Thursday, December 03, 2009

Jesus in the Roman tax/census archives

It was several years ago that Dr. P. made a reference to an interesting thing: early Christian writers appealed to the Roman tax and census archives when discussing the birth of Christ. As the type of person who likes to see the source, I tracked down the early references.

Justin Martyr, attempting to persuade the Roman government to stop persecuting Christians, refers the Romans to their own tax registers to verify Jesus’ birth. After mentioning the prophecy of the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem he continues:
Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Jud├Ža.- Justin Martyr, First Apology XXXIV (circa 150-155 A.D.)
Tertullian, emphasizing Jesus’ true humanity and actual birth against the Gnostics, makes the same type of appeal to the Roman imperial archives.
His enrollment in the census of Augustus — that most faithful witness of the Lord’s nativity, kept in the archives of Rome – Tertullian, Against Marcion 4:7 (circa 210 A.D.)
Often, early evidence supporting Christianity is written off as a forgery made by Christians. To be sure, we don't have the archives in hand to examine ourselves; Rome has been sacked since then. But the dates here are very early for a charge of Christians rewriting the history books. Christians weren’t in any sort of power at the time; their enemies held the upper hand in government and therefore would have controlled the archives. That is the very thing that makes Justin Martyr’s appeal so powerful: that he can appeal to his persecutors’ records in demonstrating a part of his case as to why the persecution against Christians is unjust.

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