by Simon Werrett, Pastor Eastwood Evangelical Church
Mary and Joseph are key figures in the Christmas story, but did they just happen to be in the right place at the right time (or they may have thought 'wrong' place) or were they chosen specifically for the task? Did God use an algorithm, point a finger (‘It's YOU!’) or perhaps it was more like the pre-computer Christmas party game of ‘pin the tail on the donkey’?
BBtA (‘Blessed by the algorithm’) could apply to the role you performed in the Christmas school nativity. According to an article in The Daily Mail based on a Virgin Media survey in 2019, those who are cast as an ox have the highest earning potential, while Mary has the most friends on Facebook. Unfortunately being cast as a lamb, although very important in the nativity, does not guarantee your future financial security nor increased online friendships.
Dr Beth Singler’s study of the phrase ‘BBtA’ used in Tweets demonstrates that people use this phrase to share how fortunate they were ('empty seats next to them on a plane') or on occasions 'not BBTA' when things have not worked out. Perhaps a few years ago we would have just described it as good or bad luck, answered or unanswered prayer?
Singer highlights a tweet where the expression BBtA was used in the ‘real world.’
According to Singler, ‘BBtA refers to an individual feeling blessed while working in a gig economy job which is reliant on algorithmic decision-making systems’.
The question this made me ask is whether God used an algorithm in selecting Mary and Joseph to be the human parents for his son Jesus. Derek Knuth defines an algorithm as ’a finite set of rules which gives a sequence of operations for solving a specific type of problem’. We encounter algorithms frequently in our daily lives, whether applying for credit, booking seats on a plane or theatre, or passing surveillance cameras.
If we follow Knuth’s definition then I would suggest God does use a type of algorithm for selecting Mary and Joseph, because they had to fit a certain criterion to be Jesus’ parents
The first criteria was they had to be Jewish since God had promised Abraham that it was through his offspring that the world would be blessed (Gen 22:18). It is suggested that about 0.2% of the world's current population is Jewish, so this rule excludes 99.8% of people from being chosen. The percentage might have been slightly higher in the first century as the world’s population would have been less. The population of Israel in the first century has been estimated between 500,000 to 2,500,00. The 1931 census recorded the population of the four districts of Nazareth as 140,422 or 151 people to the square mile, although it would have been considerably less in the first century.
In Genesis 3, God tells Eve and the serpent (representing the devil) that he will cause ‘hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring…’ and the prophecy is given that the saviour will be born of a woman (Is 7:14) - thus eliminating around 50% of the population.
There are further rules to be considered, not only would the saviour be Jewish, but he would come from the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:10, Num 24:17, 2 Sam 7:12-13. Micah 5:2). In the unlikely event that all the tribes had the same number of females, around 8% would meet these criteria.
Although, in scripture we are not informed which tribe Mary came from, her cousin Elizabeth was from the priestly tribe of the Levites (Luke 1:5) and Joseph is from the tribe of Judah (Luke 3, Matthew 1). Therefore, perhaps the pool of females available to God is higher.
It would have further been reduced by the need for a female of teenage years.
The prophet Micah states the saviour would be born in Bethlehem and further algorithms were needed to ensure this happened, otherwise scripture would not have been fulfilled and the Magi might not have found Jesus to bring the gifts and worship him (Matt 2).
There had to be a census, at least eight months after the Angel visits Mary and people had to go to their own town to register, Joseph (conveniently) ends up in Bethlehem and the baby is born and we are all ‘blessed by the algorithm’.
It could be argued I have applied twenty first century principles and terminology to a first century event. However, it demonstrates that God chose the parents of his son carefully and in line with his promises in scripture. The good news of Christmas is that although the first Christmas was only available to a few chosen individuals, it is because of that first Christmas we can now all share in the love of God and experience a new relationship with him.
As Faith and Paul Syrstad’s poem reminds us, Jesus ‘is not just a baby.’
‘He's just a baby, yet when He's laid in His grave, He will rise three days later, victorious to save. He's just a baby, when we look in His festive cot, But the truth is He's not just a baby, He is the Almighty Son of God.’
Simon Werrett is a student on the MADT Course at Spurgeons College and the theological impact of AI was just one subject covered this term. He is involved in several church projects both online and offline.