August 28, 2022

Why the Lukan Census is NOT set in 6 CE

 Today's post is about reading narrative properly when that narrative includes a dubious historical reference. Today's lesson is that figuring out Luke's narrative's temporal setting (aka historical context) requires us to put more weight on that narrative's overall construction of reality, rather than a single detail. Today's key point is that Luke purports and depicts a particular kind of registration event, one which counts heads and affects people living in Galilee, whereas the census of 6 CE was entirely unlike Luke's census on both of these points. Today's conclusion is that Luke's census (whether representing truth or fiction) cannot be mistaken for the census of Quirinius, unless one does not understand how to make sense of Luke's narrative as a representation of reality.

 Now, here comes today's blogging.

 Think of Luke's reference to Quirinius like the address number on the front of a house. If someone painted your house with your neighbor's address number, would your neighbor come tell you to get out of their home? Think of Luke's reference to Quirinius like the hood ornament of a car. If someone put a little jaguar figurine on the front of their Volkswagen, would you then expect to pay twice as much for the VW? Think of Luke's reference to Quirinius like a name tag on a colleague or co-worker. If you walked up to Mark Goodacre at SBL and you saw that his name tag said "Lou Ferrigno" then you might make a Hulk joke but you would never sincerely mistake the telegenic British Jesus scholar for the arguably less telegenic Italian actor and bodybuilder.

 Despite your immediate grasp of these common sense illustrations, I came across the common error yet again tonight. On page 138 of Bruce Chilton's new Herod book, he correctly observes that Matthew's Gospel places Jesus's birth in the days of Herod the Great but then says "Luke's Gospel disagrees, placing the event a decade later. Luke makes Jesus's birth coincide with the Roman intervention that ended Archelaus's tenure in a census under the Roman governor Quirinius." 

 Ahem. Luke does no such thing.

 First, that "Roman intervention that ended Archelaus's tenure in a census" did not include a registration of persons. Josephus (Ant. 17.355) tells us, "Quirinius, a man of consular rank, was sent by Caesar to take a census of property in Syria and to sell the estate of Archelaus." (The Loeb edition unfortunately includes a footnote from Wikgren preceding Chilton in the misguided Lukan conflation.) Let's hone in on that key detail: a census of property. According to our only source on this, Quirinius did not undertake a registration of people, whereas Luke's purported census famously says that every man had to be counted. Note carefully here that Luke's claim does not need to be verified in order to be comprehensible; we clearly have a depiction of something other than what Quirinius is said to have done. 

 The Augustan age observed two types of taxation: the poll tax (tributum capitis) and the land tax (tributum soli). The land tax was the older custom, practiced widely in antiquity, and historically such "tribute" could often be paid at least partly in kind., which helps explain why Josephus could plausibly claim that Julius Caesar had exempted Judea from taxes "in the seventh year." Ancient wealth was almost exclusively landed, which made the property tax a prudent first step when Augustus exiled Archelaus and annexed his territories. The best way for Rome to begin raising revenues from Judea was to survey the holdings of wealthy landowners. The proconsul's property based survey was also a complimentary activity so that Quirinius could ascertain which holdings were definitely owned by Archelaus, free and clear of other claims, and thus which holdings were immediately and directly forfeit.

 For these reasons, there should be no doubt that Quirinius was indeed sent (if he was sent at all) to take a registration of property rather than people.

 The second major problem with Chilton and Wikgren's misguided conflation is that Quirinius was explicitly sent to conduct his registration within the bounds of Archelaus's surrendered territories. Obviously this excludes the domains of Antipas and Philip, and yet no one seems to have noticed that Luke's purported census requires at least one resident of Galilee to be counted along with Judeans. \

 Now, if someone wants to suggest cleverly that Joseph could have been called to Judea on the basis of property he owned in Judea, then I say do not put the cart of historical hypothesis in front of the horse of narratological interpretation. Even if we set aside the charge of special pleading, this is not the appropriate time to consider whether the historical Joseph might have owned property which was subject to the assigned scope of Quirinius's registration. The question at hand regards Luke's depiction. Nowhere in his narration does Luke suggest anything that might imply Joseph owns property in Judea, let alone whether such an invisible detail might be the sole cause of his needing to join in the census. Quite the contrary, Luke 2:3 explicitly claims that it was not merely Joseph but ἐπορεύοντο πάντες ἀπογράφεσθαι, ἕκαστος εἰς τὴν αυτοῦ πόλιν. Purportedly, "everyone" had to be counted. Purportedly, "everyone" had to travel.

 Again, please note the potential veracity of Luke's astonishing claim does not impenge on the question at hand, which remains exclusively focused on whether or not Luke's constructed narrative should be read against the backdrop of the year 6 CE. In sum, the issue is when Luke sets his story. If Luke presents us with a census in which Galilean residents are being counted by Roman administration, then Luke has not presented us with a census that mirrors the known events of Quirinius's census in 6 CE.

  Why, then, did Luke mention Quirinius? I return to my three common sense illustrations at top. If you see your neighbor's house number on your house, you have found a mistake. If you see a small jaguar on the hood of a VW, you are looking at a dubiously modified VW. If you see Mark Goodacre wearing the wrong nametag, you are either looking at a jokester or else someone who has been pranked. Along these lines, the most likely explanation has always been and will always be that Luke goofed on a detail. He got the name wrong. An alternative mistake--and this is less likely linguistically but it fits better into Luke's overall narrative--is that Luke got his grammar wrong, using πρώτη to mean "before" rather than "first". Either way, as Mary Smallwood offered decades ago, quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus.

 Whatever the case with this name dropped in 2:2, my purpose today was to demonstrate that a singular reference should not matter more in our exegetical work than the overall situation being depicted by Luke's narration as a whole. Luke's story world entails activities which imply their own setting within the days of the unified Herodian kingdom. 

 Thus, you remain free to suppose that Luke made it all up but you should no longer parrot the claim that Luke's text implies Jesus was born in the aftermath of Archelaus's exile. As this humble blogpost amply demonstrates, Luke's text does no such thing. Quite to the contrary, Luke's narration exhibits a profound lack of any possible detail which might cause his story to align recognizably with the census conducted by Quirinius. Rather, Luke has constructed a story which specifically depicts a time and place when the people Galilee and Judea were supposedly being registered by the Romans, at once.

 By the way, there's a larger methodological issue behind all of this. I wish more Jesus scholars would ask why it is that scholarship on the Gospels has so willfully disregarded the hermeneutic challenge of receiving narratives as representation. I wish I did not need to inform Gospel scholars that the contextual implications of an overall narrative representation should be weighed more heavily, for the purposes of basic reading comprehension, than a single reference to a person whose claim to fame lies demonstrably outside the given narrative situation.

 But I do need to explain this. Apparently.

 And so I shall keep explaining it.


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