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A Sign for You

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel."

Matthew 1:22-23, NRSV

This passage is familiar to Christians as part of the nativity story that opens Matthew's gospel. But did Isaiah really foretell the circumstances of Jesus' birth more than 700 years in advance?

Here's the passage Matthew refers to.

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria."

Isaiah 7:10-17, NRSV

The Matthew passage is clearly derived from the Isaiah one, but it also has clear differences. The NRSV translation is controversial in some Christian circles, because it translates the Jewish scriptures directly from the Hebrew original.

Many Christian Bibles rely on the Septuagint, a Greek translation compiled some 200 to 300 years before Jesus' birth. The Septuagint translates the Isaiah passage differently. The Hebrew word`almah ("young woman") became the Greek word parthenos ("virgin"). The Hebrew language does have a word for virgin, betulah, but it is not used here. However, when the New Testament was written—in Greek—it was natural for its authors to quote the Bible in its Greek translation.

That in itself is a big enough issue for an entire post. (Many entire posts have been written, with varying conclusions.)

But there's a larger problem here for those who read this passage as a foretelling of the distant future, and that is the sign itself—who it is given to, and what it represents to that person.

The Isaiah passage makes it clear that the sign is being given to King Ahaz, and that he will be alive to watch the child grow up. Not only that, but the foreign threat Ahaz was worried about would dissipate while the child was still young.

It's hard to make the case that Isaiah was speaking of a child that wouldn't be born for more than seven centuries.

So what is Matthew trying to do? Is he assuming his readers won't look up the Isaiah quote in context? Does context matter?

Or is something else going on?

Because if context matters, we need to understand the context in which Matthew was writing, too. We need to understand that ancient readers did not approach texts the same way we do.

We need to understand that the gospel writers were not primarily writing biographies, but theologies.

Matthew's theology, in particular, aimed to show Jesus as the heir to the Jewish tradition. Matthew points out parallels between Jesus' life and the entire history of Israel. For example, Matthew's birth narrative includes a flight by Jesus' family to Egypt to escape persecution, just as the Jews went to Egypt to flee a famine in the days of Jacob and his sons. Matthew makes the connection explicit by quoting the second half of Hosea 11:1. The full verse is, "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son."

During the holy family's stay in Egypt, King Herod orders all the baby boys in Bethlehem to be killed, just as Pharaoh had ordered all the Israelite boys killed in Moses' day.

Matthew gathers Jesus' teachings into five long speeches, matching the five books of the Torah.

As Jesus begins his public ministry, Matthew says he left his hometown of Nazareth and took up residence in nearby Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. This, Matthew notes, has its parallel in Isaiah 9.

Jesus' final entry into Jerusalem before his crucifixion is foreshadowed in Zechariah—although Matthew strains to match the Hebrew poetry by having Jesus ride a colt and a donkey. The other gospels simply have him riding a donkey.

When Jesus is betrayed by Judas, Matthew alone tells us it was at a price of thirty pieces of silver, a sum also taken from Zechariah.

The key to understanding Matthew's use of the Jewish scriptures is found in the interpretive framework known as midrash. Jewish scholar Gary Porton defines midrash as "a type of literature, oral or written, which has its starting point in a fixed, canonical text, considered the revealed word of God by the Midrashist and his audience, and in which this original verse is explicitly cited or clearly alluded."

Jacob Neusner expounds, "For something to be considered Midrash it must have a clear relationship to the accepted canonical text of Revelation.  Midrash is a term given to a Jewish activity which finds its locus in the religious life of the Jewish community."

If we consider the possibility that the Gospel of Matthew was written as midrash, the point of the parallels between the Jewish scriptures and the life of Jesus becomes more obvious: For the early Jewish Christians, Jesus has become the center of the community's way of life; Matthew therefore reads the scriptures in a way that places Jesus at their center as well.

Thus Matthew finds allusions to Jesus in the Jews' time in Egypt, in the slaughter of infants by Pharaoh, in the little details of the writings of Isaiah and Zechariah.

And Matthew is not the only one. The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews finds Jesus in the Psalms, in the blessing of Abraham by Melchizedek, in the design of the tabernacle, in the rituals of the priests.

Though it's not often recognized today, this was once the primary way Christians read the Old Testament. And once you've seen it, you realize how ubiquitous it is in the New Testament.

Jesus' forty days in the wilderness echoes the Jews' forty years in the wilderness.

Noah's flood prefigures the Christian practice of baptism.

The story of Jonah in the fish becomes a sign prefiguring Jesus' resurrection.

The Gospel of John's introduction, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," calls to mind both Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8, making Jesus synonymous with the Wisdom of God. Paul's letter to the Colossians contains a similar reference to Proverbs 8.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his followers they will have "authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy," a reference to God's punishment of the serpent in the Garden of Eden story. This let later Christians to interpret "her [Eve's] offspring" in Genesis as a direct reference to Jesus. Furthermore, in the Gospel of John Jesus refers to his debate opponents once as sons of the devil; this is also read back into Genesis 3, identifying the serpent's offspring as modern-day opponents of Christianity.

By the third century, Chrisitian apologists were reading the entire Old Testament as an allegory of the life of Jesus.

And so, when the early Christians saw Matthew's reference to the sign given by Isaiah to King Ahaz, they wouldn't have found it odd to see it also as a sign given to them, centuries later.

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