Friday, February 27, 2009

The Journey to Bethlehem

Ok, this is one of those random biblical topics.

The gospel from which the lion’s share of the Nativity Story is taken is the Gospel of Luke. The exceptions are the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents and the flight into Egypt which are the major elements which come from Matthew. Mark and John don’t contain a birth narrative.

One of the criticisms of the account is the description of the census in Luke 2 which forces Joseph and Mary to journey from Nazareth over a hundred miles through bandit infested country to the city of Bethlehem.

Luke 2:1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2: (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3: And everyone went to his own town to register.

4: So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.

Many critics have pointed out the absurdity of displacing large segments of the population by having them return to an ancestral city. I happened to run across a counter argument to this criticism on several Christian web sites. The counter argument rests upon the discovery of a census decree issued in Egypt in 104 CE which reads:

“From the Prefect of Egypt, Gaius Vibius Maximus. Being that the time has come for the house to house census, it is mandatory that all men who are living outside of their districts return to their own homelands, that the census may be carried out . . . "

See, they say, it was normal for people to have to return to their ancestral city during a census and this proves it.

Well, not quite. There is a difference between returning home if you are away, which is what the Maximus decree is calling for, and returning to some ancestral city.

Let me give a modern example using myself. My grandfather came from Vienna. My father came from New York and that’s where I was born. My current home is in New Jersey but I spend a lot of time “living” in Ft. Wayne Indiana. My time away from home is usually pretty short. It’s normally a week or so but I know people who do it for months at a time.

So assuming that I was in Ft. Wayne, where would I have to go based upon the Maximus decree and the description in Luke 2?

Clearly, for the Maximus decree, I would return to my home in New Jersey and, if I happened to be in New Jersey, I would stay there.

For the description in Luke, I’d have to at least go to New York and maybe even Vienna! If I was home in New Jersey, I’d still have to leave and go to New York or Vienna.

The point is there is a big difference between a call to return home if you are currently living away from home and a call to return to some ancestral city. The first makes perfect sense as you want to measure where people currently live and not where they currently happen to be. The second makes absolutely no sense because measuring where they, or their clan, came from is meaningless.

The upheaval would be horrendous. Granted society is much more mobile today than it was 2,000 years ago but can you imagine the chaos trying to do something like return to the state you were born in for the U.S. census? Besides, what sense would that make?

This is a case of reading something into the Maximus decree that can be better explained with a more rational interpretation. To my mind the criticism about the illogic of the census as described in Luke’s gospel stands.

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