Thursday, June 12, 2014

Quirinius and the gunfight at O.K. Corral

I'm going to make a few observations about the census of Quirinius (Lk 2:1-2). 

i) Richard Carrier thinks Luke contradicts Josephus. And he uses Josephus as his standard of comparison:

Josephus writes:
In the tenth year of Archelaus's government the leading men in Judaea and Samaria could not endure his cruelty and tyranny and accused him before Caesar...and when Caesar heard this, he went into a rage...and sent Archelaus into Vienna, and took away his property.[3.3]
So roughly ten years separate the death of Herod and the arrival of Quirinius. When was the census held in Judaea? Josephus says quite unequivocally that:
Quirinius made an account of Archelaus' property and finished conducting the census, which happened in the thirty-seventh year after Caesar's defeat of Antony at Actium. [3.4]

ii) It's revealing to compare his confidence in Josephus with what Carrier says elsewhere:

Your doubts become stronger when you can't question the witnesses; when you don't even know who they are; when you don't have the story from them but from someone else entirely; when there is an agenda, something the storyteller is attempting to persuade you of; when the witnesses or reporters are a bit kooky or disturbingly overzealous. John Loftus, ed. The Christian Delusion (Promethus 2010), 292. 

Why doesn't Carrier apply his skeptical criteria to Josephus? Carrier can't very well question the ancient witnesses. He doesn't even know who they are. Moreover, Josephus is getting his information from someone else. And Josephus had an agenda. 

iii) By conventional reckoning, the census of Quirinius took place about 40 years before Josephus was born. In the nature of the case, Josephus had no firsthand knowledge of the event. He relies on whatever his sources were. And his sources may rely on other sources. 

iv)This also raises questions concerning how much ancient historians could know about relative chronology. Let's take a comparison. Consider the gunfight at O.K. Corral. Contemporary newspapers tell us that happened on October 26, 1881. But that's because newspapers were using the Gregorian calendar. When, however, we attempt to date the census of Quirinius, we don't have that kind of direct calendrical correlation. We have to reconstruct the date, as best we can.

Suppose our sources for the gunfight didn't give a date. Suppose they said it took place before W.W.I. Although that tells me the gunfight was earlier than W.W.I., it doesn't tell me how much earlier. It doesn't tell me if it happened before or after the Civil War. 

Likewise, suppose our sources said it happened when Chester Arthur was president. But unless I know when Chester Arthur was president, that doesn't give me a date, or a year. Indeed, it doesn't even give me a relative chronology. For, unless I know the historical order of US presidents, knowing that the gunfight took place when Chester Arthur was president doesn't tell me if that happened before or after Ulysses Grant was president. 

That's the thing about relative chronology: to know a little, you need to know a lot. To know that one event was earlier or later than another event, especially how much earlier or later, you have to know about the intervening events. If there are significant gaps in the record, you can't say how much earlier or later. You have a bare sequence, but the duration of the intervals is indeterminate. 

v) The census of Qurinius and the gunfight at O.K. Corral have something else in common. These events became more famous with the passage of time. They didn't start out that way. There were ever so many shootouts in the Old West. In our own time, the gunfight at O.K. Corral is famous because Hollywood made it famous. And because Hollywood made it famous, historians go back and write about it. So you have a dialectical process. It was sufficiently well-known that Hollywood directors made movies about it. That, in turn, makes it more famous, which attracts additional historical investigation. 

Likewise, Luke made the census of Quirinius a famous event. It wasn't that famous to begin with. As a result, our surviving records don't say that much about the career of Quirinius. He was just one among many barely-remembered Roman officials. More famous in death than in life. Immortalized by one verse in the Bible.   

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