There's a section in Merz's chapter about the date of Jesus' birth. She suggests that an early tradition may have placed his birth under a Herod other than Herod the Great. And she argues against the historicity of Luke's census account. I'll begin with her claims about which Herod Jesus was born under.
After saying that there are "serious doubts" about placing Jesus' birth at the time of Herod the Great (478), Merz tells us that Matthew wanted to parallel Jesus to Moses by having a figure like the Pharaoh of Exodus 1-2 in Jesus' childhood. Therefore, Matthew may have had unhistorical, typological motives for placing Jesus' birth at the time of Herod the Great. I've addressed that argument in a previous response to Merz. See my quotation of Mark Smith and my response to that quotation about halfway through the post here.
Merz then writes:
From a historical point of view, the slaughter of the innocents most certainly must be regarded as a legend mirroring Pharaoh's order to kill the sons of Israel (Ex 1-2) and echoing Herod's infamous cruelty towards his own family and subjects. (479)
Notice, as I've pointed out before, her exaggerated language about her own conclusions, while she's so irrationally skeptical about the positions she disagrees with. Her claim that we "most certainly must" reject the historicity of the Slaughter is absurd, especially given how little of an argument she offers for that conclusion. See here regarding the historicity of the Slaughter.
Add to this the fact that, in common parlance, all the ruling descendants of Herod the Great could be referred to as "King Herod," and Jesus could have been born under Herod Archelaus (in Judea between 4 BCE and 6 CE) or under Herod Antipas (in Galilee after 4BCE)…
In Mark 6:14,22, Herod Antipas, who was not even king, is referred to as "King Herod;" in Acts 12:1, Herod's grandson Agrippa I is called "King Herod;" Archealaos is called "king" by Josephus in Ant 18.93, and he is referred to by the name Herod on his own coins and by Dio Cassius ("Herod of Palestine": 55.27.6); see M.D. Smith, "Jesus," 286, with further references. (479, n. 44 on 479)
She seems to think Matthew is referring to Herod the Great, but that an earlier tradition may have dated Jesus' birth under some other Herod. The author of Matthew may have altered that earlier tradition, knowingly or unknowingly. She suggests that the phrase "Herod the king" in Matthew 2:1 and Luke 1:5 could be a pre-gospel tradition that both gospels misrepresented as a reference to Herod the Great.
However, she says the following elsewhere about identifying the Herod of Luke 1:5:
But Luke does not provide any other details to contextualize this important scene-setting phrase ["King Herod of Judea" in Luke 1:5], and thus an unprejudiced reader would automatically think of the Herod who gave name to the dynasty and was famous beyond the borders of his own country - and this is precisely how readers from antiquity onwards have unanimously understood Luke 1:5....
The fact that Luke mentions the brothers of Archelaus, Herod (=Antipas) and Philippus, as tetrarchs (literally: ruling as tetrarchs) in 3:1 in my view also contradicts the hypothesis that he would deliberately have applied the wrong title "king" to Archelaus in 1:5. (481-2, n. 50 on 482)
Why doesn't Merz apply the same reasoning when discussing the alleged tradition that preceded the gospels? Like Luke's unqualified reference to "Herod, king of Judea" (1:5), an unqualified reference to "Herod the king" (Matthew 2:1), the phrase Merz views as a reflection of the earlier tradition in question, is most naturally taken as a reference to "the Herod who gave name to the dynasty and was famous beyond the borders of his own country". And just as the history of interpretation of Luke 1:5 favors Merz's reading of that passage, the history of interpretation of which Herod Jesus was born under favors the conclusion that he was born under Herod the Great.
The notion that the early Christians referred to different Herods and dated Jesus' birth to different years is widely contradicted by the patristic evidence. The earliest extrabiblical sources view Matthew and Luke as reliable and harmonious on the date of Jesus' birth, seem to know nothing of competing traditions about which Herod Jesus was born under, and affirm that the Herod in question is Herod the Great. See here and here. The scenario Merz suggests isn't supported by any source I'm aware of in the earliest centuries.
Notice that Merz's appeal to the history of interpretation of Luke 1:5 involves an appeal to patristic evidence. And keep in mind that she appealed (misleadingly) to The Epistle Of Barnabas when discussing Mark 12:35-7. She acknowledges that the patristic evidence has some significance, and she sometimes appeals to it herself.
Since human testimony is generally trustworthy, we don't begin with a default assumption that Matthew misunderstood or lied about an earlier tradition referring to which Herod Jesus was born under. It's even more unlikely that Matthew and Luke both got it wrong and got it wrong in the same way. The scenario Merz is suggesting becomes even more unlikely when you add all of the other sources who corroborate Matthew and Luke on the issue. Merz has no evidence for a pre-gospel tradition about another Herod, and the speculation that there was such a tradition is highly inconsistent with the evidence we do have.
Matthew and Luke agree in placing Jesus' birth around the time of the death of Herod the Great. They're agreeing in a way that's best explained by the historicity of what they're agreeing about. There's no reason to think that an earlier tradition dated Jesus' birth to the time of some other Herod, much less is there reason to prefer such a tradition over what's reported by the gospels.
Merz comments that we don't have "any certainty" about which Herod Jesus was born under (479). We don't need certainty. We just need a probability, and we have that for Herod the Great. Yet, even though she frames the issue in terms of certainty on page 479, she goes on to write the following several pages later:
The date of Jesus' birth can only vaguely be attributed to "the days of King Herod" - that is, the later years of Herod the Great or the first years of his sons Archaelaos and Antipas, who were also called kings in ordinary language. (491)
How does she get from the conclusion that dating Jesus' birth to the time of Herod the Great doesn't have a particular level of certainty to the conclusion that we can't place Jesus' birth under Herod the Great? If she's using the phrase "any certainty" to refer to what she should have called "any probability", then she's chosen her words poorly, and she's failed to substantiate her claim that there isn't any probability. On the other hand, if her use of "any certainty" means what it normally means, then it fails to justify her conclusion on page 491. Either way, she's wrong.
Merz goes on to discuss the historicity of the census of Luke 2. She only spends several pages on it and leaves a lot of issues unaddressed. She doesn't interact with Stephen Carlson's proposed translation of the passage at all. She discusses alleged indirect contradictions of Luke's account in Josephus and other extrabiblical sources, but ignores the extrabiblical sources who comment directly on the passage. I discussed those extrabiblical sources in a series I wrote in 2007. In 2010, I wrote a post summarizing some of the issues involved in the dispute over Luke's account. And we have a lot of other posts on the census in our archives. Merz doesn't advance the discussion in any significant way. I'll be addressing some of her comments, but not others. Those who are interested in topics I don't cover here can search our archives for relevant posts.
So all attempts to deny that Luke is talking about the only census of Quirinius attested by ancient sources are unconvincing, which leaves the other two options (born in the time of the census [in 6 A.D.] and not under Herod the Great, or some chronological confusion on Luke's part) to be investigated. (481)
Whether the census of 6 A.D. is "the only census of Quirinius attested by ancient sources" is one of the issues under dispute. Merz can't just assume that her view of the subject is correct. None of the early sources who date Jesus' birth place it in 6 A.D. When such sources also say that a census of Quirinius occurred around the time of Jesus' birth, they at least could be attesting a census of Quirinius other than the one of 6 A.D. It could be that they had the one of 6 A.D. in mind, but misdated it to the earlier time of Jesus' birth. Or they may not have had any census in mind independent of what they had read about in Luke. But it's also possible that they knew of the 6 A.D. census and considered Luke's a different one.
The recent edition of Justin Marty's Dialogue With Trypho by Thomas Halton and Michael Slusser (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2003) has Justin referring, in section 78:4, to "when Quirinius was taking his first census in Judea" (121). Halton is updating Thomas Falls' translation, and he changes it at some points, but he leaves the phrase I've just quoted the same as it's found in Falls. So, it seems that Falls and Halton agree on how to translate the passage. If the rendering by Falls and Halton is correct, Justin seems to be referring to multiple censuses under Quirinius. Other, older translations of Justin that I've seen have something like "the first census which was taken in Judaea, under Cyrenius". I wrote to Oskar Skarsaune, a scholar who specializes in the study of Justin Martyr, about this issue. He told me that he thinks Justin seems to be following Luke's text somewhat closely, so that Justin is likely a witness to the early interpretation of Luke rather than an independent source on the census. He thinks it's probable that Justin had multiple censuses under Quirinius in mind, the concept that seems to be conveyed in the translations of Falls and Halton. He added R.P.C. Hanson and Georges Archambault to the list of those who translate the passage as Falls and Halton did. (He cited A. Lukyn Williams and Phillip Haeuser as providing ambiguous translations.) So, this is another reason to reject Merz's claim that the 6 A.D. census is the only one attested under Quirinius.
Still, the problem remains that Joseph, as an inhabitant of Nazareth, would not have been subjected to a census in Judea, let alone his heavily pregnant wife. Scholars have conjectured that Joseph must have had property in Bethlehem (but obviously no real estate, see 2:7), chose "to maintain the legal status of his property," and took "advantage of a tax loophole" by enrolling in a metropolis....Even apart from its doubtful verifiability, that kind of reasoning seems misplaced, as the text does provide a clear reason for Joseph's travel: "Joseph went [...] to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and the lineage of David" (Luke 2:4). The narrator is obviously not interested in providing verifiable details and credible background information but in furnishing particulars of theological relevance: city of David, house and lineage of David. (482-3)
Luke doesn't say or suggest that Mary was "heavily pregnant" when they traveled to Bethlehem. And Luke 2:7 is referring to a house, as Stephen Carlson argues in an article you can read here. The "theological relevance" of Luke's material doesn't prove that it isn't historical or that Luke wasn't interested in "providing verifiable details and credible background information". He had already explained that Joseph was a descendant of David (1:27), so he had no need to introduce that fact in the census account in chapter 2.
The background information that's needed is provided in 2:1-3. A census was occurring, and each person went to "his own city" (verse 3). Since a census involves property, Luke may have thought that the mention of the census was enough to imply that Joseph had property in Bethlehem. As Carlson explains in his article linked above, Joseph and Mary got married while in Bethlehem. Joseph may have had both property and family there. For a discussion of why verse 4 mentions Joseph's ancestry, see here.
Merz tells us:
My hypothesis is that Luke indeed did some research on the census but did not dig deep enough. (484)
She goes on to cite some common objections to the historicity of Acts 5:36-7 (485) and other passages in Luke's writings, namely Luke 3:2 and Acts 4:6 (n. 59 on 485). Many commentaries on Luke and Acts and other resources have argued for the historicity of the passages in question. See, for example, Ben Witherington and Craig Keener's commentaries on Acts. I review Keener's work here and cite some of his material on Luke's reliability as a historical source. Merz comments that the alleged errors she cites in Luke's writings "are not astonishing to the historian; they only count heavily for those who confuse the theological conviction of the inerrancy of scripture with factual accuracy in every detail" (n. 59 on 485). She seems to be acknowledging that the supposed errors don't "count heavily" against Luke's general historical reliability. Regardless of whether she's acknowledging that fact, it is a fact that she would have to demonstrate a much larger amount of error in Luke's writings to overturn the conclusion that he's generally reliable. She hasn't done that. And Luke's general reliability is a significant line of evidence against Merz's position that Luke "did not dig deep enough" in his census account. As Keener and others have demonstrated, Luke dug deeply enough in other passages to warrant trusting him.
In addition to Luke's general reliability, we have evidence that he did significant research in the census context in particular. Richard Carrier explains:
"Another observation is made by Klaus Rosen, who compares Luke's passage with an actual census return from Roman Arabia in 127 A.D. and finds that he gets the order of key features of such a document correct: first the name of the Caesar (Augustus), then the year since the province's creation (first), and then the name of the provincial governor (Quirinius). Luke even uses the same word as the census return does for 'governed' (hêgemoneuein), and the real census return also states this in the genitive absolute exactly as Luke does. This would seem an unlikely coincidence, making it reasonable that Luke is dating the census the way he knows censuses are dated. Luke's passage lacks a lot of other typical features of a census return (e.g. the year of the emperor), but brevity can account for that"
Stanley Porter explains that the document Carrier is referring to "is not a provincial census return but a property return" (in Alf Christophersen, et al., edd., Paul, Luke And The Graeco-Roman World [New York, New York: T&T Clark International, 2003], 184). Still, the similarities are significant. Porter also writes:
"Palme has argued, nonetheless, that the census as recorded in Luke does match the major features of a provincial census as recorded in the papyri, but with some distinctions from the language of the Egyptian censuses….The result is that the account in Luke seems to have many, if not most, of the features that one would expect in a census return, as Palme and even Rosen have shown….Both Palme and Rosen have shown that the parallels between the Lukan account and the censuses of Egypt and the property returns of Arabia are too many to ignore, and indicate that a plausible historical account is being given by Luke." (180, 187)
Porter's entire article is worth reading. It makes many points relevant to Merz's material on the census. Merz says nothing about Porter's article.
Even if there weren't parallels like the ones discussed above between Luke's account and ancient census and property documents, the fact that Luke includes so many details (naming the emperor, naming Quirinius, etc.) suggests that he looked into the matter to a significant extent. He also shows knowledge of some of the details surrounding the 6 A.D. census in Acts 5:37.
Beyond what Luke says about the census itself in Luke 2, there's evidence of historicity in the details about Joseph and Mary's involvement as well. Mary's premarital pregnancy is highly likely to be historical, given factors like the multiple attestation for it and its embarrassing nature. To portray Mary and Joseph as still unmarried at the time of the census (2:5) is even more unlikely to have been fabricated. And as Stephen Carlson explains in an article you can read here, other details of the account have verisimilitude as well.
The earliest responses to Luke's account support its historicity. 1 Timothy 5:18 probably refers to Luke's gospel as scripture, which implies that the author of 1 Timothy viewed the census account as historically accurate. (I think Paul was the author of 1 Timothy, but if it were a non-Pauline document, it would still be highly likely to be from the first century.) The earliest extrabiblical sources who commented on the census account referred to it as historically accurate as well. See here and here.
He [Luke] might have confused the uprising after the death of Herod (4 BCE) with the riots evoked by the census in 6 CE, as has been suspected by several scholars. (n. 60 on 485)
In an article Merz often cites ("Of Jesus And Quirinius", The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 2 [April 2000], 283), Mark Smith comments that the scenario Merz is suggesting would be like a twentieth-century American confusing the Korean War with World War II. That's unlikely, if the American were as knowledgeable of recent history as Luke was.
And the unrest following the 6 A.D. census, which Luke refers to in Acts 5:37, isn't suggested anywhere in Luke 1-2. Rather, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, etc. interact with people, travel, and so on without any mention of the unrest surrounding the 6 A.D. census or any suggestion that the individuals involved in the opening chapters of Luke were concerned about such matters. (Read Josephus' comments on Judas the Galilean, such as in Antiquities Of The Jews 18:1 and Jewish War 7:8:1, to see just how widespread and disruptive these events were.) Luke does sometimes mention such disturbances and dangers to those who were traveling in other contexts. Even when there's nothing like a riot or revolt going on, the gospels and Acts often mention the gathering of crowds, how the religious authorities followed Jesus and his disciples around, dangers to Jesus from those who wanted to murder him, the dangers Paul experienced, etc. By contrast, Luke 1-2 comes across as more peaceful. Given the contrast between Luke 1-2 and the events mentioned in Acts 5, it seems likely that Luke considered the two contexts distinct. Luke 1-2 isn't referring to the events of 6 A.D., even though Acts 5 demonstrates Luke's awareness of those events.
Notice, as well, that Luke was a Gentile writing to a largely Gentile audience, in a context in which Paul and other Christians were often having to defend themselves before Roman authorities and were suspected of destabilizing society. It would have been in Luke's interest to have contrasted Joseph and Mary's submission to a Roman census to the rebellion of other Jews at the time.
The issue here isn't whether there's a reasonable possibility that Luke would have the 6 A.D. context in mind, yet not mention events like the revolt of Judas the Galilean. That is a reasonable possibility. Authors have to be selective in what they discuss, and they often pass by opportunities to mention something that they would have benefited from mentioning. But we have to ask which scenario makes more sense, even if both are reasonable possibilities. It would have made more sense for Luke to have mentioned the disturbances surrounding the 6 A.D. census in Luke 1-2, as he did in Acts 5:37, if he thought those disturbances occurred in the context of those opening chapters of Luke. And when you combine that silence of Luke with his general historical reliability, the indications in the census passage that he had done significant research on the matter and was being honest about it, his association of the events with Herod the Great (1:5), the corroboration of that timing in Matthew, and the corroboration in the extrabiblical sources, it seems very unlikely that he had the events of 6 A.D. in mind.
As I have indicated above, I am skeptical about the historicity of the census motif, no matter whether it is regarded as Lucan or of pre-Lucan origin. It serves too many ideological and theological purposes: moving the family from their hometown of Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of David; presenting the Christian ancestors as loyal subjects of the emperor and obedient taxpayers, and at the same time subtly demonstrating the surpassing of imperial propaganda by the real savior of the world. (486-7)
As I noted above, if Luke wanted to "present the Christian ancestors as loyal subjects of the emperor and obedient taxpayers", a more effective way to have done that would have been to have contrasted Joseph and Mary to Judas the Galilean and other rebels. But Luke doesn't do that, most likely because he wasn't discussing the census of 6 A.D.
The idea that a census motif was fabricated to "serve ideological and theological purposes" doesn't make much sense. Making up an account of a census that didn't occur, or claiming that Jesus and his family took part in a census they didn't take part in, would be overkill. You don't need participation in a census to place Jesus and his family in Bethlehem, and you don't need it to portray them as loyal subjects of the empire. Just as Merz thinks that the comments of the angels in Luke 2 are meant to further Luke's ideological and theological purposes (486), so also comments from Joseph and Mary could have been used to express their loyalty and obedience to the empire. Comments would have been simpler and less falsifiable than participation in a census, especially if the census didn't occur. If Luke wanted to include more than comments from Joseph and Mary, he could have included something less large, complicated, and falsifiable than participation in a census. That's even more the case when the census account has the attributes that Luke's does. His account has the family moving from one city to another, implies that Joseph had property and/or family in Bethlehem, and refers to how other people knew about the birth in that city (2:18). Why make up an account so large, complicated, and falsifiable when so many smaller, simpler, and less falsifiable alternatives were so easily available?
Luke wasn't writing a work of fiction to convey ideology and theology. He was writing a Greco-Roman biography. Merz's understanding of Luke 2 contradicts the genre of the document, Luke's explanation of his purposes in the previous chapter (1:1-4), the earliest interpretations of the census account, and the internal and external evidence for its historicity.
(The last part in the series: part 9.)