Monday, July 13, 2009

Repudiating Bad Information

In part five of my Examining the Pagan Christ series, I used a quote by Dr. John McRay that is lifted from page 101-102 of The Case for Christ. If you go through the article, you will notice that I have now crossed that citation out. The reason behind this is that I have discovered that the information presented there is false: Jeff Vardaman never showed an actual coin, all he left behind was a drawing of the alleged coin. Thus I would like to ask folks to refrain from using that spurious information.

So what now? How do we resolve the dates set forth in Matthew and Luke? I tried to look for some sources that can make the case without relying on the spurious Vardaman coin. So far, I have found these two:

We know also that Quirinius had been made consul in 12 B.C. and a person of his rank serving in the East frequently had far-reaching authority and duties. It is thus not improbably that, acting as Caesar’s agent, he had Herod take a census. [1]

And then there is this:

Luke clearly intends to secure the historical and chronological moorings of Jesus’ birth. Ironically, it is precisely this that has led some to question Luke’s accuracy.

The first census (i.e., enrollment prior to taxation) known to have occurred under the governorship of Quirinius took place later (i.e., A.D. 6) than usually reckoned as the time of Jesus’ birth. Reference to this census is found in both Act_5:37 and Josephus (Antiq. XVIII, 26 [ii.1]). Many have supposed that Luke confused this census of A.D. 6 with one he thinks was taken earlier, but which lacks historical support. The most satisfactory solutions that have been proposed follow.

1. Quirinius had a government assignment in Syria at this time and conducted a census in his official capacity. Details of this census may have been common knowledge in Luke’s time but are now lost to us (cf. E.M. Blaiklock, “Quirinius,” ZPEB, 5:56). An incomplete MS describes the career of an officer whose name is not preserved but whose actions sound as if he might have been Quirinius. He became imperial “legate of Syria” for the “second time.” While this is ambiguous, it may be a clue that Quirinius served both at the time of Jesus’ birth and a few years later (cf. F.F. Bruce, “Quirinius,” NBD, p. 9).

2. The word prote can be construed to mean not “first,” as usually translated, but “former” or “prior.” The meaning of v. Luk_2:2 is then “This census was before that made when Quirinius was governor” (N. Turner, Grammatical Insights into the New Testament [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1966], pp. 4; idem, Syntax, p. 32).

It was customary to return to one’s original home for such a census. Also, powerful as he was, Herod was only a client king under Rome and, like others, was subject to orders for a census. Furthermore, it is scarcely conceivable that Luke, careful researcher that he was (Luk_1:14), would have stressed the census unless he had reasonable historical grounds for doing so. (See further F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 4], pp. 192-94; Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian, pp. 98-104. [2]

I have asked about the second solution given in the second quote to someone who knows Greek better than me, since some skeptic websites have questioned the propriety of translating πρωτη as "before," and I was told that it is indeed acceptable if context demands it. Quite frankly, I can't claim to know why no translation ever translates it that way, so whatever merits that solution may have, I would prefer to go with the first solution provided.

So does that completely resolve the question? I'm not sure myself. I would exhort readers to search the matter for themselves and find good answers to this question. After all, the Lord has promised that the truth will set us free (John 8:21).

End Notes
1. Green, Joel, Scot McKnight and Howard Marshall. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. p. 68.
2. Expositor's Bible Commentary, NT edition. p. 217.

(Special thanks to Wired4truth for providing me with the second citation.)

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