Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Did the "Carol Service" Census Really Happen?

If you ask an educated atheist to show that the events described in the New Testament didn't really happen, the number one place they pick is the "carol service" census described in Luke 2.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
Luke 2:1-5, NIV

Bock identifies five problems people cite when it comes to this passage.

  1. There was no known empire-wide census under Augustus
  2. No Roman census would have required Joseph to go to Bethlehem to register
  3. Israel under Herod wasn't officially part of the Roman Empire until Herod died in 4BC
  4. Josephus wrote that the first Roman census was under Quirinius in AD6, and that caused a revolt
  5. Quirinius wasn't governor of Syria until 10 years after Herod died. Herod died in 4BC, Quirinius became governor of Syria in AD6.

(It's worth noting in passing that pretty much everyone agrees Jesus was born in 5 or 6 BC - the chap who invented the BC/AD dating system guessed a date for Jesus' birth and got it close, but a few years out).

Some Answers...

Here are some answers to those problems, again adapted from Bock...

1) The Romans liked doing censuses because they liked taxing people. We know there was ongoing census activity across the Roman Empire at the time of Herod.

3) We also know that vassal kings (like Herod) did censuses too when Rome told them to. There's even evidence that Jews under Herod were paying Roman taxes (and hence had been censused).

If there was a census for Roman taxation and at Roman command under Herod, it makes sense that...

2 & 4) If Herod did a census (before 4BC), he might have done it Jewish-style rather than Roman-style. A Jewish-style census could well involve going to ancestral towns, especially if Joseph owned land in Bethlehem as he might well do if descended from David. Jewish land ownership was tied to who your ancestors were. A Jewish-style census wouldn't have caused riots like the Roman-style one in AD6 and so is less likely to be mentioned by Josephus, who is the only non-Biblical historian describing Palestine in that period.

It's also clear that the census Luke is talking about isn't the one in AD6. For example, a census after 4BC wouldn't have required Joseph to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem - after 4BC they were in different provinces. Luke also knows about the AD6 census - he mentions it and the rebellion in Acts 5:37.

So what about Quirinius? Luke 2:2 reads "This was the first census that took place whilea Quirinius was governor of Syria." But the NIV has a footnote saying “Or this census took place before...” The word in question is πρωτος (protos) - dictionaries define it as “first, before, greatest”. So it could be talking about the census BEFORE the one where Quirinius was governor of Syria (the one in AD6 which caused all the trouble). We've got the same issue in English with the word "prototype", which is from πρωτος. Was the prototype of the Jaguar XF the first one, or was it something they made before they made the XF?

Literally, the verse reads “this was the first census of Quirinius, governor of Syria.” Qurinius may well have been asked to administer the census by Herod, even though he wasn't governor of Syria yet. In the same way, we might say "President George W Bush was a notorious drunkard as a young man", even though he wasn't president when he was a young man.

In conclusion, it looks like the difficulties with these verses might well cancel out. There isn't enough historical evidence to say "these verses are definitely right", but there isn't enough evidence to say they're definitely wrong either. That's one of the problems with ancient history - we often don't have enough evidence to check whether written accounts are true or not. On the other hand, we do have that evidence to check lots of other things that Luke wrote, and he gets it right time after time, so chances are he's right this time too.

Incidentally, if this is the best the sceptics can do when it comes to attacking the reliability of the New Testament, what does that say about the rest of their arguments?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Book Review - Keith Lamdin, Finding Your Leadership Style

A diocesan-run course I'm doing asked us to read this book. I read it, found it very mixed, and so wrote this review, which the good folks at Themelios were kind enough to print. They made a couple of editorial changes for the primarily US market - here's my original version.

This book represents a unique convergence of influences. Lamdin writes as a liberal catholic Anglican in strong positive interaction with Willow Creek and the Global Leadership Summit (GLS) but also significantly influenced by Freudian psychology and liberation theology.

This convergence leads to some significant strengths. The GLS would benefit from more theological reflection on secular leadership models and much of the church would benefit from clearer thinking on leadership. Lamdin seeks to do both.

In chapters 1 and 2, Lamdin introduces the idea of leadership as “one human's capacity to influence another”, and the need for leadership within the church. He introduces three necessary qualities for leadership as discontent to see what is wrong with the present situation, vision to see how it could be better and courage to speak up and lead people forwards. He also introduces six “paradigms for leadership” which he unpacks in the rest of the book: the monarch, the warrior, the servant, the elder, the contemplative and the prophet.

The final chapter, entitled “Taking the Strain” shows a thoughtful engagement with both the traditions of Anglicanism and the business thinking so prevalent at the GLS – this time on how to do ministry in ways that are physically, emotionally and spiritually sustainable. This chapter could certainly be read with profit by many in ministry. It ends with a powerful picture of ministry as a craft skill – like carving or music, which comes naturally to some, but can always be learned and improved on; it can be mastered in several different ways but never perfected by us.
The largest and most problematic part of the book, however, is the central section, where Lamdin considers his six paradigms for leadership. He begins with the two paradigms he finds to be more common and more dangerous – the monarch and the warrior. The monarch is the leader who is in charge, leading to the possibility of safety, stability and effective organisation. The warrior is the charismatic leader of a cause with passion and purpose, sometimes leading to growth and huge achievement in an organisation. Lamdin argues that neither of these paradigms is appropriate for a Christian minister.
His reasons are both pragmatic and theological. Pragmatically, Lamdin argues that these forms of leadership always resort to force and end up infantilising the followers – either by taking away their ability to decide or their ability to discern right and wrong.

Theologically, Lamdin argues that Jesus rejects the roles of monarch and warrior, instead adopting the persona of suffering servant. But in doing so Lamdin makes a serious Christological mistake. He argues that God is fully revealed in the humanity of Christ, but restricts his view of Christ only to the crucifixion – Jesus is only suffering servant, not risen king. He sets this out most fully on p59 when discussing the idea of Jesus' dual identity as suffering servant and lord of history.

“It cannot be said that Jesus was enacting servanthood while on earth but that as Christ he is 'lord' of all he surveys. The Jesus on earth has to fully embody the godhead for any view of incarnation to be viable, and so the God of all time has to be understood in terms of the kingdom teaching and living and dying of Jesus... while it is in the nature of God to be loving it cannot be in the nature of God to be 'in charge'.”

Lamdin doesn't state whether or not he believes in the Resurrection. However, if we understand that God is fully revealed in Jesus, who is both the Suffering Servant and the risen and ascended King who “will return in glory to judge the living and the dead”, we get a rather different picture.

In this picture, it is inappropriate for us to adopt the role of warrior or monarch precisely because Jesus is our perfect warrior king. We should not act as if we are in control because God is in control. We should not go on a crusade against those we define as evil because it is for God to say what our purpose should be and who the enemy is (and our struggle is not against flesh and blood).
Lamdin then considers the other four paradigms for leadership. The key theme seems to be the relationship to power. The servant, obviously Lamdin's favourite, gives up power; the elder has only the power to ask questions and expose their own ignorance; the contemplative depends on God through prayer; the prophet stands against power with the downtrodden. None of them allows for a classic “church leader”; several have troubling features such as the absence of any sense of a “word from the Lord” speaking into our human situation to either resolve ambiguity (the elder) or confront injustice (the prophet).

But the understanding of Christ as risen and ascended Lord opens up a new paradigm – the paradigm of the herald or of the under-shepherd. Both heralds and under-shepherds have no authority in themselves and do not point to themselves as saviour. They are sent by a Shepherd-King and are answerable to him, but under him can and do have delegated authority for the purpose of caring for the sheep and serving them by proclaiming the king's message to them. It seems that would be an altogether more fruitful paradigm to explore.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

More Book Reviews - Center Church / Preaching and Preachers / And the Lamb Wins

I don't post book reviews here often enough. So here are some quick reviews of three good books I've read recently.

Center Church - Timothy Keller

Keller (senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian, New York) is one of the most influential writers on theology and church at the moment, certainly in the Reformed world. And this is the closest he has come to a magnum opus. It's essentially a 400-odd page textbook on what it means to be and do church in the specific context of city-centre ministry in a global city. I'm not there, and I don't agree with Keller on everything, but if this was a course when I was at theological college, it would have been one of the best and most helpful courses on offer. He outlines different views on just about everything, shows where the tensions are, and usually shows how to plot a third way (or a fifth way) between them.

Genuinely helpful on big-picture stuff; really clearly laid out; genuinely brilliant. There's quite a bit of stuff that can't really be put into practice when you don't have a congregation of at least hundreds including talented artists (and there's not much on how to deal with having enthusiastic but not-talented amateurs), but there's lots of stuff that is helpful in my context and at painting a vision for why and how Redeemer has done what it's done, it's great.

Preaching and Preachers - Martyn Lloyd-Jones

The way I remember it, a few years ago someone did a survey of which books on preaching today's most respected preachers valued, and this one came top despite having been out of print for 20 years. So now it's back in print, sprinkled with essay-length commendations and appreciations from the likes of John Piper.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones's book was originally a series of lectures he gave on preaching in the late 60s, and the only book it really compares to is Spurgeon's Lectures to my Students. (For what it's worth, I'd rate Spurgeon slightly above P&P, but only slightly). Preachers & Preaching is like having a brilliant but utterly eccentric tutor. If you listen to him, you'll learn a lot, but some of what he says is quite batty. He has strong opinions on almost every imaginable topic, some of which are just odd (views on the shape of the roof of buildings and how it affects spiritual health of the congregation) and some of which are challenging and thought-provoking but probably wrong (why it is wrong to debate atheists).

I can see why so many great preachers value this book so highly though. It's really good, despite the quirky bits, and I've really been encouraged, challenged and built up by reading it! Strongly recommended...

And the Lamb Wins - Simon Ponsonby

This is a book-length version of Simon's St Aldate's School of Theology sessions on eschatology and the end times. It's clearly aimed at a bright undergraduate-level audience - he gives the histories of different theories on the millennium, for example. But if you can cope with that, it's very readable and a clear overview of a number of different aspects of end-times debate. He interacts with most of the main schools of thought, gives his own opinions and backs them up well. He probably succeeded in slightly changing my opinion on Israel, for example.

There are a couple of other areas I'd like to have seen him interact with - the nature of the final judgement for example, whether there is just one or two (works & faith?). But overall this is just about the best, sanest, most Biblically faithful handling of the end times I've read. I recently compared it with Randy Alcorn's Heaven, for example, and Alcorn is better on Heaven itself, but Ponsonby is clearer, more detailed and more rigorous in just about every other respect.