In my recent entry “Three hermeneutical paradigms to use when studying the doctrine of the virgin birth” I referred to the use of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23 as “awkward”. I was questioned about this, and I tried to provide my rational in response, but I think I may have found a more articulate way of saying what I was aiming to say. In Craig A. Evans’ Matthew (NCBC) he represents the view I hold and he frames things quite well. I have decided to reproduce it here.
As Evans completes his commentary on the infancy narrative he writes:
“At this point, we may inquire more closely into the question of historicity. Some commentators have suggested that the various components of the infancy narrative were produced through theological and typological interpretation of the scriptures of Israel. According to this line of thought, early Christian interpreters and apologist combed through the scriptures looking for clarification of the significance pf the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. Various texts, or ‘prophecies,’ were identified, which in turn created narratives. Understood this way, the infancy stories of the miraculous conception (Matt 1:18-25), the birth in Bethlehem and the inquiry of the magi (Matt 2:1-12), the flight to Egypt (Matt 2:13-15), and the murder of the infant (Matt 2:16-18) are not actual events in history but theological and midrashic creations.”
I should pause here to comment that Evans is not denying that the church studied the Scriptures to understand the meaning of Jesus. What he is denying is that in doing this there were a variety of obscure passages plucked from the text for no apparent reasons and applied to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. When it comes to these aspects of the infancy narrative of Matthew it seems quite odd that these passages would be chosen. Evans explains:
“All of this is possible, of course, but the evidence for it and the logic behind it are not as compelling as some think. It is not at all clear that the prophecy of Isa 7:14 would have given rise to a story about a virginal conception. There is no history of interpretation that anticipates either a miraculous conception or a messianic identity of the child in Isaiah 7. Neither was there an expectation that the Messiah was to be born of a virgin. Indeed, had the conception and birth of Jesus been conventional, one wonders why anyone would have introduced a story involving a divine conception. Such a story would have created difficulties, for in Jewish circles it could have been viewed in terms of pagan mythology, in which a god produces a child through intercourse with a mortal woman. It is more likely that Mary’s conception was indeed unexpected and unusual, and given the outcome– the amazing power of Jesus demonstrated in his public ministry and his astounding resurrection following his passion– the claim of his conception bu an act of the Holy Spirit of God becomes plausible.”
In other words, there was a tradition about the uniqueness of Jesus’ birth that informed Matthew’s exegesis of Isaiah rather than the text of Isaiah inspiring Matthew’s tradition about the uniqueness of Jesus’ birth. There is no need for a divine messiah, and even if someone thought messiah to be divine, there is no evidence that anyone thought this was possible through a virgin birth alone. Of course, the more skeptical readers of Matthew will not find this argument convincing, but I admit that it is an argument like this one that has caused me to pause when I hear people speak of Matthew creating a virgin birth story. Even if Matthew was being apologetic in defense of Mary’s reputation wasn’t an appeal to Joseph as Jesus’ legitimate father an easier answer than a virgin birth?
Evans concludes his thoughts with the following:
“It is probably better to see the tradition of Mary’s unusual conception and the belief that it was of God’s Spirit as generating an appeal to Scripture, not the Scripture generating the story of Mary’s immaculate conception. In other words, Isa 7:14 was understood to explain the irregularities surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus. The prophecy of Isaiah not only foreshadows the unusual conception of Jesus but places in into the context of Israel’s history, in which God’s saving work is revealed.” (p. 63)