Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Interpretive Ambiguities

     Despite our most diligent exegetical efforts, there are times when precision of meaning in scripture is elusive. Even the apostle Peter acknowledged that some things in Paul’s writings are “hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:15-16),* one reason being the complexity of the subject matter. Another reason is the simple fact that Paul could readily assume his targeted audience already knew certain things that did not have to be repeated or made explicit, to which secondary readers are not privy. 

     In 1 Corinthians, for example, Paul responds to reports he has heard and questions he has been asked (1:11; 7:1; 11:18; 16:17). While the mid-first-century Christians at Corinth already knew what the issues and questions were, the best we can do is to draw inferences, with less specificity, from Paul’s responses. In other words, we only get to hear one side of the conversation! The apostle repeatedly reminded the Corinthians, either directly (12:2) or rhetorically (5:6; 6:2, 3, 9, 15, 16, 19; 9:13, 24), of what they already knew or should have known.1 We were not present to hear all that Paul and his co-workers had taught orally (4:17) or in previous correspondence (5:9), so we cannot demand, force, or expect precision of meaning that is just not in the biblical text. Even so, as modern-day interpreters we are advantaged by having access to God’s complete revelation that helps fill in some of these gaps of assumed knowledge.

Intentional Ambiguities? 

     Gordon Fee confidently asserts, “you may be absolutely certain: Paul did not intend to be ambiguous.”2 But how can Fee be so sure? Are there occasions when “purposeful semantic ambiguity”3 might have served a useful purpose? If accommodative language allows for multiple interpretive possibilities, this would force readers to think more deeply and to make application to a broader range of circumstances.

     When Paul affirms in 1 Corinthians 7:9 that it is better for a single person to marry than to “burn” (ASV, KJV, YLT), he employs the verbal πυρόω [puróō], which many interpret metaphorically as burning with “passion” or “lust” or “sexual desire” (CSB, ESV, NASB, NET, NIV, NKJV, NLT, et al.). However, by leaving it open-ended as Paul did, readers not only get the sense of intense sexual impulses but are also reminded of the spiritual ramifications if self-control is not implemented and sustained (cf. 5:5, 11; 6:9-10, 18; 7:5; 9:27; 10:6-13).

     Addressing expectations for “the married” (1 Cor. 7:10-11), by using the relatively variable term χωρίζω [chōrízō], is Paul disallowing a bilateral separation (ESV, NIV), a unilateral abandonment (NASB, NKJV), or a formal divorce (NET)? The flexibility of the term allows for all these applications without discounting any of them. The hypothetical split is described in v. 11 as “unmarried,” indicative of divorce, whereas reconciliation to her “husband” (ἀνήρ [anēr], cf. vv. 2-4, 13-16, 34, 39) assumes the marriage is not dissolved. The parallel admonition to the husband concerns ἀφίημι [aphíēmi]; he is not to “leave” or “abandon” or “send away” his wife. But if one does depart” (i.e., disregard the injunction) or if one is separated” (i.e., already in this state), there are only two scriptural options: (a) remain unattached, or (b) be reconciled. 

     In 1 Corinthians 7:36-37 Paul refers to anyone who thinks he might be acting improperly toward τὴν παρθένον αὐτοῦ [tēn parthénon autoû], lit. “his virgin” (HCSB, ISV, N/KJV). What does this mean? Suggestions include “his virgin daughter” (N/ASV), or “his betrothed” (ESV, RSV), “his fiancée” (NLT, NRSV), “the virgin he is engaged to” (NIV), or perhaps his own virginity?4 While interpreters may prefer greater specificity, the apostle’s choice of wording enables his readers to make decisions about whatever situation is most applicable.

     When Paul says the widow is free to marry whomever she wishes “only in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39), is he limiting her marital options exclusively to a fellow-believer, or does he mean only an eligible marriage partner in compliance with the Lord’s directives? In support of the former interpretation is the overwhelming weight of scripture references equating the phrase “in the Lord” (or its equivalent) with being a Christian,5 and Paul goes on to argue for his right to take along “a believing wife” [lit. “a sister wife”] (9:5). Nevertheless, “in the way of the Lord” cannot be discounted as a viable interpretive possibility, wherein compliance with the Lord’s instructions is enjoined (cf. vv. 10, 19; 4:6; 14:37). This connotation is supported by Paul’s affirmation earlier in the chapter that God recognizes a believer-unbeliever marriage and expects them to stay together (vv. 12-14). Note also the potential double nuance of the phrase in 4:10, 15a, 17b; 9:1; 11:11; 15:31, 58; 16:19, 24. In Eph. 6:1-2 the apostle instructs children to obey their parents “in the Lord,” then he quotes Deut. 5:16, which says in its fuller context, “Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has command you …” (NKJV). Obviously there is no license here to categorically disobey non-Christian parents. The wording of 1 Cor. 7:39 could be an occasion of purposeful ambiguity, conveying a subtle emphasis on the ideal of marrying a believer without explicitly prohibiting the less-than-ideal marriage to an unbeliever.  

     The term κεφαλή [kephalē] (“head”) occurs nine times in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, alternating between its literal sense (concerning what is worn on one’s physical head) and its metaphoric sense (with reference to a position of authority). When Paul speaks of disgracing one’s “head” due to what is worn or not worn on one’s “head,” which head is being disgraced? Is a man disgracing his physical head (representing himself), or his spiritual head (Christ)? Is a woman disgracing her physical head (representing herself), or her spiritual head (man and/or Christ)? Because of this semantic imprecision, the most reasonable answer is “yes – all of the above.” No doubt Paul could have been less ambiguous here, but his wording forces his Corinthian readers to think and to avoid causing disgrace with respect to any of these.

     The expressed wish in 1 Thessalonians 3:12 is that “the Lord may make you increase and abound …” To whom does ὁ κύριος [ho kúrios] (“the Lord”) apply here? “Lord” is a title of honor and reverence, indicative of authority and rule. It can be applied to Jesus (Acts 1:6, 21; 2:36; etc.), to God [the Father] (Acts 2:20, 25, 39; 4:24, 26; etc.), or to both (Matt. 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42; Acts 2:34).6 Throughout 1 Thessalonians reference is made to “the Lord” without specification (1:6, 8; 3:8, 12; 4:6, 15[x2], 16, 17[x2]; 5:2, 12, 27), and the current text is sandwiched between allusions to both “our God and Father” and “our Lord Jesus.” The ambiguity may be intentional, considering the broad applicability of the designation “Lord” and the unity of essence, purpose, and work within the triune Godhead.

     By comparing English translations, one notices a difference in the positioning of the prepositional phrase “in love” at Ephesians 1:4-5. The NKJV reads, “that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us…” The ESV reads, “that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us …” The phrase ἐν ἀγάπῃ [en agápē] (“in love”) is attached to the preceding words of v. 4 in the ASV, N/KJV, NET, and NRSV, but prefaces what follows in v. 5 in the CSB, ESV, NASB, NIV, and RSV. The former applies to the love of those who are holy and blameless, whereas the latter refers to God’s love. The ambiguity may be intentional, compelling readers to think, reflect, interpret, and make application in light of what has already been learned (cf. Acts 20:20, 27). A double nuance pointing in both directions is not inconceivable (cf. 6:23); the people of God should be holy and blameless before him in love, because in love he has predestined (predetermined) to save all who are in Christ – neither to the exclusion of the other. 

     According to Hebrews 2:9, before his exaltation Jesus was in a position lower than the angels. The word employed here, βραχύς [brachús] (“little”), can refer to the degree of rank, “a little lower” (ASV, ISV, N/KJV), or to time, “for a little while lower” (ESV, NASB, NIV). Contextually, however, it does not have to be just one or the other and could readily apply to both: “for a little while was given a position ‘a little lower than the angels’” (NLT).

     Christ’s distinction from the angels and his union with mankind is again affirmed in Hebrews 2:16, where it is said he does not ἐπιλαμβάνεται [epilambánetai] angels as he does Abraham’s seed. The verbal here essentially means to “take hold of” (ERV, YLT), so how is it to be understood in this passage? Is the inspired author affirming that Jesus does not “take on the nature of” angels as he does the seed of Abraham (KJV; cf. TLB), or that Jesus does not “give aid to” angels as he does the seed of Abraham (NKJV; cf. ESV, NASB, NIV)? The answer is “yes” in accordance with the surrounding context; the ambiguity allows both nuances.


     Knowledge of divine truth is attainable, seeing that God desires all to acquire this knowledge for salvation.7 We expect, therefore, the Bible’s inspired message to be consistent, congruent, and understandable. The fact that there are so many conflicting interpretations of the sacred writings and so much religious division is the result of God’s word being misused, misinterpreted, and misapplied.

     When a biblical text is clear and precise, there is no legitimate excuse for rejecting or misconstruing its meaning. When a biblical text is not as clear and precise as we would like, we must be honest enough to acknowledge the uncertainty and ensure that our interpretation is consistent with the overall context of scripture. Ambiguities do not give interpreters license to invent their own preferred meanings, or to dogmatically insist on a particular explanation to the exclusion of other viable options. As we employ common sense and mature reasoning coupled with integrity (Heb. 5:14), the prospect of intentional ambiguities in the biblical record compels us to think more deeply and allows a more direct and comprehensive application of biblical instruction. 

--Kevin L. Moore

*Unless noted otherwise, scripture quotations are the author's own translation.

     1 This is in contrast to the words, “I want you to know” (1 Cor. 11:3; Col. 2:1), preceding information readers are unaware of and need to be informed about. When Paul speaks of “the present distress” in 1 Cor. 7:26 or those “baptized for the dead” in 1 Cor. 15:29, no further details are given, presumably because the original Corinthian audience already knew about these things. Note also the repeated reminders in 1 Thessalonians of what these readers already knew (1:5; 2:1-11; 3:3-4; 4:1-2; 5:2). 
     2 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014): 37, emp. in the text.
     3 D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996): 64. David Filbeck observes that “it sometimes appears that Paul engages in 'deliberate ambiguity' as he dictates 2 Corinthians ... (Problems in Translating, The Bible Translator 4.4 [Oct. 1994]: 401).
     4 Biblically the word “virgin” can also include men (vv. 25-26; cf. Rev. 14:4).
     5 Cf. 1:30; 3:1; 4:15b, 17a; 7:22; 9:2; 15:18, 22; et al. Some appeal to 2 Cor. 6:14-16 as a prohibition against religiously-mixed marriages. Contextually, however, the Christians at Corinth are being reminded to make a complete break, not with all their associations in the world (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-10; 7:13-14; 10:27; 14:23), but with their idolatrous and sinful past (cf. 1 Cor. 6:18; 10:7, 14). Paul is forbidding unholy alliances with the unbelieving world. While I am a strong advocate of faithful Christians marrying only faithful Christians [read further], this is not what is specifically being addressed here. So what happens when a believer marries an unbeliever? Paul has already affirmed that a marriage involving a Christian and a non-Christian, though not ideal, is sanctioned by God and must not be dissolved (1 Cor. 7:10-14; cf. Matt. 19:6). Therefore, if 2 Cor. 6:14-18 is to be applied to a religiously-mixed marriage, it would mean that the Christian wife or husband must not be in agreement with or participate in the sinful behavior of the non-Christian husband or wife. Leading one’s spouse to Christ should then be a top priority (1 Cor. 7:16; 1 Pet. 3:1-2). See K. L. Moore, “Unequally Yoked Together,” Moore Perspective (17 Aug. 2016), <Link>.
     6 Some would suggest application to the Holy Spirit as well (Acts 5:9; 2 Cor. 3:17-18), but this is much less certain. See K. L. Moore, “The Lord is the Spirit,” Moore Perspective (23 Sept. 2015), <Link>. There are about 722 occurrences of κύριος in the Greek NT (not all in reference to deity); the word does not appear in Titus (except 1:4, BMT) or in the Johannine epistles.
     7 Matt. 7:7-8; John 7:17; 8:31-32; Eph. 3:1-5; 5:17; 1 Tim. 2:3-4; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; et al. (cp. Mark 12:24; 2 Pet. 3:15-16).

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Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Luke’s Alleged Historical Blunder Revisited (Part 2)

External Documentary Evidence

Critics seem unaware (or dismissive) of external documentary evidence corroborating the account in Luke 2:1-5. The Greek papyrus document held in the British Museum, catalogued as P. London 904, is one of “several such edicts,” according to historian/papyrologist Ulrich Wilcken, although it is the only such edict in the collection specifically involving a Roman census. 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.1

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. The University of Michigan papyri collection includes P. Mich. 4406a, a census declaration from the village of Theadelphia dated Jan.-Feb. 3 BC, near the end of Augustus’ 27th year. By AD 33/34 the Romans were administering censuses every fourteen years, although the earlier registrations appear to have been seven years apart.These periodic enrolments were for numbering the population according to households but not strictly tax related. In the late 2nd century AD Clement of Alexandria was aware of this periodic enrolment system of the Romans (Strom. 1.21.147). 

That Joseph and Mary were living in Galilee rather than Judea at the time of Luke’s reported census is not a problem. E. P. Sanders, accusing Luke of territorial ignorance as well as conflating the periods of Herod’s reign and the AD 6 Roman census, conjectures: “Luke’s Mary and Joseph, who lived in Galilee, would not have been affected by Quirinius’ census, which covered only people who lived in the two Roman provinces, Judaea and Syria.”However, not only was Joseph a native of Judea and potentially owned property there (Matt. 2:11; Luke 2:3-4), the Roman provincial Judea was divided into five administrative districts, which included Sepphoris, only about 3½ miles (6 kms) northwest of Nazareth (see Josephus, Ant. 14.5.4).

What We Know Despite the Scant Historical Evidence 

Around the time of Christ’s birth, there was a transition in the Syrian governorship between the outgoing Sentius Saturninus (9-7/6 BC) and the incoming, somewhat inept,Publius Quinctilius Varus (7/6-4 BC). Varus would have been responsible for Syria’s internal affairs, while Qirinius was available to provide leadership for its military and foreign affairs.If there was in fact a census during this transition, as Luke reports, Quirinius would be a logical choice for Augustus to put in charge. And because of his competent handling of it, he would later be entrusted with the next one, which Luke also reports (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 propose),Luke the historian is exonerated. And if Publius Quinctilius Varus is the subject of the inscription (suggested by others)and Quirinius assisted him as advisor or even procurator (see Justin Martyr, Apology 1.34), again, Luke’s account readily corresponds to the historical facts.  

An imperial census in a client kingdom is not unparalleled. Tacitus reports that during the reign of Tiberius “the Clitae, a tribe subject to the Cappadocian Archelaus … were compelled in Roman fashion to render an account of their revenue and submit to tribute” (Annals 6.41). The Latin inscription Lapis Venetus documents a census on the independent city-state of Apamea in Syria, conducted by a Roman officer named Q. Aemilius Secundus on the order of P. Supicius Quirinius.8

Any alleged historical discrepancies in Luke’s description can readily be resolved “by simply and naturally assuming that this was a registration instituted indeed by the Roman emperor, but executed in accordance with the local usages.”While serving as “an emblem of imperial rule,” any census would of necessity have been “organized at the provincial level and marked by local variation.”10 Rather than purportedly tax-related, this would more practically have served as “an enrollment of the inhabitants, which may have been set on foot for statistical purposes, in order to obtain a complete account of the population, perhaps as a basis for a levy of troops from this as a subject territory.”11

After the death of Caesar Augustus, Res Gestae Divi Augusti (“The Deeds of the Divine Augustus”) were inscribed on two bronze plaques outside his mausoleum, listing thirty-five of his greatest achievements as “he subjected the whole wide earth to the rule of the Roman people.”12 While the original inscription has not survived, numerous copies were made and engraved on temples and monuments throughout the empire. 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 probability that the bureaucracy of the census would have taken years to reach Palestine. In fact, each census is described by Augustus as a “lustrum,” referring to a five-year period. 

Concluding Remarks

If Luke’s critics were consistent, all that is known about ancient history from a single source would have to be rejected. For example, Rome’s Gaul campaign of 56 BC is documented only in Julius Caesar’s Gallic War – “the only contemporary narrative of a major Roman imperialist war, and that by its principal agent.”13 Neither Plutarch (Life of Caesar) nor Suetonius (The Twelve Caesars), each of whom quotes Julius Caesar, makes any reference to this important campaign. Are we, then, to denounce the historical integrity of Julius Caesar, or Plutarch, or Suetonius? Does the silence of other historical records mean it did not and could not have happened?

With the large amount of historical data Luke includes in his two-volume work, “he affords his critical readers so many opportunities for testing his accuracy.”14 A young Scottish archaeologist named William Mitchell Ramsay (1851-1939) was convinced by German theologian F. C. Baur and the Tübingen School that Luke-Acts “was essentially a second-century composition, and never relying on its evidence as trustworthy for first-century conditions …”15 But after years of critical investigation, Ramsay was forced to conclude, “Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness.”16

The “historical blunder” allegation against Luke’s record, perpetuated by antibiblicists and liberal scholars, is not as conclusive as we are expected to believe. As deficiency of external evidence hardly confirms the assumption of factual error, Luke’s historical integrity remains unscathed.

--Kevin L. Moore

     Cited in G. A. Deissmann’s Light from the Ancient East, 2nd ed. (NY/London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910): 268-69; this is a slightly modified version of the English translation by Lionel R. M. Strachan of the German translation of Ulrich Wilcken. Similar edicts, including BGU 159, 372, Geneva Papyrus 16, P. Fay. 24, are cited in F. G. Kenyon and H. I. Bell, eds., Greek Papyri in the British Museum (London: H. Frowde, et al., 1907): 3:124-25. See also A. S. Hunt and C. C. Edgar, Select Papyri, Vol. 2: Non-Literary Papyri; Public Documents, LCL 282 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934). 
     Roger S. Bagnall, “The Beginnings of the Roman Census in Egypt,” in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 32 (1991): 255-65; W. G. Claytor and R. S. Bagnall, “The Beginnings of the Roman Provincial Census” 641-44.
     E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus 87.
     In AD 9 Varus was responsible for the devastating loss of three legions in Germanica, so any misgivings Augustus may have had about him were justified.
     W. M. Ramsay, Was Christ born at Bethlehem? 244; cf. J. K. Hardin, Galatians and the Imperial Cult 56. On Quirinius’ military advisory expertise, see Tacitus, Annals 3.48.
     William M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the NT, 4th ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1920): 279. It is possible that the expression “for the second time” refers to the second appointment of office but not necessarily to the same province (see A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the NT [Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1963]: 164).
     Ernest L. Martin, “Quntilius Varus and the Lapis Tiburtinus,” Appendix 1 of The Star of Bethlehem2nd ed. (Portland, OR: Associates for Scriptural Knowledge, 1991).
     Cf. Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964): 237; rev. ed. (1998): 302-306.
     John M’Clintock and James Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969): 2:185-86. 
     10 W. G. Claytor and R. S. Bagnall, “The Beginnings of the Roman Provincial Census” 637. 
     11 M’Clintock and Strong 2:186; cf. Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke ICC (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1910): 49-52.
     12 A nearly complete copy of Res Gestae Divi Augusti has been preserved on a temple dedicated to Augustus in Ankara, Turkey. To read the entire list in English translation, see “The Deeds of the Divine Augustus,” trans. Thomas Bushnell, <Link>.
     13 A. N. Sherwin-White, “Caesar as an Imperialist,” Greece and Rome 4:1 (March 1957): 36.
     14 F. F. Bruce, The NT Documents 81, 82.
     15 W. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen, 15th ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1925): 8.
     16 W. M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery 80. Professor Otto Piper notes, “Wherever modern scholarship has been able to check up on the accuracy of Luke’s work the judgment has been unanimous: he is one of the finest and ablest historians in the ancient world” (“The Purpose of Luke,” The Union Seminary Review 57:1 [Nov. 1945]: 15-25).

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Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Luke’s Alleged Historical Blunder Revisited (Part 1)

The Problem Stated 

Luke 2:1-5 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 NT. The passage mentions the decree of Caesar Augustus that all the world (i.e., the civilized realm of the Roman Empire)was to be registered, which was the “first” census while Quirinius was “administering” 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 officially become legate 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 enrolments. Moreover, that individuals had to return to their respective ancestral homelands to register is considered unhistorical by a number of modern critics.

Liberal Scholarship’s Assessment

James Veitch opines: “… if Jesus was born in 4 BC there was no census. A census was held in 6 AD, but this did not involve people returning to their ancestral areas — such an upheaval would have produced a bureaucratic mess and put enormous pressure on the resources, not to mention the patience, of Rome’s administrative officials. People were registered where they were taxed. The Lukan story is an imaginative way of getting the family to Bethlehem, a superior theological address to Nazareth, but hardly history.”3

Bart Ehrman, who believes the biblical record contains “serious historical problems,” scoffs at the “nigh on impossible” notion in Luke 2:1-5 of everyone having to return to his ancestral home for a census. Ehrman reasons: “In Luke, Joseph is said to return to Bethlehem because his ancestor David came from there, but David lived a thousand years before Joseph. Can it be possible that everyone in the empire was to return to the place their (sic) ancestors lived a thousand years earlier?”4

E. P. Sanders characterizes the account as “a relatively slight historical error,” while Raymond Brown charges Luke with reporting “inaccurately,” resulting in “formidable historical difficulties.” With greater cynicism, Lloyd Geering’s judgment is that “the stories of Jesus’ birth … are almost wholly mythical in character, i.e. they do not describe historical events,” and F. C. Baur claims that Luke’s writings “can only be looked upon as intentional deviations from historical truth …”5

A Closer Look at the “Facts”

Upon closer examination, the case against the veracity of Luke’s reporting is built on two fundamental components: (a) scarcity of historical information, and (b) unsubstantiated presuppositions. Ronald Marchant has correctly observed: “Our knowledge of ancient history, although continually expanding, is nonetheless partial and, in places, almost nil. In general, historians are aware of the limited knowledge they have of any given event in history and of the possibility that some events are recorded in only a single remaining source. Thus if we are adamant in demanding multiple-source confirmation of any given fact, we will suffer by having fewer facts in our fund of admissible knowledge.”6 

Included among the unfounded allegations against Luke’s historical integrity are the following:
·      In Luke 2:2, against the actual wording of the Greek text, Quirinius is presumptively identified by translators and commentators as the “governor” of Syria. Note, for example, ASV, CSB, ESV, ISV, NASB, NET, NIV, N/KJV, N/RSV, et al., and Raymond Brown’s comment, “Luke speaks of an edict … when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”7
·      Many simply take for granted that Luke has confused the time period of Quirinius’ Syrian governorship and census; as Paul Walaskay remarks, “Scholars have long been troubled by Luke’s historical blunder with respect to the census.”
·      Critics merely assume the reported census was for the purpose of taxation. The 1599 Geneva Bible and the 2000 Jubilee Bible curiously refer to this registration as a “taxing,” and the Modern English Version reads “taxation.” E. P. Sanders surmises, “it is not reasonable to think that there was ever a decree that required people to travel in order to be registered for tax purposes.”9
·      It is further alleged that the Romans only took censuses in their established provinces, while Judea was not officially a Roman province at the time Luke chronologizes Christ’s birth.
·      Yet another issue is the imposition of modern standards of historiography on a 1st-century Greco-Roman author. 

Without these underlying assumptions, however, the trumped-up case against Luke’s historicity cannot stand. When compared to what the biblical text actually says, no historical error or contradiction can be substantiated.

A Closer Look at Luke’s Record 

Luke does not employ the noun for “legate” or provincial “governor” (ἡγεμών) in the text (as he does elsewhere, Luke 20:20; 21:12; Acts 23:24-33; 24:1, 10; 26:30), and the misconstruing of his wording leads to the charge of a chronological mistake. Luke’s own observations betray knowledge of “the census” of AD 6 (Acts 5:37) and an earlier one (Luke 2:1-2) that is disputed because of the absence of explicit external corroboration. If one were not predisposed to dismissing outright any historical data in the NT, 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.10

Instead of describing Quirinius as “governor,” Luke actually uses the participial form of the verbal ἡγεμονεύω, which essentially means “to exercise an administrative position,” involving leading, commanding, ruling, ordering (BDAG 433). Luke acknowledges Quirinius’ administrative leadership but does not specify any official position he held at the time. It is not without significance that Luke was quite knowledgeable of the titles worn by governing officials throughout the empire, and his employment of these in various cities and provinces is always historically accurate: στρατηγοί (“magistrates”) in Philippi (Acts 16:20-38), πολιτάρχαι (“politarchs”) in Thessalonica (Acts 17:6), σιαρχοί (“asiarchs”) in Ephesus (Acts 19:31), ἀνθύπατος (“proconsul”) in Cyprus and Achaia (Acts 13:7; 18:12), and ἡγεμών (“legate”) in Judea (Luke 20:20; Acts 23:24). The verbal ἡγεμονεύω in Luke 2:1 carries the sense of going ahead or leading the way, particularly “to lead [in war], to rule, command … to have or take the command.”11 Quirinius was a highly placed military figure in the Near East in the closing years of Herod the Great’s reign and was active in the vicinity of Syria at the time Luke reports (cf. Tacitus, Annals 3.48).12

The employment of the present tense infinitive ἀπογράφεσθαι (“to register”) in Luke 2:1 indicates that Augustus’ decree was not merely for the undertaking of a single census but to order enrolments in the Roman Empire on a regular basis,13  which counters the charge “that there was no single census of the whole Roman Empire under Augustus”14  (notwithstanding Augustus’ own claims!). Unfortunately, as far as “a more detailed examination of the mechanics of this system, we find a dearth of evidence. At the very least, it is clear from literary and documentary sources that Augustus played a central role in the extension of the census throughout the empire …”15 While the Judea census of AD 6 was in fact for taxation purposes, this is not the stated reason in Luke 2:1-2.

Luke further states: “And Joseph also ascended from Galilee out of the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the town of David, which is called Bethlehem, seeing that [διὰ] he was of the house and family of David” (Luke 2:4). The preposition διά has various shades of meaning in the Greek NT, and when employed with an accusative can merely denote “attendant circumstance.”16 That Bethlehem was Joseph’s “own city” is the stated reason for Joseph going there (v. 3), i.e., he was actually from Bethlehem, although he currently resided in Nazareth (2:39). 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.

For Palestinian Jews, the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC and Judea’s annexation by Rome in AD 6 were two enormously significant episodes. Stephen Young suggests: “In a time not as accustomed to exact documentation as our own, both events would serve as approximate dating for the events described in Luke.”17 Even so, Luke’s record may not be as ambiguous or imprecise as this explanation implies. To be continued ...

--Kevin L. Moore

     Cf. Acts 11:28; 17:6-7; 19:27; 24:5. In the very words of Augustus himself, he “subjected the whole wide earth to the rule of the Roman people …” (English translation of Res Gestae Divi Augusti). W. Graham Claytor and Roger S. Bagnall cite Luke’s reference as “important evidence for the provincial impression of the census as universal and stemming from the direct command of the emperor” (“The Beginnings of the Roman Provincial Census: A New Declaration from 3 BCE,” in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 55 [2015]: 637-38). 
     2 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the authors own translation. The Greek adjectival πρῶτος, translated “first” in most English versions, is also used in the sense of “prior” or “before” (cf. John 1:30; 15:18). The Orthodox Jewish Bible reads, “This mifkad (census) was before that taken while Quirinius was governor in Syria.” If this is Luke’s intended meaning, there is no problem (see F. F. Bruce, NT History [NY: Doubleday, 1969]: 32 n. 1; The NT Documents [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981]: 88; N. T. Wright, Who Was Jesus? [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014]: 89). However, Greek grammar has to be stretched to support this rendering, so most interpreters and translators understand “first” as the correct meaning here. 
     James Veitch, The Birth of Jesus: History or Myth? (Wellington, NZ: St Andrew’s, 1997): 14.
     Bart D. Ehrman, The NT: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 4th ed. (NY/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 127.
     E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993): 87; Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the NT, ABRL (NY/London: Doubleday, 1997): 233; An Adult Christ at Christmas: Essays on Three Biblical Christmas Stories  (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1978): 17; Lloyd Geering, Jesus Reconsidered (Wellington, NZ: St Andrew’s, 1984): 9; F. C. Baur, Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ (London: Williams and Norgate, 1876): 1:108. 
     Ronald Marchant, The Census of Quirinius: The Historicity of Luke 2:1-5, IBRI Research Report No. 4 (1980): IBRI, 2012. 
     R. E. Brown, An Adult Christ at Christmas 17.
     Paul W. Walaskay, And So We Came to Rome: The Political Perspective of St Luke (London/NY: Cambridge, 1983): 26. 
     9 E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus 86.
     10 “Consideration of this can begin with the assumption that Luke was a competent historian, careful of his facts, and not prone to unverified statements. His work generally supports such a reputation…. To assume such a census, while complete proof is lacking, requires no distortion of known historical facts” (Encyclopedia of the Bible, s.v. “Quirinius,” Bible Gateway  <Web>).
     11 H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. ἡγεμονεύω <Web>; Abridged (Oxford: Clarendon, 1944): 301. The verbal form “governing” appears in the Berean Literal Bible, Christian Standard Bible, and Mounce Reverse-Interlinear NT; “governed” in the Common English Bible. The Worldwide English NT employs the noun “ruler,” and the Wycliffe Bible, “justice.” In 12 BC Augustus named Quirinius “consul,” the highest public office next to the emperor himself. From 12 BC to 1 BC Quirinius was stationed near Syria in the provinces of Galatia and Cilicia. The record is uncertain from 4 to 2 BC, but the commander of the East and legate of Syria from 2/1 BC to AD 4 was Gaius Caesar, with Quirinius as his chief advisor.
     12 This includes military service in Cilicia to the west and an advisory role in Armenia to the northeast. See E. S. Gruen, “The Expansion of the Empire under Augustus,” in The Cambridge Ancient History (Cambridge: University Press, 2008 <Web>): 10:153-54; also Justin K. Hardin, Galatians and the Imperial Cult WUNT 2:237 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008): 56.
     13 William M. Ramsay, Was Jesus born at Bethlehem? A Study on the Credibility of St Luke2nd ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1898): 123-24. According to W. G. Claytor and R. S. Bagnall, “The standard translation of ἀπογράφεσθαι as a passive should be reconsidered in light of the middle ἀπογράψασθαι in Lk 2:5 and the consistent use of the middle voice in the papyri” (“The Beginnings of the Roman Provincial Census” 638 n. 3).
     14 R. E. Brown, An Adult Christ at Christmas 17 n. 26. B. D. Ehrman says, “We also have no record of a worldwide census under Augustus, or under any emperor at any time” (The NT: A Historical Introduction 127).
     15 W. G. Claytor and R. S. Bagnall, “The Beginnings of the Roman Provincial Census” 638.
     16 BDAG 223-26; M. J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek NT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012): 77-82.
     17 Stephen Young, “Birth of Jesus,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed., eds. J. B. Green, J. K. Brown, N. Perrin (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013): 80.

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