Who was the first Immanuel?

Richard Goode writes: The name Immanuel can be found in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth (Matt 1:23). Joseph has just learnt that, although they were still unmarried and before “they lived together” (sunelthein – lit. ‘come together’), Mary has been found to be pregnant (1:18). Matthew’s readers would have known that a circumstance like this placed Joseph in a very difficult position.*  Consequently, Matthew explains to his audience that the instruction by the angel to Joseph that he should not break off the engagement with Mary, but that what was happening was all part of God’s plan. Furthermore, it was all taking place in order to “fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (1:22).

22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’

Matthew 1 (NRSV)

Those who are familiar with Matthew’s Gospel will know of his tendency to embed his account of the life of Jesus within the Jewish scriptures (Old Testament). Rather surprisingly, Matthew also feels the need to explain to his readers what the name Immanuel actually means; ‘God is with us’. Perhaps he wanted to make sure that his readers fully understood the significance of the name. He was writing to a people who are facing a very uncertain future. They were living in turbulent times that was testing their faith. Parts of his Gospel address the problem of how to deal with members of the church (ekklesia) who have ‘fallen away’, others the problems of persecution and ostracism. They have known the brutality of state violence. Jerusalem is becoming a war zone and the temple destroyed. The assurance that ‘God is with us’ would be very welcome news.

Remembering a past voice

The prophet to whom Matthew is referring is Isaiah and he is quoting from Isaiah 7:14. This one of the few biblical passages that we can date with a certain degree of confidence. It belongs to part of a sequence of texts referring to instructions from Yahweh (the God of Israel) to the Judahite king, Ahaz, residing in Jerusalem, through the prophet Isaiah in 734 BCE.

10Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

Isaiah 7 (NRSV)

The mid 8th century BCE was a good time for the Assyrians. It was a pretty bad time for everyone else living in that region… but a pretty great time to be Assyrian! Assyria lay to the north-east of Israel (think modern day southeast Turkey and northern Iraq). Following the ascension to the throne by Tiglath-pileser III in 745 BCE, Assyria began to embark on its final (and greatest) phase of empire expansion. Fairly quickly Tiglath-pileser III’s eyes turned to the territories to the south. Although not large, this small strip of land, bordered by the sea to the west and desert to the east, was an extremely valuable resource, both economically and militarily. Ownership of this land-bridge meant control over the vital trade routes between the south (Egypt) and north (Assyria and beyond) and their concomitant taxes and tolls. Furthermore, it would take the Assyrian empire right to the door of the only other superpower that could be seen as posing any sort of viable threat; Egypt. It is therefore not surprising that those living in this region began to feel distinctly uneasy and increasingly under threat.

The clouds of war gather

By 741 BCE, the tremors of Assyria’s march westward was being felt by its southern neighbours as news of fallen cities spread down the Levant (see Is 37:8-13). The burning question was how could the small nations that occupied this strip of land, some little bigger than tribal communities, resist the advance of a superpower like Assyria? Spurred on by the increasingly threatening situation, the kings of two of the nations that were closest to Assyria were goaded into action. Strength, particularly military strength, could only come through unity and the forging of some kind of coalition. The creation of an anti-Assyrian alliance would enable them to pool their military resources and muster an army large enough (hopefully) to deter Tiglath-pileser III’s ambitions .

The anti-Assyrian league comprised two of the nations, Syria (Aram in the text) and Israel (Ephraim in the text). For a short while, Israel was pro-Assyrian and was, therefore, viewed with suspicion (and hostility) by Syria. However, following his assassination of Pekahiah (the Israelite king) in 740 BCE, his murderer Pekah took the throne. Pekah reversed the kingdom’s pro-Assyrian policies and forged an alliance with the Syrian king, Rezin. Fearing that they would not be able to muster a large enough army, they made overtures to Ahaz, king of Judah (on the southern border of Israel), to join them and help in their efforts to resist the advances of Assyria. However, Ahaz had already received assistance from Tiglath-pileser III and did not want to upset him further. Consequently, Ahaz rejected the offer made by Pekah and Rezin and refused to join their alliance.

Darkness howling

Clay seal with the inscription “Belonging to Ahaz [son of] Yehotam [Jotham] king of Judah”
This placed Rezin and Pekah in a precarious position. By now, Tiglath-pileser III’s Syrian-Palestinian campaign was taking the Assyrian army closer and closer. Land was being annexed – this would soon include parts of Pekah’s kingdom (most of Galilee and Gad). The two kings of the anti-Assyrian league became even more desperate to secure a large enough army to protect their territories. If Ahaz refused to join their coalition, the only solution was to attack Judah, remove the ‘troublesome’ Ahaz and install in his place a king who was more sympathetic to their cause. As a result, Pekah and Rezin moved south to attack Judah with the intention of deposing Ahaz. This began what became known as the Syro-Ephraimite war or the Syro-Ephraimitic Crisis.

Ahaz now finds himself in an intractable situation. Assyria is advancing and Tiglath-pileser is commencing his campaign against the Philistines down the western flank of Israel and Judah. Pekah and Rezin annex some of Judah’s territory and begin to lay siege to Jerusalem (where Ahaz is residing). The first century (CE) Jewish historian Josephus (Ant. 9.12.1) – who had very little time for Ahaz as a king – describes the city as being under siege for “a long while” but because of the strength of its walls failed to gain entry. Seizing the opportunity of Judah’s weakened state, the Philistines and Edomites make border incursions to the south and west. Ahaz is cornered. Judah is much too small to defend itself. Its only potential allies have now become its enemies.

When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.

Isaiah 7:2 (NRSV)

Isaiah speaks

This is when Isaiah enters the stage. He tells Ahaz that he has been sent by God to tell him not to worry, but remain faithful and trust him. Isaiah states that Pekah and Rezin’s plan to dethrone him will not succeed. They are in fact nothing more than “two smouldering stumps of firebrands” (7:4) – or in (relatively) modern terms; ‘the smoking dog-end of a discarded cigarette butt.’ Ahaz is assured that both countries will soon by lying in ruins. Ahaz is not to seek help elsewhere.** The siege is biting deep. Ahaz has difficulty believing this and sees his (and Jerusalem’s) situation as utterly hopeless. However, Isaiah appeals to Ahaz to stand firm against his enemies and to trust God. Ahaz is unconvinced by this strategy and so Isaiah offers to give Ahaz a sign from God to show that what he is saying can be trusted. But Ahaz refuses.

Nevertheless, Isaiah persists and states that all will be well, Jerusalem will not be destroyed by the nation will survive. Furthermore, despite Ahaz’s reluctance, he will be given a sign that what Isaiah has said has been accomplished. That sign will be that a pregnant young women (??????? – almah), possibly Isaiah’s young wife (it has also been argued that it might refer to a member of Ahaz’s court or even one of his wives),*** and who is also enduring with them the deprivations of the siege, will not only survive with the rest of them, but she will go full term and produce a son. They will watch him grow and mature in an environment of peace and plenty.**** That baby will be the physical symbol, to Ahaz and the people of Judah, that their God is always with them and can be trusted because the mother will give to him the name Immanuel.

The message continues

A small boy, born in the squalor of war and the desperation of starvation, brings a message of hope to a frightened people; this is not the end. This is a beginning… Immanuel.

Some seven hundred years later, Matthew contemplating the birth of a new king and how best to convey its significance to a people who are also facing a future filled with uncertainty and fear. Blood among the dust and broken stones of Jerusalem, the temple desecrated and ruined. Old friendships and families torn apart by ideological violence. Their faith daily tested in the crucible of disappointment and the vulnerability of living in the turbulence of a violent world. In Matthew’s mind dance the figures of Herod and the gift bringing Magi… and the brute power of Rome… the dark cynical dance of the politics of power… and the birth of a baby boy. Yes, this too is not the end. This too is a beginning. The birth of a small boy brings hope to a frightened people… “Now the birth of Jesus the messiah happened this way…”… Immanuel.

2000 years later? To a world that is uncertain of its future and the new threats it brings; a people facing the darkness of the unknown…. we are reminded once more of the birth of a baby boy, small and vulnerable, born into a world darkened by fear, and then, once again, we hear that he is to be called…


Choir of Kings College Cambridge (2016)


*The predicament that Joseph faced by this situation is discussed in an earlier post: The dark reality of infanticide behind Matthew 1:21

** Ahaz rejects Isaiah’s advice and uses treasure from the temple and his palace to buy a treaty with Tiglath-pileser III (see 2 Kings 16:7-8), turning Judah into a vassal state.

***There is a very good discussion on this question that also includes a helpful review of ancient Jewish interpretations in Blenkinsopp (2000:233-234). Motyer (1993:86-87) argues that it could refer to a young girl who will marry and subsequently give birth.

****Although we must also take note of suggestions by commentators, such as Motyer (1993:86), that ‘curds and honey'(Is 7:15) refer to the monotonous diet of a city under siege and should not be too closely associated with the term ‘milk and honey’ denoting plenty. There are two ways of reading this prophecy. In its present form it is more of a warning; Pekah and Rezin will be defeated, but Judah will also, eventually, feel the force of the Assyrian onslaught (see for example, Oswalt 1986:212-214). However, at the moment, I am inclined to the reading that ” – king of Assyria” (v.17) is a later gloss turning the prophecy of hope into one of warning and aligning it more closely with subsequent history.


Blenkinsopp, J (2000) Isaiah 1-39: New translation with introduction and commentary. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday.

Motyer, J. A. (1993) The Prophecy of Isaiah: An introduction and commentary. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Oswalt, J.N. (1986) The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament series. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans.

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54 thoughts on “Who was the first Immanuel?”

  1. No mention here of “almah” meaning “virgin”. Good, it doesn’t, and we should not reproduce the translational errors of the Septuagint into English. It may imply virgin or even be a cognate of the idea but it doesn’t mean “virgin”. So, at least on my reading of it, the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, Vol. 6. p. 428. The Hebrew word “betulah” more properly meant virgin. Meanwhile, reading the Jewish Study Bible notes on Isa 7:14 yielded the, to me, whimsically amusing comment: “This passage, which plays a significant role in Christianity, is of no special importance in Jewish tradition.” It seems Matthew didn’t agree!

    • Are they actually translational errors?

      Those who translated the Hebrew into Koine greek were a lot close to the true meaning of the Hebrew then than we are now and so it is with some arrogance that scholars think they know better now more than 2000 years later.

      I am NOT saying that it does or does not mean virgin, rather I am accepting that those who did the translation might have known better than us and either might, or might not have been wrong.

      If you say it simply means a young woman then the proclamation that a young woman would have a baby is a bit like saying the sun will rise tomorrow morning – it is astoundingly obvious and very banal.
      By contrast proclaiming that a virgin would have a baby would be an exceptional and notable event.

      • If quoting Isaiah 7:14 I would have thought it would have been entirely reasonable to quote what Isaiah 7:14 says. If you scan the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew article I referred to you can see their analysis of the semantic range and actual use of “almah” in the entire Hebrew biblical text. But Matthew doesn’t quote the Hebrew text. He uses the Septuagint and so translates “parthenos” instead. Then this gets rendered into English as “virgin”, a translation of a translation, no less.

        Read your JPS Hebrew Bible text for Isaiah 7:14 and you won’t see it translated by the Jewish scholars there as “virgin”. Neither is it imagined Isaiah’s “young woman” is a virgin either in the original usage. The translation “virgin” thus, to my mind, seems like an intrepretive choice rather than a semantic necessity. This is to say that nothing is stopping Matthew claiming Mary was a virgin but its all on him if he does and on the reader if they agree.

        • I obviously touched a nerve and I am sorry about that when I simply take it that those who translated it as virgin in the koine greek some 200 years before Christ might actually have been right.

          I am also completely bemused by your statement:
          “Read your JPS Hebrew Bible text for Isaiah 7:14 and you won’t see it translated by the Jewish scholars there as “virgin”.”
          This is a statement that shows you think that any Jews who do NOT translate it as “virgin” are scholars but that all those who translated the Septuagint weren’t scholars!!!!

          It seems to me that those who put all that work into translating from ancient Hebrew into the koine greek of the time weren’t vacuous, unintelligent slaves and were, in my opinion, almost certainly scholars as well. It’s just they had a different view from more recent “scholars”.

          I come back to what I said in my post:
          “I am NOT saying that it does or does not mean virgin, rather I am accepting that those who did the translation might have known better than us and either might, or might not have been wrong.”

      • Clive, you write “If you say it simply means a young woman then the proclamation that a young woman would have a baby is a bit like saying the sun will rise tomorrow morning – it is astoundingly obvious and very banal.”

        But did you read the original post? The author of Matthew only quoted one little decontextualized bit of the prophecy; if he had looked at the rest of it, he would have seen that it was about something much more than a woman, or even her child — that these just represented an idea of the liberation of Judah.

        The post tries to correlate this broader context with the historical context of Jesus’ birth and the events that followed this, and with… well, presumably any number of things throughout history, as long as people remain “uncertain of its future and the new threats it brings.” (But even this is a bit stretch.)

        • Dear Stewart, Yes I did read the original post but you equally don’t seem to have taken up the issues. Christopher’s point that the “prophecy” (inverted commas because that is partly an assumption by the writer of Matthew’s gospel) might be a “Fatherless” child has merit as that is closer to being a prophecy.

          The problem here is that too often academics get so entrenched in thinking in a particular direction that they fail to ask clear and obvious questions. The modern example of this was the dating of John’s gospel. I think it was Baukham who said the blindingly obvious to the rest of the academic community – That if John’s gospel really dated between 200 AD and 300 AD then why did letters of the early church quote it? Then archeology confirmed that Bethsaida’s pool really did have 5 porticoes and the roman fort really did have a pavement outside it and so what was previously said to be inclusions in the manuscript that pretended the gospel was early suddenly became possible eye-witness stuff. Then the Ryland manuscript P52 was carbon dated and a century of academic entrenched views collapsed and John’s gospel became as early as the other gospels.

          So I am still stating the downright obvious – That those who translated the Hebrew into Koine greek in around 200 BC were a lot close to the true meaning of the Hebrew then than we are now and so it is with some arrogance that scholars think they know better now more than 2000 years later.

          • I don’t know what you’re on about with a lot of that.

            Literally no one denies that Isaiah 7.14-16 is a prophecy — and this includes all Biblical scholars. As I said though, Isaiah 7.14 itself is just one little tiny, decontextualized snippet of the prophecy.

    • This seems to me something of a non-question. An unmarried woman was assumed to be a virgin unless proven otherwise. A lapse brought not only social stigma but, in principle, stoning to death (Deut 22:13-21). ‘Betulah’ is properly translated ‘virgin’, while ‘almah’ has the same connotations as ‘maiden’. As with the English word, almah primarily means a young unmarried woman, with virginity implicit but not the foremost sense. Almah in Isaiah gets translated as ‘parthenos’, presumably, because Greek does not have two subtly different words. In I Cor 7, Paul is focusing on the question of marriage, not virginity, and when he uses the word parthenos, he means ‘maiden’, a young unmarried woman (virgin understood). In I Cor 7:34 agamos = ‘unmarried woman’ and parthenos are expressly synonymous. Parthenos in Matt 1:23 is best translated ‘maiden’ (even if archaic in today’s world), but ‘virgin’ is not wrong inasmuch as Matthew is bringing to the fore a connotation that in Isaiah may not have been to the fore. As I started by observing, the presumption in Israelite society was that maidens did not conceive and bear children; only married women did.

      • Thanks Steven, I wouldn’t quite go as far as to say that it’s a non-question (like “he will be called a Nazarene” Matthew’s fulfilment of scripture quotes sometimes raise as many questions than they answer), but it’s a very persuasive summary of the case for the defence. Of course, if people have set their minds on passing the Gospels off as religious propaganda no argument to the contrary will ever seem satisfactory.

      • To make a further point, the ‘sign’ in Isa 7:14 was that a child would be conceived without a father (parthenogenesis). The prophet had challenged the king: Ask a sign of the Lord your God, be it in the depths or in the heights above. The king refused, but Isaiah indicated that a sign of that order would nonetheless be given. So the sign was not primarily that the baby boy would be called Immanuel (it was common for names to include ‘El’ or ‘Yah’, with some affirmation of what God was like), nor that the mother would ‘survive with the rest of them’.

        Moreover the suggestion that the mother might have been a young wife, even Isaiah’s wife, is not supported by Mottyer, despite Footnote 3’s citing him to this effect. Mottyer says nothing of the sort. ” ‘Alma is not a general term meaning ‘young woman’ but a specific one meaning ‘virgin’ … Isaiah’s wife at the time was no ‘alma. ”

        To my mind Isaiah’s ‘in the depths or in the heights above’ hints at the sign of Jonah and Paul’s astonishing interpretation of Ps 68 in Eph 4:9. But that understanding, I grant, is optional.

        • I agree with much of what you have said. But if the Hebrew is to be understood as ‘virgin’ as in the Greek Septuagint, are you saying there have been 2 ‘virgin births’ ?

          • A good question. Yes, but with this difference, that in the first case the child had no father – a true case of parthenogenesis – whereas in the second the child did have a father, namely the Holy Spirit.

        • “To make a further point, the ‘sign’ in Isa 7:14 was that a child would be conceived without a father (parthenogenesis).”

          Why do virtually no non-fundamentalist scholars agree with this?

          • It seems you are suggesting that whether one is identifiable as a ‘fundamentalist’ scholar depends on how one understands the passage under discussion – with the implied ad hominem slur attaching to the reader who chooses the ‘virgin birth’ reading. Surely we should not be approaching the text in this party-political way. I have indicated how I think the text is most naturally understood. To reduce the sign to a married woman having a normal birth seems to me contrary to a plain reading and to reduce its significance to the trivial. Matthew evidently thought so too, otherwise he wouldn’t have cited the scripture, confident that his readers – and they weren’t all ‘fundamentalist’ – would see the point.

        • (I have no learned commentaries to consult, so this may be completely wrong…)

          It seems to me that the thrust of the sign is in Isaiah 7:15-16, not in the nature of the conception. I.e. it is that in time “before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good” the attacking kings’ kingdoms will be desolate.

          It occurred to me that under the circumstances of Isaiah 7, for a young woman to be married (and subsequently conceive in the normal way) itself expresses a confidence in God for the future.

          The obvious question to ask concerns the Jewish interpretation of the passage in the time before Jesus’ birth (after Jesus’ birth might be coloured by that!) I have been led to believe that it was not understood as Messianic. Is there in this any suggestion of parthenogenesis? If it has actually occurred, it would have been remarkable.

  2. There’s also political connotations here. Isaiah’s Immanuel sign-child announces both judgement and salvation for Israel, a salvation dependent on faith (Isaiah 7:9). Assyria will be defeated at the walls of Jerusalem (Isaiah 10:12) and Judah will be severely chastised before their redemption arrives (Isaiah 7:20). In Matthew’s context too there will be a righteous remnant saved from God’s coming wrath, the war with Rome.

  3. “They were living in turbulent times that was testing their faith. Parts of his Gospel address the problem of how to deal with members of the church (ekklesia) who have ‘fallen away’, others the problems of persecution and ostracism. They have known the brutality of state violence. Jerusalem is becoming a war zone and the temple destroyed. The assurance that ‘God is with us’ would be very welcome news.”

    But we don’t really know this. The only reason for thinking that the temple had already been destroyed in scholarly assumptions and habits about dating the New Testament. There is no internal evidence at all that Matthew’s gospel was written after AD 70 or that there had been Roman violence against the church.
    Matthew’s understanding of ‘biblical fulfilment’ is unlike our usual way of thinking about this as texts are ‘torn out of context’, or apparently so. But the actual words of Scripture (not just the typological theme) are ‘pregnant’ (!) with meaning and find a sensus plenior in the coming of the Messiah.

    • But there may well be internal evidence in Mark which almost everyone agrees Matthew used. If Matthew used Mark and Mark post dates the destruction of the Temple… bingo.

      PS what, in the gospels, do we “know”? Saying is never the same as knowing.

      • Yes, Matt postdates Mark and therefore also postdates the temple’s destruction. Mark itself is more likely to postdate the realisation that the Temple’s destruction was inevitable than to postdate its actual destruction. (I date it in mid 70.) Urgent warnings and advice are given that would be irrelevant after the destruction. After August 70 would you give predictions about an abomination sitting in a place that does not even now exist? I find that impossible to believe. Mark is hastily and urgently written and depicts a hasty and urgent Jesus. He may not even have had time to finish the book – though that is speculation.

        • “Yes, Matt postdates Mark and therefore also postdates the temple’s destruction.”
          Even if the first statement is true (which it may be), the second doesn’t follow.
          There is nothing in Luke-Acts that requires it to be written post-c. 63.
          If Luke used Mark (as per the Synoptic theory), Matthew could also be a lot earlier. Nobody really knows. But the destruction of the temple as an actual fact would be powerful piece of Christian polemic against anti-Christian Jews.

          • Dating of the NT documents involves a host of considerations – too many to go into here. It is a subject I like, and am always happy to discuss any specific point you want. But an important point is that textual interrelationships are especially helpful for dating. The vast majority of verses in Matt, Mark and Luke have multiple data for comparative dating. We are spoilt by how much data we have.

            The soon-to-be emperor Vespasian healed 2 people, a blind man with spittle and a man with a withered hand, both in 69 (and then apparently retired from healing to rest on his laurels). During that year this would have been topical. The wording of Rev.’s 6th seal which combines 2 unconnected OT verses parallels a similar passage in Mark 13, but of all the considerations that might put one of these combinations of identical verses before the other, I found 5 reasons to put Rev earlier and none to put Mark earlier. It would take the most colossal swing to reverse that. But Rev itself cannot very well date before say early 70; and Mark is unlikely to postdate the temple’s destruction, since it speaks of ‘not one stone upon another’ and speaks of an abomination in a still existing Holy of Holies. This data, I believe, acts like a pincer to provide a terminus post quem and a terminus ante quem. Fears that Nero still lived and would take up his ‘throne’ in Jerusalem also date to 69-70. There is a fine discussion by Hengel.

            ‘Nobody really knows’ is a generalisation at far too high a level of generality which does justice neither to the logic of the textual data nor to the secondary writers who have worked on the question, IMHO. Also it is verging on being a cliche.

      • Except I have yet to see any convincing evidence that Mark was written after AD70, so the fact that both Matthew and Luke used Mark has no bearing on whether either were written after AD70. Indeed I would argue the evidence suggests Luke at least was written before AD70 (before Peter’s or Paul’s deaths), thus also putting Mark before then, probably sometime in the 50’s if not earlier.

    • Yes, this assumption troubled me as well. The issue was considered at length by John Wenham in his book ‘Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem’ (1991). To quote from the back cover: ‘The internal evidence suggests that the likenesses between the Gospels are not to be explained by one evangelist changing the work of his predecessor. The external evidence shows Luke’s Gospel to have been written by the early fifties of the first century, Mark’s probably about AD 45 and Matthew’s about AD 40.’ Note that he considers Mark to have postdated Matthew. In my opinion, any pronouncements on the dating of the gospels should be informed by a thorough consideration of this excellent work.

      • Wow, that’s the first time I have heard a scholar suggesting that the synoptic Gospels predate the Epistles. AD40? I’d like to know more about how Wenham arrived at so early a date.

        • You’ll have to read his book, which has been around for nearly 30 years.
          He slays a whole herd of sacred cows, so it is (ahem) strong meat for too many, especially if you’ve built your academic career on, say, the provenance of Q or the content of L and M.

          As for dating the NT generally, I’m reminded of the saying that the arguments are like a gang of drunken men holding each other. If one falls down, so do the rest. The amount of hard data is surprisingly small. Negatively, there is no evidence that the temple had been destroyed when the Gospels were written. It was the enfant terrible John Robinson who stressed this point in 1976.
          Richard Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’ has only begun to impact scholarship and I wonder what influence it may have on theories on dating the Gospel.

          • The drunken men saying came from Austin Farrer, and JAT Robinson quoted it. It depended on comparative datings current at the time but thought on these matters has developed since then. In order to make or affirm such a statement (about the drunken men) one would have to have done a lot of study, and there are few who would be in that position. It is an idea

            JAT Robinson was an enfant terrible specifically in matters theological and social, not his specialities. He was a sane scholar in the English tradition in his speciality of NT. He was never a NT enfant terrible, even though he studied and published NT throughout his career.

            Patterns of evidence need sometimes to be only few when they all point the same way. But the position we are in is that we have some extremely interrelated texts, and therefore excellent data for dating. And there are some factors that ought to have been considered more often than they have been.

            I know that Wenham is a good book, and there are indeed many good books in this area, so one ought not overly to stress just one secondary text.

  4. “JAT Robinson was an enfant terrible specifically in matters theological and social, not his specialities. He was a sane scholar in the English tradition in his speciality of NT. He was never a NT enfant terrible, even though he studied and published NT throughout his career.”

    Yes, I know all about his poor theological and social judgment; but ‘Redating the NT’ and ‘The Priority of John’ also put him out of step with critical orthodoxy. Bauckham has done some interesting correlation between Mark and John as well (in an essay in ‘The Gospel for all Christians’).

    • He was certainly out of step with critical orthodoxy! But when you say ‘it was the enfant terrible JAT Robinson who stressed this point’ I thought (perhaps wrongly) that you were making capital out of the notion that even such a ‘liberal’ as he was forced to concede the lack of hard data for references to the fall of Jerusalem. This point would not work re NT scholarship as he was not persuaded by many ‘liberal’ positions in NT scholarship. However, maybe that was not the point you were making.

      Bauckham’s work on Mark and John is very good, but points not to a Robinsonesque ‘Priority [or Co-Priority] of John’ but rather to the idea that (as many had earlier argued, e.g. Robinson Smith, DWB Robinson, Cribbs, Shellard, Matson, & myself) John is earlier than Luke. I have been arguing that John is the second gospel since 1992 when I distributed my paper ‘Mark, John, Matthew, Luke’ to 20-to-40 scholars.

      To avoid confusion, NB I have mentioned here 3 separate people each of whom possessed ‘Robinson’ as part of their full name.

      • (More recently, 2018, Gary Greenberg has been on the right track in indicating that in some respects John is critical of Mark’s presentation.)

      • I think my point in mind (if I can recall it) was that Robinson was not constrained by consensus judgments but ploughed his own furrow. From what I can recall of his take on the theology of John (I don’t have any of his books to hand), I am not sure I would agree with him. But that is another matter. But as regards the dating of John, since Phil 2, Hebrews and Colossians have a ‘high’ incarnationist Christology, John need hardly be considered a late outlier.
        As for dating the Gospels, I still can’t see any hard evidence that dates any of them after c. 63, but of course I haven’t read what you have written on the subject. Where are these stories of Vespasian’s miracles? And do we have to read Mark 13 not as actual words of Jesus in AD 30 but as a vaticinium ex eventu or a coded message for c. AD 68?

        • Dating is multi-dimensional. Often it has been seen one-dimensionally as a matter of style or of theology, both of which are taken to develop seamlessly along a single trajectory. But we always have to take all factors into account. I agree that John is ‘early’ (say: 72). It is almost the antithesis to Mark’s thesis – however, that is not really adequate since one of the main heresies he countered was docetism, an even higher Christology.

          Vespasian’s miracles are attested to by Suetonius, by Tacitus, and by Cassius Dio. They would have been a cause celebre in their own day. After all, Vespasian was canvassing for (or at least a candidate for) emperor at precisely this time. But since he ceased his healing activities, the period of interest in them can be narrowed down. Especially interesting is the location of the miracles: Alexandria in Egypt, whose church Mark is traditionally supposed to have founded! In the same 12-month period John in Revelation pillories Vespasian as the false prophet, no doubt because of his claimed miracles.

          Vaticinium ex eventu: this is a false dichotomy. Given that Jesus’s original words were many and would have had to be selected from, any account that was written would choose what it highlighted and would choose the wording, and would be likely to play up any association with more contemporary themes. Even if it knew exactly what Jesus had and had not said, which is not easy to know in full 40 years later. The writers would have done their best. However, there is not a point when they stand back and get self-critical about standards of accuracy as some historians and biographers do – the exception is Luke’s preface.

          • In addition, the story of ‘Legion’ and the Gadarene swine is interesting because in 68 (Josephus, War 4.7) as great a catastrophe as had been seen for many a long year took place when Jews from Gadara (and various parts of Peraea) were pursued by the Roman commander Placidus’s own ‘Legion[s]’ for 5 miles to a watery end.

            (Gadara is not so well-attested as a reading as is Gerasa, though there is no water near Gerasa.)

            This story could have been another of the type we find in Revelation, where fates are assigned to Rome of the precise sort that they have been dishing out to God’s people (Rev. 18.5-6): ‘treat [Babylon/Rome] as she has treated others – she must be paid double the amount she exacted’ (NJB). Examples: lake of fire (Nero’s residence had a great lake), city split in 3 parts (as Jerusalem had been), talent-weight boulders/stones (as had flown from Rome’s catapults). The latter 2 from end of ch16.

            That the Roman ‘legion’ should not only be slaughtered but go into pigs’ bodies first too would be a fitting ignominy.

          • So do you think the Gadarene swine story recounts an historical event of c. AD 28 or is it a fictionalised wish-story really about AD 68?

      • Having read Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’ 2nd ed revised, I dont remember getting the impression that he believed John’s Gospel was written before Luke. He tends to agree with the typical late dating of all the Gospels (which I disagree with), putting John in the AD90s (which I tend to agree).

        Although he makes some interesting points about John being ‘John the Elder’ rather than the apostle John, I am still not convinced. Though I think he is right to say that Peter is the primary witness for Mark’s Gospel (in a youtube video he also deals with the supposed ‘wrong’ geography in Mark and argues convincingly it is based on a Galilean fisherman’s perspective, thus giving further evidence of Peter’s input).

        But Bauckham is certainly one of the few scholars who are prepared to have some original thoughts.

  5. It strikes me that Jesus was (as one of his chief ministries) an exorcist, and there will have been exorcism stories circulating. The description of the demonised man is in minor details similar to one in the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, a datum I find pretty irrelevant, since what sorts of symptoms are demonised men supposed to have? There is bound to be overlap in the symptoms. Sundry details like the tombs are colourful, vivid. Also, some animals do respond in extreme ways to what we might loosely term ‘the supernatural’. It is intrinsically harder to prove that things happened than that they didn’t happen, so there is an inbuilt bias there.

    The ‘Legion’ and Gadara and drowning combination is striking, all the more so given the date of writing. The story would fit the vengeance-wish-fulfilment type popularised by Rev well.

    Certainly you again pose a false binary. There are other and probably likelier possibilities that combine the 2. What chroniclers often write down are the stories that were being circulated, and they often do not know how far they are true or false. I don’t find the AD 68 details quite compelling enough to think that they are the source of the *whole* story. It looks more likely that details could be added to an existing account (before the story reached Mark) to make the story more entertaining in the telling and fulfil the vengeance instinct. But if those details included a mass drowning, then that shows that major details could be added as well as minor ones.

    Mark’s main source for his gospel could well have been the notes of the apostle Matthew, if I understand Papias aright. This story sticks out like a sore thumb among the other miracle stories in that (a) its nature is unlike the other stories in Mark and (b) what seemed to be the climax is then upstaged by a greater climax, perhaps because that makes the story better in the telling. Mark was too young to know always the truth behind what he had been told – and in 70 he had no apostles to ask. I doubt we have reached the bottom of this one (unlike the swine).

    Incidentally one more way in which the fever-pitch of the desperate year 70 is shared by Rev and Mark is the way in which both give central importance to the message that, in so many words, the Son of Man is coming with the clouds of heaven. This cannot be said of most of the NT, some of which does not even mention this precise message.

  6. I have only a couple of older commentaries on Mark and they don’t mention Josephus but I see that what you suggest as the background to Mark 5 (anti-Roman polemic from the Jewish-Roman War) is developed in Ched Myers’ ‘Binding the Strong Man’, complete with details of Legio X Fretensis. http://www.knoxmetregina.org/binding-the-strong-man-samplings-from-marks-gospel-part-one/
    But I don’t see that I am “posing a false binary”. Either this extraordinary event happened in the ministry of Jesus or it didn’t, and the events and concerns of a later generation are retrojected. But if Mark’s gospel does date from the 50s or even the 40s and Papias is correct, that Mark recounted Peter’s preaching, then we do not need to read the Roman-Jewish War into this. Is there really anti-Roman polemic in Mark?

  7. Papias says that Mark learned from Peter, not Matthew. If the Evangelist is to be identified with John Mark or the Mark mentioned in Colossians, he certainly knew two apostles at least.
    “The Elder also said this, “Mark, being the interpreter of Peter, whatsoever he remembered he wrote accurately, but not however in the order that these things were spoken or done by our Lord. For he neither heard the Lord, nor followed him, but afterwards, as I said, he was with Peter, who did not make a complete [or ordered] account of the Lord’s logia, but constructed his teachings according to chreiai [concise self-contained teachings]. So Mark did nothing wrong in writing down single matters as he remembered them, for he gave special attention to one thing, of not passing by anything he heard, and not falsifying anything in these matters.”

    • The extraordinary event is actually 2 extraordinary events not 1. The exorcism of a notorious demoniac and the mass suicide of the pigs. Either both are from the ministry of Jesus or only the first. My judgment is that the combination of 7 factors [already-likely date, Revelation reverse-judgments on Rome, the name ‘Legion’, the natural impulse to cast gentiles as pigs (or, secondarily, dogs), a mass drowning event (when the mass drowning of Gadarenes was one of the top 3 recent news stories), the location of Gadara, and a stampede] adds up to more than the alternative theory adds up to. The alternative is that pigs (whose swineherds are even mentioned) did indeed react thus to the spiritual powers they encountered, which is certainly a possibility; but in the period 68-70 or indeed any other period the precise combination of pigs, mass-drowning, Gadara and a stampede together with that date looks to me too coincidental for this. Over and above this, to me the clincher is the otherwise completely unnecessary name ‘Legion’. The task would be not only to explain the multiple coincidence but to make it seem likelier than the alternative.

      Mark was probably *both* a close associate of Peter *and* a beneficiary of Matthew’s notes, and both seem to play large parts in his narrative. On the Petrine plurals, which have long been recognised, see most recently Bauckham ‘Eyewitnesses’. As I mentioned, this swine story is very atypical among Mark’s miracle stories, and that atypicality is not the least useful factor to prospective daters. Whereas the demoniac part of it is not atypical. At the time when all the apostles had died (which [68-70] was a small minority of the part of his life that preceded the writing of the gospel – for most of which he had access to Peter etc.), all he had were stories that were being told, in the absence of their ultimate verifiers. This story shows signs of having developed in directions that would give the hearers a good experience. Anyone would prefer the ‘better’ version of a story, given the choice.

      What one can’t do is begin ‘if Mark dates from the 50s or even 40s…’ since that is precisely what has to be shown and has not been. One would need to address the Vespasian-healings parallels, for example. The best case I have read for an early date for Mark is that of James Crossley. Unfortunately for us, it would take a rabbinics expert to assess it. The Caligula consideration (special interest in the desolating sacrilege in early 40s AD; emphasised by Gunther Zuntz, Nicholas Taylor etc.) is null if we consider the expectation (current in 69-70 – so many indicators converge in these years) that Nero would take up his seat in Jerusalem.

      My proposed date 70 is a rare one, but happens to fall in the middle of a popular patch (65-75).

  8. Dennis Nineham did also tell me that JAT Robinson’s ‘everything before 70’ dating of the NT was partly to fulfil (not exactly a bet, but) an urge to see whether it could be done or ‘pulled off’. The urge originated (and here my memory fails me) not with Robinson but with a conversation he had with either his father or more likely his uncle Dean J Armitage Robinson, himself a fine NT scholar. Of course, the methodology of testing a theory by seeing how far it can plausibly be stretched has a noble pedigree (vide again Austin Farrer, and many others).

    My impression is that in fact JAT Robinson believes all his arguments as stated, albeit he would not consider all of them probative.

  9. (I should also add that this precise drowning event had very likely already been used in a tit-for-tat way at the end of Rev. 14.)

  10. I will suspend judgment here, mainly because I am not convinced Mark has to be dated so late. If Acts need not be dated later than c. AD 62 (that is, some years before Paul’s death), then neither should Luke’s Gospel; and thus for Mark, on the standard synoptic theory. I don’t detect hostility to Rome in Luke (or in Mark), so there has to be a good reason why Luke ends as it does. Alternatively, you could say Luke had it in mind to write a third volume – and if he did, how I would love to read it!
    The account of the Gadarenes and others pursued some miles to the Jordan in War 4.7.5 is very interesting, but so too is Josephus’s account of the prophet Jesus ben Ananias who preached against the temple for years and died at the hands of the Romans. The parallels with Jesus of Nazareth are striking. What does that tell us about historicity? At the very least, that you could foretell the destruction of the temple years before war with the Romans began. The account of the behaviour of the herdsmen and the local people (Mark 5.14-17) sounds like what we would expect from local Gentiles, terrified that a Jewish sorcerer had come into their neighbourhood. Is this the memory of eyewitnesses?
    Presumably the Tenth Legion was stationed in the country of the Gerasenes for many years previously and the word ‘ligonya’ was in use in Aramaic then (or so I understand).
    An interesting discussion that will get me looking again at Bauckhan and newer discussions,

    • My thoughts on this:

      The dating of Acts: I agree that Acts is devoid of indications that compel us to date it much after the time of the events described. This is one that cannot be proven either way in and of itself. Its logical relationship to other writings in a web is, as so oftem key.

      If you are veering on saying that any book must be dated directly after the last event referred to, that is of course not a good argument – but I do not suppose you are saying that.

    • My thoughts 2/2:

      People sometimes use this argument about Acts because it is potentially the strongest argument in favour of a particular conclusion. Points on that:

      (1) Whoever argues with preferred conclusion at the forefront of their mind is not prioritising the whole picture nor evidence per se (or is preferring their own bias to evidence).

      (2) Conclusions are hard-won and by definition come at the end of the process not the start.

      (3) If the strongest such argument is an argument from silence, that shows that the argument for all 5 narratives being before 62-63 is not necessarily a good one.

      Further to that:
      It is important to check how often Acts refers to future events even before 62. It looks like a book that does not tend to refer to future events. Its job is to chronicle things as they happened.

      Ending of Acts (Paul under house arrest in Rome):
      I have always found this one a weak argument. The story of the church is a never-ending story, so has no ending. *Any* cut off point would therefore be arbitrary, and with that the argument IMHO fails. Of course this one is arbitrary, *but* not more so than one might expect.
      But in addition there is a strong argument for ending it here (the strong argument for which you asked): Matt, Luke and Acts are pretty much the 3 longest books to go on a single scroll. No more space.
      Again, Luke may have had an indeterminate number of volumes in mind, depending on how long he lived and flourished. Had he written 3, you would maybe be asking – is it not significant that a fourth is lacking? Intrinsically we must all agree that 2 and 3 and 4 are no more significant than one another. Perhaps there is a better case for 2 than for the others because Luke is centripetal towards Jerusalem and Acts is centrifugal towards the ends of the earth. Yet Luke does begin in Jerusalem….

      I don’t find Jesus ben Ananias very like Jesus of Nazareth myself. He is a lot more one-dimensional (what we know of him!). As for speaking against the temple or temple system, that is the sort of thing some prophets would be expected to do.

      I agree about the herdsmen, though of course the account of them is extremely short. Whatever animal commotion Jesus may well have caused looks to have been modified by some storyteller in the direction of vengeance narrative.

  11. “If you are veering on saying that any book must be dated directly after the last event referred to, that is of course not a good argument – but I do not suppose you are saying that.”

    No, there is no “directly” in what I’m saying. I am only observing that c. 64-72 was a tumultuous time for the Church (Great Fire, death of apostles, Jewish War etc) and I would expect to see evident repercussions of this in the NT writings if they came from that time. Of course, some will argue they are there if you know how to read between the lines.

    • Yes I have always thought JAT Robinson was onto something good there. Two provisos though.

      (1) It is extremely likely that a great proportion of the NT *does* date from before 70. But even much of the material which does not, *if* it does not, therefore purports to (2 Peter and some or all of Pastorals are the usual candidates cited), so is scarcely going to refer to 70. Of that which does not, Matt and Luke don’t veer too far away from Mark who does; John has a reference in ch11 and an ingenious new-temple system. Johannine letters are more mystical than historical!

      (2) Reading between the lines was something they were compelled to do, for high treason reasons.
      All the cagey talk in the NT (2 Th 2, Mark 13 and par., Rev 13 and ‘Babylon’ references, 1 Peter’s ‘fiery ordeal’ and [again] ‘Babylon’]) has one very specific thing in common: it refers to emperor and empire. Slander. Rev is often indirect of course and works the reader hard, and this is one good reason why.

  12. Thank you for those contributing to the fascinating discussion of the synoptic problem and dating of the Gospels. I guess it flows from Richard’s comment about how ‘Immanuel’ (or should it be ‘Emmanuel’ 😉 ?) might have been an encouragement to those reading and hearing the Gospel around 70AD.

    I occurred to me that the political circumstances at the time of Jesus’ birth were perhaps equally related to the time of Ahaz. In Jerusalem there is a dodgy king. Although Ahaz desecrated the temple, and Herod rebuilt it, was that rebuilding more to do with promoting the king than worship of the true god? After all, three decades later it was condemned as a “den of robbers”.

    The king was allied to the dominant empire of the time, although this was western rather than eastern. But just to the North and East there was another empire, the Parthians, who had only recently been in conflict with Rome. Thus, the arrival of a group of astrologers, who were probably advisers to the rulers of the Parthian empire and so could be seen as a delegation from that empire, and who are asking to see the new king of the Judeans, represented a very significant potential political threat. No wonder “all Jerusalem” as well as Herod was disturbed.

    Do these links suggest that “God is with us” speaks more to the political than the personal?

    It must be a precious word to our brothers and sisters living in the current turmoil in the same region, when alliances and warring empires again threaten God’s people.

    • David, I summarise my thoughts on the Synoptic Problem in the July 18th 2017 dated discussion. (Placing all 4 gospels in the 70s, viewing their writing as a partly and loosely co-ordinated process, and considering all to have been aware of all their predecessors among the quartet,) I present OT templates as the GUT (as a scientist you know what that means) that single-handedly in an umbrella-type way makes sense of the other normally-separated dimensions of gospel-study like redaction criticism, form criticism and so on. (Mark relied a lot on Matthew’s notes and Peter’s friendship and preaching.) Mark’s structure is Isaiah’s servant songs. John’s is the first chapters of Genesis (mostly Genesis 1 but continuing into the accounts of Adam’s family and the Nephilim). Matthew’s is the life of Moses. Luke’s is a chief-prophet composite: Samuel for birth narratives, Isaiah 61 and Elijah for narrative additions, the Moses of Deut 1-26 for the journey-narrative teaching (9.51-18.14). Moses and Elijah bookend (Transfiguration to Ascension). None of these points, which have been gaining increasing traction independent of me, is individually controversial; though they have not to my knowledge previously been synthesised to any great extent. Additions within later gospels regularly make sense on this sole basis (and, for example, Luke’s new material in 9-18 is demonstrably closer to Deut than the material he merely inherited from Matthew). This provides an especially economical theory for the overall process of the composition of the 4 gospels. And certainly without the need for Q (a theory riddled with self-contradictions) or anything similar.


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