Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is Luke's Census Historical?

Some points to keep in mind regarding Luke's census, in light of what Paul Tobin has recently argued on the subject:

- The passage in Luke's gospel is brief and open to multiple reasonable interpretations at some points. See, for example, the possibilities discussed in Darrell Bock's Luke, Volume 1, 1:1-9:50 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), pp. 199-206, 903-909. If a critic is going to choose to criticize the passage, he should take its brief and sometimes vague nature into account before issuing his criticism. If the passage is truly open to multiple interpretations, then the critic shouldn't object if Luke's defenders appeal to that fact.

- Christians aren't the only ones who disagree over the meaning of the passage. As I recently documented, two atheist contributors to The Christian Delusion (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2010), Paul Tobin and Richard Carrier, have contradicted each other on a series of issues relevant to the passage.

- People usually tell the truth. Even a liar has to tell the truth most of the time in order to seem believable when he lies. We don't assume that somebody is mistaken as our default position. That general principle is applicable to Luke.

- Luke had access to early Christian traditions formed at a time when the church was under the leadership of people who were close to Jesus and/or close to the events of His childhood (Jesus' brothers, Peter, etc.). Such sources continued to be available for many years (1 Corinthians 9:5, Galatians 1:19, 2:9-10). At a minimum, Luke had met one member of Jesus' immediate family (Acts 21:18).

- Luke's general historical reliability has to be taken into account. See here, for example.

- An indirect line of evidence for the census is the evidence we have for the Divine inspiration of scripture. See the many relevant posts on that subject in this blog's archives.

- The critics' claim isn't that ancient sources directly deny the historicity of Luke's census (or a traditional Christian understanding of the census). Rather, the claim is that the census (or a traditional understanding of it) is indirectly denied by sources who aren't discussing Luke's account. For example, Josephus wasn't responding to Luke when he wrote on subjects like Quirinius and the census of 6 A.D. The alleged inconsistencies between Josephus and Luke are indirect in that sense.

- As I argued in a series of posts in 2007, Luke's account doesn't seem to have been disputed by the ancient Christian and non-Christian sources who were directly addressing it. Rather, the account is widely affirmed, by a large diversity of sources. There was a lack of controversy about it. In contrast, many other claims of the early Christians, including other elements of the infancy narratives, were questioned or denied. To get a better idea of the significance of this evidence, see especially the first two posts and the last one in my census series linked above.

- What we have, then, are alleged indirect denials of Luke's account by some ancient sources accompanied by widespread affirmation of the account among those directly addressing it. The issue is how we best make sense of that combined data.

- It should be noted that critics of Luke often ignore or say little about the ancient affirmations of Luke's account. While Evangelicals and others defending Luke often discuss the sources cited by critics (Josephus, Tacitus, etc.), and sometimes do so in significant depth, critics have much less to say about the ancient sources supporting Luke. That sort of disparity often arises in discussions concerning early Christianity. What should we conclude when one side of a dispute tends to discuss more of the evidence than the other side does?

- Notice that an Evangelical (or another type of defender of Luke's account in some cases) has multiple reasons for trusting what Luke wrote. It's not as though an Evangelical must assume Biblical inerrancy without any concern for evidence, then assume Luke's reliability as a result. Rather, Evangelicals have argued for their conclusion that the Bible is inerrant, and there are other lines of evidence for Luke's account independent of inerrancy.

- In the opening post of my census series linked above, I mention some recent defenses of Luke. Sources like those raise many arguments that Tobin doesn't address. As I've documented, some of Tobin's arguments are so simplistic that even his fellow contributor to The Christian Delusion and fellow atheist, Richard Carrier, disagrees with him and thinks the issues are more nuanced.

- We should discard the notion that either side of this dispute has an easy solution. A defender of Luke could argue that one or more of the sources who allegedly contradicted Luke were mistaken. Or it could be argued that all of the sources should be harmonized. I think that's the majority position among Luke's defenders, and it's the position I take. Both approaches involve some difficulty. But so do the positions that are critical of Luke. I've discussed some of those difficulties in my series on the census linked above. This is a question that has no easy answer. It would help if critics of Luke's account would make more of an effort to notice and acknowledge the difficulties involved in their own positions. Defenders of Luke are sometimes unrealistic about their own difficulties, but that problem is worse on the other side of the dispute.

- Pointing out that one aspect of a position is unlikely when considered in isolation isn't enough. We're all trying to explain multiple lines of evidence. Something that's unlikely when considered by itself might be a crucial aspect of a theory that's more likely than its alternatives overall. It's not as though Luke's critics are giving the most likely explanation of the patristic data or the most likely explanation of the evidence we have from early heretical and non-Christian responses to Luke's account, for example. Rather, critics want us to focus on sources like Josephus while they say little or nothing about other sources that are problematic for their position.

- Somebody could conclude that Luke was partially wrong about the census without thinking he was entirely wrong. Even if somebody thinks the passage is as mistaken as Tobin considers it, he wouldn't have to draw the same implications from that conclusion that Tobin does. Many scholars have considered Luke's account erroneous to some extent without concluding that the implications suggested by Tobin follow. There's a large gray area between an inerrantist's view of Luke's passage and Tobin's view.

Recall how much emphasis Tobin placed on the alleged non-historicity of the census:

"With the links now completely severed between the nativity and world history, we can now see the rest of the nativity accounts for what they really are...Removed from the anchors of history provided by Herod and Quirinius, the nativity accounts drift into the realm of myths and legends." (in John Loftus, ed., The Christian Delusion [Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2010], p. 163)

He was wrong to think that the infancy narratives only have those two anchors. And he's failed to demonstrate that either of those two anchors has been removed.

Update On 12/14/17: Here's some more material I've written arguing for the historicity of the census account.

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