One of the side effects of the late vocations classes I’m taking (currently on the Old Testament), is that after each session I return with wonderful kernels of ideas from which to expand a (hopefully) interesting essay based on the discussions we have in class. Last week one of the books we read was Isaiah.
Isaiah 7 … and particularly Isaiah 7:14 has been a lighting rod for messianic interpretations.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin
shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
This verse and the surrounding few verses, Christians have traditionally taken as a sign-point identifying the virginity of the Theotokos. Much modern commentary focuses on defending the use of the word virgin. The Masoretic text (MT), which is the primary source for the Western canon (apparently) uses a term which is more ordinarily translated as young or unmarried girl … not virgin. The LXX text however both originates much earlier, might have used a separate strand of source text than the MT, and unambiguously uses a Greek term which translates as virgin. However, that isn’t the core problem. For even if you either buy the somewhat contorted arguments for translating the MT term “virgin” or just use the LXX itself as your base text there remains a problem (of course if you’re going to use the LXX here, then you’ve a problem explaining why you’ve decided to dropped half a dozen or more books from the canon … additionally one of the oldest complete extant LXX copies the Codex Alexandrinus also contains first and second Clement in the New Testament).
What I’ve always been taught is that hermeneutically speaking “proof texting” or taking verses in isolation removed from the context of the surrounding text is looked upon as a bad or poor hemerneutical method. That is to say, a thing not to do. Yet this is exactly what seems to be occurring here. For when you take the whole text of Isaiah 7 in context then interpreting Isaiah as talking about anything outside of the context of the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom is unwarranted. Isaiah throughout is highly poetic and there are direct references to current and near future events by the prophet … and in Isaiah’s context the near future was not by any means six or seven centuries in the future, i.e., Jesus birth. Therefore the popular (in the West) hermeneutical method the “historical/critical” method would indicate, I suspect, that this is not about the Messiah but about Assyria. Isaiah’s contemporaries would not have interpreted chapter 7 as being about an event centuries in the future and apparently there are few records of who pre-first century Jewish rabbinic interpretation would have viewed this chapter.
Yet universally the early patristic theologians located this verse as one of the clear prophetic verses predicting Jesus birth and role as Messiah and they weren’t “proof-texting” or misusuing a hermenuetical method. What they were doing was using a different hermeneutic. One of the dominant hermeneutics of late antiquity was to use the typological and or allegorical methods to interpret Scripture. These verses are important indications of the Theotokos and the Messiah not due to their interpretation as prophecy but because of their resonance with and their similarity to those parts of Jesus life and birth. There was a fevered and fervent effort using the allegorical/typological methods throughout the early centuries following Jesus resurrection plumbing Scripture for all the places and ways Christ and those around him could be found pre-figured or type-ically located in the Old Testament. A simple example of this is Jonah in the belly of the whale for three days is seen as a type (or allegorical allusion) to Christ’s being in Death/Hades for three days prior to his Resurrection.
But there is a problem for the modern western (protestant?) Christian who has decided the typological/allegorical hermeneutic is to be abandoned. For it seems if you do so, you need to abandon Isaiah 7 as a prophecy which points to Christ. Yet, noting that modern translators of texts such as the ESV, which primarily use the MT documents for their basis use the less proper translation term “virgin” over “unmarried/young girl” in this case. Why? Because they are Christian and the traditional Christian interpretation of this text is that it is in fact pointing to Christ and the Nativity. Yet that does violence to a consistent hermeneutical method.
If, on the other hand to avoid this one was to grant validity to allegorical/typological methods then it seems you also have to allow its use elsewhere. Recently on a number of Evangelical/Protestant blogs discussion resurfaced regarding the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos (Mary), i.e., that she remained virgin after the birth of Christ. The claim was made there that “there is no Scriptural support” for that belief and all support for that is just tradition unsupported by Scripture (a thing rejected by most Protestants), yet the early Church using the type/allegorical methods of interpretation found Scriptural support for the perpetual virginity throughout via this hermeneutic. Here are two quick examples of that. One example of that “type” is that the passage of Israel out of Egypt is seen as a type of Christ’s birth (Israel passing out of Egypt toward Canaan with the concomitant allegorical associations of Egypt as sin and so on). The sea then is the Thetokos and the parting of the Sea in this case is the Nativity … and the water’s restoration after is the return of her virginity. A second example would be the burning bush. The bush with God’s voice is an example of the incarnation and the unconsumed bush is Mary, who gave God flesh yet was unchanged by the presence of God, i.e., her virginity/purity remaining is the bush being unconsumed. This is just two of the many instances of allegorical instances in which Mary’s virginity (and continued virginity) can be found in the Old Testament.