Monday, 20 February 2012

Luke's Historical Blunder?

El Greco's St. Luke
     Luke 2:1-2 is often cited as an alleged historical blunder that serves to discredit the historicity of Luke’s record as a whole if not the entire New Testament. The passage mentions the decree of Caesar Augustus that all the world (or the civilized realm of the Roman Empire, cf. Acts 19:27; 24:5) was to be registered, which was the "first" census while Quirinius was "ruling" Syria. The statement seems to imply that Luke was aware of a second census involving Quirinius, which is later referenced in Acts 5:37 and recounted by Josephus (Ant. 18.1.1; 2.1). The problem is, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until AD 6, over a decade after the events recorded here, and Luke is the only historian who mentions the first of these two censuses.
     The simplest way to resolve this apparent discrepancy is to understand that the Greek word protos, translated "first" in many English versions, is also used in the sense of "prior" or "before" (cf. John 1:30; 15:18). If this were Luke’s intended meaning, there is no problem. But to be fair to open dialogue and in consideration of every possibility, what if "first" is the correct rendering? Is this a legitimate case of a factual mistake?
     If one were not predisposed to dismissing outright any historical data in the Bible, one would have to concede that a census in Palestine at the time Luke affirms is not improbable, and some official connection of Quirinius with Syria at this time is not impossible. Note that instead of describing Quirinius as "governor," Luke actually employs the verb hēgemoneuō, which means to "rule," "order," "lead," or "command." Quirinius was a highly placed military figure in the Near East in the closing years of Herod the Great’s reign, and he was active in the general vicinity of Syria at the time Luke reports.
     After the death of Caesar Augustus, The Deeds of the Divine Augustus were inscribed on two bronze plaques outside his mausoleum, listing thirty-five of his greatest achievements while "he subjected the whole wide earth to the rule of the Roman people." Eighth on the list is a record of three empire-wide censuses that he authorized in 28 BC, 8 BC, and AD 14. Luke’s account of Christ’s birth fits the census of 8 BC, considering the likelihood that the bureaucracy of the census would have taken years to reach Palestine.
     It is of further interest that around the time of Christ’s birth, there was a transition in the Syrian governorship between the outgoing Sentius Saturninus and the incoming (somewhat inept) Quinctilius Varus. It is therefore historically plausible that the renowned Quirinius would have been put in charge of the census at this time (Luke 2:1-2), and no doubt because of his competent handling of it, he was later entrusted with the next one (Acts 5:37). The fragmentary Latin inscription Lapis Tiburtinus acknowledges a distinguished Roman officer who served as imperial legate of Syria "for the second time." If Quirinius is the subject of this mutilated inscription (as some scholars propose), Luke the historian is exonerated. And if Quinctilius Varus is the subject of the inscription (suggested by other scholars) and Quirinius assisted him as "procurator" of Syria (see Justin Martyr, Apology 1.34), again, Luke’s account readily corresponds to the historical facts.
     It is of no minor significance that the science of archaeology has always corroborated the accuracy and credibility of the biblical record, while no legitimate archaeological discovery has ever shown the scriptures to be in error on any historical point. For every accusation of alleged falsehood in the Bible, there are ample and satisfactory answers provided by competent biblical apologists. No fair-minded truth-seeker would deliberately embrace only one side of an issue without having given honest consideration to valid responses.
--Kevin L. Moore

Related Posts: The Bible in Perspective, Biblical Inspiration, Mistakes in the Bible?, Alleged Biblical Errors


  1. the Jews were taxed by Herod, Bethlehem was a very small village totally Jewish, a most unlikely place for a visit by Roman revenue officials seeking ex-pats tax dodgers. Joseph would be risking his neck by approaching the Romans with a claim to be a descendant of King David.

    1. Your speculative comments void of historical documentation betray a presumptive bias against Luke's integrity as a historian. That Bethlehem was Joseph’s “own city” is the stated reason for Joseph going there (Luke 2:3), i.e., he was actually from Bethlehem. A secondary purpose, viz. “he was of [the] house and family of David,” serves as a theological statement (cp. 1:27, 32) rather than a commentary on Roman law. A Greek papyrus document was discovered in Egypt around 1905, now in the British Museum catalogued as P. London 904. One of “several such edicts,” according to historian/papyrologist Ulrich Wilcken, the text reads: “Gaius Vibius Maximus, Prefect of Egypt, says: ‘The enrolment by household being at hand, it is necessary to notify all who for any cause whatsoever are outside their nomes [territories] to return to their domestic hearths [homes], that they also may accomplish the customary dispensation of enrolment and continue steadfastly in the husbandry [care of the household] that belongs to them.” G. Vibius Maximus was prefect of the Roman province of Egypt in AD 104. Since the 4th century BC, both Egypt and Judea had been under the control of Hellenistic authorities and later the Romans, sharing much in common culturally, linguistically, and politically. According to papyri evidence, the Romans were conducting registrations in Egypt as far back as 11/10 BC and possibly even further to 19 BC. By AD 33/34 they were doing so every 14 years. These periodic enrolments were for numbering the population according to households but not strictly tax related.