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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Another Alternative Translation of Luke 2:2

On his blog today, Stephen C. Carlson states his disagreement with the translation of Luke 2:2, favored by Nigel Turner and N.T. Wright (among others) which has Luke referring to a census "before" the one under Quirinius. I recently posted about this translation and on the likelihood that there could have been an earlier census. Nevertheless, Carlson agrees that the more common translation, "first registration, taken when Quirinius was Governor," is problematic. He agrees that the entire passage is -- as he puts it -- "exegetically challenging." As a result, Carlson would translate Luke 2:2 to state:

This registration became most prominent when Quirinius was governing Syria.

or

This [decree to get registered] became the/a most important registration when Quirinius was governing Syria.

So, Carlson has Luke writing about the registration process begun by Augustus, but continuing over the years until the more well-known census under Quirinius is taken (also pursuant to that process). In Carlson's own words:

I think that it is a parenthetical digression to the effect that, though Joseph's travel to Bethlehem was occasioned by Augustus's decree (i.e. the registration of 8 BC), the most important registration from Augustus's policies was the one that took place when Quirinius was governor (and that led to the revolts in Galilee). Thus Luke is distinguishing the registration that Joseph obeyed from that most prominent one in AD 6, not confusing it.

The advantage of this translation is that it solves some of the problems I mentioned in my earlier blog (such as having Luke make such an obvious blunder about the political situation under King Herod or getting the census wrong when he seems aware of its significance in Acts). It also is consistent with the author of Luke's tendency to place his events in the context of the larger Roman world. But is it a superior translation to rendering Luke 2:2 as referring to a census before the one under Quirinius? Frankly, I am not qualified to judge as I do not have the knowledge and experience in Greek as these commentators. I will say that what impressed me about the alternative expressed in my previous post -- in addition to the circumstantial evidence -- was the number of respected scholars who accept it as a reasonable one. I hope, however, to see what other scholars make of Carlson's proposal.

There is one thing in Carlson's post that I disagree with. He goes on to suppose that Luke's reference to the Quirinius census was prompted by Josephus' mention of it in Jewish Wars and Antiquities:

The reason this parenthetical would have been important is the view that Josephus published in his books on the Jewish War in 75 or so and in his Jewish Antiquities around 93, identifying the AD 6 census as a major cause of the Jewish War sixty years later. Since I date the composition of Luke to be quite a few years after 70, it is only natural that Luke would want to mention it, even if it was not the census Joseph[] was responding to.

I think this conclusion is erroneous because it misplaces the causation for the census' notoriety. It seems more likely that Josephus wrote about the census because it was well known, rather than Josephus' writing about it is the only cause for its notoriety. There is no reason to suppose that Josephus' writing about it, rather than the significance of the event itself, was the reason Luke refers to the Quirinius census.

UPDATE: In a Comment to this post, Stephen Carlson makes clear that his point does not rest on Lukan dependence on Josephus' writings:

I'm using Josephus for evidence that the importance of the AD 6 census was well-known in high-ranking Roman circles (where I locate "Theophilus") at the time most scholars and I think that Luke was composed. It is not strictly necessary for my argument that Josephus be the actual source of the prominence for this census, though it could well have been the case.


I would only add that I tend to share a dating of Acts between 75-85 AD, though I do not rule out an earlier date.

5 comments:

Sorry, for the typo in the last sentence. It should have been "the census Joseph [the husband of Mary] was responding to."

I'm using Josephus for evidence that the importance of the AD 6 census was well-known in high-ranking Roman circles (where I locate "Theophilus") at the time most scholars and I think that Luke was composed. It is not strictly necessary for my argument that Josephus be the actual source of the prominence for this census, though it could well have been the case.

Thanks for the clarification. I'll reflect it in the text of my blog.

This is a bit off topic, but how do you justify such a late date for Luke-Acts when neither one mentions the destruction of the Temple (~70AD)? Luke certainly referred to other events that were ahead of his story's chronology (for example, Luke 2:2 if the translation you suggest is correct).

-Billy

Billy,

Like I said, I think an earlier date is possible. However, I do not think that the absence of a reference to the fall of Jeruslaem in Acts makes that date the most likely.

It seems to me that Luke (and I do mean Luke) wrote some time after accompanying Paul on his missionary efforts. And the fact that the fall of Jerusalem is not of overriding importance to him may indicate some additional distance from that event.

In the end though, for me it seems that with Mark written around 65 AD or so, this necessarily pushes Luke back a few years. If Mark could be shown to have been written earlier, I would be more open to an earlier date for Acts.

I personally think it makes sense that Theophilus is a member of the Roman leadership to whom Luke is appealing for support for Paul as he sits languishing in prison. It explains why he is writing to Theophilus (to show him what Paul is talking about and what Paul has done), and why the text ends with Paul sitting in Prison.

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