Tag Archives: skeptical

Response to a LiveScience Article about Herod

LiveScience is one of a number of websites that report on current research. As such, LiveScience frequently displays various liberal biases. I sympathize with liberalism on a number of points. I don’t, however, sympathize with the abuse of science to serve prejudice — in this case, prejudice against religious belief. This post contains the text of a comment I posted on LiveScience, in response to an article about something reported in the Gospel of Luke.

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Jarus [i.e., the author of the LiveScience article] links to another LiveScience article that suggests Josephus may have declined to mention the slaughter of the innocents just because it would have been a small-scale event, involving only a handful of babies in a smallish town. Based on that LiveScience article, it appears that Jarus is misrepresenting the history. The present article would have been stronger if Jarus had provided actual support for his assertion, rather than merely quoting the opinion of some random professor.

Jarus further says that “there’s no evidence of a census occuring [sic] during Herod’s reign.” That’s an interesting slip. The Bible is, of course, a source of evidence on what occurred during Herod’s reign. Jarus’s evident unwillingness to treat it as such suggests a preexisting bias. I’m skeptical toward overblown claims about the Bible. But that would not justify intellectual dishonesty. The Bible is a source; it is a collection of ancient and, in many regards, historical documents.

Jarus appears to mean that there are no other sources supporting Luke’s timing of the census. There appears to be some truth to that. For instance, Wikipedia cites a Christian commentator for an admission that Luke’s timing of the census raises presently insoluble historical problems.

Yet if Jarus is correct in saying that Herod might have lived until several years after Jesus’s birth, those problems do not necessarily mean the story is false. In the vacuum left by this article’s superficial treatment, the reader might wonder whether perhaps Luke’s mistake was not in the timing of the census, but rather in its scope. For instance, is it possible that the 6 AD census was based in some instances on local data gathered in previous years? Maybe; maybe not. We aren’t told.

Questions of that nature may illustrate that it could be rather arrogant to declare an ancient source mistaken, when it is not clear that the author of such a declaration has engaged in any firsthand historical inquiry. For instance, Jarus would have us believe that the first readers of Luke’s gospel were ignorant of their own recent history. Wikipedia says that gospel may have been written as early as 80 AD. If someone handed me a document asserting that my parents gave me a false story about an event occurring in 1939 (i.e., 80 years ago, when they were ~20 years old), I would question that document. Jarus offers nothing to defeat the impression that the Gospel of Luke did pass the straight-face test at the time of its creation.

There appears to be a historical problem in Luke’s account. It would have been interesting to read an informed discussion of that problem, not to support a preexisting ideology, but rather to flesh out various possibilities. The result would still not be science — it is not clear what this discussion is doing in LiveScience — but at least it would be credible and open to the evidence.


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