Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Historicity of Luke's Nativity Narrative

I have been having an interesting, thought provoking discussion in my comment box in an old post. I am posting it here because several of you may be interested in this discussion. Feel free to add any thoughts, disagreements, etc.

Dustin said...
I wonder if you're notified about comments on articles this old. Anyway, one of my biggest problems with the idea of Matthean priority is that Luke seems entirely unaware of Matthew's nativity story. Luke has no mention of Herod being alive during Jesus' birth, no slaughter of the innocents, no Magi, and no flight to Egypt. In addition, Luke places it during the governorship of Quirinius, which was in 6 AD, long after Herod's death (though his later comment that Jesus was "about 30" in Luke 3 may contradict this, indicating some confusion on his part). I find it really odd that if Luke had Matthew as a source, he seemed to completely ignore Matthew's nativity and give a new account that he specifically dates to a later period. I find it more likely that he was unaware of Matthew's Gospel, or at least this part of it.

April 7, 2010 4:22 PM

Jordan Cooper said...
I don't think Luke needed to use the nativity story which was present in Matthew for him to have been aware of it. Matthew used these elements of the story for the purpose of showing Jesus as the "new Moses." Thus, he included the slaughter, paralleling the slaughter of children during the infancy of Moses. He included the flight to Egypt to show Jesus as paralleling the Israelite's captivity and wandering before entering the land of Palestine.
The primary purpose of Luke, unlike Matthew, was not to point to Christ as the fulfillment of God's covenantal dealings with Israel. Thus, he did not need to include these details. Luke worked from several sources including Matthew, Mark, possibly the gospel according to the Hebrews and maybe other early documents. He could not have included everything.
Regarding Luke's dating, it is not clear that Luke is indeed talking about the time period when Quirinius was governor. He uses the term "hegemon" (a general term for a ruler) as opposed to "legatus" (governor)to refer to Quirinius. Thus, though he was in charge of the census, he was not necessarily governor at this time.

April 7, 2010 7:59 PM

Dustin said...
Well part of the problem with the census is that it simply doesn't really make any sense before 6 AD, and we have no record of one happening before then. Before 6, Judea was a client kingdom, not a province. To my knowledge, Rome never took a census of a client kingdom. It wouldn't really make much sense to do so, since a major point of having it be a client kingdom was so that it would handle its own affairs itself.

In addition, we have no record whatsoever that I am aware of of Quirinius governing Syria in any sense before 6 AD. Josephus also made no mention of such a census despite making a big deal out of the census of 6 AD. This either means that the Jews didn't care about the first census, which would be weird given their reaction to this later one, or Josephus for some reason decided that such a thing was irrelevant for some reason, which is also very odd considering the content of his works.

Finally, Luke clearly thought that his audience to be familiar with whatever census he was referring to. We don't have any record of any pre-6 AD census, which indicates to me that any such event was much more obscure. Why refer to an obscure event in such a way that would be easy to mistake for a slightly later and much more famous event? This would be an unusually poorly put passage for Luke if this were the case. Luke also gives indication in Acts 5:37 that he expected his audience to only think of one census when someone referred to "the census," and that's the one of 6 AD.

As far as I can tell, the main reason that people think there was an earlier census comes from the idea that Luke and Matthew had to have agreed about the date. If one doesn't assume that from the outset, what evidence is there of any earlier census?

April 8, 2010 3:19 PM

Jordan Cooper said...
Justin Martyr does mention Quirinius as having been procurator, an office different from governor. Where he got this information from is uncertain. Even without this reference however, just because no other source mentioned Quirinius as procurator does not mean that he never was. It is bad historiography to assume that because something cannot be verified in another source, it must be false. Much of what Josephus said is not in other sources from the time. Does that mean we cannot believe these parts of what Josephus says? No, of course not. The standards for applying historical scrutiny are always harsher upon the New Testament documents than other historical sources. Just because they are religious does not mean they are not reliable history. All history has an agenda behind it. Josephus clearly does.
Luke does mention that this is the first census under Quirinius. Thus, he assumes that there were two different census taken under Quirinius. Perhaps his role in the first led to his being elected governor. If Josephus mentioned a census calling it the "first census", it would probably be assumed that there was a second. Why not with Luke?
Luke mentioning the other census as "the census" in the book of Acts points to the fact that this was the most obvious of the two. This was most likely because it stirred the Jews up, hence its being recorded in Josephus unlike the first.
The fact that Luke refers to it as "the census" only helps point out that he is talking about something different in Luke. This is why he qualifies himself by calling it "the first."
It was not a poor choice of Luke to mention this census just because there was a more famous later census. His readers most likely knew of both. This is why, to avoid confusion, he mentions it being the first. You ask what evidence there is for being an earlier census. My answer is the book of Luke.
You are right that I assume Matthew and Luke agree on the date. I come to the text with the presupposition that it is free from error. I openly admit that. You also come to historical texts with certain presuppositions. For example, you presuppose that reading historical documents can show you actual past events, you presuppose that a text can err, you presuppose that what you perceive on the page you read corresponds to what is actually there. None of us are free from presuppositions. Mine include the inerrancy of the Biblical text.

April 8, 2010 4:15 PM

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