Two thousand years ago, a young woman in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire received a message that would change the world.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, ‘The Annunciation’ (ca. 1660). GETTY IMAGES
By Rebecca McLaughlin – Updated Dec. 23, 2022 11:59 pm ET – The Wall Street Journal
My cmnt: This is worth the read for a somewhat historical perspective on the rise and spread of Christianity. However the main and overriding msg of Christ and the Apostles (it is incorrect to attempt to separate the two) is redemption from bondage to sin as represented by poverty. The poor and downtrodden (in this world) are generally more receiving of this msg because they have no where else to turn. The irony is how many of the poor reject the msg regardless. That the rich, the self-sufficient, the powerful (in this world) should reject the msg is the norm for all ages. The wealthy and powerful King David wrote in the Psalms that he was poor, sick and enslaved because his eyes were opened by the Holy Spirit to his true spiritual position before God.
The first person ever to hear that Jesus is the Son of God was a low-income teenage girl in an obscure backwater of the Roman empire. She went by the most common name for Jewish women of her time and place: She was just another Mary. But then she claimed an angel had appeared to her and told her she would give birth to the Son of God. From the perspective of both Jews and Romans in the first century A.D., her story was completely unbelievable. How has it lasted for 2,000 years?
Today, Mary’s claim to have met an angel is part of what makes her story hard to believe. We imagine angels like the fairy on top of the Christmas tree, only bigger, so Mary’s story feels like a fairy tale. But angels in the Bible aren’t remotely fairylike. They’re terrifying messengers from God. Of course, if there’s no God, then angels are ruled out. But if there is a God who made the universe, it’s not irrational to think he could have made angelic creatures too. So let’s let the angel fly just for a moment while we listen to his message:
“Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end!” (Luke 1:30-33).
This was flabbergasting news. Since the Babylonian invasion of 597 B.C., the Jews had been kicked like a soccer ball from empire to empire. In 164 B.C., they’d managed to rebel and re-establish sovereign rule—a triumph that Jews still celebrate at Hanukkah. But then, in 63 B.C., the Romans took Jerusalem. The Jews were back to living under foreign, pagan overlords. Ancient Israelite prophets had sworn that God would one day send an everlasting, empire-breaking King, the “anointed” one—Messiah (in Hebrew) or Christ (in Greek). But no such King had come.
It’s hard to overstate how dangerous it was for Mary to proclaim that she was giving birth to the Messiah. The Romans knew how to extinguish Jewish uprisings. In 4 B.C., a group of Jews had captured an armory at Sepphoris, just four miles from Mary’s hometown, Nazareth. In response, the Romans had burned Sepphoris to the ground, sold its inhabitants into slavery, and crucified about 2,000 Jews. Resistance to the rule of Rome was not just futile. It was suicidal.
To first-century Jewish ears, the claim that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit of God would have been offensive and absurd. The Greek and Roman gods had been depicted spawning demigods with human mothers, but Israel’s God was nothing like these pagan deities. He was the maker of the heavens and the earth—the one whom humans could not see and live. What the angel told Mary was the kind of thing that could get you stoned for blasphemy. When Jesus as an adult claimed divine identity, he nearly suffered stoning several times.
For Romans, Mary’s claim that Jesus was both human and divine would not have sounded blasphemous per se. Not only did their gods sometimes spawn humans, but emperors could be proclaimed as gods. Divinity was like a Roman Nobel Prize for greatness. But Jesus never led an army or controlled an empire. Worse, he died the most humiliating death a Roman could imagine. The notion that he was God made flesh would have been laughable.
But after Jesus’ death, another Mary made another claim. Mary Magdalene was one of many women among Jesus’ disciples, and on the third day after witnessing his crucifixion, she went to Jesus’ tomb to tend to his body. Like Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene claimed that she had talked with angels. Then she reported that she had met with Jesus too. The first Mary said that Jesus had been supernaturally born from her womb; the second, that he had been miraculously reborn from his tomb.
At first, even Jesus’ male disciples found this hard to swallow: “It seemed to them an idle tale, and they would not believe it” (Luke 24:11). So how have the Marys’ stories weathered over time?
The first Mary’s claim that Jesus was the everlasting ruler of the world sounds much less crazy now, when billions across the world acknowledge Jesus as their King. When Mary Magdalene first made her claim, the followers of Jesus were a tiny Jewish sect. Today they represent the largest global religion: 31% of humans say they are Christians. According to the Pew Research Center, this proportion will likely grow to 32% by 2060, while the proportion of people who identify as atheist, agnostic or not religiously affiliated will shrink from 15% to 13%.
Far from being a white Western religion, Christianity was multiethnic from the first, and today Christians are by far the world’s most racially and culturally diverse religious group. By 2060, 40% of the world’s Christians could live in sub-Saharan Africa. Though China is today the global center of atheism, there will soon be more Christians in China than in the U.S. Fenggang Yang, a leading sociologist of religion, believes that China could be a majority-Christian country by 2060.
None of this makes Christian belief any easier for those who think that science has ruled out the possibility of such things as virgin births and resurrections. But as Princeton historian Hans Halvorson has written, the scientific revolution was started by early-modern Christians not because they wanted an alternative hypothesis to God but because they believed in a God who is both rational and free. Today, many Christian scientists who believe that Jesus was miraculously born and resurrected see these extraordinary miracles as moments when the God who wrote the laws of nature and sustains them day by day did something different.
“Science is the description of how God chooses to work most of the time,” writes Russell Cowburn, a professor of physics at the University of Cambridge. “We know dead bodies don’t come back to life according to science. And yet Christianity is built on the observation that Jesus came back to life. I am very happy to say that at that special moment, God was acting differently.” Like many other world-class scientists I’ve interviewed—including Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health—Prof. Cowburn came to faith in Jesus as an adult. He is not just trying to make scientific sense of a childhood faith that he cannot shed.
What about ethics? Once pregnant, Mary prophesied that God would start a moral revolution through her son—that he would raise the poor and lowly and upend the power structures of the world (Luke 1:46-55). Her statements would have seemed bizarre in the Roman Empire, where might was right. But as the historian Tom Holland has argued in his book “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World,” Jesus’ upside-down ethics has so impressed itself upon our minds that today we think universal human rights, caring for the poor, justice for the oppressed, and equality for men and women are just basic moral common sense. Mr. Holland sets us straight: “That every human being possessed an equal dignity was not remotely a self-evident truth. A Roman would have laughed at it…The origins of this principle [lie] not in the French Revolution, nor in the Declaration of Independence, nor in the Enlightenment, but in the Bible.”
The equal valuing of men and women is one piece of this paradigm shift. In a misogynistic ancient world, Jesus’ validation of women lifted them up to an equal footing with men. The first people to believe he had been raised from the dead were women, and ever since, the Christian population has been disproportionately female (unlike adherents to the second and third largest religions, Islam and Hinduism).
Of course, we are painfully aware of the ways that Christians through the ages have not lived up to Christian ethics. The history of race-based slavery and subjugation by self-identifying Christians in America is one example. Slavery was endemic in the ancient world, and Christianity was mocked in the second century as a religion of slaves. As Christianity spread, it effectively eradicated slavery in Europe, making it all the more horrific when the trans-Atlantic slave trade started up in the 16th century.
A Christmas Eve mass in Beijing, December 2012.PHOTO: WANG ZHAO/GETTY IMAGES
But as Mr. Holland observes, even the moral standards by which we judge the past are Christian standards. The Greek and Roman gods cared nothing for the poor. In the ancient world, violence was the right of the strong, and slavery was just a fact of life. But Jesus championed the poor, repudiated violence, and said he had come “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). No wonder many of the earliest Christians were slaves. No wonder so many enslaved Africans in America became followers of Jesus, even in the face of persecution for their faith. Nietzsche’s description of Christianity as a slave religion was not unfounded.
What’s more, while we must recognize the history of Christian sin, we must also acknowledge the massive weight of good achieved by Christians through the centuries—from founding hospitals, caring for the poor and abolishing slavery in the past, to being the largest nongovernmental source of poverty relief and anti-human trafficking endeavors in the world today. Christianity’s claim that God not only became human but modeled and commanded care for the most vulnerable, before he himself died a brutal and humiliating death, has placed the poor, sick and oppressed forever at the heart of Christian ethical concern.
But why would God become a man? Why would he live in poverty and die in agony? Why would the King of all creation come not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many? According to the Christian story, it was because of love for every human being, rich or poor, weak or strong, enslaved or free. He paid the price for human sin—a word we may not choose to use but a reality we hit upon when we bewail injustice in this world and wonder why it seems so hard to fix. Christians believe that the Son of God was born to die, so that all who trust in him could live as sons and daughters of God—wrapped up more tightly in his love than the newborn Jesus was wrapped up by Mary in his swaddling clothes.
When Mary met the angel, she was a no-name girl from a disempowered people in a seemingly inconsequential place. Today, if you worry that you might be insignificant—unknown, unloved and unimportant in this world—perhaps this Christmas you will hear her message with fresh ears. If she was right about her son, then you are worth the birth and life and death and resurrection of the Son of God.
Dr. McLaughlin is the author of “Confronting Christianity: Twelve Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion” and “Is Christmas Unbelievable? Four Questions Everyone Should Ask About the World’s Most Famous Story,” among other books.
Appeared in the December 24, 2022, print edition as ‘When Mary Met the Angel A Promise That Changed The World’.