The Most Interesting Paper of the Year So Far? image

The Most Interesting Paper of the Year So Far?

I've just read David Armitage's recent TynBul article, "Detaching the Census: An Alternative Reading of Luke 2:1-7," and it is extraordinarily interesting (which is not something you can say of every journal article). His basic idea is that Luke 2:1-5, which has long been problematic because of dating difficulties, is a digression; Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the days of Herod the Great (c.5 BC), and Luke knew that, but ten years later his parents went back to Bethlehem, Joseph's home town, as part of an imperial census (AD 6). His reading is controversial, fresh, interesting, and more compelling than you might think.

The best way of summarising it is to quote David’s revised translation of the relevant passage. It starts with the story of John the Baptist in Luke 1:80:

The child grew and was strengthened in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel. As it happens, it was during that time that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the Roman world (this was the first registration, when Quirinius was governor of Syria), and everyone went - each into their own town - to be registered. Joseph also went up: out of Galilee, away from the town of Nazareth, into Judea, to David’s town (which is called Bethlehem) because he was from the house and family of David; he went to be registered with Mary (she who was his betrothed when she was pregnant).

Now, it transpired that the days were completed for her to give birth when they were in that place, and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a feeding trough, because there was insufficient space for them in their lodging place.

Cool, huh? His argument comprises nine steps (although he is at pains to point out that although these make his reading possible, they by no means make it certain):

1. Luke is clear in 1:5 that the timeframe for the birth narratives is set “in the days of Herod the King.” That is when Zechariah meets the angel, which is quickly followed by Elizabeth’s pregnancy, which overlaps with Mary’s (1:26, 36). So Luke knew perfectly well that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, and thus by 4 BC.

2. The phrase “in those days”, in Luke, refers back (as usually in Luke) to the preceding verse, which refers to the time John the Baptist was growing up in the desert (1:80). The census is therefore placed while John is maturing, rather than when John is a newborn.

3. Ἐγένετο δὲ (“and it happened”) marks a transition from narrative background (the growing up of John) to a specific narrative sequence that occurs against that background (the census). This is how the phrase often functions in Luke-Acts.

4. Assuming for a moment that Luke’s first readers knew the census under Quirinius had taken place in AD 6, and that Herod the Great had died in 4 BC, the reference to the census would make clear to them that a narrative digression was taking place from 2:2.

5. Luke says that Joseph went back εἰς τὴν ἑαυτοῦ πόλιν (“to his home town”), which this reading takes at face value; he was not merely returning to a town that his ancestors had come from.

6. The participial phrase τῇ ἐμνηστευμένῃ αὐτῷ, οὔσῃ ἐγκύῳ (“the one betrothed to him, being pregnant”) identifies Mary as the person we met in chapter 1, rather than affirming that she was betrothed and pregnant at the time of the census. The grammar is ambiguous here, and could go either way.

7. The Ἐγένετο δὲ of 2:6 indicates a return to the main narrative, following the digression. This, again, fits with the way the phrase is used elsewhere in Luke-Acts.

8. The clarification that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (2:6) is intended to emphasise place rather than time.

9. As many have pointed out, often with an iconoclastic grin, the famous κατάλυμα (“inn”) was probably a room within a private house, rather than a commercial inn.

Put all those things together, and you have a fascinating rereading of one of the world’s most famous stories, as well as a different set of apologetic responses to some well-known biblical problems. You can read David’s whole argument in TynBul 69:1 (2018), 75-95.

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