The “virgin birth” prophecy

(Book: First Apology, by Justin Martyr, courtesy of The Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)

A little historical background before we get to Justin Martyr today.

Now it came about in the days of Ahaz, the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Aram and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not conquer it. When it was reported to the house of David, saying, “The Arameans have camped in Ephraim,” his heart and the hearts of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind.

This is about 700BC, after the Davidic kingdom of Israel had split into two separate nations: the 10 tribes of Israel in the north, and the smaller nation of Judah in the south. King Ahaz (one of David’s descendants but not one of God’s favorites, according to the Bible) was king in Judah, and Pekah was king in Israel. Rezin, meanwhile, was king of Aram (a nation/state in what is now central Syria), and he and Pekah got together to try and overthrow Ahaz and install a puppet king. From a modern, Western perspective it might seem like a minor bit of historical trivia, and not at all the sort of incident that you would expect to give rise to religions, heresies, and innumerable Christmas carols.

We’ve made it to Chapter 33 of Justin Martyr’s First Apology, and once again he’s going to share with us a number of things that the early Christians were getting blatantly wrong in terms of interpreting Old Testament prophecy. He doesn’t realize that’s what he’s doing, of course. He thinks he’s providing Caesar with incontrovertible proof that Jesus is “the Son of God,” whatever that means.

And hear again how Isaiah in express words foretold that He should be born of a virgin; for he spoke thus: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bring forth a son, and they shall say for His name, ‘God with us.’” For things which were incredible and seemed impossible with men, these God predicted by the Spirit of prophecy as about to come to pass, in order that, when they came to pass, there might be no unbelief, but faith, because of their prediction.

He’s quoting from Isaiah 7, which begins with the verses I quoted above. Let’s keep reading in Isaiah to get the context for what Justin is claiming as a prediction that Jesus would be born of a virgin.

Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out now to meet Ahaz … and say to him, ‘Take care and be calm, have no fear and do not be fainthearted… [Thus] says the Lord God: “ It shall not stand nor shall it come to pass. For the head of Aram is Damascus and the head of Damascus is Rezin (now within another 65 years Ephraim will be shattered, so that it is no longer a people), and the head of Ephraim is Samaria and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you will not believe, you surely shall not last.”’”

Ok, so the story as Isaiah tells it is that God wants Ahaz to know that Rezin and Pekah will not be successful in their attempt to overthrow Ahaz. Pretty standard stuff, OT prophecy-wise. There is a bit of interest in the fact that someone has rather clumsily edited the original text to insert a retroactive “prophecy” about Ephraim (another name for Pekah’s kingdom) being destroyed in 65 years. But long term, there’s not a messiah in sight. So where does Justin get this “messiah born of a virgin” stuff? Right here.

Then the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as  heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!” Then he said, “Listen now, O house of David! Is it too slight a thing for you to try the patience of men, that you will try the patience of my God as well? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good. For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.

The Hebrew word for “virgin” is bethulah—a woman who has not had sex. That’s not the word that Isaiah uses, though. Isaiah simply refers to an almah, feminine form of the Hebrew word elem, which means “a youth.” Isaiah is saying here that God will give a specific sign to King Ahaz that he would not be overthrown by Rezin and Pekah, and that sign is that a young woman will have a baby boy and name him Immanuel. This birth will happen in Ahaz’s lifetime, in order to serve as a sign that Rezin and Pekah’s days are numbered: before that boy is old enough to know right from wrong, Israel and Aram are to be laid waste. That could be as long as 13 years if we’re talking about officially knowing right from wrong at his bar mitzvah, or as little as 4 years if we’re talking about first developing a practical sense of acceptable behavior. But it’s certainly not referring to something that exceeds a normal human lifespan by several centuries!

So once again, Justin is quoting an out-of-context Old Testament prophecy as if it supernaturally predicted some amazing detail about Jesus life, and yet virtually everything he says about the verse is flat out wrong. The main point Justin makes—that Jesus would be born of a virgin—is something Isaiah clearly did not say (though he easily could have, if he’d wanted to). Even if he had predicted a virgin birth, it wouldn’t be the birth of the messiah unless it happened in the eighth century BC. Justin doesn’t even get the name right: Isaiah specifically predicted that the baby’s name would be “Immanuel,” which is clearly not the name “Jesus,” so Justin tries to obscure the problem by giving a loose translation of the name’s meaning, “God with us.” And even that’s wrong, because the name Jesus actually got does not mean “God with us,” it means “God saves.”

How could Justin be so wrong about a passage that so plainly has nothing at all to do with the birth of Jesus? Simple. It’s in the New Testament itself, in Matthew chapter 1. That’s right, the Bible makes the same mistake as Justin. Jesus was literally a bastard, and his followers didn’t like the connotations, so they used the Free Association Game to “borrow” a superficially similar but unrelated prophecy, and re-invent it as a divine prediction of a miraculous birth. It’s completely bogus.

And yet, Christians to this day will defend the idea that Justin and Matthew got it right. God, for some ineffable but probably very wise reason, disguised the prophecy of the virgin birth so that it looked like it had nothing to do with Jesus (or anyone else) being born of a virgin, and then He inspired Matthew to decode the secret message to reveal that (surprise!) Isaiah was really predicting Rezin and Pekah would be dead by the time Messiah was born 700 years after Ahaz himself was too dead to actually see the sign that God was promising him. Pretty ingenious eh? Especially the way it sets  a solid scriptural precedent for the handy expedient of taking verses out of context and then twisting them to suit whatever new dogma you care to promote. Centuries of job security for theologians and cultists everywhere, that.

Ah well, back to Justin.

But lest some, not understanding the prophecy now cited, should charge us with the very things we have been laying to the charge of the poets who say that Jupiter went in to women through lust, let us try to explain the words. This, then, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive,” signifies that a virgin should conceive without intercourse. For if she had had intercourse with any one whatever, she was no longer a virgin…

Another time-honored method of injecting arbitrary doctrines into the Bible. Notice what Justin is doing here. The original text says, “A young woman shall conceive.” It doesn’t say that she is supposed to be a virgin at the time, nor does it say that conception is supposed to happen in the absence of sexual intercourse. So Justin quotes what the text does say (with a bit of license in how he translates the word for “young woman”) and then he says, “Now when it says X, it really means X plus Y plus Z.”

I call this technique “Incorporation by Asserted Reference,” and it’s totally awesome if you want to start a new denomination or cult. All you need to do is quote some verse that is written in the Bible, and then assert that the Bible verse is referring to the doctrine you want to set up as an official teaching of the Bible. Poof! Now your new doctrine is not only in the Bible, but it has always been there, and anyone who argues with you is contradicting God Himself. Pretty slick, eh?

Justin, for some reason, doesn’t want to entertain the notion that God might have become the father of Jesus through some sort of crass, carnal intercourse. God’s perfect design for sexual reproduction is somehow too inherently sinful and disgusting for God to degrade Himself by participating in. Yes, He got someone else’s fiancée pregnant (!?), but the important thing is that neither He nor she experienced any, you know, pleasure during the process. Ugh, that would be disgusting, wouldn’t it? And yet, what Justin does believe seems, well, strange…

[The] power of God having come upon the virgin, overshadowed her, and caused her while yet a virgin to conceive. And the angel of God who was sent to the same virgin at that time brought her good news, saying, “Behold, thou shalt conceive of the Holy Ghost, and shalt bear a Son…” [By] Isaiah also, … the Spirit of prophecy declared that He should be born as we intimated before. It is wrong, therefore, to understand the Spirit and the power of God as anything else than the Word, who is also the first-born of God, as the foresaid prophet Moses declared; and it was this which, when it came upon the virgin and overshadowed her, caused her to conceive, not by intercourse, but by power.

Justin’s convoluted phraseology is a bit hard to follow, but it sound here like he’s asserting that Mary was impregnated, not by the Father or the Holy Ghost, but by “the first-born of God” i.e. Jesus himself. According to Justin’s moral code, not only is it perfectly ok to get someone else’s fiancée pregnant, it’s also perfectly fine for the Son of God to get his own mother pregnant. Only the actual intercourse itself is “not ok.” If you can impregnate your mother without having sex, go for it.


And the name Jesus in the Hebrew language means Σωτήρ [Savior] in the Greek tongue. Wherefore, too, the angel said to the virgin, “Thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.” And that the prophets are inspired by no other than the Divine Word, even you, as I fancy, will grant.

Justin just got done telling us that Jesus fulfilled a prophecy about a baby whose name would mean “God with us,” yet here Justin very helpfully informs us that Jesus’ name does not mean that at all. It means “Savior.” Justin is assuring us that the prophets are inspired by the “Divine Word,” and yet, if we compare the Divine Word’s predictions to what Justin calls their fulfilment, we find that the Divine Word got the name wrong. Either that or Justin got it wrong. But why quibble? It’s entirely possible that they both got it wrong.

These are the “proofs” that Justin offers to Caesar as the incontrovertible evidence that Jesus really is the Son of God. So far, though, all Justin is documenting is that he and other early Christians (including the Gospel writers) were reckless revisionists who had no qualms about quoting passages out of context and twisting them to say whatever they wanted, to the point of outright changing the texts themselves if that suited their purposes, even when they end up contradicting themselves only a few sentences later. Justin’s idea of “truth” betrays a breathtaking disregard for the actual facts.

And yet, he’s “Justin Martyr.” As ill-founded as his beliefs were, he was willing to die for them. That should tell us something about the true significance of the “witness of the martyrs.”

2 Responses to “The “virgin birth” prophecy”

  1. Anthony Bertolotti Says:

    Very good post. Amazing that a part of the Bible can be so ridiculously contrived and forced into a prophecy for Jesus Christ, simply because there is a word that is similar to the word “virgin”. If that word weren’t there, there would be no way to try and force this verse into a prophecy.

  2. Poolio Says:

    It’s also interesting to note that Isaiah’s prophecy, even as it pertained to Ahaz’s situation with Rezin and Pekah, turned out to be false anyway. Isaiah never mentions it, but 2 Chronicles 28 1-6 tells us that “God delivered [Ahaz] into the hand of the king of Syria and they smote him,” and that “Pekah slew in Judah 120,000 in one day.” Nice work, Isaiah.

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