Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Pull The Other One Matthew!

Michaelangelo, Isaiah
One of the core beliefs of Christianity is that the birth of Jesus was foretold in the Bible. By circular reasoning, they say this:
  1. Proves Jesus is the Messiah
  2. Proves the Bible is their god's word because it makes accurate prophesies

This neatly ignores the fact that the stories of Jesus' birth were written by people who knew the prophecies and wanted us to believe Jesus's birth was prophesied by the then well-known prophets. The prophet they quote is of course Isaiah.

Let's take a look at this prophecy.

And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it. And it was told the house of David, saying, Syria is confederate with Ephraim. And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind.

Then said the LORD unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shearjashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field And say unto him, Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah. Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah, have taken evil counsel against thee, saying, Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeal:

Thus saith the Lord GOD, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin; and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah's son. If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.

Moreover the LORD spake again unto Ahaz, saying, Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the LORD. And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings. The LORD shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy father's house, days that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah; even the king of Assyria.

Isaiah 7:1-17

(Love the prickly pear cactus not introduced to the Middle East from the
Americas before the Sixteenth Century. Another prophecy?)
Isaiah then writes a lot of dire apocalyptic stuff about flies and bees and shaving (honestly!) and a man rearing a cow and some sheep. In the next chapter he takes a couple of paragraphs to boast about impregnating a prophetess (no ordinary woman for Isaiah) claiming God told him to write in her with his 'man pen' (Isaiah 8:1-3). But let's not delve too far into Isaiah obvious ego mania here but just stick with this particular prophecy of a virgin conceiving and bearing a son who will be called Immanuel.

Firstly, this is quite probably a mistranslation. The original Hebrew text uses the term almah meaning 'young woman', that is, a girl who had not reached puberty. The Hebrew for virgin is bethulah. It has been argued that these two terms are synonyms but they are not. Almah would not be used to describe a sexually mature virgin and an almah may not necessarily have been a virgin. Almah clearly refers to the girl's physiological state and bethulah to her physical condition, or more precisely whether her hymen is intact or not.

So, when we see:

But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.

Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

Matthew 1:23

we can be sure that Matthew was using a Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, in which the Hebrew alma had been wrongly translated as παρθένα (parthenos). And this is a fairly good indication that he was trying to make sure his story had some scriptural basis and also that he was more familiar with Greek than with Hebrew.

Another problem with Matthew's use of this 'prophecy' is that nowhere else in the Bible is either the Messiah or Jesus ever referred to as Immanuel or Emmanuel.

But that is not the main problem with this prophecy.

The 'prophecy' very clearly, in the context of Chapters 7 and 8 of the Book of Isaiah is dealing with immediate events. Indeed in Chapter 8, almost casually, Isaiah refers to what seems to be his son by the prophetess whom he impregnated with his 'man pen', as O Immanuel. But the entire point of the prophecy seems to be that while this child is still young the enemies of Jerusalem will be defeated. And surely, for the supposed son of the Christian god, there would never be a time 'before [he] shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good' (Isaiah 7:16) would there?

But even that is not the major objection to this being a prophecy about Jesus, whom, so it is claimed, was sent to Earth to provide mankind with henceforth the only way to salvation and eternal life in Heaven.

The main objection is: if God had already decided that a Messiah was what mankind needed, and that this was the way he was going to do it, why did he wait so long before providing that means? Biblical scholars date the 66 books of Isaiah as written by several authors between the eighth and sixth centuries BCE with the relevant Chapter 7 written in the eighth.

We are expect to believe that, having decided what mankind needed was a saviour Messiah to be sacrificed for our sins, and having told Isaiah to tell us about it, this 'omnibenevolent' god then waited another 800 years before providing it!

Pull the other one...

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  1. You make some interesting points. Let me see if I can untangle the knots for you and make things more resonable.

    How would you go about writing a text that proves that Queen Elizabeth II is actually the Queen of England? Well you would start off with a genealogy. This is what the Gospel of Matthew does. Then you would want to give some witness that can testify about her birth and who, during her life, recognize her as Queen. This is what the Gospel of Matthew does. Then you would proceed to give examples of how she lived and acted as the Queen of England. This is what the Gospel of Matthew does. How the Gospel of Matthew presents itself is how one should expect a text that is trying to prove that a person is actually a specific person to read. It is not out of the ordinary especially for texts of that time period and is what one should expect to find for a text that tries to prove that a person is someone. The question that should be asked is "Given the Jewish understanding of the Messiah mid 1st century AD, does the Gospel of Matthew reasonably present Jesus as being this individual?"

    As a quick side note, the hebrew term that is translated as parthenos in the Greek can mean virgin. The hebrew is simply a more expansive term while the Greek is a narrower term. It is no more of a translation error than a text that says "I read a book today" being translated as "I read a science book today".

    I would like to briefly address your main point which is really about why does it take God so long to act. First it should be pointed out that during the "in-between times" God is not acting. This is an unreasonable assumption. The gods of Pagan antiquity were very much gods' of the gaps, breaking into human life and changing stuff right now. While the God of Abraham did break into the middle of time and interact, He is constantly stressed in scripture as being the god of history and time. The God of Abraham is constantly at work saving mankind not simply interfering only when it suits him. The pagan gods were not in control of time, the fates where, while the God of Abraham is depicted as the unfolder of time, bringing all things, good and ill, into a larger harmony and order.

    A lot of ancient religious texts take the gods that they are about as a priori being god. Scripture doesn't do this. In many places scripture can be seen as the God of Abraham working to prove that He is in fact the real God. Scripture is not written in a tone of "believe because it says so" but rather "believe because it has been demonstrated to be so".

    So why doesn't Jesus just appear the next day after the prophesy in Isaiah? I could answer that this is because the Messianic prophesy's are not just about Jesus but also include a bunch of historic reference points that lead to and function as pointers towards who will be the real Messiah and not just a pretender but this overlooks the heart of your question of why, if mankind is broken, doesn't God just fix it ASAP.

    The answer to this question hinges on our understanding of God, our understanding of humanity, and our understanding of what is broken.

    While not the only understanding of the problem, scripture often depicts the problem between God and humanity as being akin to problems between a husband and wife that is unfaithful. How do you get someone that you love dearly but is unfaithful to love you again and be faithful? You cannot force someone to love you, but you must woo them and constantly lay your life down for their own good and benefit -- even letting them go when they run away and waiting patiently for them to return. God cannot force us to love Him so it should be expected that the bridegroom would come when the bride had been prepared.

    1. >Well you would start off with a genealogy. This is what the Gospel of Matthew does.

      Er... actually, as Matthew himself said, that was Joseph's genealogy. Have you never read it?

      But, of course, that has nothing whatsoever to do with the article to which you are purporting to respond, as I suspect you knew.

      I see you have neatly skipped over the obvious point about the 'prophesy' in Isaiah 7:17 being so obviously about the events to which he was referring and not just some ad hoc insertion concerning something several hundred years hence. Did you not have an argument against that?

      So, why did it take God 800 years to provide mankind with the only means to our supposed salvation if he had made that decision and told Isaiah about it 800 years earlier? You didn't say.

      >The answer to this question hinges on our understanding of God, our understanding of humanity, and our understanding of what is broken.

      Ah! It MY fault for not having your understanding, eh? It's not that you can't explain it like I requested and so feel you need to be condescending and judgemental to make yourself feel superior despite your difficulties.

      Sorry to have tied that knot more tightly for you, BTW. Be careful it doesn't become a noose won't you.

    2. Of course I have read it. Both Joseph and Mary are descendants of King David. Jesus is heir to the throne of David both biologically via Mary and by adoption via Joseph. There is no substantial difference between the Gospel of Matthew's approach to proving that Jesus is the messiah than a book that would attempt to prove that Queen Elizabeth II is the Queen of England.

      I didn't say that you didn't understand anything. I was indicating that an individual's understanding of God, his understanding of humanity, and his understanding of what is broken colors and determines the answer to your question of "why, if mankind is broken, doesn't God just fix it ASAP".

      The problem that you have with this question doesn't point to the irrationality / non-existence of God but rather to problems in your concepts of humanity, God, and what is broken. I agree with you on that -- that what consider to be the case cannot actually be the case.

      Now I didn't address the prophesy aspect of things because that wasn't your main objection, thus it wasn't part of my main reply, and your understanding of prophesy is not kosher (pun in tended) and would take some lengthy explaining as I am unsure of exactly how you are understanding what prophesy is. The very short of it is that Jewish prophesy doesn't point to singular future events but to multiple events in proximate, future, and eschatological senses in a way that is very close to neoplatonic typology. Sound theologians don't have a problem at all with prophesy pointing to proximate events because that is how biblical prophesy is supposed to work.

      And I did say why it took 800 years -- because you cannot force someone to love you. The problem is that the bond of love between man and God is broken. God cannot fix that by forcing us to love him. So the Messiah comes when the bride is ready enough. That is one explanation.

    3. >Now I didn't address the prophesy aspect of things because that wasn't your main objection,

      Er... it was the entire subject of the blog. Did you actually read it?

    4. Arguing timelines and bodies of facts with people of 'faith' is pointless. They will never admit to any of it being incorrect, they explain it away with the other jibberish from their books of jibberish.

      When there is an INDISPUTABLY INCORRECT STATEMENT, like a one-liner that is clearly wrong, those become parables.

      If anyone with any intellect examines this nonsense, they stop believing. If they still believe, they admit that it's blind faith with absolutely no basis in fact. The problem is, the vast majority of them will never question it.

  2. Ironically a genealogy would cast doubts as to whether Lizzy II is the legitimate holder of that title.

    Where you'd really start is in the actual reality of the situation i.e. she was crowned and therefore is the de facto Queen.

    You only bring genealogy in when you know your position is dodgy and you want to claim credibility where it's clearly undeserving. i.e. Naming your fore-bearers is a good policy when you're a weak lame ass jerkling.

    1. If you really want to prove Eliz. II was queen -- say, many decades in the future -- you dig up all the newspapers which casually describe her as the queen. Well, suppose those don't survive: you dig up her palaces, with all the monogrammed stuff saying she was queen. The references to the Jubilees along would prove the matter. You then check to make sure there weren't other contenders for the title of Queen at the same time, and lo and behold, archaeology says there weren't....

  3. The same Isaiah who brought two bears out of the woods to eat forty-two boys who called him 'baldy'.

    It was Elisha who called the bears, not Isaiah (2 Kings 2:23-25).

  4. The prophesy in Isaiah as in many biblical prophesies had and has both a local and future messianic's called dual fulfillment.

    1. And of course 'Matthew' knew nothing about the tale when he made up the Jesus myth to fit, eh? Shame about getting the name wrong though, eh, but you can't have everything when you're looking for an old story to present as a prophecy can you.

      By the way, saying a pregnant woman will give birth isn't much of a prophecy really, is it?


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