gospelIt is Christmas, that joyous time of year when the Mainstream Media goes in search of apostate scholars to reassure them that the gospel is all a bunch of hooey. Here is the sort of thing I am talking about: “What is the Real Christmas Story?” It is a roundtable discussion featuring a number of biblical scholars that looks at the tale of the Nativity as told by Matthew and Luke.

In the course of it, the conversation turns to the matter of the worldwide “census” that Luke reports in his gospel:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (Luke 2:1-2)

One of the first people out of the gate to render a verdict on this particular passage is John Dominic Crossan, a biblical scholar and former priest at DePaul University who also gets trotted out by the MSM during that other joyous season, Easter, to assure us that the body of Jesus was eaten by wild dogs. Mr. Crossan, who is, like Buzz Lightyear, always sure, declares emphatically: “Luke tells us the story that at the time Jesus was born Augustus had to create a census of the whole earth. Now every scholar can tell you there was no such census ever.”

Let us pause and think about this dogmatic article of the Crossan creed for a moment. Luke goes out of his way to make clear that he is writing, not according to the canons of myth or tall tales, but according to the canons of ancient historiography by pinning the birth of Jesus down to contemporary figures everybody in his audience remembers. So, in addition to the nitnoid details of the timing of Jesus’ birth, he will go on to pin down the start of John the Baptist’s ministry with this kind of “This is not a Once Upon a Time story, people!” language:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1–2).

Yet, despite this, the gospels are, in large part, a work of pious fiction according to Mr. Crossan. The Resurrection never occurred. It is just a comforting tale early believers came up with to deal with the loss of Christ. The portrayal of Jesus as born at Bethlehem is something the gospel writers simply concoct in order to identify Jesus with the Messiah. And so, to get him there, Luke tells the story—of a worldwide enrollment.

Mmmhmm…. Comedian Steve Martin used to do a routine in which he said, “Remember a couple of years back when the earth (wry pause)… exploded? Remember how they built that giant space ark and loaded all of humanity into it, but the government decided not to tell the stupid people what was going on so that they wouldn’t panic…..” The light of understanding would then break across his face as he surveyed the audience and he would quickly backtrack saying, “Oooooooh! Uh….. Never mind!”

Mr. Crossan is saying the evangelists not only attempted, but succeeded, at something exactly like this. He says that the gospels are works of cunning fiction trying to link the Nazarene carpenter with King David by portraying him as born in “the city of David,” Bethlehem. And so they do what to get Jesus there in time for his birth and debut as the Son of David?

Well, a lot of options are open to the creative fiction writer whose only goal is to write a tall tale. You could just say that Mary’s grandmother took sick and they went to visit her. You could claim that Joseph bought a plot of land and didn’t want to leave Mary behind while he went to inspect it. You could cook up an angelic visitation commanding the Holy Family to go to Bethlehem. Any of these stories would, for a fiction writer, have the tremendous advantage of being extremely hard to refute decades after the event. And since you’ve already stuffed your gospel full of miracles, what’s one more angel?

But no, according to Mr. Crossan, Luke tells the equivalent of Martin’s space ark story: “Remember, a few decades back when the entire world was enrolled by the Emperor of all Civilization?” He invites, not just somebody to refute it, but everybody in the Roman Empire. That is an awfully strange thing to do if the enrollment never happened and an awfully odd way to establish the bona fides of your main character if you are trying to sell this story as historical and not as happening once upon a time.

But, of course, when Mr. Crossan tells you “every scholar can tell you there was no such census ever,” what he really means “Ignore the scholars who say there was.” For instance, Scholars like Dr. Michael Barber, Professor of Theology and Scripture at John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego. In looking at what Luke wrote, says Dr. Barber, “three major problems emerge: identifying the year of Herod’s death, determining the nature of Augustus’ ‘enrollment,’ and the chronology of Quirinius.”

Herod’s death is a key marker, of course, because Matthew places Jesus’ birth before it. Traditionally, Herod’s death was linked to a lunar eclipse. And since we know one occurred in March four B.C. people have assumed that is when he died. However, a growing number of scholars are beginning to propose that an eclipse occurring in one B.C. as the real candidate. Dr. Barber says, “This would fit in well with the witness from the earliest Christians, who believed that Jesus was born between three and two B.C.”

The next piece in the puzzle is Caesar’s enrollment. According to Dr. Barber, “Many people have dismissed this element as unhistorical since such enrollments have been seen as occurring for tax purposes and Herod, as king, would have collected his own taxes.” But there may be another rationale for the enrollment. The ancient Jewish (not Christian) historian Josephus reports that Judea was required to take a loyalty oath to Augustus near the end of Herod’s reign. More than this, archeological evidence shows that a census indeed was taken in location around three B.C. Indeed, Orosius (a fifth century student of St. Augustine) says Augustus required everyone to swear an oath with the enrollment. Barber says, “This oath apparently was established not long before two B.C., when Augustus came to be called ‘first of all men’.”

This brings us to Quirinius’ census, a thorny, but not insuperable detail. What confuses people is that we know from secular sources that Quirinius became governor later and took a census in six A.D. Some assert Luke is confusing the date of that census with the time of Jesus birth.

But there is another way of interpreting the data. Dr. Barber tells us, “In describing Quirinius, Luke uses the same term he uses for Pontius Pilate, a regional procurator, or hegemon. Pilate was not a governor, but a regional authority. Perhaps Luke is indicating that Quirinius had some role as administrator prior to his appointment as governor. Justin Martyr’s testimony concurs with this as he records that Quirinius was procurator in Judea at this time.” This would, in fact, explain why Luke tells us that this was the “first” enrollment—implying he knows about a later one.

The moral of the story is simple: Next Christmas or Easter, when the next shocking revelation brings biblical revelation to its knees, consider the possibility that biblical authors are not as preposterous as some biblical scholars.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.

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