Christmas Letter

On Christmas Day, some old friends came for dinner.  One of them asked whether Isaiah’s prophecy “they shall call his name Emmanuel” contradicts Matthew, where the angel tells Joseph “thou shalt call his name Jesus.”

I dearly love these two people, but didn’t want to put my theological brain in gear on Christmas, in part because I was all organed out from the festivities, and also because I am frankly tired of defending my faith from skepticism.  Even if the skepticism is sincere, I want my religious beliefs and expect them not to be poked at on one of my high holy days.

So I steered the conversation back to pleasantries after a brief explanation that Isaiah intended “Emmanuel” to be an epithet or title, not a personal name.  This morning, I sent the following email. Names have been changed.

Happy  Four Calling Birds!


Hi, Joe and Mary,

Happy Fourth Day of Christmas (four calling birds)!  It’s early, the tree is lit, a fire is burning, and I’m having my morning coffee.

Joe, re the name of Jesus:  I didn’t want to get into an impromptu theological talk on Christmas, but I have since gone back to the first chapter of Matthew and I find the following  (Matt. 1: 21-23, Douay-Rheims translation):

21 And she shall bring forth a son:  and thou shalt call his name JESUS.  For he shall save his people from their sins.
22 Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying:
23 Behold a virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

(“JESUS”  is capitalized in the translation, not by me.)

Let’s not pick nits with this particular translation, which is accurate though old.  No other translation changes anything which could affect the substance.

For comparison, here’s the original text:

21 τέξεται δὲ υἱὸν καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἰησοῦν αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὑτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν
22 τοῦτο δὲ ὅλον γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ τοῦ κυρίου διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος
23 ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱὸν καὶ καλέσουσιν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἐμμανουὴλ ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον μεθ᾽ ἡμῶν ὁ φεός

It translates exactly as the English above, unless one chooses to make an issue over the pronoun “thou,” which is archaic but accurate.  Altering that to “you” doesn’t alter the meaning at all.

The point is that Matthew takes the prophecy of Isaiah to be fulfilled, though “Jesus” and “Emmanuel” are obviously not the same name.

Note that Joseph is commanded to call Him “Jesus” (thou shalt call his name), while the prophet says “they shall call his name Emmanuel.”  Clearly, there is a difference between a personal name given by a father, and a name given by acclamation by “them.”

The general thrust of all explanations which I have seen so far is that “Emmanuel” is a title.

Isaiah also says (9:6):  “…and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counsellor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace.”  Again, “his name shall be called” is translated accurately, so let’s not quibble over the variant renditions of “Wonderful, Counselor” versus “Wonderful Counsellor” or “Wonder-Counsellor.”  Nobody ever claimed that Jesus’ name should be called “Wonderful, Counsellor.”

Obviously, the Hebrew expression “his name shall be called” is metaphorical and encomiastic, at least in certain cases.  The Hebrew-speaking author of Matthew doesn’t see a problem, and presumably could tell the difference between “Jesus” and “Emmanuel.”

Joe–I hope this is accepted as a continuation of a conversation between friends.  I understand that you are skeptical, and I respect you and your journey of faith and your curiosity about things in general.  My faith situation is also difficult.  Plus, you’re a much better chess player than I will ever be!  Happy to continue this discussion if you would like to.

Christmas happiness to you both,


About Jonathan B. Hall

Keyboard artist, sacred musician, teacher, writer, working in New York City and State. Many interests include music theory and history, literature, astronomy, genealogy, philosophy and theology, gardening, and good food. Cat lover, too.
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