Answer to the Luke 2 Problem

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Thank you all for the wonderful feedback about my Heart of the Matter article. I appreciate your kind words very, very much.

Yet, I left people hanging.

So here I will quickly, and not very formally, address the issues raised in my Bible class all those years ago. I went looking for my notes so I could provide references and double check my information, but I couldn't find them. They are buried somewhere that isn't with the rest of my college Bible notes. Sorry--this is going to be from memory (and if my prof. reads this, he'll be able to see how effective his class was in promoting long-term retention. Please don't change my grade <smile>).

1. No record of the census despite historical record of other censuses at this time.

It is likely that there were many censuses taken on a regular basis. The fact that we do not have record of every single one of them is to be expected. And, if we assume the Bible to be historically accurate (which we can with good reason*), then we really do have historical record of the census.

2. Quirinius is called a "governor" but we know he was not at this time.

An equally legitimate rendering/translation of the original word could be "leader". And while Quirinius was not a governor yet, he was involved in local leadership. ...I'm pretty sure there was another point to this, but it has slipped my mind. (I wish I had found my notes.)

3. The Romans did not require people to register in their home town, but Joseph takes Mary to Bethlehem.

The Romans didn't care where people registered, just that they did. However, lineage is very important to the Jews, so they would voluntarily travel to their home towns to keep the records straight.

So, there you have it. The answers to those three problems.

But this does beg the question: Where do we go if don't know the answer to a question?

Know of any great Bible reference material? I currently use the IVP Bible Background Commentary and Strong's. What else is good out there? I'm always looking for more great resources.

Thanks again for reading and commenting on my article!

~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Expectant Father

*Luke has shown himself to be an excellent historian in many other passages (the Bible has also shown itself to be historically reliable), thus the logic is that if he has shown himself accurate time and time again, he is likely to be right here as well.

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  1. NFQ

    These are answers, I suppose. But they also sound like special pleading. (If you're not familiar with the term, see here.) Would you accept this kind of argument in any other context -- that we have good reason to doubt the material on face, but there might be a possible explanation for it, so it's okay?

    On 1 - there are lots of records of other censuses, but the one that happens to be part of (some versions of) the birth narrative of one of the largest religions on earth mysteriously disappears. Some paperwork's bound to get lost! Oh well! There probably was a census, QED.

    On 2 - Quirinius was "involved in local leadership," so the fact that he was identified as (probably) a governor is no big deal. You know, the way I refer to the chair of my local school board as the President of the United States accidentally sometimes! (Alternatively: the translation of this one word poses a difficulty for us when compared to the facts, so let's assert that it might have been a different meaning. Meanwhile, all the other words in the Bible are right just the way they are, and should inform our understanding of doctrine as such.)

    On 3 - Despite it being an immense inconvenience, ancient Jews just cared so much about genealogy that they would travel to the lands of their birth every time the Romans called for a census. For some reason, genealogy was so important to the Jews that they really wanted the records of their Roman occupiers to be accurate in this small detail. (A citation or two would be most helpful on this point, I imagine.)

  2. NFQ, hmm... I wouldn't go so far as special pleading. I'd take the statement more typical of the scientific community: Just because we haven't found it yet does not mean it doesn't exist. The history of doubting the Bible based on not finding something we think we should have found by now is fraught with examples of people then later finding those very things (much like scientific evidence closing the "god of gaps" gaps). Plus, knowing how incredibly incomplete historical documentation is--what's the quip? "we have more records of Christ's resurrection than that Plato ever lived"... something like that--this doesn't feel like a "special" case at all. In fact, I'd say that Luke's records being what they are make them a "special" case for accepting authenticity.

    If your local school board chair were to be elected at some point in the future, I would not be too bothered by such a statement... especially if said individual was already involved in politics and was well on the way to election. Granted, such a statement would not be entirely factual, but perhaps more "orderly" than giving all the little details surrounding all that. But you do raise an important issue with how we think about translation. The scholarly work that goes into translation is huge... and how we handle it dramatically affects how we read Scripture and what we take from it. You allude to the work of textual criticism... a very important and fascinating field of study. I'm not one to say that "all the other words in the Bible are right just the way they are" and enjoy looking at various translations and commentaries to get a clearer picture of what's going on.

    I'm no expert on Jewish history. But I assume--perhaps incorrectly so--that those who've spent time studying this portion of Scripture would be. But I agree: A citation or two would be most helpful. I couldn't find my notes, but I don't recall any references given.

    Thanks for pushing me on this. I appreciate the nudge to think about this even more.