Review: Unto Us a Child Is Born

Unto Us a Child is Born, Tyler D. Mayfield. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020.

Summary: Proposes that, as we read Isaiah during Advent, we need to read “with bifocals,” considering both the Advent liturgical significance of the texts and their meaning for our Jewish neighbors.

For unto us a child is born.” (Isaiah 9:6a)

This is a phrase from Isaiah 9: 2-7, one of the readings on the fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A) in liturgical churches. Many non-liturgical churches will read this as well during one of the services leading up to Christmas. And surrounding all of this is the magnificent rendering of this passage by George Frideric Handel in Messiah. In our churches, we readily connect this passage with the babe born in Bethlehem, this great one come from God, even called “Mighty God.” We marvel at the divine condescension that means our salvation.

Little do we often consider that we are neither the first nor only ones to read passages like these that we understand as “Messianic.” These passages were read by Jews in Isaiah’s time, and down to our own day. Yet we often remain oblivious to what these passages meant and mean to our Jewish neighbors, sometimes in painful and insensitive ways.

Tyler D. Mayfield recommends that we read with bi-focals, using our near vision to read the Isaiah passages of Advent to consider their significance in the Christian Advent context. He also suggests that we simultaneously read with our distance vision, understanding what these texts mean for our Jewish neighbors who share them.

He spends the first part of the book discussing what it means to read with bi-focals. An important contention he makes is that the prophecy-fulfillment paradigm we often use fails to recognize the significance of the text in its original context, and to Jewish readers. He proposes instead a model of texts in conversation, as is often the case in liturgical churches where Old and New Testament texts are paired and we listen to the conversation between them for common and relevant themes. He also observes the importance of historical development of “messiah” from “anointed” to an eschatological figure, the deleterious effects of supersessionism (the idea that the church has superseded, or replaced Judaism in God’s economy), and how this may even shade into anti-Judaism.

The second and third parts of the book consider eight passages from Isaiah that are a part of the Advent liturgical readings, four “Messianic” texts (Isaiah 7:10-16; 9:2-7; 11:1-10; and 61:1-4, 8-11) and four “eschatological” texts (Isaiah 2:1-5; 35:1-10; 40:1-11; 64:1-9). For each passage, Mayfield considers originating contexts, later Jewish and early Christian contexts or readings, contemporary Jewish and Christian readings, and finally a “bifocal look,” a kind of summary.

We might take the example of Isaiah 9:2-7, noted earlier. He begins with the context of the passage in the 8th century BCE, at the time of the Syro-Ephraimite war. The language is that of the birth of a king whose enumerated qualities would have been vital for this time. Who is this child-king? He is not named but the leading candidate may be Hezekiah. In the early Christian context, “for unto us…” is not quoted but the first verses of this passage are in Matthew 4:12-16, noting the light that has come to the northern tribes in the region of Galilee. Early Christian commentators Justin and Jerome were the first to apply “for unto us…” to Jesus. He then considers the influence of Messiah, including some translational issues, and current contexts, focusing on the light to the Gentiles in this passage for Christians, the shared theme of light with Jews in Hanukkah, and a shared hope for faithful government. He concludes with this “bifocal look”

“With our near vision, we see a wonderful child has been born to us. With our near vision, we hum along with Handel as we celebrate: ‘Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God! The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!

With our far vision, we see our neighbors celebrating the theme of light during Hanukkah. With our far vision, we see the originating context’s focus on a new king’s accession to the throne.”

This book raises an important issue of how we read not only these scriptures but other Old Testament texts. Do we read these in a way that recognize and honor our Jewish neighbors, are oblivious to them or even exclusive of them, or at worst hostile? Mayfield models an approach holding in tension readings acknowledging the conversation between these texts and New Testament texts and respect for the context of Jewish readings of these same texts. In this era of rising anti-Semitism in many countries, it is vital that Christians in no way contribute to this by our reading of scripture, and in fact affirm our common heritage with and debt to our Jewish neighbors.

I wonder, at the same time, about the repudiation of the idea of fulfillment, an idea found in the New Testament scriptures, for “conversation.” Fulfillment has historically been an important part of both a Christian hermeneutic of reading the two testaments, and of Christian apologetics. Likewise, prophecy has been understood not only as “forth-telling” but as including elements of “fore-telling.” Mayfield’s approach mutes but does not negate the differences between Jewish and Christian readings of these texts. Good bi-focals, ground to the correct prescription, bring both near and distant objects into sharp focus. I am concerned that Mayfield’s prescription for near vision softens or blurs our Christian reading of these texts while bringing our far vision into focus. While the latter is a commendable aim, for which the author offers a good and important model, I would like clarity of vision in both readings, even if it means wrestling in charity with the tensions that have always existed.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.