YouTube – “Isaiah-Gate” and the Virgin Mary… Minus the Virgin

L'_Annonciation_de_1644,_Philippe_de_ChampaigneIt stands to shame that we Christians are the last to know about our own errors of sacrilege. But as the season of Lent is here, I would petition abstention from one particular sacrilege, the inherited error of believing Jesus was born of a virgin, and that being so conceived would have fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy. Our belief that Isaiah predicted a virgin-born Messiah is simply false, a scandal which heretofore shall be referred to as Isaiah-Gate! And though many books have discussed this, I finally located a succinct 4-minute description in an engaging lecture. And a good thing too, because there are two quite curious points to this dilemma of non-prophecy. First, it is odd that we came to believe the messiah would be born of a virgin, essentially based on a translational boof. Second, it is more interesting still that we should wind up with gospel stories describing the fulfilment of said prophecy, when we now realize that Isaiah said no such thing.

But first things first. Here is the YouTube lecture excerpt, with commentary following.

YouTube: Bart Ehrman

Manifold Greatness of the King James Bible, 4 min., January 2013.



(NOTE: video is set to play from 45:08 to 49:03. Timings sometimes do not work correctly in IE. Recommend using Firefox)


The basic recap of Isaiah-Gate is as follows. The Isaiah text was mistranslated into Greek well before Jesus’ lifetime. From this text, the Jewish communities developed an expectation of a virgin-born messiah. And naturally, Christian communities believed that Jesus was this expected messiah. Ergo, he must have been born of a virgin. The early believers thought that Jesus fulfilled all the messianic prophecies (and then some), including what they thought Isaiah said about a virgin birth. Some 70 to 90 years after Jesus’ actual birth, the gospels finally captured the community belief, stating (A) that Jesus was the messiah, (B) that Jesus was born of a virgin, and (C) that this fulfilled the prophecy about the messiah from Isaiah.

But we now understand that no such prophecy was ever made, and so we are left with gospel claims of a virgin birth which perfectly mirror a non-prophecy of Isaiah.


So, the distressing conundrum facing Christians today is that most of us have been taught to consider Isaiah 7:14 a prophecy foretelling the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. But if we repeat this in the full light of history, we are only perpetuating a known error… That isn’t what Isaiah meant or wrote. His prophecy was given in a very different context, and it has nothing to do with either the messiah or a virgin birth. For those that would consider the texts of Isaiah to be prophetic, the claims made must be gotten straight: it cannot be anything but sacrilege to attribute a false meaning to prophetic texts.

The requirement is clear: Christians must stop making virgin-birth claims about Isaiah 7:14.

Sacrilege, Part Deux

But here is the second problem. The sacrilege dilemma strikes at both ends of the lightning bolt. Consider what Matthew states:

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

(Matthew 1:21-23 ESV)

Matthew is repeating a false translation, which means Matthew is dead wrong. This was all terribly unfortunate, being based entirely on an incorrect, but widely-used, Greek translation that had been circulating well-before Jesus’ life. But the really sticky conundrum is that the Christian must admit that Matthew was mistaken, if he is to truthfully represent the sacred prophecy of Isaiah. But if Matthew was mistaken, he was clearly not inerrant. And in that case, was Matthew writing under divine agency?

Funny, those Gospels

But really, we know the gospels are in serious trouble long, long before we come to this kind of conundrum. It is evident to anyone that has directly compared the New Testament texts that they simply do not give a coherent picture of where Jesus came from or the circumstances of his birth.

Paul gives theearliest mention of Jesus’ birth recorded by anyone (Gal. 4:4), in which he actually states that Jesus had a seemingly normal birth from a woman; there was absolutely nothing extraordinary about it per Paul’s mention (and it seems like something he would probably mention).

Mark, the first narrative, written about 70 years after Jesus’ birth, ventures no claims about his origins at all.

Matthew and Luke then present two quite discrepant accounts of a virgin birth, which is perhaps not surprising given the 80-90 year lapse from the nativity to its recording. But we have no inkling as to where either Matthew or Luke got their startling new batches of information. And we have no explanation as to how Mark and Paul could have omitted something so important.

John then, yet another decade later, claims a full incarnation and eternality for Jesus, not bothering to waste ink on something as pedestrian as the virgin birth at all.

We The Reader must here ask some very practical questions about all of this. In the first place, who exactly told Matthew and Luke what happened at the nativity, some 80 years before their writing? Jesus himself wasn’t even an eyewitness of those things (I sure don’t remember my birth). Joseph disappears from the record pretty early on; perhaps he died. So that leaves Mary as one to pass along the history. But Mary would have been dead long before these accounts were written (perhaps around 40 years earlier if she had given birth at 20 and lived to the old age of 60). And if Mary was the main source for both Matthew and Luke – how could the two accounts in Matthew and Luke wind up so entirely divergent from one another? Meanwhile, Mark and Paul know nothing about this. And John doesn’t bother spending any ink on it. Check.

We can see that well before the scandal of Isaiah-Gate had broken, our texts already made it difficult to come away with a strong sense of confidence in the virgin birth claims. They seem to have shown up late in the textual record, from unidentified witnesses, and in incoherent descriptions. Almost as if they were simply local legends from different regions, just part of a growing legend.

Keeping Up with the Pagans

It is perhaps easier to understand why the Greek translation of the Old Testament boofed things so badly. There was probably a certain hopeful wanting on the part of the translators, since there was ever so much peer pressure at the time. All the other religions and cultures, after all, had virgin births. Lord Raglan long ago revealed how the code of mythical heroes was to be cracked. In his list of standard-fare stock traits for mythical heroes, we find the #1 and #4 most typical are as follows:

Number 1. Mother is a royal virgin

Number 4. Unusual conception

But as proof that such trends long predated Jesus, Hitchens well sums the list:

The Greek demigod Perseus was born when the god Jupiter visited the virgin Danaë as a shower of gold and got her with child. The god Buddha was born through an opening in his mother’s flank. Catlicus the serpent-skirted caught a little ball of feathers from the sky and hid it in her bosom, and the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli was thus conceived. The virgin Nana took a pomegranate from the tree watered by the blood of the slain Agdestris, and laid it in her bosom, and gave birth to the god Attis. The virgin daughter of a Mongol king awoke one night and found herself bathed in a great light, which caused her to give birth to Genghis Khan. Krishna was born of the virgin Devaka. Horus was born of the virgin Isis. Mercury was born of the virgin Maia. Romulus was born of the virgin Rhea Sylvia.

For some reason, many religions force themselves to think of the birth canal as a one-way street…

Hitchens, Christopher (2007-05-01). God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (pp. 38-39). Twelve Books. Kindle Edition.


Stretch-Fitting of Fulfilled Prophecy

My recent post series on Pontius Pilate illustrates at greater length that the gospel writers were “men with faces”. They got their information from other people. They wrote from their own motives and agendas. They wrote hero stories about Jesus that were sometimes at odds with one another and often departed from historical plausibility. The trial before Pilate demonstrated that the gospel authors were willing to put a spin on events. They were willing to portray things in a way that made the life of Jesus appear to fulfill prophecy. In the trial narratives, the writers portrayed a Silent Jesus that comported with the prophecy of (not again!) Isaiah. But as in this case, the writers did not witness the events in question, and there are a number of good reasons to think they were coloring in the lines to suit their theological agendas. And why not? If a lottery ticket can be made to win by filling in just one or two little digit marks, well…

The only place that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament messianic prophecies is in the telling of the gospel hero stories. But these are not good histories. They show every sign of guessing at details and stretch-fitting the facts to fulfill prophecy. Or even non-prophecy, as occasion would have it.

I suppose we’re lucky, in a way – Jesus fulfilled all prophecy and all non-prophecy – a messiah for all seasons, to be sure.

Easter Meditations

And so as Easter approaches, consider the fact that Jesus was not born of a virgin. We need only the Bible to make that clear. And we need only the pagans to locate the taproot of such a hopeful yearning. Yet this seemingly scandalous inversion of our old creeds can apply a healing balm. For as oft as we repeat this fact – that Jesus was not born of a virgin –  we are one step further removed from our customary holiday sacrilege.

I muse that, one day, poor Isaiah may be left to enjoy a less fitful slumber. We’ve made him roll over long enough.




  1. Perfect timing for a great topic, Matt ! Matthew was notorious for misquoting the OT. The late Geza Vermes who was regarded as the Premier Jesus Scholar of his time didn’t believe in a Virgin Birth or a Resurrection , much for the reasons you provided here.


  2. Read it from the horse’s mouth , Matt!


  3. LOL..King Ahab. And when he was not ”kinging” he went off and hunted a whale called Moby Dick. Try Ahaz, Bart..
    No biggie. 🙂


  4. To add to your “virgin birth prophecy,” it’s my understanding that the actual word used in Isaiah was “almah,” which means “young woman” in Hebrew. In many (most?) versions of the Bible, this word has been translated as “virgin.” Jewish scholars declare this is incorrect because “almah” denotes age, not virginity or sexual purity. The Hebrew word most commonly used for virgin is “bethulah.”


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