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

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6 replies to this post
  1. I think what confuses people, and I admit, me as well, is the nature of the census. Granted a census was taken, but why would Joseph have to go to Bethlehem, the city of his ancestry, to be enrolled? Why would he have to go to the city of David, who as his forefather was many, many generations removed? The explanation I’ve heard is that Joseph may have had property there. Was that the nature of a Roman census, to go where your property lies? I don’t know. But it could be Luke, who was not writing from first hand experience, could have gotten a detail or two incorrect.

  2. Pope Benedict wrote on this very topic in his book on the Infancy Narratives. He states that the census is now known to have taken place in a series of steps over a six year period. And that Joseph would have had to return to his native town if he owned property.

  3. I could be wrong, but my lexicon suggests that “πρότερος” (the root of πρώτη in Luke 2:2) usually means first, but could mean *before*.

  4. “Proteros.” IOW, Luke wrote “this was an enrollment that took place before that famous one by Quirinius that led to all sorts of riots and the beginning of the Zealot movement.” Or: “Remember that famous tax census that Quirinus carried out? Well, there was an earlier enrollment that you probably never heard of that took place before that.”

    Rome was not a centralized scientific state and did not have a permanent staff of functionaries. In particular, she did not send censors house to house to enroll people. The people had to go to where the censors had set up shop. Since loyalty oaths were typically done by tribe, the elders did the “official handshake” but other members of the tribe had to verify that they were in fact covered. This meant they had to go where the elders were, where the tribal or kinship group records were kept, where the other kin could swear and kiss their pinky that cousin Joe was a no-fooling son of David. This meant going to Bethlehem. Archeological evidence (pottery) indicates a large influx from Bethlehem into Nazareth, which was something of a boom town due to the reconstruction work on Sepphoris, which was then being transformed into a regional Roman admin center. Just the place for a carpenter from Bethlehem who was looking for work.

  5. I’m not going to quibble over the minor details. In high school I thought I learned that the bible was not a history or science book. It’s a book about faith, trust, human nature, and our salvation through Jesus Christ. AND there are no errors because it is divinely inspired. What else is there to know? Mark Shea’s book “By Whose Authority” is enough for me – let the theologians figure out the details.

  6. Thank you, Mr. Shea, for the central image of this article … the image of the Evangelists trying to say something big happened if everyone knew it didn’t. I was thinking of Steve Martin as I was trying to tell someone that the Resurrection of Jesus was a historical fact, because people were not stupid just because they lived a long time ago. As in, “Remember that guy we saw get crucified, the one who fed 5,000 men, not counting women and children? Well, I saw him the other day, and believe me or not, He is not only alive, but King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” We would get busy and check it out. So did they. And not a small number realized the significance of the Resurrection, because there were historical riots in the streets of Rome under Claudius.

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