Bart Ehrman and the Infancy Narratives, Part IV

Part I   Part II   Part III

Back to Bart Ehrman and his objections to the historical accuracy of the Infancy Narratives. This is the last part for now, but I hope to return to the subject of Jesus’ birth soon. I may even write a book about it.

Only in [Luke] do Joseph and Mary make a trip from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to register for a census when “the whole world” had to be enrolled under Caesar Augustus. The whole world? Luke must mean “the whole Roman Empire.” But even that cannot be right, historically. We have good documentation about the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there never was a census of his entire empire.


Journey to Bethlehem, 14th-century fresco

Well, yes there was. Part of the problem is that historians have been looking at the wrong time for this census, 6-5 B.C., and the wrong kind of census, a census for taxation.

Since Jesus was born in the reign of Herod the Great, the king of Judea, it is thought that this census must have taken place before  4 B.C., the date that since the time of Emil Schürer,[1] historians have almost unanimously assigned to Herod’s death. As a result, they have looked for a Roman census for taxation before this date and have to go back to 8 B.C., too early for the birth of Jesus. But more recent historical study has concluded that 1 B.C. is much more likely a date for Herod’s death. I wrote about this here.

But equally problematic is the supposition that Luke is referring to a Roman census for collecting of taxes, because this would not have been done in Judea under Herod. Roman “client kings” like Herod the Great collected taxes from their people themselves without Roman intervention. But Luke doesn’t specifically say that there was a census, nor does he say anything about taxes — these are all interpretations put on his words by translators. He actually spoke about an apographe, or “registration,” which was the word normally used for a Roman census for taxation, but was also employed to refer to a number of other types of registration, such as enrollment in the army.

Ernest L. Martin, followed by a number of other authors, dated the birth of Jesus to coincide with the empire-wide registration requiring a loyalty oath to Augustus, that was part of the planned celebrations for the Emperor being named Pater Patriae or “Father of his Country” in February 2 B.C.[2] Word about the registration had gone out by the spring of 3 B.C. and the registration in Judea would probably have been carried out that fall, in accordance with Roman custom, as that was the best weather for traveling.[3]

So Jesus was born in the late summer-early fall of 3 B.C. It all fits perfectly with what Luke wrote in 3:23, that Jesus was “about thirty years old” in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, which would equal 27 A.D., and would give a 3 B.C. date for Jesus’ birth.

In this account Joseph and Mary need to register in Bethlehem (which is why Jesus is born there) because Joseph is descended from King David, who came from Bethlehem. But David lived a thousand years earlier. Is everyone in the entire Roman Empire returning to their ancestral home from a thousand years earlier? Imagine the massive migrations for this census. And no historian from the time thought it was worth mentioning? This is not a story based on historical fact.

This objection is actually my favorite, because it shows such ridiculous historical ignorance on Ehrman’s part. Apart from the fact I already pointed out that taking a census by tribes and clans was the normal procedure throughout the history of Israel (See Part III), the practice was also well known to the Romans. Censuses among the people of Rome were taken by tribe and family. It was the practice among many ancient peoples. So it would not have been any surprise to the historian of the times that people registered with their own tribes or clans. And though in many cases, the clans or tribes tended to live in the same area, migration also took place, resulting in people living some distance from their homelands. But people did not lose their ancestral memories, even over centuries. In addition, a Roman registration, like the one mentioned above, was generally taken at a relatively local population center. Herod’s kingdom, geographically speaking, was not that large a space. Historian William R. Ramsay wrote: “After all, not a great deal of journeying to and fro would be required for the enrolment.  . . The majority of the strictly Jewish population was probably resident at that time in the southern part of Palestine, though there was also a large minority scattered over all the cities of the central and northern districts. A considerable number of people would have to make journeys of one to four days to their own city, and the same back again; but nothing approaching to a general transference of population would be necessitated.”. [4]

But more than that, it is very likely that Joseph’s ancestors had emigrated from Judea not “a thousand years earlier,” but less than a hundred years earlier. Here is why:


Peter Paul Rubens (and workshop) Triumph of Judah Maccabee

By the eighth century B.C., the kingdom of Israel consisted of a southern part, Judea (or Judah), in which the tribes of Judah, Levi and a part of tribe of Benjamin lived, and Israel, in the north, where the other ten tribes lived. Then in 732 BC, the Assyrians attacked and ravaged the northern kingdom, killing many inhabitants and carrying others off into slavery (2 Kings, 15:29); many of those left fled to the southern kingdom of Judah; for hundreds of years afterward, the former northern kingdom had few to no Jewish inhabitants, and was settled by Gentiles. Then in 586 BC, the king of Babylon besieged and conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and deported much of the population of Judea to Babylon. King Cyrus permitted them to return in 538 BC, when they resettled Judea and rebuilt the temple; only 123 people from the whole of Bethlehem returned (Ezra 1:21); they settled there and re-peopled the town.

When Judah Maccabee and his brothers came to power in the 2nd century B.C., they established the Hasmonean dynasty, defeated the Gentiles who had moved into Galilee, and began the Jewish re-settlement of the northern part of Israel. We get some hints of this in the books of Maccabees (1 Mac 5:14-21), but archaeology tells the rest of the story. Beginning in the late 2nd or early first century B.C., archaeological remains indicating settlement begin to appear in Galilee, and from then on, much of the pottery in Galilee began to resemble that produced in Judea, indicating not only the migration north by the inhabitants of Judea, but continued emotional attachment to their homeland.[5] This was still going on at the time of the Roman conquest of 63 B.C., and probably afterward. A Jewish archaeologist writes: “Scholars agree that the Galilean population at the turn of the first century BCE was a mixture of Jewish remnants, converted pagan, veterans of the Hasmonean army, and many new immigrants from Judea.”[6]

So there is nothing surprising about Mary and Joseph returning to his father or grandfather’s home in Judea (a journey of 4 or 5 days). Herod the Great, an Idumean convert to Jerusalem, though a lover of Hellenist ways, generally respected ancient Jewish customs. Because this census, as mentioned above, was taken under the auspices of both Herod and Caesar Augustus, who also made it a habit to respect Jewish sensibilities, there is every reason to think that Herod would have seen to it that the enrollment was done according to the traditional Jewish custom.

Understanding the historical circumstances gives a whole new coloring to Joseph’s relationship to his roots in Judea. It is often thought that he and Mary would have been strangers when they arrived there and needed to seek an inn. I think (along with many others) that “inn” is a mistranslation. Joseph would almost certainly have had relatives living in Bethlehem, with whom they could have stayed. The most likely explanation of “there was no room for them in the kataluma” is that this word refers not to an inn, but to a guest room, or guest quarters in a home, or even the home itself; the word essentially refers to any temporary accommodation. It might even be translated “they didn’t have a room to themselves in the place they were staying.” Due to the registration, there was likely a bit of overcrowding in the home (as in our homes at Christmastime), and the lack of a private room or bed led Mary to put her newborn in an unusual crib fitting to a home where humans and animals lived in close quarters. This opens up a whole new subject that I hope to explore someday soon.


[1] Emil Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ: A New English Version Revised and Edited by Geza Vermes and Fergus Millar. (New York: Bloomsbury, 1973, repr 2014), 1:326-28, note. Schürer’s work, originally published in 1896, has retained considerable authority.

[2] Ernest L. Martin, The Star of Bethlehem: The Star that Astonished the World, extended 2nd ed. (Portland, OR: Associates for Scriptural Knowledge, 1996), passim. The Introduction summarizes the evidence.

[3] William M. Ramsay, Was Christ Born at Bethlehem? A Study on the Credibility of St. Luke (London Hodder and Stoughton, 1898), p. 194.

[4] Ramsay,  Was Christ Born at Bethlehem?, pp. 194-95.

[5] A large number of works have discussed this movement of peoples: among them see Mordechai Aviam, “First Century Jewish Galilee: An Archaeological Perspective,” in Religion and Society in Roman Palestine: Old Questions, New Approaches, ed. Douglas R. Edwards (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 7-27; also his “The Transformation from Galil Ha-Goyim to Jewish Galilee: The Archaeological Testimony of an Ethnic Change.” In David A. Fiensy and James R. Strange, eds. Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mischnaic Periods. Vol. II: The Archaeological Record from Cities, Towns and Villages. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2015, pp. 9-21, and Mark A. Chancey, The Myth of a Gentile Galilee. The Population of Galilee and New Testament Studies. Cambridge UP, 2004.

[6] Aviam, “Transformation from Galil Ha-Goyim to Jewish Galilee,” p. 16.

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