In my last post I explained where the title ‘Christ’ came from, and I opened up an age-old can of worms: was Jesus of Nazareth the ‘Christ’ predicted in the Hebrew Old Testament? That’s a great question to mull over in the Christmas season. I used Psalm 132 to show the origin of the prediction that the Christ was to come from the line of David. You can see that it was not a Christian idea or invention since it has its source in the Hebrew/Jewish Psalms written 1000 years before Jesus was born and the controversy surrounding him exploded onto his world.
Was Jesus really from the line of David?
But the New Testament claim of ‘fulfilling’ this prophecy seems certainly suspect. The reason that Matthew and Luke include the genealogy of Jesus in their gospel accounts is that they want us to see a fulfillment of this Jewish prophecy in Jesus. But who is to say that they didn’t just make up their genealogies to get a ‘fulfillment’? That would be a more natural explanation than ‘Divine’ fulfillment. Many of us confronted with this question just leave it at that and either believe or not based on pre-existing biases. But hold your verdict! The case is not fully heard and the jury should still be out.
It helps when trying to find out what ‘really’ happened to seek the testimony of hostile witnesses. A hostile witness was on-hand at the scene in question but does not agree with your overall belief or conclusion and thus has motive for contradicting or refuting the steps you take to reach your conclusion. Suppose there has been a car accident between persons A and B. Both blame each other for the accident. But suppose person A says that he saw person B texting just before the accident. Person B has no motive for agreeing with Person A on this point, and if he does admit that yes he was texting just before the accident then the judge and jury have good reason to at least bet that person B was texting since the hostile and eye-witness parties agree on this point, and person B has nothing to gain and only to lose by agreeing to this point.
In the same way, sifting through hostile historical sources can help move us much further along as to what really happened in the controversies and events of Jesus. In that light I found it interesting when I studied the noted and distinguished scholar F.F. Bruce’s work Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament. (1974 215pp.). In that study, he identified and analyzed Jewish Rabbinical references to Jesus in the Talmud and Mishnah. He noted the following rabbinical comments about Jesus:
Ulla said: Would you believe that any defence would have been so zealously sought for him (i.e. Jesus)? He was a deceiver and the All-merciful says: ‘You shall not spare him neither shall you conceal him’[Deut 13:9] It was different with Jesus for he was near to the kingship” p. 56
FF Bruce makes this remark about that rabbinical statement
The portrayal is that they were trying to find a defence for him (an apologetic note against Christians is detected here). Why would they try to defend one with such crimes? Because he was ‘near to the kingship’ i.e. of David. p. 57
In other words, the Jewish rabbis did not dispute the Gospel writers’ contention that Jesus really was in the line of David. Though they did not accept Jesus’ overall claim to Messiah and were hostile to the Gospel claims about him, they still affirmed that Jesus was in the royal line of David. So we know that the Gospel writers did not simply make that up to get a ‘fulfillment’. The hostile witnesses agree on this point.
What about being born of a virgin?
Now we may not react too strongly against the claim that Jesus was from David. After all, there is always a distinct statistical possibility of this being true ‘by chance’. But born of a virgin?! There is no possibility of this happening ‘by chance’. It is one of: a misunderstanding, a made-up fraud, or a Divine Happening – no other option exists.
Luke and Matthew quite clearly state that Mary conceived Jesus while she was a virgin. And Matthew ups the ante by quoting and claiming that this was a clear fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah (ca 750 BC) which said:
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 (i.e. ‘God with us’) Isaiah 7:14 (and quoted in Matthew 1:23 as a fulfillment)
Virgin or Young Maiden
It is at this point where plausibly natural explanations come to mind. If you dig just a little bit (as some do) you learn that the Hebrew (הָעַלְמָ֗ה transliterated haalmah) which is translated to ‘virgin’ above in English could also mean ‘young maiden’, i.e. a young unmarried woman. Perhaps that is all that Isaiah ever meant to say, way back in 750 BC, and given some pious ‘need’ on the part of Matthew and Luke to venerate Jesus they misunderstood Isaiah to mean ‘virgin’ when he really meant ‘young woman’. And given the untimely (yet convenient for the ‘fulfilled prophecy’ plotline) pregnancy of Mary before her marriage it neatly developed into a ‘divine fulfillment’ centerpiece in the birth story of Jesus.
Many have recounted some such explanation to me over the years, and on the one hand I can’t refute this explanation – after all proofs about being a virgin or not are difficult if not impossible to frame. But, for a fact, the story is not this simple. Because we saw in the last post that the Septuagint was a Jewish translation of the Hebrew into Greek that was done in 250 BC – two hundred fifty years before Jesus was born. How did these Jewish
rabbis translate Isaiah 7:14 from the Hebrew into the Greek? Did they translate it as ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’? What amazes me is that though scores of people who I have talked to about this seem to know enough to dig into the fact that the original Hebrew can mean either ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’, not one among these scores has ever brought up the witness of the Septuagint. When you look there you see that it is rendered unequivocally and categorically as παρθένος (transliterated parthenos), which means ‘virgin’. In other words, the leading Jewish rabbis of 250 BC understood the Hebrew Isaiah prophecy to mean ‘virgin’, not ‘young woman’ – over two hundred years before Jesus came on the scene.
I find this so interesting because why would a group (seventy of them according to tradition) of leading scholars make such a seemingly ridiculous and far-fetched prediction that a virgin would have a son. If you think it is because they were superstitious and unscientific in that day then think again. People in that era were farmers. They knew all about how breeding worked. Hundreds of years before the Septuagint Abraham and Sarah knew that after a certain age menopause kicked in and childbearing was impossible. No, scholars in 250 BC did not know about the periodic table of elements or the complete electro-magnetic spectrum, but they understood how animals and people reproduced. They would have known it was out-on-a-limb, naturalistically-defying, to predict a virgin birth. But they did not retreat, they did not hedge their bets and make it ‘young woman’ in the Septuagint. No they inked it in black and white that a virgin would have a son.
And now consider the fulfillment part of this story. Though it cannot be proven that Mary was a virgin, she was remarkably in the only and very brief stage of life where it could at least remain an open question. This was an age of large families. Families with ten children were not uncommon. Given that, what was the chance that Jesus would be the oldest child? If he had had an older brother or sister then we would know Mary was not a virgin. In our day when families have about 2 children it is a 50-50 chance, but back then it was closer to a 1 in 10 chance. In other words, the chance was 9 out of 10 that the ‘fulfillment’ should just be dismissed by the simple fact that Jesus had an older sibling – but (against the odds) he didn’t.
And now layer the remarkable timing of the betrothal onto this. If she had been married just a few days the virgin ‘fulfillment’ could again simply be dismissed. On the other hand, if she had not yet been engaged and was found to be pregnant she would not have had a fiance to care for her. In that culture, as a pregnant but unbetrothed woman she would have had to fend for herself – if she had been allowed to live.
It is these remarkable and unlikely set of ‘coincidences’ that make the virgin explanation impossible to disprove that strikes me. As I showed above these coincidences are not expected, but rather they exhibit that same sense of balance and timing, especially given the virgin prediction in the Septuagint, that show plan and intent – that of a Mind.
If Mary had been married for some time before Jesus was born, or if he had older siblings, then the hostile witness of his opponents would surely have brought that out. Instead it seems that, once again, they defer to the gospel writers on this point. FF Bruce notes this as he explains how Jesus is referred to in the rabbinical writings:
Jesus is referred to in rabbinical literature as Jesus ben Pantera or Ben Pandira. This might mean ‘the son of the panther’. The most probable explanation is that it is a corruption of parthenos, the Greek word for ‘virgin’ and arose from Christian references to him as a son of a virgin (p57-58)
Today, as back in Jesus’ time, there is plenty of hostility to Jesus and the claims of the gospel. Then, as now, there was significant animosity to him. But the difference in hostility is that back then they were also witnesses, and as hostile witnesses they did not refute the very points that they should have been able to, had these points been made up or in error.
But the story does not even end there. Even those hostile to the supernatural claims about Jesus admire him for the life he lived on a purely human level. People may debate his divinity, but rarely do they argue about his morality. And it is at this point, that once again the grudging acceptance of those hostile should cause us to pause and ask: Where did he get this different morality from? The acclaimed moral life lived is also a signature of that disputed Virgin Birth.