This week I’m looking at the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ birth and responding to a number of skeptical objections related to the virgin conception. If the virgin conception was an historical event that was well known to the earliest Christians, why wasn’t it mentioned by Mark? Mark’s gospel is widely accepted as the first account of the life and ministry of Jesus. Why doesn’t it contain anything about the virgin conception? Does the absence of a birth narrative in Mark demonstrate that the entire story is a late fictional creation?
Silence Doesn’t Mean Denial
While it is true that Mark does not include a birth narrative, this does not mean that he was either unaware of the truth about Jesus or denied the virgin conception. Eyewitnesses often omit important details because they either (1) have other concerns they want to highlight with greater priority, or (2) presume that the issue under question is already well understood. The gospel of Mark exhibits great influence from the Apostle Peter. In fact, the outline of Mark’s Gospel is very similar to the outline of Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost. According to the Papias, Mark was Peter’s scribe; his gospel is brief and focused. Like Peter’s sermon in Chapter 2 of the Book of Act’s, Mark is focused only on the public life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. But Mark is not alone in omitting the birth narrative. John’s gospel is considered by scholars to be the last Gospel written. The prior three “synoptic Gospels” were already in circulation and the issue of the virgin conception had already been described in two of them. Yet John also omitted the birth narrative. Why? John clearly wanted to cover material that the other Gospel writers did not address; over 90% of the material in the Gospel of John is unique to the text. If John did not agree with the virgin conception as described in the Gospels of Matthew or Luke, he certainly had the opportunity to correct the matter in his own work. But John never does this; his silence serves as a presumption that the “virgin conception” has been accurately described by prior authors.
Brevity Doesn’t Mean Ignorance
It really shouldn’t surprise us that the earliest version of the life of Christ would be the shortest and most focused account. Something very similar happens when police officers are dispatched to a crime scene. The first radio broadcast to responding units is always incredibly brief, offering just the bare details needed to get officers rolling in the right direction, aware of the most important issues they may be about to face. The first broadcast is brief, focused on essentials and designed for a purpose. As units are closing in on their arrival at the scene, a second or third broadcast is offered in order to provide more detail, especially if a responding unit has a question that needs clarification. The Gospel of Mark is the first broadcast about the life of Jesus. As such, the Gospel is prioritized around the same public events that concerned Peter; the events that were most important in articulating the salvation that is offered through the cross.
Absence Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Assumed
At the same time, Mark does not appear to be ignorant of the “virgin conception”. Note, for example, that Mark uses an unusual expression related to Jesus’ parentage:
Jesus went out from there and came into His hometown ; and His disciples followed Him. When the Sabbath came, He began to teach in the synagogue ; and the many listeners were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to Him, and such miracles as these performed by His hands ? “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon ? Are not His sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him.
It is highly unusual for the “many listeners” in this first century Jewish culture to describe Jesus as the “son of Mary” rather than the “son of Joseph”. These first century eyewitnesses of Jesus apparently knew something about Jesus’ birth narrative and chose to trace Jesus’ lineage back through His mother rather than through His father (as would customarily have been the case). This early reference in the Gospel of Mark may expose the fact that Mark was aware of the “virgin conception” and that the first eyewitnesses of Jesus were also aware of Mary’s marital status at the time of her conception.
The absence of a birth narrative in Mark does not demonstrate that the narrative (including the virgin conception) is a work of fiction. Mark appears to have been writing with a specific purpose and sense of urgency that precluded its inclusion, and he assumed the truth of the narrative in his text.
In an article titled “Why Indian parents should be allowed to choose whether to have girls,” economist Atanu Dey reacts to the situation in India of “tens of millions” of “missing girls” by saying that the recent laws against sex-selection abortion are the wrong way to go:
Government interference in the personal lives of people is nothing remarkable or new for India. After all, Indians endured British colonial rule until 1947 and following that, socialist governments took over which continued to enforce the rules inherited from the colonial period. So the denial of reproductive rights to women in India should not come as a surprise. This, however, is a particularly heartless move. It condemns too many girls to lives of great misery and to some to a death penalty for the crime of being born a girl.
Let me get this straight…leaving aside the fact that we don’t kill people to prevent them from having difficult lives, according to Dey, it’s a very bad thing for a girl to be “condemned” to death for being born a girl, and it’s “heartless” for the government to cause this situation to occur. However, allowing the parents to save her from this fate by giving her the death penalty for the crime of being conceived a girl is compassionate…to the girl…because it saves her from the death penalty.
I’ve seen some seriously confused pro-choice arguments before, but I can’t imagine anything ever topping that one. He continues:
Parental rights, one assumes, includes the freedom to decide when and how many children to have, and if possible, the freedom to choose the sex of their children. Forcing people to have children of an undesired sex is an infringement of those rights. The parents have the responsibility of bringing up their children, not the government.
What on earth is he talking about? What is this right to choose the sex of your child? You have no control over the sex of your child. "Designer baby” statements like this one are always said in a way that makes it sound as if parents can pick and choose the characteristics of their child. Please, never forget: When it comes to designer babies, there is never just one child involved whose genes are being chosen. No, there are many children who are being killed until the “right” child comes along. Genetic selection involves killing.
Second, I agree that the parents have the responsibility of bringing up their children (or at the very least, protecting those children while they’re under their care). That’s exactly the point. This responsibility would seem to be in opposition to their desire to kill the children they don’t want, so I’m not sure how this helps Dey’s case.
Technology provides tools which are always neutral although economic agents using them are motivated by ends to which one may attach moral values. Those who want to use technology to limit human freedom are naturally opposed to those who use it to increase their choices.
It’s astounding to me that Dey can’t recognize the monstrosity of his own language. Imagine technology had been invented in Germany in 1940 that would locate all the Jews who were attempting to hide their identity, and that technology was being used successfully to support the Nazis’ choice to raise only Aryan citizens. Would one label the objectors to this as those who "want to limit human freedom,” who are “naturally opposed to those who use technology to increase their choices”? Doesn’t the choice being made make all the difference?
Using the emotionally-laden terms “freedom” and “choice” while glossing over the nature of the choice actually being discussed does nothing but create obfuscatory rhetoric. The government limits all sorts of choices. There is no freedom to steal, or freedom to assault, or freedom to kill, no matter how much technology exists to assist those choices.
By restricting information which may be useful for parents to make an informed choice whether or not to have a female child, the government is sacrificing the right of a child to a decent life in order to protect the “rights” of a fetus. If people cannot avoid having girls that they do not want, they will be forced to have more children to reach their desired number of sons, and to ration their resources to the detriment of girls….
In the end, in the contest between the people and the government, the drive for freedom proves to be stronger and eventually overcomes the forces that seek to limit freedom. The government will fail in this case as well—as it must for the sake of the girls.
So there you have it. Killing girls because they’re girls is now being spun as a compassionate act being done in the best interest of girls.
British colonial rule did indeed interfere in personal lives by preventing the killing of women. And it seems to me that this tradition is one India should be proud to continue.
As we get ready to celebrate Christmas tomorrow, I’ve been thinking a lot about the birth of Jesus and the Christian claims related to His conception. The “virgin conception” is an essential belief of the authors of Scripture and the early Church. It is listed in the earliest creeds as an essential ingredient of Christian Orthodoxy. Yet many of us, as Christians, give little or no thought to the reality of the claim or the significance of the event. Why does it matter how Jesus was conceived, anyway? As I’ve been pondering this question, three truths are brought to my memory about the importance of the virgin conception of Jesus. I thought it might be good for all of us to remember the essential importance of the virgin conception on the eve of Christmas:
The Virgin Conception Is An Essential Piece of Evidence
The “virgin conception” fulfills the Old Testament prophecy initially given by the prophet Isaiah:
“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”
Matthew cited this prophecy of Isaiah when describing the birth of Jesus. Matthew saw the role that the “virgin conception” made as an important piece of evidence (fulfilled prophecy) demonstrating that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah.
The Virgin Conception Is An Essential Explanation of Jesus’ Nature
God could have entered the world in any number of ways, but it’s significant that Jesus was born to a virgin. The supernatural God of the universe came into the world in a supernatural way that retained his sinlessness. If Jesus had been born of two fallen human parents, He would have inherited the same sin problem that plagues all of us as descendants of Adam. Instead, Jesus entered the world untouched by human sin so that He might serve as our Savior:
2 Corinthians 5:21
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
The Virgin Conception Is An Essential Truth of God
The Bible makes many claims about the nature of the world and about the nature of God’s activity in the world. The “virgin conception” is just one claim of many. If we trust that God is telling us the truth in other areas of Scripture, there is no reason for us to doubt Him with this essential truth related to the conception of Jesus.
Into Your hand I commit my spirit ; You have ransomed me, O LORD, God of truth.
The “virgin conception” of Jesus assured that the Son of God (the eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present God of the universe) would be uniquely qualified to act as the “propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Jesus is the man-God of Divine and human origin, completely God and completely human. He understands our struggles as a result of His humanity, but He is capable of paying the ultimate price for our sin because of His divinity.
While the “virgin conception” is often dismissed by unbelievers and ignored by Christians, it is an essential truth that can be defended and explained as yet another miraculous act of God, intended to save and restore the crown of His creation. What better day to remember the importance of how Jesus was conceived than Christmas Eve? Merry Christmas to you as you ponder the magnitude of what God did for us through Jesus Christ.
This Christmas carol is always relevant in a fallen world, but this year it seems especially apt:
I heard the bells on
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men
In despair I bowed my
"There is no peace on earth," I said
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men"
Then pealed the bells
more loud and deep
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men"
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested…even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
God expressed His wrath against evil on the cross, and He did this so that He could pardon us, showing us mercy without compromising justice. And what of the one who won’t join himself to Jesus to stand before God in His righteousness? God’s expression of wrath on the cross is a picture of the justice that is to come.
Either way, God’s perfect justice will prevail. Every act of evil will be fully punished. God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail. God is the Right. He has prevailed, He does prevail, and He will prevail. His perfect presence sweeps away evil. And because of the coming of Jesus who now stands before God in the place of His people, this is cause for rejoicing, not fear. Take refuge in God’s mercy, united to Christ, and let God’s justice be a comfort to you.
Don’t be afraid to celebrate Christmas this year, even in the midst of national pain. Justice and the victory of the Good One are safe and sure. And that fact outshines any and every evil act.
The following are links that were either mentioned on this week's show or inspired by it, as posted live on the @STRtweets Twitter feed:
The O Antiphon for December 23:
Rex et legifer noster,
et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos,
Domine, Deus noster.
our King and our Lord,
the anointed for the nations
and their Savior:
Come and save us,
O Lord our God.
The O Antiphon for December 22:
O Rex Gentium,
et desideratus earum,
qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.
O King of nations,
the ruler they long for,
the cornerstone uniting all people:
Come and save us all,
whom you formed out of clay.
Our precious friend to STR, Buddy Williams, went to Heaven this afternoon. He finished a vicious battle with multiple myeloma, which was diagnosed only a few months ago.
Buddy wasn't a name STR people know, but he has had a tremendous impact on all of us. Since he's been sick, I've tried to answer people's question about what Buddy did for us, and I still can't adequately answer it.
He was a consultant we've worked with and he was a dear friend to all of us, and he became one of my best friends. He was a brother to me. Buddy was the most different from me of all of my friends - creative, right-brained, lively, liberal, fun. It's not that my other friends aren't fun, but Buddy enjoyed life like no one else I know, and he
brought a spark of fun to my life. We laughed a lot. We shared a lot of interests, and he introduced me to new ones. Buddy relished knowledge and could contribute something to nearly any subject of conversation. He was a connoisseur of many things. I don't think I ever saw him wear anything other than "island wear" (see the picture). Buddy was a character, sophisticated, down-to-earth, and friendly to everyone. He inspired friendship and has all different kinds of friends. He loved his family dearly.
Buddy started working with STR more than 12 years ago give us counsel about all aspects of the ministry. He brought expertise to our team that we didn't have ourselves. He was very skilled and insightful. He enjoyed working with us and making his contribution to the Kingdom via STR and other ministries he worked with. He loved being a part of STR's work. He helped STR grow to what it is now, by God's grace. We really don't know where we'd be without him. And we don't know how we'll do without him. I've learned to trust God in these last few months when we realized Buddy wasn't going to ever make his weekly visits to STR anymore. I know God will give us good counsel in a new way, but I wish it were still Buddy's.
The first time I met Buddy he thought our stationary was stodgy looking. He was right - he was almost always right. He got us to think outside the box, as least as much as possible for such left-brained people. He thought up the ABCs as the basic training. "Never Read a Bible Verse" was prompted by a question Buddy asked Greg, "What's the most important thing you can teach someone?"
Tuesdays was his regular day with us. He'd sit across from me at the conference table and we'd be off for an invigorating day. He was always available to us - he was generous with his time. He was always willing to help us professionally and personally. In the middle of his daughter's wedding preparation, he took the time to help me when I was panicking over a problem I didn't know how to handle.
One of the last things he initiated was the redesign of STR's website that will launch next year. When he conceived of it we had no inkling he wouldn't be with us through the whole process. We got to show him the wireframes and homepage design when he was in the hospital and get his nod of approval.
I saw him yesterday knowing it would be the last time. He was so happy to be going home from the hospital today and it made me happy just seeing him. With difficulty, he talked about plans to spend Christmas at home with his family that he loved so dearly. He did make it home today, but then shortly, with his precious family around him, went Home.
I know he's completely healed now. He sees face to face and is joyful. I know that he gets to spend the merriest of Christmases with Jesus. I'll miss him and I'll never be the same without his presence in my life. He was a tremendous gift from God, and we are very thankful that for a time He gave us Buddy. I know he heard the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant." And that today Buddy sees the full effect of His service to God's Kingdom.
And that still doesn't adequately answer the question of what he meant to us.