The Annunciation by Murillo, 1655–1660, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg
By Spencer Gear PhD
It is predictable that controversies will be experienced at many levels of society. In Queensland, the State government sacked the ‘entire scandal-plagued Ipswich council after fraud charges’. Similar action was taken when ‘Logan City Council [was] sacked by Queensland’s Local Government Minister Stirling Hinchliffe’.
Remember the controversies surrounding the sacking of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on 11 November 1975 by Governor-General Sir John Kerr?
Cameron Bancroft caught ball-tampering. Image courtesy SportsRush (24 March 2018).
Could anyone forget the Australian cricket team’s ball-tampering controversy in the Newlands Test, South Africa in 2018?
A very different controversy
This one involved a scandalous conception, a rejection of the child’s adult occupation by his ethnic leaders, and some contemporary church leaders perpetrating these dissensions. The baby born had an aim for life that was out of this world.
This virgin woman, Mary, in first century Israel was betrothed (engaged) to be married to Joseph, of David’s family line, when the angel Gabriel came to her with an outrageous announcement:
Greetings! The Lord is with you; you are very special to him…. You will become pregnant and have a baby boy. You will name him Jesus. He will be great. People will call him the Son of the Most High God, and the Lord God will make him king like his ancestor David. He will rule over the people of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end (Luke 1:28, 31-33).
Mary was pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. She became so confused she asked the angel how this could happen to a virgin. The angel’s answer was that the Spirit’s power would make sure the baby born would be holy and called the Son of God. The angel also announced her relative Elizabeth was pregnant in her old age (with John the Baptist). The assurance was that God can do anything (Luke 1:35-37).
The controversies of the conception passages regarding Jesus surround: (1) The ministry of angels, and (2) How God could cause a virgin to conceive a child without sexual intercourse?
Angels were created as, the host, ‘Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them’ (Genesis 2:1). There will be resistance to the notion of angels by those who oppose God’s description of the universe that includes the unseen ministry of these beings. Hebrews 12:22 states there are ‘myriads of angels’ – an innumerable number.
What is the job description of unseen angels? This is not from One Magic Christmas. The biblical view is that ‘all angels are spirits who serve. God sends them to serve those who will receive salvation’ (Hebrews 1:14).
Imagine a first century woman engaged (betrothed) to be married and she became pregnant without intercourse. Also, this pregnancy was not announced about a woman who would give birth in a comfortable house or in a maternity ward of a local hospital. The son of God would be born to a humble woman in a Bethlehem cow shed that was nothing like an Australian dairy farm milking shed. After birth, he was placed in ‘a box where cattle are fed’ (Luke 2:7).
What does it take to understand and believe in the virgin birth of Christ? Protestant theologian, Wayne Grudem’s, assessment was: “Certainly such a miracle is not too hard for the God who created the universe and everything in it — anyone who affirms that a virgin birth is ‘impossible’ is just confessing his [ or her] own unbelief in the God of the Bible” (1994:532).
Retired Episcopalian, theologically liberal bishop, John Shelby Spong, called ‘an aging maverick’, gave an example of Grudem’s appraisal:
There was no biologically literal virgin birth, no miraculous overcoming of barrenness in the birth of John the Baptist, no angel Gabriel who appeared to Zechariah or to Mary, no deaf muteness, no angelic chorus that peopled the heavens to announce Jesus’ birth to hillside shepherds, no journey to Bethlehem, no presentation or purification in Jerusalem, and no childhood temple story….
All that can be stated definitely is that the echoes of the status of illegitimacy appear to be far stronger in the text than the suggestion that Jesus was Mary’s child by Joseph (Spong 1992:157-158).
John Shelby Spong 2018 (courtesy The Chautauqua Daily)
That is speculation, a la Spong! Out of the mind of Spong, he produced what Grudem explained — a confession of Spong’s unbelief in the God of the Bible (and the universe). He confirmed this when he wrote, ‘No recognized New Testament scholar, Catholic or Protestant, would today seriously defend the historicity of these [birth] narratives [in the Gospels]’ (Spong 1992:44-45).
Really? It’s too bad Spong didn’t give an even-handed approach to the historicity of New Testament material and recognition of scholars outside of his liberal theological brand. Even in Spong’s own generation today, an eminent scholar and professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, Dr.Craig Blomberg (1987) provided verification of The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. I’m confident Spong would reject his scholarship because he is an evangelical.
The gospels may be accepted as trustworthy accounts of what Jesus did and said. One cannot hope to prove the accuracy of every detail on purely historical grounds alone; there is simply not enough data available for that. But as investigation proceeds, the evidence becomes sufficient for one to declare that what can be checked is accurate, so that it is entirely proper to believe that what cannot be checked is probably accurate as well. Other conclusions, widespread though they are, seem not to stem from even-handed historical analysis but from religious or philosophical prejudice….
It has been argued here that the gospels must be subjected to the same type of historical scrutiny given to other writings of antiquity but that they can stand up to such scrutiny admirably (1987:254-255)
This affirms C S Lewis’s explanation: ‘One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important’ (1970:51).
If we thought the virgin conception was controversial, it is multiplied many times over when discussing God’s prophetic statement of the nature of that conception and birth. Yes, God can, did and does prophesy events. This happened with the virgin conception. In the Old Testament (OT), prophecy referred to a prophet who received divine revelations, as with Moses and Elijah.
I walked into my local pharmacy to deliver scripts a few days ago when I noticed decorations at the entrance, ‘Joy to the World. I commended the pharmacist for supporting the celebration of the birth of Jesus rather than Santa. What has that to do with predictions?
The prophetic controversies
OT Scriptures have created heated discussions over the centuries relating to Jesus’ birth. One of the most prominent is from:
The controversies are seen in the comparison of two eminent, contemporary Bible translations, the ESVA and the NRSVA:
‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel’ (ESVA).
‘Therefore 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’ (NRSVA).
There is a Christmas world of a difference between these two translations. Was this prophesied child, who would be called, Immanuel, born to a ‘young woman’ or ‘a virgin’? The difference has considerable implications. If she were a young woman, it does not guarantee that she was a virgin.
What are the problems with the prophetic passage from Isa. 7:14, which is quoted in Matthew 1:22-23 that has caused so much angst among Bible translators and commentators?
There are two different ways to translate the Hebrew almah – virgin or young woman.
‘Almah’ does not actually indicate virginity. Don’t jump to conclusions about my statement, as there are other ramifications.
The Matt. 1:22-25 passage is clear from the context that Mary was a virgin: ‘Joseph did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And he named him Jesus’ (v. 25).
‘Almah’ is not precisely equivalent to virgin or young woman. Congruent with many OT passages, many prefer the translation, ‘young woman of marriageable age’. Most, but not all, OT references to ‘almah’ indicate a virgin (Carson 1984:77).
In about 250 BC, the Hebrews completed the translation of the Hebrew OT into Greek, known as the Septuagint (LXX). The translators, for the Hebrew almah, used the Greek word, parthenos, which is used in Matt. 1:23 and Luke 1:27 for Mary the ‘virgin’. However the LXX translation is about 300 years earlier than the gospel writings. Had the meaning, therefore, changed during these three centuries? An additional OT problem is:
Genesis 34:4 indicates that Dinah is a parthenos (LXX). However, the previous verse affirms that she is not a virgin. Why, then, would one want to translate parthenos in Matthew and Luke as virgin instead of young woman? Virgin is the preferred translation in the Gospels because ‘the overwhelming majority of the occurrences of “parthenos” in both biblical and profane Greek require the rendering ‘virgin’” (Carson 1984:78).
To deal honestly with Isaiah 7:14, we need to examine Isaiah 7:1-9:7 as a unit. In context there is a double fulfillment in Isaiah’s day, with God’s judgement against Judah and Ephraim by the Assyrian armies. The second fulfillment is the coming of the promised Immanuel (God with us) to the virgin Mary.
Controversies from religious leaders in Jesus’ lifetime
These are only three examples of the religious who objected to Jesus’ actions.
Jesus’ actions caused anger among the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus and healed a demon-possessed man and the crowds questioned if he was the Messiah: ‘But when the Pharisees heard about the miracle, they said, “No wonder he can cast out demons. He gets his power from Satan, the prince of demons.” Jesus knew their thoughts and replied, “Any kingdom divided by civil war is doomed. A town or family splintered by feuding will fall apart’ (Matt 212:24-25 NLT).
Don Stewart commented:
The miracle was undeniable, for the man was blind and mute as well as demon-possessed. Rather than believe Jesus to be the Messiah, these religious rulers attributed Jesus’ power to the devil. Thus their “official” explanation was that Jesus’ power came from Satan. This was another cause for which they wanted Him dead (Why did the religious leaders want to kill Jesus?)
The Jewish religious leaders had corrupted the observance of the Sabbath. Jesus asked his critics, ‘“Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?” But they wouldn’t answer him. He looked around at them angrily and was deeply saddened by their hard hearts. Then he said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored!’ (Mark 3:4-5 NLT).
Jesus’ enemies were in the synagogue and wanted to see if they could accuse him of doing work on the Sabbath. There was a man with a deformed hand there. The man was healed and ‘At once the Pharisees went away and met with the supporters of Herod to plot how to kill Jesus’ (Mark 3:6 NLT). These religious leaders were persuaded that these actions demonstrated Jesus was not a genuine Messiah because such a person would not violate the Jewish Law this way.
What did Jesus’ enemies now decide to do? ‘At once the Pharisees went away and met with the supporters of Herod to plot how to kill Jesus’ (Mark 3:6 NLT).
Wherever Jesus went he did much good through his many works, including miracles. However, there were many who opposed him
One more example what happened as the time for Jesus’ death approached. Who killed Jesus? This question has been asked over and over for the last 2,000 years. Two groups of people were involved:
- According to Matt 26:57-67 (NLT), the Jewish leaders called for Jesus’ death. Matt 27:20-26, 31-44 confirms the Jews called for Jesus’ death.
- However, Matt 27:27-38 states the Romans committed the physical act of capital punishment by crucifixion of Jesus.
This was done so that Romans 5:8 (NLT) could be accomplished, ‘But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners’.
What’s the big deal for Aussies at Christmas 2019?
Doubters are out there in droves among ordinary people and scholars. Who wants to be associated with a mob of literalists like me, who allegedly concoct a story about a miraculous birth and have perpetrated it for thousands of years?
John Dominic Crossan (1994:17), fellow of the infamous Jesus Seminar, deconstructed the meaning of the virgin birth. This was his reasoning:
The prophecy in Isaiah [7:14] says nothing whatsoever about a virginal conception. It speaks in Hebrew of an almah, a virgin just married but not yet pregnant with her first child. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures the term almah was translated as parthenos, which in that context meant exactly the same thing — namely a newly married virgin (emphasis in original).
If it doesn’t refer to the virgin birth, to what does it refer? Crossan stated:
I understand the virginal conception of Jesus to be a confessional statement about Jesus’ status and not a biological statement about Mary’s body. It is later faith in Jesus as an adult retrojected mythologically onto Jesus as an infant…. He is not necessarily the firstborn child of Joseph and Mary. He could just as easily be their youngest (1994:23).
Crossan’s theology is radically removed from that of biblical Christianity. He vanquishes anything that reads like a literal interpretation. However, I wouldn’t dare read his many publications (which I’ve read) the way he interprets the Bible. Christianity is in freefall in the writings of Dom Crossan.
The truth of the Christ child matters because the one who came as a sinless baby (not impregnated by sinful Joseph) was here to live and to shed his life’s blood to provide cleansing for sin. Remember he was a Jew who followed the Jewish law for forgiveness of sin – shedding of blood.
The Jesus’ difference
One born through sexual intercourse between a sinful man and a sinful woman produced sinful offspring. Jesus Christ ‘didn’t have any sin. But God made him become sin for us. So we can be made right with God because of what Christ has done for us’ (2 Cor 5:21).
The Bible expressly declares that Jesus was sinless. As a high priest he is able to intercede with God on behalf of people because ‘he is holy, pure and without blame. He isn’t like other people. He does not sin. He is lifted high above the heavens’ (Hebrews 7:26).
At the birth of Jesus, Mary was assured by the angel, ‘The holy one that is born will be called the Son of God’. ‘Holy’ means to be separate and cut off from all that is sinful. God, the Son, cannot tolerate sin but he came to earth as a baby who grew into an adult and was crucified for the sins of the world.
Why should that interest us in Australia for Christmas 2019? Why should the Santa and the reindeer be replaced by a manger scene at Christmas? He brought ‘Joy to the World’ if people are open to receive it.
For Christmas we again celebrate, ‘Oh Holy Night’.
Copyright © 2019 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 28 December 2019.