December 2, 2009

Orthodox Christmas Reflection (2)

...continued from Part One.

The Prophecy of Isaiah

Saint Cosmas the Poet chants of the Virgin:

"Isaiah, as he watched by night, beheld the light that knows no evening, the light of Thy Theophany, O Christ, that came to pass from tender love for us; and he cries aloud: 'Behold, a Virgin shall conceive in the womb' [Is. 7:14], and shall bear the incarnate Word, and all those on earth shall rejoice exceedingly."

"Lo, the Virgin, as it was said in days of old, has conceived in her womb and brought forth God made man; and she has remianed a virgin. Reconciled to God through her, let us sinners sing her praises, for she is verily the Theotokos."

Saint Basil the Great (c.330-379) defended the application of Isaiah 7:14 to Mary. He argued that if it did not apply to a "virgin", there really would be no sign. He was aware that in the translation, some proposed to read the Greek word neanis instead of parthenos for the Hebrew almah or galmah, but he appealed to Deuteronomy 22:23-28 to justify his interpretation - which was that of all the Fathers. This same Hebrew word almah or, in Greek, parthenos, translated as "virgin", may also be seen in Genesis 24:23, when referring to Rebecca.

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (318-c.386) also adds that although the Jews gainsay this by claiming the text says "the damsel" and not "the virgin", he finds truth and writes: "To learn more clearly that even a virgin is called a damsel in the Holy Scripture, hear the book of Kings, saying of Abisag the Somanitess: 'And the damsel (in Greek e neanis, in Hebrew nah-garah) was extremely beautiful' [3 Kings 1:4]; that she was chosen as a virgin and brought to David is admitted...." And, "If Scripture says, 'the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to help her' [Deut. 22:27], does it not speak of a virgin?"

The word almah is used nine times in the Old Testament and never for a married woman. The massive patristic witness remains impressive that the verse in Isaiah refers to a virgin and not a young woman. Saint Justin Martyr (+165) reminded his Jewish opponent in his Dialogue With Trypho that the Septuagint used virgin (parthenos). What value as a sign would an ordinary birth have provided? Since the plan of salvation, which God assured [Gen. 3:16], comprised a woman in an important role, they who believe the prophet is speaking of a virgin also see an echo of the Virgin in "the seed of her" [Gen. 3:15]. This inference cannot be lightly dismissed.

Part Three