesus also as “Son of David”’
This seems to be the reason and force behind the angel’s words but it is not without significance that the two traits of Joseph outlined both above and below this point, show us how much a man after David’s own heart he was.
In Joseph, God had found a man who was concerned both to do what was right in the Lord’s eyes regardless of what the custom of the time demanded should be done (he was, before the angel arrived, agonising as to how he might lessen even the humiliation of the bill of divorce on Mary) and to obey God the instant that he spoke - a trait which saved both his own and the Child’s life on more than one occasion.
3. He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him
Mtw 1:24, 2:14, 2:21, 2:22
Something that is not always pointed out about Joseph in the Gospel narratives is that he is attributed with no speech - he says absolutely nothing. And yet, if it hadn’t been for his unswerving and immediate obedience to the revealed will of God, we wouldn’t be sitting here today talking about the work of Christ on the cross!
Such was Joseph’s importance to God’s plan for the early years of Jesus’ life that we should not belittle his significance in the face of the idolisation of Mary. Mary, though God’s channel through which the Messiah came to earth, did very little except follow what her husband was doing - Joseph, on the other hand, was a man of action who so protected both his wife and his adopted child that the success of the first few years depend almost solely upon his responses in each situation.
Four times we find Joseph believing the word that he perceives the Lord is telling him - the first three of these, we are told, were by means of an angel in a dream while the final one simply tells us that it was dream - and on at least two occasions his obedience saves life (Mtw 2:14, 2:22), both his own and that of his family.
It seems from the Gospel that Joseph is the sort of man who waits around in the background, letting events transpire until he is called upon by the Lord to make something happen that is different from the projected course of known events.
Joseph receives direction, then, always in the form of a dream and usually through the intermediary of an angel - he never once puts his experience down to eating too much cheese before he went to bed and neither does he ever question what God tells him to do. Simply, once he hears God’s word, he is content to get on with obedience to it.
In Mtw 1:24, he takes Mary to be his wife and names the child ‘Jesus’ in accordance with the angel’s command - here, also, as in 2:22, the angel [if we should be reading an angel into that later verse] is responding partly to a concern of the heart that Joseph is unwilling to put Mary away with public humiliation. The angel’s words not only declare God’s words to him but give him the alternative he’s looking for; 2:14 sees him being warned to flee from Bethlehem once the Magi have visited because of what God knows will transpire in the heart of Herod imminently; 2:21, again a direct command from the angel is that it is now safe to return to Israel because the ones who had sought Jesus’ life were now dead; and 2:22, even though not a direct command from the Lord, is the last time where a word comes from the Lord to confirm the worry he feels about returning into a kingdom where the son of King Herod is just ‘too close for comfort’, having been crowned in his stead upon his father’s death.
Joseph was a man that God knew He could trust to instantly obey His voice, who wouldn’t pussyfoot around asking for confirmations or additional signs, a man of action rather than of words - here is the real Action Hero (eat your heart out, Schwarzenegger). Joseph was the best man that God could find for this particular ‘job’. It should be an example to us also that, when He calls one of us to do a work for Him, it is because He has looked around at the alternatives and made His choice - not that we should get puffed up and think that we’ve arrived spiritually but neither should we cower away into some corner like Moses did (Ex 4:1, 4:10, 4:13) and panic that we won’t have the means to achieve all that He has called us in to.
What a great example to Jesus, Joseph must have been in the early years of his life. Tradition holds that, by the time that Jesus began His earthly ministry, his step-father was already dead, but we should not limit the influence that Joseph had upon Jesus in the early years.
To see at close quarters his step-father’s concern for doing what was right in God’s eyes and his unswerving commitment to follow after God’s will for his life regardless of the consequences (in the years of infancy it meant uprooting the family home and losing, perhaps, secure employment as a carpenter near Sepphoris - see my notes here). True, Jesus was God in the flesh - but the example of his stepfather would have contributed to His understanding of what it meant for men and women to live out a right relationship with God.
The Angels’ speech
That the angel from God appears to Joseph in a dream is fairly significant simply because he seems to not need a divine visitation in ‘real time’ and is willing to trust the images that are displayed in his own mind - and not once, either, but repeatedly (2:13, 2:19 and possibly 2:22).
There is quite a movement within present day society to see dreams as being charged with meaning either about our present predicaments and fears through symbols of the self-conscious or as touching future events and courses of action in terms that are easily understandable - but through some means that is not always described. Joseph here, though, doesn’t look to his dreams per se to determine God’s will and strive after understanding and interpretation - rather, God Himself sends a vision within the dream to communicate with His chosen vessel.
In other words, the content of the dream is initiated by God and the simple truth it brings is easily discernible because it’s in plain language. There is no need for Joseph to seek after what an onion cut by a warrior’s sword may mean and how, subconsciously, this is a reflection of the problem in which he finds himself - Joseph is simply visited by an angel, told what he needs to hear and then obeys it.
The angel’s message is first to reassure Joseph that the child’s conception is divine in origin (1:20), a fact which he has no problem accepting from that moment onwards (1:24-25) and the angel instructs Joseph as to what he is to call Him, an identical command that has also been given to Mary (Luke 1:31).
‘Jesus’, the Greek form of the Hebrew ‘Joshua’, means either ‘YHWH saves’ or ‘YHWH is salvation’ and it’s difficult to choose between the two. Whichever is accepted, both Mary and Joseph could not have anticipated just what that could have ultimately meant and the implications of and reason for the virgin conception (see below) may well have been lost on them until a much later time.
We tend to think of the name ‘Jesus’ as being a unique and rare name, but it was extremely common, even though present day society shrinks from giving the name to its children. If you said ‘Jesus’ to many NT settlers, they would probably have asked you which Jesus you meant for ‘Joshua’ was a favourite name for the offspring of Hebrews.
The angel speaks of justification for the name by stating (1:21) that
‘...He shall save His people from their sins’
Again, this is difficult to understand as it would have been by Joseph. Did he think of the situation that the Jewish nation (His people) had fallen under, with the oppressing Roman army which ruled their affairs, and of the deliverance from past sin that their overthrow would remedy? That’s certainly possible for the national religious leaders often thought in material deliverance as being the reason for Messiah’s coming and that because of the nation’s slip into ways that were not pleasing to their God - hence ‘sin’.
Did he conceive of the possibility that this child might in some way put an end to all sin by some action of His? The interpretation of the passage as it was understood in Joseph’s mind is largely dependent upon what he understood by the phrase ‘His people’ and ‘sins’ and we have no way of knowing if, at that time, the possibility ever crossed his mind that God’s ultimate purpose for man’s ultimate problem was to be remedied by a child who he’d been called to foster.
What they would have been sure of, though, was that this child would have some divine purpose attached to His life of which they would have been careful to both nurture and develop.
1. Why does Matthew use the Greek word for ‘virgin’ in his quote of Isaiah?
Controversy has often centred around the translation or interpretation that Matthew uses here in his Gospel of Isaiah 7:14 where he uses the Greek word parthenos (Strongs Greek number 3933) which is regularly translated as ‘virgin’ elsewhere in the NT. In the Hebrew original, where the Hebrew almah is employed (Strongs Hebrew number 5959), Isaiah used the general word for a girl, it is asserted, rather than the more technical term for ‘virgin’ (betula - Strongs Hebrew number 1330) which he could have used had he had this intention.
The RSV, for instance, translates Is 7:14 with the words ‘young woman’ even though it marginalises a note which speaks of the word as possibly meaning ‘virgin’ - even so, by its choice of the first phrase, it’s showing quite plainly that it believes that the likely translation is against Matthew’s interpretation.
In other words, Matthew often has the finger pointed at him for altering Scripture to make it fit in with the actual event or, if the commentator prefers not to accept the Scriptural account as accurate, what he perceived should have taken place, the Gospels being little more than glorified fiction with elements of Truth scattered throughout.
What we need to determine here is whether almah is indeed the word for ‘virgin’.
Almah only appears seven times in Scripture so a quick reference to each word is not beyond any reader of the Bible - let alone the scholars (Gen 24:43, Ex 2:8, Ps 68:25, Prov 30:19, Is 7:14, S of S 1:3, 6:8).
As with other words, the context is all important for determining the precise meaning and there are a few occurrences within these seven where there is no defining surrounding words to help us - Ex 2:8, Ps 68:25, Is 7:14, Prov 30:19 and S of S 1:3 - though the fourth of these is, perhaps, better understood as ‘virgin’ rather than the AV’s ‘maiden’ for it appears to be speaking of the courtship of a man with his intended future wife and, believe it or not, in those days they were normally virgins.
In Gen 24:43, Abraham’s servant has been sent to Nahor in Mesopotamia to obtain a wife for Isaac and he prays that the young woman (almah) he is to meet for his master’s son should come up to him and respond in certain ways to his words.
There is little doubt here, then, that the word must mean an unmarried girl, one who is available to be engaged in a husband/wife relationship. And yet, more than this, it may seem strange to us in this day and age that women who entered into a marriage relationship for the first time were virgins! But, be that as it may, it is nevertheless a fact of the culture of the day in which the Bible was written.
As Motyer points out, Gen 24:16 employs betula, the word often asserted to be the more technical word for virgin but it cannot here logically be translated as ‘virgin’ even though the RSV takes it this way. It translates the verse
‘The maiden was very fair to look upon, a virgin, whom no man had known. She went down to the spring, and filled her jar, and came up’
The RSV’s translation makes no sense when the defining phrase ‘whom no man had known’ occurs immediately afterwards. The word would need no definition at all if the word was the usual one employed to denote a virgin. It is only because the writer of Genesis has to explain that a virgin was what the servant was now looking at in a phrase rather than a single word, that we can see that betula meant rather ‘a marriageable girl’ rather than, strictly, a virgin.
As Motyer notes
‘The qualifying words indicate that, by itself, betula is not specific. In the light of this accumulating knowledge of Rebekah, verse 43 finally describes her as almah, which is clearly a summary term for “female, marriageable, unmarried”’
Finally, S of S 6:8 reads
‘There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and maidens without number’
and here also, the interpretation ‘virgin’ would be much preferred for the comparison is being made between women who were in positions of authority as wives, others who were being kept as child producing channels for the king’s line and, finally, girls who had not yet been designated as either - that is to say, they were virgins.
Motyer adds a lengthy footnote as a brief word study of betula and notes that, while the word can mean ‘virgin’, it is normally only by the context in which it resides that it is so done. He cites Wenham in his study of the word betula and notes that, in the early days, betula meant simply ‘a young girl’ but that it took the meaning ‘virgin’ only in the christian era - where the demarcation line was reached where it virtually swapped meaning is wholly unclear but the weight of the evidence would suggest that, by the time of Isaiah, the word was still only understandable by the context in which it sat.
On the other hand, outside the Bible, almah was never used to denote a married woman and, therefore, was carefully employed when chastity was more than implied. TWOTOT notes in this context that
‘There is no instance where it can be proved that almah designates a young woman who is not a virgin’
though this work prefers to define the word along the lines of ‘a young woman, one of whose characteristics is virginity’
Additionally, the LXX translators translated the Hebrew word almah with the Greek parthenos, evidently seeing that what Isaiah had intended was not a normal conception but a supernatural one. Doubt is thrown onto this, however, as we cannot be absolutely sure that the version we have, which we accept as being the LXX, is indeed the version which was reputedly translated by the Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt. If it is, though, it would show that the Jewish religious leaders accepted that Isaiah had predicted a virgin conception for their Messiah - something that present day Judaism may shrink from accepting.
If we consider the usage in Is 7:14, then, we would have to conclude that there is more likelihood that Isaiah meant to write ‘virgin’ by using the word almah than he would have done had he used the word betula. It is equally true to say, however, that Isaiah may have just meant to write ‘a young girl of marriageable age’ and so chose the word almah, not perceiving that his words implied virginity (in much the same way as when we speak of ‘mash’, we don’t necessarily picture a brown-skinned potato!).
There are numerous other commentators and scholars who stand both sides of the argument and the only definitive thing that can be possibly said is that the debate will rage for years to come. Nevertheless, there is enough evidence for the non-sceptic to be able to accept that Isaiah’s original word was the normal word for ‘virgin’ and was, therefore, employed by him under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew, recording the story for his readers however, saw in Isaiah the fulfilment of a prophecy that Isaiah probably never realised had implication for the coming Messiah. But, having said that, Isaiah most definitely used the word for ‘virgin’ that would be understood as such by subsequent generations and, had he used the alternative, scholars would have had a much stronger case for accusing Matthew of twisting the Scripture to fit the alleged fulfilment.
2. What was the original meaning of Is 7:14?
It’s necessary here that we look at the original prophecy of Isaiah - albeit very briefly - and satisfy ourselves as to what the prophet intended by his words.
The context of the verse is the entire passage which runs from Is 7:1-9:7 which speaks of ‘Immanuel’ not just in 7:14 but also in 8:8 and 8:10 before concluding with a description of the Son to be born and of His function for Israel in 9:6-7.
King Ahaz, the sovereign of the southern kingdom of Judah had received word that the northern kingdom of Israel (also referred to here as both Ephraim and Jacob) had put themselves into a war allegiance with Syria to come against their land to try and dispossess them (Is 7:2, II Kings 16:5). This appears to have been an alliance which was formed after Syria had already inflicted defeat on the nation (II Chr 28:5) and, likewise, Israel had done so as an independent force (II Chr 28:6-7).
The opening verse (7:1) says that they had already begun to come up against the land so that their arrival at the borders would have been an imminent proposition when Isaiah is commanded to meet Ahaz with the prophet’s own son (7:3).
Isaiah’s message from the Lord is clear - the allied armies will not be able to dispossess Judah of their allotted inheritance regardless of how strong their army may considered to be (7:4-10).
Ahaz was not a righteous king who sought the Lord (II Kings 16:1-4, II Chr 28:1-4) and, when Isaiah told Ahaz to ask from the Lord a sign that he would be saved from the allied forces, tried to put on an air of religiosity which the prophet saw right through (Is 7:11-12). Out of this, then, the prophecy comes which speaks of the son, Immanuel, who will be born.
Before we go on to consider this, however, we should note that the prophetic word from Isaiah was not heeded for Ahaz sent to the king of Assyria to come and help him (II Kings 16:7-9) which the king did. But this request led Ahaz, firstly, into further idolatry when he observed the altar upon which the Assyrians sacrificed (II Kings 16:10-18, II Chr 28:22-25) and, secondly, gave opportunity for the Assyrian king to exploit Judah’s resources (II Chr 28:16-21).
Had Ahaz believed the word that Isaiah had given him (Is 7:4-10) and had put his trust in the God of Israel by asking for the sign that he was requested to do (Is 7:11-12), none of what subsequently transpired would have taken place. But, as it was, the sign which was to confirm God’s actions towards His people, became a sign which condemned the nation to judgment through the instrument of the Assyrians (Is 7:20-25, 8:5-8) - notice that the ‘you’ of Is 7:13 is plural, indicating that the unbelief in God’s word was not just emanating from the Judahite king.
That sign, then, was the Son which was to be born to a virgin (Is 7:14) and who would not even reach adulthood before the kings before which Ahaz was now in fear would be annihilated.
It is difficult to believe that this Son of which Isaiah spoke was ever born within that generation present. Commentators have pointed to Is 8:1-4 and seen in the conception and birth of Maher-shalal-hash-baz the fulfilment of the prophetic word but, as we have previously seen, the Hebrew almah (the word that is translated ‘virgin’ in Is 7:14) is never used in Scripture of a married woman and the implication of Isaiah going to the prophetess is that this is his wife from which the child comes through natural procreation. Neither does the prophetess call the child’s name ‘Immanuel’ as Is 7:14 relates but Maher-shalal-hash-baz, a record of what is transpiring on earth in the judgment about to fall upon the nation.
This ‘Immanuel’, then, appears to be somewhat different to the child conceived by Isaiah and his wife. Even a brief look at 9:6-7 should be sufficient to show us that this child was to raise up the throne of David and rule as no one before Him had ever done - this could only be said of the One promised to David who was to be of the lineage of David. Isaiah’s natural born son could not possibly fulfil the promises that had been given.
Motyer’s comments on Is 7:15 should be read at this juncture for he summarises well the points concerning Immanuel. He writes
‘Just as the full significance of the name Immanuel is found by relating verse 14 to other references within the unity of chapters 7-11, so the date of His birth in verse 16 should take note of what the section as a whole says on this point. This reveals a tension between the immediate and the remote. On the one hand, it seems Immanuel will be born within the immediate threat (7:14-16, 10:27-11:1) and on the other, that He will be born in the undated future, for before His birth Judah and Israel will be scattered and need regathering (8:11-22, 11:12ff). These events must lie beyond the Assyrian times, for Isaiah knew that Judah would not suffer its coming exile (6:11ff) at Assyrian hands (10:27-34, 29:1-8, 31:4-9, 38:6). Specifically, the birth of the royal child is scheduled for “the future”, “the afterwards” (9:1). Isaiah does nothing to resolve this tension between immediacy and remoteness’
What appears to have happened, then, was that the child was never born at that time to give His people the deliverance they needed because of the unbelief of the nation which was then in existence (as noted, the ‘you’ is plural in Is 7:13).
What might have happened had Ahaz placed his trust in the words of God through the prophet and asked from God a sign, never came about because of his lack of faith.
I noted above that the prophetess, Isaiah’s wife presumably, did not call her child ‘Immanuel’ and that this was an indication that the child, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, was almost certainly not the child which was prophesied. However, you would be justified in pointing out that neither was Jesus given this title either by Mary or Joseph, by the angel who announced the birth, by the multitudes who followed Him or by the religious leaders of His day.
Why, then, should both Matthew and ourselves take the Isaiah prophecy to be referring to the Christ?
Matfran comments that the passage
‘...is seen as fulfilled not in the naming of Jesus...but in the whole account of His origin and naming in v.18ff (“all this” - v.22). The point is not that Jesus ever bore Immanuel as an actual name, but that it indicates His role, bringing God’s presence to man’
Matthew’s ‘all this took place to fulfil...the prophet’ certainly seems to indicate that the author looks upon the prophetic record as being a summation of the conception process and that, because a virgin conceived through no human agency, the conclusion is that He would be ‘God with us’.
Matmor notes that
‘Matthew surely intends his readers to understand that Immanuel was His name in the sense that all that was involved in that name found its fulfilment in Him’
where he seems to be referring to the subsequent prophecies of Isaiah such as 9:6-7 that the prophetess’s child could never have fulfilled. This certainly is the case and it is, perhaps, best to look upon Isaiah’s prophecy as summarising the introduction of God’s Son into the world rather than to tie it down to a specific name-labelling act.
3. Why did Jesus need to be born of a virgin?
The question may seem an irrelevant one but, if God chose to bring Jesus to earth through the means of a virgin conception, there may have been more than the reason that it was a unique prophecy and one that could not be repeated naturally.
Before we consider the possibilities, however, we should note Zondervan here in the article ‘Virgin Birth’ where it’s written
‘It is not contended that God could not have sent the Saviour in any other way. It is simply affirmed, on the basis of Scripture, that this is how He did it’
Mathen seems to put it less graciously when he notes (my italics) that
‘It is sometimes said that the doctrine of the virgin birth [sic] is unessential, since if God had wanted to do so He could have caused His Son to have been conceived and born in some other way. Answer: what God could or could not have done is a speculative question into which it is not necessary to enter’
In other words, we should not limit God into being so cornered that the only possibility was that a virgin conception had to take place but, rather, see in the action only the means whereby He decided to achieve His desired ends.
Having said that, there is a good reason why Jesus needed to be conceived by a virgin and also an assertion by some scholars that needs careful consideration.
a. The source of Jesus
In the letter to the Hebrews, the author is at pains to show that Melchizedek, the priest of God in (Jeru)salem, was a type or illustration of Jesus who was to come (7:1-3) - the author stops short of saying that this king was, in fact, a pre-incarnate appearance of the Christ and so must we, but the point is that Abraham gave a tithe of all he had to him (7:4) and that Melchizedek blessed Abraham (7:5-8) indicating that he was his superior rather than his servant.
This has little direct relevance to the point we are now considering except that the author then goes on to note (Heb 7:9-10) that
‘One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him’
Leaving the author’s main argument aside, we can see that the actual person who is conceived inside the woman through sexual intercourse is here regarded as being implanted within her womb by the action of the man - that is to say that the general opinion was that the female was simply the receptacle for the child which was to be born.
This, I know, pulls away from our present day scientific conclusions that both the male sperm and the female ovum are vitally necessary for conception and character, but what the Scriptures show us here is that culturally it was accepted that the distinguishing mark of what the offspring was to be like - at least for the male offspring - was determined by the sperm which passed from the male into the female.
Therefore it was necessary for God to impregnate Mary with Jesus to show that the character of God had been passed into the ovum - and it needed to be a virgin so that it could be conclusively shown that it was impossible that a man had originated the character for the child. The origin of Jesus, then, was God Himself and no human agency could be claimed to have instigated and produced the Messiah.
God, then, had to be seen to be the Father of the child beyond any shadow of doubt and, if the Father, the offspring had to be the true Son of God or ‘Immanuel’, God with us.
b. The Fallen Nature
Another reason that is often given as grounds for having to have a virgin conception is that of the fallen nature’s impartation through the male line and into the next generation of humankind. It is asserted that the man, when he passes on his genes to the female through sexual intercourse (or through invitro fertilisation or other scientific methods that are currently being employed!), also implants the rebellious side of man’s character into the new infant whether a male or female is born.
Therefore Mathen asserts that
‘...if Christ had been the son of Joseph and Mary by ordinary generation, would he not have been a human person and as such a sharer in Adam’s guilt; hence, a sinner, unable to save Himself, hence also unable to rescue others from sin?’
This does, indeed, sound reasonable - but try and prove it from Scripture! I have been racking my brain for sometime now, trying to think of a Scripture which would indicate that the rebellious nature is passed through the line of the man into the woman - but all to no avail.
I do not deny that Jesus was pure and spotless, without the rebellious side of our natures that we have all inherited for generations through Adam via Noah - all I am saying is that I cannot find a passage of Scripture that would prove conclusively that the reason for the virgin conception was so that the rebellious nature would not be inherited by Jesus.
Additionally, there is the problem of parthenogenesis. Knowing that that label is probably not in common everyday usage by many people (and unheard of by the midwives I spoke to as well!), let me explain.
Parthenogenesis is the process whereby female eggs (the ova) develop through successive stages to a fully mature adult without undergoing fertilisation from any male. This phenomenon is quite natural in many species such as Wasps and Daphnia but extremely rare in humans if it occurs at all.
The normal process of reproduction in humans is that the male gamete - commonly called the ‘sperm’ - unites with the female gamete - the ‘ovum’ - to produce a ‘zygote’ which then continues to develop, grow and divide until birth takes place. Each of these gametes contains 23 chromosomes - both male and female - and are therefore called ‘haploid’. When they unite, they form a cell which has 46 chromosomes and which is said to be ‘diploid’ - that is, having the basic number of chromosomes for the species doubled. These chromosomes, when they unite, ‘shuffle’ themselves into an arrangement so that there is a variety produced that can be unique for each child conceived even though the chromosomes remain the same.
All humans should be diploid and, therefore, have 46 chromosomes in each cell. However, it has been noted that individuals with 47 chromosomes in body cells normally suffer from Down’s Syndrome (makes you wonder how mankind could ever have evolved and stepped up into a being with 46 chromosomes when additions to the numbers of chromosomes causes major physiological and psychological problems, doesn’t it?).
Each male cell throughout the body carries an X and Y chromosome whereas the female contains only 2 X chromosomes. Therefore, when the sex cells divide to form sperm in the male, an equal number containing the X and Y chromosome are produced whereas, because the female cells only contain X chromosomes, each ovum inevitably contains just that (this is too simplified a situation and the process is much more complex but, in a nutshell, the spermatazoa has either an X or a Y chromosome).
In this manner, the chromosomes present in the male gamete determines the sex of the resultant child - either X-Y for a male or X-X for a female, the Y being indicative of a male.
In parthenogenesis, because there is no possibility that a sperm containing the Y chromosome can fertilise the female ovum, self-fertilisation can only ever produce X-X combinations and, therefore, only female offspring. It is also reasonable to assume that such cell division is likely to be similar to what we now call ‘cloning’ even though the process of parthenogenesis is absolutely natural.
This phenomenon, though, is extremely rare and amongst the experts I’ve managed to consult, there appears to be much dispute as to whether a parthenogenic ovum has ever developed to maturity and been born into the world from any species that normally reproduces in a different way.
For instance, the Columbia Dictionary that I discovered on line notes (my italics) that
‘No successful experiments with human parthenogenesis have been reported’
which infers that its occurrence in the natural world is even less likely to be possible, while Encarta 96 reports just that parthenogenic offspring are possible in the eggs of ‘certain invertebrates’ without commenting on whether a human ovum has ever been known to develop full term, be born and then mature into adulthood. Some Medical papers discovered on the web showed that experiments have been performed on human ova to make them develop parthenogenically but this is hardly evidence for the phenomenon occurring naturally in humans.
Black’s Medical Dictionary that I stumbled across at work stated simply that no parthenogenic development had ever reached the birth stage, while a few of us who work together remembered from childhood that our biology classes included some discussion of the possibility in terms which implied that these parthenogenic offspring were all around us even though rare!
Perhaps the definitive view on the subject was given me by a professor at our city’s hospital for women who told me that there were no known natural occurences of human parthenogenesis that developed even a little way towards birth.
In theory, this phenomenon would be possible though I have found it impossible to find out exactly what happens to make such an ovum self-fertilise. I shall, of course, update this page if ever I can find a definitive answer but the professor believed that the 23 X chromosomes in the ovum self-duplicate to produce the resultant zygote - but he did say he was speculating.
Returning to the reason for the virgin conception, it can be seen immediately that Jesus could not have been a parthenogenic child - simply because He was a male son and the Y chromosome could not have been supplied by Mary into the ovum for this to take place. Even more than this, Luke 1:31 says plainly that Jesus was ‘conceived’ in Mary’s womb, implying some form of male action which caused it to come about - that is, that God the Father caused her to become pregnant but not, I hasten to add, that God had sexual intercourse with Mary.
But, when we come to the belief that a reason for the virgin conception was to eliminate the fallen nature from being transmitted into the child, we need to consider the position of the parthenogenic offspring.
Would we be saying that these offspring of women (if they are able to exist after birth) do not inherit the fallen nature from their mothers because it is only passed on through the agency of the man? Or, to put it in terms as above, that the problem with mankind is the X or Y chromosome transmitted in the sperm of the man through sexual intercourse? Or is it just sexual intercourse which transfers the sinful nature of mankind into any offspring conceived?
If we say ‘yes’, then there may have been a handful of parthenogenically conceived women throughout the course of history who have been perfect from the day of their birth with the opportunity to stand before God pure and undefiled as Jesus Himself did - that is, until the day that they first sinned, not prompted by any fallen nature resident within them but by their own will and desire.
This inevitably causes problems to the entire Biblical narrative! But the theory that the fallen nature is transmitted from man into woman is not soundly based in Scripture and therefore needs to be rejected rather than to cause a problem that is of our own making.
Incidentally, it would also mean that the cloning of a female human cell would have similar results, for no male transmitted X or Y chromosome would need to be present and, therefore, no impartation of the fallen human nature.
How it was possible that Jesus could take upon Himself flesh and stand pure and undefiled before God when that flesh was given from humankind is by no means easy to either quantify or qualify. All we know (Heb 4:15) is that Jesus was
‘...tempted as we are, yet without sin’
Elsewhere (I Peter 1:19) Jesus’ blood is spoken of as
‘...like that of a lamb without blemish or spot’
and of Christ Himself (I John 3:5) it’s written that
‘...in Him there is no sin’
Though it is asserted that Jesus was perfect before God, how that perfection was possible through the virgin conception when God and man united in the womb of Mary is not easy to understand.
However, the one reason for the virgin conception of Jesus, as described above, seems to be that God had to be seen to be the Father of the child in order that the resultant offspring might be undisputedly the true Son of God or ‘God with us’.
Natural sons after Jesus
This section should not take long to deal with - not because the points are unimportant but because the onus of proof lies squarely with those who propose that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life on earth and that the sons and daughters spoken of in such places as Mtw 12:46, Mark 6:3, John 2:12 and Acts 1:14 are no more than cousins, nephews or children received into the family by adoption.
Though we have discussed above why the Lord had need of a virgin to carry the child, Jesus, there remains no good reason that I’m aware of why He should have required Mary and Joseph to remain celibate for the remaining years of their marriage.
As Matmor points out
‘...in both Old and New Testaments such intercourse is approved and viewed as an integral part of marriage (Gen 1:28, 9:1, Prov 5:18, I Cor 7:3-5)’
though Mathen’s statement that celibacy
‘...is definitely condemned’
is far too strong.
Mtw 1:25 naturally reads that Joseph’s abstention from sexual intercourse with his wife ceased upon the birth of Jesus. Just how long after is not detailed but it is quite possible that, upon their flight into Egypt (Mtw 2:14), Mary was already pregnant with their second child - perhaps even imminently due to give birth as she had been when the couple were forced to travel south to Bethlehem to enrol in the census (Luke 2:1-5) for it is anticipated that the event of flight took place around a year after the birth (see my notes here).
Certainly, there is no indication that Mary had already given birth to another child in Matthew chapter 2 but that hardly proves that it hadn’t taken place. All that can be said is that there appears to have been enough time for Mary to have conceived and given birth to her first naturally conceived child before the move to Egypt and, if this hadn’t taken place, she may well have been nearing its deliverance.
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