Did Matthew invent Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus in order to fulfil Isaiah 7:14?

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

Did Matthew invent the story of Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus in order to fulfil a known prophecy about the Messiah in Isaiah 7:14?  Or did Matthew inherit the story of the virginal conception of Jesus and subsequently link this tradition with Isaiah 7:14 in order to create a prophecy?  The question is one of the direction of the causation – did the prophecy prompt the tradition or did the tradition prompt the prophecy?  On the whole I believe that there are some good reasons to believe that the latter is plausible – that Matthew inherited the tradition and was the first to associate it with Isaiah 7:14. [1]

It is possible to approach this question in a number of ways.  More generally, the two source hypothesis and its implication that Matthew and Luke were written independently of one another suggests that the fact that they both attest to the virginal conception of Jesus is good evidence for the idea that the tradition existed prior to Matthew.  In addition to this, the fact that Luke does not link the tradition to Isaiah 7:14 is a further reason to believe that this link did not exist in the prior tradition and that Matthew was the first to make such a connection. [2]  These are good initial grounds to be sceptical about the claim that Matthew invented the tradition in response to prophetic expectation.  A more detailed approach can be made by considering Matthew’s use of the prophecy in the context of the structure of both his birth narrative and his wider gospel.   This approach is the primary focus of this blog post.

Scholars have long argued that Matthew has arranged his gospel into five blocks in emulation of the five books of Moses.  The five blocks each consist of an introductory narrative section, which is then paired with an extended discourse by Jesus.  Each narrative introduces a specific theme related to the Kingdom which the following discourse then develops at length.  The five discourses are clearly marked by the author with the inclusion of a formulaic concluding statement καὶ ἐγένετο ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τοὺς λόγους τούτους (and it came to pass when Jesus had finished saying these words).  Because the discourses are so self-apparent there is wide scholarly agreement about their existence, though it is worth noting that there is considerably less agreement about the nature and extent of the corresponding narratives.  Notwithstanding, the structure initially proposed by B.W. Bacon is a sufficient outline for the purposes of this post:

Introduction (1:1 – 2:23)

Narrative Discourse Theme
Block One 3:1 – 4:25 5:1 – 7:27 (Concluding Formula: 7:28-29) The Law
Block Two 8:1 – 9:35 9:36 – 10:42 (Concluding Formula: 11:1) Mission
Block Three 11:2 – 12:50 13:1 – 52 (Concluding 13:53) Parables
Block Four 13:54 – 17:20 17:22 – 18:35 (Concluding Formula: 19:1) Community
Block Five 19:1b – 22:46 23:1 – 25:46 (Concluding Formula: 26:1) Eschatology

Conclusion (26:3 – 28:20)

It has been argued that Matthew’s analogy for the five books of Moses is first established in his introduction to the gospel (Matthew 1-2), which acts as the ‘gospel in miniature’. [3]  To support this hypothesis, one can identify several repetitions of the pattern of five in the introduction.  These patterns range from the simple repetition of particularly important words to the repetition of plot devices key to the structure of the narrative.  For example, at a basic level Bethlehem is mentioned five times (Matthew 2:1, 2:5, 2:6, 2:8, 2:16) and five women, each of whom are members of unusual marital unions subject to divine intervention, are included in the genealogy of Jesus (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah, Mary).  More significant is the inclusion of five sets of dreams which drive the narrative of the birth story, each of which constitute a divine command essential to the plot:

Dream One To Joseph, preventing him divorcing Mary. But after he had considered this, An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from his sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)
Dream Two To the Magi, saving them from Herod And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matthew 2:12)
Dream Three To Joseph, prompting the flight into Egypt. When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.  “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.  Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” (Matthew 2:13)
Dream Four To Joseph, prompting the return to Israel After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” (Matthew 2:19-20)
Dream Five To Joseph, prompting the final settlement in Galilee. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.  Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee. (Matthew 2:22)

Furthermore, Mathew includes five explicit prophetic fulfilments, each of which involves a variation upon the formulaic phrase “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet”, followed by a direct citation of the passage in question:

Prophetic Fulfilment One Mary’s virginal conception All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means ‘God with us’). (Matthew 1:22-23) Isaiah 7:14
Prophetic Fulfilment Two The birthplace of the Messiah For this is what the prophet as written: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will  come a rule who will shepherd my people Israel.” (Matthew 2:5-6) Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2
Prophetic Fulfilment Three The flight to Egypt And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called by son.” (Matthew 2:15) Hosea 11:1
Prophetic Fulfilment Four Herod’s infanticide Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:17) Jeremiah 31:15
Prophetic Fulfilment Five The hometown of the Messiah So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:23) Citation unknown

Thus, just as the gospel as a whole is structured into five blocks, Matthew’s introduction to the gospel is also structured into patterns of five.  It is clear, then, that Matthew has deliberately chosen to include precisely five prophetic fulfilments in keeping with his wider theme.  Given that it is unlikely that Matthew should have conveniently inherited these five particular fulfilments from earlier tradition, we can conclude that he deliberately sought out prophetic passages from the Septuagint with which to illustrate his birth narrative, possibly making connections between these passages and the birth of Jesus for the first time.  This means that it is entirely plausible that Matthew was the first to link the concept of the virginal conception of Jesus to Isaiah 7:14. If this is the case, it means that the virginal conception was not invented by Matthew in order to fulfil an established prophecy about the Messiah – rather, it was the other way around!  Matthew inherited a previous tradition about a virginal conception and then, motivated by the need to establish a pattern of five, sought out a prophecy with which he could illustrate it.

This position can be supported by several further considerations.  First, at least two of Matthew’s chosen prophetic fulfilments are clearly original to his gospel, which establishes a precedent for Matthew having deliberately sought out prophetic passages with which to illustrate his birth narrative.  Indeed, Matthew’s birth narrative deliberately emulates the birth of Moses and two of his prophetic fulfilments are inextricably linked to this distinctively Matthean Moses typology (Herod’s infanticide and the flight into Egypt).  This strongly suggests that the connections Matthew makes between Jesus and these passages are original to his gospel.

Some scholars have noted that some of the prophetic fulfilments chosen by Matthew are not particularly impressive.  Essential to this characterisation is the fifth prophetic fulfilment about the hometown of the Messiah – which appears to be Matthew’s own invention because its origin in unknown.  They infer from this that Matthew, having decided to include precisely five prophecies in line with his wider theme, struggled to find suitable prophetic passages with which to illustrate the story.  Although this point has been made by a number of scholars, I have difficulty accepting this view.  Matthew could have chosen any number of suitable prophetic passages – Numbers 24:17 being a good example (“A star will come out of Jacob, a sceptre will rise out of Israel.”).   Instead, I think the reason why Matthew included this particular fifth prophetic fulfilment despite it being unbefitting is because Matthew was attempting to find a scriptural justification for a tradition that is somewhat embarrassing in context of the Bethlehem prophecy.  Thus, the Nazareth prophecy does little to demonstrate that Matthew struggled to find five fulfilments.  What it does show however is that Matthew valued including inherited tradition about Jesus in his birth narrative at the expense of using more impressive prophecies.

Finally, it is important to note that ‘God is with us’ is another key Matthean theme.  Matthew repeats this idea after the resurrection, where Jesus repeats the promise of his on-going presence to the disciples – “I am with you always, until the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  The inclusion of this at the very beginning and the very end of the gospel means that the story is thereby framed by this promise.  This suggests that Matthew found Isaiah 7:14 attractive for reasons other than the notion of a virginal conception, which is an additional reason to believe that he originally chose to associate the passage with Jesus.  This argument is strengthened by the fact that Isaiah 7:14 is fairly obscure passage with no overtly messianic overtones.  This is where it differs from the Bethlehem prophecy, which has very strong messianic implications and was widely believed to be a Messianic in the first century.  This is expressed in John 7:42 – “Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?”  The implication of this is that while there would have been considerable degree of pressure on early Christians to claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there would have been no pressure for them to have claimed he was born of a virgin.

One can therefore conclude that there are some good reasons to believe that it is plausible that Matthew inherited the tradition about Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus rather than inventing the story in order to fulfil a Messianic prophecy.  Of course, this does not necessarily mean that the tradition is historically reliable – that is a question for another blog post!

1. One could claim the tradition had originally arisen in response to Isaiah 7:14 but had subsequently lost its explicit link with its source, leaving Matthew free to make the connection for the second time.  I think however that it seems rather implausible that the tradition could have become so rapidly detached from its original framework.

2. It is interesting to compare this to the two different ways Matthew and Luke explain how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem despite being associated with Nazareth.

3. Borg and Crossan, The First Christmas


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