Historical judgment about dubious claims should not affect the interpretation of narrative material. First we understand what the text is trying to say; then we may proceed to render judgment about its claims and perhaps make our own. But whatever history we write, Luke’s narrative art will still attest (however incredibly) an unprecedented Roman census in Herod’s kingdom. Quirinius may not belong there and then, but his ostensible presence does not erase the larger narrative situation.
The misguided tenets of “historical criticism” allowed “critical” reading to become editorial rewriting, but exegesis does not have the power to tell us what is true. Nor should one blotch ruin our sight of the whole portrait. If Tolkien had given Gandalf a Winchester rifle, you wouldn’t put middle earth into modern times. You’d just find that one bit to be out of place. And so it is with Luke 2.
But this is only one example.
Many arguments in biblical studies have swallowed gnats and thereby strained out camels. We must recover reading narratives as literary histories, reconstructing the larger situational context for specific exegetical meanings, and we must bring in historical judgment only once we have first grasped the author’s vision of events as an overall tapestry.
The referential details of a narrative text may be low hanging fruit, but they are less critical for determining the historical significance of a text than the representational aspects of an overall narrative construction.
If you’re eager to read a great deal more from me on this topic, feel free to raise money and buy me a few months off work so I can finish this thesis!