Monday, December 01, 2014

Luke's Census Didn't Involve Ancestry

It's often claimed that Luke 2:4 is referring to a requirement that all participants in the census be enrolled in a place of their ancestry. Sometimes it's even claimed that the ancestry had to be traced back about a thousand years, since that's the approximate amount of time separating David and Joseph. And critics often argue that such a requirement in a census is implausible, especially if the ancestry had to be traced back something like a thousand years. Why would the Romans require such a thing? How many people would be able to trace their ancestry back so far? Why don't we have any record of other censuses being conducted that way? And so on. Thus, Luke's account probably is unhistorical.

But it's doubtful that Luke was saying that the census had such an ancestry requirement. Here's why:

- The implausibility of such a census arrangement is an indication that Luke didn't have that sort of arrangement in mind. Unlike modern critics of Luke, he and his initial audience lived in the Roman empire, and it's likely that many of them experienced Roman censuses. And see here regarding Luke's general credibility on historical matters. Luke's comments on ancestry in verse 4 can easily be read in a way that involves a far more plausible scenario than the one critics are suggesting, so why should we think the interpretation involving a far less plausible scenario is what Luke intended?

- When verse 3 is discussing census participants in general, nothing is said about ancestry. The ancestry issue only comes up when Joseph in particular is discussed in verse 4.

- Luke suggests that Joseph had potential non-ancestral reasons for registering in Bethlehem, in addition to the ancestral motivation. Joseph and Mary are referred to as engaged in verse 5. They're living together in verse 7. Most likely, they got married upon their arrival in Bethlehem. It's probable that Joseph's family lived there, and Joseph may have owned property in the city. For a discussion of the passage and its place in the larger social context of ancient Israel, see Stephen Carlson's article here. If Joseph had family and/or property in Bethlehem, then we don't need to appeal to ancestry alone to explain why he registered there. Luke refers to ancestry, but the text and its surrounding context provide other reasons for why Joseph would be associated with Bethlehem. The non-ancestral reasons for his association with the city are consistent with what we know of other Roman censuses, they're consistent with what Luke says about census participants in general in verse 3, and they eliminate the need for appealing to an ancestry requirement in the census to explain why Joseph went to that city.

- There are reasonable explanations for why verse 4 would comment as it does on Joseph's ancestry even if the census wasn't ancestral. Joseph's Davidic ancestry is significant in the context in which Luke is writing, since the Messiah was expected to be a descendant of David. Luke would have reason to emphasize Jesus' ancestry. And that ancestry could be prominent in Joseph's thinking without any census requirement that individuals register in a place of ancestry. What Luke may be doing is saying that Joseph could have registered in more than one location, but chose Bethlehem because of his Davidic ties. Or Luke may be emphasizing Davidic ancestry as an explanation of why Joseph had family and/or property in Bethlehem. He isn't saying that ancestry by itself defines Bethlehem as Joseph's "own city" (as verse 3 puts it). Rather, he's emphasizing one of the reasons why Joseph had family and/or property in the city. Verse 3 explains what the census required. Verse 4 explains one of the reasons why Joseph was affiliated with Bethlehem. He and his relatives would also have had other reasons for being in Bethlehem, but Luke wants to emphasize one of those reasons, Davidic ancestry. Reading that ancestry comment back into verse 3, as if every census participant was required to go to such a place of ancestry, creates more problems than it solves.

- The only source I'm aware of that comments on this issue in the first two centuries of church history is the Protevangelium Of James. Section 17 of that document refers to how "there was an order from the Emperor Augustus, that all in Bethlehem of Judaea should be enrolled". It refers to "all in Bethlehem", with no reference to ancestry, implying that Joseph had to go to Bethlehem because he was "in Bethlehem". Though the Protevangelium is often wrong on historical matters, and that weakness significantly diminishes the document's testimony, its view of the census does add some weight to my reading of Luke 2.

- For more about what scholars have said over the years concerning this issue and the history of interpretation of the passage, see the thread here, including the comments section.

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