Why are the birth narratives so different? (II)

Secondly, it takes a particular interpretation of the differences between Matthew and Luke to come up with a flat contradiction within the birth narratives. For example, you will hear Bart say things such as “Well it appears that Luke thinks that Jesus is really from Nazareth, even though he was born in Bethlehem according to Luke. Whereas in Matthew, they are at home in Bethlehem and later they go to Nazareth after a sojourn in Egypt. So this is obviously a contradiction. Jesus is called ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, that is who he is and that is where he came from. Clearly one or the other of these accounts is wrong because there is a contradiction.” Yet, when you look more closely at what is going on in these narratives, Matthew does not claim that they had never been to Nazareth before they went to Bethlehem. And Luke does not suggest that Bethlehem was just an accidental place they went. It is the family home, in a sense. It is somewhere they needed to go for the census. Bart often sets-up a false antinomy or dilemma that really is not in the text. I am sure Matthew and Luke would quickly clarify and correct Bart that he is over-reading evidence.

First, there is the problem of genre. Second, there is the problem of over-reading the evidence. Thirdly, there is the misinterpretation of the evidence. Let’s take the cause célèbre which Dr. Ehrman uses to discredit Luke, namely the whole issue of the census. The argument goes like this, “Luke is claiming that there was a census by Quirinius when Quirinius was governor of Syria at about the time Jesus was going to be born. Poor Luke – he did not have his history straight. Every scholar knows that the census in question took place in 6 AD, but Jesus was born in BC. This is a clear historical error. How can we possibly trust Luke after this?” In fact, we do not know nearly as much about Quirinius as we would like to know, but what we do know about him is that he was already the legate in Syria at the time Jesus was born in BC. We also know the Roman Empire took censuses for the sake of taxation – that was its purpose. Fighting wars all over the place, Rome needed to keep coming up with revenue. We have perfectly clear evidence from Egypt that there was the linking between census and tax collection. And people had to go to their ancestral homes to report. There is historical evidence from Egypt, so why would we assume the province of Judea would be any different? There is no reason to do that. In addition, if you actually read the Greek of the story about the census carefully, it is perfectly possible to read it as saying that the census referred to is the one before the famous cause célèbre, the census of Quirinius. The Greek can certainly be read that way. Joseph Fitzmyr in his commentary on Luke says so, and he is right about this. So why does Dr. Ehrman and others insist on his particular reading of this Greek text? It is because it serves the cause of saying Luke is a bad historian, and thus can be discredited.

An element in Dr. Ehrman’s work that bothers me the most is the assumption that we know more than Luke or Matthew knew about these historical circumstances. This assumption – unfortunately all too common with many scholars – is unfair. It is an argument from silence. “Because we do not have detailed evidence of a census around 2 to 4 BC, it must not have happened.” That is an argument from silence. I am sorry, but you need an argument from evidence, not an argument from silence if you are going to make such a case.