“The story [of Jesus birth] is an invention because there was no empire-wide census and its 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.
As the above painting reflects, the Christmas story is often presented with an almost ‘mythic’ quality. It’s no wonder then that skeptics like Ripley are quick to write it off as nothing more than an invention of early Christian imagination. But if you take time to really look at the Christmas story recorded in Luke’s gospel, you will find the markings of a carefully composed record of history.
If we take just the few details given by Luke that Ripley refers to, we will actually see that the very thing which he sees as a source for doubt gives us one of our greatest historical artifacts to anchor Jesus’ birth into the historical record.
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Luke was also a trained historian whose New Testament writings show all of the signatures of a carefully constructed historical document.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[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. (Luke 2:1-3)
There are three main objections to historicity that skeptics like Ripley level against Luke for his inclusion of these few historical references. Rather than being a source for doubt, if we look carefully at them we will actually find some of our best reasons for reading them as historical fact. We can readily respond to each:
1. There was no empire wide census ordered by Caesar Augustus
In fact, there were three. According to Augustus’ own report he instituted empire wide censuses in 28 and 8 BC, and 14 AD. 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
2. It was not Roman custom to have residents return to their ancestral cities to be registered as Luke reported Joseph to have done.
Actually, we have documented evidence to suggest that it was. A Greek papyrus fragment of a Census Edict for Roman Egypt dated to 104 CE 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 year3 and Sabbath observance.4 With respect to a census, as Bock points out, “Jewish culture would require an ancestral registration.”5 There is no historical reason to expect that the Roman census of Judea did not occur as Luke recorded, requiring Joseph to make the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
3. Quirinius was not governor of Syria until A.D. 6-7, too late for the census in Jesus birth narrative.
The historical record shows that Quirinius served as governor of Syria from A.D. 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, and yet a number of viable resolutions have been proposed. The first of these is noteworthy because it further corroborates the fact that in every other respect of his writing, Luke acts as a careful historian.
Note specifically what Luke says: “This was the first (gk. ‘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 taken under Quirinius; a fact born out in Acts 5:37 where Luke makes reference to the census revolt lead 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. It also demonstrates that Luke, being aware of this significant contemporary event, could not have been confusing the census taken during Jesus’ birth with Quirinius’ census of 6-7 A.D. It must have been another census that Luke was referring to.
While Luke is clearly in the know about Quirinius’ 6-7 A.D. 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.
1. The grammar supports reading ‘protos’ to mean “This census was before the census which Quirinius, governor of Syria, made.” This would of course solve the chronology problem, but Dan Wallace7 suggests that such a reading would be a highly unnatural one, and is unlikely to be what Luke meant. While not impossible, it does stretch the grammar.
2. The historical evidence supports the possibility of a census conducted just prior to Herod’s death in 4 B.C. while Varus was governor of Syria.8 Given that such a census and its consequent taxation would have taken time to complete, it is possible that while begun before his reign, this census could have been associated with Quirinius’ name. (i.e. it started under Varus but was completed under Quirinius and therefore he was given the credit).
3. The final suggestion rests upon both Quirinius’ varied and distinguished career, and 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; He served as governor of Crete and Cyrene; he was appointed consul and given command of the armies in the war against the Homonadenses (12 BC – 1 AD); he served as advisor to Gaius Caesar in Armenia and served as proconsul of Asia (2-3 AD). None of these rolls make him governor of Syria during the time of Jesus’ birth, but they do put him in a position of high rank 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 and held a term as administrator that ran from Saturninus (9 – 7 BC) to Varus (7 – 6 BC).10 Given his rank and proven competence, it is 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.
Others have reasoned at length for similar possible solutions based upon 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 6-7 AD, what they cannot confirm from the evidence is that he was not involved in the census of Jesus’ birth. We can agree therefore 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.
1. Here are Augustus’ own words recorded in The Deeds of the Divine Augustus, by Augustus, Written 14 A.C.E., (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 War2.8.1; 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.