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Dias’ Letters.


Letter 12.

The best method, and indeed the only sure guide we have to come to the truth, is to examine the prophecies which are cited in the New, from the Old Testament, and applied as fulfilled by Jesus, and accomplished in him. It is by such an examination only that a true judgment can be formed of the validity of their application and accomplishment; the prophecies being the only criterion by which the Messiah is to be known, since it is from them alone that his character must be proved; and we may be most certain that such evidence must be, not only superior, but the most sure, as St. Peter expresses it.* For what in nature can be superior to plain and clear prophecies delivered to different persons, and at different times, all unanimously and uniformly foretelling, so long before, that which should happen or come to pass; being transactions so very extraordinary that, when duly attended to, the prophecies compared to the events, evidently, obviously, and literally fulfilled and accomplished, must be the highest testimony any thing can possibly be capable of. This task is therefore absolutely necessary, and I with pleasure undertake the examination.

* 2 Peter 1:19.

1. The first prophecy taken from the Old Testament, and applied in the New, is that which concerns the conception of Mary, and the birth of Jesus from a Virgin; which St. Matthew proves by applying a passage out of Isaiah:†—“Now all this was done, (says he,) that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel.”‡ Now it happens that the passage cited from Isaiah, according to its natural, plain, and obvious meaning, concerns neither the birth of Jesus from a virgin, nor the birth of the Messiah at all: this being no prophecy, the evangelist citing it, as fulfilled, can prove nothing. This will plainly and evidently appear from a clue consideration of the prophet’s design and intention in the sign, and also from the nature of the sign, by him given to Ahaz, which was on the following occasion, viz.—In the days of Ahaz, king of Judah, Rezin, king of Syria, and Pekah, king of Israel, laid siege to Jerusalem, but could not prevail. The two kings being disappointed, concluded a new alliance, and with a greater force, agree to return again to the siege. This confederacy struck great panic and terror in the house of David and inhabitants of Jerusalem. On this occasion Isaiah was sent by God, to comfort Ahaz, and to assure him in his name, that the confederate kings should not prevail in their design; and in order to convince Ahaz of its certainty, the prophet, in God's name, tells him to ask a sign of him. The incredulous king excuses himself, under pretence of not tempting God. The prophet, after complaining of the king’s behaviour, tells him that the Lord himself shall give him a sign, no doubt an indisputable, immediate sign, and such an one, as should effectually answer the intention .and purpose for which it was given, viz: That a young woman, (for the word Almah signifies,) should be delivered of a son, whose name should be called Immanuel; that before this child should know how to refuse the evil, or choose the good, that is, within a very short time, “The land which he abhorred should be forsaken of both her kings.”§ Now it is plain as words can make it, that it was to convince Ahaz of the truth of, the prophet’s prediction, that this sign was given him from the Lord; and the nature of the sign given was most certainly calculated and adapted to answer the purpose for which it was given, viz: that it might be a proof of and testimony to the prophet’s prediction, and so it effectually was; and it must have been the greatest absurdity, and contrary to the very intention of the sign, to have understood the prophet as St. Matthew does, describing here the conception of Mary, and, the birth of her son Jesus; an event which was not to happen till seven or eight hundred years after. For how could a sign, either of this pretended nature or so remote, have confirmed Ahaz in the hope and expectation which the prophet gave him from the Lord, of the destruction of his two grand enemies, within a very short time? But the certain foretelling of a birth of a male child, and the declaring that before it should have any knowledge, both the kings, his enemies, should be destroyed, appears a proper and well adapted sign; because it must have shortly verified the prophet’s prediction. But a sign which was not to come to pass till upwards of seven or eight hundred years after, could never answer the purpose; for how could it be a sign to the incredulous king, to prove that which was immediately to happen? For the incredulity of Ahaz was the occasion of God’s giving him a sign. But how could that sign contribute to convince him, unless he saw the accomplishment? And if he disbelieved the promise from God in what was soon to happen, what credit could be expected he should give to an event so very remote? Would it not be the greatest absurdity for a person to foretell a thing as immediately, or soon coming to pass, and to give a sign, which should not come to pass for seven or eight hundred years after? When the thing foretold was over, could a sign at that distance be any proof or confirmation of the truth of the thing foretold? No, certainly, it must appear useless to every person, and rather a banter than a sign, and could only serve to add to the incredulity of those concerned.

† Isaiah 7:14. ‡ Matt. 1:23. § Isaiah 7:2; and 2 Kings 16.

On the other hand, nothing can be clearer than that the whole transaction was plainly fulfilled in the days of Ahaz, within the time limited by the prophet, before the child which was born could distinguish good from evil, or in about two years, as is evident from sacred history; for within that time the king of Syria was slain, after the taking of Damascus;* and the hand of Israel was smitten by Hosea, who rebelled against him;† by which means the land which Ahaz abhorred was bereft of both her kings, which event fulfilled the prophet’s prediction, for which the prophet’s own child, (and not Jesus, as it is pretended,) was given as the sign.

* 2 Kings 16:9. † Ibid. 15:30.

That it was so, the prophet himself declares, by saying, “Behold, I and the children whom the Lord hath given me are for signs and for wonders in Israel from the Lord of Hosts.”‡ Thus was the sign given to convince Ahaz fulfilled, and the whole prophecy accomplished at that very time, and consequently it excludes all their pretentions. The word Almah, rendered Virgin in the English Bible, signifies no more than a young woman, whether maid, married, or widow. When a virgin is intended, it is always expressed by the word Bethulah, which is the proper term for a virgin; this is evident from the word Bethulah being used for virgin throughout all Scripture.§

‡ Isaiah 8:18. § Vide Gen. 24:16; Levit. 21:3, 13; Deut 22:23, 28, &c.

I cannot here forbear observing, how cautiously Father Calmet treats, and explains the word Almah. He trifles and imposes on his readers, and endeavours to hide from them, as much as lies in his power, its true meaning, by declaring, that, “The Hebrews had no term that more properly signifies a virgin than Almah;” for though he at last, (and as it were, contrary to his inclination,) is forced to confess the contrary, he does it in such a manner, as discovers his glaring chicanery; for he says. “It must be confessed, without lessening however the certainty of Isaiah’s prophecy, that sometimes, by mistake, any young woman whatsoever, whether a virgin or not, is called Almah.” Now observe: First he assures you, that, “The Hebrews have no term that more properly signifies a virgin, than Almah,” which is evidently false; secondly, when he brings himself to the confession, “that any young woman whatsoever” is called by this name, he will have it to be by mistake, which is also false; and lastly, for fear of prejudicing or lessening the authority of the application of Isaiah’s prophecy by St. Matthew, he inserts a salvo by which he excepts the word in that place, not to mean any young woman whatsoever, but that it means a virgin. How vain, nay, how ridiculous are such shifts and evasions.||

|| See Calmet, Dict. On the word Almah.

Let us return: There are many Christian commentators, both ancient and modern, who do justice to this passage of Isaiah, and acknowledge that the whole must be literally understood of his own son, who was made the sign to Ahaz, and was consequently accomplished in his days; and then content themselves, either with making Isaiah’s son to be a type of Jesus, or with barely contending for an accommodation of phrases, made use of here by the evangelist. But as neither of these inventions is of weight, or proves any thing, it makes others, who are not at all pleased with the aforesaid methods of accounting for the evangelist’s saving that a thing was fulfilled when in fact it was not, endeavour by various shifts and wretched evasions, to extend this passage of Isaiah to the miraculous conception of a virgin, and birth of Jesus. These always take for granted, that the term Almah means a virgin. At all this you must not be surprised; for on such occasions, let the passage be ever so plain, they must endeavour to fix on some other meaning, and make it out some way or other; this they will always do rather than give up a point so essential, and on which they place the very foundation of the Christian religion.

The authors of the Universal History furnish you with a very remarkable instance, who, having put their own sense on the prophecy, that the sceptre should not depart from Judah, till Shiloh come to put an end to the kingdom,* they tell you that the desponding king (Ahaz) could not be ignorant of it; as if the wise authors knew, and were certain, that Ahaz believed this prophecy of Jacob in the sense given to that passage by Christians, after the establishment of Christianity; when on the contrary, it very evidently and plainly appears, that the sense of the whole Jewish church and nation, not excepting even Jesus himself, the evangelist, and apostles, who never made use of, or applied that prophecy in any sense whatever, (a plain proof that they never understood it in the sense since given it,) must even have been against any such application or explanation; for they did always ardently wish for, and expect the Messiah, as the greatest blessing and happiness that could befall them; consequently they either did not believe Shiloh to be the Messiah; or if they did believe the Messiah to be thereby meant, it must have been in a very different sense, since the restoring of the kingdom and nation was that which they expected at his coming; otherwise, instead of joyfully expecting him as the greatest blessing, they would have had cause to dread his coming. Therefore Ahaz’s fears could never have proceeded from that passage; for if he knew any thing of that passage, he must have considered it in a different sense; and it is much more probably, that he had but little faith in its prediction, to which he seems to have paid but little regard, as appears from the whole history of his life.

* Universal History, vol. 4, p. 153.

It is surprising therefore, that the learned authors should explain this passage by building on so inconsistent and so false a foundation; asserting as they do, “that this Shiloh promised to Judah and David, who was to forerun the total excision of the Jewish polity, was to be born in a miraculous manner, and with a divine character, and other remarkable circumstances.” But all this is a mere ramble of the authors’ own invention, and has no foundation at all, nor any connexion with Isaiah’s prophecy; for the authors speak of matters which could not be given for signs, neither to Ahaz nor to any other persons: no, not even to those who should live in the time of this pretended miraculous birth. Therefore such signs must have been useless, and consequently could answer no purpose at all; for how could that be given for a sign, which according to the nature and frame of things, could never be made manifest, it being impracticable to evidence the virginity of any woman? Take me right, I am not here speaking against the possibility of the thing, that not being the question at present; but what I urge is, the uselessness of such a sign; because it was of that nature, as made it impracticable to be wrought in a manner capable to answer the purpose for which alone a sign can be given, that is, conviction.

I am therefore only clearing and defending the prophet from having any such design; for such a sign and miracle, being by the nature of things invisible, could never have been intended as a proof of that which should come to pass; the same being actually contrary to the manner of God’s performing his miracles on all other occasions. For unless they were manifest and public, how could they be attended to, or how could the people be convinced by them?

The same objections may also be urged against the conception of a woman without the concurrence of a man: the possibility of the thing is not here the question; but the impossibility of the same being made manifest, or evident, is all I contend for, and which is sufficient for my purpose. I need not urge the different accounts given by Matthew and Luke; from which many objections might be made: but there are some expressions, such as “The holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee,”* which I should be glad to have explained according to the rules of language; for as they stand, they may possibly introduce into unwary and ignorant minds, ideas very unbecoming God, or the Holy Ghost; at least it may be thought to give too great a sanction to stories, feigned and invented by the heathens, concerning the amours of their gods; with which their poets sometimes diverted themselves: Homer in particular, very agreeably exposes Mars and Venus, when Vulcan caught them in his net.†

* Luke 1:35. † See the Eighth Book of the Odyssey.

But whether this be so or not, let us now return to the authors of Universal History. They say, “as for that part of the prophecy, which is commonly urged on the other side, namely, before this wonderful child shall know good from evil, the land which thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings,”' they think that by this ought to he understood, not the land of Syria and Israel, the land which Ahaz abhorred, and which was to be forsaken of both her kings, viz.. Rezin and Pekah, his two grand enemies, but the land of Judah and Israel, which should be forsaken of both her kings before the coming of the Messiah; this they pretend to make out by a new version of the text. How stupid must the commentators of so many centuries have been, not to have found this? But facts are stubborn things, and the destruction of Rezin and Pekah by violent deaths, within the time limited by the prophet, puts it beyond dispute what kings they were which the prophet meant.

I must not pass in silence the art which the before-mentioned historians make use of to prejudice and blind their readers, by inserting the word WONDERFUL, cited as if it was in the text, which only says, “For before the child shall know how to refuse the evil and choose the good.”* By this means they endeavour to make Jesus to be this wonderful child. But supposing the prophet had said this wonderful child, how could he be proved to be so? since it is impossible to do it, either from the conception of a woman without the concurrence of man, or from the nature of virginity; both these being hidden and invisible. Had his birth any thing wonderful, or was his person so? As for his birth, for any think that appears, it seems to have been the same as that of other babes; being formed in his mother’s womb, in the due course of time, and brought forth into the world in the common manner. He does not appear to have been endowed with any thing superior to other babes, and he required the same nourishment and nursing; and as to his person, no doubt it was fashioned like other babes; nothing is recorded of any thing extraordinary in his body, be that as handsome or perfect as they please. So that in all things he appeared like other children that were begat in the common way, and he grew in like manner as other children do, and no person, from his fashion or make, ever thought otherwise. From all which particulars one may with certainty draw a very fair and natural inference, and that is, as he appeared in his birth, shape and growth, like other men, so nothing which can be alleged, will be sufficient to prove that he was not got by the same usual means as others are.

* Isaiah chap. 7:16.

This natural inference being founded on facts and occular demonstration, no evidence can be superior to it, since it must always outweigh any other proof, unless it could be made as demonstrable and visible to our senses. For this reason some Christians believe that he was Joseph’s son; but be that as it may, they cannot pretend to impose him upon us as a wonderful child. One may, indeed, with Doctor Echart, admire, and “see the profound humility of our blessed Saviour, who chose not to descend from heaven with the glories of a triumphant monarch and deliverer, but privately to enter into the womb of a mean virgin; from thence to be brought forth as an infant; and then to ap­pear in the world in the form of the lowest rank of mankind.”† I produce not this passage to make any observations, but only to strengthen what I have asserted, viz. that nothing wonderful, as is pretended, appeared, or was visible in him: and that consequently these historians misrepresent the whole transaction which concerns the birth of Isaiah's child, (as appears from the history of those times,) given as a sign to Ahaz, which was accomplished in those days. Therefore the evangelist’s saying, “that it, might be fulfilled,” &c., citing this passage, is, at most but an accommodation of phrases, and does not say that any thing was thereby fulfilled.

† Introduc. To Eccl. History, p. 42.

In like manner we shall find, as we proceed farther in this examination, many other citations, made and accommodated to things which the places from whence they are cited could have no reference to, according to their plain sense and meaning; so that not being literally applied, they cannot be proof of any thing.

I must beg pardon for having troubled you with so long a letter, and have no other excuse but that it was required from the importance of the subject, which drew me to this length, notwithstanding I forbore saying and remarking many things, as you may easily guess I might have done on so copious a subject. But I shall conclude with one, and that is, that no use was ever made by Jesus of his being wonderfully conceived or born, nor offered by him as any proof of his being the Messiah; which shows that these transactions could not be intended as any proof of him, or his office, and are consequently useless.

(To be Continued.)