Meta Cognition and why it is hard to change someone’s mind.
A single woman from Norway wrote in the newspaper about her visit to Turkey where she needed to provide her religion and marital status for her travel documents. The boarder official in Turkey would not list ‘none’ for religion so since she wasn’t Moslem and she wasn’t Jewish and since she was from a western country he put Christian. Then for marital status instead of single he put virgin. The writer thought it was funny that her travel documents said she was a Christian virgin when she considered herself very much not either.
I thought of that story when I was reading about the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 that a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son… The Jews and Pagans love to point out that the Hebrew word that was translated virgin really means a young woman and those lying Christians keep translating it as virgin to hide the fact that Matthew either made a mistake or deliberately stretched the truth because he was so intent on proving that Jesus was the Christ.
Boring etymology to follow
From what I have read it seems like the Jews had two words for young woman. They had Alma which meant a young woman of marriageable age who has not yet had a child and bethulah which meant explicitly a virgin. The scholarly thinking is that if Isaiah had meant virgin he would have used bethulah. When Christian scholars look at how bethulah is used in other O.T. passages it occasionally is used of non-virgins. In one passage a widow who had moved home was called a bethulah so because of that and other hints bethulah seems mean a woman or girl of any age who is living under her father’s roof. Virginity is assumed but just to be clear the writer of Genesis called Rebecca a bethulah whom no man had known. I began to think that the beth in bethulah could be the root ‘house’ as in Bethlehem (house of bread) and Bethel (house of El). According to Strong’s I’m wrong; the words are not related. As for alma, it does mean young woman but in many cultures virginity is also assumed unless contra-indicated, for instance if the young woman is also married. I don’t know Hebrew but I know English and the word maiden used to have a double meaning. It meant unmarried woman or girl and also virgin – think of a ship’s maiden voyage – you had to decide which was meant from context. By-the-way, the mother of Jesus was an alma virgin not a bethulah virgin because though she lived in her father’s house, she was engaged also she was young where a bethulah can be any age. That’s how I read it anyway.
If the only controversy about this verse were the virgin /young woman thing there wouldn’t be a problem but the Hebrew also has a definite article ‘the’ as opposed to ‘a’. I read one scholarly article that made a very good case for ‘the young woman who is already pregnant’ (the conception was in the past) based on Hebrew context and verb forms; All that stuff that scholars are supposed to know. Even he admitted though, that this Hebrew construction was awkward which lent some uncertainty to his translation. So on one side we have modern scholarship with some uncertainty and on the other side we have the ancient scholarship of the Jewish scholar who translated this part of Isaiah into Greek some 200 years before Jesus. I’m thinking that the old guy translated it the way he did because he knew better than today’s scholars the subtleties of the language. The secular case would be stronger if they could show other mistakes by the same translator. So far no one I have read has mentioned any.
But why would Matthew bother?
The secular view is that Matthew and Christian translators since have lied about the meaning of an O.T. verse in order to make a prophecy where there wasn’t one and to hide Matthew’s mistake. My question is why did Matthew use this verse in the first place? If any Bible scholars read this please feel free to correct me but I didn’t think that this Isaiah 7:14 verse was a known messianic prophecy. Secular scholars claim that Matthew made up the whole nativity trip to Bethlehem because the people were looking for a messiah from Bethlehem not Nazareth. On the other hand since Jesus really was from Nazareth, Matthew went and found a verse that said ‘he shall be called a Nazarene’ that actually applied to Sampson and called it a messianic prophecy and we call it a double prophecy. Similarly since Jesus actually died on a cross we Christians use Isaiah 53 and Psalms 22 as prophecies that apply to the Messiah. But if the Jews of the day were not expecting a virgin born Messiah why go scrounging around to find a verse that proves it. I think it was because it happened. Jesus was born of a virgin and Matthew found a prophecy that applied. It may have been a mistranslation of an old prophecy that did not appear to apply or it may have been a correct translation of a real prophecy that does apply to Jesus. Either way I don’t see why Matthew would have gone looking unless it really happened.
I don’t really mean this as apologetics. While it helps me because it was my idea no one is going to say ‘good point. I guess I’ll get baptized’. What it really illustrates is how people make decisions.
We all judge based on our perspective, our personality and values, and desires.
Perspective – When people argue over virgin or not they are transferring a modern cultural and linguistic understanding into the ancient world. English has a lot of words. We have one that means unambiguously virgin. We also don’t assume virginity of unmarried women. Before we Christians chortle at the mistakes of secular scholars we should look at ourselves. I think we do this huge and it causes lots of unnecessary agony for us evangelicals. For instance we transfer our obsession for numerical and chronological accuracy to time when those things were not important then we get our shorts in a knot because the Bible lied or is not inerrant. But that is grist for another mill.
Personality and values – My last point about ‘why would Matthew bother’ is the weakest argument of all. All ‘why would anyone…’ arguments are weak. People are irrational. Why would a mother harm her own children just to get attention? Some do, it’s called Munchausen by proxy syndrome. Why would Matthew bother? Because I’m lazy and I wouldn’t do it, I transfer that feeling to Matthew. Therefore Matthew would not have done it without a good reason therefore it must have really happened or at the very least he must have believed it really happened. On the other hand the writer of Matthew may have been a hard worker who anticipated my way of thinking. Similarly, I don’t lie (notice I didn’t say that I haven’t lied, only that I don’t) therefore I have trouble believing that whoever wrote Matthew, and who was thus closer to Jesus than I will ever be, would lie. Pagans on the other hand lie all the time and about the smallest things. They have no trouble believing that all those men who wrote the Bible lied up one side and down the other.
Desires – Something for us evangelicals to remember is that when we have a scholarly controversy we give the benefit of the doubt to our side. In my case, the fact that a secular scholar said that the Isaiah 7:14 Hebrew construction was awkward and that the Septuagint agreed with Matthew was enough for me. The tie goes to the runner. The other side does the same thing. They are giving the benefit of the doubt to their side. It is not a criticism. We do it. They do it. It’s just the way the world works.
Now to the point
It is kind to remember that the other side is always going to judge the gospel message from their own perspective, according to their own personality and values and according to what they want to be true.
It is humble to remember that we do the same thing. We can’t get away from it. It doesn’t mean we are wrong or that our opinions are not valid. It just means we should aware of how we came by them.