Re: [asa] Grains among the chaff (skimming the 'God Delusion')

From: David Opderbeck <>
Date: Mon Mar 31 2008 - 09:04:58 EDT

Interesting questions Merv. It's well known that the literary relationship
between the synoptic Gospels (Matt., Mark and Luke) is somewhat unclear,
hence the term "synoptic problem." Even conservative scholars acknowledge
that the synoptic Gospel writers selected and arranged some preexisting
material for theological and literary purposes (in fact, Luke 1 specifically
mentions pre-existing tradition). So, if you come to the synoptic Gospels
expecting to find simple, clean timelines, you'll be disappointed (or
thrilled, depending on your perspective). The events in the synoptic
Gospels are more like selected portraits or scenes, not necessarily in
chronological order.

As to the census, the Greek grammar here apparently presents some
difficulties. Some have noted that Luke 2:2 points out "this was the first
census taken while Quirinius was governor...." This could suggest there was
more than one census. One proposal suggests that Luke is distinguishing the
census in A.D. 6 from an earlier registration (see here:

As to Jesus' family traveling to Egypt, Luke 2 seems to suggest that after
Jesus was blessed at the temple, the family returned to Nazareth; there is a
verse about Jesus continuing to grow strong, and then the narrative
continues in the next verse with Jesus as a 12-year-old. In the events in
Matt. 2, one thing people often note is that Herod's decree was for the
death of all boys two years old and under (Matt. 2:16). This suggests that
the Magi did not visit immediately at Jesus' birth, as is popularly
supposed. It may be that the Magi visited when Jesus was around two years
old, and that Matthew fills in some details of Jesus' life between when he
was two and twelve years old that Luke omits. Robert Gundry, however,
suggests that the Magi scene is a sort of midrash (a non-historical
interpretive gloss on the underlying events) -- a suggestion that was quite
controversial in evangelical circles.

One thing that strikes me -- it seems that the Gospel writers could have
done a much better job if the Gospels were mere fabrications and these
"errors" are as obvious as critics such as Dawkins thinks they are.
Wouldn't Luke's original readers have known immediately if the reference to
the census was an obvious gaffe? Josephus, writing at around the same time
or maybe a little later than Luke, refers to the census of Quirinius, so it
was evidently a significant event that was remembered for some time. One
might argue that Luke made a mistake of some kind (and I don't think even
that's necessary), which would question some notions of inerrancy, but this
hardly suggests a "fabrication."
On Mon, Mar 31, 2008 at 1:16 AM, Merv <> wrote:

> At our public library, finding its two A. McGrath's holdings ("D.Delusion& Twilight of Atheism), I also saw Dawkins' "God Delusion" (three shiny
> copies!) right next to them and couldn't resist.
> Now, after having skimmed it (Dawkins' book) at home looking for anything
> that might be interesting or genuinely insightful, I did find one question
> that provoked me to look into something in Scriptures. He finds in the
> Matthew and Luke accounts of Jesus' childhood obviously contradictory
> accounts regarding childhood travels. Here, any such interest as Dawkins
> may have purported to have stops, since to him this is only one more
> 'incoherence' of scripture. But my interest is piqued. Here is what
> Dawkins' said that caught my attention (p. 93) I'll just summarize it.
> Dawkins writes to this effect:
> ...that Luke has Mary & Joseph living in Nazareth, traveling to Bethlehem,
> fleeing to Egypt, and then returning to Nazareth after Herod dies. Whereas
> Matthew has the family living in Bethlehem all along. (I guess D. gets this
> from Matt 2:19-23 which seem to suggest that Nazareth was an unplanned
> arrival point rather than a home returned to.)
> Dawkins also states that Luke's claim about the Roman census, which can be
> independently verified, shows the whole Luke account to be a fabrication
> since the only census that occurred was a local one, and was too late for
> Luke's purposes, being in AD 6 after Herod's death.
> All this made me wonder how theologians have answered (or not answered)
> some of this, or if Dawkins' facts are just plain wrong (His other
> assertions about Scripture that I ran across were light weight --- he can
> pontificate on how, even in the N.T., Jewish morality and decency towards
> 'neighbors' meant only 'fellow Jews' with nary a mention of Jesus' teaching
> of the good Samaritan so far as I could find.)
> But sorting out the childhood travels of the holy family I find more
> interesting:
> Matthew states that immediately after the magi visit (to the *house* in
> Bethlehem), the holy family fled to Egypt. So why does Luke never mention
> the flight to Egypt, but makes it sound like they return forthwith to
> Nazareth after the circumcision (eighth day) and purification rites in
> Jerusalem? What are the developed answers theologians have given to these
> over the ages?
> I don't raise these questions in the same spirit as Dawkins does (indeed,
> to him they are not questions at all) Unlike him, I am actually interested
> in the truth. So are his challenges actually real ones here? I should
> probably go and review the astronomical Star of Bethlehem project again, if
> I could find it. It seemed he had quite a bit to say about some timelines
> that may have answered this.
> (I pasted in Dawkin's actual paragraphs on this below for the curious.)
> --Merv
> p.s. Dave Opderbec, thanks for the A.McGrath suggestion; he looks like
> an excellent author, and I'll be reading his work now too.
> p.p.s. (from a 'Pontius Puddle' religious cartoon):
> Said parishioner to Pontius: "How was Sunday school this morning?"
> Replied Pontius: "Great! I scuttled two shallow convictions, exposed
> three misconceptions, and crushed one individual's entire belief system!"
> Parting remark of parishioner: "I had no idea religion could be such a
> contact sport!"
> Actual paragraphs from Dawkins' (er - excuse me) "God Delusion" p. 93
> Matthew and Luke handle the problem differently, by deciding that Jesus
> must have been born in Bethlehem after all. But they get him there by
> different routes. Matthew has Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem all along,
> moving to Nazareth only long after the birth of Jesus, on their return from
> Egypt where they fled from King Herod and the massacre of the innocents.
> Luke, by contrast, acknowledges that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth
> before Jesus was born. So how to get them to Bethlehem at the crucial
> moment, in order to fulfill the prophecy? Luke says that, in the time when
> Cyrenius (Quirinius) was governor of Syria, Caesar Augustus decreed a census
> for taxation purposes, and everybody had to go 'to his own city'. Joseph
> was 'of the house and lineage of David' and therefore he had to go to the
> city of David, which is called Bethlehem'. That must have seemed like a
> good solution. Except that historically it is complete nonsense, as A.N.
> Wilson in [...& others ...] have pointed out. David ... lived nearly a
> thousand years before Mary and Joseph. Why on earth would the Romans have
> required Joseph to go to the city where a remote ancestor had lived a
> millennium earlier? It is as though I were required to specify [...yada
> yada yada..]
> Dawkins continues in the next paragraph:
> Moreover, Luke screws up his dating by tactlessly mentioning events that
> historians are capable of independently checking. There was indeed a census
> under governor Quirinius - a local census, not one decreed by Caesar
> Augustus for the Empire as a whole -- but it happened too late: in AD 6,
> long after Herod's death.
> --end of quote from Dawkins' book.

David W. Opderbeck
Associate Professor of Law
Seton Hall University Law School
Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology
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Received on Mon Mar 31 09:06:04 2008

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