Despite Matthew's citation of him, Isaiah doesn't predict Jesus' birth in the first reading for the fourth Sunday of Advent (Is 7: 10-14). Only Christian fundamentalists believe the prophet's "virgin" is Mary and "Emmanuel" is Jesus.

Since Pope Pius XII's 1943 encyclical "Divinu Afflante Spiritu," Catholic Scripture scholars are obligated to recreate the original historical circumstances of any passage they exegete. They must surface the problem which prompts the Sacred Author to write, the audience he or she is addressing, and the cultural and theological limits within which both the author and audience live.

Only after those variables are established can we accurately begin to understand the message the author is trying to convey.

Sign for now

When we apply this methodology to the first reading, we discover that Isaiah is giving King Ahaz a sign which has to be recognized instantly, not something which will take place more than 700 years later.

Second, the word "almah," which we translate as "virgin," simply refers to a woman who has not yet delivered a baby. (Though we have no specific English word for such a human individual, we do have one for cattle: heifer.) An almah could be a virgin or someone 8.5 months pregnant.

Finally, putting the above in the context of the historical problem Ahaz is facing (whether or not to join a Syrian/Israelite revolt against Assyria), the almah Isaiah mentions probably is Mrs. Ahaz and the Emmanuel is their soon-to-be-born son Hezekiah.

Applying the same methodology to Matthew, we realize he probably knew little of Isaiah's historical situation (Mt 1: 18-24). No one did historico-critico analysis 2,000 years ago. They didn't have the tools. Biblical commentators simply associated every text with their own personal historical situation. Like modern fundamentalists, they believed the sacred authors had them in mind when they wrote.

Can we use biblical historico-critico analysis to discover what God's doing in our midst today?

When Isaiah, for instance, reminds Ahaz that his wife is pregnant, he's simply telling him that the signs Yahweh employs to point us in the right direction are rooted in the everyday events of our everyday lives. Those expecting angelic annunciations will be waiting a long time.

In a similar way, Paul tells the Christian community in Rome that his ministry of "apostleship" revolves around a phenomenon he never anticipated: the conversion of Gentiles to Jesus (Rom 1: 1-7). After the fact, Paul sees how Jesus' coming and his own mission to non-Jews is prefigured in the Hebrew Scriptures.


But the first Gentile had to be accepted into the Christian community as a Gentile before Paul or anyone else started to reflect on Scripture. As Church historian Bob McClory mentioned in a recent lecture, people of faith not only "push the envelope": sometimes, they "shred the envelope." Often, we recognize God's will only after we've stepped outside the lines.

Jesus' virginal conception certainly was a giant step outside the lines, not only for Joseph and Mary, but also for Matthew's community. That's why he mentioned Joseph's plan to divorce Mary "quietly." Writing for a Jewish/Christian Church, the evangelist must how that Joseph isn't a bad Jew: someone who would consummate marriage with a woman who had committed adultery against him.

But because Luke and Matthew differ on who Mary and Joseph eventually discover the meaning of her pregnancy, some Scripture scholars believe that it first made sense to them after Jesus' resurrection. Historically, until their son rose from the dead, He could have caused quite a bit of tension between them.

Could it be in the everyday tensions of our life that we most discover God in our life? That seems to be the way it usually happens in Scripture.