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.2 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.”3 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,4 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.5 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),6 Luke the historian is exonerated. And if Publius Quinctilius Varus is the subject of the inscription (suggested by others)7 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.”9 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.
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
1 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).
2 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.
3 E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus 87.
4 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.
5 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.
6 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).
7 Ernest L. Martin, “Quntilius Varus and the Lapis Tiburtinus,” Appendix 1 of The Star of Bethlehem, 2nd ed. (Portland, OR: Associates for Scriptural Knowledge, 1991).
8 Cf. Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964): 237; rev. ed. (1998): 302-306.
9 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).
Related Posts: Luke's Alleged Historical Blunder (Part 1)
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