Bart Ehrman and the Infancy Narratives — Part II


Francesco Albani, The Annunciation

Read Part I here.

As we saw in the last installment, a lack of Scriptural and historical understanding haunts Ehrman when it comes to Luke. Now we come to Matthew. Ehrman writes (emphasis mine):

It is interesting to observe that the Gospel of Matthew also has an account of Jesus’s birth in which his mother is a virgin. One might infer from this account as well that Jesus is the Son of God because of the circumstances of his unusual birth. But in the case of Matthew, this conclusion would indeed need to be made by inference: Matthew says nothing of the sort. There is no verse in Matthew similar to what Luke says in Luke 1:35. Instead, according to Matthew, the reason Jesus’s mother was a virgin was so that his birth could fulfill what had been said by a spokesperson of God many centuries earlier, when the prophet Isaiah in the Jewish scriptures wrote, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).[1]

It’s difficult to believe that Ehrman actually means what he says here. There is “no verse in Matthew similar to what Luke says in Luke 1:35″? Really? Well, let’s see, what does Luke say?

The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the Power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the one who is born will be called holy, the Son of God.” (Lk 1:35)

And what does Matthew say:

Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit.

It is strongly implied that Mary is a virgin, and explicitly stated that she conceived through the Holy Spirit. But this is not all. In 1:20 the angel tells Joseph:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.”

Matthew actually sates twice that Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit! Matthew then comments:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means “God is with us.” (22-23).

Matthew has more or less what Luke has, the child is conceived in a virgin by the Holy Spirit, therefore he will be called the Son of God. The “conceived as a virgin by the Holy Spirit” is covered by the events he narrates, the “therefore he will be called the Son of God” part is covered by the reference to Is. 7:14. The events that had just taken place would lead to Jesus being called “God with us.”

But Ehrman isn’t finished yet. He continues:

It has frequently been noted that Isaiah actually does not prophesy that the coming messiah will be born of a virgin. If you read Isaiah 7 in its own literary context, it is clear that the author is not speaking about the messiah at all. The situation is quite different. It takes place in the eighth century BCE, during a calamitous time. Isaiah is talking to the king of Judah, Ahaz, who is very upset, and for good reason. The two kingdoms to the north of Judah—Israel and Syria—have attacked his capital city of Jerusalem to force him to join them in an alliance against the rising world power of Assyria. He is afraid that these two northern opponents will lay his kingdom to waste. Isaiah, the prophet, tells him that it is not so. There is a young woman (not a virgin) who has conceived a child, and she will give birth to a son, who will be called Immanuel, which means “God is with us.” That God is “with” the Judeans will become clear, because before the child is old enough to know the difference between good and evil, the two kingdoms that are attacking Jerusalem will be dispersed, and good times will return to Ahaz and his people. That’s what Isaiah was referring to. As a Christian living centuries later, Matthew read the book of Isaiah not in the original Hebrew language, but in his own tongue, Greek. When the Greek translators before his day rendered the passage, they translated the Hebrew for word young woman (alma) using a Greek word (parthenos) that can indeed mean just that but that eventually took on the connotation of a “young woman who has never had sex.” Matthew took the passage to be a messianic tradition and so indicated that Jesus fulfilled it, just as he fulfilled all the other prophecies of scripture, by being born of a “virgin.”[2]

By “messianic tradition” I presume Ehrman means “messianic prophecy.” His contention is: “Matthew only believes that Mary was a virgin because of a prophecy that didn’t really talk about a virgin, and actually meant something else entirely. Matthew made up the story of a virgin birth based on a mistaken translation of Isaiah 7:14.” This is a standard objection of skeptics.

First, in regard to almah vs. parthenos. This is so frequently raised as an objection with such assurance that I think that the critics should spend more time with their dictionaries. The Hebrew word almah has the basic meaning of “young unmarried girl.” It is often said that Isaiah would have used the word betulah if he really meant virgin, but the meaning of this word is not unambiguous either, and it can be used in other senses. For instance, in Joel 1:8 a betulah is described as mourning “for the husband of her youth.” It seems clear that this was a married woman and not a virgin. On the other hand, The Song of Solomon (Canticles) 6:8 describes the king’s harem as including “sixty queens and eighty concubines, and maidens (almah’ot) without number.” Going by the usual makeup of such a harem, the almah’ot here would be virgins with whom the king has not yet cohabited. The Greek word parthenos has a similar ambiguity (which even Ehrman admits), as it is used throughout early Greek literature in a way very similar to almah, to mean “young (unmarried) girl, maiden.” By extension, it later came to mean “virgin” in a technical sense, and as an adjective “chaste.” Given the time period when the Greek translation of the Bible was made, it doesn’t seem that the translators were mistaken in translating almah by parthenos; it’s likely they thought it the closest equivalent, and perhaps one that would preserve the general, even if ambiguous nature of the original word.

It is true that the words of Isaiah’s prophecy referred to a present, not a future situation. It’s not clear who the mother and the child to be born were, whether Ahaz’s wife and his son Hezekiah, or someone else. But most modern scholars think it clear that an immediate fulfillment was what the prophet meant.

Ehrman, however, believes that this was the only fulfillment this prophecy could ever have, so Matthew was mistaken in citing it.

The problem here is that Ehrman fails to understand how “fulfillment” worked in Jewish thought of the time with regard to the Old Testament. Direct fulfillment of a prophecy was not the only possibility – and this approach was not limited to Christians.

There were various Jewish methods of interpretation that sought to make the past relevant to the present. One was the exegetical technique called midrash, where the text was interpreted to bring out its relation to present events. A modern Jewish writer, reading Luke 1:35-37, notes that the angel’s words to Mary, “nothing is impossible with God,” is a midrash on Gen. 18:14.[3] This is the passage where Sarah laughs at the thought that at the age of 90 she will bear a child, and the angel of the Lord replies, “Is anything impossible with God?” The angel is telling Mary that her situation is similar to that of Sarah, and that like her, she is to have faith.

There was also typology, which saw various OT figures as prefigurements or “types” of current figures. The Christians inherited these ideas, seeing many Old Testament figures as types of Christ or his mother.

These ideas were not restricted to certain prophecies. The earliest Christians thought the entire New Testament lay hidden in the Old until it was revealed by Christ, who taught his disciples that Moses, the prophets, and indeed “all the scriptures” referred to him (Lk 24:27).  As my friend Mark Shea has written:

In fact, the New Testament makes plain that the prophecies of the Messiah were not so much revealed by the Old Testament as they were hidden there. This is why Paul writes that the New Covenant was “veiled” until the gospel took away the veil (2 Cor 3:14). It is also why he declares the gospel was “ not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets” (Eph 3:5).

His whole treatment also deals with the Matthew-Isaiah controversy, and is really worth reading.

We can see how this works a little more clearly if we look at another of Matthew’s “fulfillment” passages, where he makes this comment on the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem (2:17-18).

Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)

Jeremiah’s words were not even a prophecy strictly speaking, but a poetic description of what he himself saw during the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., with the slaughter of many of its people and the carrying off of the rest to exile to Babylon. He is imagining Rachel, the wife of Jacob, as an embodiment or personification of Israel, weeping over the dead. The scene is related to the one in Matthew, not as a prediction of it, but as a situation similar to it: oppression and slaughter again afflict the people of Israel in Mary and Joseph’s time, as they did almost 600 years earlier.

But there is more: the verses Matthew cited are a small part of a much longer passage, comforting and offering hope to the exiles for their coming return to their homeland. Just a few verses after the mention of Rachel comes one of the most quoted passages of Jeremiah:

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. . . I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. . . for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31: 31-34).

Every Jewish Christian acquainted with the prophets knew these verses. There is an enormous amount of meaning here, and hope and joy hidden behind the said and poignant words, for Matthew’s audience was living that New Covenant. and would find Matthew’s words a whole commentary rich in meaning on the events he is describing.

Jeremiah also makes use of typology in making Rachel, as a personification of Israel, prefigure the mourning women of his own time (Rachel actually died near Bethlehem, and in some accounts is buried there, so this description is doubly fitting for the use Matthew made of it). At the same time, we would see Rachel as a prefigurement of Mary, who is the embodiment of the New Israel, being involved in these sorrowful events as well as the joyful promise of a New Covenant.

To return now to the prophecy of Isaiah: it was already known to all Jews in Matthew’s time that Isaiah’s prophecy about the child called “Immanuel” had been fulfilled. But because the prophecy was addressed to the “House of David” (7:13-14), it was ripe with possibilities for the development of messianic expectations. In fact, in the following chapter, Immanuel is already seen not as simply an individual , but almost as a kind of personification of land of Judah (Is 8:8). It is not surprising at all that Matthew should see such a development there and comment on the resemblance between it and the birth of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah from the land of Judah. For him, the “virgin” might not even be the most important part of the prophecy. What is important to him is the idea that the coming Davidic messiah could be called “God with us.”[4] As we have seen, exact agreement between all aspects of the two situations are not required for them to be meaningfully related to each other. And confirmation that the young woman of his fulfillment was indeed a virgin was not needed from the Old Testament: Matthew had that from the historical tradition he had received about Mary’s conception.

From his earlier statements, readers would never guess that Erhrman is aware of any of the above understanding of New Testament interpretation, though scholars in his field has devoted an enormous amount of time to it. However, at the end of his discussion he does backtrack a little and say:

It does not take too much thought to realize, though, that Matthew may have been giving “scriptural justification” for a tradition he inherited that originally had a different import: like Luke’s tradition, the one that came to Matthew may originally have spoken of Jesus as the unique Son of God because he was born of a virgin, with God as his father.

This is indeed exactly what Matthew does have! He has a clear statement from his tradition that Jesus was conceived by a virgin through the Holy Spirit, implying that God was his father. He does not say it quite as explicitly as Luke does, perhaps, but his account is certainly not the invention Ehrman thinks it is.

In fact, the idea of the virgin birth being an invention in Matthew depends completely on him being the first to tell the story. But since I’ve gone on long enough, I’ll have to deal with this question in another installment.


[1] Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, p. 277.

[2] Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, pp. 277-78.

[3] Larry Magarik, “The Torah Reading for Rosh-Hashanah.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 39:2, (2011): 83-90. The discovery of a number of scriptural commentaries among the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from the first century B.C. to the first century A.D. have added tremendously to our knowledge about the modes of scriptural interpretation in the time of Jesus and the apostles. These commentaries use the terms midrash and pesher (an Aramaic term) to denote their interpretive methods, but it’s not clear how far differ from each other. I am using midrash as the general term, as it is better known. A very helpful guide to the Jewish methods of interpretation used by Matthew and other New Testament writers can be found in Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999).

[4] Richard Longenecker writes: “it may be that Matthew considered Isa 7:14 more a typological statement, which found its antitype [fulfillment] in the Messiah Jesus, than a direct messianic prophecy, as we would understand direct messianic prophecy.” Biblical Exegesis, p. 128.


Bart Ehrman and the Infancy Narratives — Part II — 2 Comments

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