I want to draw your attention to “Dateline NBC: The Birth of Jesus,” a special that ran this past Friday, almost a carbon-copy of Peter Jennings’ “The Search For Jesus.” In this particular special what’s called into question is the biblical account of the virgin birth, the idea that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem , and they note that the Gospels are really contradictory in nature. So far from being complimentary, one with another, they’re contradictory. The one thing that they drive at over and over again is this idea that Luke is not a credible historian, and they use his census as the basis for saying that his history is not accurate and therefore, if you can call into question Luke as a historian you can call into question all the supernaturalism which is chronicled in his account as well.
I want to play a clip. Here’s Keith Morrison, who’s an on-site Dateline reporter, reporting for Stone Phillips and Dateline NBC’s “The Birth of Jesus,” and he starts out talking about Matthew’s Gospel, then segues into the Gospel according to Luke and then into the census, and then you’ll hear the voice of John Dominic Crossan, who is co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, call into question the idea that at the time when Jesus was born Augustus had decreed a census of the whole earth. Listen to this:
Keith Morrison:(Voiceover): It’s an abiding image of the Christmas story: the long, exhausting journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem . Mary, heavy with child, rides a donkey. Joseph is at her side. At least that’s the popular image. In Matthew’s Gospel there is no such journey. They are already living in Bethlehem . Luke has the journey but no donkey, no mention of how they made the trip. And why, according to Luke, were they heading to Bethlehem ? A decree that everyone in the empire would travel to his or her ancestral home to register in a census so they could be taxed. Or so Luke tells us. But there’s a problem in the story, a problem that has occupied many generations of scholars.
John Dominic Crossan: Luke tells us the story that at the time Jesus was born, Augustus had decreed a census of the whole earth. Now, every scholar will tell you there was no such census ever.
That, again, is John Dominic Crossan, and it’s interesting that if all of the Gospel writers would give the accounts in exactly the same way they would be accused of being in collusion, and that’s why the Gospel writers give complementary accounts. They do not all say the exact same thing, so the idea that Keith Morrison cites that Luke contains some details that Matthew does not, and vice versa, should not surprise us. It actually buttresses the defense of the Gospels being accurate.
With regards to the census, let me say this: the statement by John Dominic Crossan that every scholar will tell you that there was no such census under Augustus ever is simply, patently false. It’s not only presumptuous, it’s false. In truth, Caesar Augustus was famous for census taking. So famous, in fact, credible historians don’t even debate the issue anymore. The Jewish historian Josephus refers to a Roman taxation in AD 6, and considering the scope of the taxation it’s logical to assume that it took a long time to complete. It no doubt began with Caesar Augustus around 5 BC and was completed approximately a decade later.
Luke is a meticulous historian and he notes that the census was first completed when Quirinius was governor of Syria . In fact, as Paul Maier, my co-author of The Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction explained during a Bible Answer Man broadcast not all that long ago, the Romans took 40 years to get a census done in Gaul, so for a province 1500 miles away from Rome, in Palestine, to take a decade is pretty quick, and since that census would finally come in under Quirinius’ administration, it could correctly be called by Luke the Census of Quirinius. Not only that, but given Luke’s impeccable credentials as a historian it would have been far more circumspect in this piece for John Dominic Crossan to give Luke the benefit of the doubt.
One need only remember the experience of the brilliant archaeologist Sir William Ramsey who set out to disprove Luke’s historical reliability. Through his painstaking Mediterranean archaeological trips he discovered that, one after the other, the historical allusions that Luke provides are accurate. If, as Ramsey points out, Luke does not err in referencing a plethora of countries, of cities and islands, all the details surrounding them, there’s no reason to doubt him concerning the census. So why they bring this census up, ad nauseum, ad infinitum, is beyond me.
This is what it is: it is making dogmatic assertions without providing defensible arguments. It is an idiosyncratic form of fundamentalism that denies the supernatural prior to examination, and it is a way of setting faith and evidence in opposition to one another when, in fact, they’re not in opposition to one another. We, as Christians, have faith in evidence, so the suggestion that “we reporters like Stone Phillips and Peter Jennings have facts and you Christians have faith” is simply a regurgitation of the enlightenment’s false dichotomy between faith and reason. We have faith in evidence. As Christians today, more than ever, we need to be ready to always give an answer for the hope that lies within us. We have reasonable answers and we need to be able to give them.
I want to mention that I did a little booklet called “The Search For Jesus Hoax” and it actually was in response to the Peter Jennings special, but it applies directly to this special by Dateline NBC called “The Birth of Jesus.” In it I rebut the kinds of dogmatic assertions without defensible arguments that are made to undermine the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
Here’s what’s going on: a lot of non-Christians watch specials like this and they say “You know what? You Christians really don’t know what you’re talking about. Here I finally have the evidence,” and they might even tell you that. Here’s what you need. You need to be fortified with the truth so you can take their objection and use it as a springboard or an opportunity to share the good news of the Gospel. If you don’t, what happens is people are solidified in their doubts. But you can make a difference.
There’s a large full-scale attack right now on the Christian faith. It is no longer veiled. It’s unvarnished, it’s head-on frontal and it’s happening with more and more rapidity. I mean, there was an attack on the ID movement on the West Wing recently. It was blatant. You want to yell at the television set. It was so falsely positioned it was almost breath-taking. But the problem is they get away with it because Christians aren’t equipped and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to equip you. “The Search For Jesus Hoax” is available at the Christian Research Institute and you can get it on the web at equip.org.