Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Some Neglected Evidence Relevant To The Census Of Luke 2 (Part 2)

Before I discuss the relevant extra-Biblical sources in more depth, I want to address some potential objections.

The church fathers and other sources who lived around that time were too far removed from the events surrounding Jesus' birth to give us reliable information.

Then critics like Raymond Brown and Richard Carrier should stop citing the church fathers and their contemporaries against the Biblical data relevant to the census. If people like Josephus, Tacitus, and Justin Martyr were living too late to give us reliable information, then we can't rely on them to conclude that the Biblical accounts are erroneous.

Yes, the amount of time between the events being discussed and the sources commenting on those events diminishes those sources' credibility. But it doesn't eliminate their credibility. And it diminishes their credibility to different degrees in different contexts. Critics who argue that Luke didn't intend to give a historical account when he wrote about the census, for example, are making a claim about Luke, not just a claim about the events surrounding Jesus' birth. The churches of the early patristic era weren't as chronologically distant from Luke and the publication and early interpretation of his gospel as they were from the birth of Jesus. And just as sources like Josephus and Dio Cassius could rely on earlier written records or the oral testimony of people who lived in an earlier generation, so could other ancient Christian and non-Christian sources who aren't mentioned as often by critics when discussing the census.

The sort of detailed chronological information that modern critics utilize in examining Luke's account would have been plausibly available to only a small percentage of the ancient sources.

There's an element of truth to that objection. The average person in antiquity wouldn't have had the sort of interest, knowledge, and access to relevant sources that somebody like Josephus had. And just as we today often settle for approximations instead of seeking more detailed information, so did people in the past. We today will refer, for example, to how Jesus was born or died "two thousand years ago", even though "two thousand" isn't as precise as we could be. Similarly, Irenaeus was satisfied with referring to how Jesus was born "around" a particular time (Against Heresies, 3:21:3), and Origen comments that Jesus "seems" to have been born during the census under Quirinius that Josephus recorded (Against Celsus, 1:57). From what he says elsewhere, we know that Origen accepted the traditional Christian belief that Jesus was born under Herod the Great. Either he believed that the census of 6 A.D. was in some sense a continuation of an earlier census process or he didn't study the census well enough to recognize that the census described in Josephus and Acts 5 occurred about a decade after Jesus' birth.

But people like Irenaeus and Origen didn't need to be correct about everything in order to be credible about some things. And the issues surrounding the census don't just involve detailed matters of chronology that few people have studied. To repeat an example I've cited above, the early Christians wouldn't have needed Josephus' level of knowledge of ancient Israel in order to discern the genre of Luke's census account. And if Matthew and Luke dated Jesus' birth about ten years apart, as critics like Richard Carrier assert, then the early Christians wouldn't have needed to have had a detailed knowledge of chronology in order to recognize the contradiction. If the Matthean communities, to use a common phrase among critics, were referring to how Jesus was born under Herod the Great, while the Lukan communities were referring to how Jesus was born under Herod Archelaus, it wouldn't require a detailed knowledge of chronology in order to recognize that two different men were being discussed. Similarly, if the early Lukan Christians believed that John the Baptist and Jesus were born about twelve years apart, as Richard Carrier suggests as a possibility, then passing on such a view of the age difference between those two men wouldn't require a detailed knowledge of chronology. The early Christians and their opponents didn't need to have as much knowledge of ancient chronology as modern scholars do in order to have reliably passed on information of a more general nature that's relevant to the census.

And while only a small percentage of ancient sources would have had the sort of detailed historical knowledge that somebody like Josephus or Tacitus had, that small percentage of the population has to be taken into account. Porphyry was just one man, yet his arguments for a late date for the book of Daniel left many ripples in the historical record. The large majority of people in today's world don't know much about science, but the discoveries of one scientist can be popularized among billions of people.

The people who had the relevant information might not have had much knowledge of or interest in Christianity. The early enemies of Christianity might not have given the infancy narratives much attention, since they knew that they had so little information on those distant events.

Much of the information relevant to modern discussions of the census (the genre of Luke's account, whether Jesus was born under Herod the Great or Herod Archelaus, etc.) would have been of interest to many people, would have been easy to attain early on, would have been easy to understand, and probably would have been widely known. The relevant information wouldn't have been restricted to sources like Josephus and Tacitus.

The early opponents of Christianity weren't apathetic about the religion, and they weren't apathetic about the infancy narratives. Many of the arguments used by modern critics of the infancy narratives are found in Justin Martyr's Dialogue With Trypho, Origen's Against Celsus, John Chrysostom's Homilies On Matthew, and Augustine's Harmony Of The Gospels, for example. Trypho was denying that Isaiah 7:14 refers to a virginal conception and was comparing the virgin birth account to pagan mythology nearly two millennia before modern critics of the infancy narratives were born (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, 67). Celsus alleged that Mary was an adulteress and claimed to know the name of the man involved, an account cited by some critics to this day (Origen, Against Celsus, 1:32). He also said that he doubted the historicity of the Slaughter of the Innocents (Origen, Against Celsus, 1:61). Raymond Brown's argument against the infancy narratives from John 1:33 was known to and addressed by Augustine (Harmony Of The Gospels, 2:15). Etc. The early enemies of Christianity would have been interested in denying Christian claims relevant to the census and would have had many opportunities to leave traces of such denials in the historical record.

It's possible that people who had access to relevant information, and seem likely to have been interested in having that information, didn't attain it, despite what we would expect. Or maybe some people did dispute Luke's account of the census, or argued that Matthew's account contradicted Luke's, but the views of those people weren't mentioned in our extant historical records.

That's possible. But historical judgments are about probability. We can think of many possible historical scenarios, but our primary concern should be what's probable.

And I realize that the census is a complex issue. There are a lot of theories about what Luke meant and a lot of theories about what happened. In the church fathers alone, there surely are hundreds of contexts in which the subject could be addressed from one angle or another. I don't claim to know about or to have studied every such passage in the fathers. But I've studied the earlier fathers enough to see patterns emerge that lead me to some conclusions about what's probable. I don't claim that the evidence I'm going to present is exhaustive. I'm interested in hearing from anybody who has anything to add.

Even if you can show that there's some additional evidence for the traditional Christian view of the census that critics have neglected, we still have contrary evidence from sources like Josephus. That contrary evidence has to be addressed.

I agree that it has to be addressed. I referenced some sources that address it in the first part of this series. I'm not suggesting that the evidence I'm discussing in this series should replace the other evidence. I'm suggesting that it should supplement that other evidence.

And though some people who hold the traditional Christian view of the census would argue that a source like Josephus isn't reliable on this subject, it seems that the majority of those who hold the traditional view will acknowledge the reliability of Josephus and attempt to harmonize his material with the Biblical data. Sometimes it's suggested, for example, that Quirinius might have been in some unusual position that involved him in a census around the time of Jesus' birth in some manner we wouldn't expect. Critics will respond by emphasizing that it would be unprecedented or unusual for Quirinius to have been involved in such a census, given what we know of where he was and what he was doing around that time. Critics are emphasizing what we would normally expect under the circumstances, while those arguing for the traditional Christian view are emphasizing the evidence we have that something abnormal occurred. The church fathers and other sources that critics often neglect are relevant in strengthening the case that something abnormal happened. The more corroboration there is for something abnormal, the less sense it makes to keep appealing to what we would normally expect to happen. I'm combining what we're told by Josephus and other sources critics often cite with what other sources tell us. A census could be handled in different ways under different circumstances. "Responsibility for the census lay normally with the governor, but many other men of senatorial, and later equestrian, rank were involved (ILS 3, index, p. 351)." (Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, edd., The Oxford Classical Dictionary [New York: Oxford University Press, 2003], p. 308) As Richard Carrier mentions with regard to an element of Luke's account that critics often dispute:

"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."

Some of these issues aren't relevant to all critics of the traditional Christian view of the census. Not all critics deny that Luke intended to convey a historical account when he wrote about the census, for example. And not all critics deny the historicity of the census to the same extent.

I'm aware that there are many different views among critics on this subject, as there are many different views among those who defend the traditional Christian position. Raymond Brown didn't claim that Luke places Jesus' birth under Archelaus in 6 A.D., so an early Christian consensus that Jesus was born under Herod the Great wouldn't be a problem for his position. Richard Carrier doesn't deny that Luke meant to give a historical account, so evidence that Luke intended to convey history isn't a problem for Carrier. I'm addressing critical views in general, even though I've been citing Brown and Carrier as examples. The relevance of the evidence I'm discussing will vary from case to case.

What about the inconsistencies between arguments for the traditional Christian view of the census and the evidence you're citing from the church fathers and other sources?

In the first part of this series, I quoted Richard Carrier's comments in response to Stanley Porter: "no ancient Christian ever understood Luke 2:2 to mean what Porter suggests". If Carrier's claim is true, I would agree with him that it's a significant piece of evidence against the interpretation of Luke 2 that he's critiquing. The evidence I'm going to discuss can cut both ways.

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