Another classic, skeptical challenge to the biblical stories of the birth of Jesus goes something like this. “You cannot trust Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus because he gets the key Old Testament text wrong (Matthew 1:23). He quotes Isaiah 7:14, saying it is a prophecy that one day a virgin will give birth. There are two problems with this. First, in the original language, Isaiah is referring to a “young maiden” not a virgin. Second, the text is really about the birth of King Hezekiah, not Jesus. So Matthew misreads the verse and quotes the verse out of context for the sake of his pre-conceived notions. Therefore, no one should trust his account as accurate and trustworthy.”
So what have Christians said about this challenge? Very briefly, here are three points in response.
First, “virgin” is a completely valid way for Matthew to translate what Isaiah wrote in Hebrew.
In every language, “words” often have several meanings or a range of meanings. So it is here. In Hebrew, the word in question can mean either “young maiden” and/or “virgin”. In other words, “virgin” is clearly an option in translation. As well, there is a large academic literature on the question of whether “virgin” or “young maiden” was the most common usage. There is a good case to be made that “virgin” was the most common meaning. Regardless of what was most common, both are valid ways to understand the word.
Second, many decades before the birth of Jesus, the Jewish people thought that “virgin” was the proper way to understand what Isaiah wrote.
Some 100 to 200 years before the birth of Jesus, Jewish scholars translated the Tanach (what Christians now call the Old Testament) from Hebrew to Greek. When they translated Isaiah 7:14, they used a Greek word that unambiguously means “virgin”. As with most of the New Testament, it is this Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) that Matthew quotes in Matthew 1:23. So, Matthew quotes the text correctly and his reading is consistent with the ancient Jewish way of understanding Isaiah.
Third, the Old Testament does not usually see prophecy as an either/or but as a both/and.
The skeptics’ critique of Matthew assumes that the prophecy must either be about Hezekiah or about Jesus. It cannot be about both. While I do not say this in my opening statement about the skeptics argument, the fact is that most skeptics who use this argument also assume that predictive prophecy is impossible. In other words, Isaiah only wrote about Hezekiah, and he wrote the “prophecy” after Hezekiah was born – so the prophecy is not really a prophecy.
But this way of understanding the Old Testament is not how the Old Testament portrays itself.
Prophecies in the Old Testament regularly have multiple meanings (a young woman in one case while the true and greater fulfillment will be a virgin in another case). The Old Testament regularly has God keeping His word in several different senses. For example, in Genesis 3, the “seed” promised to Eve can both be a future biological son, a “line” of provision, and The Seed, the Lord Jesus Christ. So Matthew, not the skeptic, is in fact reading the Old Testament correctly.
Matthew would have learned of the virgin birth from Mary, and the connection to Isaiah from Jesus. Matthew records and believes this to be true because he knew Jesus for three years. He heard Jesus prophesy the manner of His death and that He would be resurrected. He knew that Jesus was dead and buried. He knew the grave was empty. He saw the resurrected Jesus. So now, after the resurrection, he believes Jesus and tells the story of His virgin birth, a birth that fulfills Old Testament prophecies, just as the resurrection also fulfills Old Testament prophecies.
Friends, the Invasion has begun. Deliverance is near. Jesus is Saviour and Lord. He was born of a virgin. He died on a cross. He rose from the dead. He will come again in glory. Believe Him. Trust Him. Follow Him. Alleluia!