Tag Archives: luke

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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Paul’s Early Visits to Jerusalem: Does Acts Conflict with Galatians?

In Acts 15, the first great church council meeting counts as the third visit Paul paid to Jerusalem, after his conversion, according to a face value reading of Acts. But Galatians records only two visits to Jerusalem by Paul. Is the chronology within the Bible in conflict?

Skeptics of the Bible like to point out things like this as “errors,” but that judgment is premature. There is much scholarly debate, but historically there are two main theories as to how the problem could be resolved. But without descending into too much detail, there is also a more recent proposal that might better explain the difficulties.

Acts records a first visit of Paul to Jerusalem in Acts 9:26-30, following his escape from Damascus, in a basket, lowered by his friends (Acts 9:23-25). The second visit is commonly called the “famine” visit, when Paul and Barnabas are sent from Antioch to deliver help to the church in Jerusalem, in Acts 11:27-30. The third visit, in Acts 15:1-29, Paul has a “public” meeting with the church leaders in Jerusalem, to try to resolve the conflict regarding the status of welcoming the Gentiles into the then Jewish-dominated church. Paul makes at least one more visit later to Jerusalem in Acts, but that visit is not relevant to this chronology problem.

Compare this to what we read in Galatians, Paul’s letter to the church there, intended to resolve the dispute over the Judaizers, who wished to impose circumcision on the Gentile believers in Jesus. Paul appeals to his authority as an apostle, called directly by God, to overrule the legalism of the Judaizers.

To make his case, in Galatians 1:11-24, Paul tells of being converted by a personal revelation from the Lord Jesus. After spending three years in Damascus, Paul goes to Jerusalem, only visiting the apostles Peter and James, meeting them for the first time.

Then, in Galatians 2:1-10, Paul writes of returning again to Jerusalem, “after fourteen years” (Is this fourteen years after his conversion, or fourteen years after his first visit to Jerusalem? We do not know). Paul took Barnabas again, along with Titus, to address the circumcision issue with the Jerusalem apostles (Click on the image below, to expand the image).

The evangelical apologist Norman Geisler champions the traditional view, namely that this second meeting in Galatians corresponds to the third meeting found in Acts; that is, Galatians 2 = Acts 15. Geisler admits some problems here: (a) Galatians 2 records a private visit, whereas Acts 15 describes a public visit, (b) Galatians mentions nothing about any council decree, whereas Acts 15 specifically mentions a council decree. On the flip side, there is evidence favoring this solution: (a) Luke in Acts 15 is emphasizing the public decision regarding Paul’s message, whereas Galatians is interested in private affirmation of Paul’s call to ministry among the Gentiles;  (b) Paul and Barnabas faced stiff opposition in both Galatians 2 and Acts 15; and (c) the persons mentioned in Galatians 2 and Acts 15 more clearly match, as well as the overall timing of the events.

The main obstacle with Geisler’s solution is that it suggests that Paul simply omitted the mention of a third visit to Jerusalem, as described in Acts. Yet Galatians specifically spells out a total of two visits to Jerusalem by Paul, and no more. Omitting the description of a third visit would probably raise some suspicion by Paul’s critics, and does not adequately remove from the reader the specter of error in the Bible. After all, Paul’s driving point is that he gets his apostolic calling directly from revelation, and not from any man, not even the Jerusalem apostles (Galatians 1:11-12). He was basically unknown to the churches of Judea, prior to the meeting in Galatians 2 (Galatians 1:22). If Paul were to ignore yet an extra visit to Jerusalem, it would tarnish Paul’s credibility.

Dallas Seminary and New Testament scholar Darrell Bock champions a different solution, associating the Acts 11:27-30 visit with the Galatians 2:1-10 visit; that is, Acts 11:27-30 = Galatians 2:1-10. He cites three main reasons to support this view: (a) In Galatians, Paul’s second visit is instigated by a “revelation” (Galatians 2:2), and this could tie in with the prophecy of Agabus in Acts 11; (b) Paul mentions that he desired to “remember the poor” in the second visit of Galatians (Galatians 2:10), and this affirms the reason mentioned in Acts 11 for that visit to Jerusalem, namely to offer a gift to the church there, to aid in famine relief; and (c) the problem being addressed in Galatians 2 concerns having table fellowship with Gentiles, whereas the controversy in Acts 15 is about circumcision, making it less likely that the incidents are the same.

Bock’s solution does have its difficulties. It assumes that Galatians was written before the events described in Acts 15, and in general, it moves up the time table traditionally associated with the movements of Paul. Combined with some skepticism over the interpretation of the positive points of evidence mentioned by Bock, not all scholars find the assumptions proposed by supporters of Bock’s solution to be agreeable: (a) Paul’s revelation may not be related to the prophecy of Agabus. As in much of Paul’s writings, Galatians indicates more that the “revelation” had to do with Paul himself, and not necessarily something to do with another person, like Agabus; (b) there is no requirement to assume that the call to “remember the poor” be limited only to one visit; and (c) the issue of table fellowship with the Gentiles derives directly from the controversy over circumcision, as well as the Jewish food laws. It need not be separated.

More recently, Duke University New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre proposes a newer solution that should be taken seriously, in view of the difficulties associated with the previously proposed solutions. To understand Goodacre’s solution, it requires the student of Scripture to have a better understanding of the genre of the Book of Acts.

According to New Testament scholar, Michael Licona, most scholars today recognize that the Gospels, as well as the Book of Acts, can be shown to take the literary form of Greco-Roman biographies, the “bios” genre. Greco-Roman biographers were concerned about chronology, but not in the same manner as modern biographers and historians are today. Unlike modern biographies, Greco-Roman biographies do not share the same degree of precision when it comes to narrating the chronology of historical events. Greco-Roman biographies were known at times to sacrifice certain precise details of chronology, in order to achieve other literary aims, namely, to highlight the character of the person or persons being studied. In other words, the writers of the Gospels and Acts were not required to follow the literary standards of doing biography and history that we would require today. Instead, they would follow the literary standards commonly accepted in the Mediterranean cultures of the first century.

Licona’s thesis in Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography gives examples of how the New Testament authors would use various compositional devices in order to achieve the literary aims of those authors. Perhaps there is a Greco-Roman compositional device associated with Acts that can help relieve the chronological problems reconciling Acts and Galatians.

Mark Goodacre finds agreement with the positive case, presented by those like Norman Geisler, that the so-called third visit in Acts  to Jerusalem, in Acts 15, is the same as the second visit in Galatians, in Galatians 2. There is a long history of accepting this view, going back as early as the church father of the 2nd century, Irenaeus.

However, Goodacre proposes that the first visit in Acts (Acts 9) is actually the same as the second visit in Acts (Acts 11). In other words, Acts 9:26-30 and Acts 11:27-30 are in reality the same visits to Jerusalem, narrated twice. This is the proposed chronology that is offered by Goodacre’s solution, starting from the end of Paul’s time in Damascus:

  • Paul (then Saul) escapes via the basket from Damascus (Acts 9:23-25).
  • Paul then makes his way to the area of Tarsus, his home town, and eventually arrives in Antioch, to receive the gift of the believers there, to be given to the elders of the Jerusalem church to aid in famine relief (Acts 11:25-30).
  • Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem, the first visit described in Galatians 1:11-24.
  • This is also the same visit described in Acts 9:26-30.
  • Paul is then brought to Caesarea, and then sent off to Tarsus, per Acts 9:30.
  • Years later, after Paul’s first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas, along with Titus, go to Jerusalem for both a private meeting with the apostles, to affirm Paul’s call to ministry, as well as to participate in the public church debate over the Jewish/Gentiles controversy, leading to the decision of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. Therefore Acts 15 and Galatians 2 describe the same incidents.

Goodacre describes Acts 9 as a type of “flash forward” of the events described in Acts 11. But it might be better to think of Acts 11 as a “flashback” to the events of Acts 9, which might fit in well with the use of such compositional devices found in other Greco-Roman biographies.

It would be reasonable to suggest that Luke effectively repeats the story of Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem, between Acts 9 and Acts 11, to tie those passages together. In the interim, Luke in Acts 9:32 to Acts 11:18 picks up the story of Peter, specifically focusing on the story of Cornelius, the Gentile Roman military officer, and his conversion to Christ. Once done with the story of Peter and Cornelius, Luke recalls where he earlier stopped off with telling Paul’s story, and to bring things back to Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem.

Why does Luke do this? We can not be completely certain. It is quite possible that Luke’s objective in Acts is to narrate how the church grew from being a Jewish-only movement to becoming a Jewish-Gentile movement, centered around the mission of Paul, a converted Jew to Christ, to share the Gospel with the Gentiles. In other words, Luke selects material from the history of the early church, to focus first on Peter, and then to transition to the character of the apostle Paul. It would only be fitting for Luke to build up the story of how the church overcame the problems between Jew and Gentile, by temporarily highlighting the background and story of Peter’s interactions with Cornelius, before returning to his main narrative, following the apostle Paul.

Those who object to this solution might complain that Acts 9 only makes mention of Paul’s movements from Damascus to Jerusalem, with no intervening travels. But this objection is no more a difficulty than the fact that Luke also makes no mention of Paul’s time in Arabia in Acts 9, while operating out of Damascus, as mentioned in Galatians 1:17. It simply was not a concern of Luke’s to mention all of those precise details in his narrative.

But perhaps the biggest objection to be raised is the assumption that Luke is rearranging, if not repeating, his chronology in Acts, with respect to Paul’s travels in Acts 9 and Acts 11. It is true that a face value reading of Acts would suggest the presence of three visits to Jerusalem, by Paul, by the time of the Acts 15 Jerusalem council, and not two. Nothing in Acts specifically would indicate otherwise. It is only the desire to reconcile the chronology of Galatians that causes concern.

On the other hand, if indeed the Book of Acts is a good example of the Greco-Roman biographical genre, then it should not surprise us to find Luke using compositional devices often associated with that genre. In fact, we should be surprised if Luke did not use such compositional devices in his writing.

Mark Goodacre’s solution is not without criticism, and it would be wrong to dogmatically assert this as the only possible answer to this chronological difficulty. The other proposals have their strengths as well. But in light of the growing scholarly consensus as to a common understanding of the first century, Greco-Roman literary context of the Book of Acts, it might be well worth considering Goodacre’s approach as a legitimate solution.

This situation causes frustration for some contemporary readers, who desire a resolution to chronological problems, for the sake of preserving biblical inerrancy. For those who wish to defend the Scriptures, some probably wonder why the Scriptural text does not spell things out more clearly. Some might complain that if Luke really wanted us to believe that the so-called first (Acts 9) and second (Acts 11) visits of Paul to Jerusalem were really the same, then the Bible would explicitly come out and say that!

The problem with this way of thinking is that it assumes the narratives of the New Testament should behave in the same manner as modern histories and biographies. Sadly, this misguided expectation mirrors a type of cynical and crass skepticism, that encourages critics to dump all of the Bible, simply because the Bible supposedly fails to measure up to “our” modern expectations of what good history and biography should look like.

When we are reading the Bible, we must keep in mind a basic principle of Bible interpretation: The Bible was written for us, but not to us.  “Face value” readings of Scripture often ignore the context in which the biblical writers originally wrote. Confusion over what interpretation of the Bible is best, often arises, because not enough attention has been paid to literary and historical context. The presuppositions of believers and critics alike must take into account the evidence for the prevailing literary practices of the first century, and resist the tendency of anachronistically imposing certain standards on the Gospel writers, that they had no conscious intention of ever meeting.

Norman Geisler’s views are published in his Galatians introduction, as found in A Popular Survey of the New Testament. Darrell Bock’s views are published in his Act: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Aside from his New Testament blog, I am not aware of where/if Mark Goodacre has put his ideas into print.

 

 


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