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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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IMMANUEL (Ἐμμανουήλ) occurs once only in the NT (Matthew 1:23, in the quotation from Isaiah 7:14 where the name is given in the form עִמָנואל). It is necessary, first of all, to examine the original prophecy before discussing the Evangelist’s application of it to Jesus.

1. The circumstances which led to the prediction were as follows. Probably under the influence of a wish to force Judah into a coalition against Assyria, an attack was made on the southern kingdom by Syria and Ephraim about 735–734 (Isaiah 7:1 ff.). The attack was specially directed against the Davidic dynasty, and it was the object of the allies to dethrone Ahaz and set the son of Tabeel in his place (Isaiah 7:6). The invasion filled Ahaz with panic, and he resolved to call in the aid of Tiglath-pileser, the king of Assyria (2 Kings 16:7 ff.). Between the great Empire of Assyria and the petty State of Judah there could be no talk of equal alliance, Judah must forfeit its independence and become a vassal of Assyria. This involved heavy taxation and the loss of all power of independent action. Taxation would only aggravate the social misery and ruthless oppression from which the poor were suffering, and make it more difficult than ever to carry through those social reforms which the prophets regarded as most necessary. Accordingly, Isaiah vehemently opposed the king’s project. He made light of the danger from Syria and Ephraim, and stigmatized the allies as fag-ends of smoking firebrands, which might cause considerable annoyance, but had lost all power for serious mischief. He bade Ahaz be quiet and fearless, assuring him that God would frustrate the designs of his foes (Isaiah 7:4 ff.), but warning him that his stability depended on his faith (Isaiah 7:9). Possibly our present text is somewhat abbreviated, but at any rate Isaiah, either on that or possibly another occasion, offered him a sign in confirmation of his assurance, placing the universe from Sheol to Heaven at his disposal. Ahaz refused, since he had already made up his mind, but pretended that his unwillingness was prompted by reluctance to tempt God. The prophet passionately cries out against the conduct which, not content with wearying men, goes on to weary God. Then he proceeds to give the king a sign from God Himself, namely, the sign of Immanuel (Isaiah 7:10 ff.).

The translation of the Hebrew is itself somewhat uncertain. It may now be taken for granted that the word עַלִמָה translated ‘virgin’ in the Authorized and Revised Versions should be more correctly rendered ‘young woman.’ The proper Heb. term for ‘virgin’ is בִּתוּלָה, though even this is used in Joel 1:8 for ‘young widow.’ All that can with certainty be said of the word used by Isaiah is that it indicates a young woman of marriageable age, but says nothing as to whether she is married or not. Accordingly the terms of the prophecy do not warrant us in interpreting the sign as the prodigy of a virgin conception. The natural interpretation to put on the prophecy is that a young woman, either married at the time or soon to be married, would give birth to a son and call him by this name. It is also uncertain whether we should translate with Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ‘shall conceive’ or with (Revised Version margin) ‘is with child.’ The former is, however, perhaps the more probable. The third question is whether we should translate ‘a virgin’ or ‘the virgin.’ The Hebrew has the article, which is correctly rendered ‘the virgin,’ in which case some definite person is in the prophet’s mind. But Hebrew idiom often uses the definite article where in English we should translate indefinitely, so that ‘a virgin’ is equally correct as a rendering of the Hebrew.

These uncertainties as to the precise meaning of the words themselves naturally leave much room for difference of opinion, and this is largely increased by other uncertainties. It is therefore desirable to narrow the range of possible interpretation as much as possible. It is clear, in the first place, that the prophet is referring to something in the near future, otherwise the sign could have conveyed no message to the king, all the more that his difficulty was urgent. In the next place, we must beware of supposing that anything extraordinary is necessarily intended by the sign. Isaiah walked in captive’s dress for a sign and a wonder upon Egypt and Ethiopia (Isaiah 20:3), certainly not because of any miraculous character attached to his conduct (cf. also Isaiah 8:18). With these considerations in mind we may approach the question, What message was the sign intended to convey? When Ahaz had been bidden ask a sign, the object was to convince him that his enemies would be overthrown and their alliance against him come to nought. We naturally expect that the sign volunteered by the prophet will have the same significance. Yet there are objections to this view. It may be argued that Ahaz’ refusal to ask a sign introduced a new element into the situation, especially after the warning in Isaiah 7:9; and if he rejected a sign assuring him of deliverance, it would not be strange if he received one that was ominous of disaster. And such a sign, according to our present text, we seem to possess. For the prediction in Isaiah 7:15, that Immanuel should eat curdled milk and honey, implies that Judah would have reverted from the agricultural to the pastoral state, in other words, would have suffered a devastation at the hands of an enemy. And this is confirmed by Isaiah 7:17, wherein a terrible invasion bringing a disaster unprecedented since the days of Rehoboam is predicted. On the other hand, this is difficult to harmonize with Isaiah 7:16, at any rate in its present form, for that gives as the meaning of the sign that before the child knows to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings Ahaz abhors will be forsaken. In other words, Isaiah 7:16 interprets the sign as the desolation of Syria and Ephraim. It is therefore a sign, not of disaster to Judah, but of deliverance. We are accordingly confronted with the problem whether the original text is here preserved. It would suffice to bring Isaiah 7:16 into harmony with Isaiah 7:15; Isaiah 7:17 if the former were to read simply ‘for before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, thy land shall be forsaken’; and several scholars have adopted this expedient. In that case the sign is simply one of disaster for Judah. Nevertheless there are serious difficulties in the way of accepting this solution, and the question is forced upon us whether more radical measures are not necessary. Even with the suggested abbreviation of Isaiah 7:16 it does not connect so well with Isaiah 7:15 as with Isaiah 7:14. But apart from that, there are other arguments for treating the sign as favourable. The name Immanuel itself, expressing the conviction that God was with His people, might, of course, be harmonized with either verse, it gains significance only on account of the distress in which the name was given, the mother’s faith is a sign only when experience seems to contradict it. The name might therefore be given in the midst of the trouble caused by the Syrian invasion or in the greater distress that was to follow from Assyria. But Isaiah certainly anticipated the overthrow of Syria and Ephraim. Not only so, but a little later, in the public exhibition on a tablet of the word Maher-shalal-hash-baz, and nearly a year later in the giving of this name to his newborn son, he expressed his faith in the overthrow of the coalition. It is indeed urged that the sign of Immanuel would thus be only a duplication of the sign of Maher-shalal-hash-baz, but there seems to be no reason why such a duplication should be objectionable. Moreover, there is a significant parallelism between the two which points to such an identification of meaning. The time limit in both cases is very similar. In the one case it is before the child shall know to say ‘my father and my mother’; in other words, the events described are to happen before the infant who has just been born has learnt to utter the first things that a child says. The other time limit is precisely similar, ‘before the child knows to refuse the evil and choose the good.’ By this the prophet need not mean before he comes to years of moral discretion, but before he learns to distinguish between good and harmful food. And the very fact that a year later Isaiah was still concerned mainly with the invasion of the allies and in asserting his conviction of their overthrow, surely makes it probable that the same question preoccupies his attention here. Nor is there any reason to suppose that the obstinacy of Ahaz would make any difference to the character of the sign. Unless we are explicitly warned to the contrary, it is natural to assume that the sign given possessed the same significance as the sign offered. The present writer accordingly takes the view that the sign is of a favourable character. This involves, it is true, the elimination of Isaiah 7:15 (and perhaps of Isaiah 7:17, though this may belong to another prophecy), but in any case something has to be struck out of the passage to secure consistency. It might, of course, seem easier to eliminate a few words in Isaiah 7:16 than to strike out a whole verse. Nevertheless, when we look at Isaiah 7:16 we see that it is practically compounded of part of Isaiah 7:22 and part of Isaiah 7:16, whereas the words ‘whose two kings thou abhorrest’ make a much greater impression of originality.

The question accordingly arises, in what precisely did the sign consist? The stress may lie either on the עַלְמָה, or the son, or the name given to him, or a combination of these. The traditional interpretation has, of course, thrown the stress on the first of these; for it the sign lay in the virgin-conception. But when the true sense of עַלִמָה is understood, this interpretation becomes impossible. If she were one of the king’s wives, then the child would be the king’s son, and the possibility of an identification with the Messiah would have to be considered, it would be possible to accept, with McCurdy, the identification of Immanuel with Hezekiah, the chronological difficulties not being altogether insuperable. A third possible alternative would be to accept the view taken by several scholars, most recently by Whitehouse in the Bible, and identify the עַלִמָה with the community in Zion. We have no evidence, however, that this term was used at that time for the Jewish community, and the identification with one of the king’s wives must also be pronounced improbable, in spite of the fact that the trouble was dynastic even more than national, directed against the Davidic house rather than against Judah as a whole. Nor is there any reason for identifying Immanuel with the Messianic king mentioned in Isaiah 9:1-7 and Isaiah 11:1-9. It is true that, according to the present text of Isaiah 8:8, the land of Judah is represented as Immanuel’s land, but it is probable that the text should be corrected in harmony with Isaiah 8:10.* [Note: Probably instead of ‘thy land, O Immanuel,’ we should read ‘the land, for God is with us,’ thus getting a refrain at the end of v. 8 to match that at the end of v. 10. In that case the figure of the bird with wings spread over the land is a symbol of God’s protecting care of Judah, shielding her from the combination of all earthly foes. The extreme abruptness of the transition from threat to promise makes it highly probable that Isaiah 8:8 b–10 is a fragment not connected with the preceding verses. It must even he granted that Marti may be right in regarding it as a later addition; for although the prophecy may be explained as Isaiah’s, on the supposition that he is addressing the forces of Assyria as composed of various nationalities, yet taken by itself the reference to the coalition of the far nations against Judah recurs as a standing feature of the later apocalyptic.] We may then set aside the Messianic identification. With the correction of Isaiah 8:8 no reason remains for considering that the personality of Immanuel is an important element in the sign; it is in harmony with similar cases that it is the name and not the person who bears it that is important. This is true, for example, of Hosea’s children, and, what is still more to the point, of Isaiah’s children. The prophetic significance both of Shear-jashub and Maher-shalal-hash-baz lies not in the children themselves, but exclusively in their names. We expect the same to be true in this case. Just as the names of Isaiah’s two children express, the one his doctrine of the remnant, the other his certainty that Syria and Ephraim would be overthrown, so the name Immanuel expresses the mother’s conviction that God is with His people. The sign is no prodigy in this case. For against the king’s unbelief and his obstinate refusal to accept a sign there arises the mother’s impressive faith, which confronted danger without dismay, and uttered her conviction of God’s presence with His people in the name she gave her son. The personality of the mother is equally with that of the son of no importance for the sign; that consists in the mother’s faith and the son’s name. Accordingly it is better to translate ‘a young woman’ instead of ‘the young woman.’ Isaiah, however, does not mean precisely that any young woman, who is shortly about to conceive and give birth to a son, may call his name Immanuel. While he has no definite young woman in his mind, he predicts that some young woman will, in the future, conceive and bear a son, to whom she will give the name Immanuel. His language is not that of hypothesis but of prediction.* [Note: The connexion of v. 16 with v. 14 is as follows. A young woman will bear a son and call his name Immanuel. This will be a sign, for it will express a faith which triumphs over the appearance of imminent disaster. And it is truly God-inspired faith, for it will be splendidly vindicated. Ere the child thus born in days of darkness knows how to distinguish between hurtful and proper food, the hostile power will be crushed, and thus God’s presence with His people will be clearly manifested. Immanuel will be a standing rebuke to the king’s scepticism.]

2. The way is now clear to discuss St. Matthew’s use of the passage. This is not the place to examine the subject either of the Virgin-conception of Christ or of the early Christian interpretation of prophecy. It is quite plain that this interpretation was in general very little controlled by the original sense of the OT passage quoted. It was of a largely polemical character, since it was necessary, against the cavilling of the Jews, to prove the Messiahship of Jesus from the OT. Accordingly the Hebrew Scriptures were ransacked to find parallels with the life of Christ; and it is not unlikely that, at a quite early period, collections of these passages were drawn up for controversial use. The First Gospel is peculiarly rich in Messianic proof-texts, and it is therefore not surprising that for two facts so important to the author as the Virgin-conception and the Incarnation the writer should allege an OT prophecy. But the fact that he has done so creates a very interesting problem, which, however, will be approached differently by those who accept the Virgin-conception as a fact and by those who dispute it. For the former, the fact itself is the starting-point, and the author had to find in the OT a text appropriate to it. The only question that would really arise would be as to the part played by the LXX Septuagint in suggesting Isaiah 7:14. In this passage the LXX Septuagint renders עַלִמָה by παρθένος,, which suggests virginity much more strongly than the Hebrew word. At the same time, the fact that the LXX Septuagint so translated shows that the author of the First Gospel may independently have taken the word in the same sense. That he did so is rendered not improbable by the fact that his translation differs in some points from that of the LXX Septuagint. [Note: The LXX of is 7:14 reads in B: διὰ τοῦτο δώσει Κύριος αὐτός ὑμῖν σημεῖον ἰδοὺ η ταρθενος ἑν γαστρὶ λήμψεται καὶ τεξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὀνομα αὐτοῦ Εμμανουήλ. For λήμψεται, however, אAQ read ἔξει, which is the same rendering as that in Matthew. For καλέσεις we have in אκαλέσει; neither B nor א here coincide with Matthew. The text in Matthew 1:23 reads ἰδοὺ ἡ ταρθενος ἑν γαστρὶ ἔξει καὶ τεξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσουσιν τὸ ὁνομα αὐτοῦ Ἐμμανουηλ.] The significance for the doctrine of the Incarnation of the name Immanuel, which might be translated ‘God with us’ as well as ‘God is with us,’ probably first drew his attention to the passage, and then the translation of עַלִמָה by παρθένος would readily be suggested by his belief in the Virgin-conception.

Among those, however, who regard the belief in the Virgin-birth as a piece of primitive Christian mythology, there has been a controversy as to what led the author to quote this passage, and the relation between that belief and the passage in Isaiah. Many think that the former was created by the latter,* [Note: Harnack: ‘Even the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin sprang from Isaiah 7:14 … The conjecture of Usener, that the idea of the birth from a virgin is a heathen myth which was received by the Christians, contradicts the entire earliest development of Christian tradition, which is free from heathen myths, so far as these had not already been received by wide circles of Jews (above all, certain Babylonian and Persian myths), which in the case of that idea is not demonstrable. Besides, it is in point of method not permissible to stray so far when we have near at hand such a complete explanation as Isaiah 7:14, (History of Dogma, i. p. 100, n. 1). Harnack, it is true, does not assert that it was the LXX rendering which created the belief, though it may be presumed that this is his view. He is not divided in principle from Gunkel and Cheyne, since he admits that heathen myths had come into Christianity through Judaism, but he considers that the Virgin-birth does not as a matter of fact belong to these, and that an extra-Jewish source should not be sought when a Jewish source is at hand. Lobstein characterizes the method applied to the documents of the Bible by Usener as ‘supremely defective,’ and, after admitting the ‘remarkable likenesses to our Gospel tradition’ in the pagan parallels he has accumulated, says: ‘Yet the conclusions which he draws from them go singularly beyond his premisses: the Jewish and Christian factors suffice to explain the genesis of the myth of the Nativity’ (The Virgin Birth of Christ, pp. 128, 129, cf. pp. 75, 76). He thinks the LXX translation responsible for ‘the religious construction adopted by the Evangelist’ (pp. 74, 75).] and probably in the form given to it by the LXX Septuagint translation. The Hebrew, it is thought, would not naturally have lent itself to this purpose apart from the definite use of παρθένος in the LXX Septuagint. Several recent scholars, on the other hand, consider that the use of παρθένος is quite insufficient to account for St. Matthew’s quotation. They consider that even, before the birth of Jesus there had been formed a doctrine of the Messiah, which included among other things His supernatural birth. This was ultimately derived from the pagan stories of children of the gods, but was not taken over directly from paganism by Jewish Christianity. It had arisen on the soil of Judaism itself, and it is in the Judaeo-pagan syncretism, with its doctrine that the Messiah must be born of a virgin, that the origin of the belief is to be sought. What was said of Christ was subsequently transferred to Jesus, when Jesus and the Christ were identified. A quotation from Gunkel will make this position clear. After saying that the mythological representations did not make their first appearance in the later Gentile Christianity, he proceeds: ‘But this would have been impossible if Judaism itself had not previously possessed this or similar representations. The birth of Christ from the Virgin through the Divine Spirit had, we may assume, already belonged to the Christological dogma before Jesus, just as His birth in Bethlehem and from David’s race, and has been transferred to Jesus only at a later time. What we have to learn then, and what will subsequently be shown again, is that this Judaism which found its way into primitive Christianity must have been strongly inclined to syncretism’ (Zum religionsgeschichtlichen Verstandnis des NT, p. 69). Similarly, Cheyne, in his Bible Problems, considers that the historical explanation of the statement of the Virgin-birth is that it arose ‘in the story of non-Jewish origin current in Jewish circles and borrowed from them by certain Jewish Christians.’ He interprets ‘virgin’ in a peculiar sense. In its original meaning ‘it expresses the fact that the great mythic mother-goddess was independent of the marriage tie’ (p. 75). For him the passage in Mt. ‘is a Jewish-Christian transformation of a primitive story, derived ultimately, in all probability, from Babylonia, and analogous to the Jewish transformation of the Babylonian cosmogony in the opening section of Genesis’* [Note: also the important remarks on pp. 193–195. He thinks the translation ταρθενος is so far from accounting for the belief in the Virgin-birth that it needs to be explained itself. ‘In Isaiah 7:14 the translator must have had some special motive, and that motive must have been not philological, but, if I may say so, ideological.’ ‘As for the quotation in Matthew 1:22 f. it is perfectly well accounted for as one of the subsidiary Biblical proofs which were habitually sought for by the evangelists. The real supports of their statements were traditions of one kind or another, but their belief in the written word of prophecy led them to look for a justification of these traditions in the prophetic scriptions and the prophecies had a common origin.’ The same view is taken by the scholars who regard the doctrine as purely pagan in origin. See, e.g., Pfleiderer, Das Urchristentum2, i. pp. 551, 694, where he affirms that Mt.’s use of Isaiah 7:14 was possible only for one who had already quite other grounds for ascribing that origin to Jesus.] (p. 93). On the other hand, a good many scholars take the view that the story was created, not simply out of pagan materials, but on pagan soil and among Gentile Christians. This is the view of Usener, Schmiedel, Soltau, Pfleiderer, and others (see references below). It does not fall within the scope of this article to discuss this question further, since it is concerned simply with the bearing of the LXX Septuagint translation of עַלִמָה by παρθένος on the development of the belief in the Virgin-conception of Christ. To rebut the Christian use of Isaiah 7:14 as a prediction of the supernatural birth of Christ, later Jewish translators substituted νεᾶνις for παρθένος. See Virgin Birth.

Literature.—In addition to commentaries on Isaiah and Matthew, and articles on ‘Immanuel’ in Dictionaries of the Bible, reference may be made to the articles ‘Mary’ and ‘Nativity’ in the Encyc. Bibl.; Giesebrecht, SK [Note: K Studien und Kritiken.] , 1888; Porter, JBL [Note: BL Journal of Biblical Literature.] , 1895; McCurdy, II PM, vol. i. pp. 368–371, 417–420; Soltau, The Birth of Jesus Christ, pp. 50–52; Lobstein, The Virgin Birth of Christ, pp. 73–75, 128–130; Cheyne, Bible Problems, pp. 67–100, 191–195; Pfleiderer, Das Urchristentum2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , i. pp. 551, 694; Harnack, History of Dogma, i. p. 100, n. [Note: note.] 1; Box, ‘The Gospel Narratives of the Nativity and the alleged Influence of Heathen Ideas’ in ZNTW [Note: NTW Zeitschrift für die Neutest. Wissen. schaft.] , 1905, p. 80 ff.

A. S. Peake.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Immanuel'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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