has been charged by the critics with containing significant
historical inaccuracies in the nativity narrative of chapter 2.
The Worldwide Census. Luke
2:1-3 refers to a worldwide census under Caesar Augustus when
Quirinius was governor of Syria. However, according to the annals of
ancient history, no such census took place. In fact, Quirinius did
not become governor in Syria until A.D. 6. It was commonly held by
critics that Luke erred in his assertion about a registration under
Caesar Augustus, and that the census actually took place in A.D. 6
or 7 (which is mentioned by Luke in Gamalielís speech recorded in
A Possible Retranslation. F.
F. Bruce offers another possibility. The Greek of Luke 2:2 can be
translated: "This enrollment (census) was before that made when
Quirinius was governor of Syria." In this case, the Greek word
translated "first" (protos) is translated as a
comparative, "before." Because of the construction of the
sentence, this is not an unlikely reading. In this case there is no
problem, since that census of A.D. 6 is well known to historians.
Recent Archaeological Support. The
lack of any extrabiblical support led some to claim this an error.
However, with recent scholarship, it is now widely admitted that
there was in fact an earlier registration, as Luke records.
William Ramsay discovered several inscriptions
that indicated that Quirinius was governor of Syria on two
occasions, the first time several years prior to A.D. 6. According
to the very papers that recorded the censuses, (see Ramsay, Was
Christ Born in Bethlehem?) there was in fact a census between 10
and 5 B.C. Periodic registrations took place every fourteen years.
Because of this regular pattern of census taking, any such action
was regarded as the general policy of Augustus, even though a local
census may have been instigated by a local governor. Therefore, Luke
recognizes the census as stemming from the decree of Augustus.
Since the people of a subjugated land were
compelled to take an oath of allegiance to the Emperor, it was not
unusual for the Emperor to require an imperial census as an
expression of this allegiance and a means of enlisting men for
military service, or, as was probably true in this case, in
preparation to levy taxes. Because of the strained relations between
Herod and Augustus in the later years of Herodís reign, as the
Jewish historian Josephus reports, it is understandable that
Augustus would begin to treat Herodís domain as a subject land,
and consequently would impose such a census in order to maintain
control of Herod and the people.
Third, a census was a massive project which
probably took several years to complete. Such a census for the
purpose of taxation begun in Gaul between 109 B.C. took 40 years to
complete. Likely the decree to begin the census, in 8 or 7 B.C., may
not have begun in Palestine until sometime later. Problems of
organization and preparation may have delayed the actual census
until 5 B.C. or even later.
Fourth, it was not an unusual requirement that
people return to the place of their origin, or to the place where
they owned property. A decree of C. Vibius Maximus in A.D. 104
required all those absent from their home towns to return for a
census. Jews were quite used to travel, making annual pilgrimage to
There is simply no reason to suspect Lukeís
statement regarding the census. Lukeís account fits the regular
pattern of census taking, and its date would not be unreasonable.
This may have been simply a local census taken as a result of the
general policy of Augustus. Luke simply provides a reliable
historical record of an event not otherwise recorded. Luke has
proven himself an amazingly reliable historian (see Ramsay, St.
Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen). There is no reason to
doubt him here.
Quiriniusí Terms as Governor. Given
Lukeís statement that the census decreed by Augustus was the first
one taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria, the fact that
Quirinius became governor of Syria long after the death of Herod, in
about 6 A.D., sounds like an error in the Gospel.
As noted, there is an alternate way to translate
this verse which resolves the problem. Further, there is now
evidence that Quirinius was governor of Syria on an earlier occasion
that would fit with the time of Christís birth.
Quintilius Varus was governor of Syria from about
7 to about 4 B.C. Varus was not a trustworthy leader, a fact
demonstrated in A.D. 9 when he lost three legions of soldiers in the
Teutoburger forest in Germany. Quirinius, on the other hand, was a
noted military leader who squelched the rebellion of the
Homonadensians in Asia Minor. When it came time to begin the census,
in about 8 or 7 B.C., Augustus entrusted Quirinius with the delicate
problem in the volatile area of Palestine, effectively superseding
Varus by appointing Quirinius to a place of special authority in
Quirinius was probably governor of Syria on two
separate occasions, once while prosecuting the military action
against the Homonadensians between 12 and 2 B.C., and later,
beginning about A.D. 6. A Latin inscription discovered in 1764 has
been interpreted to the effect that Quirinius was governor of Syria
on two occasions.
Gary Habermas summarizes the situation well:
(1) A taxation-census was a fairly
common procedure in the Roman Empire and it did occur in Judea, in
particular. (2) Persons were required to return to their home city
in order to fulfill the requirements of the process. (3) These
procedures were apparently employed during the reign of Augustus
(37 B.C.-14 A.D.), placing it well within the general time frame
of Jesusí birth. (4) The date of the specific taxation recounted
by Luke could very possibly have been 6-5 B.C., which would also
be of service in attempting to find a more exact date for Jesusí
birth. [Verdict of History, 153]
Conclusion. There are
three reasons to believe Luke is accurate in his account of Jesusí
birth. First, there is the general rule of "innocent until
proven guilty." A document from antiquity in proper custody
that purports to be giving an accurate account (cf. Luke 1:1-4)
should be accepted as authentic until it is proven not to be. This
is known as the ancient document rule. This rule is used in
law courts to establish authenticity of old documents.
Second, there are, as noted, plausible
explanations that harmonize the record with historical evidence.
Third, Luke has proven himself to be a reliable
historian even in the details. William Ramsay spent twenty years of
research in the area Luke wrote about. His conclusion was that in
references to thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine
islands Luke made no mistakes! That is a record to be envied by
historians of any era.
G. L. Archer; Jr., An
Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties
F. F. Bruce, The New
Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?
N. L. Geisler and T. Howe, When
G. Habermas, The
Verdict of History
W. Ramsey, St. Paul the
Traveler and Roman Citizen
_______, Was Christ
Born in Bethlehem?