Matthew’s Misinterpretation

This morning I went to the Methodist church. They had a New Testament scholar, A.-J. Levine, of Vandy’s Divinity School come and discuss as a Jew some of the origins of the differences in Christian and Jewish doctrines.

One of the examples I found the most interesting was her discussion of Matthew’s:

The virgin shall be with child, and will give birth to a son, and they shall call him Immanuel; which means, ‘God with us.’

This writing is seeking to cast Jesus as the fulfillment of a previous Jewish prophecy and give him authority within the Jewish tradition. Specifically, this is a citation of the writings of Issiah:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

This text comes from the Greek translations of the Nevi’im that use the term “parthenos” which generally refers to a virgin (though is also used to refer to Dinah who was raped).

The problem is that the original Hebrew, as seen in Dead Sea Scrolls, uses the term “almah” which is “a young woman of marriable age.” The term loosely implies virginhood, but there’s another term, “betulah,” which would generally be used to convey virgin status. Matthew was working from the Greek translation, and so used the virgin birth of Jesus as a authority-granting “fulfillment citation.”

This certainly doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin, it just means that if he was, it was just an interesting metaphysical fact rather than something tying him into the Jewish tradition.

Why do I care since my faith requires the critical evaluation of the writings attributed to Jesus regardless of whether there were any virgins involved or not? I mostly find it fascinating to see the ways that language and history can show us how the actions and understandings of millennia ago are still shaping our lives today. I also really liked that the Methodists had the spiritual cahones to have someone come in and take the Bible apart.

I talked to the preacher at the college student luncheon and essentially told him that I really liked his church other than the Christocentrism of his sermons, and asked him if he wanted the whole world to be Christian. He kinda waffled a bit saying “no, but I want the whole world to be changed in a way that only comes through knowing Jesus.” Rather than digging into it there, I’ve got his card and I’m going to pay him a visit in the next week or so.


I actually e-mailed what I wrote here to A.-J. Levine and asked her for comment. She disagrees with my statement that Matthew’s actions don’t quality as a valid citation. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew, was an accepted part of the Jewish canon at the time that the writer of Matthew was operating. The idea of operating solely from the Hebrew didn’t come until later. Levine, therefore, sees him as operating as within the Judaism of his time and thus validly within the larger structure of Judaism as a whole.

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