In a day and age in which newspapers fail so miserably at answering the question "What does Christmas mean?" (apart from generic platitudes of goodwill and commercialism), I have to commend Tim Townsend and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a story that gives a completely theological response. I know that this was an editorial, but the New York Times ran something about how the real meaning of Christmas is -- sleep.
So an actual news story offering a religious angle to a religious holiday is important. Townsend takes the novel approach of dissecting the religious significance of this Christian holy day:
At some point during the holiday season, most Christians take a break from the cookie baking, card sending and gift wrapping to reflect on what Christmas really means.
One Hebrew word -- Emmanuel -- captures that meaning for many.
As the writer of the Gospel of Matthew explains in the Christmas story, Emmanuel means "God is with us."
For nearly 2,000 years, Christians have found comfort in their belief in God's omnipresence.
I find it intriguing that Townsend uses Christmas as an opportunity to discuss the Christian belief in God's omnipresence. It seems to me that the Christian doctrine of the incarnation might be a better discussion point for the Christmas season -- the belief that God's Son took on flesh and was born of a virgin.
Of course, Townsend then uses his "meaning of Christmas" story to present a one-sided discussion that questions whether or not Jesus' birth fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy.
When the Hebrew scriptures were translated from Hebrew into Greek, and later into Latin, the Hebrew word "almah," or "young girl," was translated as "virgin."
A New Testament scholar, the Rev. Raymond Brown, has written that from as early as the second century, "... the variation between 'young girl' and 'virgin' has given rise to some of the most famous debates in the history of exegesis. ..."
In 1952, when a new Bible translation, the Revised Standard Version, was published, some conservative Christians burned it because the translators used "young woman" instead of "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14.
Some rabbis note that if the author of Isaiah had wanted to use the word virgin, he could have. The more precise word for "virgin," "bitulah," is used in other books of the Hebrew Bible such as Exodus and Leviticus.
The charge -- that the prophecy was merely of a young woman rather than a virgin -- is left without a response.
It is true that with the dramatic rise of modern rationalism in the early 20th century, some scholars sought to explain Jesus Christ as the child of a completely normal pregnancy. (And indeed, with promiscuity the norm these days, the notion of virginity even apart from Christ's birth is somewhat miraculous.) Anyway, some scholars -- particularly those associated with mainline Christian denominations -- began teaching that Christ's birth was not miraculous, per se, and they began refuting not just this story but other accounts of Jesus fulfilling ancient prophecies or performing miracles.
This is not new. But I think it's somewhat offensive to not let traditional Christians respond to this. This simple Catholic Q&A refutes several of the points in Townsend's account:
The Hebrew word translated as virgin, almah, can also be translated as "young woman" but as Strong's Hebrew Lexicon notes "there is no instance where it can be proved that almah designates a young woman who is not a virgin."
Additional evidence that the correct translation is "virgin" is supplied by the Septuagint version of the Bible, a Greek translation of the Old Testament made several centuries before Christ. It was translated by Jewish scholars for use by Greek-speaking Jews, mainly in Alexandria.
The Septuagint translates the Hebrew almah into Greek as parthenos. This Greek term has the precise meaning of "virgin." So several centuries before the birth of Christ, before there was any reason to attack his Church, the meaning of Isaiah 7:14 was clear: almah = parthenos = virgin.
The Townsend article has some good quotes from Archbishop Raymond Burke and Lutheran theologian Jeffrey Gibbs -- but they aren't responding to the diversion in Townsend's Christmas story. I, for one, get tired of mainstream media rehashes that cast doubt -- from 2,000 years away -- on the story of Christ. But if you're going to go with that angle, the least you can do is let those who believe in the divinity of Christ and his miraculous birth respond to those who don't.