The Question at Issue
NEITHER Mark nor John mentions where Jesus was born. Mark 1:9 says: "Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized of John in the Jordan". In John 1:45 Philip speaks of him as "Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph"; and in Acts 10:38 Peter mentions "Jesus of Nazareth".

These expressions obviously do not imply that Mark, or John, or the author of Acts considered Nazareth to be the place of Jesus' birth. They merely show that Nazareth was universally considered to be the abode of his parents, the place which had been his home, coming from which he had appeared before the world. Similarly the expression, "son of Joseph," used by Philip in John 1:45, cannot be taken as indicating John's own opinion, but merely as showing the current belief.

Again, John 7:40, 41, quotes the opinions expressed in Jerusalem about Jesus: some of the multitude said: "This is of a truth the prophet": others said: "This is the Christ": but some said: "What, does the Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said that the Christ cometh of the seed of David and from Bethlehem?"

These are the popular sayings, and it is obvious that they are arranged to form a climax; but the last, which is really the strongest recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, gains all the more emphasis because it has the form of an objection to him. He was the Prophet: He was the Christ: He fulfilled all the prophecies about the coming of the Christ. The irony, which makes the objectors unconsciously bear such emphatic witness in his favor, might have been expected to be clear and impressive to every rational mind. But there is no blindness so complete as that of the historical critic with a bad theory to maintain; and the critics of this class actually quote this passage as a proof that John did not believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Would they be consistent, and maintain also that John did not believe him to be of the seed of David, though that was indubitably the accepted doctrine of the early Church, as is attested by Paul, Romans 1:3 and 2 Timothy 2:8, as well as by the Synoptics?

But the two points mentioned by the objectors must go together. They who quote 7:41 as a proof that John did not know the second point must infer also that John did not know the first. Every Christian reader of John's Gospel would recognize the irony involved in the first point, for he knew the doctrine set forth by Paul and the Synoptics. He would therefore necessarily recognize that the second point was also ironical.

Accordingly, every scholar who judges literature on literary grounds will recognize that the writer of the fourth Gospel assumes such perfect familiarity in his readers with the story of the birth in Bethlehem, that not merely must he be ranked among the witnesses to it, but he must have written at a time when this belief was a part of recognized Christian teaching; and it is probable that this will be urged by some scholars as a proof that the fourth Gospel springs from a much later period, after the story as given by Matthew and Luke had had time to become a fundamental part of Church doctrine.

But a remarkable feature in the Gospels, at least of Matthew, Luke and John, is that they assume in their readers such a background of knowledge about the life of the Savior. They are written for the use of persons who were already Christians, and who already had the life of Jesus in their minds as the foundation of their faith. None of the Gospels is intended to be a formal biography: their completeness is moral and spiritual and not historical:" [31] they are, in reality, Gospels. But the facts of the life of Jesus were fundamental in the Gospel, and from that point of view each Gospel had to present a record of facts, actions and words sufficient to bear the structure of faith which had to rest upon it. But John, in particular, assumes that his readers know the facts recorded in the Synoptic Gospels, and his work is an unintelligible phenomenon in literature unless this is recognized.

Now Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Matthew 2:6 points out that this place of birth was the fulfillment of the prophecy that the Ruler of Israel was to be born there. Yet they are also fully aware that Jesus was considered by the world to be a native of Nazareth, and that he had been brought up from infancy in that city. Matthew 2:23 again sees in the up-bringing at Nazareth the fulfillment of another prophecy. How, then, do they account for the general oblivion of the real place of birth?

Matthew begins with the birth of Jesus. He tells nothing about any previous connection of his parents with Nazareth; but says that they retired to Nazareth while the Child was still an infant, being in fear of the reigning King of Judea. If Luke's History had not been preserved, it would have been unhesitatingly concluded on the authority of Matthew that the parents of Jesus had never lived at Nazareth until after the birth of the Child. And though Matthew does not explicitly assert that, yet it is hard to think that he could have expressed himself as he has done, if he had known that the parents had their original home in Nazareth.

Luke goes farther back, in accordance with his profession to have studied all things from their origin. He mentions that both Joseph and Mary resided at Nazareth. He tells that they made frequent visits to Jerusalem, and that the mother had relatives there or in the neighborhood; and he explains what was the cause that led them to make a brief visit to Bethlehem at such a moment that Jesus was born there.

Luke does not indeed say explicitly in so many words that the visit was intended to be a mere temporary one; and this has led some commentators to suggest that there may have been an intent on the part of the parents to change their residence to Bethlehem. But the cause stated in John 2:4, 5, implies a mere temporary visit; and the language of Luke 2:39 shows that after the brief visit they returned to their own city, Nazareth, and implies that this had always been their intention.

The occasion of this short visit to Bethlehem is thus described by Luke. In accordance with the orders of the Roman Emperor, Augustus, there was made an enrollment, or numbering, of the population of Herod's kingdom; and this was made according to households and tribal descent and local tribal connection, so that those Hebrews who were not residing in the proper city of their tribe and family were obliged to go to their city in order to be enrolled there.

Further, it seems to be implied that the wife, as well as the head of the house, had to go to the proper city (or for some reason felt it a duty to go), so that the household as a whole might be numbered in the tribal and family center.

Joseph, then, with Mary, his wife, went to his proper city, Bethlehem, to be numbered there among his own people, "because he was of the house and family of David".

It has been maintained by many scholars in modern times that the census is either a fiction or a blunder; that the circumstances connected with it, which Luke relates, are contrary to history; and, in short, that the story is unhistorical and impossible, not in one way merely, but in several. It is asserted as unquestionable that the sole germ out of which the story has developed is the fact, recorded by Josephus, that about AD.6-7 there was made a census and valuation of Palestine, the first and the only one which the Romans held in that country; and that Luke has transferred this census, with the officer, Quirinius, who made it, to a different period about nine or twelve years earlier, when it was for various reasons impossible that any census could have occurred.

It has been urged with triumphant certainty as established on incontrovertible evidence that the whole story of chapter 2, with all its pathetic and romantic incidents, is a mere fiction, destitute of even as much historical foundation as most historical novels possess. It is asserted as a demonstrated truth that the story contradicts the established facts of contemporary history; and that any one who accepts the ordinary canons of historical reasoning must relegate the whole talc of the birth of Christ to the realm of imaginative fiction. Nor is it only the extreme school of critics that reject the talc as an invention. Many of those scholars who thoroughly accept the trust-worthiness of the Gospel narrative as a whole abandon the attempt to defend this incident, and either pass by on the other side, or frankly admit that it is at least in part erroneous, a mixture of Dichtung und Wahrheit.

Against the trustworthiness of this narrative the following are the main lines of argument: --

1. It is declared to be a demonstrated fact that Augustus never ordered any general "Enrollment," or census, to be made of the whole Roman world. Gardthausen, the latest historian of Augustus, speaks most emphatically on this point. He goes even so far as to declare that it is inconsistent with Augustus's aims to attribute to him any such intention: he quotes the words of Luke, and then adds that, for the emperor's plans, a general census of the empire was neither necessary nor suitable. [32]

The eminent German scholar here displays a familiarity with Augustus's intentions and the limits of his aims, which is quite unjustified by the scanty evidence accessible to us. Such assumption of the right to pronounce negative judgments is not the spirit in which the history of Augustus ought to be written, and such a wild statement as this shows a momentary loss of the historic instinct, which enables a writer to distinguish between legitimate inference and loose imagination. It is one of the places in Gardthausen's work where a regret rises strong in every reader's mind that Mommsen [33] has never found opportunity to write the history of that period.

In truth, the distinguished historian of Augustus was not justified in asserting more than that no evidence was known to him corroborating Luke's statement as to Augustus's intentions. It will be my aim to show that evidence was in existence, apparently unknown to Gardthausen, which affords some confirmation of Luke's assertion; and establishes it, when Luke's words are properly translated, on a basis of high historical probability.

2. Even if Augustus had ordered a census to be made of the whole empire, it is maintained that such a census would not have extended to Palestine, which was an independent kingdom and not subject to the orders of Augustus.

There is a mixture of truth and error in this line of argument. It will be our aim to demonstrate that, while the application of the Roman census by Roman officials to Herod's kingdom could not be accepted as credible, yet Luke does not speak of any such application. The argument is founded on a false interpretation. Luke nowhere asserts or implies that the census was made by a Roman official. He states that the birth of Jesus occurred in the days of Herod the King of Judea, and in the country over which that king ruled: compare 1:5 and 2:4. He merely mentions the Roman officer, Quirinius, for purposes of dating according to the ancient style, employed generally before eras and numbering of years had come into literary use, just as he mentions various kings and priests in 3:1, 2 for the same purpose. He assumes that his readers would appreciate the fact that the census in the territory of King Herod was conducted under the immediate orders of the king himself.

Further, Luke certainly understands that Herod's kingdom was a part of the Roman world, and that Herod was bound to obey orders issued by Augustus in respect of numbering the population of the Roman world.

We shall have to show -- what no one except a theological critic with a theory to maintain would dream of denying -- that Herod's kingdom was a part of the Roman world; that it was not independent, but ought rather to be styled a "dependent state"; and that any tendency on the part of such dependent kings to disregard their duty of submission to the general principles of Roman policy was sharply repressed by the emperors.

3. Even if a census had been held in Palestine, it is asserted that there would have been no necessity for Joseph and Mary to go up from Nazareth to the city of Bethlehem, inasmuch as a Roman census would be made according to the existing political and social facts, and would not require that persons should be enrolled according to their place of birth or origin. The Roman method necessarily was to count the population according to their actual residence. It is, however, an essential point in Luke's story, that it should explain how the son of a resident in Nazareth came to be born in Bethlehem, and thus fulfilled the prophecy that the Messiah was to be born in that city. Hence it is contended that Luke's fiction is doubly erroneous, for even if it were true it would not lead to that journey, which is the critical point in the history.

There can be no doubt that in the Roman census the existing facts were recorded, and that any disturbance of the existing distribution of population would defeat the purpose and impair the value of the census. Therefore, if the census which Luke had in mind were one carried out purely after the Roman method, it would not furnish the explanation which is the prime reason for mentioning the census. That must be freely conceded.

But, far from asserting that this census was carried out strictly after the Roman method, Luke explains at the outset that it was made on a different principle, not merely by households (as the Roman method [34] required), but also at the same time according to descent and stock, that is by tribes. It will be our aim to show why this modification of the Roman method was necessary for Herod in his peculiar position: he disguised the Roman and foreign character by the additional requirement that the census should be tribal and thus less alien to the national feeling.

4. It is maintained that no census was ever held in Judea until AD.6-7, on the ground that that "great census" (Acts 5:37) is described by Josephus as something novel and unheard of, rousing popular indignation and rebellion on that account.

We freely concede that the attempts which have been made to find in Josephus any allusion to an earlier census held under Herod have failed. They have been directed on the wrong lines they have been made with a view to discover signs of such a knowledge of the finances of Palestine as would imply a formal Roman census and valuation made under Herod.

We also fully acknowledge that the earliest census and valuation of property made after the Roman fashion in Palestine took place, as Josephus says, in AD.7. It is a necessary part of our case that a totally new departure was made in that year; and that the novel, unheard-of, and anti-national proceeding roused indignation and rebellion. In all that Josephus is thoroughly right. But the census of Herod was tribal and Hebraic, not anti-national. It was wholly and utterly unconnected with any scheme of Roman taxation; and it was conducted by Herod on strictly tribal methods. It roused little indignation and no rebellion; and therefore gave no reason for Josephus to notice it.

It is plain too how great an extent these four arguments against the "Enrollment" hang together, and depend on a false character ascribed to the operation. When Luke's narrative is looked at from the proper point of view by the true historical and sympathetic judgment, with the intention, not of picking all possible faults, but of understanding in the best light the testimony which he gives, we shall see that his evidence explains satisfactorily a peculiarly obscure episode in Roman provincial history. And we shall find that in one more case the progress of discovery in Egypt has set in a new light the problems that seemed insoluble to our predecessors, and made perfectly clear what was obscure to them.

In addition to these four closely connected arguments, another of a different character is advanced.

5. It is affirmed that Quirinius never governed Syria during the life of Herod, for Herod died in 4 BC. and Quirinius was governor of Syria later than 3 BC. and probably in 2 or 1 BC. Therefore a census taken in the time of Quirinius could not be associated with the birth of a child "in the days of Herod, King of Judea".

The conclusion of Mommsen, of Borghesi, and of de Rossi, that Quirinius governed Syria twice, has been generally accepted by modern scholars. Quirinius went to govern Syria for the second time in AD.6. The proof that his first governorship of Syria fell as late as the year 2 or 1 BC. is incomplete, depending on an estimate of probabilities; and it is founded on the assumption that a statement made by Suetonius is inaccurate. We shall try to show that the decided balance of probabilities is in favor of his having held command in Syria before Herod died. In the present defective state of the evidence, one cannot go further than a probable statement.

The propositions which we seek to defend are only probable. The evidence is too scanty to demonstrate any of them in such a perfectly conclusive fashion that the most prejudiced minds must be convinced. But how many of the "facts" of ancient history are demonstrated beyond all reach of cavil and dissension? Every one who has studied the foundations of ancient history knows that most of our knowledge is founded on a balance of evidence, often a very delicate balance; and, if there were any strong motive to make it worth while fighting the case, almost any detail in ancient history can be called in question. What I am concerned to maintain is that all our positions are the most probable issue of the scanty evidence, and that some of them rest on testimony, outside of Luke's writings, which in ordinary historical criticism is reckoned sufficient justification, while the others are in themselves quite natural, and there is practically no evidence against them, so that Luke's authority should be reckoned as sufficient to establish them.

The possible views with regard to the present question seem to reduce themselves to three: --

1. The story of the birth of Christ, as given by Luke, is so suspicious and encumbered with so many difficulties that it is as a whole incredible.

2. The story is true.

3. The main part of the story is true, but the reference to Quirinius is wrong, and the incident occurred ten to fourteen years before his census. It is possible to cut out the verse about Quirinius, which is a mere date added by Luke, and leave the story otherwise complete; but all the rest hangs together, and if one detail be false, everything is affected.

As to the third alternative, besides the general considerations already urged, see to what a dilemma it reduces its supporters! They acknowledge that the date is added in error by Luke. The rest they hold to be true, because Luke learned it from some other authority not so inaccurate as himself. After discrediting Luke, they proceed to accept everything that is most difficult to believe in his History. But, when the channel through which the story reaches us is unworthy of belief, everything that comes through the channel is discredited; the story has in truth not a leg to stand upon except Luke's personal authority as a safe and trustworthy judge of truth and weigher of evidence. Those who first discredit Luke's personal authority, and then attach credibility to his story, are far less reasonable and critical than they who accept the whole.

Obviously, the truth of the story in Luke 1, 2, can never be demonstrated. There will always remain a large step to be taken on faith. A marvelous event is described in it. They only will accept it who, for other reasons, have come to the conclusion that there is no adequate and rational explanation of the coming of Christianity into the world, except through the direct and "miraculous" intervention of Divine power.

But it is highly important to show that the circumstances with which Luke connects this marvelous event are true, and that, in things which can be tested, he does not fall below the standard of accuracy demanded from the ordinary historians.

Again, those who hold Luke's statement about the enrollment to be a mere blunder ought to give some explanation of the way in which the blunder originated. It is generally stated as an explanation that Luke was dependent on Josephus for the facts of general history which he mentions; and that, as he found in Josephus an account of "the Great Enrollment" made by Quirinius in AD.6-8, he erroneously connected this enrollment with the birth of Christ.

In discussing this suggested explanation, I shall lay no stress on the steadily growing consensus of opinion that all attempts to prove the dependence of Luke on Josephus have failed, and that Luke's work was composed before Josephus's work on Jewish Antiquities was published; for it is possible to maintain that the error was made through confusion and misunderstanding of some other historian's statement. Luke, who was not born when the events in question occurred, was dependent on some earlier authority or other for his knowledge of the Roman circumstances which he mentions; and the possibility of error arising must be admitted.

But it is necessary to realize clearly how much is involved in the assumption that such an error was made. It is implied not merely that Luke misplaced that important event -- fundamental in the Roman organization of Palestine -- "the great census"; but also that he distorted the character of that census, which was, beyond all doubt, conducted on the Roman system without the slightest regard to tribal connection, and that he used this distortion of the census to explain why a family belonging to Nazareth came to be present in Bethlehem. Such a series of blunders of a very gross type cannot have been mere slips or mistakes due to ignorance. They bear on their face the character of deliberate invention. They have been concocted for a purpose, viz., to lend verisimilitude to the tale that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But a tale which is buttressed by such shameful falsifications loses all claim on our belief. And what can we say about a historian who concocts such a series of inventions? What condemnation could be too strong for his shameful conduct? What words too sharp to characterize his imposture?

I put the question to any reasonable person: Is it consistent with human nature that a writer who claims to be earnestly setting forth the simple facts should begin with so impudent a series of fabrications? Can any reasonable judge believe that the author who wrote the rest of the two books could be guilty of such deliberate deception?

Another explanation may perhaps be offered, viz., that Luke did not himself invent the connection between the birth of Jesus and this fraudulent census, but that he incautiously adopted a series of errors which had either grown in popular tradition or been invented by some older writer.

In the first place, we reply, oriental tradition does not take this character: it does not invent such a circumstantial historical setting, whose aim is to work an incident into a place in Roman Imperial history. The census would obviously have been introduced here, not by popular fancy, but by the calculated invention of a person trying to give plausibility to a fiction.

Secondly, Luke's work has all the appearance of being the first attempt to show the place which early Christian history occupied in the general history of the empire: the author is evidently taking the Gospel from his earlier authorities, and on the ground of his own historical inquiries stating its place in Roman history, a subject in which his Jewish authorities took no interest: probably, therefore, he is not dependent on older Christian writers for his statements about the census This is, I think, generally admitted.

Thirdly, Luke devotes much care to the relations of early Christianity to the Roman state; it was easy for him to acquire correct knowledge as to the Roman census; and, if he allowed a statement on that subject to find a place in his book, he makes himself responsible for it in the fullest sense.


[31] Westcott, Gospel of St. John, p. 78.

[32] Ein allgemeiner Reichscensus war dazu weder nothig noch zweckmassig are his exact words (Augustus und seine Zeit, Part 1., vol. 2., p. 923).

[33] I do not mean to imply that Mommsen has shown any disposition to accept Luke's evidence on this point. On the contrary, he dismisses it as a mere mistaken inference from Josephus.

[34] On this see chapter 7.

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