Thursday, August 12, 2004

Blogwatch: Philologos on "virgin"

On Paleojudaica, Jim Davila draws attention to a Philologos piece:

Questioning Virginity

The post touches on the well-worn debate about the meaning of almah in Isaiah 7.14 and suggests:
And yet to think this really matters is, from a contemporary point of view, putting the cart before the horse. Not only needn't Jews be disturbed if the word almah in Isaiah can be interpreted legitimately as meaning "virgin," but they also should realize that such a meaning explains why Christianity came to believe in the virgin birth of Jesus in the first place. In other words, as is the case with many supposed details of Jesus' life and death in the New Testament, we are dealing here with a legend invented by Jesus' early disciples in order to portray him as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. It was only because they interpreted almah in Isaiah as "virgin," as did the Jewish translators of the Septuagint, that they imagined such a story about him.
I think that this is back to front. It is highly unlikely that the story of the Virginal Conception was invented in order to portray Jesus as the fulfilment of prophecy. Isaiah 7.14 is ill-suited to making the case that the Messiah would be born of a virgin because, as any educated Jew would have known and still knows, Isaiah 7.14 is about neither the Messiah nor a virgin! One of the things that is so striking about the use of proof-texts in Matthew 1-2 is that the author is clearly struggling to find scriptural texts that accord with a story that has already been established and developed on other grounds and by other means. Take, for example, Matthew 2.23, "He shall be called a Nazorean", the prophecy that is supposed to establish the notion that Jesus would be brought up in Nazareth. Here no-one can even be sure what text Matthew is thinking of, how much less that he invented Jesus' upbringing in Nazareth on the basis of the said text. In other words, the process that is taking place in Matthew 1-2 is not, to use the term John Dominic Crossan applies to the Passion Narrative, prophecy historicized. It is history, or tradition, scripturalized. Here the story comes first, the scriptural justification afterwards.

The term scripturalization is not my own but James Kugel's; I have been developing a case that the term can help us to understand elements in the origin of the Gospels, and especially the Passion Narratives.

In relation to the so-called Virginal Conception, it is also worth drawing attention to two important recent works which argue that Matthew does not, in fact, narrate a virginal conception at all, Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives (The Biblical Seminar, 28; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995) and Robert J. Miller, Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God (Sonoma: Polebridge, 2003) [See also Study Guide and Excerpt].

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