Christmas time. Time for cookies, presents, and Newsweek’s biannual attack on the Bible. Oh wait, I forgot, Newsweek went bankrupt. We’ll all be wondering if the Newsweek of old really every existed, or whether it was just a fabrication made up by a secular culture in order to have a spiritual sense of belonging. In any case, articles keep coming from every angle on the unreliability of the history in the Bible, as if that old liberal ploy to undermine its teachings had any effect upon those who have wised up to its irrelevant claims.
If you’re not familiar with the issues, Luke records that a worldwide census was taken under the reign of Quirinius (Cyrenius). In fact, both Luke and Josephus record that there was in fact a provincial census taken during the time of Cyrenius (JW 2.117; JA 18.1-8). It's just that Luke's report places it on the world's stage rather than just the local stage. What scholars usually argue is that no such worldwide census was known to us, and therefore, since we have no reports of a worldwide census (i.e., a census taken throughout the Roman Empire), Luke is making a mistake. Thus, the Bible has an error.
Now, I’ve said before that this is an erroneous view of inerrancy. Inerrancy is found in the message the Bible intends to convey, not the details that make up its presentation, even particular historical details that have nothing to do with what’s being taught as truth; but there are some things about modern historiography that one needs to remember, since Christmas is the season of secular attacks upon the Bible (only seconded by Easter).
(1) The historian doesn’t have more insight into what happened in ancient history than you do, as long as you’re informed of the data, which is usually a very small corpus of information coming from a text or non-textual archaeological find. What this means is that the six hundred page books you read about a subject in ancient history is about two pages of data and 598 pages of speculation about that data. In other words, data must be interpreted and the historian, as interpreter, is making up a story that he or she thinks fits the data the best in his or her opinion.
(2) No historian is objective, either in bias or in presupposition. Every historian is a human with ideas. Every historian, regardless of the hope of objectivity he or she may seek, will always place his or her beliefs as the interpretive guide of the data. This means that those 598 pages of speculation upon the data are largely philosophical diatribes filled with whatever political and religious (or irreligious) views to which the historian holds. Although bias is possible to set aside, it makes it difficult for the average historian to spend his or her time writing a 600 page book without wanting to make some sort of contribution and impact upon the beliefs of others. However, even if biases can be set aside, presuppositions that stem from our ultimate beliefs, and govern our methodologies of inquiry, cannot be. Whatever ultimate beliefs and presuppositions created by those beliefs may be, they will determine the trajectory of one’s story placed to the data, along with one’s conclusions. In other words, you're just getting the person in 598 pages and the data on two.
(3) History is not something we have recorded on videotape. It’s gone, and we have no time machine to reenter it. Hence, we are left with only the data from textual and non-textual, archaeological sources. Because the data only offers us interpretation if in textual form, and because even that data, along with its interpretation, can be fabricated or distorted, it’s never a sure thing that even the data is accurate. What this means is that one must just trust or distrust the source. We can evaluate a source as to its authenticity in terms of its antiquity, but not in terms of its report without entering into a discussion with it, a discussion that, from our part, is born of our own ideas and culture.
(4) Because bias and presupposition play such an important role in interpretation, the historian who has such biases or presuppositions that would reject the accuracy of the data will look to discredit it, so that the story he or she wishes to paint will prevail.
(5) Truth is stranger than fiction, which means that what actually happened in history may be so complex that to reconstruct it sounds like apologetic nonsense for one’s position (regardless of whether one is accepting or rejecting previous accounts). The truth of the matter is that history isn’t so simple as to be established on Occam’s razor, as many a neophyte will attempt, because no two events happen in the exact same way, and therefore, one cannot merely explain one event with another (or with what “usually” occurs in such and such a circumstance).
(6) Most historians today have a deconstructionist attitude toward all historical texts, but especially religious ones, as the reigning philosophy of historiography today teaches that what is presented is biased toward one’s attempt to gain power or influence by it. Hence, what is presented in a religious document cannot be trusted more than the event presented in a non-religious document, or in many cases, more than the event as it is presented by the historians own reconstruction (see how that works: if I can take down the authority given to a text, I raise up my own authority and ability to influence—which is why even the historian’s work ought to be distrusted).
What this all means is that the historian should be held suspect as much as the ancient document or event being interpreted by him. Our need to have control causes us to want to know more about history than we really can now, however, and this is the reason what I’ve said above will largely be rejected. We just don’t want to admit that we must believe or disbelieve a report based on nothing else but faith first. We want to know the event directly. We want to be able to sit critically over all other stories and tell our story as the right one instead. Indeed, some our stories are more correct than the rest. Some of our stories are more incorrect. And some of them are completely made up and have no truth to them whatsoever. But such cannot be settled on “factual” grounds, as though an historical event can be experienced empirically through data alone. The data can be experienced empirically. The event is gone.
Now, what does this have to do with the Gospel narratives, specifically speaking here of the Lukan Infancy Narrative? Well, we need to ask ourselves the question, Why should we trust an historian who argues that the empire-wide census never happened, simply because he or she sees no evidence for it? What does he or she mean by “no evidence”? We have data from Luke that it was empire-wide. We have data from Josephus that it existed in the province of Syria. So what do they mean there is no evidence. What do you call Luke and Josephus, the only actual historians who comment upon the event?
You see, what they really mean is that we have no objective data, but as I said before, data of the event is only objective if one makes no comment upon it. Otherwise, the data is never objective because it is always interpreted by the subjective. So there is really no such thing as objective data, because there is no such thing as an objective interpretation of data. The data says nothing by itself. The report must be believed or disbelieved. The non-textual data must be interpreted by that belief or disbelief. So why are some historians so dogmatic in their op-ed pieces about the Lukan narratives being in error? Could it be they have an ideology to present in its place?
Now, again, I think Luke’s purposes are apologetic, not historical in the sense that he is attempting to teach us facts about historical events. God isn’t trying to teach us a history lesson about the minutia of first century Palestine. Luke is saying something about Christ’s birth: that it was a virgin birth of humble means, as it was carried out in a manger, not in a palace or a house. His historical details are just part of the presentation of the story that get us to that place. He’s trying to convey that Christ was born of a virgin, and is, therefore God (something that the Greco-Roman world understood a divine to human birth to be), having been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. Yet, He wants us to understand that God is not reigning like Caesar reigns. He has compassion upon the lowly and outcast, as He Himself entered the world as one of them.
But the virgin birth isn’t something Luke is making up for theological purposes. It is a true event from which the Holy Spirit who is guiding his writing draws out its implications and divinely intended meaning. In other words, the question as to whether it is historical or theological is a false dichotomy; but we should not confuse the historicity of an event that underlies the message and the historicity of the historical minutia that simply makes up the presentation of that event and the theological interpretation thereof.
Now, I believe Luke is accurate. I have no reason to doubt him, as my ideology doesn’t need to try and prove his inaccuracy with arguments from silence (really, saying that there is no evidence for something and then saying therefore that it didn’t happen is pure speculation versus the report, i.e., it’s merely an assertion of unbelief, not an assertion of historiographical fact or as a result of study). That’s like me saying that there is no evidence that Lincoln liked pumpkin pie. So what? Does that mean that he didn’t? No, it just means that I don’t have any information concerning the matter. But what would be worse is if we had a diary of someone who investigated Lincoln’s life from various reports at the time and then said that he did in fact like pumpkin pie, and then I turned around and said there was no evidence for it. Hugh? I may not believe the report, but the report itself is evidence for it.
Likewise, even though Luke likely is using Josephus, the fact that both men report that the provincial census took place would lead me to believe that an empire-wide census took place as well. There are reasons why only a local census might occur, but does the probability that a Caesar who would go to the trouble to assemble a party to one major province to do a census also make sense that he would go ahead and require other provinces to do the same as well? I’m not sure what’s so hard to believe about the matter, except that ideology and presupposition doesn’t allow for it.
Now, most historians, if they are honest, will in fact acknowledge what I’ve said above. They're just conflicted about the Lukan narrative because they’ve heard the line, “there is no evidence for it” touted over and over again, so much that it’s become a staple in the debate. But on the other hand, they know full well that such has no bearing on whether the event occurred. So, for instance, Mark Coleridge, in his The Birth of the Lukan Narrative: Narrative as Christology in Luke 1–2 (JSNTS 88; Sheffield Academic, 1993), makes the statement that the event cannot be proven historically accurate for lack of evidence, and that to say it is historical, although the most straightforward explanation, is “unsatisfactory” (130, fn. 3). Unsatisfactory? To whom and why? Because it doesn’t lend itself to the dichotomized interpretation between theology and history that one wants to paint? In any case, in the very same footnote we see real historiography getting honest when he says, “we cannot be sure whether the historical census was factual or not” (131, fn. 3). In other words, one cannot say that it did not occur because there is lack of evidence, and in this case, one only believes there is lack of evidence because one must first disbelieve the report (i.e., the evidence) we have of the event. But again, we do have evidence. We see it in Luke, and it makes sense from that evidence we have in Josephus, as well as the inscription from Apamea (ABD 588).
In any case, I wanted to make you aware of what really goes into these news articles concerning the Gospel narratives. In the end, Luke may just be using Josephus as a source and changing the apologetic thrust from “Judaism is not a threat to the Roman Empire—therefore, stop persecuting us” to “Christianity is not a threat to the Roman Empire—therefore, stop persecuting us”); but this says nothing to the truth or falsity of the history used, and certainly nothing toward the truth about Christ being taught. Both of those must be affirmed or denied by faith, not fact, as all fact requires faith to precede its apprehension.
Hence, we must choose to believe one report over another, or just the reconstruction of timelines and events put together by historians. I tend to think that Luke's timeline is irrelevant to his message, and so the historical minutia is being reconstructed and presented by him to make his point, so that perhaps Quirinius was or was not the governor at the time of Jesus' birth; but that would simply mean that I would be trusting in an alternative reconstruction and timeline. The "world-wide," i.e., empirical census is just one aspect of this debate, but it serves to show us how to think critically of what we're being told by modern scholars. As I indicated before, in the end, Luke's theologizing history for purposes of synchronism is much more important than the historical details he may move around to paint that picture (see ABD 589 and Luke T. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, 51-53, although the false dichotomy is prominent in the latter work); but such does not allow us to know the event better than Luke, and as such, we choose to believe or disbelieve the report of the detail, but we should never pretend that such a detail is objectively known to be factually correct or incorrect. Such is the enterprise of posturing for one's own empire, and we know we ought to be critical of that more than anything else.