The Nativity Census Challenge: Possibiliter ergo Probabiliter

The Nativity Census Challenge: Possibiliter ergo Probabiliter December 23, 2017

Let us recap on the Nativity Census Challenge posed to a Christian commenter here.

Here is my challenge in the form of statements that he has to address:

  1. A client kingdom has never been taxed directly or had such censuses in the history of the Roman Empire.
  2. When Herod was alive it was a client kingdom.
  3. When he died, his son took over for 10 years, made a mess, and Romans took back direct control.
  4. When they did, they held a census for tax reasons due to having a newly added directly ruled region.
  5. There is no example in the history of censuses in the entire world of people returning to their ancestral home.
  6. There is no need for anyone to return to their ancestral home for reasons of tax since this defeat the entire reason for having a census for tax purposes. People would necessarily move out of tax regions to other areas and so you would have no idea of the taxable value of a given region.
  7. One Egyptian census required ITINERANT/MIGRANT workers to return to their ACTUAL homes for reasons of tax pragmatism. This is in no way analogous to the Lukan census. Going back to my actual home is different to going back to where an ancestor lived 41 generations past, no matter where it was.
  8. The Lukan census required Joseph to return to his ancestral home of 41 generations past, no more, no less.
  9. This would have been impossible and utterly arbitrary for everyone to know their 41 generations past ancestors (I don’t know 3 past).
  10. This would also mean the whole of Judea could connect themselves to David.
  11. Not one single human being in the world of apologetics, or the world, has provided a reason, let alone a good one, why people should return to their ancestral homes for a tax census (let alone at 41 generations past).
  12. There would be a month where virtually no one would be able to work. Who would be looking after households as the whole country moved around to their ancestral homes? This would be economic suicide thus negating the whole point of a tax census, losing Romans valuable taxable money.
  13. Women were not required at censuses.
  14. Bethlehem is a different tax area to Nazareth.

I could go on. You get the idea.

Just answer each of them so that the Lukan account of the census is the most probable theory of claim of reality. I would like us to stay on this topic and this one alone until you show me why this claim is at all reasonable.

Regular commenter eric pointed out something that I didn’t bring up (I was going to) due to wanting to strip the challenge back to the simplest form:

IMO the problem here is ‘satisfactory explanation’ for you = something like “sufficient weight of evidence that would make it more likely than not to have happened.” But that’s not what See is defending. For him, ‘satisfactory explanation’ = (mere) philosophical possibility. This is pretty clear from his quote above: “I’ve already demonstrated through many exchanges with others why that cannot be ruled out.” Cannot be ruled out /= more likely than not.

So IMO part of what’s happening here is that he has (he thinks) defended the census to his satisfaction, because his satisfaction only requires defending it’s possibility. You’ve simultaneously defended your point to your satisfaciton, since you’ve given a good argument that such an event is extraordinarily unlikely to have happened. Both of you can have ‘won’ your points, since a historical claim can be philosophically possible and yet highly improbable at the same time. IIRC Plantinga likes to make the ‘philosophically possibile’ argument. He’s a Catholic theologian. See is Catholic. So I’m not particularly surprised he’s taking this tack.

If See agrees with my analysis, my follow-on question would be: as a non-believer, why should I find an argument for possibility at all convincing? After all, lots of crazy things are philosophically possible. Alien abduction and anal probing is philosophically possible; I don’t believe that merely because it’s possible. So why should I believe in a Lukan census merely because it’s possible?

This is spot on and is a fallacy I call (coined by Richard Carrier) possibiliter ergo probabiliter, or “it’s possible, therefore it’s probable”, and it is very widespread.

When talking about history, or any claim really, we are not so interested in what is just about logically possible, but what is probable.

It is logically possible that there was a census as claimed by the Gospel of Luke, it is just that it is insanely improbable. Pushing something as what took place on account of the notion that it is possible is a really problematic methodology.

After all of this, though, what did See Noevo do to forward his case?

Well, he concentrated on the grammar of the OP. People often try to label this as a particular fallacy and it probably qualifies as a red herring, showing that See Noevo has nothing and so has to resort to attacking irrelevant claims.

He has added pretty much only this in answer to the challenge:

Now, assuming for the purpose of argument that your #1 through #14 are true,

why would the author of Luke, who is emphasizing at the outset how careful he has been in composing this Gospel (cf. Luke 1:1-4), and who unnecessarily brings into play many historical figures (e.g. Herod, Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene)

and much historical timing (e.g. In the days of Herod, king of Judea; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren; In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled; In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiber’i-us Caesar… the word of God came to John the son of Zechari’ah in the wilderness, and he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance… Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age)…

WHY would this author, who is so concerned about writing a convincing case, buttressed with historical figures and markers, insert a statement which he and his audience knew to be false, namely, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirin’i-us was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city” ?

I think See Noevo needs to learn something about history done in these times. Let me refer you to Andy Shueler’s post:

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. A Jewish preacher being the human incarnation of an all-powerful being, dying on a cross and being resurrected from the dead, is probably one of the most extraordinary claims ever made. But a collection of ancient documents like the Gospels is everything but extraordinary evidence.

In my opinion, documents like the gospels could never be sufficient to establish such an extraordinary claim beyond reasonable doubt. And this has nothing to do with a “bias towards naturalism”. I also don’t believe extraordinary claims which do not violate the laws of nature in any way, simply because an ancient document claims they happened.

To give you an example, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote an account of the second Persian invasion of Greece, in which he claims that the Persian king Xerxes led an army numbering more than five million(!) people (yes, this is the Xerxes featured in the historically wildly inaccurate movie 300). This claim does not violate the laws of nature in any way, but it beggars belief that the Persians were able to handle the logistics of such a gargantuan army. Therefore, I would never believe this claim without evidence that is at least as extraordinary as the claim itself (historical and archaeological research has shown that the second Persian invasion of Greece did in fact happen, but Herodotus´ numbers were grossly exaggerated).

Now, imagine that Herodotus would instead have reported that Greece was invaded by an army of huge fire-breathing dragons – would you not require some very impressive evidence before believing that this indeed happened, something much more impressive than an ancient historian saying that it did? (and this is still not nearly as extraordinary a claim as the human incarnation of an all-powerful God being crucified and resurrected from the dead…).

There are other examples where ancient historians make crazy, sometimes supernatural claims, and we simply discount them. The Gospel of Luke’s census claims fall into this category. How and why this untruth was generated is not really important here. And, at the end of the day, Arthur Conan Doyle included many historical “claims” or features in his stories about Sherlock Holmes. It doesn’t make Sherlock Holmes any more real. Just including some historical markers does not mean something is historically true in its entirety, or at all.

And that is all that See Noevo has given us. Nothing at all on those individual 14 points.

What’s that term that the kids use?

Oh yes, epic fail.

Sorry, EPIC FAIL!!!!!1

Nativity
See more on the Nativity issues in my book on the subject.


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