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Dueling Letters

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

Over the past few weeks, I have been embroiled in a fascinating debate on the Letters to the Editor pages of our local weekly newspaper here in Maine. It all started when a neighbor, our own Carl S. in fact, wrote a letter questioning whether the Roman census that allegedly brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem from Nazareth actually happened. A man responded to Carl’s letter, disputing Carl’s claims. At that point, I couldn’t resist chiming in myself in defense of Carl, so the next week my letter (#1) was published.

Letter #1

"The Roman Census Revisited"

To the editor:

These past two weeks there has been an interesting debate on these pages concerning the Roman census said to have caused Jesus’ parents to travel to Bethlehem from their home in Nazareth. According to Carl Scheiman, there was no such census, while Henry Simmons claims there was.

I think Mr. Simmons misunderstood. Scheiman wrote, “a decree went forth from Caesar Augustus that a census of the whole world should be taken … and all were going each to his town, to register.” What Scheiman meant was that while there may have been a census, there was never a census requiring people to travel to their birthplace.

Why on earth would people be required to travel to their birthplaces? Censuses are typically used by governments to assess the needs for government services and programs. For these purposes, it obviously doesn’t matter where someone was born, but where they live presently.

As Mr. Simmons mentioned, Roman censuses were also for the purpose of assessing citizen tax liabilities. Most people’s taxable property and other assets will naturally be where they live, not where they were born.

Also, consider the enormous economic disruption that would be caused by each citizen leaving his work or his business and packing up and travelling days or weeks, walking or traveling by ass, to his birthplace. The husband travelling to one town, the wife perhaps to another, and the children to who knows where? Who tends the inns and taverns, the livestock and crops?

If the Romans were so stupid as to call for such a senseless, disruptive census, their empire would never have lasted for hundreds of years. I spent a career as a government economist, and I can assure you that even the most inept administration would never order such a census. If you want to know where people were born, the obvious way is to go where they live and ask them.

The census described in the Gospel of Luke was merely an imaginative device intended to get Jesus’ parents from Nazareth, where they lived, to Bethlehem, where scripture allegedly prophesied the messiah would be born. Unfortunately, the author didn’t think through his solution to the problem and failed to see that it was fatally flawed. As Mr. Scheiman explained, that census was fake news.

This letter drew a response from Reverend David O’Donnell, questioning my claims. The following week I responded with this letter.

Letter #2

"Also Compelled to Respond"

To the editor:

Last week, in “Compelled to respond,” Rev. David O’Donnell argued that my previous letter concerning an alleged Roman census was largely in error. Now it’s my turn to feel “compelled to respond.”
Rev. O’Donnell wrote, “Luke 2:3 states ‘all went to be taxed, everyone to his own city.’” Notice the word “taxed” in that quotation, then note that Rev. O’Donnell goes on to claim the census was for genealogical record-keeping purposes. In my letter, I argued mostly that a census for taxation purposes would have been absurd, and simply did not happen.

But I have problems with his genealogical argument, too. Rev. O’Donnell wrote, “…the only way to ensure a birth was properly recorded was to travel to where your family’s records were kept and present the child.”
If so, why would such a recording only be necessary during an occasional census? Why not the same requirement for every birth? And would they really require pregnant women to travel by foot or jackass to the father’s birthplace? Doesn’t this seem unnecessarily dangerous to the mothers and their babies?
Rev. O’Donnell says that “A very quick perusal of the scriptures would verify the fact of their precise birth records and censuses.“

“Precise birth records?” Then why are there 2 dramatically different genealogies for Jesus in the Gospels? In Luke, forty-four generations are traced back from Jesus to King David, while Matthew lists only twenty-eight, and both lists contain names not on the other list. (Odder still, these genealogies both trace through Joseph who, according to the Bible, was not even the biological father of Jesus - according to Luke 1:26-35, the “Holy Spirit” impregnated Mary.)

Rev. O’Donnell wrote,

“The birth of Jesus Christ and his impact on history is undeniable.”

Perhaps, but the alleged supernatural details of his birth and life are highly debatable, and his impact on history owes a huge debt to the Roman Emperor Constantine. Had Constantine not legalized and then converted to Christianity, Christianity might well be no more popular today than Mithraism or Zoroastrianism. Its popularity can in no way be taken as evidence of its truth any more than the enormous popularity of Islam or Hinduism can attest to their truth.

...the Jesus story presented in the scriptures – including the census - is largely fiction.Throughout his letter, Rev. O’Donnell refers to the scriptures as though they are dependable, factual history. But, in what other history book do you find things like talking snakes, magical fruit trees, a man whose strength depended on the length of his hair (Samson), dragons (34 mentions), unicorns (9 mentions), and satyrs (half man-half goat creatures – 2 mentions)? And in what other history book would you find a man (Balaam) carrying on a conversation in human language with his jackass (and, yes, the jackass has his say, too - Numbers 22)?

These facts and the dozens of unproven and unprovable “miracles” in the Gospels provide ample cause to suspect the Jesus story presented in the scriptures – including the census - is largely fiction.

Frankly, I thought I had gone a little too far in those last two paragraphs and was surprised the letter was published. But, while a believer is likely to interpret my words as ridicule, in fact I have merely pointed out what is actually in his “holy” book.

My point in offering these letters here is to illustrate how Christianity in particular, and religion in general, can be battled in your own neighborhood. While I doubt that I gained any instant converts to the atheists/agnostics club, I suspect a good many residents of my area are just a bit more skeptical of their religious teachings than they were a few weeks ago. The trick to getting published and having an impact, I think, is in using the Bible’s own words against it, and leavening your words with humor whenever possible. While I have the distinct advantage of living well outside the Bible belt, I think you might be surprised at what you can get published in your own local newspapers if you use these tips to advantage. I encourage you all to give it a try. It’s great fun, and can help bring a little more sanity to our world.

P.S. I don't know whether it means anything or not, but there was no response to my second letter.