Discussions of Luke's census often neglect some significant extra-Biblical evidence. In this six-part series, I want to address some of that evidence that tends to be overlooked or underestimated. This first post will be introductory, the second will discuss some potential objections to the approach I'm taking, the next three will discuss the evidence I have in mind more fully, and the last post will summarize the discussion and draw some conclusions.
To get some idea of the arguments commonly used by those who are critical of the Biblical data relevant to the census, see Raymond Brown's treatment of the issue in The Birth Of The Messiah (New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999) and Richard Carrier's article here. For the other side of the dispute, see Darrell Bock's Luke, Volume 1, 1:1-9:50 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), Stanley Porter's article in Alf Christophersen, et al., edd., Paul, Luke And The Graeco-Roman World (London and New York: Continuum, 2003), and the responses to Richard Carrier here, here, and here.
Raymond Brown refers to Luke's account as "almost certainly wrong" and "dubious on almost every score" (The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], pp. 36, 413). He refers to "creative Lucan construction" and Luke's alleged theological motives for referring to such a census (p. 414), and he alleges Luke's willingness to include material "for the sake of the story" elsewhere (p. 473). At another point, though, Brown suggests that Luke's account was more the result of a historical misunderstanding:
"My own judgment was that Luke confused the troubled times accompanying the formation of the province of Judea and the troubled times accompanying the death of Herod ten years previously." (p. 666)
Apparently, Brown viewed Luke's account of the census as largely a combination of intentional and unintentional fiction, partly historical and partly unhistorical. Addressing the genre of the infancy narratives in general, Brown commented that "this whole discussion has indicated that one may not classify the infancy narratives as belonging to the literary genre of factual history...my rejection of the classification 'factual history' does not mean that I fail to recognize the probable presence of items of historical value...I did not think it possible to maintain intelligently that the two infancy narratives as they now stand are totally historical...available evidence inclines against the historicity of large parts of them" (p. 562). Elsewhere, he comments that it's often difficult to discern what's historical and what isn't in the infancy narratives (pp. 578-579).
Richard Carrier writes:
"It is beyond reasonable dispute that Luke dates the birth of Jesus to 6 A.D....There is no way to rescue the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from contradicting each other on this one point of historical fact. The contradiction is plain and irrefutable, and stands as proof of the fallibility of the Bible, as well as the falsehood of at least one of the two New Testament accounts of the birth of Jesus."
Much of what Brown and Carrier have written in their works cited above is helpful. I've discussed some of the positive elements of Brown's book in the past (see here, here, and here). I've been recommending Richard Carrier's material on Jerry Vardaman's false claims about the census for years, and Carrier's correction of some of the errors of other skeptics has been helpful. But when critics like Brown and Carrier use phrases like "dubious on almost every score", "beyond reasonable dispute", and "plain and irrefutable" when discussing their conclusions about the census, they're going beyond what their own evidence warrants. And there's some other evidence that they and other critics don't address much, if at all.
Discussions of the census often include comments like the following:
"By almost any reckoning, the Gospel [of Luke] would have been composed while some would have had at least some second-hand knowledge of events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Such a glaring factual error as is suggested for the [census] passage would have been bound to arouse questions. The Lukan narrative does not provide an overt theological explanation for its particular telling of the events, since the account seems to purport to be a historical account, placing specific events within the context of other events involving actual people in the ancient world, such as Augustus and Quirinius." (Stanley Porter, in Alf Christophersen, et al., edd., Paul, Luke And The Graeco-Roman World [London and New York: Continuum, 2003], p. 168)
Even critics like Brown and Carrier will sometimes note:
"Even if Luke had little historical information about how the census of Quirinius had been conducted, he lived in the Roman Empire and may have undergone census enrollment himself. It is dangerous to assume that he described a process of registration that would have been patently opposed to everything that he and his readers knew." (Raymond Brown, The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], p. 549)
"Some have pounced on Luke's description of the census as being inauthentic and therefore false. There are two problems with such an argument: first, an author who knew Jesus was born during a particular census could still err in describing that census, so such errors would not discredit the entire account.[1.1.5] Second, Luke's errors are not that grievous to begin with....The second 'mistake' lies in supposing that people would be called back to ancestral towns to be counted, rather than be counted in the actual towns they were in. This charge has been formulated a dozen ways, but none of them really carry much force. Though Jesus' family appears to have resided outside Judaea in Nazareth, there could easily be any number of reasons why an ancestral connection with Bethlehem would require them to journey there for a census of Judaea (so much as a tiny plot of ancestral land would be enough, and Judaic law made it unusually difficult to get rid of such properties), though it does seem oddly unnecessary to take a woman on the verge of labor on such a dangerous trip (as all journeys were in such regions). We do know that censuses could have such requirements for travel, not only from papyri [1.3] but also from common sense: it is a well known fact that even Roman citizens had to enroll in one of several tribes to be counted, and getting provincials to organize according to locally-established tribal associations would be practical (see also Endnote 8 in my essay Luke and Josephus; and also [1.3.5]). Finally, even if Luke were making this up, he would sooner make something up that sounded plausible: in other words, such procedures were probably followed in at least one census within the author's memory, and we have no way to disprove the use of such a practice in previous provincial assessments." (Richard Carrier)
Concerning the reliability of Josephus' claims about the timing of Herod's death, Carrier writes:
"In fact, we know Josephus consulted Herod's Memoires directly, and 'others' (tois allois) who wrote about Herod's reign (Jewish Antiquities 15.174). Thus, to propose that he erred in dating the king's death by a full two years (actually three, as Finegan places his death in 1 B.C.) is incredible....and since Josephus accurately proceeds through the years of his reign, including several that have independent corroboration (such as 'the seventeenth year' of Herod's reign, securely placed by Josephus in 20 B.C., see 17.4), it is absurd to suggest he made any mistake greater than a single year....That Josephus is wrong about something so central to his histories and for which he had such good, eyewitness sources is simply not credible."
Something that conservatives like Porter and liberals like Brown and Carrier agree about is the fact that Luke and his contemporaries would have known some things that we today don't know. In an attempt to fill in gaps in our knowledge of ancient history, critics of the infancy narratives often appeal to extra-Biblical sources, such as Josephus, and argue that those sources are inconsistent with the Biblical accounts.
But there are other relevant extra-Biblical sources that need to be taken into account, and they're often neglected. While sources like Josephus and Tacitus have received a lot of attention in discussions of Luke's census, not as much attention has been given to the early reactions to Luke's account by Christian and non-Christian sources. Men like Josephus and Tacitus weren't writing in response to Luke. Their alleged inconsistencies with Luke are of an indirect nature. What about the assessment of Luke's account by other ancient sources, the early Christians and their opponents, who did interact directly with what Luke wrote?
I've recently discussed Raymond Brown's acknowledgment of the significance of such evidence from the church fathers (see here, here, and here). Though Brown has little to say about the patristic evidence as it relates to the census, Richard Carrier seems to assign it more weight:
"In addition, [Stanley] Porter too readily dismisses the fact that no ancient Christian ever understood Luke 2:2 to mean what Porter suggests, despite the fact that it was written in their native language (which is not Porter's)."
"Justin Martyr's Apology 1.34 and 1.46 also shows that this is exactly how Christians understood their own history: Quirinius was the first governor of Judaea, and Jesus was born during the census he took there, which happened 150 years earlier. It is believed that Justin wrote his first apology around 155 A.D., which produces a birth year of 6 A.D. (the 150th year before Justin wrote)."
I'll be addressing Carrier's misleading treatment of Justin Martyr later, but what I want to note at this point is Brown and Carrier's acknowledgment of the significance of the patristic data. It would also follow that the beliefs of the early enemies of Christianity are of significance. Just as men like Luke, Josephus, and Tacitus were in a position to have a lot of information relevant to the census of Luke 2, so would other people who lived at that time.
Before I discuss those other sources, I want to address some potential objections to this approach I've outlined. I'll do that tomorrow.