Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Plato in the Bible

I have been discussing the notion of heaven in the Bible recently.  In my recent posts (here, here, here, and here),  I have come to the conclusion that in the Bible the word heaven means 1) the sky, 2) the dwelling place of God, and 3) sometimes the word is a stand-in for God (e.g., kingdom of heaven = kingdom of God).  What I do not find in the Bible is anything approaching the modern conception of heaven as a non-physical reality where souls go when they die, provided they have the password (i.e., Christianity).  That non-physical reality, I have argued, is an idea that comes from Plato, and not the Bible.

But, I hinted in my last post on heaven that, while a Platonic worldview (the notion of a separate, non-physical reality) was largely foreign to the Bible, it does creep in around the edges.  So, where, you may ask, does Plato's view of reality show its face in the Bible?  The answer is in the often neglected book of Hebrews.  Hebrews, in general, is an outlier in the New Testament.  It is the only book of the Bible that has, as a central theme, the idea that Jesus was a priest (a problem, since Jesus was from the tribe of Judah, not the tribe of Levi).  The author goes to great lengths to defend the idea of Jesus as a priest, drawing on the mysterious OT figure Melchizedek (but that is a topic for another day).

But, one of the main ways that Hebrews lies outside the norm for the New Testament, is, I would argue, that the worldview of Hebrews is almost entirely Platonic.  That is, the author of Hebrews holds a worldview that sees reality as dualistic.  For Hebrews, reality is split in two.  This physical reality is a mere shadow of God's ultimate, perfect reality (i.e., heaven).  It is like the author of Hebrews is writing his book while all the while thinking of Plato's allegory of the cave. This worldview is on full display especially in chapters 8-10.  Take for example the following verses:

"They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: 'See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.'" (Heb 8:5 NIV).
Notice the use of the word shadow here.  It is hard to believe that the author here is not deliberately drawing on Plato.  In this verse the sanctuary referred to is that constructed by Moses for the offering of sacrifices.  Heaven, as used in this verse corresponds nicely to Plato's other, superior, non-physical reality.  Here is a second passage that illustrates this Platonic worldview:
"11 But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption." (Heb 9:11-12 NIV). 
Here Jesus is the great high priest that enters the true tabernacle (read, the tabernacle in the other, more perfect reality, i.e., heaven) to offer his superior sacrifice.  The author of Hebrews goes on in this vein:
 "23 It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence." (Heb 9:23-24 NIV).
Here again, the earthly sanctuary (read tabernacle, or later, the temple) is inferior and a mere copy (shadow) of the heavenly (read Platonic, non-physical reality) sanctuary where Christ offers his superior sacrifice.  One last example from Hebrews:
"The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship." (Heb 10:1 NIV). 
In this verse, it is the Law that is the shadow of the true heavenly reality.

So there it is. Plato makes his appearance in the Bible in full force in the book of Hebrews.  The dualistic Platonic worldview comes through clearly in Hebrews as Jesus and Christianity represents the fullness of heavenly reality while historical Judaism with its sanctuary/temple, its priests, its sacrifices, and its law, are only copies or shadows.

This discussion raises many fascinating questions.  If most of the Bible has one worldview (i.e., non-Platonic, non-dualistic), and one book holds another worldview (Platonic, dualistic), can these worldviews be reconciled?  Should they be reconciled?  Is one view closer to the truth than the other? But these are questions for another day.  What do you think?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Modern vs. Ancient Cosmology

I have been posting here recently on the concept of heaven in the Bible (see posts here, here, and here).  In that discussion, I have noted that in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, there is a spectrum of meanings: 1) the regions above the earth (sky), and 2) the dwelling place of God.  I have suggested that the second meaning of heaven as the dwelling place of God may be figurative or metaphorical, meaning that when the writers of the Bible used that word to depict God's abode, they were not thinking anymore of the literal sky, but rather were using the word figuratively.  James McGrath, in his own blog post has pushed back on my suggestion of a figurative use for heaven in the Bible, suggesting instead that there may be a 100% overlap between the literal use of heaven (sky) and the use of heaven as God's home.  The question is this: when the biblical writers used the word heaven to mean God's abode, did they have a 100% overlap with their notion of sky.  That is, did God literally dwell in the sky?

I am not sure that I can fully answer that question in a blog post, and I am not sure how substantive my disagreement with James may actually be.  I would agree with Dr. McGrath that certainly in places the two uses of the word do overlap completely in the Bible. Of course there are places where the ancients literally thought God dwelt in the sky.  What I was suggesting was that there may be a spectrum of meaning of the word in the Bible, where the writers are moving away from a 100% overlap toward a more figurative usage.  Certainly today the modern Christian conception of heaven as a non-physical reality where God dwells and where Christians will dwell in eternity is at one extreme of that spectrum where there is a 0% overlap with the other extreme where heaven literally means sky.  My question is, in the Bible, is there any movement along that spectrum toward a figurative usage?

And here is where worldviews come in.  I am thoroughly modern in my worldview.  When I think of earth and sky, I cannot help but incorporate my modern, scientific worldview.  That is, the sky, for me, is the earth's atmosphere that surrounds a spherical planet, that is one of 8(9) planets that revolve around a sun, that is a mid-sized star in a large galaxy, that is one of millions of galaxies.
Everything in the the universe except for the earth itself appears to me in the sky.  To say that God literally dwells in the sky is, for me with my modern worldview, a nonsensical statement.  Heaven as God's abode, for me, has to be figurative and cannot simply mean sky.  But, what about the ancients for whom the sky was something very different?  When the ancients looked up, they saw the heavens or sky as a dome resting above a flat earth.  Above that dome was an ocean.  The Sun, Moon, and Stars moved around in this sky.  The sky was completely inaccessible to humans, so naturally it was the abode of God in a literal sense (as McGrath holds).  My question remains though: did the biblical writers develop at all in their sense of God and heaven, and was there any movement along the spectrum toward a figurative usage of heaven as the abode of God yet without 100% overlap with a literal meaning of sky?  I think there may have been such movement, but perhaps, that is just my modern worldview talking and I am importing that view into the ancient writers' conceptions.  What do you think?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Heaven: A Spectrum of Meanings? III

In Part I of this series I discussed the meaning of the word heaven in the Old Testament, noting that there was a spectrum of meaning ranging from the physical regions above the earth (sky) to the dwelling place of God, either literal or metaphorical.  In Part II, I covered the word heaven in the New Testament and found basically the same spectrum of meanings.  Nowhere on that spectrum was there a sense of a place of reward in the afterlife.  So, where did this notion come from?  I would propose that many popular notions of heaven come not from the Bible, but rather, from a Greek philosopher named Plato, who predates Jesus and the birth of Christianity by nearly 400 years.

Let's start with Plato's "allegory of the cave." In this allegory, from Plato's Republic (7.514a-520a), there are a group of people held prisoner in a cave.  They are chained and facing away from the entrance of the cave.  Some way behind them in a cave is a fire, and a walkway.  And on the walkway all sorts of puppets and the like are passed between the fire and the prisoners.  All that the prisoners can see are the shadows of these puppets: animals, humans, trees, etc.  Therefore, they take this shadow dance on the cave wall to be reality. By chance, one prisoner escapes and makes his way up in the cave and sees the puppets and the fire for what they really are.  He continues to make his way up and out of the cave and sees that not only were the shadows on the wall not reality, but neither were the puppets, they were only a shadow of the reality of the world outside the cave.  In this allegory, when the prisoner returns to try and tell the other prisoners of reality, they do not believe him.  In fact, they become hostile and kill the escaped prisoner.

Plato likens humans on this earth to the prisoners in the cave.  Through this physical world we can only see shadows.  Only as the soul turns away from this physical reality to seek the true higher light, can the soul ultimately be freed from this world and find its true home.  Moreover, like the prisoners in the cave, humans do not like to be told that what they see and experience are not reality.  Hence, this present physical reality is a barrier to seeing the truth.

Thus, Plato holds a worldview of the duality of reality.  This world, the created order, was at best morally neutral, and at worst, evil.  The physical reality was a prison for our souls, preventing the soul, the core and true form of the person, from achieving true reality.  Our bodies and their appetites were roadblocks to achieving enlightenment. The spiritual reality was the only true reality.  Thus there is a duality: physical vs. spiritual, body vs. soul.

I remember reading Plato for the first time in college, and having an epiphany.  I wondered how Plato, who lived nearly 400 years before Christ, had somehow stumbled upon the absolute Christian truth of heaven, this other reality where our souls truly belong. Surely God must have enlightened Plato somehow, however, God did not give him the full truth or knowledge of God.  How naive was my thinking back then?

Is it not far more logical that Christianity, which was born out of a Jewish background and worldview, but quickly spread to Greek and Roman culture, would come to mix Jewish ideas about the Messiah with a predominately Greek worldview?  Here is my proposition: Christianity began with a largely Jewish view of the world, where heaven primarily represented the sky, and by extension, the abode of God. The Jewish worldview was essentially non-dualistic with regard to reality.  That is, the world, both heaven (sky) and earth, was and essential unity and part of God's creation.  But, as Christianity spread to Gentiles (Greeks and Romans), the predominate dualistic worldview of the Greeks (where physical reality is a mere shadow of a much greater non-physical reality), remained in place for believers.  Therefore, Christianity embraced a dualistic worldview, and adapted that worldview to the message of Christ.  It is in this dualistic worldview, I contend, that the word heaven takes on its more popular meaning.  Heaven, in a Christian/Platonic mix becomes the true, spiritual reality, where souls go after death and dwell with God in bliss, provided they have accepted Christ, of course.

Thus, we get our third meaning of heaven on the spectrum.  Heaven now no longer means sky, nor simply the idea that the abode of God is in the sky, but now, heaven is a non-physical reality, a place where spiritual beings like God, and human souls, exist apart from physical reality.  Yet, I do not find this third meaning in the New Testament, at least not when used in conjunction with the word heaven (οὐρανός).  I think that this dualistic worldview is largely foreign to the New Testament.  I say largely foreign because I do think that the Platonic worldview does creep in around the edges of some New Testament books, but that is a discussion for another post.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Kirk Herbstreit's Nonsense

I want to take a quick break from more weighty matters to discuss college football.  I don't write much about football on this blog, but as a two-time Baylor grad, I love what is happening with Baylor football, especially considering how pitiful the Bears were during most of my time there.

Full disclosure:
1) I am a Baylor fan and Baylor homer.
2) I think the College Football Playoff committee did a fine job last year, and, while I wish Baylor had made the initial playoff, I think the CFP got it right putting Baylor at 5 last year.
3) I think the CFP will probably get it right again this year.  I don't really care about any CFP ranking except the final one.

With that out of the way, it irks me when someone like Kirk Herbstreit says something like he said this morning on Mike and Mike. He said that if undefeated team from the big 12 at the end of the year (read, if that team is Baylor), then the CFP would be justified in leaving them out of the playoff in favor of teams currently ranked ahead of them (read 1 loss Notre Dame and 1 loss Alabama).  The reason, Herbstreit says, is that it would send a message to Baylor not to schedule non-conference cupcakes (read Lamar, Rice, and SMU).  I grant that Baylor's non-conference schedule is dismal.  It has been for years, and looks to keep going that way in the future.  But, what irks me is that when people talk about non-conference cupcake scheduling, they point the finger disproportionately at Baylor.

For comparison purposes, I want to briefly look at the non-conference schedules of the current CFP top 10 and the number of games that could be labeled cupcake.  Instead of trying to rank cupcakes, I will make the simple distinction of Power Five teams vs. non-Power Five teams (Power five being the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, and ACC) Though Notre Dame is an Independent, I will count them as Power Five because of their consistent quality.

1. Clemson (ACC) Conference: 8 Power Five games vs. ACC opponents. Non Conference: Wofford, Appalachian State, Notre Dame, South Carolina (SEC).  Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 10/2.

2. Alabama (SEC) Conference: 8 Power Five games vs. SEC opponents.  Non Conference: Wisconsin (Big 10), Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Monroe, Charleston Southern.  Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 9/3.

3. Ohio State (Big 10) Conference 8 Power Five games vs. Big 10 opponents. Non-Conference: Virginia Tech (ACC), Hawaii, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan.  Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 9/3.

4. Notre Dame (Independent).  Notre Dame only plays 2 Non-Power Five opponents this year: Temple and Massachusetts.  Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 10/2.

5. Iowa (Big 10) Conference 8 Power Five games vs. Big 10 opponents. Non-Conference: Illinois State, Iowa State (Big 12), Pittsburgh (ACC), North Texas.  Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 10/2.

6. Baylor (Big 12) Conference 9 Power Five games vs. Big 12 opponents. Non-Conference: SMU, Lamar, Rice. Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 9/3.

7. Stanford (Pac 12) Conference 9 Power Five games vs. Pac 12 opponents. Non-Conference: Northwestern (Big 10), Central Florida, Notre Dame (Independent). Summary, counting Notre Dame as Power Five, Power Five/Non-Power Five 11/1.

8. Oklahoma State (Big 12) Conference 9 Power Five games vs. Big 12 opponents. Non-Conference: Central Michigan, Central Arkansas, Texas San Antonio. Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 9/3.

9. LSU (SEC)  Conference: 8 Power Five games vs. SEC opponents.  Non-Conference: McNeese State, Syracuse (ACC), Eastern Michigan, Western Kentucky. Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 9/3.

10. Utah (Pac 12) Conference 9 Power Five games vs. Pac 12 opponents. Non Conference: Michigan (Big 10), Utah State, Fresno State. Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 10/2.

Overall Summary: There are five teams in the top 10 with a Power Five/Non-Power Five schedule of 9/3.  They are Alabama, Ohio State, Baylor, Oklahoma State, and LSU.  I don't see Herbstreit ripping on Alabama for scheduling Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Monroe, and Charleston Southern. Or on LSU for scheduling McNeese State, Eastern Michigan, and Western Kentucky.  Why do they get a pass while Baylor gets ripped.  1. Alabama and LSU both play one non-conference Power Five team (because they have 4 non-conference games).  But they still schedule 3 cupcakes. 2. All of Baylor's non-conference games are against Non-Power Five opponents, but they play 1 more power five opponent in conference. 2.  Baylor schedules their con-conference opponents as their first three games and then so thoroughly destroys them that it draws attention to the inferior competition, while Alabama and LSU spread these non-conference cupcakes throughout their season.

So Kirk, if you are going to point the finger at Baylor's non-conference cupcakes, could you at least be fair and point the finger equally at Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, and Oklahoma State.  Baylor is not alone playing three teams of inferior quality, but seems to be the only one whom you actually call out for it. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Heaven: A Spectrum of Meanings? II

In part I, I discussed the use of the term heaven (Hebrew שָׁמַיִם (shamayim)) in the Old Testament.  I noted that there is a spectrum of meaning from simply meaning the visible creation above the earth (sky) to a more metaphorical meaning of heaven as the dwelling place of God.  James McGrath pressed me on my use of "metaphorical" for this second usage of heaven in the comments, and I responded to him also in the comments.  The substance of my response was that while I granted that using heaven as the abode of God could certainly be literal, as in the physical place above the earth where God actually dwells, I am not sure that the literal "sky" is what was consistently meant by Hebrew writers, as if God actually dwells in the sky.  One instance where I think heaven is used metaphorically is in Isaiah 66:1 where it says,
"Thus says the LORD:
Heaven is my throne
and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
and what is my resting place?" (NRSV)
In this case, I think just about the entire verse is figurative in its usage.

But today, I want to look at the New Testament term corresponding to the Hebrew שָׁמַיִם, and that would be the Greek οὐρανός (ouranos).  This term occurs 273 times in the New Testament and is usually translated as heaven.  The question is, when that word is used in the New Testament, what does the author have in mind?  I would venture that the notion of heaven as a place of reward in the afterlife is not on the author's mind in most, if not all instances, of the word οὐρανός.  There are several reasons for this statement, but in the following I will give one.  It comes from the definition of the word.  If you look at Greek lexicons that analyze literature from the time of the New Testament and before, the Classical and Koine Greek worlds, one does not find the definition of οὐρανός as a place of reward in the afterlife.  In fact, the Greek lexicons provide basically the same spectrum of meaning for οὐρανός as the Hebrew Lexicons give for שָׁמַיִם in the Old Testament.  That is, in Greek, οὐρανός can be simply the region above the earth (i.e., sky), or the abode of God/gods.  Take for example Louw & Nida's entry 1.5
"οὐρανός, οῦ m (either singular or plural without distinction in meaning): space above the earth, including the vault arching high over the earth from one horizon to another, as well as the sun, moon, and stars — ‘sky."
That is one meaning.  A second meaning for this word is given as entry 1.11,
"οὐρανός, οῦ m (singular or plural; there seems to be no semantic distinction in NT literature between the singular and plural forms): the supernatural dwelling place of God and other heavenly beings (οὐρανός also contains a component denoting that which is ‘above’ or ‘in the sky,’ but the element of abode’ is evidently more significant than location above the earth) — ‘heaven.’"
Interestingly, in their comments on this second meaning, Louw & Nida mention that the notion of "abode" is more significant than the location above the earth.  Are they saying that this usage is more metaphorical than literal?  Do they answer McGrath's question?  I am not sure.

Louw & Nida give one final definition of the word in entry 12.16 as follows:
οὐρανός, οῦ m: (a figurative extension of meaning of οὐρανός ‘heaven,’ 1.11) a reference to God based on the Jewish tendency to avoid using a name or direct term for God — ‘God.’ ἥμαρτον εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ ἐνώπιόν σου ‘I have sinned against God and against you’ Lk 15:18, 21.
This third usage is certainly figurative in meaning where Heaven is a stand-in for God.

But, even though there is this range of meaning for the Greek term οὐρανός, none of these approach the modern conception of heaven as a place of reward after death.  So, if the spectrum of meaning of heaven in the NT ranges from the physical sky above the earth to the dwelling place of God and as a stand-in for God, then where does the modern conception of heaven as a place of reward after death come from?  Well, that is a question for another day.  Stay tuned.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Heaven: A spectrum of Meanings?

Heaven is a fascinating term.  Ask anyone on the street the meaning of the word heaven, and I would bet you would get a wide variety of answers.  Heaven has become an amorphous word that can be conformed to just about anyone's definition.  Interestingly, heaven, for much of modern Christianity, has become the ultimate goal.  It is the one point of hope for Christians, the place where the righteous (read, people like "us") will go after we die.  For those interested in a challenge to this view, N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope, is a great place to start. All this said, heaven is a biblical word, used both in the Old and New testaments, and so perhaps looking into the word in the Bible would be a good place to start in trying to define a range of meaning for the word.

One does not have to venture very far into the Bible to find the word heaven.  In fact, it is in the very first verse Genesis 1:1 which reads,
"In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,"
The word for heaven here is the Hebrew שָׁמַיִם (shamayim) which only occurs in the plural in the Old Testament, thus the translation "heavens." Interestingly, to import our modern conception of "heaven," a place of reward in the afterlife, into this context of Genesis 1:1 would be a grave error. For, in the entire Old Testament the word never carries that meaning.  In Genesis 1:1 and many other places in the Old Testament, the word refers to a physical object above the earth, what we would most likely call the sky (see my post from several years ago on ancient science here).  In the Brown Driver Briggs (BDB) Hebrew Lexicon the first definition of the word is,
"visible heavens, sky, where stars, etc., are."
So, on a spectrum of meanings for this word, at one end would be the definition of the visible, physical reality that exists above the earth.  When a modern Christian encounters the word "heaven" or "heavens" in the Bible, I think that it is a gut reaction to import the idea of a spiritual afterlife reality into the context.  This idea of the word "heaven" meaning a physical reality is almost totally off their radar screen.  But, in much of the Old Testament the word simply means "sky."

But, there is a second definition of the word given by the BDB as follows:
"as abode of God (’י), where he sits enthroned." 
The visible heaven or sky then can take on a metaphorical meaning as the dwelling place of God. Where is God?  Look up, he is in the heavens.  Once again, while moving away from the first meaning a little bit, the conception of the sky as the dwelling place of God is not entirely removed from that first meaning.  We are still nowhere near the definition of heaven most Christians would give as a spiritual reality where Christians go after they die.

As far as the Old Testament is concerned, this is basically the entire spectrum on which the meaning of this word lies.  No afterlife.  There is simply a concrete meaning as that which is visible above the earth (sky), and then a more metaphorical and figurative meaning as the dwelling place of God. Look up any occurrence of the word heaven in the Old Testament and I bet either one of these two meanings will be a better fit for the context than would a modern Christian definition of a place of reward in the afterlife.  Well that is it for the Old Testament.  What about the New Testament?  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Scholarship vs. Apologetics

In my three part series on the Census of Quirinius (I, II, III), one concept has been lurking just below the surface, and that is the concept of apologetics.  Now, there is no one definition of apologetics, but let the following quote from the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) website serve as a starting point:
"Apologetics is the branch of Christianity that deals with the defense and establishment of the Christian faith."
CARM follows up this definition with a quote from I Peter 3:15 as follows:
"But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence,"
At the heart of any definition of apologetics is the idea of defense. Apologetics is the defending of a position. Apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia which simply means defense. Think of Plato's dialogue Apology, or simply Apologia in Greek, which is the dialogue which presents Socrates' trial and his defense in that trial. Also within the word apologia, there is the embedded concept of logos, the Greek word which carries many senses, but one of them is logic or reason. There is the expectation that an apologia will be logical and well reasoned.

Christian apologetics therefore is a reasoned defense of the faith.  To that end, Christian apologetics engages in research, evidence seeking, logical argumentation, etc. in the pursuit of defending certain doctrines, dogmas, or claims of the Christian faith.  Fair enough.  It makes perfect sense to attempt to reason out one's faith.  Apologetics can be seen as the logical outflow of Anselm's famous phrase, fides quaerens intellectum translated "faith seeking understanding." Begin with faith, then seek logical reasons that support that faith. Because of all of this language of logic, research, fact seeking, etc., it can seem as if apologetics and scholarship are the same thing.  Yet, they are fundamentally different and the method of apologetics is fundamentally flawed in my mind. The problem with the apologetic method is its starting point.  Apologetics starts with the conclusion.  The conclusion is firmly fixed before any research begins. Therefore, for the apologist, the conclusion is the starting point which must then be "defended" through research.

The method of scholarship follows a completely different, and in my mind more valid, order.
Scholarship begins with observations and questions, does research and collects data and evidence, and only after a careful analysis of the evidence, do scholars form conclusions.  I have compared biblical scholarship to a modified scientific method in another post here.  I think that this is the most valid way to pursue truth.  Your starting point is essential.  You must start with observations and questions, then seek your facts and evidence, and only then form conclusions. To begin with your conclusions and only then seek your facts leads to all sorts of problems. Any position can be defended by facts, and that is what apologetics seeks to do.  But, just because I can find some evidence to defend a conclusion, does not mean that that conclusion is valid.  It merely means that I could find some facts that seem to support the conclusion.  It in no way means that I have treated all of the data fairly or completely.

An illustration of this sort of seeking facts to support a conclusion came up very clearly in my posts about the census of Quirinius. I submit again the following quote from Raymond Brown:
"There is no serious reason to believe that there was a Roman census of Palestine under Quirinius during the reign of Herod the Great. (Indeed, as regards the non-biblical 'evidence,' it is doubtful that anyone would have even thought about an earlier census if he [sic] were not trying to defend Lucan accuracy.)"*
Sure one can seek evidence of a Roman census of Judea during the reign of Herod the Great, but as Brown states, that pursuit would not ever enter anyone's mind based on the evidence.  The only possible reason to seek for a Roman census during the reign of Herod the great is to defend an already fixed conclusion.

For an apologist dealing with the Lukan birth narrative, their conclusion is their starting point. Namely, their conclusion is that Luke presents historically accurate information. This is the one thing that must be defended.  It is the only conclusion that is allowed.  So, an apologist reasons, if Luke presents historically accurate information (which is not a conclusion based on an analysis of the facts, but is rather an unassailable presupposition) then there must be data to support and defend such a conclusion.  The apologist then seeks for any data that might possibly defend their position. Which has led to the claim that their was a Roman census of Judea during the reign of Herod the Great.  Yet, as Brown notes, "Indeed, as regards the non-biblical 'evidence,' it is doubtful that anyone would have even thought about an earlier census if he [sic] were not trying to defend Lucan accuracy." An unbiased analysis of the data does not suggest such a census, but is only suggested as a possibility due to the need to defend one's presupposed unassailable conclusion.

In my mind apologetics is fundamentally flawed and does not provide a valid method for the pursuit of truth.  You cannot begin with your conclusions. You must, as rigorous scholarship demands, begin with your observations and questions, then look at the data and evidence, and, only after careful analysis of the data, form your conclusions. What do you think?

* Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979), 554.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Census of Quirinius III: An Earlier Census?

As stated in the first two posts on this topic (I, II),the information Luke provides in Luke 2 about the census of Quirinius lines up perfectly with other historical sources regarding the census of Quirinius the governor of Syria (except, of course, the necessity of Mary and Joseph traveling from Nazareth to Judea).  That is, this census took place after Archelaus was deposed as tetrarch over Judea in 6 C.E., some 10 years after Herod the Great had died in 4 B.C.E.  Nevertheless, since Luke tells us in Luke 1 that Mary is pregnant with Jesus during the reign of Herod the Great, his chronology doesn't work. This apparent discrepancy in Luke's timeline has led many Christian scholars and commentators to search for solutions to this problem.  One of the most common solutions is to propose an earlier census of Judea during the reign of Herod the Great.  Luke opens the door for this line of reasoning with his ambiguous phrase in Luke 2:2 as follows:
"This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria."
I think that this is a good translation (NIV) of the Greek, but the ambiguity comes from the Greek word prote meaning "first." Luke's use of "first" opens the door to the possibility that Quirinius had conducted a "first" census prior to the one in 6 C.E., thus reconciling Luke's timeline.  While it might be desirable to reconcile Luke's chronology, I do not think that an earlier census makes sense of the data.  Sure, Roman censuses had taken place before 6 C.E., and there is positive evidence of these censuses, none of them refer to a census of Judea during the reign of Herod the Great.  The most common appeal that I have seen is to a census in 8 B.C.E. Yet, this was a census in Egypt, not in Judea. The main line of reasoning that precludes a census in Judea during the reign of Herod the Great is the fact that a census for the purpose of taxation would not have been needed in Judea as long as Herod, who was a good administrator if nothing else, was collecting and submitting taxes to Rome. And there is no positive evidence that he was not.  In fact, if Herod were not doing his job, he would have been deposed, as was his son Archelaus 10 years after Herod's death.  So, it is historically implausible that Rome conducted a census in Judea during the reign of Herod the Great. I concur with the statement of the late Raymond Brown where he states:
"There is no serious reason to believe that there was a Roman census of Palestine under Quirinius during the reign of Herod the Great. (Indeed, as regards the non-biblical 'evidence,' it is doubtful that anyone would have even thought about an earlier census if he [sic] were not trying to defend Lucan accuracy.)"*
All of this reasoning leads to the conclusion that for whatever reason (and there could be many), Luke has not provided accurate historical information regarding the birth of Jesus.  Either Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (before 4 B.C.E), or during the census of Quirinius (6 C.E.), but it could not be during both.

* Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979), 554.