Thursday, February 04, 2010

Out of our census

Over at the CADRE, Layman recently blogged on an essay by Stanley Porter concerning the census of Quirinius. So that inspired me to read the same essay.

Porter’s essay is too long and close-packed to manually transcribe. In this post I’ll confine myself quoting Porter’s conclusion along with a prefatory observation of my own.

Reading through Porter’s essay makes one aware of how foolhardy it is to attack the accuracy of Luke. For one thing, as we might antecedently surmise, and as the essay confirms, bureaucratic policies are often convoluted, and Roman bureaucracy was no exception. So we should expect a lot of local variation, given the overlapping jurisdictions. And we should also expect variations over time.

In addition, we’re dependent on whatever trace evidence happens to survive. And that barely scratches the surface. As more evidence comes in, the picture changes. The picture becomes more complicated. The Lucan account acquires a wide range of hitherto unsuspected, partial parallels.

We’re confronted with the bewildering intricacy of our sources. And we’d expect bureaucratic policies in the Roman empire to be bewildering in their variety, complexity, and arbitrary requirements. The more we knew about the period, the more we’d find ourselves wandering in a maze of minutiae.

Nothing could be more shortsighted than for an outsider from the 21C to make sweeping, self-confident pronouncements about a situation from the distant past of which he has absolutely no firsthand acquaintance.

Imagine the same thing in reverse: if a man from the 1C were suddenly transported to the 21C, and handed an IRS form to fill out. Just consider how much background knowledge he would need to make heads or tails of the document. It would be utterly unintelligible to him.

“The growing amount of evidence indicates that there were many common features between censuses and property returns throughout the Roman empire, including Egypt and Arabia, both close by Palestine. The Egyptian census documents, because of their relative plenty, have been determinative in most discussions. However, there is small but significant evidence concerning how censuses and property returns were conducted outside of Egypt as well, besides the fact that they did not follow the same time-frame. The result is that the account in Luke seems to have many, if not most, of the features one would expect in a census return, as Palme and even Rosen have shown. However, as Rosen has also shown, there may be some other features of the Lukan account, such as the trip to Bethlehem, that are better explained in terms of some of the peculiarities of the property returns…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…The grammatical arguments are likewise not decisive, but there is still plausibility for Lk 2:2 referring to the census being before Quirinius became governor,” S. Porter, “The Reasons for the Lukan Census,” A. Christophersen et al. eds. Paul, Luke and the Graeco-Roman World (Sheffield 2002), 187-88.

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