Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: The Census

Here, I’m actually going to talk a little bit about actual arguments that Pearce makes, mostly in his book on the Nativity.  So let me set out how I’m going to approach that.  I have actual paper copies of his books, because I don’t like to read books on a computer screen.  So I don’t even have any kind of E-Reader or anything like that.  This means, then, that if I want to quote something I can’t copy and paste it from a document or post, but instead have to manually type it in, which is obviously a bit more effort.  Since this is just a blog and I’m not writing an academic paper, I’m not going to do that all that often, except when it’s really, really necessary.  And for some minor points, as you’ve already seen I’m just going to loosely talk about them without even providing a direct reference to them.  So I obviously encourage everyone to read the works themselves if they find my summaries dubious to see if I’m correct in my interpretations.

I also want to note that I’m not going to talk all that much about his book on the Nativity, focusing more on his book on the Resurrection (and I’m not even going to read his upcoming book on the Exodus).  The reason is that it seems to me that the book on the Nativity, being the earlier book, is less detailed and also less important to the overall project.  So instead I’m going to use it to highlight another potential issue with Biblical skepticism, which is making arguments about things being invented and not being at all true while ignoring the purpose for which such things would be invented in the first place.

As I noted last time, it is important when noting that things seem to be invented that they were invented for a specific reason.  For the most part, we aren’t going to find stories that are invented simply for the sake of being invented.  I believe that most of the time any invented stories are going to be invented to answer questions from the audience.  Pearce tends to believe that the invented stories are there to further the specific theological commitments of the writer.  But even in that case we can’t leave the audience out, as they are going to have to go along with the story as well.  It won’t be terribly effective, even if the writer is pushing a theological line, to do that with a story that the audience reacts to with “Who cares?”.  So even in that case if the audience doesn’t share the theology the writer is going to have to write it in a way that makes the story compelling enough to them that they accept it and thus accept that theology.

One of the most prominent elements in the Nativity stories — they only appear in Matthew and Luke — is that they need to find a way to explain how Jesus seemed to come from Nazareth but, in order to fulfill prophecy, had to be born in Bethlehem.  The obvious interpretation of this is that the real person Jesus lived in Nazareth and if the stories were invented they were invented to fulfill the prophecy.  But since this would imply that Jesus was a real person, mythicists — people who believe that Jesus was a completely made-up myth, like Richard Carrier — argue that that’s not what it meant, but that people mistook the religious title of “Nazarene” for the place, and so that created the purported tension that needed to be resolved there.  Their main argument is that Nazareth didn’t exist at that point in time and so they couldn’t be saying that Jesus was from there.  The issue I have with this, though, is that it seems a rather odd mistake to make, given that the context should have been clear enough to discern that.  Why would these two writers both make that rather odd mistake?  Wouldn’t there have to be some kind of context that led them to that conclusion, and a strong enough context that they felt the need to write up an entire Nativity narrative to refute it?

To me, it seems equally if not more reasonable to argue that the context already existed, and that the later mistake, if it was a mistake, was in assuming that the religious title referred to the at that point known place.  If there had never been any issue with Jesus living in one place but needed to be born in another, and if most people knew that “Nazarene” could refer to a religious title, then why wouldn’t the writers simply avoid the issue by saying that it clearly referred to the religious title and that Jesus then unproblematically lived in Bethlehem.  But if there was an underlying context or question of why Jesus came from one place while needed to have been born in Bethlehem, then that option wouldn’t be available to them.  And it’s easier, then, to imagine that the original place Jesus was from might have been lost.  And so they’d have a need for Jesus to live in a place other than Bethlehem and something that at the time, at least, could refer to either a place or a religious title, which then would mean that in light of that conflict interpreting “Nazarene” to refer to the place is actually reasonable, given that the place Jesus was from was important and any Judaic religious title He might have had was not.

So we need to look at what the audience could be expected to know or need to know.  Yes, it’s possible that they just misinterpreted that title for the place, but given how important at least those two authors thought it that seems less likely than that the issue had already been raised and made a big issue, and then the more reasonable mistake would be to insert “Nazareth” in for the place Jesus lived as opposed to simply inventing an entire story about Jesus living one place and needing to be born in another.

This also applies to an argument that Pearce and Carrier both use, which is that Luke uses a census to explain why Joseph and Mary had to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem but even if there was a census at that time — which they doubt — censuses in ancient times simply didn’t work that way.  They do provide some evidence for this (and I’m not saying that they’re wrong) but there is an issue with this sort of argument:  they are arguing that censuses didn’t work that way from the perspective of what information we have today, but the audience was a lot closer to those times than we were.  Remember that Luke needed to come up with an explanation for Jesus being born in Bethlehem that his audience would accept, and they were relatively familiar with censuses, or at least the ones happening at the time.  That it doesn’t look like they were overly concerned with Luke’s explanation should at least cast doubt on whether a census working that way was as inconceivable as Pearce and Carrier say it is.  Pearce himself notes another explanation which was that Joseph had to go there for the Judaic tradition of returning sold property, but says that if that was the case Luke should have just said so but never mentions that.  But again if we appeal to the audience the audience would be well aware of that tradition, and so would simply accept that that was the reason.  Given that, Luke simply would never have felt the need to mention it.  Only here, in this time, where the tradition was lost, would we need that to be explicitly stated.  As an example, if someone was telling a story and said “He went to the supermarket, but he had forgotten his mask and had to go home, which is when he interrupted the burglar” these days pretty much all of us would not be at all puzzled by his needing a mask to go into the supermarket, but give it 20 or 50 or 100 years and the audience will probably not be able to figure that out.

So one thing that it’s important for pretty much everyone to do when doing these things is to think about what the audience at the time would have known or thought.  These accounts are always going to be written so that the audience finds them convincing (or else they wouldn’t have survived) and so we need to analyze these things knowing that the audience found them convincing and would be willing to question things that didn’t make sense, especially commonsensical things that are not themselves theological but instead impact it.  Anything invented will be invented to convince the audience that a purported problem isn’t one or to answer a question that the audience would have, and so it wouldn’t have done its job if it was obvious to that audience that it wasn’t true and so was invented.


12 Responses to “Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: The Census”

  1. jayman777 Says:

    Ignoring the fact that we possess archaeological evidence that Nazareth existed in the first century, where is the alleged religious title “Nazarene” used? In other words, why believe it is a religious title at all? Is Carrier trying to make some connection to the Nazarite vow (Num 6:1-21)?

    The “odd mistake” you point out is a bigger mistake than you let on. Mark (1:9) and John (1:45) also say Jesus is from Nazareth but apparently felt to no need to make up a narrative about it. Are the different evangelists independently mistaking a title for a place or are they all influenced by a mistake at some earlier date?

    Isn’t there something odd about a once fictional Nazareth coming into existence after the first century and that fits the description of the fictional Nazareth?

    I really appreciate your point about even made up stories having to be believable to the audience. Pearce seems to get caught up in what he, personally, finds plausible while not taking the time to think like someone from the original audience would.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      This entire debate doesn’t interest me enough to really look it up, but my vague recollection is that Carrier would be arguing that the sources only talk about Jesus the Nazarene, and that that could well refer to some religious title — perhaps the one you mentioned — rather than the place that he claims didn’t exist at the time (although when it has been referenced it has been brought up that it might have existed then). Pearce only briefly mentions it and doesn’t really focus on that as far as I can recall, and Carrier uses it as one piece of evidence that Jesus was really a myth. It wouldn’t surprise me, though, if the argument was a lot weaker than Carrier considers it, but then I suspect that if he read my post he’d insist that I was just getting it wrong. Which since I’m relying on vague recollections of it, is actually probably the case [grin].

      Yeah, I’ve noted that a lot of the arguments are “I don’t find it plausible, so you shouldn’t either”. This is the most noticeable when the arguments rely on naturalism when the people they are arguing with are not naturalists.

      • jayman777 Says:

        I understand not wanting to dig through the book again. I ask because I have a sneaking suspicion Carrier basically made up the idea that Nazarene is a religious title. Your phrasing (“could well refer to some religious title”) is the kind of weaselly statement I would expect. It’s technically true because anything’s possible but there’s no solid evidence for it.

        Acts 24:5, quoting Tertullus, mentions Paul as “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes,” referring to followers of Jesus the Nazarene. I don’t have the inclination to look further, but I wonder how the plural fits with Nazarene as a religious title. Did all Christians use the same religious title for themselves that Jesus allegedly used for himself?

        I wouldn’t restrict Pearce’s “plausibility arguments” to the “supernatural.” Based on other reviews of his book on the infancy narratives, it sounds like he speculates as to what Herod the Great would or would not do to kill Jesus. Matthew can’t be writing history because Herod wouldn’t act like he describes. As if a 21st century British man has more insight into Herod’s mind than a first century author.

        In a somewhat recent post on the Tower of Babel he appeared unaware that the language about the tower is similar to how ancient Babylonians spoke of their ziggurats. This resulted in him taking a very literal interpretation of the language. He failed to put himself into the shoes of the original author and audience.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        Being totally fair to Carrier, he is if I recall specific about what religious title it is, but I can’t remember the details and so am being vague about it to avoid misstating his position. Whether he’s right about that or not is, of course, another matter.

        On Pearce, there are some other cases, but a lot of his books really do end up falling back on “That’s not certain enough to believe in something supernatural!” which is a problem for him, perhaps, but not for the Christians that he says really ought to be convinced by his books or else they’re just being irrational.

        But on Herod specifically, Pearce does tend to rely more on the “If Herod killed all those children, someone else would have mentioned it” instead of just on Herod’s behaviour. Pearce DOES often talk about what someone might be expected to do in that situation, but I won’t really get into trying to reconcile anything like that until the Resurrection.

      • GJ Says:

        But on Herod specifically, Pearce does tend to rely more on the “If Herod killed all those children, someone else would have mentioned it” instead of just on Herod’s behaviour.

        I think arguments of this sort generally overestimate just how much evidence we have for the ancient world. The first century AD is unusually well-attested, but even then, there are plenty of big events which are only recorded in one surviving source. E.g., Josephus mentions several disturbances in the same general timeframe which had to be put down with units from the regular Roman army and had a death toll running into the thousands — and no other surviving source speaks of them at all. So I don’t think it at all surprising that a massacre in a small, unimportant town in a backwater province would only be mentioned in one source.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        Herod was not a popular ruler as I understand it, and so having a massacre of children on his hands would likely be mentioned by people trying to stir up people against him, and even back then slaughtering children was a pretty heinous deed. And here it’s also odd that Luke doesn’t mention it either, while relating the same events. So I do think it reasonably curious that Herod did this and no one else mentioned it.

      • GJ Says:

        Slaughtering children was seen as heinous, sure, but the massacre would be on a small scale compared to some of the disturbances noted in Josephus (Bethlehem was a reasonably small town, so “all infants under the age of two” would probably be no more than a dozen or so). If thousands of people can be cut down by Roman soldiers and only make it into one source, I don’t think it particularly surprising that a dozen killed by Herod wouldn’t have any more representation.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        You do have a point that if the number was indeed that small then other sources might not have bothered to mention it or record it. That doesn’t really explain Luke not mentioning it, though.

  2. Jonathan+MS+Pearce Says:

    The whole Nazarene thing is a well-trodden argument that has engaged great exegetes like Brown.

    See here:

    back referencing to this one:

  3. Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Pilate and the Jews | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] again.  As noted before, I’m pretty much going to skip everything about the Nativity except for what I’ve already talked about and move on to talking about his book on the Resurrection.  Even here, I’m not going to talk […]

  4. GJ Says:

    This also applies to an argument that Pearce and Carrier both use, which is that Luke uses a census to explain why Joseph and Mary had to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem but even if there was a census at that time — which they doubt — censuses in ancient times simply didn’t work that way.

    I’m not sure we can generalise so confidently about “censuses in ancient times”. The ancient world was quite a big place, and it wouldn’t be surprising to find regional variations in how censuses were carried out. And the Romans generally tried to co-opt and work with local elites in running their empire, so if the Judaeans conducted their censuses in a slightly different way (e.g., by making people return to their hometown to be registered), the Romans probably would have just let the local king do the census as he always had, rather than kick up a fuss because “That’s not how we do things back in Italy!”

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Yeah, that was my comment about not being so quick to say what the censuses really did, because the people at the time the stories started to spread had to believe it and they were closer and so should have a better idea of what made sense in those censuses than we do. This also strikes against Pearce’s dismissal of the idea that he needed to go back there for the property hand off because he figured Luke would just say that because again if that was what was generally understood by those actions then he wouldn’t spell it out since the audience would understand it, which could allow for a shift in terminology when translations happened.

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