Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Blessed Virgin Mary

 "I believe in... Jesus Christ....born of the Virgin Mary..."

That's a small part of what we say every Sunday in church.  It's a small line from the Creed that unites all Christians in our time.

But was Jesus really born of Mary who was a virgin?  Was there really a virgin birth?  Was it foretold by the prophet Isaiah?

I'll begin with a little story.

Bart Ehrman wanted to serve God and he went to Moody Bible Institute. He then went to Wheaton College and on to Princeton.  At Princeton, he studied Greek, Latin, Syriac, Aramaic, Coptic, etc in order to be able to read every single writing of the early Christians in the first few centuries in their original tongue.  He's possibly the only human to have done that.  He lost his faith as a result.  Today, he argues very effectively why the Bible is totally unreliable.

Bart Ehrman was a student under Metzger while at Princeton.  Metzger was a great Bible scholar and was the chap who translated the Bible in the Revised Standard Version or the RSV which is commonly used today.  In Christianity Today, there was a tribute to Metzger who died in February 2007.

Someone told Metzger that Christian fundamentalists were burning copies of the RSV on church lawns because of his translation of Isaiah 7:14. Why would anyone burn the RSV, you may ask?  Isaiah 7:14 in the NIV reads: 14 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.

The word translated "virgin" in most of our translations is "almah" which simply means "maiden" or "young woman" in Hebrew.  The Hebrew word for "virgin" is "betulah" and not "almah".  So Metzger, when working on the RSV, decided to be faithful to the Bible and he translated almah as "young woman".  This caused an uproar among fundamentalists.

You may ask, "What's the big deal?  So what if the Isaiah prophecy mentions young woman?  God is sovereign and he can still have Jesus born of a virgin whether Isaiah prophesied it or not.  This should not affect the Christian tenet of faith at all.

The problem comes with Matthew's gospel.  In Matthew 1:22, 23, we read: 22All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"—which means, "God with us.

You see, Matthew's Gospel gave the story of the miraculous birth of Jesus.  He went into some length on this.  He then explains that all these things took place in order to fulfil a prophecy which comes from Isaiah 7:14.  But why would Matthew misunderstand Isaiah 7:14?  I have shown earlier that Matthew is not very good with Hebrew writings and in an earlier post, I have shown that he had Jesus riding on two donkeys just to fulfil a non-existent prophecy which only existed in his non-Hebrew mind.  Scholars tell us that the Gospels are all anonymous and the church attributed each of the four gospels to an evangelist at a much later date.  Presumably, Matthew is not the tax gatherer many people think he is.  He was probably a non-Palestine Christian convert who did not know Hebrew.  That makes a lot of sense because many early Christians had to depend on the Septuagint (which is a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek) when they wanted to read the Old Testament.  
In the Septuagint, the word for “almah” in Isaiah was wrongly translated "parthenos" which means virgin in Greek.  If the Jewish tax-gatherer Matthew actually wrote Matthew, he should have known enough of his Hebrew Bible not to make such a blunder.  He would have read the Old Testament in Hebrew and not in Greek.  To misunderstand a prophecy and to think that virginity is a prerequisite in the prophecy and to cook up facts about Jesus so that people will think there is fulfillment of a non-existent prophecy is quite a serious thing to do.

As an aside, most of the references to the Old Testament by the gospel writers are taken from the Septuagint.  Again this is one argument for a non-Jewish author for each of the gospels, particularly the Synoptic gospels.  I'll deal with John separately in another post.  In fact, I’ll probably deal with each of the gospels separately in different posts.

Before I go on, it should be noted that John's Gospel makes no mention of the virgin birth.  John had ample opportunity to talk about it - he was always into Jesus as divine and the idea of a virgin birth would have been up his alley.  Neither was the virgin birth mentioned in any of the epistles.

I have read many attempts by Christians to say that "almah" actually means "virgin".  They also say that "almah" is always used to mean virgin in the Old Testament.  I hope these people are genuinely mistaken and they are not dishonestly attempting to justify scriptures.  Let's look into this more carefully.

Naturally, a "young woman" is usually a virgin or so she should be.  But I'm saying that "young woman" is a description of the age of the person and her gender and nothing else.  For a prophecy to include an element of virginity (which is an astounding prophecy because no pregnant woman is a virgin), surely it would be highly negligent to just say "young woman" and hope people will infer that virginity is meant.  This is particularly so when there is a perfectly good word for a virgin, ie "betulah".

Next, Isaiah in his entire writing used the word "almah" only once in Isaiah 7:14.  However, he used the word "betulah" 5 separate times so he couldn't have been ignorant of the word.  We can’t accuse Isaiah of having an inadequate Hebrew vocabulary.  He used "betulah" in 23:4; 23:12; 37:22; 47:1; 62:5.

Since Isaiah only used "almah" once, we can gain guidance into how "almah" may be used elsewhere in the Old Testament.  I have to clarify one essential point.  As I have said, a young woman may be a virgin and frequently she is so but the idea of virginity cannot be inferred into the prophecy if "almah" is used.  One huge error a Christian sometimes makes is to show examples where “almah” is used to refer to virgins.  Nobody is disputing the fact that most young women in those days in Palestine were virgins.  It does not mean anything if you can show a thousand examples of an almah who is in fact a virgin because the two are not inconsistent.  But on the other hand, if I am able to show just one example in which "almah" is used on a non-virgin, that would end all argument on this issue.

I’m sorry I have to belabour this point because in my experience, many people have difficulty grappling with this mentally.  Some people seem to think that if they can show a hundred examples where “almah” refers to someone who is in fact a virgin, it doesn’t matter if someone else can show merely one example where “almah” is used on a non-virgin.  But it does matter.

I’ll give an example so as to put a final nail in the coffin of this confusion.  For example you tell me that the word “girl” means someone who is a virgin.  And you are able to show me a million examples in literature that use the word “girl” to refer to someone who is in fact a virgin.  All I have to do is to show you one instance of the word “girl” being used in the context where she’s not a virgin and you are sunk.  Yes, a “girl” may very well be a virgin but the idea of virginity is not an essential component in the word “girl”.

And yes, there is one example from Proverbs 30:18-20 which reads:

18 "There are three things that are too amazing for me,
       four that I do not understand:
 19 the way of an eagle in the sky,
       the way of a snake on a rock,
       the way of a ship on the high seas,
       and the way of a man with a maiden (ie almah).
 20 "This is the way of an adulteress:
       She eats and wipes her mouth
       and says, 'I've done nothing wrong.'
This almah is FAR from being a virgin!

I will end with a nice story - the same story I alluded to at the start of this post.

Metzger, when he was told that fundamentalist Christians were burning his RSV on church lawns because he translated Isaiah 7:14 as "young woman" instead of "virgin", he said, "We've come a long way since Tyndale.  They now burn the translation and not the translator".

What a great man!!!  When I read that, I wasn't sure whether to laugh at his joke or to cry over the passing of such a great biblical scholar and Bible translator who just wanted to be faithful and correct in his translation even if to the rest of the world, truth isn’t really important.

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