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)1 was to be registered, which was the “first” census while Quirinius was “administering” Syria.2 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.”8
· 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), ἀσιαρχοί (“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
1 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 : 637-38).
2 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s 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.
3 James Veitch, The Birth of Jesus: History or Myth? (Wellington, NZ: St Andrew’s, 1997): 14.
4 Bart D. Ehrman, The NT: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 4th ed. (NY/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 127.
5 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.
6 Ronald Marchant, The Census of Quirinius: The Historicity of Luke 2:1-5, IBRI Research Report No. 4 (1980): IBRI, 2012.
7 R. E. Brown, An Adult Christ at Christmas 17.
8 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 Luke, 2nd 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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