My Nativity Debate with Lydia McGrew: Post-Match Analysis

My Nativity Debate with Lydia McGrew: Post-Match Analysis December 14, 2020

I had a debate over whether the Nativity in Luke and Mark was fact or fairytale on Friday night for the Unbelievable? show on Premier Christian radio. I was warned that McGrew might try the Gish-gallup approach so I should get it in myself. I ended up being indeed fairly scattergun, though not out of cynical ploy but merely because there is so much to say on the subject and we only had an hour and where I would be talking for probably 25 minutes at a maximum. My nativity talk, which is utterly rushed due to content overload, lasts about 50 minutes at breakneck speed.

So, how do I feel it went?

Hmm. Pretty well, I guess. I think I probably swung it 55-45%, though she would probably say the same. Thing is, we were never going to convince each other and most of the audience is listening or watching to look for confirmation of their own position; hardly anyone watches these things whilst teetering on the fence, ready to fall either way at the slightest breeze of persuasion.

I landed a few punches, though Friday is a whole weekend full of children away and I am struggling to remember. We shall see when it comes out this Friday. It was good natured and robust. I felt I challenged enough given the time constraints.

I got in a nice jab at the beginning, talking about provenance and methodology: “So I guess you believe the Qu’ran and the Hadith, then?” that was met with a second of silence and a little back-peddling.

Most of the replies were either possibiliter ergo probabiliter – it’s possible, therefore, it’s probable, therefore, that does the job and harmonises it. The problem here was this: McGrew would often give “an” answer that I knew was debunkable, but to do so would use up at least 10-15 minutes of discussion just on that one point, so I had to make a choice of drilling down or moving on to cover more issues. I chose the latter though prefer to do the former. One example concerned her defence of the Quirinius census. I was desperate to hammer that one out.

Essentially, I disagreed with almost all of her defences but only had time to more rigorously debate a couple of points.

To be honest, you could have a two-hour debate just on the census. So I chose to cover a lot of ground very sparsely rather than one tiny area in great depth. The reason I chose this is that there will be some Christians who will never have heard any Nativity-skeptical arguments or issues, so I needed to voice as many as possible in order that I got them “out there” to sow as seeds of doubt.

One interesting admission I will have to think about from McGrew is the concession that Matthew having Jesus and family run away to Egypt for a couple of years is incoherent with Luke having them go straight back to Nazareth via Jerusalem. McGrew claimed this is best explained by Luke simply not knowing about the Egypt story; a claim that beggars belief for a whole bunch of reasons but an interesting apologetic evasion of contradiction in some lights. This isn’t a contradiction per se, she would claim, but a gap in Luke’s knowledge of the story…

Of course, we can ask if Luke having them going straight back via Jerusalem is problematic given Herod being alive at all (he wouldn’t be if we take Luke at his census word, since Herod had actually died 10-12 years before the Quirinius census, but if we take Matthew at his word, this all happened under Herodian rule), since they would be going straight into the lion’s den whilst Herod was out for their blood.

In hindsight, one little claim McGrew made that I should have nailed was slipping in an assertion that there was a lustrum census in 8/9 BCE. Of course, a client kingdom as Judea was, would not have had such. The simple point is that a Roman (tax) census cannot happen under Herod the Great’s rule in Judea because Roman censuses never happened in client kingdoms, which are autonomous buffer zones at the edges of the Roman Empire. In his autobiography, Augustus describes taking a census of the Roman empire on several occasions:

As consul for the fifth time [29 BC] note by order of the people and the Senate I increased the number of the patricians. Three times I revised the roll of the Senate. In my sixth consulship [28 BC], with Marcus Agrippa as my colleague, I made a census of the people. I performed the lustrum after an interval of forty-one years. In this lustration 4,063,000 Roman citizens were entered on the census roll. A second time, in the consulship of Gaius Censorinus and Gaius Asinius, [8 BCE.] I again performed the lustrum alone, with the consular imperium. In this lustrum 4,233,000 Roman citizens were entered on the census roll. A third time, with the consular imperium, and with my son Tiberius Caesar as my colleague,[14 AD] I performed the lustrum in the consulship of Sextus Pompeius and Sextus Apuleius. In this lustrum 4,937,000 Roman citizens were entered on the census roll.6

Indeed, the Biblical Archaeology Report, quoting the above, tries to get around this whole client kingdom issue:

Critics have questioned whether Caesar would ever imposed a census or tax on independent client kingdoms, such as Judea was at the time of Jesus’ birth.  After all, it is argued, Herod had the right to mint his own coins and collect his own taxes.  However, the Aemilius Secundus inscription describes a census that was conducted by a Roman official under the orders of P. Sulpicius Quirinius in Apamea, an independent city-state that minted its own coins.11

I actually respond directly to this claim in my book:

Most importantly, there is no good reason as to why a client kingdom would want to carry out a census, let alone there being no precedent. In order to claim that a census took place earlier than 6 CE, one has to jump the hurdles of Quirinius not being governor at the time, of Judea being a client kingdom and not having censuses (certainly for taxation purposes) and there being absolutely no evidence for any other census in this timeframe. A tall order, indeed.  The census of 6 CE (indicated by Luke), on the other hand, was corroborated by several contemporary writers and fits in within the context of Roman and Judean history without the need for any unnecessary and ad hoc rationalisations.

Marchant (1980) uses another census to claim that there was precedent for censuses to take place in independent states, such as with the case of Apamea. This is erroneous since the only places that could qualify were not, indeed, free at the date suggested. The term “free inhabitants” does not entail a free city, such as one not under direct Roman rule. Also, reference to coins (as he used for evidence) from the city does not show an independent city since Rome allowed many cities to mint their own coins.

Moreover, the Greek translation of Luke is very clear in its meaning—this was the first census while Quirinius was governing Syria. Any other explanation that places a census before 6 CE (with Quirinius governing) would be contravening a basic understanding of the Greek. In fact, Quirinius would not have ruled for long enough to have overseen two censuses. This implies that it was the first census, and that it happened to be under Quirinius. This makes sense not only of the Greek, but also in the context of it being decreed by Augustus.

The Greek also prohibits any understanding that the census in question took place before Quirinius became governor. For an analysis of the Greek here, see Carrier (2011) and his section “Did Luke mean “Before” Quirinius?”

The BAR then makes this bizarre claim (bizarre because a publication interested in history should, you know, get its history right, right?):

In 36 AD, Tiberius ordered a census of the client-kingdom of Archelaus of Cappadocia.12

Except Archelaus died 15 years earlier in 17 CE. Indeed:

In Archelaus’ final year, there was a shortage of funds for military pay and Tiberius wanted to convert Cappadocia into a Roman province.[31] Tiberius enticed Archelaus to come to Rome.[32] When he arrived in Rome he was accused by the Roman Senate of plotting a revolution. Tiberius hoped Archelaus would be condemned to death by the Senate.[15] However, Archelaus died of natural causes before this could occur (Tacitus leaves open the possibility that he may have committed suicide).[32] Cappadocia became a Roman province and his widow returned to Pontus with her family. The Romans gave Armenia Minor to Archelaus’ step-son Artaxias III to rule as a client king, while the remaining territories of his former dominion were given to his son to rule in the same fashion.

Although this is an aside from McGrew’s claim to a degree, this shows you the lengths that Christian sources go to fudge the history and fabricate their defences. But it does also fit in with the fact that client kingdoms, of which Herodian Judea was one, didn’t have censuses.

In short, there was a census because it was no longer a client kingdom in exactly the same way Quirinius held a census in Judea – because it was converting from a client kingdom to a Roman province, and Rome needed to know what it was worth to get its money’s worth out of it.

Finally, one thing that I would love McGrew to have dealt with but that she evaded doing so was why the magi didn’t have their dream-sequence warning before they got lost in Jerusalem rather than after praising Jesus when they were just about to return to Herod.

Let me explain. For Matthew, the Magi are a literary mechanism to get Herod involved in the story because Jesus is the new Moses and Herod needs to be the new Pharaoh. As a result, Matthew has the Magi somehow losing the star on a minor detour to Jerusalem. Quite why a supernatural star could be lost and not lead them directly to Bethlehem… Anyway, it’s something of a problem unless you merely see the star as the mechanism, along with the Magi, to getting Herod into the story. Herod hears about this Messiah chap and asks his scribes to do some investigations and they find out about a hitherto unknown prophecy that confirms that a Messiah will, indeed, be born nearby. He asks, very trustingly, the Magi to pop down and praise the child and, on their way back, to drop by Jerusalem to let Herod know where the baby boy is. Whilst the Magi are in Bethlehem, having praised Jesus, they have a dream-sequence that warns them not to return to Jerusalem. They instead return back to the East a different way than they came, thus avoiding Herod. Herod angrily reacts to the situation by ordering the death of all children under the age of two in the Bethlehem area.

Jesus’s birth is causally responsible for the death of those children. Or, you could say that’s the Magi’s detour to Jerusalem is causally responsible for Herod’s murder of the children. My question to Lydia McGrew was: “why didn’t God arrange the dream-sequence warning to before the Magi reached Jerusalem? This would have caused them to go straight to Bethlehem and not to get Herod involved at all.” God arranged the whole supernatural event in such a way that Herod did, indeed, get involved and murder those innocent children. God could only arrange a dream sequence-warning to save Jesus, but not all those other innocent children who died as a result of his birth.

I’m not surprised that she did not answer this but, actually, I really should have drilled this particular point down. Because I can’t see any coherent answer to this.

That’s probably enough for today but I look forward to listening to it on Friday to see how I came across. I’m sure you will let me know.

In the meantime, you can grab my Nativity book here [UK] if you want to be nice. Thanks to you all for reading here, buying my books and donating now and then to the cause – sorely needed and appreciated.


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