Tag Archives: inerrancy

When Did Joseph and Mary Go to Bethlehem for the Census?

Joseph and pregnant Mary at the census. But what if we got this picture wrong, and Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census, when Jesus was 10 years old? (credit: Chora Church, Istanbul/Shutterstock)

 

If this proposal turns out to be correct, it would positively throw perhaps the best argument AGAINST the historical reliability of the Bible into the dumpster…. But to get the idea, you would have to completely rethink how Luke handles chronology. Veracity readers, get out your thinking caps!

One of the thorniest apologetic challenges is trying to fit Luke’s traditional dating for Jesus’ birth to Caesar’s census, during the time when Quirinius was governor, with Matthew’s version, which has Jesus born during the latter years of Herod. The big problem is the timing. Luke’s Quirinian census is typically dated to 6 A.D., largely due to Josephus’ historical record, whereas Matthew’s description of the death of Herod is somewhere around 4-1 B.C.

That is like at least a 7-10 year discrepancy. Whoops.

Skeptics of the Bible often point to this as proof that the Bible has errors in it, and therefore, the Bible can not be trusted for history.

Over the years, Christian apologists have put forward various explanations to account for this discrepancy. Perhaps we are talking about a different census, with Luke’s census happening a few years earlier, but that we simply have no secular or other record for it. Perhaps Josephus was wrong on his dating of events. While these proposals present some thoughtful possibilities, the critics often respond with, “Meh…. There go the Christians again, overreaching for an apologetic.”

But what if the traditional reading of Luke’s story has been misinterpreted? What if it is possible, that about 10 years after Jesus’ birth, after living a few years in Nazareth, the Holy Family returned back to Bethlehem for the census? What if the story about the census is a digression, purposefully inserted by Luke, temporarily jumping ahead in the chronological narrative, before returning back to the main story about Jesus’ birth?

I argue for a similar literary technique used by Luke in Acts, regarding the number of visits Paul makes to Jerusalem, that attempts to reconcile with Paul’s own story in Galatians. Studies by New Testament scholars, such as Michael Licona, author of Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, argue that Luke uses such literary techniques more frequently than traditionally known, whether by evangelicals or skeptics!

In fact, Luke unambiguously does this very thing in Luke 3, by sandwiching verses 19-20, detailing John the Baptist’s future imprisonment, in the middle of the narrative regarding Jesus’ baptism. We know from Mark 1:9-11 that John the Baptist baptized Jesus, which must have happened prior to John’s imprisonment. Apparently, Luke is not afraid of reporting events in a non-chronological manner, to suit his own purposes, assuming that his readers would already know the exact historical chronology.

British bible teacher, Andrew Wilson, on the “Think” blog, pointed me to this new research done by David Armitage, and published in 2018, at the British evangelical think tank in Cambridge, Tyndale House. Armitage’s proposal has a number of exegetical and translation steps to make, but the more I think about it, Armitage’s idea is quite persuasive.

Jump on over to the Think blog to get the argument summary, but here below is Armitage’s proposed translation of Luke 1:80-2:7, that puts all of the pieces together. The chronological digression might be hard to pick out, so you may need to wait for the full explanation at the end of this post to get it straight. The main thing to look for is Luke 1:80 to 2:5, where the narrative jumps forward in time, following along the time period of John the Baptist’s upbringing, before resuming in verse 6, which chronologically follows after the narrative of where John the Baptist’s birth ends, described in Luke 1. It starts with the story of the young, John the Baptist, as he was growing up (notice how chapter headings, first introduced in our Bibles by, Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 13th century, can be misleading):

1:80 The child [John the Baptist] grew and was strengthened in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel. 2:1 As it happens, it was during that time that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the Roman world 2 (this was the first registration, when Quirinius was governor of Syria), 3 and everyone went – each into their own town – to be registered. 4 Joseph also went up: out of Galilee, away from the town of Nazareth, into Judea, to David’s town (which is called Bethlehem) because he was from the house and family of David; 5 he went to be registered with Mary (she who was his betrothed when she was pregnant).

6 Now, it transpired that the days were completed for her to give birth when they were in that place, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a feeding trough, because there was insufficient space for them in their lodging place.

Compare with the ESV translation, and see what you think:

80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

2:1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The most troublesome verse for me is verse 5, as the ESV follows the standard interpretation, by describing the condition Mary was in, during the Quirinian census, that of being pregnant with Jesus. But Armitage argues that the Greek allows for a different translation, with a parenthetical comment, that simply reminds the reader of who Mary was, with no immediate time reference implied. This sets us up to read verse 6 as a transition, implicitly ten years prior, back to the main narrative, emphasizing the place of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem, and not the timing. I am no Greek scholar, but this is very intriguing! Armitage paraphrases verse 5 like this:

Joseph went there to register with Mary – that same Mary, you will recall, who whilst betrothed to him was pregnant.

Objections to Armitage’s reconstruction might focus on the complex number of interpretive steps required. However, the whole solution is actually simpler, if we grant that Luke has a habit of sometimes jumping around chronologically in his narrative, for reasons clear to his original audience, that are not always intuitive to more contemporary readers. One big plus is that Armitage’s reconstruction adequately explains why Matthew’s account never mentions the Quirinian census; that is, Matthew never covers the events of Jesus’ life at age 10.

If Armitage’s proposal holds, and he admits that it is far from being certain, this is what he says his revised chronology looks like. It totally reframes one of the most well-known Bible stories, of all time, but it solves a particularly knotty, chronological problem:

  1. Towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great, Mary – who is from Nazareth – encounters an angel who foretells Jesus’ birth.
  2. Mary visits Elizabeth in the Judean hill country, then returns home.
  3. Although already found to be pregnant whilst betrothed, Mary marries Joseph – a man from Bethlehem – who initially takes Mary to his family home.
  4. Jesus is born in Bethlehem; because of space restrictions in their quarters, Mary and Joseph place the baby in a feeding trough in the main living area.
  5. The family subsequently relocate to Nazareth, establishing there a home of their own.
  6. Several years later, when Quirinius is governing Syria, an enrolment is announced, so Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem, because this remains the location of Joseph’s family home, and he needs to register in connection with property there.

Pretty cool, huh?

Additional Resources:

I wrote about the Quirinius question five years ago, but David Armitage’s new solution is by far, the most persuasive, in my view…. A couple of other twists to the birth narratives:  The traditional story of Jesus’ birth, as told in many Hollywood movies, tries to smash together the events recorded by Matthew and Luke, such that you have Luke’s shepherds together with Matthew’s wise men from the east, gathered around the newborn Jesus. It makes for a tidy story, until you start comparing Matthew and Luke together, a well-known difficulty for students of the Bible. Matthew has no shepherds, and Luke has no wise men! More than likely, the visit with Matthew’s “wise men,” or more specifically, “magi,” was a separate event, happening weeks, if not months, after Jesus’ birth. This places the trip to Egypt, as described in Matthew, at some undetermined time after the birth of Jesus, yet prior to the permanent settlement in Nazareth, an historical detail that Luke simply ignores. As another example, a growing consensus among Bible scholars has pretty much rejected the popular, traditional idea, of Joseph and a pregnant Mary going up and down the streets of Bethlehem, looking for a place to stay, only to be finally turned away at the “inn.” Contemporary scholarship makes the more modest claim that there was no available “guest room” for the family to stay in at relatives in Bethlehem, a correction made explicit in the NIV 2011 translation of Luke 2:7 (The ESV keeps the more traditional “inn,” but puts “guest room” in a footnote; see above, but according to New Testament scholar, Ian Paul, the evidence favors the “guest room” translation).

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Inerrancy and Interpretation: An Extended Review of Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy

What is biblical inerrancy? At one level, it is pretty simple and straightforward. As Christian philosopher and apologist Norman Geisler says, “The Bible is the Word of God, and God cannot err; therefore, the Bible cannot err.” If the Bible cannot err, the Bible is inerrant. Broadly speaking, I support this logic.

Such logic, essentially means, that when we read the Bible, we can have the confidence that God is speaking truth to us, through the sacred text. A so called “Bible difficulty” is due to either an error with the translation, a faulty exposition being given about what the Bible says, or because of some misunderstanding on the part of the reader. The problem is never with God’s Word itself.

Pretty clear, right? Well, as they say, often the “devil is in the details.” Different Christians sometimes have different ideas of what they mean by “inerrancy,” and these differences can have diverse consequences in the details.  Digging into those details has led some people to be encouraged in their faith in times of doubt, while raising more doubts in the minds of others, and thereby providing fuel to the skeptics’ fire. How can this be?

It all depends on how “inerrancy” is defined and defended. Have you ever thought about how the four Gospels treat Peter’s “three” denials of Jesus?


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Are Jesus’ Words Really in “Red Letters?”

Can we trust that what we read in the Gospels are really the words of Jesus?

Can we trust that what we read in the Gospels are really the words of Jesus?

Many Christians like reading from so-called “Red Letter” Bibles because they are told that the words spoken by Jesus are written in red ink. It can be helpful for some readers, since in the King James Version, there are no quotation marks used to identify when someone is speaking.

The idea of “Red Letter” Bibles goes back to 1899, when the editor of the Christian Herald magazine, Louis Klopsch, was inspired by reading Luke 22:30: ” Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. (KJV)” Klopsch was passionate about getting God’s Word out to people, and so he envisioned a new Bible where the words of Jesus could be represented by the color of His blood.

However, the use of a “Red Letter” Bible can be misleading, as it may give some people the impression that the words of Jesus are somehow more important than the other words in the Bible. But theologically, this is wrong-headed since everything in the Bible is inspired by God, according to 2 Timothy 3:16. In that sense, every word in the Bible should be printed in red!

Reading from a “Red Letter” Bible might set you up to have some skewed expectations about Scripture. What are the appropriate expectations we should then have?
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Taking the Bible “Literally”

Plumb LineHave you ever had a conversation with someone who is skeptical about the Bible, and one of the first questions they may ask you is, “Do you take the Bible literally?

Many Christians, upon hearing the question, instinctively go on the defensive and say, “Yes, I do take the Bible literally.” After all, if the Bible is under attack, a believer will want to stand up and say that they take God at His Word. But then you can almost envision the annoyed look on the skeptic’s face when they respond with something like, “Well then, do you hate your family? After all, did not Jesus say that unless you hate your father, mother, wife, children, brothers and sisters, then you can not be a follower of Jesus?” This classic objection from Luke 14:26 often puts the believer back on the defensive again, trying to come up with some way to get around the idea of taking the Bible “literally” without compromising one’s faith.

I can almost see the skeptic stiffen up and say, “Mmmm… I see.. so you don’t really take the Bible literally. So why should I?

When I am asked that first question from a skeptic, I never give a flat response. Instead, I in turn ask a different question, “Well, what do you ‘literally’ mean by ‘literally‘?”
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Was Jesus Really Crucified on Good Friday?

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I ran across the following comment not too long ago on an Internet forum: “The crucifixion of the Son of God as recorded in the Bible must have taken place on Wednesday, in order that THREE days and THREE nights or 72 hours be fulfilled. ‘Good Friday’ is just another untruth from romish delusion.”

These type of statements made by well-meaning people really puzzle me. It is important to try to unpack this as it demonstrates a major challenge in how some conservative Christians (thankfully not all) try to approach the Bible and apply what they read.

The first observation to make is the underlying concern that the traditional view in which Jesus was crucified on a Friday actually undermines the inerrancy of the Bible. In Matthew 12:40, we read that:

For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (ESV).

This is the “Sign of Jonah” that prophetically draws on a parallel between what the prophet Jonah experienced and the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Some critics of biblical inerrancy cite this as a case where there is an error in the Bible. If you take a literal approach to the concept of “day” as consisting of both “a day and a night,” then you run into a problem since you do not have three full sequences of “a day and a night” between Friday and Sunday, where you only have two nights involved. In response, some defenders of biblical inerrancy contend that Jesus must have been crucified earlier in the week, either on Thursday or on Wednesday, as the Internet commenter assumes (Here are a couple of attempts to make the Wednesday case I found on the Interwebs: #1 and #2).

Now, there are surely scholarly cases to be made for Thursday or Wednesday, instead of Friday, following on some of New Testament scholar Brant Pitre’s research on the date of the Last Supper (Pitre is Roman Catholic, by the way… this Sacred Page podcast interviews him about his research). Frankly, it does not matter to me what day Jesus was actually crucified. If it really mattered that much, the Holy Scripture would be a lot more clear about the subject. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to uphold the traditional view. The important thing is that Jesus was crucified for our sins and then was raised from the dead, no matter what the exact chronology.

I consulted the blog of our friend Andreas Köestenberger, professor of New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, as he had co-written a book last year on The Final Days of Jesus. Following a basic Scriptural principle that we must interpret Scripture with Scripture, Köestenberger notes that in Luke 24:7 that Jesus is to be crucified and then rise “on the third day,” which fits in perfectly with the traditional “Good Friday” thesis.

So, does this create a contradiction that undermines the inerrancy of the Bible? Köestenberger answers this difficulty by noting that the “a day and a night” reference to a “day” is actually an idiomatic expression. In other words, “a day and a night” could mean any part of a single day. If you accept such a biblical idiom, then you do not need to insert a third night in between the crucifixion and the resurrection. Otherwise, you have created for yourself another problem for your view of biblical inerrancy since you still have to deal with Jesus rising “on the third day” according to Luke 24:7, not after the third day according to the Wednesday theory. Read professor Köestenberger’s full and very probable explanation here.

A rough parallel to the use of such an idiom can be found in English. I am very much a night owl and so sometimes I do not get to bed until just after midnight. Sometimes my wife will ask me a question that late at night, and I might say, “I will talk to you about it tomorrow, OK?” Now, did I just commit an error and lie to my wife? After all, technically speaking, it is after midnight, and we are already into “tomorrow.” No, my use of “tomorrow” is simply another way of saying that I need to get a good night sleep before I try to answer her question. That is all. To try to read any more into that is just being persnickety.

My second observation and my biggest gripe with the Internet comment is how this person applies this “truth” that Jesus was not crucified on Good Friday. For the commenter, the “Good Friday Myth” is just another example of “romish delusion,” which is just another way of saying that Roman Catholicism is at the root of this error. Furthermore, it implies that anyone who goes along with “Good Friday” is guilty of perpetuating the “delusion” of Roman Catholicism.

This really is not the place to go into questions regarding Roman Catholicism. My objection is that the Internet commenter has taken a particular position on a controversial issue and applied it as part of wide-ranging polemic against an entire system of belief that is at odds with theirs without sufficient warrant. Right off of the bat, there are big problems with this. First, the “Good Friday” tradition extends back much further than “Roman Catholicism” into the early history of the church. The Eastern Orthodox community that goes back into those early years as well also celebrates “Good Friday,” and they do not accept papal authority. Secondly, the implication is that any Protestant who follows the practice of celebrating “Good Friday” is merely swallowing Roman Catholic “papist” practice and belief uncritically. The sixteenth century leaders of the magisterial Reformation would probably take issue with such a sweeping accusation.

If someone takes the position that the crucifixion happened on a Wednesday or Thursday, then there can surely be no harm in doing so in principle. However, I would argue that such a conviction may also indicate that there is another agenda going on that tears at the fabric of the unity of the evangelical church. If someone is wondering why the topic of “biblical inerrancy” comes under such needless scorn, one need not look any further than the misguided attempts of some who wish to deconstruct the “Good Friday Myth.” How you present your argument is just as important as what the argument really is.

Additional Resources:

Ralph Woodrow, a Southern California evangelist, at one time embraced the idea that “Good Friday” was merely a product of the so-called pagan roots associated with Roman Catholicism, opting for the Wednesday view instead. However, after further reflection, Woodrow changed his view and has since adopted the traditional “Good Friday” view of when the crucifixion happened. Woodrow is an interesting figure in that he wrote Babylon Mystery Religion in 1966, a stridently anti-Catholic book based on the pseudo-scholarship of Alexander Hislop, introduced here on Veracity. However, in 1997, Woodrow, who is still an evangelical Christian, published a different book, The Babylonian Connection?, that publicly refuted his earlier work when he learned that Alexander Hislop was not really a reliable historian. It takes great courage for a man to write one book and then publicly come out later and say that he was wrong. In this essay, Woodrow argues that the heart of the earth in Matthew 12:40 is actually a symbolic reference to the city of Jerusalem, and it is not necessarily a reference only to the time period of Jesus’ death. If Woodrow is correct, then this further negates the need to contend for the Wednesday crucifixion view in that it is quite clear that Jesus faced his greatest trial and humiliation for three days and three nights in the city of Jerusalem, starting on Thursday with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and ending on Sunday morning!


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