Bible Contradictions External Contradictions Of The Bible The Bible

Exter­nal Con­tra­di­tion of the Bible : A World­wide Cen­sus of Quirinius ?

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There is an attempt by each writer of the Syn­op­tic Gospels to either re-cor­rect or present their own ver­sion of what they per­ceive to be the accu­rate” sto­ry of Jesus’ birth, and this has caused dis­agree­ments between the gospel records. The dis­crep­an­cies between the dif­fer­ent gospel records were so numer­ous and glar­ing that it did not escape the atten­tion of Origen :

Scrip­ture was not even free from fac­tu­al error. So care­ful a stu­dent of the text as Ori­gen could not help being aware of dis­crep­an­cies between the dif­fer­ent gospel records. The nor­mal pro­ce­dure of the ear­ly Church schol­ar was to explain these away by elab­o­rate attempts to har­monise the con­flict­ing accounts. That was a game which Ori­gen could play when he want­ed to as inge­nious­ly as any­one else. But he did not believe that it could solve the prob­lem entire­ly. More­over, the fac­tu­al truth of some record­ed inci­dents was open to seri­ous doubt on oth­er grounds also, on grounds for exam­ple of the intrin­sic improbability…Thus the dis­crep­an­cies between the dif­fer­ent records and the his­tor­i­cal implau­si­bil­i­ty of some of the inci­dents described are such that they might well under­mine our whole faith in the trust­wor­thi­ness of the gospels.1

Luke’s account of the set­ting of Christ’s birth has often been crit­i­cized by those who have rec­og­nized the errors made by the author of this gospel. Our focus is on the world­wide cen­sus” attrib­uted to Quirinius, record­ed in Luke 2:1 – 5 as follows :

    Luke 2

    1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cae­sar Augus­tus, that all the world should be taxed.
    2 (And this tax­ing was first made when Quirinius was gov­er­nor of Syria.)
    3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
    4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Beth­le­hem ; (because he was of the house and lin­eage of David:)
    5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 

In this instance, the nar­ra­tive of Luke’s gospel firm­ly roots the sto­ry of Christ’s birth in the con­text of the world­wide admin­is­tra­tion of Roman gov­ern­ment and demon­strates how God uses unwit­ting and unwill­ing men to bring about His pur­pos­es. The amaz­ing thing about this nar­ra­tive is that there was no such cen­sus in the days of Herod ! Denis McBride, in his com­men­tary on Luke, writes :

Schol­ars have unre­solved ques­tions about the his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy of the events sur­round­ing Luke’s birth nar­ra­tive : there is no his­tor­i­cal record of a uni­ver­sal cen­sus at the time spec­i­fied by Luke ; the Roman cus­tom of tax­a­tion was based on the indi­vid­u­al’s place of res­i­dence, not his place of ances­try ; Quirinius was gov­er­nor of Syr­ia dur­ing the years A.D. 6 – 9, some ten years after the birth of Jesus. Inge­nius attempts have been made to resolve the his­tor­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties, but the impor­tant ques­tion which can be answered con­cerns Luke’s inten­tion, which is clear : the cen­sus places the birth of Jesus with­in the frame­work of world his­to­ry, it also sit­u­ates the birth in Joseph’s ances­tral city, Beth­le­hem, the place prophe­cised for the begin­ning of the Mes­si­ah.2

Despite the above obser­va­tion, Chris­t­ian schol­ars have attempt­ed to rec­on­cile” this error with his­tor­i­cal and doc­u­ment­ed evi­dence. Our pur­pose now is to estab­lish whether these forms of rec­on­cila­tions” are accept­able and to fur­ther scru­ti­nise the seri­ous­ness of this error by Luke, insha’allah.

World­wide Cen­sus ? What World­wide Census ?

Helms com­ments upon this fac­tu­al error made by Luke and the biz­zare nature of this story :

Though Luke 1:5 dates the birth of Jesus in the days of Herod, King of Judaea,” who died in 4 B.C., he wants the jour­ney from Galilee to Beth­le­hem to have occured in response to a cen­sus called when Quirinius was gov­er­nor of Syr­ia.” As his­to­ri­ans know, the one and only cen­sus con­duct­ed while Quirinius was legate in Syr­ia affect­ed only Judaea, not Galilee, and took place in A.D. 6 – 7, a good ten years after the death of Herod the Great.” In his anx­i­ety to relate the Galilean upbring­ing with the sup­posed Beth­le­hem birth, Luke con­fused his facts. Indeed, Luke’s anx­i­ety has involved him in some real absur­di­ties, like the need­less nine­ty mile jour­ney of a woman in her last days of preg­nan­cy — for it was the Davidic Joseph who sup­pos­ed­ly had to be reg­is­tered in the ances­tral vil­lage, not the Levit­i­cal Mary. Worse yet, Luke has been forced to con­trive a uni­ver­sal dis­lo­ca­tion for a sim­ple tax reg­is­tra­tion : who could imag­ine the effi­cient Romans requir­ing mil­lions in the empire to jour­ney scores of hun­dreds of miles to the vil­lages of mil­len­ni­um-old ances­tors mere­ly to sign a tax from ! Need­less to say, no such event ever hap­pened in the his­to­ry of the Roman empire, but Mic­ah 5:2 must be ful­filled.3

The his­to­ri­an Robin Lane Fox adds more details expos­ing the obvi­ous errors in Luke and writes that :

The error, so far, might seem rather mar­gin­al. The third Gospel has con­fused a local cen­sus in Judaea with a world­wide decree from Augus­tus ; it has tried to date the sto­ry by an obscure Quirinius, where­as else­where, like Matthew’s, its sto­ry takes place under Herod the Great. In fact, the trou­ble goes very much deep­er. There is a con­tra­dic­tion in Luke’s sto­ry : if Quirinius was gov­er­nor, the Roman cen­sus is cred­i­ble but Herod is a mis­take. There is also a con­tra­dic­tion with Matthew’s sto­ry : if Quirinius or the Roman cen­sus is cor­rect, Herod was not king and Matthew’s sto­ries of the Wise Men, the Mas­sacre of the Inno­cents and the Flight into Egypt are all chrono­log­i­cal­ly impos­si­ble. If Herod was king, there could have been no cen­sus accord­ing to Caeser Augus­tus. Even if there had been such a cen­sus, the third Gospel’s view of it runs into fur­ther problems.

Its decree from Caeser required reg­is­tra­tion (apographe, in Greek). Exact­ly this word is used for a tax cen­sus in con­tem­po­rary doc­u­ments which have sur­vived from Egypt under Roman rule. An emper­or would not be imag­ined to have reg­is­tered his Jew­ish sub­jects for any oth­er pur­pose. He was cer­tain­ly not plan­ning con­scrip­tion : Jews were exempt from mil­i­tary ser­vice in the Roman army. Tax, cer­tain­ly, caused the cen­sus, but the prac­tices of Roman tax­a­tion do not agree with the Gospel’s nar­ra­tive. Cor­rect­ly, it begins by explain­ing that all went to be taxed, every one into his own city’ (Luke 2:3). Joseph’s own city’ is defined in the Gospel by his sup­posed ances­try, not by his res­i­dence and own­er­ship of prop­er­ty. In the Gospel’s view, Joseph was descend­ed from David, and so he went to Beth­le­hem, the city of David’, a prop­er birth-place for a future Mes­si­ah. How­ev­er, Roman cen­sus­es cared noth­ing for remote genealo­gies, let alone for false ones : they were based on own­er­ship of prop­er­ty by the liv­ing, not the dead. As the Gospel has already stat­ed at the time of the Annun­ci­a­tion (Luke 1:26), Joseph and Mary were peo­ple of Nazareth in Galilee, the home town which lat­er reject­ed its prophet, Jesus. A Roman cen­sus would not have tak­en Joseph to Beth­le­hem where he and Mary owned noth­ing and were there­fore assumed to have need­ed to lodge as vis­i­tors at an inn. There was a sound rea­son for the Romans’ type of reg­is­tra­tion. The cen­sus was their base for at least two types of tax : a poll tax and a tax on prop­er­ty of var­i­ous kinds. There was not even a legal need for Mary to go and reg­is­ter with her betrothed hus­band. We know from the evi­dence of Roman tax cen­sus­es from Egypt, still sur­viv­ing on papyrus, that one house­hold­er could make the return for every­one in his care. Mary might have cho­sen to go any­way, in order to give Joseph sup­port, but it was not a nec­es­sary jour­ney for a wife who was ter­mi­nal­ly pregnant.

Above all, it was not a jour­ney which a Galilaean, a man of Nazareth, would have been required to make. In AD 6 Galilee, unlike Judaea, had remained under its inde­pen­dent ruler and would not have been bound by a Roman cen­sus or tax­ing. This ruler’s exis­tence is known from Jose­phus, oth­er his­to­ries and his own coins : as a Galilaean, Joseph of Nazareth was exempt from the entire busi­ness.4

Chris­t­ian fun­da­men­tal­ists have, of course, made numer­ous des­per­ate attempts to resolve” the glar­ing his­tor­i­cal error in the above referred pas­sage, although their numer­ous efforts have not had much of an impact. This is con­ced­ed by the New Amer­i­can Bible :

1 [1 – 2] Although uni­ver­sal reg­is­tra­tions of Roman cit­i­zens are attest­ed in 28 B.C., 8 B.C., and A.D. 14 and enroll­ments in indi­vid­ual provinces of those who are not Roman cit­i­zens are also attest­ed, such a uni­ver­sal cen­sus of the Roman world under Cae­sar Augus­tus is unknown out­side the New Tes­ta­ment. More­over, there are noto­ri­ous his­tor­i­cal prob­lems con­nect­ed with Luke’s dat­ing the cen­sus when Quirinius was gov­er­nor of Syr­ia, and the var­i­ous attempts to resolve the dif­fi­cul­ties have proved unsuc­cess­ful.5

If Luke was being inspired” by the Holy Ghost, then why did the Holy Ghost allow him to make such a glar­ing fac­tu­al error ? Was the Holy Ghost not con­cerned that Luke would write down this fac­tu­al error and in years to come many peo­ple would believe this fac­tu­al error to be an eter­nal truth ?

The sim­ple fact of the mat­ter is that Luke was nei­ther inspired by God or the Holy Ghost, nor did he ever claim to be inspired. Rather, he states clear­ly that the pur­pose of his writ­ing was to com­pose a more order­ly account” of the past events. He cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly stat­ed that because oth­ers had writ­ten accounts of Jesus?s life in the past, there­fore he will do the same, but with a dif­fer­ence — Luke will attempt to write a more order­ly account” in con­trast to the writ­ings of his predecessors.

More­over, Luke nev­er stat­ed that the oth­er gospel writ­ings were scrip­ture”. He indi­cates that he has had sev­er­al pre­de­ces­sors in writ­ing a nar­ra­tive of the life of Jesus. He also con­cedes that his gospel is based upon oral tra­di­tions in cir­cu­la­tion as the sto­ries have been passed down by eye­wit­tness­es and min­is­ters of the word.” Fur­ther­more, Luke also made use of writ­ten sources. His rea­son for writ­ing was because he deemed the attempts of his pre­dec­ces­sors to be inad­e­quate and insuf­fi­cient and thus believed he could do a bet­ter job. Don­ald Guthrie states the fol­low­ing in a foot­note with­in his intro­duc­tion to the New Testament :

Luke’s pref­ace is illu­mi­nat­ing in regard to his own approach to his task. He claims to have made a com­pre­hen­sive and accu­rate sur­vey over a con­sid­er­able peri­od, which throws a good deal of light on his seri­ous­ness of pur­pose. More­over, Luke admits that oth­ers had pre­vi­ous­ly attempt­ed the same task, but his words imply that he found them unsat­is­fac­to­ry…6

These do not sound like the words of one who believes God is inspir­ing him to write divine scripture.”

Attempt­ed Expla­na­tions With Irrec­on­cil­able Fiction

Chris­t­ian schol­ars Lee M. McDon­ald and Porter attempt­ed to explain the his­tor­i­cal error in Luke with regard to the cen­sus. They cite from the sources of ancient author­i­ties, try­ing their best to solve” or to explain” away Luke?s error, but in vain :

Luke 2:1 – 2 says that Quirinius was gov­er­nor of Syr­ia when Jesus was born, but Tac­i­tus (Ann. 6.41) states that Quirinius began as gov­er­nor only after Archelaus was expelled from office in A.D. 6. Jose­phus (Ant. 18 ; War 2.117 ; 7.253) claims that Quirinius ordered a cen­sus for tax pur­pos­es in A.D. 6 – 7 that caused a rebel­lion. If Tac­i­tus and Jose­phus are cor­rect, then by Luke’s account­ing, the birth of Jesus comes too late and Luke is out of step with oth­er his­to­ri­ans of the time. Gelden­huys, how­ev­er, argued that Quirinius had a dual reign and also a dual enroll­ment or reg­is­tra­tion as Luke 2:2 indi­cates, the first being in the first decade B.C. and the sec­ond in the first decade A.D., which is prob­a­bly also referred to in Acts 5:37 and in Jose­phus, Ant. 20.97105. Jose­phus. how­ev­er, does not men­tion that Quirinius served as mag­is­trate in Syr­ia on more than one occa­sion, and this has some impor­tance since he refers to Quirinius’s rule in Ant. 17.353 and 18.14. A mar­ble slab from Tivoli (Tibur) dat­ed some­time after A.D. 14 and cur­rent­ly in the Vat­i­can Muse­um, men­tions an unnamed offi­cial who served as legate of Syr­ia on two occa­sions, but there is noth­ing in the inscrip­tion that specif­i­cal­ly ties it to Quirinius. A sec­ond inscrip­tion, found in Pisid­i­an Anti­och in 1912, is ded­i­cat­ed to G. Caris­ta­nius Fron­to, a colonist of Anti­och who served as a pre­fect for two mag­is­trates. It reads, pre­fect of P. Sulpi­cius Quirinius, chief mag­is­trate (duumvir), pre­fect of M. Servil­ius.” A third inscrip­tion, though sim­i­lar, spec­i­fies that Fron­to is now the pre­fect of a third mag­is­trate as well. From these inscrip­tions, how­ev­er, it is impos­si­ble to prove con­clu­sive­ly a dual reign of Quirinius. Pub­lius Sulpi­cius Ouirinius could have become con­sul in Syr­ia in 12 B.C. and died in A.D. 21 (see Tac­i­tus, Ann. 3.48 ; Stra­bo, Geog. 12.6.5), but there is much con­jec­ture in this. More dif­fi­cult to explain is the rea­son for call­ing a cen­sus for the tax­a­tion of the peo­ple by Augus­tus when Herod the Great was king and he him­self had his own tax­es and tax col­lec­tors. The client king paid trib­utes to Rome but was free to col­lect his own tax­es. In exam­ples where Rome levied tax­es direct­ly upon the peo­ple, sig­nif­i­cant changes had occurred. For instance, after Herod the Great died and his ruth­less son Archelaus was deposed by the emper­or in A.D. 6. Judea was no longer a Hero­di­an tetrar­chy but a Roman province under the direc­tion of Syr­ia and direct­ly taxed. As a result, there was wide­spread rebel­lion in the land, and Judas the Galilean led a revolt against Rome (Jose­phus. Ant. 18.16). Does Luke con­fuse this time with the time of the birth of Jesus ? He cer­tain­ly uses the tak­ing of a cen­sus to indi­cate why Joseph and Mary arrived in the town of Beth­le­hem, the city of the promise of a shep­herd king.7

Despite their expla­na­tions of Luke’s state­ment with the his­tor­i­cal sources, they are forced to admit that :

[t]here is appar­ent­ly no sim­ple answer avail­able to this dif­fi­cult issue of cor­re­lat­ing Luke’s sto­ry of the birth of Jesus with avail­able his­tor­i­cal data, and ques­tions remain about Luke’s under­stand­ing of the his­tor­i­cal con­text of the birth of Jesus.8

Here we should bear in mind that these schol­ars, who are cer­tain­ly no lib­er­als”, would have loved to declare that Luke did not make an error. Even if there was the remotest expla­na­tion” avail­able, no mat­ter how far-fetched, they would have read­i­ly adopt­ed it to save Luke. Yet despite their intense desire to side with Luke, they have no oth­er alter­na­tive but to final­ly con­cede that there is real­ly no expla­na­tion” that can sim­ply explain away” the error in Luke. This should give us an indi­ca­tion as to the grav­i­ty of the error made by Luke.

Some apol­o­gists argue that the prac­tice of going to an ances­tral city is cred­i­ble based upon an appeal to Egypt­ian cen­sus­es. Ray­mond E. Brown on the oth­er hand has the fol­low­ing to say regard­ing this claim :

In Roman cen­sus­es there is no clear evi­dence of a prac­tise of going to an ances­tral city to be enrolled ; the oft-cit­ed exam­ples from Egypt are not the same as what Luke describes…9

He goes on to say :

…of the house and lin­eage of David. Here, as in 1:27, Luke makes ref­er­ence to Joseph as a Davi­did, a lin­eage affirmed else­where in the two genealo­gies of Jesus and in Matt 1:20. Is there a dif­fer­ence between house” (oikos) and lin­eage” (patria)? Some have tak­en oikos to mean that Joseph had a home in Beth­le­hem, or patria to mean that he had prop­er­ty there. Still anoth­er sug­ges tion is that he was return­ing to his home in Beth­le­hem (“his own city” of vs. 3) after hav­ing gone to Nazareth to claim Mary his bride who lived there. These sug­ges­tions run against the ref­er­ence to Nazareth as their own city” in 2:39 and against the indi­ca­tion in 2:7 that Joseph had no place to stay in Beth­le­hem. (Thus we have here no real par­al­lel to the kata Qikian cen­sus­es in Egypt where peo­ple were reg­is­tered in the area where their home [oikia] or prop­er­ty was found ; Luke refers to a cen­sus by ances­try.) It is high­ly dubi­ous that one can press Davidic lin­eage to mean direct roy­al lin­eage, as Born­hauser, Kind­heits­ge schichte, 99, has done when he argues that, while all the Davi­dids did not have to go to Beth­le­hem, Joseph did because he was a roy­al scion. There is noth­ing in Luke’s nar­ra­tive to sug­gest that.10

Guignebert writes that :

We will not undu­ly stress the pecu­liar­i­ty of the mode of cen­sus-tak­ing implied by our text, but it is to be not­ed that it is a very strange pro­ceed­ing. The mov­ing about of men and fam­i­lies which this reck­less decree must have caused through­out the whole of the Empire, is almost beyond imag­i­na­tion, and one can­not help won­der­ing what advan­tage there could be for the Roman state in this return, for a sin­gle day, of so many scat­tered indi­vid­u­als, not to the places of their birth, but to the orig­i­nal homes of their ances­tors. For it is to be remem­bered that those of roy­al descent were not the only ones affect­ed by this fan­tas­tic ordi­nance, and many a poor man must have been hard put to it to dis­cov­er the cra­dle of his race. The sus­pi­cion, or, rather, the con­vic­tion, is borne in upon us at first sight that the edi­tor of Luke has sim­ply been look­ing for some means of bring­ing Joseph and Mary to Beth­le­hem, in order to have Jesus born there. A hagiog­ra­ph­er of his type nev­er both­ers much about com­mon sense in invent­ing the cir­cum­stances he requires. In this case, no notice is tak­en of the fact that ?the city of David ? was not the city of Mary, and that there seems to have been no neces­si­ty for her to have made such a jour­ney on the eve of her con­fine­ment. It is all out­side the plane of real­i­ty.11

In oth­er words, the author or the edi­tor of Luke had to invent the sto­ry of the cen­sus to serve a the­o­log­i­cal pur­pose, that being the birth of Jesus in Beth­le­hem. To such sto­ry­tellers, his­tor­i­cal and fac­tu­al truth hard­ly mat­ters since the main pur­pose is to relate a good sto­ry to cap­ti­vate the readers.

Prof. Bart Ehrman, who is present­ly one of the lead­ing New Tes­ta­ment tex­tu­al crit­ic and author­i­ty in the world, says the fol­low­ing regard­ing the cen­sus sto­ry of Luke :

In addi­tion to the dif­fi­cul­ties raised by a detailed com­par­i­son of the two birth nar­ra­tives found in the New Tes­ta­ment, seri­ous his­tor­i­cal prob­lems are raised by the famil­iar sto­ries found in Luke alone. Con­trary to what Luke indi­cates, his­to­ri­ans have long known from sev­er­al ancient inscrip­tions, the Roman his­to­ri­an Tac­i­tus, and the Jew­ish his­to­ri­an Jose­phus that Quirinius was not the gov­er­nor of Syr­ia until 6 C.E, ful­ly ten years after Herod the Great died. If Jesus was born dur­ing the reign of Herod, then Quirinius was not the Syr­i­an gov­er­nor. We also have no record of a world­wide cen­sus under Augus­tus, or under any emper­or at any time. More­over, a cen­sus in which every­one was to return to their ances­tral home would have been more than a bureau­crat­ic night­mare ; it would have been well nigh impos­si­ble. In Luke, Joseph is said to retum 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 ances­tors lived a thou­sand years ear­li­er ? If such a cen­sus were required in our day, where would you go ? Imag­ine the mas­sive migra­tions involved. Then imag­ine that no oth­er ancient author con­sid­ered it impor­tant enough to men­tion, even in pass­ing !12

This should cer­tain­ly give us a pause and think over the mat­ter. How could an event on such a scale not be noticed by any his­to­ri­an or writer oth­er than Luke ? Did they for­get” about it ? This seems to be an unlike­ly expla­na­tion. It is more like­ly and prob­a­ble that Luke invent­ed this his­tor­i­cal fact” in order to serve a the­o­log­i­cal pur­pose to sup­port his viewpoint.

The late Chris­t­ian schol­ar Ray­mond Brown, who is a rec­og­nized, author­i­ta­tive and world-renowned Chris­t­ian schol­ar, states that :

Luke begins his sto­ry with a ref­er­ence to a cen­sus of the whole world ordered by Augus­tus, con­duct­ed by Quirinius, and affect­ing Joseph, a Galilean inhab­i­tant of Nazareth, so that he had to go to his ances­tral city. This sup­plied the occa­sion for the birth of Jesus in Beth­le­hem about the time of the reign of Herod, king of Judea (1:5). As I point out at length in Appen­dix VII, this infor­ma­tion is dubi­ous on almost every score, despite the elab­o­rate attempts by schol­ars to defend Lucan accu­ra­cy. By way of less­er dif­fi­cul­ties we have no evi­dence of one cen­sus under Augus­tus that cov­ered the whole Empire, nor of a cen­sus require­ment that peo­ple be reg­is­tered in their ances­tral cities. While these dif­fi­cul­ties can be explained away, we can­not resolve sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly the major objec­tions, name­ly, the one and only cen­sus con­duct­ed while Quirinius was legate in Syr­ia affect­ed only Judea, not Galilee, and took place in A.D. 6 – 7, a good ten years after the death of Herod the Great. Since else­where Luke shows him­self inac­cu­rate about the dat­ing of events sur­round­ing this cen­sus, the evi­dence favors the the­o­ry that the use of the cen­sus to explain the pres­ence of Joseph and Mary at Beth­le­hem is a Lucan device based on a con­fused mem­o­ry. Luke may have had a tra­di­tion that asso­ci­at­ed the birth of Jesus with the end of a Hero­di­an reign (a dat­ing con­firmed by Matthew) and a time of polit­i­cal trou­ble. But Luke seems not to have known that, some eighty years before he wrote, there were two such trou­bled end­ings of Hero­di­an reigns, name­ly, the end of the reign of Herod the Great in 4 B.C., when Jews protest­ed against the giv­ing of Judea to Archelaus, and the end of the reign of Archelaus in A.D. 6, when Jews revolt­ed against the cen­sus imposed by Quirinius. Con­se­quent­ly he has giv­en a com­pos­ite scene as a set­ting for Jesus’ birth.13

Ray­mond Brown, who was him­self a believe­ing and prac­tis­ing Chris­t­ian, took no plea­sure in declar­ing there was a seri­ous fac­tu­al error in Luke. When­ev­er it is pos­si­ble he tries to rec­on­cile minor dis­crep­an­cies with­in Luke, how­ev­er, with all his learn­ing even he was unable to explain away” the cen­sus error with­in Luke nor declare it com­plete­ly error free.

Hence the con­sen­sus of Bible schol­ars, which includes prac­tis­ing and believe­ing Chris­t­ian schol­ars, is that Luke is not error free at least on this instance. Despite the numer­ous expla­na­tions” offerred by some Chris­t­ian apol­o­gists, these have failed to win wide accep­tance and approval by main­stream schol­ar­ship. Some con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian schol­ars, such as Bruce Met­zger, write that

It should be added, how­ev­er, that Luke?s state­ment that the cen­sus was con­duct­ed while Quirinius was gov­er­nor of Syr­ia (Luke 2:2) still remains in con­flict with what Tac­i­tus and Jose­phus report con­cern­ing the sequence of gov­er­nors of Syr­ia. In such cas­es the cau­tious his­to­ri­an will await acqui­si­tion of fur­ther infor­ma­tion which may resolve the dis­crep­an­cy.14

It should become obvi­ous to the read­ers that if the Gospels were not reli­gious lit­er­a­ture and if they were not deemed inspired” but con­sid­ered the same as any sec­u­lar lit­er­a­ture, then con­ser­v­a­tive schol­ars such as Bruce Met­zger would not have giv­en a dime or such a ben­e­fit of a doubt to them. They real­ize well that there is a seri­ous prob­lem with Luke on this mat­ter, but because it is their belief that Luke was inspired”, hence they can­not out­right admit and face real­i­ty that Luke made an error. They want to wait” until a time a bet­ter expla­na­tion, or evi­dence”, sur­faces so it could be used to vin­di­cate Luke. Oth­er con­ser­v­a­tive schol­ars, such as John Drane, argue that because Luke was care­ful and accu­rate over oth­er mat­ters, there­fore it must fol­low that he could not have erred over the mat­ter of the cen­sus under Quirinius and would have had good rea­sons to write what he did ! It is only the pre­sup­po­si­tion of Chris­t­ian mis­sion­ar­ies and apol­o­gists that the New Tes­ta­ment is God’s Word which pre­cludes them from even seri­ous­ly con­sid­er­ing such an expla­na­tion ? that Luke made an error. Take away that pre­sup­po­si­tion, and it becomes easy to see how such a mis­take could have arisen.

Ray­mond E. Brown, in his Birth of the Mes­si­ah stud­ies the prob­lem of the cen­sus in detail, expos­ing the fac­tu­al error made by Luke togeth­er with refut­ing many excus­es cooked up by a few Chris­t­ian apol­o­gists in order to explain away” the obvi­ous error in Luke. 

In Appen­dix VII he writes that :

At that time an edict went out from Cae­sar Augus­tus that a cen­sus should be tak­en of the whole world. (This was the first cen­sus under Quirinius as gov­er­nor of Syr­ia.) And so all went to be inscribed in the cen­sus, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, into Judea to the city of David which is called Beth­le­hem, because he was of the house and lin­eage of David, to have him­self inscribed in the cen­sus. (Luke 2 : 1 – 5). If this notice about the cen­sus stood by itself, there would be some prob­lems about the extent and the man­ner of reg­is­tra­tion ; but the chronol­o­gy would cause no dif­fi­cul­ty. Augus­tus reigned from 4442 B.C. to A.D. 14 ; Pub­lius Sulpi­cius Quirinius became gov­er­nor or legate of Syr­ia in A.D. 6 and con­duct­ed a cen­sus of Judea (not of Galilee) in A.D. 6 – 7. The last men­tioned date would then be implic­it­ly fixed for Luke as the year of the birth of Jesus. But the chrono­log­i­cal infor­ma­tion in ch. 2 of Luke does not stand by itself ; and when we com­pare it with oth­er chrono­log­i­cal infor­ma­tion that he has giv­en us in 1:5 and 3:1,23, there seems to be an irrec­on­cil­able con­flict. In 1:5 Luke tells us that the annun­ci­a­tion of the birth of JBap took place in the days of Herod, king of Judea.” Accord­ing to our best infor­ma­tion Herod died in March/​April 4 B.C. (Note on Matt 2:1). Accord­ing to Luke 1:36 Mary’s preg­nan­cy began some six months after Eliz­a­beth’s ; and so Jesus would have been born about fif­teen or six­teen months after the annun­ci­a­tion of JBap’s birth. This would fix the year of his birth at no lat­er than 3 B.C. and would bring Luke into an approx­i­mate cor­re­spon­dence with the infor­ma­tion in Matt 2 that Jesus was born in the last years of Herod’s reign.1 How­ev­er, such a date is ten years before Quirinius became gov­er­nor of Syr­ia and con­duct­ed the cen­sus. There are three basic approach­es in deal­ing with this con­flict. First, one may seek to rein­ter­pret the Herod chronol­o­gy of Luke 1 to agree with the Quirinius cen­sus dat­ing (A.D. 6 – 7) of Luke 2. Sec­ond, one may seek to rein­ter­pret the Quirinius cen­sus chronol­o­gy of Luke 2 to agree with the Herod dat­ing (43 B.c.) of Luke 1. Third, one may rec­og­nize that one or both of the Lucan dat­ings are con­fused, and that there is nei­ther a need nor a pos­si­bil­i­ty of rec­on­cil­ing them. Basi­cal­ly this appen­dix will come to the con­clu­sion that the third approach is the most plau­si­ble, but only after a thor­ough dis­cus­sion of sug­ges­tions made in the first and sec­ond approach­es.15

Ray­mond Brown then pro­ceeds to dis­cuss and demol­ish, one by one, many other“answers” and expla­na­tions” cooked up by apologists :

The first approach may be dealt with briefly, for the chronol­o­gy of Herod the Great’s reign is too fixed to be changed in order to match a date of A.D. 6 – 7. One inge­nious sug­ges­tion, how­ev­er, is that Luke did not mean Herod the Great but Archelaus, who is occa­sion­al­ly called Herod 2 and who ruled as king of Judea from 4 B.C. to A.D. 6. One could the­o­rize that the annun­ci­a­tion of JBap’s birth took place toward the end of Archelaus’ reign (A.D. 5 – 6) and that Jesus was born after Archelaus had been deposed and the new­ly installed Quirinius began the cen­sus (A.D. 6 – 7). Anoth­er sug­ges­tion rec­og­nizes the like­li­hood men­tioned in ? 1OD that, in join­ing the births of JBap and Jesus, Luke reflects the­ol­o­gy rather than his­to­ry. It is then pro­posed that the Herod (the Great) dat­ing of 4 – 3 B.C. is cor­rect for the birth of JBap, while the Quirinius cen­sus dat­ing of A.D. 6 – 7 is cor­rect for the birth of Jesus.3 These and oth­er sug­ges­tions which date the birth of Jesus in A.D. 6 – 7 bring Luke into con­flict with Matthew. More impor­tant­ly they con­tra­dict the remain­ing items of Lucan chrono­log­i­cal infor­ma­tion men­tioned in the first para­graph, name­ly, 3:1,23. The com­bi­na­tion of those two vers­es per­tain­ing to the begin­ning of Jesus’ min­istry indi­cates that Jesus was about thir­ty years old in the fif­teenth year of Tiberius (A.D. 27 – 28). This would agree with a birth in 4 – 3 B.C. at the time of Herod the Great, but hard­ly with a birth in A.D. 6 – 7. 4 This dif­fi­cul­ty has caused most schol­ars who wish to pre­serve Lucan accu­ra­cy to pre­fer the sec­ond approach and to seek to redate the cen­sus that Luke men­tions to an ear­li­er peri­od, har­mo­nious with the reign of Herod the Great. Much of the rest of this appen­dix will be devot­ed to the dif­fi­cul­ties encoun­tered in the sec­ond approach.16

Let us now pro­ceed to the refu­ta­tion of the sec­ond approach”:

Did Augus­tus ever issue an edict that the whole world, i.e., the Roman Empire, be enrolled in a cen­sus ? Cer­tain­ly not in the sense in which a mod­ern read­er might inter­pret the Lucan state­ment ! In the reign of Augus­tus there was no sin­gle cen­sus cov­er­ing the Empire ; and grant­ed the dif­fer­ent legal sta­tus­es of provinces and client king­doms, a sweep­ing uni­ver­sal edict seems most unlike­ly. But Luke may not have meant a sin­gle cen­sus. The long peace under Augus­tus made empire-wide poli­cies pos­si­ble, and Augus­tus was inter­est­ed in cen­sus­es for var­i­ous pur­pos­es. Dur­ing his reign there were three enu­mer­a­tions of Roman cit­i­zens for sta­tis­ti­cal pur­pos­es (28 and 8 B.C.; A.D. 13 – 14). Tax­a­tion and mil­i­tary ser­vice were the main goals for cen­sus of non-cit­i­zens in the provinces ; and we know of cen­sus­es held at dif­fer­ent times in Gaul and in Egypt. Thus, what Luke may be telling us in an over­sim­pli­fied state­ment is that the cen­sus con­duct­ed (in Judea) by Quirinius as gov­er­nor of Syr­ia was in obe­di­ence to Augus­tus’ pol­i­cy of get­ting accu­rate pop­u­la­tion sta­tis­tics for the whole Empire. Would a Roman cen­sus have sent peo­ple back to their trib­al or ances­tral homes to be enrolled, as Luke describes in the case of Joseph ? We have no clear par­al­lel for such a prac­tice. Since enroll­ment was pri­mar­i­ly for tax­a­tion pur­pos­es, the gen­er­al Roman pat­tern was to reg­is­ter peo­ple where they lived or in the near­by prin­ci­pal city of a dis­trict (the city from which the tax would be col­lect­ed). A papyrus (Lond. 904, 20f.) describes a cen­sus in Egypt in A.D. 104 where­in a tem­po­rary dweller, in order to be enrolled, had to go back to the area of his reg­u­lar domi­cile where he had a house. (Some­times this is referred to as a kata oikian cen­sus.) Obvi­ous­ly this rul­ing was moti­vat­ed by tax con­sid­er­a­tions about prop­er­ty and agri­cul­ture ; and it offers lit­tle sup­port for send­ing Joseph from Nazareth where he per­ma­nen­tIy resided (2:39) to Beth­le­hem where clear­ly he had no prop­er­ty or wealth, accord­ing to 2:7. Nev­er­the­less, one can­not rule out the pos­si­bil­i­ty that, since the Romans often adapt­ed their admin­is­tra­tion to local cir­cum­stances, a cen­sus con­duct­ed in Judea would respect the strong attach­ment of Jews to trib­al and ances­tral rela­tion­ships. Even if Luke had lit­tle his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion about how the cen­sus of Quirinius had been con­duct­ed, he lived in the Roman Empire and may have under­gone cen­sus enroll­ment him­self. It is dan­ger­ous to assume that he described a process of reg­is­tra­tion that would have been patent­ly opposed to every­thing that he and his read­ers knew. Yet, if we can­not con­firm or deny the pat­tern of enroll­ment in ances­tral cities which Luke depicts, his nar­ra­tive seems to pre­sume that the cen­sus of Quirinius affect­ed Galileans. This is not fac­tu­al for the cen­sus of A.D. 6 – 7, since at that time Galilee was not under Quirinius’ direct super­vi­sion but was a tetrar­chy ruled by Herod Antipas. And so now we must raise direct­ly the ques­tion as to whether there was an ear­li­er cen­sus by Quirinius before Galilee and Judea were ruled sep­a­rate­ly. Was Quirinius gov­er­nor (legate) of Syr­ia dur­ing or short­ly after the reign of Herod the Great, and thus around or before 4 B.C.? Draw­ing chiefly upon Jose­phus, we can put togeth­er the fol­low­ing chronol­o­gy for the legates of Syria :

    23 – 13 B.C.: M. Agrippa
    ca. 10 B.C.: M. Titius
    9 – 6 B.C.: S. Sen­tius Saturninus
    6 – 4 B.C. or lat­er : Quin­til­ius (or Quinc­til­ius) Varus
    1 B.C. to ca. A.D. 4 : Gaius Caesar
    A.D. 4 – 5 : L. Volu­sius Saturninus
    A.D. 4 to after 7 : P. Sulpi­cius Quirinius 

If Quirinius served as gov­er­nor of Syr­ia twice, once in A.D. 6 and once ear­li­er, the two pos­si­ble time slots for the ear­li­er gov­er­nor­ship would be before M. Titius (and thus before 10 B.C.) or between Quin­til­ius Varus and Gaius Cae­sar (and thus between 4 and 1 B.C.). Either pos­si­bil­i­ty could be rec­on­ciled with the Lucan infor­ma­tion. How­ev­er, from what we know of the rel­a­tive­ly well-doc­u­ment­ed career of Quirinius, it is unlike­ly that he had an ear­li­er gov­er­nor­ship at either of those peri­ods. He served as con­sul in 12 B.C. (Tac­i­tus Annals III 48). He was in Asia Minor some­time after 12 and before 6 B.C. lead­ing the legions in the war against the Homon­adens­es. He was in the Near East, specif­i­cal­ly in Syr­ia, as an advi­sor of Gaius Cae­sar for sev­er­al years before A.D. 4. But there is no men­tion of Quirinius hav­ing been legate in the near­ly twen­ty years of his career from 12 B.C. to A.D. 6. Jose­phus, who describes sev­er­al times the begin­ning of Quirinius’ legate­ship in A.D. 6, gives no hint that Quirinius had served pre­vi­ous­ly in that capacity.

Two inscrip­tions have been brought into the dis­cus­sion to lend sup­port to an ear­li­er gov­er­nor­ship by Quirinius. The first is the Lapis Tiburt­i­nus, an inscrip­tion on a mar­ble slab found in 1764 in the neigh­bor­hood of Tivoli (Tibur) and now in the Vat­i­can Museum.10 This inscrip­tion or tit­u­lus, com­posed after A.D. 14, describes an unnamed per­son who was a major offi­cial vic­to­ri­ous in war, and who twice served as legate, the sec­ond time serv­ing as legate in Syr­ia. The the­sis that this is a ref­er­ence to Quirinius is a pure guess with as many dis­senters as adherents.11 The oth­er inscrip­tion was found on a mar­ble base in Anti­och of Pisidia by W. M. Ram­say in 1912. The inscrip­tion is ded­i­cat­ed to G. Caris­tianus Fron­to a colonist of Anti­och who served as pre­fect of P. Sulpi­cius Quirinius, the chief mag­is­trate [duumvir], and as pre­fect of M. Servil­ius.” Quirinius is iden­ti­fied as a chief mag­is­trate, while Servil­ius is not ; but Ram­say argues that Quirinius and Servil­ius were of equal sta­tus, and indeed Quirinius was legate of Syr­ia at the same time that Servil­ius was Iegate of Gala­tia dur­ing the Homon­aden­sian war (before 6 B.C.). Obvi­ous­ly Ram­say’s the­o­ry goes con­sid­er­ably beyond what the inscrip­tion says. His the­sis that Quirinius served as legate of Syr­ia dur­ing the Homon­aden­sian war is high­ly dubi­ous : the war took place in the Tau­rus moun­tains, and for mil­i­tary oper­a­tions there Gala­tia was a far more prac­ti­cal base than Syr­ia. Thus nei­ther inscrip­tion lessens the dif­fi­cul­ty of prov­ing that Quirinius had an ear­li­er gov­er­nor­ship in Syr­ia dur­ing which he might have con­duct­ed a cen­sus. Indeed, even if with­out evi­dence one does posit this ear­li­er gov­er­nor­ship of Quirinius, how does one explain a Roman cen­sus of Pales­tine dur­ing the reign of Herod the Great ? A client king who paid trib­ute to Rome, Herod had his own tax­es and tax col­lec­tors ; and there is no evi­dence that the Romans col­lect­ed tax­es based on a cen­sus with­in his realm…The known cen­sus of Quirinius in A.D. 6 – 7 was con­duct­ed pre­cise­ly because Herod’s son Archelaus had been deposed, and Judea was now com­ing under direct Roman gov­ern­ment and tax­a­tion. But let me bring to the read­er’s atten­tion four con­trary indi­ca­tions that have been offered as sup­port for the the­sis that a Roman cen­sus was pos­si­ble in Herod the Great’s realm. First, Augus­tus became very dis­pleased with Herod in 8 B.C. and wrote, threat­en­ing to treat Herod no longer as a friend but as a subject…It has been sug­gest­ed that this might have led to the impo­si­tion of Roman tax­es and a Roman cen­sus. But, in point of fact, the evi­dence is that Augus­tus did not make good on his threat and with­draw his friendship.13 Sec­on­od, Josephus…mentions an oath of alle­giance to the emper­or tak­en by the Jew­ish peo­ple ca. 7 B.C., under Herod the Great’s direc­tion. But the claim that this involved an accep­tance of direct Roman tax­a­tion and a Roman cen­sus is gra­tu­itous. A vari­ant of this sug­ges­tion has been pro­posed by Bar­nett, Apographe”, who con­tends that Luke is not refer­ring to a cen­sus for the pur­pose of tax­a­tion, but to a reg­is­tra­tion or enroll­ment (NOTE on cen­sus” in 2:1) that Herod required for the pur­pose of the oath-tak­ing. Of course, there is no evi­dence of such a reg­is­tra­tion, and Bar­nett has to sup­pose that Luke 2:2 should be trans­lat­ed : This was an enroll­ment con­duct­ed before Quirinius was gov­er­nor of Syr­ia” — a trans­la­tion that makes us won­der why Luke would have men­tioned Quirinius at all. Third, Jose­phus twice makes ref­er­ence to the fact that Herod the Great remit­ted to the peo­ple part of their tax­es, and from that it is deduced that there must have been cen­sus records. In fact, how­ev­er, it proves only the exis­tence of records, not of a cen­sus, much less of a Roman cen­sus. Fourth, an instance of Roman tax­a­tion of a client king­dom has been point­ed to in the nar­ra­tive of Tac­i­tus, Annals V1 41, where ca. A.D. 36 Prince Archelaus the Younger con­duct­ed a cen­sus accord­ing to the Roman cus­tom among the Cietae who were his sub­jects in the Cili­cian sec­tion of Cap­pado­cia. But the pas­sage does not say that the Romans imposed this cen­sus on Archelaus or his sub­jects. More­over, the impo­si­tion of the tax­es was bit­ter­ly resent­ed by the Cietae and led to a revolt. The impo­si­tion of a Roman cen­sus and Roman tax in the realm of Herod the Great should have pro­duced exact­ly the same result ; so the silence of Jose­phus, not only about such a cen­sus and tax under Herod, but also about a revolt or protest against Rome over such a prac­tice, is an elo­quent argu­ment that there was no Roman cen­sus of Pales­tine before the cen­sus under Quirinius in A.D. 6 – 7 — an event, with its con­comi­tant revolt, care­ful­ly described by Jose­phus. Let us con­sid­er for a moment Jose­phus’ descrip­tion of the Quirinius cen­sus. Judea was reduced from the posi­tion of an Hero­di­an tetrar­chy and became a Roman province annexed to Syr­ia in A.D. 6 (759 A.U.C.); and Josephus…reports that Quirinius, who had been dis­patched by Augus­tus to become legate of Syr­ia, vis­it­ed Judea in order to make an assess­ment of the prop­er­ty of the Jews and to liq­ui­date the estate of Archelaus.” At first the Jews were shocked to hear of the reg­is­tra­tion of prop­er­ty, but most of them yield­ed at the inter­ces­sion of the high priest. How­ev­er, Judas the Galilean led a rebel­lion, becom­ing the founder of the nation­al­is­tic Zealot movement…Certainly the Jose­phus nar­ra­tive would not lead us to sus­pect that the Jews were pre­vi­ous­ly accus­tomed to Roman cen­sus and tax­a­tion ! In speak­ing of the first cen­sus under Quirinius”, sure­ly Luke is refer­ring to this well known (and even noto­ri­ous) cen­sus of A.D. 67,16 a cen­sus to which he again refers in Acts 5:37.17

We note how Ray­mond Brown attempts to explain away and rec­on­cile some minor prob­lems with­in the Lucan nar­ra­tive, but that he is unable to be as recep­tive as he would like to be towards the alleged cen­sus under Quirinius since the avail­able data stands square­ly against it. 

Ray­mond Brown then pro­ceeds to make men­tion of the final efforts” to save the account in Luke from discrepancy :

Before I pass a gen­er­al judg­ment on the his­toric­i­ty of Luke 2:1 – 5, let me men­tion some final efforts to save Lucan accu­ra­cy. It has been pro­posed that the present read­ing of Luke 2:2 is a mis­take or tex­tu­al cor­rup­tion and that we should read under Sat­urn­i­nus as gov­er­nor of Syr­ia.” (I did not men­tion this as a tex­tu­al vari­ant in the NOTE on 2:2, for there is no man­u­script evi­dence that sup­ports it.) Since Sat­urn­i­nus 17 was gov­er­nor in the peri­od 9 – 6 B.C., this would at least syn­chro­nize the cen­sus with the reign of Herod the Great, although it still labors under the lack of evi­dence for a Roman cen­sus dur­ing that reign. The sup­port for iden­ti­fy­ing Sat­urn­i­nus as the cen­sus tak­er is a pas­sage in Ter­tul­lian, Adver­sus Mar­cion IV xix 10 : At that time there were cen­sus­es that had been tak­en in Judea under Augus­tus by Sen­tius Sat­urn­i­nus, in which they might have enquired about Jesus’ ances­try.” The fact that Ter­tul­lian speaks of cen­sus­es (plur­al) is often over­looked, 18 and it is assumed that he was refer­ring to the cen­sus in Luke 2:1 – 5. Some have thought that he had a supe­ri­or text of 2:2 which read Sat­urn­i­nus”; oth­ers have thought that he was cor­rect­ing the Quirinius” read­ing in Luke after con­sult­ing Roman cen­sus records. How­ev­er, there is no real evi­dence that Ter­tul­lian had the Lucan cen­sus in mind. The pas­sage occurs as part of an argu­ment against the Docetists ; and Ter­tul­lian wants to show that Luke 8:19 – 21 (“My moth­er and my broth­er are those who hear the word of God and do it”) does not mean Jesus denied hav­ing any human ances­try. Accord­ing­ly, Ter­tul­lian points to the cen­sus records as a pos­si­ble way of prov­ing such ances­try. Prob­a­bly he is assum­ing that such records exist­ed for Pales­tine, even as they exist­ed in Ter­tul­lian’s own time. This is not just a guess about Ter­tul­lian’s rea­son­ing, for we have evi­dence of his assump­tions in rela­tion to the death of Jesus. In the Apolo­geticum, v 2 and xxi 24, he tells us that Pilate must have report­ed the facts about the cru­ci­fix­ion to Tiberius who com­mu­ni­cat­ed them to the Sen­ate, where there were debates about the divin­i­ty of Christ, in which Tiberius favored Christ ! Anoth­er inge­nious attempt to res­cue Luke is to pro­pose that the cen­sus he men­tions was a two-step process‑a cen­sus begun under Sat­urn­i­nus or Varus (thus close to Herod’s reign), but com­plet­ed under Quirinius. How­ev­er, Luke does not say that the cen­sus was com­plet­ed under Quirinius, but that it took place (egene­to) under Quirinius. Stauf­fer 20 has recent­ly revived a form of the two-step the­sis, by dis­tin­guish­ing two terms : (a) the apographe (lit­er­al­ly, reg­is­tra­tion”) of tax­able prop­er­ty and per­sons, entail­ing an appear­ance at the reg­istry office ; and (b) the apo­time­sis (lit­er­al­ly, eval­u­a­tion”) or actu­al tax assess­ment on the basis of the reg­is­tra­tion. Accord­ing to Stauf­fer, Luke is describ­ing the apographe (using that word), which was the first step in the Pales­tin­ian cen­sus and took place under Sat­urn­i­nus ca. 7 B.C., when Herod was still alive. It was then that Jesus was born. Jose­phus describes the apo­time­sis or sec­ond step in the cen­sus which took place under Quirinius in A.D. 6 – 7. A four­teen-year process in a cen­sus is not unusu­al, Stauf­fer argues, since the cen­sus in Gaul took forty years. But, besides the dif­fi­cul­ty of prov­ing even a Roman apographe in Herod’s reign, Stauf­fer­’s the­sis faces major ter­mi­no­log­i­cal obsta­cles. Luke speaks of an apographe under Quirinius, not of an apo­time­sis under Quirinius ; and Jose­phus uses both terms to describe the cen­sus of Quirinius, so that nei­ther ancient author sup­ports Stauf­fer­’s dis­tinc­tion. Anoth­er form of the two-step process is the pro­pos­al that there was a Jew­ish cen­sus con­duct­ed by the priests in Herod’s time, and that Luke has con­fused this with the Roman cen­sus ten to fif­teen years lat­er. But this is tan­ta­mount to a recog­ni­tion that Luke was inac­cu­rate.18

The con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian schol­ar Don­ald Guthrie also refers to Stauffer?s defense in his intro­duc­tion to the Gospels and Acts, con­ced­ing in a foot­note that

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Stauf­fer cites no spe­cif­ic sup­port­ing evi­dence, although if his the­o­ry is true it would remove all the dif­fi­cul­ties.19

Final­ly, the unde­ni­able con­clu­sion is that :

When all is eval­u­at­ed, the weight of the evi­dence is strong­ly against the pos­si­bil­i­ty of rec­on­cil­ing the infor­ma­tion in Luke 1 and Luke 2. There is no seri­ous rea­son to believe that there was a Roman cen­sus of Pales­tine under Quirinius dur­ing the reign of Herod the Great. (Indeed, as regards the non-bib­li­cal evi­dence,” it is doubt­ful that any­one would have even thought about an ear­li­er cen­sus if he were not try­ing to defend Lucan accu­ra­cy.) The infor­ma­tion in Luke 1 may be cor­rect : Jesus may indeed have been born dur­ing or at the end of the reign of Herod the Great. But Luke seems to be inac­cu­rate in asso­ci­at­ing that birth with the one and only cen­sus of Judea (not of Galilee) con­duct­ed in A.D. 6 – 7 under Quirinius.…20

Defend­ers of Luke adopt their posi­tion because they believe that Luke was inspired” by the Holy Ghost and there­fore could not have erred over any mat­ter imag­in­able. There­fore they can­not bring them­selves to accept the fact that at least on one occa­sion Luke was seri­ous­ly wrong and erro­neous. It is only the pre­sup­po­si­tion of Chris­t­ian mis­sion­ar­ies and apol­o­gists that the New Tes­ta­ment is God’s Word which pre­cludes them from even seri­ous­ly con­sid­er­ing such an expla­na­tion. Take away that pre­sup­po­si­tion, and it becomes easy to see how such a mis­take could have arisen.

Luke and the Asso­ci­a­tion of Fiction

Now that it is clear that a world­wide cen­sus” under Quirinius had nev­er exist­ed, we would like to know why the author of Luke had invent­ed this fic­tion ? The answer is because this asso­ci­a­tion enables the expla­na­tion of why Joseph and Mary were in the city of Beth­le­hem when Jesus was born.

…even if Luke was inac­cu­rate on this dat­ing of the cen­sus of Quirinius and mis­tak­en­ly thought that it could have been asso­ci­at­ed with the birth of Jesus, we must rec­og­nize that the asso­ci­a­tion enabled Luke to explain why Joseph and Mary were in Beth­le­hem when the child was born. It also served admirably the inter­ests of Lucan the­ol­o­gy, giv­ing the nativ­i­ty a back­drop of world and Israelite his­to­ry.21

This is fur­ther elu­ci­dat­ed as follows :

It is easy to sym­pa­thize with the third Gospeller’s plight. He had not been present at the ear­li­est days of Jesus’s mis­sion, as he admits in his open­ing sen­tence. He was writ­ing from what he had heard per­haps thir­ty years or so after Jesus’s death, although many schol­ars would date his books even lat­er. He knew that Joseph and Mary were peo­ple of Nazareth, but there were Chris­tians who said that Jesus had been born in Beth­le­hem, accord­ing to the scrip­ture. Why would a man from Nazareth be vis­it­ing Beth­le­hem with his heav­i­ly preg­nant wife ? Some­body, per­haps the Gospeller him­self, assumed that the cause was that uni­ver­sal cul­prit, per­son­al tax. The cen­sus of Quirinius was a land­mark in Jew­ish his­to­ry, and so the Gospel attached the birth in Beth­le­hem to this well-known fact. The idea had its advan­tages : the Chris­t­ian sto­ry could begin with Joseph and Mary meek­ly obey­ing the orders of Roman gov­ern­ment. This ori­gin showed the true nature of a reli­gion which peo­ple in the Roman Empire had since mis­un­der­stood as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment. The decree, the Gospeller assumed, was not just the edict of a local gov­er­nor : it was the world­wide decree of the Caeser him­self, an exag­ger­a­tion which was not out of keep­ing with his mis­use of words like all’ or every­where’ at oth­er points in his books. He was writ­ing for a high­ly placed Gen­tile, Theophilus, in the Roman world. It was good to begin with con­nec­tions between his sto­ry and Roman gov­ern­ment ; a high­er truth was served by an impos­si­ble fic­tion.22

In oth­er words, the unknown authors of the Gospels were in the bad habit of cre­at­ing fic­tion sole­ly for the inter­est of sus­tain­ing their unique inter­pre­ta­tions of Jesus’ birth. Why then should we trust any­thing with­in the Gospels when we know that their authors had freely invent­ed and trans­posed facts”, fig­ures” and sto­ries for their per­son­al rea­sons mere­ly to sup­port” their respec­tive theology ?

Luke had invent­ed the fic­tion of the cen­sus of Quirinius in order to explain” why Joseph and Mary were in Beth­le­hem. Can we trust such writ­ers who con­coct and invent sto­ries and facts in such a man­ner ? How do we dis­tin­guish between the actu­al his­tor­i­cal facts and pure fic­tions with­in the Gospels since they con­tain a mix­ture of both ? 

Cer­tain­ly they can­not be trust­ed blind­ly or with too much con­fi­dence know­ing the fact their authors were not quite con­cerned with his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy, their goals were to mold and invent sto­ries for the­o­log­i­cal reasons.

That the gospels are a prod­uct of fact and fic­tions is admit­ted by many con­ser­v­a­tive schol­ars as well, such as the Evan­gel­i­cal schol­ar John Drane, who writes that

…they [New Tes­ta­ment gospels] are cer­tain­ly care­ful­ly craft­ed nar­ra­tives aim­ing to tell the sto­ry of Jesus’ life and teach­ing. As such, they are not to be judged by the stan­dards of sci­en­tif­ic enquiry, but accord­ing to the prac­tis­es of sto­ry telling, in which the truth’ of a nar­ra­tive is to be judged as a whole on its own terms, rather than in rela­tion to notions of truth and false­hood drawn from some oth­er sphere of human endeav­our. The ear­ly Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties clear­ly had no prob­lem in accept­ing that with­in the gospel tra­di­tions there would be a sub­tile com­bi­na­tion of fac­tu­al and fic­tion­al ele­ments. Had they not done so, they would cer­tain­ly not have tol­er­at­ed the exis­tence of four gospels which, for all their sim­i­lar­i­ties, are suf­fi­cient­ly dif­fer­ent from one anoth­er as to defy all attempts at pro­duc­ing one har­mo­nized, fac­tu­al ver­sion of the life and teach­ings of Jesus from them. They knew that both artists and his­to­ri­ans oper­ate under sim­i­lar con­straints as they seek to bal­ance fact with fic­tion­al elab­o­ra­tion, and that the telling of a good story…depends on the coher­ent com­bi­na­tion of both these ele­ments. While all four gospels con­tain fac­tu­al fic­tive ele­ments, the fourth gospel appears to have a greater pre­pon­drance of the lat­ter.23

The con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian schol­ar, Rev. Arthur W. Wain­wright, on the oth­er hand wrote :

It is cer­tain­ly obvi­ous that Matthew and Luke have some­times mod­i­fied what they found in Mark, and Mark him­self may have mod­i­fied some of the tra­di­tions which he received. Nev­er­the­less, there is a strong basis of truth in the Syn­op­tic Gospels, although an ele­ment of human error may have entered into the trans­mis­sion of the say­ings and nar­ra­tives.24

The Anchor Bible Dic­tio­nary also dis­cuss­es a num­ber of solu­tions pro­posed by apol­o­gists to explain Luke’s error, duly dis­pos­ing them all as unconvincing :

Luke wrote (2:1 – 2), It hap­pened in those days that a decree went out from Cae­sar Augus­tus that the whole world be reg­is­tered for a tax, the decree first went out while Cyre­nius was gov­er­nor of Syr­ia.” Cyre­nius is the Greek form of the name Quirinius (PW 4 : 823), and the fact that he held a cen­sus dur­ing his term in office is con­firmed by an inscrip­tion from Apamea (mod­ern Alep­po) in Syr­ia as well as by Jose­phus. Although it was already rec­og­nized in antiq­ui­ty that there was a prob­lem with Luke’s chronol­o­gy — Ter­tul­lian knew that Sen­tius Sat­urn­i­nus was gov­er­nor of Syr­ia at the end of Herod’s life (Adv. Marc. 4.19)-a num­ber of efforts have nev­er­the­less been made by mod­ern schol­ars to rec­on­cile this state­ment with Luke’s belief that Herod was still alive when the cen­sus was held. The most force­ful argu­ment has been that Quirinius must have been gov­er­nor twice and that he must have held two cen­sus­es. It is based upon the con­tention that Quirinius is the offi­cer men­tioned on an inscrip­tion from Tibur which con­tains part of the career of a sen­a­tor in the reign of Augustus.

This inscrip­tion does not, how­ev­er, pre­serve the name of the man it com­mem­o­rates, and, indeed, it pre­serves only part of the career. The sur­viv­ing sec­tion runs, “… king, which he brought under the con­trol of Cae­sar Augus­tus and the Roman peo­ple, the sen­ate decreed two days of thanks­giv­ing to the immor­tal gods because of the deeds which he had suc­cess­ful­ly accom­plished ; as pro­con­sul he obtained the province of Asia and, serv­ing again as a legate of the divine Augus­tus with pro-prae­to­ri­an pow­er he obtained the province of Syr­ia and Phoeni­cia …” (ILS 918). The Latin text of the phrase, “… serv­ing again (iterum) as legate … ‚” is lega­tus pr. pr. divi Augusti iterum Syr­i­am et Phoeni­cen opt­i­nu­it. Many schol­ars have want­ed to trans­late this as serv­ing as legate of the divine Augus­tus with pro-prae­to­ri­an pow­er he obtained the province of Syr­ia and Phoeni­cia again (iterum),” tak­ing iterum with opt­i­nu­it rather than with the words which pro­ceed­ed it. This has enabled them to claim that this offi­cial gov­erned Syr­ia twice, and that he thus must be Quirinius. Aside from an obvi­ous cir­cu­lar­i­ty, the most seri­ous objec­tion to this argu­ment is that this is not the prop­er way to read the Latin. In nor­mal Latin iterum is under­stood with the words that pre­cede it. There is no rea­son to trans­late it any oth­er way here, and the phrase should be tak­en as a ref­er­ence to the fact that the man in ques­tion had held more than one province as a legate of Augus­tus (Syme 1973 : 592 – 93).

A great num­ber of oth­er argu­ments have been adduced at one time or anoth­er to rec­on­cile Luke’s nar­ra­tive with the facts of Roman his­to­ry. All of them fail to answer four oth­er basic objec­tions to the his­toric­i­ty of Luke’s state­ment (HJP 399 – 427). These are :

1. There is no oth­er evi­dence for an empire-wide cen­sus in the reign of Augustus.
2. In a Roman cen­sus Joseph would not have been required to trav­el to Beth­le­hem, and he would not have been required to bring Mary with him.
3. A Roman cen­sus could not have been car­ried out in Herod’s king­dom while Herod was alive.
4. Jose­phus refers to the cen­sus of Quirinius in a.d. 67 as some­thing that was with­out prece­dent in the region.25

The Anchor Bible has no choice but to con­clude that :

[i]n the face of these objec­tions, it is impos­si­ble to defend Luke’s dat­ing of the Nativ­i­ty. The eas­i­est expla­na­tion for his error is that he wished to pro­vide a syn­chro­nism between the birth of Christ and a famous event and so picked upon the cen­sus of Quirinius, which caused a great stir through­out the region, as Jose­phus makes plain.26


Accord­ing to Matthew, Jesus should be born (between 6 and 4 B.C.) dur­ing the reign of the great Herod, who died in 4 B.C.; the cen­sus which accord­ing to Luke, oblig­ed the par­ents to trav­el to Beth­le­hem, was exe­cut­ed by Quirinius, who accord­ing to the pre­cise indi­ca­tions of Flav­ius Jose­phus, the Jew­ish his­to­ri­an, became procu­ra­tor of Syr­ia in 7 A.D., i.e. 11 — 12 years lat­er. Hence :

The scale of the Gospel’s error is now clear. The first cen­sus did occur under Quirinius, but it belonged in AD 6 when Herod the Great was long dead ; it was a local cen­sus in Roman Judaea and there was no decree from Carsar Augus­tus to all the world ; in AD 6 Joseph of Nazareth would not have reg­is­tered at Beth­le­hem : as a Galilaean he was not under direct Roman rule and was exempt from Judaea’s reg­is­tra­tion ; his wife had no legal need to leave home. Luke’s sto­ry is his­tor­i­cal­ly impos­si­ble and inter­nal­ly inco­her­ent. It clash­es with his own date for the Annun­ci­a­tion (which he places under Herod) and with Matthew’s long sto­ry of the Nativ­i­ty which also pre­sup­pos­es Herod the Great as king. It is, there­fore, false.27

The above con­clu­sion of this his­tor­i­cal dis­crep­an­cy with­in the Gospel of Luke is not entire­ly incon­sis­tent with the over­all pic­ture of Luke as a his­to­ri­an, name­ly that

Luke’s inten­tion to write an order­ly account” (1:3) does not imply that he gives us exact his­to­ry or chronology…Thus, if one wish­es to use the state­ments in the Lucan Pro­logue to make pre­judg­ments about the amount of his­tor­i­cal pre­ci­sion one can expect in the infan­cy nar­ra­tive, one must first inter­pret the Pro­logue in the light of Luke’s pro­ce­dure in the body of Luke/​Acts — a pro­ce­dure that gives evi­dence of con­sid­er­able free­dom of com­po­si­tion, occa­sion­al his­tor­i­cal inex­ac­ti­tudes, and a pri­ma­ry inter­est in the log­i­cal rather than the chrono­log­i­cal.28

With the evi­dence we have shown above, it is clear that where the world­wide cen­sus” of Quirinius is con­cerned, it is a his­tor­i­cal error that inevitably deals a heavy blow to the case of the Bible inerran­cy” and its claim to be the Word of God’. No doubt that the mis­sion­ar­ies would have to grap­ple with this prob­lem and attempt at a repack­age” in order to sell their inerrant” Book to the Mus­lim masses. 

For­tu­nate­ly, it will take an insur­mount­able effort to con­vince the edu­cat­ed Mus­lim of their pro­pa­gan­da, and an edu­ca­tion is some­thing that we all know the mis­sion­ar­ies clear­ly lack !

And only God knows best.Endmark

Cite Icon Cite This As : 
  1. M. F. Wiles, Chap­ter 14 : Ori­gen As Bib­li­cal Schol­ar, in P. R Ack­royd and C. F. Evans (eds), The Cam­bridge His­to­ry of the Bible : From the Begin­nings to Jerome, Vol. 1 (Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1970), p. 463[]
  2. Denis McBride, The Gospel of Luke : A Reflec­tive Com­men­tary (Domini­can Pub­li­ca­tions Dublin, 1982), pp. 36 – 37[]
  3. Ran­del Helms, Gospel Fic­tions, pp. 59 – 60[]
  4. Robin Lane Fox, The Unau­tho­rized Ver­sion : Truth and Fic­tion In The Bible (Pen­guin Books Ltd, 1991), pp. 30 – 31[]
  5. Luke 2, New Amer­i­can Bible, Unit­ed States Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bish­ops [Online Doc­u­ment][]
  6. Don­ald Guthrie, B.D., M. Th., New Tes­ta­ment Intro­duc­tion. The Gospels and Acts (Inter-Var­si­ty Press, 1966) p. 87[]
  7. Lee Mar­tin Mc Don­ald and Stan­ley E. Porter, Ear­ly Chris­tian­i­ty and Its Sacred Lit­er­a­ture(Hen­drick­son Pub­lish­ers, Inc., 2000), pp. 120 – 121[]
  8. ibid.[]
  9. Ray­mond E. Brown, The Birth Of The Mes­si­ah (Cas­sell & Col­lier Macmil­lan Pub­lish­ers Ltd., 1977), p. 396][]
  10. ibid.[]
  11. Charles Guignebert, Jesus, ET by S. H. Hooke, (Uni­ver­si­ty Books, NY 1956), p. 99[]
  12. Bart D. Ehrman, The New Tes­ta­ment : A His­tor­i­cal Intro­duc­tion to the Ear­ly Chris­t­ian Writ­ings (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2000), p. 109[]
  13. Ray­mond E. Brown, Op. Cit., pp. 412 – 413[]
  14. Bruce M. Met­zger, The New Tes­ta­ment : Its Back­ground, Growth and Con­tent (Abing­don Press Nashville, 1985) p. 107[]
  15. Ray­mond E. Brown, Op. Cit., pp. 547 – 548[]
  16. ibid., pp. 548[]
  17. ibid., pp. 548 – 553[]
  18. ibid., pp. 553 – 554[]
  19. Don­ald Guthrie, op. cit., p. 167[]
  20. Ray­mond E. Brown, op. cit., p. 554[]
  21. ibid., pp. 554 – 555[]
  22. Robin Lane Fox, op. cit., p. 32[]
  23. John Drane, Intro­duc­ing the New Tes­ta­ment (Lion Pub­lish­ing Plc, 1999) pp. 210 – 211[]
  24. Rev. Arthur W. Wain­wright, A Guide to the New Tes­ta­ment (The FPWorth Press, 1965), p. 30[]
  25. Freed­man, David Noël, ed., The Anchor Bible Dic­tio­nary (New York:Doubleday) 1997, 1992[]
  26. ibid.[]
  27. Robin Lane Fox, op. cit., pp. 30 – 31[]
  28. Ray­mond E. Brown, op. cit., p. 239[]

1 Comment

  1. You argued your case with such admirable skep­ti­cism that I thought you were an athe­ist : it was­n’t until the very end that I, a non-believ­er, realised that you were in fact a Mus­lim — it’s to your credit.

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