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Readers’ Mailbag: December 27, 2015

QUESTION:  [Bart has said:]  “Jesus must have been called the messiah during his lifetime, or it makes no sense that he would be called messiah after his death”:  [Comment:] By this line of reasoning, then surely one would conclude that Jesus was considered divine during his lifetime, else it makes no sense he would be considered divine after his death?


RESPONSE:  The first line in the question is a quotation of a view I have elaborated on the blog.  The logic, in short (see the posts for a fuller explanation) is that no one on the planet expected that the messiah would die and rise again.  And so even someone who came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection would never conclude: OH!  He must be the messiah?  That’s because that is not what the messiah was supposed to do.

The questioner then is arguing that the same thing applies to the question of Jesus’ divinity, that the resurrection would not make anyone think Jesus is divine.  My view is that this is precisely wrong.  It was the resurrection and nothing else that did make Jesus’ followers conclude that he was divine.  The logic is clear and straightforward.  The followers of Jesus did not think that Jesus’ body was merely reanimated (that he had some kind of near death experience), to die again later. They thought that Jesus had not only been raised back to life but that he had been exalted to heaven (since, well, he obviously was no longer here on earth).

And what did ancient people think of those who had been exalted to heaven?  They thought they had become divine beings.  That was true for pagans (think Romulus; Julius Caesar) and Jews (think Elijah and Moses).   So even though resurrection/exaltation would never be thought to make someone the messiah, it is precisely what would make people think that Jesus came to be made divine.


QUESTION:  I keep hearing people say that one of the decisive results of modern scholarship has been the realization that the Jewishness of Jesus is central to understanding him. Why was this ever in doubt?

RESPONSE:  Ah, great question.  There are lots of ways to answer it, depending on how one interprets the word “why.”  Why did older scholarship (for centuries) deny Jesus’ Jewishness?  One question is “what was the logic behind this older opinion?” and another is “what was driving the logic?”  In terms of the logic, Christian scholars for centuries were convinced that Jesus was not a product of his Jewish environment but that he transcended it.  Jesus, for them, completely transformed Judaism into a different religion, and so his preaching was not influenced by the Jewish world in which he was born but represented a radical reconceptualization of how a person relates to God.  So he was not Jewish.

As to what was driving this logic, the short answer is: Christian supercessionism.  Christianity, for most Christian scholars throughout history, was the true religion and Judaism was a false religion.  The Jews were ignorant and hard-headed; Christians were enlightened and open to grace.  Jesus came to abolish the primitive, legalistic Jewish religion to establish the true religion of love, mercy, and truth.  And so Jesus could not be a Jew.  He was the first Christian.

It was only after the Second World War that Christian scholars began to realize how completely wrong this view was.   Jesus – like everyone else on the planet – was very much a man of his time, and if you want to know what he taught and what he meant, you have to know the world within which he preached his message.  And that was a world of first-century Palestinian Judaism.


QUESTION:  In your New Testament textbook, you write the following:

“Contrary to what Luke indicates, historians have long known from several ancient inscriptions, the Roman historian Tacitus, and the Jewish historian Josephus that Quirinius was not the governor of Syria until 6 C.E., fully ten years after Herod the Great died. If Jesus was born during the reign of Herod, then Quirinius was not the Syrian governor.”

I’m curious, Bart, as to how our conservative Christian friends reconcile this apparent discrepancy between scripture and history.



I frankly wasn’t sure of the answer to this question, and since I’m out of the country I don’t have any books around to find out.  So I asked Ben Witherington, a leading evangelical Christian scholar, and he responded by sending along this paragraph that is to be published in his forthcoming commentary in the New Cambridge Bible Commentary series (a volume he is co-authoring with Amy Jill Levine).  I give it here without comment.

No little ink has been spilt on Luke 2.1-2, in regard to the apparent mistake of  suggesting that Quirinius was governor of the Syrian province (which included Judea at that point)  when Jesus was born,  since Jesus was born somewhere between 1-4 BCE not long before the death of Herod.[1][1]  This however depends on a particular kind of reading of the grammar of vs. 2, and in fact it is perfectly feasible to translate here “this registration happened first, (before) Quirinius was governor of Syria’.[2][2]  The reason for mentioned the latter is obvious enough—there was a famous or infamous census taken in A.D. 6 by Quirinius when he was governor of Syria, a census which helped precipitate a rebellion of some Jews against Roman rule.  Head counts for the purpose of composing tax lists were always contentious matters in the Roman provinces and Judea was no different.  While there is likely some rhetorical hyperbole in the reference to all the (known) world being enrolled, it is true however that Augustus did pursue a policy of taxation right across the imperial provinces of the Empire and Judea was part of an imperial province, so an enrollment is perfectly feasible.  We know that in the Syrian province women as well as men were subject to the poll tax, and we know that in the parallel case in the province of Egypt people did go to ancestral or main homes to be enrolled, and thus there is nothing improbable about Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem together to be enrolled.[3][3]  Furthermore, as Acts 5.37 shows, Luke is perfectly well aware that the infamous census took place later, indeed after the time of Theudas the rebel.[4][4]



[1][1]  On the date of Jesus’ birth see Witherington “Birth of Jesus,”  in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, (first edition, IVP,1992), pp.  66-68.

[2][2] A second grammatically feasible option is ‘this registration became most important (later) when Quirinius was governing Syria’.  See the detailed discussion in  M.M. Culy et al. Luke. A Handbook on the Greek Text,   (Baylor, 2010), pp. 64-65.

[3][3]  See the detailed discussion of  J. Nolland,  Luke 1-9.20, pp.99-103 and all the bibliography there. It needs to be said that if Luke’s veracity as a historian cannot be impuned on the basis of these verses, there are certainly no verses in the rest of the Gospel that are more historically problematic and more debated than these.

[4][4] On this text see Witherington, Acts of the Apostles,  ad loc.

End of Year Giving
A Christmas Reflection



  1. John4
    John4  December 27, 2015

    Great idea to ask Witherington about Quirinius! Many thanks, Bart. Enjoy your holiday! 🙂

  2. Avatar
    jgranade  December 27, 2015

    Based on what you, Bart, have written about the implausibility of people going to their ancestral homes for a census, I don’t find Witherington’s argument very credible.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2015

      Yeah, I’m afraid I don’t either.

      • Avatar
        flcombs  December 28, 2015

        Well I’m not a scholar and always willing to be corrected if someone can show me where I’m wrong. But in the census case and travel, my understanding from past reading was the Egypt example wasn’t for everyone. It had to do with transient or day labor types.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  December 27, 2015

    With all due respect to Mr. Witherington his rationalizing of Luke’s narrative with history is rather lame. The very reason that Quirinius was even made to conduct a census of Judea was because the Jewish ethnarch of Judea, Archelaus son of Herod the Great, was deposed by Augustus in 6 CE, and the census was carried out subsequent to the Romans and the Jewish nobility agreeing to bring in a Roman prefect in lieu of an ethnarch. So any supposition that Mary and Joseph would have traveled to Bethlehem prior to 6 CE, as if in anticipation of not just the census but the very deposition of Archelaus that precipitated said census! well, that’s bordering on the absurd.

  4. Avatar
    jan.kriso  December 27, 2015

    Very interesting stuff indeed.

    I have my own little question: why is Mark sometimes quoting Jesus in Aramaic? I know, that Jesus cry on cross is possibly reference to the psalms, but why is Mark spicing his gospel with arameic much more than other gospel authors? Is it sign of a oral/written source used by Mark?

    Thank you for your answer. Jan

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2015

      I’ll add that to my (rather lone) mailbag list of questions to address!

  5. Avatar
    godspell  December 27, 2015

    It should be remembered there was more than one town called Bethlehem in Judea.


    Nazareth might have been too small a hamlet at that point for any form of tax registration to take place there. So they might have had to go to a larger town nearby.

    It’s about 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem of Judea. Not impossible for two healthy people to walk there, but when one was in her ninth month of pregnancy?

  6. Avatar
    Matt7  December 28, 2015

    I wonder if “rhetorical hyperbole” applies to the extent of Noah’s flood, the number of people involved in the exodus from Egypt, and Matthew’s zombie apocalypse. Maybe it just applies to anything in the Bible that turns out not to be true.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 29, 2015

    With regard to question #3, readers of this blog can find answers that conservative Christians might give to Gospel discrepancies on the “Apologetics Press” website. In this case, on this “Apologetics Press” website, Dr. David Miller suggests that Quirinius might have also served another earlier term as governor at the time of the birth of Jesus and conducted an earlier census at that time. There is, however, no historical record of this, but I have heard this explanation many times..

    Unlike Dr. Ehrman, I will comment: It, in my humble opinion, often takes quite a bit of reading into the evidence what one wants to see, so called confirmation bias, to reach the conclusions that conservative Christians reach whether it is in regard to Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah or alleged Gospel contradictions or…..

  8. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  December 30, 2015

    Part of my religious background included speaking in tongues as proof of the indwelling of Holy Spirit. Where/how did this idea originate?
    Also, how do you think Paul demonstrated power of the Spirit?
    1 Corinthians 2:4-5New International Version (NIV)
    4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2015

      Tongues: we find it already in Paul (1 Cor. 12, 14), so it was going on before him. Obviously it is on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 as well.

  9. Avatar
    Jim  January 3, 2016

    Ugh, Witherington’s comment is not worthy of Cambridge Press!

    Obviously, the way we do history makes Luke seem sloppy with his facts (Fergus Millar was unimpressed with the idea of Luke as a historian). I wish we knew more about Joseph’s situation. It seems plausible that Joseph’s family could have emigrated from Judea (even Bethlehem) around 100 BCE when the lower Galilee was being re-settled by Jews. It seems plausible that Joseph felt compelled to return to his ancestral property out of some concern about his ancestral property or Judean taxation (if I remember correctly there was no Roman tax in the Galilee at this time). But plausible is not proof … I get it.

    I’m not advocating for a return to unsupportable ideas about a callous innkeeper on the minor road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem or an empire-wide tax. I’m also hesitant to concede that Luke invented every detail — he seems to have had some general need to ground Jesus’ birth story in time and space. I wish we could had more historical data about population movements from Judea into the Galilee and also other reports about how individuals reacted to the prospect of new taxes (or property confiscations) in Judea. While it’s pretty clear that Luke’s historiography fails by modern standards, I prefer to try to read these ancient accounts as they would have been understood in the 1st century. But we need more data!

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