CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

The birth narrative in the Gospel of Luke typically faces many challenges and criticisms that are facially unrelated to its miraculous nature. Most of these arise from the first five verses in Luke’s second chapter.

Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.

Questions about Quirinius and the timing of the census are challenging and legitimate, though not without sound responses. Other issues which are typically raised in conjunction, however, are overblown. Indeed, once the relevant verses are properly understood, these other issues become non issues, raising no historical challenges to Luke’s account. The first is commonly framed as whether Luke is wrong about August decreeing that the entire Roman Empire be subject to a census. The second is commonly framed as whether Luke is wrong that the census requiring registrants to return to the city of their ancestors. This post addresses the first question. I will address the latter question in Part 2.

The first challenge is that there is no evidence that August ever decreed that the entire Roman world be subject to a census. True enough. The challenge fails however not because this assessment is wrong or I can point to new evidence, but because it rests on a misreading of the Gospel of Luke. Luke does not mean to suggest that Augustus issued one decree requiring that the entire Roman empire be registered in one empire-wide census. Rather, he is engaging in a bit of literary hyperbole. Professor Smith makes this point well:

Here the confusion is based upon a forced interpretation of Luke’s statement that Augustus issued a decree that the “whole world be registered.’ Luke’s statement is a simple case of hyperbole, akin to Matthew’s statement that ‘all Judaea was going out’ to be baptized by John (Matt 3:5). No sensible ancient reader would be bothered or surprised by such a statement. Perhaps Luke means to refer to the census of Judaea as part of a larger census-taking strategy on the part of Augustus. There is no way of being sure, however, and it would not have mattered to Luke or to his audience. Anyone living at that time would know that emperors at various times commissioned censuses and might well do so in provinces other than their own. They would read nothing more into Luke’s hyperbole. Rather, the description of the census in this way sets a tone of global proportions: the events surrounding the birth of Jesus were of more than merely local significance.

Mark D. Smith, “Of Jesus and Quirinius,” CBQ, 62 (2000), page 288.

There is nothing "cute" about this response to the challenge. Notably, Professor Smith is no apologist. He elevates Luke's birth narrative at the expense of Matthew's in terms of historicity. More to the point, many of Luke's readers likely knew as well as he did whether there was one empire wide census resulting from one decree and Luke elsewhere shows himself well informed on issues related to Roman administration.

Furthermore, as Prof. Smith suggests, Luke was likely referencing August's "census-taking strategy." The relevant background information is that while there does not appear to have been any one decree covering the entire empire, Augustus did have a policy of stepped up administrative procedures such as the taking of censuses.

Historian A.N. Sherwin-White reminds us, "A census or taxation-assessment of the whole provincial empire ... was certainly accomplished for the first time in history under Augustus." Luke then would be referring in a general way to this unprecedented event.

New Testament History, page 65.

It is for this reason that Francois Bovon, who thinks that the statement is “mistaken in literal terms,” admits that Luke “correctly capture the history of the time, and of the emperor, in narrative and popular terms.” Francois Bovon, Luke, Hermeneia, page 83. But Luke is only "mistaken in literal terms" if he meant for his audience to understand him in strict literal terms here. He very likely did not.

Ironically, most scholars and readers -- even those critical of Luke’s historicity regarding the decree -- admit that Luke engages in literary hyperbole in this passage. The conceded but unremarkable hyperbole is Luke's reference to the census being taken of “all the inhabited earth.” Obviously, August was not conducting a census every place on earth. Roman subjects knew full well that the Roman Empire did not cover the entire earth. They understand that by referring to "all the inhabited earth" Luke was referring to the Roman Empire. Such hyperbole was expected from a Roman subject writing about the Roman Empire to an audience of Roman subjects.

This global emphasis permeates the first two chapters of Luke, where "‘[e]ntire’ or ‘all’ are used twenty-three times.” Robert H. Stein, Luke, NAC, page 105. Examples of literary hyperbole include but are not limited to: Luke has investigated “everything” carefully. 1:3. Zacharias and Elizabeth were blameless in “all” the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 1.6. The “whole multitude of the people” were in prayer. 1:10. Regarding the birth of John, “[f]ear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea.” 1:65. After Jesus' birth Mary treasured “all these things” in her heart.” 2:19. Anna the prophetess spoke of Jesus to “all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” 2:38. These uses of "everything" or "all" are not meant to be taken in absolute terms. This does not Luke's use of them misleading or the Gospel of Luke unreliable. It simply means he used a common literary device to stress certain points. This would have mislead no one in Luke's audience, though some more modern (supposedly more discerning) readers may miss the point.

The only way to claim that Luke was wrong in his reference to the scope of August's decree is to take him to mean something he did not mean and his audience would not have understood him to mean. August initiated and completed a policy of conducting censuses throughout the Roman Empire. That is enough to justify Luke's bit of literary hyperbole, rendering this a non issue when it comes to evaluating the historicity of Luke's birth narrative. Indeed, properly understood Luke accurately reflects Augustan policy of the time and an awareness of the broader historical context.

I suspect that the reason some commentators seize on the decree's scope -- setting aside the grasping skeptics who will seize on anything handy -- is because it leads up to a virgin birth account. Obviously, there is nothing miraculous or supernatural about Augustus' decree. But perhaps the attitude is, "Oh, I see where this is going so I'm going to kick in the suspicion early on." On the other hand, it could be that there are more legitimate questions about the census and its timing (though I think sometimes even these questions are sharper than they would be without the upcoming virgin birth account). Perhaps it is a mixture. Whatever the reason, a more dispassionate reading of Luke resolves the issue.

In Part 2 I will address the issue of whether Luke described the census as requiring all registrants to return to the home of their ancestors.

14 comments:

Layman wrote:

"This would have mislead no one in Luke's audience, though some more modern (supposedly more discerning) readers may miss the point. The only way to claim that Luke was wrong in his reference to the scope of August's decree is to take him to mean something he did not mean and his audience would not have understood him to mean."

The census account in general, both the portion Layman is addressing here and the remainder of the passage, didn't produce anything close to the level of controversy in ancient times that it's produced more recently. See here.

On the first issue, you should have a look at John Thorley, "The Nativity Census: What does Luke Actually Say?" Greece & Rome, 2d. ser., 26 (1979): 81-84.

I'm honestly confused. What is your point?

I mean, even if there had been a census, so what? This is a story about babies jumping for joy in their mommies tummy. Real life babies don't do that. Fairy tale babies do. Census or not, Luke is spinning a myth.

Stephen,

Thank you for the reference.

Your input and suggestions are always welcome.

What is your point?

That the scope Augustus's decree as presented in the Gospel of Luke is often misunderstood and once property understood does not raise any serious historical problems.

I mean, even if there had been a census, so what?

Then Luke is not mistaken on this point.

This is a story about babies jumping for joy in their mommies tummy.

Later, perhaps, but I was focusing on another part of the narrative.

Real life babies don't do that.

That is the usual rule, I grant you.

Fairy tale babies do.

Which fairy tales did you have in mind?

Census or not, Luke is spinning a myth.

So you argument is that miracles do not happen therefore any report of miracles is false?

>> Census or not, Luke is spinning a myth.

> So you argument is that miracles do not happen therefore any report of miracles is false?

Not at all. I don't deny miracles are possible. I merely observe that here they are unnecessary. Luke's magic stories are easily explained as all the other ancient godmen's magic birth stories are explained. Somebody made them up.

You don't imagine Olympias was really got at by an impregnating snake, do you? Somebody made the story up.

Ditto Atia. Somebody made the story up.

You don't believe Zeus sent an angel to Agamemnon (Iliad, Book 2), do you? Somebody made the story up.

You don't believe an angel spoke to Xerxes (Herodotus 7.16), do you? Somebody made the story up.

You don't believe Jupiter spoke with the Roman priest in the holy temple [Aeneid, 7.81ff], do you? Somebody made the story up.

You don't believe the dream Apollonius' mum had, a message from the God in the sky, heralding the birth of the Son of God. (The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 1.5), do you? Somebody made the story up.

You don’t believe the God Glycon, son of the God Apollo, was really heralded by a sacred prophesy and miraculously discovered in an egg, do you? Alexander made the story up.

You don't believe the God Apis was really zapped into the cow by the great God [Herodotus 3.28], do you? Somebody made that up.

The ancient world was full of magic stories. Magic stories about the magic births of magic godmen, heralded by magic communication from Gods in the sky. Luke fits the pattern. No miracle credulity needed.

Not at all. I don't deny miracles are possible. I merely observe that here they are unnecessary. Luke's magic stories are easily explained as all the other ancient godmen's magic birth stories are explained. Somebody made them up.

May be or may not be. You seem to want to shut down the investigation before its begun. As I have shown in my Distinguished Birth series, Luke and Matthew's birth narratives do not appear to be comparable to others in the ancient Greco-Roman world.

You don't imagine Olympias was really got at by an impregnating snake, do you? Somebody made the story up.

Ditto Atia. Somebody made the story up.

You don't believe Zeus sent an angel to Agamemnon (Iliad, Book 2), do you? Somebody made the story up.

You don't believe an angel spoke to Xerxes (Herodotus 7.16), do you? Somebody made the story up.

You don't believe Jupiter spoke with the Roman priest in the holy temple [Aeneid, 7.81ff], do you? Somebody made the story up.

You don't believe the dream Apollonius' mum had, a message from the God in the sky, heralding the birth of the Son of God. (The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 1.5), do you? Somebody made the story up.

You don’t believe the God Glycon, son of the God Apollo, was really heralded by a sacred prophesy and miraculously discovered in an egg, do you? Alexander made the story up.

You don't believe the God Apis was really zapped into the cow by the great God [Herodotus 3.28], do you? Somebody made that up.


Nope, don't believe these things for many reasons.

The ancient world was full of magic stories. Magic stories about the magic births of magic godmen, heralded by magic communication from Gods in the sky. Luke fits the pattern. No miracle credulity needed.

By concluding that Luke "fits the pattern," you are begging the question. I do not think that Luke and the other early Christian writings necessarily "fit the pattern." In order to find out whether they fit the pattern I like to look at their narratives more closely and check to see how they relate to the culture out of which these claims came and the broader culture to which these claims were transmitted.

For example, you note a story in the Iliad. The Iliad was not an ancient biography or ancient historiography. It has no relation to the Jewish culture out of which Christianity arose. I'm not inclined to equate its stories with those in the Gospel of Luke and other early Christian writings and traditions.

As another example, you quote Herodotus about a cow being zapped. Herodotus is considered the most prominent and perhaps first of the Greek historians, but he does not present the story as true. He simply notes that some Egyptians believed it. Luke on the other hand, reports events -- including the virgin birth narrative -- that he believes are "true" and which he "investigated carefully." The other story about what you call an "angel" recounts what Xerxes thinks he saw in a dream. Do I think he had a dream? Quite possibly. I'd have to put some more effort into it but men have dreams all the time and some of them put great stock in them. Your description of this story, and that of the cow, are misleading.

When you look at Palestine during the time of Jesus, you don't otherwise find the kinds of reports reported by the early Christians. Sure there were other messianic wanna bes but how many were reported raised from the dead by the followers. This criteria, called "dissimilarity" by some, is helpful in resolving just the kind of charge you make here.

But like I said, although you claim you don't dismiss miracles out of hand that is exactly what you seem to want to do with the early Christian reports of miracles. These posts on the stories about Jesus' birth are doing the kind of analysis that in part is designed to answer the question you simply assume supports your conclusion. I want to know whether that is in fact the case or not.

Thank you for your kind answer.

> By concluding that Luke "fits the pattern," you are begging the question.

You confound BTQ and drawing a conclusion based on oceans of evidence. If you have a reasoned conclusion of your own, please explain it.

> I do not think
> that Luke and the other early Christian writings necessarily "fit the pattern." In order to
> find out whether they fit the pattern I like to look at their narratives more closely and
> check to see how they relate to the culture out of which these claims came and the
> broader culture to which these claims were transmitted.

I'm sorry, I don't understand what you mean by you "do not think Luke and the other early Christian writings necessarily "fit the pattern." "

To me the pattern is obvious. The ancients were credulous primitives who believed in Gods in the sky with magic powers, who came to earth, in fulfillment of magic prophesy, by some miraculous means or another.

What pattern do you have in mind?


> For example, you note a story in the Iliad. The Iliad was not an ancient biography or
> ancient historiography. It has no relation to the Jewish culture out of which Christianity
> arose. I'm not inclined to equate its stories with those in the Gospel of Luke and other
> early Christian writings and traditions.

Neither am I. Homer didn't invent the Iliad. He took it from native stories. The point is that back then people, people who read the Iliad and those who didn't, believed in God-sent prophetic messages.


> As another example, you quote Herodotus about a cow being zapped. Herodotus is
> considered the most prominent and perhaps first of the Greek historians, but he does not
> present the story as true. He simply notes that some Egyptians believed it. Luke on the
> other hand, reports events -- including the virgin birth narrative -- that he believes are
> "true" and which he "investigated carefully."

Again, the point is not that Herodotus believed the story, but that the story was believed. More to the point, stories like this were generally believed. Gods came to Earth, out of the sky, in some magic way. That's what some people believed. Luke was one.


>The other story about what you call an
> "angel" recounts what Xerxes thinks he saw in a dream. Do I think he had a dream?
> Quite possibly. I'd have to put some more effort into it but men have dreams all the time
> and some of them put great stock in them. Your description of this story, and that of the
> cow, are misleading.

Then I haven't explained it well. Of course the stories are not true. That's the point. The ancient world was full of magic myths about magic Gods coming to earth from the sky, in this or that magic way. When you hear a story like that, you know it was made up. No recourse to miracles is required.

You understand it, and I do, but the ancients didn't. The ancients' worldview was defined by magic Gods and magic powers – and they made up stories accordingly. The ancients made up stories about magic godmen, miraculously prophesied in magic apparitions ("angel" or dream or God the Father appearing Himself). And every time you hear one of those stories, you don't believe it. You don't check to see how it relates to the culture of it's time. Unless it's Luke. Unless it's your story.


> When you look at Palestine during the time of Jesus, you don't otherwise find the kinds of
> reports reported by the early Christians.

Well since I don't think you're admitting that Luke wasn't from 1st century Palestine, I can't agree. Our gospels are stuffed of magic stories that fit nicely with pagan stories.


> Sure there were other messianic wanna bes but
> how many were reported raised from the dead by the followers.
> This criteria, called
> "dissimilarity" by some, is helpful in resolving just the kind of charge you make here.

How many Gods besides Apis were zapped into a cow? None that I know of. The particulars of Apis' myth were fit to the circumstances of His particular circumstances. This does not persuade either of us that Apis was real.

How many Gods were found in a sacred god-sent egg? None besides Glycon that I know of. The particulars of each Gods myth were adapted to His circumstances. This does not persuade either of us that Glycon was real.

How many Gods besides Dionysus lived in Zeus' thigh? None that I know of. The particulars of each Gods myth were adapted to His circumstances. This does not persuade either of us that Dionysus was real.

Ancient people believed in magic Gods, with magic powers, who came to Earth and did magic things. But the elements of each individual myth varied according to the circumstances of the God's time and place. The ancient myths are all dissimilar. Ditto Jesus'.


> But like I said, although you claim you don't dismiss miracles out of hand that is exactly
> what you seem to want to do with the early Christian reports of miracles.
> These posts on
> the stories about Jesus' birth are doing the kind of analysis that in part is designed to
> answer the question you simply assume supports your conclusion. I want to know
> whether that is in fact the case or not.

Please, tell me the criteria by which you decide an ancient story about a magic godman, heralded by a magic message from a magic God in the sky, please tell me what criteria you rely on to conclude that story is real.

And please tell me how you derived those criteria.

And on what basis do you know those criteria give the correct answer?

You confound BTQ and drawing a conclusion based on oceans of evidence. If you have a reasoned conclusion of your own, please explain it.

I am not sure what BTQ means.

My posts on this blog are part of reaching and explaining my conclusions. My articles at my Virtual Office are another part of that.

It is odd how you now demand I make my case but just before when I was in the middle of making a part of that case you claimed it was pointless because I could not make the case.

Like I said, it is clear you have made your mind up and don't believe any case can be made.

I'm sorry, I don't understand what you mean by you "do not think Luke and the other early Christian writings necessarily "fit the pattern." "

To me the pattern is obvious. The ancients were credulous primitives who believed in Gods in the sky with magic powers, who came to earth, in fulfillment of magic prophesy, by some miraculous means or another.

What pattern do you have in mind?


Yes, I guess it is obvious to you. Such is the advantage to a simplistic approach to history. You make broad statements with no evidence while demanding evidence for my statements (in the midst of my giving such evidence).

Neither am I. Homer didn't invent the Iliad. He took it from native stories. The point is that back then people, people who read the Iliad and those who didn't, believed in God-sent prophetic messages.

This an assumption, possibly a conclusion. You demand detailed explanations of all my conclusions yet offer none of your own.

Genre can make a big difference. Did Homer really believe his stories were true? Was it at least part of his purpose to collect true stories? Assuming he offered nothing original, did all those he gained stories from assume they were true? What is your evidence for any of this?

And BTW, lots of people today believe in God-sent prophetic messages. I'm not sure how that proves all claimed God-sent prophetic messages are false. Most Americans believe in God, for example. And in prayer, for another example. Majorities also believe in angels. Heck, it might surprise you to know that many of them believe these stories in the Bible.

Again, the point is not that Herodotus believed the story, but that the story was believed. More to the point, stories like this were generally believed. Gods came to Earth, out of the sky, in some magic way. That's what some people believed. Luke was one.

Many supernatural stories are still widely believed. That does not prove them all wrong.

And one of my points is that Luke wrote about things he carefully investigated and believed to be true whereas you claim Homer just wrote whatever people told him. Big difference. There are others.

Then I haven't explained it well. Of course the stories are not true. That's the point. The ancient world was full of magic myths about magic Gods coming to earth from the sky, in this or that magic way. When you hear a story like that, you know it was made up. No recourse to miracles is required.

Recounting that Xerxes claimed to have had a dream is hardly magic.

You understand it, and I do, but the ancients didn't. The ancients' worldview was defined by magic Gods and magic powers – and they made up stories accordingly. The ancients made up stories about magic godmen, miraculously prophesied in magic apparitions ("angel" or dream or God the Father appearing Himself). And every time you hear one of those stories, you don't believe it. You don't check to see how it relates to the culture of it's time. Unless it's Luke. Unless it's your story.

You are making a very unwarranted assumption when you claim that all ancients believed the same things and reported them regularly. Not all "ancient" persons thought or believed the same way.

Well since I don't think you're admitting that Luke wasn't from 1st century Palestine, I can't agree. Our gospels are stuffed of magic stories that fit nicely with pagan stories.

Ah, the rare triple negative. You've rendered this sentence incomprehensible.

It appears, however, that you are making an assumption that is unwarranted. It is rather interesting that these stories came from the early Christians and a Jewish culture, not a pagan one. The resurrection is the ultimate example of this, but it also holds true for other aspects of Jesus' reported miracle working.

Ancient people believed in magic Gods, with magic powers, who came to Earth and did magic things. But the elements of each individual myth varied according to the circumstances of the God's time and place. The ancient myths are all dissimilar. Ditto Jesus'.


You are defining the criteria much too narrowly to serve your own purposes. The record is pretty clean of any other writers claiming there were real miracle workers in Palestine in or around Jesus' time. Heck, there aren't even comparable accounts about such miracle workers in or around Jesus' time among the pagan cultures.

Please, tell me the criteria by which you decide an ancient story about a magic godman, heralded by a magic message from a magic God in the sky, please tell me what criteria you rely on to conclude that story is real.

And please tell me how you derived those criteria.

And on what basis do you know those criteria give the correct answer?


You over use the term "magic." There is a difference between magic and miracles or magic and the supernatural. Again, your choosing terms that confuse rather than clarify the issues.

In any event, I wrote a piece on historical criteria and how they relate to reports about Jesus' miracle working:

http://christiancadre.org/cpricevirt.html

You also make the mistake of assuming that all reports of miracle working are similarly weak. That is hardly the case. If Homer reports a miracle and is a epic poet who may have heard stories from others, you have no evidence that Homer believed the stories to be true or that his sources believed them to be true or how many sources he may have had or what the culture was that produced those stories or whether his sources were regularly cranking out such supernatural stories.

So it is entirely unpersuasive to compare Homer's story to, say, Paul's report that he saw the resurrected Jesus and his report that people he knew (and who knew Jesus well) and had discussed the event with also encountered the resurrected Jesus evidence.

It is not enough to simply assume all ancient people were stupid, equally gullible, and equally reported miracles all the time. That simply is not the case. The disagreement comes down to the details. It certainly could be the case that the early Christian tenants were just copied mishmashed pagan miracle stories. But the truth of that statement depends on the evidence. And we thankfully have a good bit of evidence with which to work.

> My posts on this blog are part of reaching and explaining my conclusions. My articles at my
> Virtual Office are another part of that.

Excellent. Thank you for the helpful link below.

> It is odd how you now demand I make my case but just before when I was in the middle of
> making a part of that case you claimed it was pointless because I could not make the case.

Yes, I do believe your case is pointless. That's why I said so. And I explained why. Ain't it grand?

> Like I said, it is clear you have made your mind up and don't believe any case can be made.

Counselor, you can't imagine this sentence is persuasive. Please act like an adult and write statements that make the question at issue more or less likely.


> > I'm sorry, I don't understand what you mean by you "do not think Luke and
> > the other early Christian writings necessarily "fit the pattern." "
> > To me the pattern is obvious. The ancients were credulous primitives who
> > believed in Gods in the sky with magic powers, who came to earth, in
> > fulfillment of magic prophesy, by some miraculous means or another.
> > What pattern do you have in mind?

> Yes, I guess it is obvious to you. Such is the advantage to a simplistic
> approach to history. You make broad statements with no evidence while
> demanding evidence for my statements (in the midst of my giving such
> evidence).

No evidence? You can't be serious.


> > Neither am I. Homer didn't invent the Iliad. He took it from native stories.
> > The point is that back then people, people who read the Iliad and those who
> > didn't, believed in God-sent prophetic messages.

> This an assumption, possibly a conclusion. You demand detailed
> explanations of all my conclusions yet offer none of your own.

I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be unclear. I believe the fact that authors in Greece, and Rome, and Egypt and Palestine wrote about people who believed in magic Gods in the sky, who came to earth, who communicated with people through dreams and angels and personal visitations, who sent their sons to earth in accordance with divine prophesies, to do magic things on earth – I believe the fact that over and over and over and over ancient authors wrote that, I believe that means there actually were ancient people who believed in magic Gods in the sky, who came to earth, who communicated with people through dreams and angels and personal visitations, who sent their sons to earth in accordance with divine prophesies, to do magic things on earth.

I think their credulity was the source of those stories.



> Genre can make a big difference. Did Homer really believe his stories were
> true? Was it at least part of his purpose to collect true stories? Assuming he
> offered nothing original, did all those he gained stories from assume they
> were true? What is your evidence for any of this?

Perhaps we've reached a point where we disagree. Do you really not believe ancient peoples believed in Gods and dreams and prophesies and godmen?


> And BTW, lots of people today believe in God-sent prophetic messages. I'm
> not sure how that proves all claimed God-sent prophetic messages are false.
> Most Americans believe in God, for example. And in prayer, for another
> example. Majorities also believe in angels. Heck, it might surprise you to know
> that many of them believe these stories in the Bible.

Thank you for this information.


> > Again, the point is not that Herodotus believed the story, but that the story
> > was believed. More to the point, stories like this were generally believed.
> > Gods came to Earth, out of the sky, in some magic way. That's what some
> > people believed. Luke was one.

> Many supernatural stories are still widely believed. That does not prove
> them all wrong.

I never said it did. I merely said it is possible – indeed entirely reasonable – to explain Luke's magic stories in terms of Luke's cultural context – he lived in a world infused with superstitious hocus pocus.


> And one of my points is that Luke wrote about things he carefully
> investigated and believed to be true whereas you claim Homer just wrote
> whatever people told him. Big difference. There are others.

I don't doubt Luke believed his own stuff, in whatever way the Romans believed the guts of goats, or Plutarch believed the pagan miracles he personally witnessed, or Marcion believed his stuff, or Valentius his, etc.

I do not however believe Luke made a careful study of the facts in a way that would allow him to quote verbatim angels speaking to other people generations earlier, in concise detail that just happens to move Luke's plot along nicely thank you. I think Luke made that up. And all the other of ancient writers who were able to quote their Gods / dreams / angels in precise plot-advancing detail generations later, I think they were making it up too. See? My theory has the virtue of consistency.

You're the cultural context expert. Please list all the other ancient writers whose angel quotations you have surveyed, and analyzed in cultural context, and concluded to be actual magic miracles? The truth is, the answer is zero. You only believe in miracle stories when they're your miracles, cultural context be damned.


> > Then I haven't explained it well. Of course the stories are not true. That's the
> > point. The ancient world was full of magic myths about magic Gods coming to
> > earth from the sky, in this or that magic way. When you hear a story like that,
> > you know it was made up. No recourse to miracles is required.

> Recounting that Xerxes claimed to have had a dream is hardly magic.

Do you really not understand that Herodotus is reporting what people believed, that people told and believed this Xerxes story?



> > You understand it, and I do, but the ancients didn't. The ancients' worldview
> > was defined by magic Gods and magic powers – and they made up stories
> > accordingly. The ancients made up stories about magic godmen, miraculously
> > prophesied in magic apparitions ("angel" or dream or God the Father
> > appearing Himself). And every time you hear one of those stories, you don't
> > believe it. You don't check to see how it relates to the culture of its time.
> > Unless it's Luke. Unless it's your story.

> You are making a very unwarranted assumption when you claim that all
> ancients believed the same things and reported them regularly. Not all
> "ancient" persons thought or believed the same way.

Do you really not understand that magic dreams and messengers from God were part of ancient religion? Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Jews. Do you really not know this?

Then we have identified a point of disagreement. I believe the evidence. You do not.


> > Well since I don't think you're admitting that Luke wasn't from 1st century
> > Palestine, I can't agree. Our gospels are stuffed of magic stories that fit nicely
> > with pagan stories.

> Ah, the rare triple negative. You've rendered this sentence incomprehensible.

Grow up.

> It appears, however, that you are making an assumption that is unwarranted.
> It is rather interesting that these stories came from the early Christians and a
> Jewish culture, not a pagan one.
> The resurrection is the ultimate example of
> this, but it also holds true for other aspects of Jesus' reported miracle
> working.

Sorry, Jesus is a walking, talking, demon out casting, water walking, disease healing, mind-reading, dream and prophesy foretold, wisdom teaching, come to earth from the sky and later ascended into the clouds, polytheistic ancient god. You cannot possibly get more pagan than that. If He had really been conceptually Jewish, Judea would have converted. They didn't. 'Cause he's not. The Jesus myths are perfect syncretism, old Jewish legends grafted to pagan polytheistic mythology – entirely consonant with their pagan cultural context.

Further, you are under informed. Read and learn:

"At Alexandria a commoner, whose eyes were well known to have wasted away ...fell at Vespasian's feet demanding with sobs a cure for his blindness, and imploring that the Emperor would deign to moisten his eyes and eyeballs with the spittle from his mouth.
... Vespasian .... did as the men desired him. Immediately the hand recovered its functions and daylight shone once more in the blind man's eyes. Those who were present still attest both miracles today, when there is nothing to gain by lying."
Tacitus, The Histories, 4.81

1 And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth....
6 When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay,
7 And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.
Gospel of John, Chapter 9


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A girl had died just in the hour of her marriage, and the bridegroom was following her bier lamenting as was natural his marriage left unfulfilled, and the whole of Rome was mourning with him, for the maiden belonged to a consular family. Apollonius then witnessing their grief, said : "Put down the bier, for I will stay the tears that you are shedding for this maiden." And withal he asked what was her name. The crowd accordingly thought that he was about to deliver such an oration as is commonly delivered as much to grace the funeral as to stir up lamentation ; but he did nothing of the kind, but merely touching her and whispering in secret some spell over her, at once woke up the maiden from her seeming death ; and the girl spoke out loud, and returned to her father's house, just as Alcestis did when she was brought back to life by Hercules.
Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 4.45

While Jesus was still speaking, some men came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?” Ignoring what they said, Jesus told the synagogue ruler, “Don't be afraid; just believe.”
He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. When they came to the home of the synagogue ruler, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him.
After he put them all out, he took the child's father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha koum!" (which means, "Little girl, I say to you, get up!" ). Immediately the girl stood up and walked around (she was twelve years old).
Gospel of Mark, 5.21- 42



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6.14 ... Supposing herself now secure against any intrusion or observation, the old woman began by digging a pit, to one side of which she lit a fire. After positioning her son's body between the two, she took an earthenware bowl from a tripod that stood beside her and poured a libation of honey into the pit, likewise of milk from a second bowl, and lastly of [page 486] wine from a third. Then she took a cake made out of fine wheat flour and shaped into the effigy of a man, crowned it with bay and fennel, and flung it into the pit. Finally she picked up a sword and, in an access of feverish ecstasy, invoked the moon by a series of grotesque and outlandish names, then drew the blade across her arm. She wiped the blood onto a sprig of bay and flicked it into the fire. There followed a number of other bizarre actions, after which she knelt over the dead body of her son and whispered certain incantations into his ear, until she woke the dead man and compelled him by her magic arts to stand upright.
.... the old woman had now begun to question the corpse in a somewhat louder voice. ....Then he suddenly collapsed and fell flat on his face. The old woman rolled the body over onto its back and persisted with her questions. Employing apparently more powerful spells of compulsion this time, she repeated her string of incantations into his ears, and, leaping, sword in hand, from fire to pit, from pit to fire, she succeeded in waking the dead man a second time and, once he was on his feet, began to put the same questions to him as before, forcing him to use speech as well as nods of the head to make his prophecy unambiguous.
Heliodoros, An Ethiopian Story 6.3- 4

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God also enabled him to learn that skill which expels demons, (4) which is a science useful and sanative to men. He composed such incantations also by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return;
and this method of cure is of great force unto this day; for I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was Eleazar, releasing people that were demoniacal in the presence of Vespasian, and his sons, and his captains, and the whole multitude of his soldiers. The manner of the cure was this: He put a ring that had a Foot of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he abjured him to return into him no more, making still mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantations which he composed.
And when Eleazar would persuade and demonstrate to the spectators that he had such a power, he set a little way off a cup or basin full of water, and commanded the demon, as he went out of the man, to overturn it, and thereby to let the spectators know that he had left the man...
Josephus, Antiquities, 8.2.5


28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way.
29 And behold, they cried out, "What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?"
30 Now a herd of many swine was feeding at some distance from them.
31 And the demons begged him, "If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of swine."
32 And he said to them, "Go." So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters.
33 The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, and what had happened to the demoniacs.
34 And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.
Gospel of Matthew, 8:28-33

Notice the bit at the end, the daemons going into the heard of pigs, who rush off and drown. Notice the function of this bit in the story: the herdsmen realize demons have been cast out, and they run to the city with the news—the same purpose as the wobbly cup in Josephus' story.

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Everyone knows about the SYRIAN FROM PALESTINE, the adept in it, how many he takes in hand who fall down in the light of the moon and roll their eyes and fill their mouths with foam; nevertheless, he restores them to health and sends them away normal in mind, delivering them from their straits for a large fee.
When he stands beside them as they lie there and asks: 'Whence came you into his body?' the patient himself is silent, but the spirit answers in Greek or in the language of whatever foreign country he comes from, telling how and whence he entered into the man ; whereupon, by adjuring the spirit and if he does not obey, threatening him, he drives him out. Indeed, I actually saw one coming out, black and smoky in color."
Lucian, Lover of Lies, 16

Etc. etc.



> > Ancient people believed in magic Gods, with magic powers, who came to
> > Earth and did magic things. But the elements of each individual myth varied
> > according to the circumstances of the God's time and place. The ancient
> > myths are all dissimilar. Ditto Jesus'.

> You are defining the criteria much too narrowly to serve your own purposes.
> The record is pretty clean of any other writers claiming there were real
> miracle workers in Palestine in or around Jesus' time. Heck, there aren't even
> comparable accounts about such miracle workers in or around Jesus' time
> among the pagan cultures.

1 Please list the "real" miracle workers you have in mind besides Jesus anytime?

2. Let me get this right, I'm saying Romans, Greeks, Egyptian, Jews believed in magic Gods, and god sent messages; And you want to confine your "cultural context" to just "real" miracle workers in Palestine around the time of Jesus – and _I'm_ being too narrow? _That's_ your answer?

3. Please list the writers you have in mind around the time of Jesus, who report Jesus' "real" miracles. Not so bit a set, is it? Not such a good way to discover miracle beliefs, is it?

4. See Josephus above. And Lucian re the Syrian.


> > Please, tell me the criteria by which you decide an ancient story about a
> > magic godman, heralded by a magic message from a magic God in the sky,
> > please tell me what criteria you rely on to conclude that story is real.

> > And please tell me how you derived those criteria.
> > And on what basis do you know those criteria give the correct answer?

> You over use the term "magic." There is a difference between magic and
> miracles or magic and the supernatural. Again, your choosing terms that
> confuse rather than clarify the issues.

Sorry, I can't agree. I believe the difference is all in your imagination. Or, show me otherwise. Show me what observation I can make to discover the difference.



> In any event, I wrote a piece on historical criteria and how they relate to
> reports about Jesus' miracle working:

> http://christiancadre.org/cpricevirt.html

Oh thank you. I enjoyed reading this most interesting web page.

0. As an aside, since I perceive you are eager to learn my personal opinions, I'll mention your analysis seems infested with the apologists fetish about authority. Are you Catholic? This is a very Roman Catholic approach: the bible is too hard for simple people to read; so the Pope tells them what to think. Or, in your article: the raw facts are too hard for simple people to understand; so you pass on what the scholars tell them to think.

I think that if the raw data were persuasive, you'd give that. You don't. I don’t think you can.


1. May I mention just your "multiple attestation" theory. You seem to imagine yourself analyzing ancient magic stories in cultural context – but I didn't see any analysis of other cultures' magic stories. Are they multiply attested? You seem not to know.

Further, I understand you imagine that "multiply attested" makes magic likely, but I don't see any actual test of this hypothesis.

You fail to mention any actual miracles that you otherwise know ARE miracles and then test them to confirm that actual miracles ARE in fact multiply attested.

The opposite is also true. You fail to identify "miracles" that you knew were NOT miracles and test them and confirm they were NOT multiply attested.

So, you've named your criteria. Thank you. But it turns out the answer to the key questions:

How did you derive those criteria?
On basis do you know those criteria give the correct answer?

Is…you make them up. Or your shaddup-and-believe scholar authority professional apologists sources did.

Not a surprise. This was my original point.



> You also make the mistake of assuming that all reports of miracle working
> are similarly weak. That is hardly the case. If Homer reports a miracle and is a
> epic poet who may have heard stories from others, you have no evidence that
> Homer believed the stories to be true or that his sources believed them to be
> true or how many sources he may have had or what the culture was that
> produced those stories or whether his sources were regularly cranking out
> such supernatural stories.

> So it is entirely unpersuasive to compare Homer's story to, say, Paul's report
> that he saw the resurrected Jesus and his report that people he knew (and
> who knew Jesus well) and had discussed the event with also encountered the
> resurrected Jesus evidence.


Again, I never said Jesus didn't rise or that Paul didn't see Him. They may have. I merely observed that these beliefs are entirely superfluous. The magic Jesus stories fit perfectly with the other magic stories of the other ancient magic godmen. The Jesus stories are explained perfectly by their cultural context. No miracle credulity required.

Having read the exchange between Layman and Anonymous (*sigh*), I just wanted to express what a complete waste of time I think there is in continuing. Layman has made the point in his post about an issue of the census. In my view, his point is sound and well taken.

Anonymous is trying to turn this into a debate over whether the entire belief in God is simply the unfounded belief in a magical sky king. Anonymous has made his point, and while I don't find his points the least bit convincing since so much of it is based on what Anonymous thinks happened instead of an examination of the facts, Anonymous has been given the opportunity to make his points and he has made his points ad nauseum.

Having said that, I am inclined to end this discussion because it violates the fact that the comments have to be "on point" to the original blog. Anonymous' comments have strayed far from that point. (The post doesn't raise Xeres, Jupiter, Atia or any other claims. Even so, Layman has already responded to each and Anonymous has been given his opportunity for rebuttal.)

Since I want people who have actual questions about the topic of the blog to not have to read through acres of unrelated material, I am inclined to end this discussion by deleting any further comments on this subject -- especially since I agree with Layman that there is really no point to the discussion because Anonymous had his mind set prior to the first comment.

Oh, and by the way, Anonymous, your posts are becoming nastier and nastier. It doesn't surprise me because that is the usual approach for most Internet athiests. Nevertheless, I ask you to remember the rule that we are to be "civil" in the comments.

'Zacharias and Elizabeth were blameless in “all” the commandments and requirements of the Lord.'

That is no more an error than me claiming to be sinless is.

Uesful thing this hyperbole. I can say all sorts of things about myself without once being in error.

In fact it is not an error to say that Christians have no arguments in support of their faith.

I might get to like hyperbole.

Steve,

And someday you may provide coherent, responsive criticisms. But today is not that day.

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