Defending the Theistic View

A “most prominent” census: Carlson vs. Carrier

A suggested translation of the verse Luke 2:2 which I personally find interesting was made by Stephen C. Carlson, a Greek linguist. Carlson disagrees with the alternative translation of “prote” as “before” however also has problems with the standard traditional translation. He says that if Luke really wanted to say that if Luke meant that this were the very census during which Jesus’ birth took place then there is little use for the term “prote.”

In his post “Luke 2:2 and the Census” he suggests that Luke 2:2 should be translated as:

This registration became most prominent when Quirinius was governing Syria.


This [decree to get registered] became the/a most important registration when Quirinius was governing Syria.

This translation, like the rendering of the term as “before” would also solve the problem. — Carlson suggests Ephesians 6:2, which he points out has similar structure to that of Luke 2:2, and says out that “prote” in this verse which is usually translated as “first” legitimately may be translated as “most prominent.” The verse says: “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with a promise.” (NRSV) He then cites Danker who believes the term really means that the commandment is most important rather than “first” in chronological order.” The verse then is paralleled with Mark 12 29.

In his second post “Parsing Luke 2:2” Carlson points out that his new translation on Luke 2:2 depends on how manuscripts of the New Testament put the wording:

One reason for the hand-waving is text critical–different manuscripts have slightly different wordings for Luke 2:2, which attest to the apparent difficulty of the text and some of the variants affect the determination whether ἀπογραφὴ goes into the subject or the predicate. For example, most of the later witnesses, including the second corrector to Codex Sinaiticus (012) of the sixth century or so, insert the definite article ἡ between αὕτη and ἀπογραφὴ to read: αὕτη ἡ ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο; the original hand of 01*, on the other hand, read with a different placement of the verb: αυτη απογραφη εγενετο πρωτη. Codex Bezae (D) of the fifth century has a different word order, also by moving the verb: αὕτη ἐγένετο ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη.

Of course, Richard Carrier, in Footnote 10.6 of his essay criticises Carlson’s suggested translation. -I’ve decided to blog Carrier’s criticism as well as Carlson’s response here as well because I think it is a good idea to allow both Carlson and Carrier speak for themselves.Carrier, him his criticism says:

Carlson incorrectly identifies the preposition en as an adverb in Ephesians 6:2, although that may simply have been a slip. More seriously, Carlson falsely claims Ephesians 6:2 shares the same structure as Luke 2:2, but they aren’t even close: there is no prepositional clause following protê in Luke 2:2 but instead a verb followed by a genitive absolute.

The first mention that Carrier makes is correct in that Carlson slips up in identifying an adverb. (In this IIDB thread Carlson admits to the typo) However, the statement that Carlson falsely claims “Ephesians 6:2 shares the same structure as Luke 2:2” is inaccurate. He actually said “very similar sentence structure to Luke 2:2.” Whether they are close, which they are, can be seen in any Greek-English Interlinear New Testament by any novice. — More importantly, Stephen Carlson was able to discredit Carrier’s criticism by saying:

Whether πρώτη is followed by a prepositional clause or a genitive absolute is immaterial to the grammatical point about the identification of the subject and predicate.

Onward, Carrier then accuses Carlson of ignoring contextual markers:

The prepositional phrase in Ephesians establishes the context of comparison as conceptual rather than chronological, whereas the genitive absolute in Luke establishes the context as chronological rather than conceptual (it reads as when Quirinius was governing Syria because of the preceding temporal marker “it happened in those days” and the immediately following phrase “and everyone was going,” together linking the Quirinius clause with the temporal context and purpose of the story, not with any conceptual digression). Carlson is thus ignoring contextual markers.

However, Carlson was able to work his way out of this one as well. He goes on to say:

Thanks for pointing something new out to me, though it is not what you think. There is no explicit time qualification in Luke 2:2. Though the English rendering “while Quirinius was governor of Syria” looks like a temporal clause, the Greek phrase ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου is merely a genitive absolute. Whether such a participle phrase is temporal or something else has to be determined by context. It had been bothering me for a long time that, if ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου was temporal, why doesn’t it precede the main verb as such genitive absolutes usually do? Instead, it follows the main verb. Looking at the examples in BDF, most of such cases are not temporal at all, but causal or concessive. If the genitive absolute ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου is rendered as a causal phrase, then the whole verse means something like: “this became a very important registration on account of Quirinius’ governing of Syria.” In other words, the Augustan policy of registration did not become a big deal until Quirinius executed one in the way that he did it. So, there is certainly no explicit time qualification in Luke 2:2, and a closer look at the grammar, inspired by your (ultimately incorrect) claim, indicates that the genitive absolute should not be read to imply one either.

The next point Richard Carrier makes is:

Carlson also seems unaware of the ubiquitous use of egeneto as a form of “be.” He seems to think “was” is a “weak” translation of this verb when in fact it’s a common one, especially when used in a chronological sense (e.g. Luke 1:5, 2:13, 4:25, etc.; or Luke 1:8, 1:23, 1:41, 2:1, 2:6, 2:15, etc.). In fact, this connotation of the verb appears over a hundred times in Luke-Acts alone, so I don’t understand why he thinks it peculiar.

Carlson, in his posts, is not denying that the usual translation of ἐγένετο (or egeneto) is a form of the verb “to be.” Carlson was merely saying that another term would have done a better job if it were to be translated as “was” in this certain case. Richard Carrier apparently had missed the point that Carlson was making. Carlson answers:

I am puzzled as to why Carrier would think I’m unaware of something I had called the “standard translation” nor why Carrier would ignore the evidence I cited in favor of my position that it is a weak one. Perhaps, it wasn’t so clear in the condensation of my case that was given to Carrier.

Anyone who has carefuly read Stephen Carlson’s first post would know the reasons that he calls the translation of “egeneto” weak in the case of Luke 2:2 which Carrier ignores:

Danker identifies two major senses for this adjective: (1) being first in sequence, time, number, or space, and (2) being first in prominence or importance. Many examples of the second sense can be found in Luke’s writings, e.g. Luke 15:22 “[my]best robe”; Luke 13:30 (first vs. last); Acts 17:4 “quite a few prominent women” (NET); Acts 13:50 “the prominent men in the city”; Luke 19:47 “the prominent leaders of the people” etc. This second sense gives full force to the γίνομαι as “become” (experience a change in nature) and Luke loves using adj. + γίνομαι (e.g. Luke 23:31, Acts 1:19, 9:42, 12:23, 16:27, 19:17, and 26:19 [exx. from BDAG]). Thus, πρώτη ἐγένετο would mean “became most prominent.” (Emphasis mine)

Carlson is making sence of two different senses. However, as I mentioned, Richard Carrier pays no attention to this. Such major gaps of information in his criticism of Stephen Carlson’s translation had caused the latter to assume that Carrier got his information of the new translation indirectly from another source thus causing his knowledge about it to be condensed and badly distorted. — Next Richard Carrier claims:

Carlson commits other gaffs in “Parsing Luke 2:2” (2004), incorrectly claiming that without a definite article the intensifier hautê becomes the subject and apographê prôtê becomes the predicate, but there is no such rule. In Greek, it could be read that way, or the reverse (hautê apographê the subject and prôtê the predicate), or neither (hautê apographê prôtê as subject with no predicate). Moreover, in Koine Greek, articles are often omitted, hence Carlson is incorrect to cite its absence as a reason to reject an attributive or predicate position for the intensifying pronoun (just see Luke 20:42, 24:15; or Acts 15:32, 20:34). In fact, such a usage could even serve as an intensified definite article (e.g. Luke 1:35).

However, Calson effectively objects to this claim by showing more evidence that Carrier ignores:

Again, Carrier appears to be a victim of the condensation, and Carrier’s claim of “no such rule” is a case in point. I don’t expect Carrier (nor anyone else) to have memorized every rule of grammar in Smyth, which is why I tend to cite the rules I apply. In this case, I had cited Smyth section 1178, which I now quote:

1178. οὗτος, ὅδε, ἐκεῖνος sometimes omit the article. a. Regularly, when the noun is in the predicate: αὕτη ἔστω ἱκανὴ ἀπολογίᾱ let this be a sufficient defence P. A. 24 b, οἶμαι ἐμὴν ταύτην πατρίδα εἶναι I think this is my native country X. A. 4. 8. 4.

Because Carrier still seemed unaware of a rule that Smyth called “regularly,” the inference most favorable to Carrier’s critique is that my citation of Smyth must not have been in the condensation of my case he was presented with. Carrier’s counter evidence, on the other hand, is irrelevant to the point at issue. Here we are dealing with the demonstrative οὗτος, not the intensive αὖτος nor the article ὁ. The syntax of these words is very different.

Carlson is absolutely correct in saying that his citation of Smyth was not mentioned in Carrier’s response. Knowing this, it has come to the point with me that the more I read Richard Carrier’s critique the less credible he seems. — This is not the last uninformed error Carrier makes in his criticism. He accuses Carlson of making false comparisons with other New Testament verses to make his point:

Carlson also repeats the mistake of citing an example of the genitive of comparison (Mark 12:28 ) as a parallel for Luke 2:2, which cannot be a genitive of comparison, thus eliminating any relevant parallel.

Carlson’s answer basically is that this is not his point at all:

Mark 12:28 was cited for the lexical scope of πρώτη, not for the different, syntactic issue of the genitive of comparison. In fact, I had explicitly argued against the genitive of comparison proposal:

The difficulties in Luke 2:2 have led to a number of proposals, but many are worse than the text they are trying to interpret. In particular, I disagree with the attempt to read πρώτη as a comparative (“before” or “earlier”) followed by a genitive of comparison to get something like “before Quirinius was governing Syria” because Κυρηνίου has to be the subject of a genitive absolute ἡγεμονεύοντος.

In sum, I appreciate the effort Carrier has made into critiquing my argument, but, unfortunately, the exercise (aside from one typo he found, thanks) has not been productive as I hoped, because the counter-evidence to his points had already been cited in the posts themselves or on this thread. The best explanation for this lackluster critique is that Carrier seems to have relied on a condensation that omits the full case, such that Carrier had been ill-served by this indirect exchange of views.

This is the end of Carlson’s defence of his translation. However, I have a couple of my own against Carrier which Carlson never addresses. Carrier makes a blunder in saying:

Carlson also incorrectly thinks he can cite an Attic author (Thucydides) to establish an idiom for a Koine author (Luke), even though these dialects often differ in their use of articles and intensifying pronouns.

From this, I myself wonder if Carrier has even read Carlson’s posts. His use of a Greek citation from Thucydides was not to point out the “use of articles and intensifying pronouns” and parallel that to Luke 2:2. —The citation was just used to explain factors of why many Bible translations are wrong in translating “prote” as “first” instead of as “most prominent”in Luke 2:2. — This citation, Carlson says, allows for “prote” to be translated in both ways. The main reason according to him is that mistranslating the term “usually has little ill-effect” because often the context permits both readings. Carrier therefore takes the citation out of its proper context and argues against a point that Carlson doesn’t even make.

Finally, in the actual text of his study, just as he finishes arguing against the translation of “prote” as before, he briefly mentions Carlson’s translation. He argues against Carlson’s assertion that Luke 2:2 is a digression in parenthesis to reference the later census under Quirinius. Carrier argues that:

A digression away from that point would require an explanation, simply to make the digression intelligible. Since Luke gives no such explanation, he cannot have intended this to be a digression, much less one so obscurely worded. Luke can only have meant this to be the reason for Joseph’s journey, and that’s how every ancient reader would have read it.

Carrier probably only would have read “Luke 2:2 and the Census” (i.e. Carlson’s first blog post) since this is his only argument in this regard. There, Carlson only slightly mentions his position of the verse being a digression. However interestingly enough, he ignores his third and final post entitled “Putting Luke 2:2 in context” where Carlson had already elaborated:

If, in the evangelist’s view, the Quirinius census is different from the one that Joseph obeyed, why should it be mentioned at all? Isn’t it just an irrelevant piece of information? Perhaps, it is irrelevant to us now, but it would be not irrelevant if the Quirinius census was so well-known among Luke’s audience that it was bound to be raised. This implies that Luke’s audience was situated after the War has started in 66, and probably after Josephus emphasized that census as an ultimate cause of the War.

In other words, the explanation is that Luke didn’t elaborate because he was writing his gospel more directly to people who would have had a fresher memory of the census under Quirinius. Luke therefore wouldn’t have seen the need to go into a greater explanation. Luke cannot be held at fault because several critics don’t have the same understanding of his works that his first readers would have had.

When I was introduced to Carrier’s criticism of Stephen Carlson’s translation I still hadn’t read all Carlson’s arguments so for a while I actually ruled it out as a possibility until I actually got the opportunity to read what he said carefully as well as read his defence on the Infidels forums. –The fact that he was able to answer directly to the protests made against his translation which I found very encouraging. I also find the defence stronger than the prosecution, you could say.

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