'Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name Him Jesus...' -- Matthew 1:20-21

Sunday's first reading (Isaiah 7:10-14) is probably the most misunderstood passage in the entire Bible.

Beginning historically with Matthew's quote of the verse in our Gospel passage (Mt 1:18-24), we've presumed that Isaiah has Jesus of Nazareth in mind when he proclaims these words to Judah's eighth-century-BCE King Ahaz: "The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name Him Emmanuel." Nothing could be clearer.

Yet there's no way to get around the contention of late Scripture scholar Rev. Raymond Brown, SS, that there are no predictions of Jesus as we know Him anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. As far as I can tell, all historico-critical Scripture scho­lars agree: First, they argue that Ahaz needed his sign yesterday, not 700 years in the future; second, the Hebrew word "almah," which Christians translate as "virgin," simply refers to a woman who has not yet had a child. Virgins fit that category, but so do pregnant women who have yet to deliver their first child.

Who's the almah?
These experts conclude the almah in this context is Mrs. Ahaz, and Emmanuel is their future son Hezekiah, who would rule so well it would be like having God among us. Isaiah is assuring Ahaz that his wife's pregnancy is God's sign that the king's family won't be annihilated if he refuses to join an alliance against Assyria.

Though, with just a minimal smattering of Jewish history, it's not difficult to understand the original meaning of Sunday's first reading, it's also not difficult to understand why our Christian ancestors in the faith so often insisted not only Jesus' message, but Jesus Himself was prefigured in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Along with Matthew, even our earliest Christian author, Paul, presumes this to be a fact. He tells the Church in Rome (Romans 1:1-7) that he's been "set apart for the Gospel of God, which He promised previously through His prophets in the holy Scriptures." One way Jesus' first followers defended their acceptance of Him as Messiah was to claim that, if their fellow Jews read their Bible correctly, they'd also see it predicted Jesus and His message.

Faith then and now
Even if today we know more about ancient history and the original intention of our sacred authors than Christians did 2,000 years ago, we still must appreciate the spirituality of those who preceded us in the faith. Their faith was biblically rooted.

I presume that Paul, following the standard exegesis of his day and age, believed many of the prophets foretold the coming of Jesus as Messiah. On the other hand, when he spoke about the "Gospel of God" being proclaimed through the prophets, he hit the prophetic nail on the head.

Biblical prophets foreshadowed the message and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, insisting that, in God's eyes, people are more important than institutions, rules and regulations. When Jews whose faith dovetailed with the faith of the ancient Hebrew prophets encountered this itinerant Galilean carpenter, they saw and heard things most people missed.

Like Joseph in Sunday's Gospel, they experienced God working in ways never anticipated. They also received an "annunciation," convincing them this teacher was different from all others.

Scholars insist that biblical annunciations are literary devices employed by our sacred authors to make certain their readers understand the meaning of the events they narrate.