Many Christians believe that Isaiah 7:14 is a prophecy of the coming Messiah (Jesus) who will be born of a virgin. The Isaiah passage says,
“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel” (7:14).
Like other scriptural passages, this takes place within a specific historical context. In this case, the prophet Isaiah is addressing king Ahaz of Judah when he and Jerusalem were under attack by the Kingdom of Israel and its ally Aram-Damascus (Syria). Their goal was to get king Ahaz to join them in an alliance that would unite to fight against the powerful Neo-Assyrian Empire.
Nonetheless, Assyria would soon come to king Ahaz’s assistance and destroy the Kingdom of Israel and Syria. Before this, however, Isaiah promised Ahaz that God would destroy his enemies, and, as a sign that what he said would come true, the prophet predicted that an almah (the Hebrew word for a woman of childbearing age) would give birth to a child. The child’s name would be Immanuel which translates to “God is with us,” and that the threat from the enemy kings would be ended before the child grows up. This historical setting is important to consider.
The difficulties for believing this to be a prediction of the virgin birth of Jesus (seven or so centuries later) are several. First, the word “virgin” is not mentioned in Isaiah 7:14 and Isaiah could have selected a more suitable word had he wanted to describe Immanuel’s mother as a virgin. In that case, “betulah” would be a more common way to refer to a woman who has never had sexual relations with a man. Instead, Isaiah used the word “almah” which means “young woman.” It is the female form of “young man,” and it therefore explains why a number of Christian Bible translations (see the Revised Standard Version, New English Bible, Revised English Bible, New Revised Standard Version etc.) have since replaced the word “virgin” with “young woman.” And even though most evangelical Bibles still render almah as “virgin,” they footnote it with “young woman” as an alternative (1).
Second, the historical context provides a challenge. Should someone interpret the passage as referring to Jesus’ birth, then one might wonder as to exactly what assurance Ahaz, who at the time was being besieged by a military presence, would have had given a prophecy predicting a future some seven centuries removed? The reasonable explanation is that this was a prophecy given to Ahaz in his own time and historical context regarding an event that would happen then.
Details in the wider passage also suggest that the child Isaiah was referring to could not have been Jesus. For example, as scholar Thom Starke explains, the detail that the child would eat “cream and honey” refers to the land having been recently ravaged by the Assyrians and that the people were forced to eat uncultivated food (cream and honey) rather than bread and wine (2). That Isaiah says the child would be called “Emmanuel” which means “God with us” does not mean the child himself is God, as was believed of Jesus by the earliest Christians. On this point Starke explains,
“Ancient names frequently included reference to some god or divine activity. Joshua’s name means “Yahweh saves,” and Azariah means “Yahweh helps,” but neither Joshua nor Azariah were therefore understood to be Yahweh in the flesh. The significance of naming the child “God with us” is that the child was a sign to king Ahaz that Yahweh was going to protect the kingdom of Judah from the hostile alliance presently threatening it. The child was born, and not too long thereafter, Assyria had indeed defeated the kingdom of Israel in battle. That is the “single, fixed meaning” of Isaiah’s prophecy” (3).
Further, if this is a prophecy of Jesus then who are the “two kings” whose kingdoms identified by the prophet Isaiah would be abandoned during Jesus’ lifetime? Who, during the first century CE, “dreaded” the Kingdom of Israel when there had not been a Northern Kingdom of Israel in existence for 700 years?
Scholar Bart Ehrman explains that when one uses Isaiah 7:14 as a predictive prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus he urges the reader to consider the passages carefully and find where there is any reference to a messiah,
“These passages are not talking about the messiah. The messiah is never mentioned in them. Anyone who thinks they *are* talking about the messiah, has to import the messiah into the passages, because he simply isn’t there. I should stress that no one prior to Christianity took these passages to refer to a future messiah” (4)
But how does the Gospel of Matthew factor into this? According to Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph, Mary’s husband, in a dream and informs him that Mary’s pregnancy fulfills what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah: “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us’” (Mat. 1:22-23).
The issue is that Matthew’s author drew his Isaiah 7:14 reference from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that began centuries before Jesus’ birth. In the Septuagint, Isaiah predicted that a “parthenos,” a virgin, would conceive a child. Starke explains that
“The trouble began when the Greek translators of the Greek Suptuagint (LXX) translated almah using the Greek word Parthenos, which by Matthew’s time did mean virgin. Since Matthew used the Greek Bible, he would have understood the meaning to have been virgin, thus his reapplication of the prophecy to support the tradition of the virgin birth of Jesus” (5). This is understandable given that Matthew’s author was eager to convince his Greek-speaking Jewish audience that Jesus was God’s promised Messiah, hence why he included references to the Hebrew Scriptures, “the Matthean community is not interested in the text for its historical meaning, they are only interested in using the text to elucidate their own present-day experiences and to reinforce their sense of identity” (6).
1. Burke, D. 2012. Did Isaiah Really Predict The Virgin Birth? Available.
2. Starke, T. Human Faces of God. Location: 1012
3. Starke, T. Ibid. Location: 1036
4. Ehrman, B. Jesus and the Messianic Prophecies. Available.
5. Starke, T. Ibid. Location: 1031
6. Starke, T. Ibid. Location: 1072.