Comedian Steve Martin used to do a routine in which he smiled broadly with that distinct smile of his and said, “Remember a couple of years back when the earth (wry pause)... exploded? Remember how they built that giant space ark and loaded all of humanity into it, but the government decided not to tell the stupid people what was going on so that they wouldn’t panic…..” The light of understanding would then break across his face as he surveyed the faces of the audience and he would quickly backtrack saying, “Oooooooh! Uh….. Never mind!”
I can’t help but think of that as I read [John Dominic] Crossan’s take on Luke. We are being asked to believe that the gospels are works of cunning fiction by people laboring under some huge need to bring others under the spell of their delusion of a Risen Christ. Part of their messianic delusion requires them to link the Nazarene carpenter with King David by portraying him as born in “the city of David”, Bethlehem. And so they do what to get Jesus there in time for his birth and debut as the Son of David?
Well, a lot of options are open to the creative gospel writer whose only goal is to write a tall tale. You could just say that Mary’s grandmother took sick and she went to visit her. You could claim that Joseph bought a plot of land and didn’t want to leave Mary behind while he went to inspect it. You could cook up an angelic visitation commanding the Holy Family to go to Bethlehem and wait for their son to be born. Any of these stories have the tremendous advantage of being extremely hard to refute decades after the event. And since you’ve already stuffed your gospel full of miracles, what’s one more angel?
Now, realize that even Crossan admits that the Gospel of Luke was written in the first century. So the people reading it would know whether or not this enormous event had or hadn't occurred. And this is true for countless other New Testament historical claims: these claims were easily falsifiable in the first century: that hundreds of people claimed to have seen the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:6), that St. Peter preached about the Empty Tomb in Jerusalem, on Pentecost, only a few months after Easter (Acts 2:14-40), etc. That they were taken as historical fact is evidence that they were, in fact, historical fact. And this, in turn, makes a solid case in favor of Christianity.But no, according to Crossan, Luke tells the equivalent of Martin’s space ark story: “Remember, a few decades back when the entire world was enrolled for taxation?” He invites, not just somebody to refute it, but everybody in his entire audience. That’s an awfully strange thing to do if the enrollment never happened and an awfully odd way to establish the bona fides of your main character.