Against his better judgment, my buddy watched a "Mysteries of the Bible" segment recently. On the show were two female theologians from a major Catholic academy, there to prove Peter Kreeft’s observation that Catholic universities are a great place to lose your faith. In reverence for the general fascination of media culture with sex, they obligingly told the camera that Mary was no virgin and based it, as ever, on the fact that Isaiah 7:14 (which Matthew cites) does not say "the virgin shall conceive" but "the ‘almah’ shall conceive." " Almah" means "young woman" in Hebrew and refers to any young woman, virgin or not. The Septuagint translated the Hebrew " almah" into the Greek " parthenos" which does mean "virgin." This is the translation quoted in Matthew’s Gospel.
My friend was wrestling with what seemed an inevitable set of conclusions: the Septuagint translation is wrong; Matthew was ignorant of the actual meaning of Isaiah; he derived his belief in the Virgin Birth from a mistaken translation of Isaiah; and the Church therefore erred in her dogma. But this is to enter into a whole complex of mistakes, not clarifications. To find out what’s really going on, let’s look at the New Testament use of the Old Testament.
The first point in the New Testament is that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. This idea comes from Christ himself, who says he did not come to abolish the Law and the prophets but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17) and, after his Resurrection, tells his disciples that "Moses and all the prophets" had written "concerning himself" (Luke 24:26–27). Likewise, the apostles insist the whole life and ministry of Christ "fulfilled the Scriptures." Seeing this, it is easy for the reader to adopt a kind of "checklist" mentality about messianic prophecy, as though every first-century Jew had an agreedupon set of verses in the Old Testament against which all messianic claimants were measured. Indeed, many books of Christian apologetics today lay out precisely this sort of schema: The Messiah must be born in Bethlehem (source: Mic. 5:1; fulfillment: Matt. 2:1, Luke 2:4–7); he must be adored by great persons (source: Ps. 72:10–11; fulfillment: Matt. 2:1–11); he must be sold for thirty pieces of silver (source: Zech. 11:12; fulfillment: Matt. 26:15). One could get the impression that all a first-century Jew had to do was follow Jesus around, ticking off prophecy fulfillments on his Old Testament checklist, and he ought to have known everything that Jesus was going to do before he ever did it.
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 " notmade 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). Paul insists the deepest meaning of the Old Testament was seen only after the advent of Christ.
This is why nobody before the advent of Christ says, "Why, it’s plain from Scripture that the Messiah will be born of a virgin, rejected by the chief priests, handed over to Gentiles, crucified with thieves, rise, and ascend and that he will abrogate the circumcision demand for Gentiles as he breaks down the barrier between man and woman, slave and free, Jew and Gentile." Even the disciples, close as they were to Jesus, make it clear they did not anticipate the Crucifixion, much less the Resurrection—even when Jesus rubbed their noses in it (Mark 9:9-10). As John says, they did not understand from Scripture that the Messiah had to rise from the dead, even though they stood in the mouth of the empty tomb gawking at his grave clothes (John 20:1–10). Yet these same apostles speak of the Resurrection as a "fulfillment" of the prophecies. What then do they mean if they do not mean the prophecies were "predictions" on which everybody based an understanding of the Messiah?
They mean that Christ fulfilled, brought to fruition, and was that toward which all the Old Testament was straining and pointing. They mean he was the one toward whom the Law and prophets were being pointed by the Spirit though when the sacred writers themselves did not know quite what they were pointing toward (1 Pet. 1:10–11). This is why the early Church never had difficulty with an issue that vexes modern minds: why the New Testament often takes Old Testament texts out of their immediate context and sees them as applicable to Christ. The early Church does not see the Old Testament as talking about something different from Christ but rather sees it in relationship to him. What appear to us to be separate themes and events in the Old Testament appear to the New Testament writers as so many spokes on a wheel all connected to the hub who is Christ.
For instance, Hebrews 2:13 quotes Isaiah 8:18: "Here I am, and the children God has given me." In its original context, Isaiah is speaking about his own disciples with no hint of messianic intent behind these words. Yet the author of Hebrews sees Christ, not Isaiah, fulfilling the text anyway. Why? Because Christ and his Church are, most fully, what Isaiah and his disciples were foreshadowing. Isaiah and his disciples do fulfill the passage in an immediate sense, but the early Church sees no particular reason why this forbids the God whom Isaiah worshiped from fulfilling it even more profoundly when he becomes incarnate and establishes the Church. The author of Hebrews, reading the Isaiah passage through the lens of the entire life and ministry of Christ, sees something hidden in it, something Isaiah himself perhaps knew nothing about.
So it is with Isaiah 7:14. The passage has a more immediate fulfillment than the birth of Christ. The Immanuel prophecy comes in an hour of national crisis during the reign of Ahaz, one of the lousier kings of Judah. The northern kingdom of Israel has formed an alliance with Syria against Ahaz’s southern kingdom of Judah, and the Judeans are in a muck sweat about the future of their country. So Isaiah goes to Ahaz, tells him not to worry about the alliance since God will take care of Judah, and offers Ahaz the chance to "ask a sign of the Lord your God" (Isa. 7: 11) to assure him that everything will be fine. Ahaz refuses, ostensibly because he is too pious to put God to the test, but really because he does not want obey Isaiah. It is at then that the Immanuel prophecy is given: "Behold the almahshall conceive and bear [or ‘is with child and shall bear’] a son and shall call his name Immanuel [which means ‘God with us’]."
What does Isaiah mean? Most immediately, he seems to have in mind the promise of a successor to Ahaz, namely Hezekiah, who will carry on the line of David so that, as Nathan had prophesied long ago to David, "your throne shall be established forever" (2 Sam. 7:16). In other words, Isaiah is telling Ahaz that "God is with" the Davidic throne still, and his kingdom will not be defeated by the menacing alliance to the north. This prophecy is fulfilled. The alliance fails, Hezekiah is born. The prophecy in its most immediate sense is fulfilled, not by a virgin birth, but by the pregnancy of the wife of Ahaz and the birth of a new "son of David" to carry on the Davidic line.
Still, there remains in pre-Christian Jewish tradition a persistent belief in larger and second meanings in the Bible.
There is, for instance, a growing sense that the prophecy to David (despite immediate fulfillments) speaks not so much of an everlasting political rule but of some higher and greater throne. That is why, when the political rule of the house of David finally does fail, Israel continues to remember Nathan’s words and wonders what deeper meaning they might have. In the same way, Israel is told by Moses to await a prophet (Deut. 18:15), and, indeed, many prophets appear. Yet Israel, instead of seeing them as the final fulfillment of Moses’ promise, instead comes to believe that some great and ultimate prophet is coming, an august personage of whom the Old Testament prophets are just dim images or foreshadows. This is why the Jews ask John the Baptist if he is " the Prophet" (John 1:21). The Jews slowly develop over time the strong belief that there is, in the Bible, a mysterious inner meaning as well as the slowly-dawning awareness that somebody is coming—some Anointed One or Servant or Prophet or Son of David or Son of Man (the titles are fuzzy in the Old Testament)—who will make clear the tantalizing hints and "utter things hidden since the creation of the world" (Matt. 13:35).
There is, then, both clarity and obscurity concerning the messianic message of the Old Testament in the time of Christ. Certain texts (such as the prophecy of Nathan) are clearly messianic. At the same time, other passages are never dreamed of as referring to a Messiah until after Jesus of Nazareth’s astounding career is over. Nobody, apparently, understands Psalms 69 and 109 as a prophecy of the election of Matthias to the office vacated by Judas, nor does anyone understand the unbroken bones of the Passover lamb as an image of Christ’s unbroken bones, nor does anyone see in Isaiah 53 a forecast of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. If they had, says Paul, they never would have crucified the Lord (1 Cor. 2:8). All these things are seen only after the fact as eerily prophetic of Christ and his Church. They fill out the picture dimly sketched by the more widely acknowledged messianic prophecies, but only in hindsight.
This is why, rather than viewing the Old Testament as a source of checklist proof texts to be strung together into a story, the early Christians see the Old Testament bearing witness to the extraordinary man who had dwelt among them. They did not read that "zeal for thy house will consume me" (Ps. 69:9) and then decide, "Let’s believe Jesus cleansed the Temple because this verse tells us to." On the contrary, Jesus cleanses the Temple first (John 2:13–16) and then afterwards his disciples remember the verse and are struck by how it "fits" the event.
This happens again and again in the New Testament. The disciples are as surprised as anybody when Jesus heals the sick and raises the dead. They do not foresee the actions of Christ by reading the Old Testament. Rather, the ministry of Christ happens, and they then see an uncanny connection between what Jesus does and the way in which it fits the Old Testament.
When Jesus is sold for thirty pieces of silver or his hands and feet are pierced on the cross, the disciples do not discover this by sticking their noses into the book of Zechariah or Psalm 22. Rather, after Jesus is raised, they remember that these things were written and, blinking their eyes in amazement, say, "It was staring us in the face all along, and we didn’t see it!" The Old Testament is not the basis of their belief in these things; it is the witness to these things.
So, back to my friend and his worries about the Virgin Birth. Matthew did not derive his belief in the Mary’s virginity from Isaiah 7:14. He did not sit down one day, read Isaiah, and say to himself, "Let’s see. Isaiah says something about a virgin here. If we’re going to cook up a Christ figure, we’d better make him the son of a virgin so it’ll fit with this text." On the contrary, the apostles encounter a man who does extraordinary things, such as rising from the dead, and, when they inquire about his origins—which they could have known only if Mary and Jesus volunteered the information—they find he was born of a virgin. Then they look at their Septuagint Bibles and run across this passage in the Greek text of Isaiah and see Jesus reflected in this verse (because Jesus had told them that the Law and the prophets are, in the deepest sense, about him). The Church’s faith in the virginity of Mary originates not in a textual misunderstanding but in the historical fact of the Virgin Birth to which the Septuagint translation bears curiously providential witness. The basis of the Church’s faith, then as now, is Jesus Christ himself.