Thursday, December 13, 2007

Some Neglected Evidence Relevant To The Census Of Luke 2 (Part 4)

It was sometimes claimed that a government record of the census still existed into the second century and beyond:

"Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judaea." (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 34)

"And yet how could He [Jesus] have been admitted into the synagogue - one so abruptly appearing, so unknown; one, of whom no one had as yet been apprised of His tribe, His nation, His family, and lastly, His enrolment in the census of Augustus - that most faithful witness of the Lord's nativity, kept in the archives of Rome?" (Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4:7)

"For He [Jesus] was from the native soil of Bethlehem, and from the house of David; as, among the Romans, Mary is described in the census, of whom is born Christ." (unknown author [not Tertullian], Tertullian's An Answer To The Jews, 9)

"Let, then, such as trust to instruments of human skill, who may (approving of applying them as attestators of the holy word) inquire into this census, if it be but found so as we say" (unknown author, Five Books In Reply To Marcion, 5:198-203)

"Finally, though never at Rome, on authority he [John Chrysostom] knows that the census papers of the Holy Family are still there." (Catholic Encyclopedia)

"He [an author falsely writing as Cyril of Jerusalem] asks Julius to assign the true date of the nativity 'from census documents brought by Titus to Rome'; Julius assigns 25 December." (Catholic Encyclopedia)

"If verifiable this text [a homily attributed to Jerome] would suggest that Jerome, like Augustine, believed 25 December to be the historic anniversary of Christ's birth on the basis of the putative census records from the time of Augustus." (Susan Roll, Toward The Origins Of Christmas [The Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1995], p. 104)

Some of these claims are problematic, and we don't have much information by which to judge the more credible claims. Justin Martyr's claim is the earliest and the most credible. But Richard Carrier writes:

"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). Justin also claims that one can check the census records to confirm this, but this is certainly a bluff: it is extremely unlikely that Justin checked them himself. He does not say he did, and the information he gives is too vague to suggest he was drawing on an official record. Had he read the actual record, he should have been able to report at least one of the items the record would include: for Joseph there would be a full name, age, name of father or family, residence, occupation, and amount of property, as well as the character and extent of any land and the number of slaves owned. If a baby Jesus would be listed at all in the census records, it would only be as part of this entry. It is also unlikely that just anyone could access such important records--to prevent fraud, they must have been kept under very tight guard and accessible only to Roman magistrates. Cf. Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (1996), s.v. 'census.'"

There are a lot of problems with what Carrier is asserting here.

I have the 2003 edition of the dictionary he cites. It says more than Carrier does on some issues and less on others. The last sentence in Carrier's comments above, prior to his reference to the dictionary, expresses Carrier's opinion. The dictionary doesn't assert Carrier's conclusions. Apparently, Carrier was citing the dictionary only to corroborate some of his more general claims.

Notice that Carrier refers to what Justin Martyr and "Christians" believed. Notice, also, that Carrier suggests that a specific year for Christ's birth, 6 A.D., was still known to these Christians as late as the middle of the second century. Think about the implications of Carrier's argument. He's suggesting that these Christians were interested and knowledgeable enough about the relevant chronological data to keep track of the year of Christ's birth more than a century after the event. He's also suggesting that the alleged contradictions between Matthew and Luke, as well as between earlier and later interpretations of Luke, were prominent and persisted as late as the middle of the second century. If Carrier's suggestions are true, we would expect to see them reflected in other sources. But we don't.

Jack Finegan, in his Handbook Of Biblical Chronology (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), discusses fourteen different sources who date Christ's birth in the second through sixth centuries (pp. 288-291). Of those fourteen, none give 6 A.D. as the year. The large majority give a year in the closing decade of the B.C. era.

The closest any source gets to the date Carrier assigns to Luke's gospel, Justin Martyr, and "Christians" of Justin's time is 9 A.D. And that 9 A.D. date comes from Epiphanius' description of what was believed by a heretical group of the late second century. But Epiphanius' description of the same heretical group suggests elsewhere that they dated Jesus' birth to "around" 4 B.C. (p. 290) Apparently, either this heretical group, the Alogi, were inconsistent in their own dating or were misrepresented by Epiphanius. But even if they, or some of them, did intend to date Jesus' birth to 9 A.D., that date would be a few years off from what Carrier attributes to Luke, Justin, and other Christians. And that's the closest anybody gets to Carrier's date.

Finegan mentions seven sources who either were contemporaries of Justin Martyr or lived shortly after his time (Alogi, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Julius Africanus, Hippolytus of Rome, and Origen). All of them give a year in the closing decade of the B.C. era. And Finegan doesn't mention all of the sources he could have. Clement of Alexandria, for example, makes reference to other people who dated Jesus' birth to the same year he did (The Stromata, 1:21).

And Carrier's interpretation of Justin himself is dubious. He refers to how Justin's First Apology was written "around 155 A.D." Eric Osborn dates the work to "shortly after 150" (Justin Martyr [Tubingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1973], p. 8). Leslie Barnard dates it "between 151 and 155 C.E." (St. Justin Martyr: The First And Second Apologies [Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1997], p. 11). John McGuckin places it "c. 155" (The Westminster Handbook To Patristic Theology [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], p. 200). A recent book on Justin edited by Sara Parvis and Paul Foster, Justin Martyr And His Worlds (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2007), places the First Apology at "154-155" (p. xiii). All of these dates are approximations, yet Carrier has to assume that 155 is correct in order to get to his result of "a birth year of 6 A.D. (the 150th year before Justin wrote)".

Leslie Barnard comments that Justin's reference to 150 years is "no doubt a round figure" (St. Justin Martyr: The First And Second Apologies [Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1997], p. 11). In addition to the fact that 150 is the sort of number that somebody would cite if he were rounding off, we see Justin using round numbers repeatedly elsewhere in the same document. In chapter 31, speaking of Jesus' fulfillment of prophecy, Justin writes:

"And He was predicted before He appeared, first 5000 years before, and again 3000, then 2000, then 1000, and yet again 800; for in the succession of generations prophets after prophets arose."

Those are all rounded numbers. Similarly, in chapter 42 of the same document, shortly before the passage Carrier cites:

"The words cited above, David uttered 1500 years before Christ became a man and was crucified"

Again, he's using a rounded figure. Elsewhere, Justin repeatedly cites Matthew's gospel approvingly, treats the accounts of Matthew and Luke as harmonious (Dialogue With Trypho, 78), and refers to Jesus' birth under Herod the Great, distinguishing him from Herod Archelaus (Dialogue With Trypho, 103).

We don't know what year Justin's First Apology was written. The figure Justin cites in the passage under discussion (150 years) is the sort of figure somebody would use if rounding. Justin repeatedly uses rounded year numbers elsewhere in the same document. He accepts Matthew's gospel as harmonious with Luke's, states that Jesus was born under Herod the Great, and specifically distinguishes between that Herod and Herod Archelaus. Several other sources contemporary with Justin or born shortly after his time give a year for Jesus' birth, and all of them, with one possible exception (the 9 A.D. dating discussed earlier), place Jesus' birth in the closing decade of the B.C. era. Those sources include men who had lived where Justin lived, possessed Justin's writings, and thought highly of him.

And Justin is the only source Carrier cites to argue that "Christians" understood Luke's gospel the way Carrier represents it. It's much more likely that Justin was using a rounded figure. Since I reject Carrier's interpretation of Justin Martyr, I don't know of any source in the earliest centuries who agreed with Carrier's interpretation of Luke.

What about Carrier's assessment of whether there was a census record as Justin describes it? It's reasonable to think that Justin might have been speculating or repeating something he had heard without confirming it. But I think that Carrier is overly confident in his conclusion that Justin was "bluffing".

Carrier tells us that, if Justin had seen a census record, he could have mentioned "at least one of the items the record would include". But Justin does mention one of the pieces of information supposedly in the census record: the Bethlehem birthplace. Apparently, Justin thought that the record referred to Bethlehem in some context (because Joseph owned property there or for some other reason).

Besides, why would Justin think he needed to mention the sort of details Carrier asks for? If Justin's claim wasn't being disputed, and he thought that people could access the census record themselves, why would he go into the sort of detail Carrier wants?

And while Carrier thinks that only government officials would get access to the census records, Justin's claim doesn't require that he or anybody else outside of the government had gotten access to such a record without government assistance. A Christian or non-Christian who had been in a position to access such a record could have seen it.

Again, though, I think it's reasonable to question Justin's claim. What's more significant than Justin's claim about such a census record is what's implied by his willingness to make that claim. The claim of a government census record involves a historical interpretation of Luke's account, so Justin's comment tells us how he viewed the genre of the census account in Luke's gospel. And even if Justin was mistaken about the existence of such a census record, he was so confident about the historicity of the census as to expect corroboration of it from the Roman government. Even if his confidence was too high, it's unlikely that he would become so confident if he was living in an atmosphere in which the census account in Luke was being widely questioned or denied. Similar implications follow from the other ancient sources, mentioned earlier, who refer to a census record kept by the Roman government.


  1. I'm hoping for some meat by part 10.

  2. Haven't you heard that meat is murder? I'll report you to the vegan's for disciplinary action.

    Actually, all of Jason's posts are meaty, and you've done nothing to show otherwise. Just another mindless one-liner by just another mindless unbeliever.

  3. I would think that meat is the result of murder, but not its equivalent.

  4. Anonymous said:

    "I would think that meat is the result of murder, but not its equivalent."

    You're welcome to use that at your trial, but I doubt the vegans will appreciate your distinction.

  5. Vegans are best served raw

  6. And while Carrier thinks that only government officials would get access to the census records, Justin's claim doesn't require that he or anybody else outside of the government had gotten access to such a record without government assistance. A Christian or non-Christian who had been in a position to access such a record could have seen it.

    Also, given the audience to whom Justin wrote his First Apology, it isn't as if he wrote to people who, by Carrier's own yardstick, could not and would not have checked the record and verified it. Carrier must think Justin was terribly stupid to write the First Apology to people who could verify what he said on this point if it wasn't true, for surely they would have done, using Carrier's own sort of reasoning. That's a mighty stupid "bluff" on Justin's part.

  7. Oh come on! You talk and act like there was some kind of "open records" law available. What question-begging. Sure, IF a Christain had a high enough office, and IF that office were in such an area of influence so as to grant him access, and IF the documents were available in their original forms he/she COULD have checked them. Therefore we concluded that the statements of Luke have support? LOL!!! Of all the important facts not to have mentioned in support of Luke's account, THAT's one of them. Doh!

  8. Exactly. It's like saying a journalist or politician wouldn't lie because what they said could be verified. IT HAPPENS EVERY DAY!

  9. It's not just that Justin referenced the documents. No one who disagreed with Christianity ever said: "Hey, those documents don't say what Justin claimed they did!"

    Sure, journalists can lie--but we only know about it because the lies are exposed.

  10. Anonymous is really cute, but he lacks a basic understanding of the texts.

    For starters, one of the themes of Luke-Acts, like the role of women in the Gospels, is the role of public officials in Acts. He lays emphasis on the fact that Roman officials were in fact becoming Christians. There are two sources for the virgin birth narrative:

    1. Mary
    2. One or more Roman officials who could provide the material on the census itself. Indeed, Luke was a physician, he would have had easy access to those officials.

    Jason's statements have the benefit, unlike Anonymous' comments, of actually making sense of the text. If Anonymous has an alternative theory, then let him present it.

    2. As Pike stated, it's not just a matter of the Christians putting this information out there, it is a matter of there being no opponent of Christianity who claim that Justin's comments are false.

    3. And finally, with respect to Justin's own First Apology, Anonymous has telegraphed his ignorance of the source material. The Apology isn't addressed to average Roman citizens. It is specifically addressed to the Emperor, his sons, and the Roman Senate itself. Which of these would have had access to the records? Answer: According to Carrier's own argument, all of them. So, in order for Carrier's argument viz a viz Justin to succeed (stating this was a "bluff"), he must either

    a. Retreat to the notion that the audience is a spurious attribution.
    Which defeats the original argument, since it would no longer be necessary.

    b. Retreat to the notion that nobody ever cared enough to check. They cared enough to write letters to each other about Christians and Christianity, but they didn't care enough to check the facts that Justin notes were extant in the records in Rome itself, even though they would have had easy access to them.

    c. So, not only was Justin incredibly stupid to write it, these people were incredibly stupid not to check the material. In other words, you have to slander the past in order to hold on to your theory in the modern day, a theory that has not a scintilla of evidence, which is rather ironic since it's always the skeptics who ask for "evidence." They ask for it, deny it, then propose theories that have none whatsoever behind them.

  11. It's unclear whether the "you" in the fourth anonymous post above is referring only to Gene, only to me, or to both of us. It's also unclear, then, who Moistedtowlette is responding to. I think both of them were responding only to Gene. If not, though, and for the benefit of the readers, I want to clarify my view of these ancient census records:

    - I think there probably were census records from around the time of Jesus' birth still extant at least into the second century. We know that census records were kept for at least some period of time. We have accounts of records being kept, and some census records have been found. I doubt that so many ancient Christian sources would have referred to extant census records from a previous century if there weren't any census records of any type or if such records normally weren't kept so long.

    - If Justin was mistaken about the existence of such a census record, I think he was honestly mistaken. Moistedtowlette's reference to "lying" is unreasonable. Assuming that dishonesty was involved shouldn't be our default position, and Justin's character and moral standards suggest that we shouldn't expect him to have lied. Anybody who wants to assert that lying occurred should present evidence to that effect.

    - The fact that lying by journalists and politicians "happens every day" doesn't justify the conclusion that Justin Martyr and the other relevant sources lied about the issue under consideration. Nobody here has been arguing that it's not possible that Justin or the other sources were wrong. Rather, the issue is what seems probable. Telling us that journalists and politicians lie every day doesn't give us reason to think that Justin probably lied about the census record.

    - A census record wouldn't have to have been accessed by a Christian in order for Christians to know that it was accessed by a non-Christian, and it wouldn't have to have been accessed in the second century or later. If a first century source accessed such a record, later sources could refer to that record on the basis of an account of what happened earlier. In his article that I've been citing, Richard Carrier suggests that Luke was following the pattern of some sort of census record:

    "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.[10.2] This would seem an unlikely coincidence, making it reasonable that Luke is dating the census the way he knows censuses are dated." (

    It doesn't therefore follow that Luke had accessed Jesus' census record. But that's one possibility among others.

    - We don't have much information by which to judge some of these issues. Just as scenarios like the ones I've described above are reasonable possibilities, it's also reasonably possible that Justin and/or the other relevant sources were speculating or repeating an unreliable account that they had heard. The number and variety of sources who refer to the census record in question, accompanied by no trace of a dispute over the issue, make Justin's claim more credible. But, as Richard Carrier mentions, we know that false claims about such government records were sometimes made: "For instance, Tertullian claims that Emperor Tiberius asked the Senate at Rome to recognize Christianity as an official religion in Apology 1.5." ( Tertullian's claim is dubious, but I'm not aware of any ancient source who disputed the claim. Even though the claim wasn't disputed, it's doubtful. On the other hand, we have much more than Tertullian's testimony to go by on the issue of a census record, and we don't have as much reason to doubt the claim of a census record as we have to doubt the claim about Tiberius.

    - Even if Justin and the other sources were wrong about the existence of such a census record, the appeal to a record remains significant in some contexts. The appeal to a census record reflects a belief that Luke's account was meant to convey history. And the widespread expectation of the Roman government's corroboration of Luke's census suggests an atmosphere in which that census wasn't being disputed in the manner in which it's disputed today.

  12. Pike: "Sure, journalists can lie--but we only know about it because the lies are exposed."

    Yeah! And until or unless the lies are exposed, I'm going to assume they're holy truth! So there, bucko!

  13. Real smart. The point was that no one would lie if there was a chance someone would test the claim. It HAPPEN EVERY DAY!

  14. "The point was that no one would lie if there was a chance someone would test the claim. It HAPPEN EVERY DAY!"

    Then why not say that if this is the point he's trying to make in the first place?

    Anyway, now that Jason Engwer has persuaded me to believe something that can't possibly be true, now what?

  15. "Anyway, now that Jason Engwer has persuaded me to believe something that can't possibly be true, now what?"

    You can always go lay down in the highway and discuss it with speeding traffic. Now that you've convinced me your genes are weak, it's beneficial to Darwin if you'd just off yourself.

  16. Real smart. The point was that no one would lie if there was a chance someone would test the claim. It HAPPENS EVERY DAY!