Immanuel = Christ?

This time of year Isaiah gets more airtime than at any other point in the calendar, thanks in no small part to GF Handel. One passage used by Handel is taken ultimately from Isa 7:14: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call his name EMMANUEL, God with us.” Careful readers of scripture will note that this is not exactly as Isaiah has it: “God with us” is a gloss explaining the name Immanuel, which gloss appears fully in Matthew 1:23. In fact, as is well known, the “virgin” is also slightly inaccurate, since in Hebrew “‘almah” (‘young woman’) is used instead of “betulah” (‘virgin’), the concept of ‘virgin’ entering via the Greek use of ‘parthenos’ (‘virgin’) in this verse.

The question I have is whether this verse need be read as Messianic at all. Without Matthew, would this ever have been read as referring to a Messiah? Is there any indication besides our later lenses that Isaiah meant anything Messianic? The verses from Isaiah that immediately surround this section are decidedly non-messianic, and refer clearly to the geopolitical conflict of 734 BC and not to events seven hundred years later.

To this question a response containing the term “dual fulfillment of prophecy” is usually applied: Isaiah was at once referring to Christ and to some child that was to be born in the immediate future. But was he?

I’m having a hard time seeing this as anything but Matthew’s being a good first-century interpreter of scripture, and every Christian reading Isa 7:14 accordingly ever since. I find no evidence in Isaiah 7 that Isaiah meant anything besides his and King Ahaz’s immediate context, and it strains the sense of the chapter to read with Matthew.

The reason I raise this issue is not to spread a little Christmas doubt, but to get at how we understand prophecy and scriptural authority to work. Furthermore, I have the sneaking suspicion that the concept of ‘dual fulfillment’ of prophecy is one we have invented to justify our appropriation of scripture, and it crosses an important line between texts being applicable to more than one situation and prophets speaking directly, intentionally to more than one situation. I rather think it’s a concept that tends to impede our understanding of scripture, because it usually prevents scripture being read as anything other than it’s “ultimate” fulfillment. This is why I’ve heard BYU profs say things like “Yeah, sure, Isaiah spoke to his time, too, but what he really meant was Christ.” The problem becomes then, of course, that in Isaiah 7 we have one verse that makes sense and the rest is gibberish. Who are the two kings? Who is king Ahaz? What is “the land that thou abhorrest?” This chapter is quite specifically grounded in its historical context, and when read in any other way one encounters insurmountable difficulties. No wonder Isaiah has come to be described as a ‘hurdle’.

9 Replies to “Immanuel = Christ?”

  1. Thank you for questioning this forced interpretation of Isaiah.I have come to a similar conclusion in the past. In fact, I feel that a good number of the supposed Messianic prophecies are in fact nothing of the sort.When the Trinity is embraced as in popular Christianity, everything muddles together regarding the Father and Son and things may look like prophecies when they are in fact not, but referring to historical events. As Mormons, we tend to take at face value the lists of Messianic prophecies that non-Mormons come up with, without deeply investigating whether or not they are such a prophecy.If you want to see what a hurdle Isaiah is, try reading Chapter 28 and consider how gravely we’ve misinterpreted our present situation with the LORD in connection with the idea of “line upon line, percept upon precept, here a little, there a little” I’ve heard this of chapter and the entire book of Hosea being skipped in LDS Sunday School. I’d be interested in seeing your interpretations of those.

  2. We have both Matthew and Nephi stating the Messianic nature of the the book. While I certainly appreciate the place of context, isn’t it presumptious to believe that any one scripture can only be understood one way. In a Church that believes in an open cannon and an open heaven, I have to believe that the spirit can bring personalized life to many of the words. What is the purpose in wanting one interpretation? Are you advocating some kind of ultra-orthodoxy. “My understanding of the scriptures can and must be the only understanding of the scriptures.” Would God leave only those with education and understanding of history to have any idea what his prophet’s spoke. The one thing I can take away from your argument is that perhaps it was not obvious to the Jews that these verses were messianic. I am not sure this is even true. Prior to modern Zionism, My understanding is that most of our messianic texts were understood as such by the Jews. They were looking for a political Messiahn, and they took so many of these verses the same way.Archetypes are in fact an enduring and unifying part of the Jewish religion. I’m afraid I have to side with the BOM and NT on this one.

  3. My question about this prophecy is much less sophisticated than yours. The virgin conceived, bore a son, and called his name Jesus, not Emmanuel. Why is it anymore a messianic prophecy than if Isaiah had prophecied that his name would be called Ralph?

  4. I don’t think Matthew quotes Isaiah to establish the virgin birth. There’s another, less strained way to read Isaiah and Matthew which still has Hezekiah or whoever the child is a type. I’ll type it up, and if it’s too lengthy as a comment, put it up as a post.

  5. Good post. I have a question. The book of Revelation can be pretty clearly shown to reflect the conflict between the early Christian church and Rome. The D&C’s explanation of what is found in Revelation is much different.How are we to resolve the conflict between what historical analysis tells us, and what is found in the D&C?

  6. Sorry for the delay…Jeff, thanks. I agree. Your comment about Isa 28 is appropriate. I liked what you said about our absorption of non-Mormon (usu. Protestant) interpretations without question.Doc, I don’t think that the messianic nature of the book means that we must necessarily read Isa 7:14 as pertaining to the Messiah, or even a messiah (the term as such doesn’t appear in Isaiah, and almost never in the whole of the Hebrew Bible, Dan 9:25-26 being possibly the only attestations of a future Messiah as we understand it). Part of what I’m saying is that we should have our eyes open to the mechanisms of interpretation in order better to situate ourselves as readers and interpreters of scripture.So no, I don’t believe that Scripture can nor should be understood in only one way. On the contrary, I believe that Isa 7:14 has real messianic meaning in a post-Matthew, post-Handel context. But it is a meaning, I’m saying, that has been created by them and believed by us, and should not be read as being Isaiah’s true intention, in this case. I think when we take a more realistic look at the way things come to have meaning, we’re standing on a more secure footing spiritually.I’m not sure what you mean by “Jewish Religion”, nor to what period you’re referring when you talk about what the “Jews” believed. I think it’s well established that there isn’t one “Jewish” interpretation. In any case, even if there were one Jewish interpretation, it wouldn’t mean anything for the understanding of Isa 7:14. They would be interpreting just like Matthew was. (And, as I said, Matthew’s use of Isa 7:14 makes him look exactly like a rabbinic interpreter, which may have been his intent.)At the very least, what I want us to do is actually to read scripture, and not make appeals to general statements about Isaiah. Doc, I’d love to hear how you interpret Isa 7 as a whole. Must the whole thing be messianic? (This is not a sarcastic question. I’ve been asking everyone I know.) Are we free to expropriate only one verse? If we are, what did Isaiah mean by the rest of the chapter, and how do we and his ancient audience know when he’s switching between the contemporary and the distant future?LL, well put. Not a lot of people pick up on this fact, which has made me endlessly curious as to our interpretive assumptions. I don’t think Immanuel is ever used again in the NT.Ben, I’m looking forward to your post. Make sure you let us know when/where you do. I’m curious as to how you see types being marked as such, or whether they need to be marked as such, especially for this verse or two.Jared E., Good question, and certainly in stride with what’s being discussed. Unfortunately, I’m not equipped to answer it, though there are others on this blog who can (and should).

  7. I always find exchanges like this of the highest interest, since it shows a gradual awakening to the vexing problems of scriptural hermeneutics. Modern historical-critical exegesis of the Bible, with it’s focus on historical context and authorial intent, has been at the center of the modernist controversies that has created the current liberal/conservative divide within protestantism. As we have more LDS scholars trained in the liberal protestant tradition of biblical exegesis, now regnant in the academy, I’ve long wondered if the same pressures might not be created to some degree within Mormonism, which has largely sidestepped this particular modernist issue.Anyway, the Christianizing of the OT began in the NT but was developed to high art in the early Christian era. But early Christian authors, or at least the more astute, recognized that scripture might be read in a literal or figurative way; i.e., as Jewish history or as Christian typology. They both recognized this and articulated sophisticated arguments in defense of typological (or “spiritual”) exegesis. Most LDS, even paid teachers who should know better, either don’t recognize this distinction or choose to ignore it because it is so unbearably prickly to deal with. The closest we come is in occasionally suggesting a distinction between “interpretation” (historical/grammatical reading) and “application” (typological reading). I guess that’s at least a baby-step in the right direction.I was impressed to hear one BYU religion faculty member recently say in public that there is no evidence in the OT itself that its authors knew of Christ. He nuanced that statement a bit, but was clear enough to rattle some chains. Of course any number of LDS scholars trained in Bible may well believe the same, but few would dare open that theological can of worms in a public setting.

  8. Anonymous,Thanks very much. Agree on all counts.Do you see the nascent emphasis on extra-authorial concerns in many Bible circles (redaction criticism, reader-response theory, etc.) as an academic move away from the now conventional historical-critical tradition? Is it a result of a theological dissatisfaction?I’m glad to hear of the BYU religion prof’s statement. It’s important that there be some willing to do this, if for no other reason than to get people thinking about it. Care to share more, especially about the response?

  9. I think most new critical approaches are driven purely by postmodern theory rather than theological dissatisfaction, with the exception of this fascinating “evangelical ressourcement movement that continues to gain steam and produce much interest in pre-modern biblical exegesis. As someone influenced by the Catholic ressourcement movement, I’m a booster. But really, all this is still activity at the margins. Most biblical scholars are still very traditional in their scholarship and I can’t think of a single luminary who has really broken the mold. However, there are several superstars (e.g., Walter Brueggemann) who are not reticent about writing devotionally about their faith and the Bible as well as academically. This may, or may not, reflect some dissatisfaction with the religious content of academic biblical studies. Hard to say, but it is interesting to see.A few LDS scholars (Jack Welch comes to mind) have tried to appropriate some postmodern critical approaches as academic justification for uniquely LDS biblical interpretation. I tend to regard it as a sad ploy to lend traditional LDS exegesis some academic credibility.

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