The passages set in the lectionary for this coming Sunday place alongside each other a prophetic oracle spoken by Isaiah, and an angelic announcement delivered to Joseph. The two passages seem to sit side-by-side very comfortably. The Gospel selection from the book of origins recounts how the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. The prophetic selection from Isaiah declares that the Lord himself will give you a sign and looks to the conception, birth, and naming of a child.
The oracle of the prophet speaks about a child to be born to a young woman. The message of the angel announces a child to be born to a young woman who was a virgin. The author of the book of origins (whom I refer to, following tradition, as Matthew) quotes the prophetic oracle about the birth of a child and claims that it has been fulfilled in the angelic announcement about the birth of a child to Mary and Joseph. The angel follows the prophet in affirming that child to be born would be a sign to the people, that God was still with them, in the midst of their difficulties. But the status of the young mother is a question that has long vexed interpreters.
How do we read the Gospel account when it takes up an ancient word of the prophet and interprets it to relate specifically to the story of Jesus? I have reflected on the issues we need to bear in mind as we do this, especially during this season of Advent, at
The Hebrew word found in the original oracle of the prophet, almah, refers simply to a young woman of childbearing age; it had no connotation at all relating to virginity. It occurs in eight other places in Hebrew scripture—with reference to Rebekah and Miriam, in three references to female musicians, and in wisdom texts relating simply to young women. In none of those places does it have any reference to the virginity of the young woman.
There is also, in Hebrew, the word bethulah, which refers specifically to a young woman who was a virgin; but it is important to note that this word was not employed by the prophet Isaiah. He clearly was referring to a young woman aged around puberty, who was now able to bear a child. He was not referring to a young woman who had never had sexual intercourse, who was still a virgin.
The Greek translation of these Hebrew texts was made some centuries before Jesus. The translation is known as the Septuagint, attributed to seventy wise scholars. In this translation, the Hebrew word bethulah is usually rendered in Greek as parthenos. This Greek word can refer quite generally to a young woman, but it can have a more specific reference to the virginity of the young woman.
Now, on two occasions in the Septuagint, the word almah is rendered as parthenos: Gen 34:3 and Isa 7:14. The first refers to Dinah. It occurs in the story at the point where the powerful prince Schechem rapes the young woman. The point is being made that her state of virginity has at that point been lost, so the Greek word is appropriate.
But the oracle of Isaiah 7 refers simply to a woman who, at an early stage in her capacity to bear a child, is indeed pregnant. So there appears to be no reference at all to her lack of sexual activity prior to this pregnancy. This much is clear in the Hebrew. But the Septuagint translators chose the Greek word parthenos.
We must wonder: is the choice of parthenos when translating Isa 7:14 from Hebrew a strategic move by the seventy wise scholars? Is it an inspired insight into the meaning of the Hebrew text? Or is it an unguarded moment, a slip of concentration, amongst the translators?
I incline to the latter view. I don’t think the intention of the Septuagint translators was to insist that we know more than what the original prophet knew—that is, the precise sexual status of the young woman in question, not just young, but still a virgin.
Nevertheless, Matthew uses the version of the prophet’s oracle that includes this Greek word. He quotes the Greek version of the Septuagint, since he is writing in Greek. Mind you, Matthew regularly and consistently quotes the Septuagint translation, rather than other options that would have been available to him. So this is not really a surprise.
Whatever identity we accord the author of this book of origins, it is quite clear that he was an educated Jewish male. As such, he would have known and used the scriptures of the people of Israel, in Hebrew. And yet, he is writing his account of Jesus in Greek—so he makes use, on a regular basis, of this version.
And this version places a focus on the virginal status of the young woman, who was to give birth to Jesus of Nazareth. So Matthew has deliberately chosen to include this in his story.
Why? That is a good question! Why?
Rather than seeing Matthew as trying to prove the historical veracity of the virginal status of Mary, however, I incline to the view that the primary purpose, as Matthew tells the origins of Jesus, is for him to prove Jesus’ legal status as the stepson of Joseph, as a legal heir of David. Whilst the infancy narrative in Luke places Mary at the centre of the story—and the angel makes his announcement directly to her—in Matthew’s version it is Joseph who is centre-stage—and the angel speaks to him, and only him, in this version.
This passage in Matthew 1 is the one and only time in the book of origins when the virginal status of the mother of Jesus is noted. By contrast, the Davidic lineage of Jesus, through Joseph, is a concern which is both in view here at the start of the whole story, and which returns at various points through the ensuing story. (See https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/)
And as if to reinforce this lineage through Joseph, the book of origins takes pains to establish that Joseph, a descendant of David, was “a righteous man”, as befits a Davidic descendant (1:19; David is declared as righteous at 1 Sam 24:17).
Although, it is worth noting one way by which Joseph exemplifies the questionable moral character of his ancestor—initially he was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace” and wanted to dismiss Mary (1:19). Nevertheless, after hearing the announcement of the angel, he remained faithful and “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him” (1:24).
And whilst he took Mary as his wife, Matthew maintains that, as a righteous man, Joseph “had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son” (1:25). At which point, we may presume, Joseph functions as the de facto father of the newborn child. So this is part of the pro-Davidic apologetic of this book, not the basis for the doctrine of the Virgin Birth.
Joseph, descendant of David, takes on the legal role of father of the child. (Indeed, we are never told that he refrained from relations when they were engaged, before Mary conceived; rather, might we infer that the shame that Joseph expresses incriminates him?)
Certainly, in Christian tradition the fathering of the child is attributed to the Holy Spirit, who overshadows the virgin to produce the child (see Luke 1:35). That developing tradition was presumably already known in early Christian communities of the first century. But how early, we do not know.
In the earliest decades of the movement that Jesus initiated, Paul makes no reference to this claim in any of his letters. He knows the Jewish origins of Jesus, but says nothing even hinting at Mary’s virginal status (see https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/)
The letter of James, if it was authored by the brother of Jesus, is an early witness that shows no concern for this doctrine. Mark, the earliest extant Gospel, makes no reference at all to the virginal status of Mary. Early witnesses make no reference to the doctrine which emerged much later, they provide no hints or clues upon which this dogma can be founded.
What we do know is that this claim was articulated in the later part of the first century in the orderly account attributed to Luke, as well as in this book of origins, attributed to Matthew, who includes the prophetic oracle as a foundation for the angelic announcement and to refer directly to this claim (1:18, 20).
And so the tradition of the virginal conception of Mary arose, eventually leading to the (less accurate) claim about the birth of Jesus having been a Virgin Birth, now strongly cemented in traditional Christian dogma. But I don’t think that this particular book of origins was really concerned, either to establish this claim, or to utilise it as a foundation for a whole developed dogma about Jesus, as would subsequently occur in Christian tradition.
And thus, I don’t think we need to hold to a notion that the mother of Jesus was still a virgin when he was born. She was, quite simply, young, at the beginning of her childbearing years, around 14 or 15 years of age. What sexual activity she engaged in at that time can never be known. But she was, in due course, married to a descendant of David; and that is what mattered for Matthew.