Monday 28 January 2013

The Virginal Conception - Is Mark Goodacre right to criticise Francesca Stavrakopoulou? (Part 3)

Here's the next installment of my mini series on Mark Goodacre's recent podcast where he chided Francesca Stavrakopoulou for a part of an interview she gave to BBC Five Live just before Christmas.
I've been a little critical of some of the finer points that Goodacre has made up to now, but from 7:13 in his podcast onwards he gets onto a much stronger point. Put briefly:
  1. Did the idea of a virginal conception arise from Matthew's reading of the LXX of Isaiah 7:14 (as Stavrakopoulou seems to suggest)? Or
  2. Did the idea of a virginal conception come from elsewhere, and Matthew used the LXX of Isaiah 7:14 to support this idea in his gospel (as Goodacre prefers)?

Goodacre introduces some catchphrases to summarize these positions:
  1. Prophecy historicized (he attributes this to Dominic Crossan)
  2. Tradition scripturalized.

I'm not going to be wholly dogmatic about this, but it does seem to me that, in line with Goodacre's thinking, 2 is considerably more plausible than 1, and there are a number of reasons for this, some of which I'll outline below. However, there are a couple of things to point out before doing so.

Firstly, to argue for "tradition scriptualized" is not to argue that it actually happened. A tradition could, of course, have arisen directly from a historical reality; but equally there are other ways that traditions can become established even if they bear little or no relation to real historical events. These unhistorical traditions can go on to become scripturalized. I don't think Goodacre would disagree with this.

Secondly, it seems entirely plausible that the canonical gospels have a mixture of prophecy historicized and tradition scripturalized; just because I think it is more plausible in this particular case to argue for the latter, does not mean I exclude the former from having taken place elsewhere in the texts. I have to confess, I don't know Goodacre's position on this point.

Why is "tradition scripturalized" a better fit for Matt 1:23?
The first thing to note is how poor a fit Isaiah 7:14 is for the point Matthew is trying to make. Isa 7:14 isn't about a biblical hero; by resorting to quoting it Matthew isn't turning Jesus into a new Abraham, Moses, Elijah or Daniel, nor is it about a messiah, eschatological son-of-man or a suffering servant figure. Rather it's an obscure prophecy dating to the time of king Ahaz and the tension between supporting the Assyrians or the Egyptians in 734BCE. It's a rather strange thing to want to historicize, and if Matthew has historicized it he has taken one small point from it, or perhaps two if you include the mentioned-in-passing Ἐμμανουήλ.

To put it another way, there's no big deal in historicizing a lost-in-history character who is probably never mentioned again in Isaiah*, Matthew nor anywhere else as far as we can tell. There's nothing to gain from historicizing this passage. In fact scholars of the Hebrew bible spend their time arguing about who this character was; a son of Isaiah or a son of Ahaz or someone else entirely. The identity is immaterial to the plot of the story in Isaiah, and it's immaterial to Matthew as well.

Goodacre points out another passage (Matt 2:23) where it is even clearer that Matthew has scripturalized tradition when he searches for something that will point to Jesus being from Nazareth. Certainly this bitty way of proof-texting seems to to be quite similar to the Matt 1:23 example.

Goodacre does slightly undermine his (and my) case when he points out that Matthew develops the idea of Immanuel from Isaiah 7:14, although I suspect this is not as strong an allusion as he makes out in Matt 28:20.

It should also be pointed out that Isaiah 7:14 doesn't provide a virginal conception even in the LXX version. The Greek translation takes a Hebrew verbless predicate clause and translates it with a future tense of ἔχω.

 הִנֵּ֣ה הָעַלְמָ֗ה הָרָה֙  
behold the young woman [is] pregnant.
ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει
behold the virgin in belly will have

In fact there isn't a birth here in the LXX at all, simply a future birth of a firstborn child. As Raymond Brown pointed out in his The Birth of the Messiah (I give the page number of the updated paperback edition of 1999, but this passage was the same in the original 1973 edition):

Therefore, all the LXX translator may have meant by "the virgin will conceive" is that a woman who is now a virgin will (by natural means, once she is united to her husband) conceive the child Emmanuel... And so the LXX language makes it clear that the providential child to be born would be a firstborn. (p. 149)

Thus again, the LXX story in Isaiah hardly provides a basis on which to create a story about a miraculous, virginal conception of the messiah. Rather, it is a text which can easily be picked on by someone scouring the scriptures for something to "back up" and already existing idea of a virginal conception. As mentioned above, this already existing idea doesn't have to be historically accurate, but it was an idea already invented or found.

There's another reason to come to the conclusion that the virginal conception tradition originated independently of Isaiah 7:14 if you don't have Goodacre's take on the Synoptic Problem. Those familiar with Goodacre's work will know that he is today's leading proponent of the Farrer-Goulder hypothesis that concludes that Matthew knew Mark's gospel and Luke knew both Mark's and Matthew's gospel. Although this is a minority view on the Synoptic problem, it is probably the most commonly held such minority view amongst New Testament biblical critics these days. The majority view is still that Matthew and Luke used Mark, but Matthew and Luke were independent of each other (the Two Document Hypothesis - 2DH). Those who prefer 2DH or a close variant of it usually propose that a tradition of the virginal conception circulated independently and was picked up by Matthew and Luke. To put it another way, it is implausible that Luke picked up on a tradition independently, but Matthew took Isaiah 7:14 and historicized it.

If you adopt the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre hypothesis, then you are less likely to make this particular argument, because in theory Matthew could have historicized Isaiah 7:14 and then Luke picked up on Matthew's historicized prophecy and just ditched the Hebrew bible citation. But fortunately Goodacre doesn't think entirely this way.

The updated scoreline
Well this is where Goodacre catches up and overtakes Stavrakopoulou. Although the LXX did mistranslate Isaiah 7:14 (as Stavrakopoulou correctly pointed out), Matthew doesn't rely on it to create his virginal conception story, but simply uses it as a proof-text for his already existent story (as Goodacre maintained). It's this latter point which is after all what is under examination here, so the majority of the points have to go to Goodacre.

*Some people take the child in Isaiah 9:5-6 (NRSV 9:6-7) to be the same child as 7:14, in which case it would be Ahaz's son Hezekiah. But most people these days take the 9:5-6 character to be an idealized Davidic king. In any case, the prophecy in Isa 7:14-16 is about a timescale: the kings of Aram and Israel will no longer be a problem to Ahaz by the time a child soon to be born reaches an age of understanding.The identity of the child is unimportant to the prophet.

1 comment:

  1. I spotted a couple of typing errors in this post, so I've corrected them.