Saturday, September 28, 2013

Away in a manger........

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In today's selection - in his controversial and best-selling new book, Zealot, Reza Aslan relates that there is no separate historical evidence for either the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem (which was important since the Old Testament had prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem), nor Herod's massacre of all the sons born in and around Bethlehem in a fruitless search for the baby Jesus:
"As interest in the person of Jesus increased after his death, an urgent need arose among some in the early Christian community to fill in the gaps of Jesus's early years and, in particular, to address the matter of his birth in Nazareth, which seems to have been used by his Jewish detractors to prove that Jesus could not possibly have been the messiah, at least not according to the prophecies. Some kind of creative solution was required to push back against this criticism, some means to get Jesus's parents to Bethlehem so that he could be born [there].

"For Luke [in his gospel], the answer lies in a census. 'In those days,' he writes, 'there came a decree from Caesar Augustus that the entire Roman world should be registered. This was the first registration to take place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone went to his own town to be registered. Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the city of David.' Then, in case his readers may have missed the point, Luke adds, 'because Joseph belonged to the house and the lineage of David' (Luke 2:1-4).

Depiction of The Virgin and St. Joseph registering for the census
Depiction of The Virgin and St. Joseph registering for the census before Governor Quirnius. Byzantine mosaic c. 1315

"Luke is right about one thing and one thing only. Ten years after the death of Herod the Great, in the year 6 C.E., when Judea officially became a Roman province, the Syrian governor, Quirinius, did call for a census to be taken of all the people, property, and slaves in Judea, Samaria, and Idumea -- not 'the entire Roman world,' as Luke claims, and definitely not Galilee, where Jesus's family lived (Luke is also wrong to associate Quirinius's census in 6 C.E. with the birth of Jesus, which most scholars place closer to 4 B.C.E., the year given in the gospel of Matthew). However, be­cause the sole purpose of a census was taxation, Roman law as­sessed an individual's property in the place of residence, not in the place of one's birth. There is nothing written in any Roman docu­ment of the time (and the Romans were quite adept at documen­tation, particularly when it came to taxation) to indicate otherwise. Luke's suggestion that the entire Roman economy would periodi­cally be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family in order to travel great dis­tances to the place of his father's birth, and then wait there pa­tiently, perhaps for months, for an official to take stock of his family and his possessions, which, in any case, he would have left behind in his place of residence, is, in a word, preposterous. ... 

"The readers of Luke's gospel, like most people in the ancient world, did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality; the two were intimately tied together in their spiritual experience. That is to say, they were less interested in what actually happened than in what it meant. It would have been perfectly normal -- indeed, expected -- for a writer in the ancient world to tell tales of gods and heroes whose fundamental facts would have been recog­nized as false but whose underlying message would be seen as true.

"Hence, [the Gospel of] Matthew's equally fanciful account of Jesus's flight into Egypt, ostensibly to escape Herod's massacre of all the sons born in and around Bethlehem in a fruitless search for the baby Jesus, an event for which there exists not a shred of corroborating evidence in any chronicle or history of the time whether Jewish, Christian, or Roman -- a remarkable fact considering the many chronicles and narratives written about Herod the Great, who was, after all, the most famous Jew in the whole of the Roman Empire."

Author: Reza Aslan
Title: Zealot
Publisher: Random House
Date: Copyright 2013 by Aslan Media, Inc.
Pages: 29-31
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
by Reza Aslan by Random House

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