Previously: In trusting Luke’s gospel we still have to rank details by credibility, at least for prioritizing what holds the most weight during historical reconstruction. Now...
Luke’s account of the census seems confusing on various points, but there is one simple aspect about which he is extremely consistent. It seems almost too simple to mention, but in fact it’s the most central, significant point that does need to be made. In fact, it is Luke’s own, central point – one he mentions four times in the brief passage at hand. And what is that point? Simply this: There was a census.
For purposes of historical inquiry, this is tremendous enough. If we leave aside the (confusing) Gospel details about the timing, scope and method of the event, Luke is at least extremely clear in testifying to us that there was one such event. To be specific, the central claim of this passage is that there was a Roman census of Herod’s Kingdom, at the time of Christ’s birth, which was both instigated and completed before Herod’s death.
That alone is a significant enough challenge to try and explain.
So forget Quirinius, the 'oikoumene' and the hometown arrangement – at least, for a while. Proving that Luke's text isn't *necessarily* inconsistent doesn't prove that (much less how or when or why) the census took place. We need a cause and a context. We need a cohesive scenario. We need classical history.
IF… IF… IF we can verify this central claim somehow, by going to the Roman sources… IF we can date that event by means apart from Luke’s text… IF we can find evidence of any kind that suggests when and how such a census occurred… THEN, THEN, THEN (and perhaps ONLY then) we might have enough perspective on the event to determine how the rest of Luke’s confusing testimony should be viewed. All else is blind wishful thinking.
Creative interpretations of Luke’s apparent disarray are in ample supply. Strong faith is more than capable of defending the scriptures. Amen, and praise the Lord, indeed! But historical reconstruction requires a different approach. I don’t care about coming up with things Luke might have meant, in order to show that he could be accurate. Please. Is that really our aim?
I care about figuring out logically what really, actually(*) happened! That’s what I call faith-based historiography. That’s what I’m after, here.
I believe I’ve made my major point. Now, before I close this series, I need to apply it.
To be concluded...
(*) most likely, as best we can tell - that part should go without saying