Saturday, December 15, 2007

Some Neglected Evidence Relevant To The Census Of Luke 2 (Part 6)

As we saw in the first two parts of this series, critics of the traditional Christian view of the census make claims that we would expect to leave traces in ancient sources such as the church fathers, the early heretics, and the early enemies of Christianity. The critics sometimes acknowledge that fact, and they sometimes appeal to such ancient sources to support their own arguments when discussing the census or similar issues.

Yet, the early Christians and their opponents seem to have been unaware of many of the claims these critics make. In addition to the absence of early support for these critical theories, we see widespread agreement among the early sources on some of the relevant issues:

- Jesus was born under Herod the Great.

- He was born in the closing decade of the B.C. era.

- He was born within months, not years, of John the Baptist.

- The amount of time between Luke 3:1-2 and 3:23 was short enough to conclude that Jesus was around thirty years old at the time mentioned in 3:1-2.

- The census account in Luke is historical.

- There was corroboration of the census account in the records of the Roman government.

- There was no need to respond to objections to the census, whether objections like the ones cited by modern critics or objections of a different sort.

- Psalm 87:6 wasn't of much significance to Luke's account.

Some of these points carry more weight than others. And, as I mentioned earlier, the relevance of these points to modern critical theories would vary from one theory to another.

I think the evidence I've discussed carries a lot of weight against the argument that Luke was writing in a non-historical genre. The early Christians, heretics, and non-Christians seem to have been in widespread agreement, perhaps universal agreement, that Luke's account was to be taken as an attempt to convey history.

I also think the evidence I've discussed carries a lot of weight against theories that involve explicit and widespread error on Luke's part. The more subtle and minor the alleged errors are, the more plausible it would be to reconcile such errors with the evidence I've addressed.

On the other hand, I think the evidence I've cited only carries moderate or a little weight on other subjects. The appeal to a Roman census record is significantly questionable, even in its most credible form (the passage in Justin Martyr).

And some of the ancient sources I've discussed were ignorant or careless in the chronological claims they made. If Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., as most scholars believe, then the widespread early dating of Jesus' birth to 3 or 2 B.C. is inaccurate. It seems that some ancient sources took the sort of overly simplistic approach that Clement of Alexandria describes:

"And our Lord was born in the twenty-eighth year, when first the census was ordered to be taken in the reign of Augustus. And to prove that this is true, it is written in the Gospel by Luke as follows: 'And in the fifteenth year, in the reign of Tiberius Caesar, the word of the Lord came to John, the son of Zacharias.' And again in the same book: 'And Jesus was coming to His baptism, being about thirty years old,' and so on." (The Stromata, 1:21)

We know that other sources were more careful. Justin Martyr refers to how Jesus waited "thirty years, more or less" (Dialogue With Trypho, 88) before beginning His public ministry. As I argued earlier, Justin's comment that "Christ was born one hundred and fifty years ago" (First Apology, 46) also seems to have been an approximation of years. Apparently, Clement took Luke 3:23 to be an approximation in terms of months, whereas Justin correctly read it as an approximation in terms of years. But both men apparently were making approximations without having done any detailed study of what Josephus or other sources had recorded about the timing of Herod's life.

Still, as I mentioned earlier, such ancient sources could reliably preserve information of a more general nature without having preserved every detail. The fact that somebody like Clement of Alexandria hadn't done much research into the timing of Herod's death doesn't suggest that all of the ancient sources I've discussed would likely have been so careless as to have erred as badly as many modern critical theories suggest. If Luke's original account had Jesus born in 6 A.D., under Herod Archelaus, twelve years after John the Baptist's birth, with Jesus' public ministry not beginning until a few years after John's, etc., the ancient sources I've discussed should have noticed and preserved such information. They wouldn't have needed an advanced knowledge of chronology or to have done a detailed study of Josephus or other such sources. If Luke's account was "dubious on almost every score", as Raymond Brown put it (The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], p. 413), we ought to ask why objections like Brown's are absent from these ancient sources on almost every score.

Unlike Raymond Brown and other modern critics, these ancient sources had experienced Roman censuses, and they had access to many sources of information unavailable to us. Judging from the "we" passages in Acts, Luke's access to members of Jesus' immediate family (Acts 21:18, 1 Corinthians 9:5), and the references to Luke in Paul's writings and some patristic sources, it seems that Luke was in a good position to have reliable information about Jesus' background and to make his understanding of that information known to a large number of people. And the critical theories themselves assume that non-Christian sources, such as Josephus and Tacitus, had access to a large amount of relevant information. That atmosphere didn't produce modern critical theories. It produced a widespread consensus that Luke's account was reliable history.

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