Is the Christmas story historically reliable?
It’s often presented with an almost “mythic” quality, as the above painting reflects. It’s no wonder then that skeptics are quick to write it off as nothing more than an invention of early Christian imagination. As an example, here’s what former minister now agnostic Bob Ripley has to say:
The story [of Jesus birth] is an invention because there was no empire-wide census and it seems highly unlikely that a Roman official would order people to be counted in cities their ancestors left years before (Bob Ripley, Life Beyond Belief, p. 52).
But if you take time to really look at the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel, you’ll find the markings of a carefully composed record of history.
Aside from being a medical doctor, Luke was also a trained historian whose New Testament writings show all of the signatures of a carefully constructed historical document. In Chapter 2 he begins:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register (Luke 2:1-3).
Skeptics like Ripley claim that Luke got it wrong about the census. They see this as proof that Jesus’ birth account wasn’t historical. A closer look, however, gives us some of our best reasons for accepting it as historical fact. Let’s compare objections about the nation-wide census in Luke’s account against the historical evidence.
Objections to Luke’s account of the Christmas story
Objection 1: Skeptics say there was no empire-wide census ordered by Caesar Augustus
In fact, there were three censuses. According to Augustus’ own report, he instituted empire-wide censuses in 28 BC, 8 BC, and AD 14. He boasted about this accomplishment during his reign, because it appeared to indicate that the Roman Empire was growing. 1 The Roman historian Tacitus also bears witness to the writing of Augustus in which he recorded by his own hand the resources of the state, including its number of citizens. 2
Objection 2: Skeptics say it was not Roman custom for residents to return to their ancestral cities to be registered
Actually, we have documented evidence to suggest that the kind of return to one’s hometown that Luke records about Joseph was customary. A Greek papyrus fragment of a Census Edict for Roman Egypt dated to AD 104 was found in 1905 and is currently housed in the British Museum in London. It states,
Gaius Vibius Maximus, the Prefect of Egypt, declares: The census by household having begun, it is essential that all those who are away from their homes be summoned to return to their own hearths so that they may perform the customary business of registration and apply themselves to the cultivation which concerns them.
Furthermore, we have historical evidence to demonstrate that Rome allowed member provinces to observe local customs in maintaining imperial requirements. In the case of the Jews, Josephus records that the Romans allowed them to maintain tax exemption every seventh year 3 and Sabbath observance.4
Relating to a census, as Darryl Bock points out, “Jewish culture would require an ancestral registration.” 5 There’s no historical reason to expect that the Roman census of Judea didn’t occur as Luke recorded, requiring Joseph to make the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Objection 3: Skeptics argue that Quirinius was not governor of Syria until AD 6-7, too late for the census in Jesus’ birth narrative
The historical record shows that Quirinius served as governor of Syria from AD 6-7, during which time he instituted a census. The skeptic argues that this shows Luke to be in error, since Quirinius’ reign as governor is too late for Jesus’ birth.
This is perhaps the most difficult problem associated with Luke’s account, but there are several reasonable solutions.
Was governor Quirinius’ reign too late for the census of Jesus’ birth?
Note specifically what Luke says: “This was the first (Greek protos) census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2). This Greek word protos means “first” or “earlier”. In either case, it implies that Luke necessarily had knowledge of “second” or “later” censuses taking place under Quirinius.
This fact is borne out in Acts 5:37, where Luke refers to the census revolt led by Judas the Galilean. This same revolt was recorded by Josephus in Antiquities 18:1.16, demonstrating that it was a noteworthy and remembered event among the Jews. Luke’s record of the AD 6-7 census in Acts 5:37 shows that he couldn’t have been confusing the census taken during Jesus’ birth with Quirinius’ census of AD 6-7. It must have been another census that Luke was referring to.
While Luke is clearly in the know about Quirinius’ AD 6-7 census, how can he be referring to an earlier census at a time when Quirinius was not governor of Syria?
There are a number of solutions to this difficulty. Admittedly, none of them seems superior to the other. I will note what I see as the top three.
Possible reasons for attributing a census to Quirinius before he became governor of Syria
1. The meaning of the Greek word for “first”. The grammar supports reading protos to mean “This census was before the census which Quirinius, governor of Syria, made.” This reading would of course solve the chronology problem. But Dan Wallace7 suggests that such a reading would be a highly unnatural one, and is unlikely what Luke meant. While not impossible, it does stretch the grammar.
2. The possibility of the census starting earlier. The historical evidence supports the possibility of a census just prior to Herod’s death in 4 BC while Varus was governor of Syria.8 Practically speaking, the task of carrying out, completing, and compiling the records from such a census would have taken years. It’s possible that the census began under Varus, but wasn’t completed until Quirinius’ reign. In this case, while Varus began the census, Quirinius would have been given the credit.
3. Quirinius’ proven career. The final suggestion rests on both Quirinius’ varied and distinguished career, not to mention the notable incompleteness of Roman gubernatorial records. Brindle points out that “Quirinius held high office as the reward of proven ability and hard work.” 9 He
- was a Roman senator
- served as governor of Crete and Cyrene
- was appointed consul and given command of the armies in the war against the Homanades (12 BC – AD 1)
- served as advisor to Gaius Caesar in Armenia
- served as proconsul of Asia (AD 2-3)
None of these roles make him governor of Syria during the time of Jesus’ birth. But they do put him in high-ranking position in and around the region of Syria during the right time period. Hayles offers the suggestion that Quirinius was not the governor, but was the chosen administrator of the census.10
Given his rank and proven competence, it’s not unimaginable that Quirinius could have given oversight to the census taken during Jesus’ birth, in which case Luke’s ascription is most certainly correct, if not technically impeccable.
Is there enough evidence to prove that Quirinius wasn’t involved in the census?
Others have reasoned at length for similar possible solutions based on the evidence we have surrounding Quirinius and Roman history. Given the incompleteness of the historical record, each of them are admittedly constructions, but each presents plausible solutions to Luke’s apparent discrepancy.
To say we have a definitive answer would be dishonest, but it would be even more dishonest to say that we have enough evidence to conclude that Luke is most certainly wrong.
While skeptics can confirm from the historical record that Quirinius was named governor of Syria from AD 6-7, what they can’t confirm from the evidence is that he wasn’t involved in the census of Jesus’ birth. We can agree with Darryl Bock in saying “it is clear that the relegation of Luke 2:2 to the category of historical error is premature and erroneous.” 11
Was Jesus really born in a manger at Bethlehem? Skeptics like Ripley would say, “All we have are Matthew’s and Luke’s words to account for it, so probably not.”
And yet in these accounts we have writings that bear the marks of a careful historian recording the facts as, in Luke’s own words, “were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Luke 1:2).
This record proves faithful with other historical records in so many places, and while holes in those records do indeed remain, we have no good reason from the evidence to conclude that Luke’s account is anything but reliable.
Originally published Dec 3, 2019, updated Dec 1, 2020.
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1. Here are Augustus’ own words recorded in The Deeds of the Divine Augustus, by Augustus, Written AD 14, (translated by Thomas Bushnell, BSG) [accessed December 15, 2014 online at www.classics.mlt.edu/Augustus/deeds.html]
When I was consul the fifth time (29 B.C.E.), I increased the number of patricians by order of the people and senate. I read the roll of the senate three times, and in my sixth consulate (28 B.C.E.) I made a census of the people with Marcus Agrippa as my colleague. I conducted a lustrum, after a forty-one year gap, in which lustrum were counted 4,063,000 heads of Roman citizens. Then again, with consular imperium I conducted a lustrum alone when Gaius Censorinus and Gaius Asinius were consuls (8 B.C.E.), in which lustrum were counted 4,233,000 heads of Roman citizens. And the third time, with consular imperium, I conducted a lustrum with my son Tiberius Caesar as colleague, when Sextus Pompeius and Sextus Appuleius were consuls (14 A.C.E.), in which lustrum were counted 4,937,000 of the heads of Roman citizens. By new laws passed with my sponsorship, I restored many traditions of the ancestors, which were falling into disuse in our age, and myself I handed on precedents of many things to be imitated in later generations.
2. Tacitus Annals 1.11
They raised their hands to the gods, to the statue of Augustus, and to the knees of Tiberius, when he ordered a document to be produced and read. This contained a description of the resources of the State, of the number of citizens and allies under arms, of the fleets, subject kingdoms, provinces, taxes, direct and indirect, necessary expenses and customary bounties. All these details Augustus had written with his own hand, and had added a counsel, that the empire should be confined to its present limits, either from fear or out of jealousy.
3. Josephus, Antiquities 14.10.6.
4. Ibid, 14.10.20
5. Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1994), 905.
6. Josephus, Antiquities, 18.1.1.
NOW Cyrenius, a Roman senator, and one who had gone through other magistracies, and had passed through them till he had been consul, and one who, on other accounts, was of great dignity, came at this time into Syria, with a few others, being sent by Caesar to be a judge of that nation, and to take an account of their substance. Coponius also, a man of the equestrian order, was sent together with him, to have the supreme power over the Jews. Moreover, Cyrenius came himself into Judea, which was now added to the province of Syria, to take an account of their substance, and to dispose of Archelaus’s money; but the Jews, although at the beginning they took the report of a taxation heinously, yet did they leave off any further opposition to it, by the persuasion of Joazar, who was the son of Beethus, and high priest; so they, being over-pesuaded by Joazar’s words, gave an account of their estates, without any dispute about it. Yet was there one Judas, a Gaulonite,** of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty;
**While Josephus here refers to Judas as a Gaulonite from the city of Gamala, (perhaps his place of birth) four times elsewhere in Antiquities 18.1.6; 20.5.2; and War 2.8.1; 2.17.8 he refers to him as Judas the Galilean, the same as Luke.
7. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics, p. 304.
8. Bock, p. 905.
9. Wayne Brindle, “The Census and Quirinius: Luke 2:2”, JETS 27/1 (March 1984) 43-52.
10. D. J. Hayles, “The Roman Census and Jesus’ Birth: Was Luke Correct?, Part 2: Quirinius’ Career and a Census in Herod’s Day.” Buried History 10:16-31.
11. Bock, p. 909.