Saturday, June 06, 2015

The virgin birth prophecy

I'm going to comment on Richard Carrier's discussion of the virgin birth prophecy:

i) It's striking that an unbeliever would imagine that Carrier a good person to ask about Isaiah 7:14. To begin with, since Carrier is an atheist, his naturalistic interpretation is a foregone conclusion. 

ii) In addition, Carrier is a Classicist, not a Hebraist or OT scholar. He has no expertise on Isa 7:14.

iii) One problem with a naturalistic interpretation of Isa 7:14 is that, even though an atheist denies inspired foresight, Bible writers, and ancient Near Easterners generally, did believe the future could be foreknown by supernatural means. When secular interpreters come to a passage like this, they confuse what they think is possible with what Isaiah believed. But when you interpret Isaiah, even if you don't believe Isaiah, you need to interpret his oracles as he understood them, consistent with his worldview. Even if you don't think his oracle could be genuinely prophetic, you must respect what he intended. That's what exegesis is all about. Ascertaining what the original author had in mind. 

I'll bet we have dozens if not hundreds of occasions where almah is used, in and out of the OT, where we can't know if the denoted girl was a virgin or not.

In other words, he hasn't actually studied the frequency of OT occurrences. This is just his seat-of-the-pants hunch. 

Moreover, the fact that the Hebrews saw a need to coin a word more definitely meaning 'virgin' (bethulah) implies that almah did not definitely mean virgin.

i) Carrier offers no evidence for that claim. Even a liberal scholar like Brevard Childs, in his commentary on Isaiah, says "it is very unlikely that a married woman would still be referred to as an almah…the preferred modern translation of 'young woman' (NRSV) is too broad a rendering since it wrongly includes young wives" (66). 

ii) Moreover, the exact rendering of almah is something of a red herring, for that fails to draw a rudimentary distinction between sense and reference. Even if almah doesn't mean "virgin," a virgin can be the referent.

For instance, Secretariat doesn't mean "horse," yet Secretariat refers to a horse. A horse is the designatum or denotatum of Secretariat. By the same token, a virgin can be the denotatum of almah even if that's not what the word means. 

iii) In addition, we need to distinguish between denotation and connotation. Even if almah isn't a synonym for "virgin," it can have presumptive virginal connotations in a culture where premarital sex was punishable. 

iv) Moreover, Carrier fails to take the larger context into account. The oracle is introduced as a "sign" or prodigy (v11). Compare that to the healing of Hezekiah–a promise attested by the prodigy of the sundial (Isa 38). A miraculous sign to portend a miraculous healing. That's the thought-world in which Isa 7 is moving.

v) Furthermore, it doesn't end with Isa 7. The career of this mysterious child continues to be charted in chaps 8-9, & 11. This is no ordinary child. His career extends generations beyond the exigent circumstances of Isa 7. 

…since Isaiah can be interpreted non-supernaturally even if he did mean virgin. After all, is it really unusual for a virgin to conceive? Say, on her wedding night? True, then she isn't a virgin anymore. But she was until she conceived (literally, not at that very moment, but the Bible is rarely so precise). Since conception does not always occur the first time it would still be significant to say that a virgin conceived, meaning only that she conceived the first time she was with a man.

In reference to the virgin birth of Christ, which is Carrier's real target, that's confused:

i) In principle, there's an asymmetrical relation between the virginity of the mother and the virginal conception of the child: 

The virginity of the mother entails the virginal conception of the child;

However, the virginal conception of the child does not entail the virginity of the mother. 

Even if the mother was not a virgin at the time, you could still have a virginal conception so long as that took place apart from sexual reproduction. 

A virginal conception doesn't require a virginal mother. It only requires that in that particular instance, the conception was not the natural result of a man impregnating a woman. In principle, you could have a virginal conception even if Mary was not a virgin. These are not mutual entailments.

ii) The primary function of Mary's virginity is to safeguard the fact that Jesus was conceived without a father. Although that's metaphysically possible even if Mary had had previous children by sexual reproduction, her virginity ensures that Christ's conception was virginal. Even though her virginity isn't a necessary precondition for the virgin birth, it renders certain the fact that Christ had a mother, but no (human) father.

In the providence of God, these separable elements (virgin mother, virginal conception) were combined to remove any ambiguity regarding the virginal conception of Christ. 

iii) In context, the virginity of Mary refers, not simply to the fact that she hadn't had sexual relations before then, but that she didn't conceive by means of sexual relations. 


  1. Bethulah isn't a more "specific word for virginity" it's used in Joel 1:8 to denote a married woman. Gordon Wenham believes that betulah means " a young woman of marriageable age"

    1. Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth. - Joel 1:8

      I'm not sure that works. As John Gill states, "either as one that had been betrothed to a young man, but not married, he dying after the espousals, and before marriage; which must be greatly distressing to one that passionately loved him; and therefore, instead of her nuptial robes, prepared to meet him and be married in, girds herself with sackcloth..."

      In other words, bethulah in Joel 1:8 might still refer to a virgin who mourns because her betrothed husband dies before they could actually have the marriage ceremony and later consummate the marriage. A betrothal period can last months or even years, so such a situation is not impossible.

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    3. This is from the article on Isaiah 7:14 from thinktank, seems pretty convincing to me

      Joel 1:8 seems to be an exception to the absolute virginity of the bethulah. This verse refers to the desolation of Israel. “Lament like a virgin [bethulah] girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth.” Some view this verse in the context of the betrothal period as in the case of Mary and Joseph before they were legally married (Matt 1:18–19). They hold that the woman was called a bethulah because she had not yet had sexual relations, and her “husband” (bridegroom) died before the marriage had actually been consummated. However, the problem with interpreting this Hebrew word in Joel 1:8 as a betrothed but unmarried virgin is that the expression “husband of her youth” is an expression of longevity. It is parallel to the phrase “wife of thy youth” in Proverbs 5:18 and Isaiah 54:6 which can be translated, “a wife you have had since your youth.” The Septuagint reflects the idea of actual marriage rather than just betrothal by translating bethulah in Joel 1:8 as numphe ("bride, married woman") instead of parthenos ("virgin"). Furthermore the use of ba'al in the passage seems to require that an actual marriage rather than a mere betrothal had taken place. In Deuteronomy 22:23 the husband of a betrothed woman is called an ish (cf. Judg 19:27), but the husband of the married woman in that same passage is called a ba'al (verse 22).. The word ba'al is never used in the Old Testament of the betrothed state. It always refers to a married man when describing the relationship between a man and a woman [Genesis 20:3; Exodus 21:3, 22; Deuteronomy 24:1–4; 2 Samuel 11:26; Esther 1:20; Proverbs 12:4; 31:11, 23, 28 ; Hosea 2:18.]." [Niessen, "The virginity of the Almah in Isaiah 7.14", BibSac

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    5. It seems to me that "husband of her youth" could refer to how they were betrothed for a long period of time. Or even prior to betrothal, their marriage may have been arranged by their parents in their extreme youth. And having grown up together as friends she always enjoyed his company and always considered him her "husband" (so to speak) knowing with "certainty" they would eventually end up together in marriage. With her submitting to his decisions (on childish topics) even back then as her "ba'al."

      Or the phrase may be proleptic. Meaning, had they married and lived happily ever after he would have truly been the husband of her youth. But since his death, that made the phrase and the thought of growing old together even more bittersweet. So, there's a sense of irony in there too.

      Even if the article from thinktank correctly interpreted the meaning of Joel 1:8, it's not clearly the correct meaning; and therefore (IMHO) has little apologetical force. It won't make skeptics or Jewish anti-missionaries reconsider their position. Especially since scholars would seem to agree that even if both words (bethulah and almah) may refer to both virgin and non-virgin females, the word bethulah is still the likely word to use if one wanted to more clearly imply virginity. So, even if Joel 1:8 actually is an exception to the general use of bethulah, appealing to it too strongly may seem to non-Christians as "another example of desperate Christian fundamentalists grasping at straws."

    6. It seems like the phrase "husband of my youth" seems to accord more with a marriage than an engagement period, the extract makes it clear that in other places where the phrase is used, it is in reference to a husband and wife so why would it be different here? especially when the word "ba'al is used undisputedly throughout the whole old testament to refer to husband, the combination of those two factors: the word " ba'al" being used and a statement more consistent with marriage than an engagement period tips the scales for me. The phrase just far more naturally accords with a marriage than an engagement.

      As for your other options they seem a little ad hoc, most marriages in that time would have been arranged, seems the whole "knowing each other as friends" is more of a western style anachronism, most brides in those days would probably not have had a prior relationship with the man who they were marrying, couples would then grow into love during the marriage. Of course it is possible that some couples night have had that relationship with each other but in that culture is it that likely?

      Finally even though I see your concern for apologetics, I'm simply using this verse as a response to skeptics who like to claim that betulah is a specific word for virgin

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  2. I'd been planning on writing on this topic for a long while, and so Steve's blog was good reason for me to just post something. Here's a link to what I've written so far.