Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Virgin Birth—Myth Or History?

Biblegems #168
Question: How can we know if Jesus’ prophesied virgin birth and the whole nativity story really took place, or if it is only a myth like the stories of Hercules, Osiris and other ancient legends as claimed by Atheists?

The term “myth,” by definition, does not automatically mean “fiction” or “non-historical.” According to the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary[i], “myth” typically refers to stories that claim to be historical accounts describing the interaction of natural and supernatural beings, events, etc. That means that some stories labeled “myth” may be grounded in history, while others are total fabrications.

Those who claim that the virgin birth and other miraculous accounts in the Bible are myth are misusing the term to mean non-historical stories born of human imagination. The real question should be, “Is the account of the virgin birth historical or fictional?”

Fortunately, Christians have no reason to be ashamed of the biblical record of Jesus’ nativity and divine nature. Unlike the fables of Hercules and others of the Greek-Roman myths, Jesus’ birth is authenticated by an impressive volume of historical evidence. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written specifically to provide historical verification and eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death and resurrection. The birth accounts especially are enveloped in historical details: the genealogies, the reign of Caesar Augustus and king Herod, the tax registration[ii], the personal accounts of Mary and Jesus’ brothers and sisters passed on to Jesus’ disciples, the eye-witness accounts of the shepherds and the magi…the list goes on and on.
         Luke 1:1-4 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote to an audience of people who were contemporaries of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. If the historical details of their accounts were fiction, their contemporaries would know. The Gospel writers were not interested in starting a new legend; they were as amazed as everyone else by the events that had taken place in their own lifetime. They wanted to ensure for future generations an historically verifiable account, knowing full well that people would want to distort the truth and question Jesus’ historicity :
         2Pet. 1:16 We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

The biblical account of Jesus’ birth is a fact of history, as is Jesus’ life and ministry, His death, resurrection and ascension. Historical accuracy was important to the Gospel writers, three of whom, including John, were eyewitnesses:
         John 20:30-31 Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

[i] M-w.com
[ii] Bible Gems #19, 44, 129, 164, 166, 167

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Did Baby Jesus Go To Nazareth Or Egypt?

Biblegems #167
Question: The Gospel of Luke says that Mary and Joseph took baby Jesus to Nazareth shortly after his birth, but Matthew’s Gospel says that the family fled to Egypt. How can both be true?

Here are the references in question:
Luke 2:39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.
Matt. 2:13-15 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Actually, the two Gospel accounts refer to separate events. The confusion is a simple matter of timing.

Luke’s Gospel gives the account of Jesus’ birth, describing several details such as the inn that was full, the manger scene and the visit of the shepherds. Matthew’s Gospel does not describe the nativity itself, but focuses on events leading up to Jesus’ birth, and the fact of his virgin birth (Matt. 1); and then events after his birth, including the visit of the Magi (Matt. 2: 1-16).[i]

It is in Matthew’s Gospel that we learn some details of Jesus’ very early childhood and the family’s escape to Egypt when Jesus was a toddler. The other two Gospel accounts do not shed any further light on Jesus nativity or on his childhood because none of the Gospels were intended to give a moment-by-moment biography of Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew demonstrates Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament messianic prophecies. The Gospel of Mark reflects a summary of Peter’s preaching and teaching about Jesus for new Christians who had not known Jesus personally. Luke’s Gospel introduced new Gentile believers to the life and ministry of Jesus. Finally, John’s Gospel was written as an eyewitness account to convince a predominantly non-Jewish audience that Jesus is the Son of God:
         John 20:31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

The timeline from Matthew and Luke regarding where Jesus’ family lived during his early years is as follows: Joseph and Mary travelled from their hometown in Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth (Luke 2:1-20). Eight days later the parents named their baby Jesus and had him circumcised and dedicated to the Lord (Luke 2:20-24). Shortly after that, Joseph brought his wife and child back home to Nazareth (Luke 2:39).

The visit of the Magi could have taken place either 1) shortly after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, once Joseph and Mary found temporary lodging in a house (Matt. 2:11) before returning to Nazareth, or 2) approximately two years after Jesus’ birth while Jesus’ family was visiting Bethlehem once again (Matt. 2:1, 16).

What a treasure we have in these two Gospel accounts that show us the birth of the Savior from different angles, each revealing God’s careful planning of the Advent of His Son into the world.

Merry Christmas!

[i] See Bible Gems #164, Jesus: Born In A Manger Or A House?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Was There Really A Virgin Birth?

Biblegems #166
Question: I’ve heard people say that the Hebrew Bible does not use the word for “virgin” in Isaiah’s prophecy quoted in the New Testament in reference to Mary. Is this true?

Isaiah 7:14, written about 740 years before Jesus’ birth, reads: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” When we fast-forward to Jesus’ birth, Matthew recorded in his Gospel how an angel announced to Joseph that his fiancé Mary would bear a child conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:20-21). Matthew then tells the reader that this virgin conception was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”

In the English translation both Matthew and Isaiah appear to be in perfect agreement. Some claim, however, that Matthew’s quote, which comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, misrepresents the Hebrew word “almah.” They claim that “almah” means a young woman of marriageable age, not “virgin.” Their argument is that Isaiah never intended to mean that a virgin would get pregnant and bear a son.

The word “almah” in Hebrew, like so many words in any language, can carry a variety of meanings, depending on the context in which it is used. The word “cool” in English for example can refer to the temperature in a room, or it can mean “great!” or “terrific!”—depending on the context. One meaning does not fit all uses.

The dictionary definition of “almah” means a “young woman” who is sexually mature and able to bear children. While the word could technically be used of a married or sexually active woman, the reality is that of the nine times it occurs in the Hebrew Old Testament “almah” is never used that way (see Gen. 24:43; Ex. 2:8; 1Chr. 15:20; Ps. 41:6; 68:26; Prov. 3:19; Song of Sol. 1:3; 6:8).

The context of Isaiah 7:14 itself shows that Isaiah wanted to highlight this “almah” as distinct. She is not a woman that one would expect to be pregnant. It is the very fact that she will conceive a child that makes her special and unique, even as the child she will bear will be special and unique.

It’s important to remember as well that it was Jewish scholars in the area of Alexandria—about 100 years before Christ—who translated the Hebrew Bible into the Greek form that Matthew would later quote from. These scholars understood their own Hebrew word “almah” to mean “virgin,” and translated it accordingly.

Isaiah’s prophecy of the virgin birth demonstrates again God’s great desire to inform mankind of the plan He has put into place to rescue us from the path of destruction brought about by sin. His love, grace and forgiveness are available to all who put their trust in Jesus, the Savior born of the virgin Mary, even as God promised long ago.
         John 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

How Old Is The Bible?

Biblegems #165
Question: Since Genesis is the first book of the Bible and records the creation of the earth, does that also make it the oldest book of the Bible?

Actually, Genesis is not the oldest book of the Bible. Moses compiled the first five books of the Bible around 1400 B.C. The events in Genesis alone cover the roughly 4,300 years—from creation to the death of Abraham’s son, Joseph, in Egypt. Earth’s early history would have been handed down from Adam and Eve, who lived nearly a thousand years, to their descendants.

Older than the book of Moses by perhaps as much as 700 years is the book of Job. Job was a real person, as testified by the Lord God Himself:
         Ezek. 14:20 …as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, even if Noah, Daniel and Job were in it, they could save neither son nor daughter. They would save only themselves by their righteousness.

James, the Lord’s brother and first leader of the Jerusalem Church, also refers to Job as an historical person:
         James 5:11 As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

He lived in the region in Arabia called Uz, named after one of Adam’s great-grandsons (Gen. 10:23). Evidence from the book of Job itself indicates that he lived around the time of Abraham, just a few centuries after the Flood. Both he and his friends reminded each other of the Flood as God’s judgment upon mankind as if it were a relatively recent event in history (Job 12:15; 22:15-16; 26:10; 38:8, 11).

Job also lived at such an early stage of history that he saw dinosaurs, which he called “behemoth” (Job 40:15-23). He also interacted with (and was abused by) what appear to be Neanderthal tribes. They are described as those who lived in the wastelands, and who had a staggered way of walking that made them look as if they were drunk (Job 12:24-25). They were treated as outcasts and “…were forced to live in the dry stream beds, among the rocks and in holes in the ground. They brayed among the bushes and huddled in the undergrowth. A base and nameless brood, they were driven out of the land” (Job 30:6-8).

Job, probably written somewhere around 2100-2000 B.C., is the Bible’s oldest book, dating back a few hundred years after the great Flood. The most recent book of the Bible is Revelation, written around 95 A.D. That means the Bible is over 4,000 years old from the time the first book, Job, was composed. The book of Genesis, composed much later, contains material dating all the way back to Adam, to the dawn of human history and creation itself.

What a treasure! We have eyewitness accounts going back to the first humans, a trustworthy history that describes not only our origins but also God’s very plan and purpose for the human race!
         Ps. 19:7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.