Believe on the Evidence: "Carefully Investigated"
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.
With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
From the example of Paul’s trial before Gallio (Acts 18:12-17) it can be seen that the Bible has a historical accuracy that time and new discoveries continue to confirm. This historicity can provide great confidence in accepting the message of God’s love for mankind, but the Bible was not written to be a history but rather a recounting of God’s relationship with his people. One might ask: What happens when the historical record doesn’t appear to line up with the Biblical narrative?
Luke begins his gospel by stating that, while others have written accounts of the life of Jesus, they were relying on “eyewitnesses and servants of the word”, but he himself had “carefully investigated everything”. We can infer from this statement that Luke has checked not only the relevant facts about Jesus but the historical background of the events in his life.
Luke gives us range of historical and geographical details that have remarkable precision and accuracy:
The joint high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas (Luke 3:2, Acts 4:6; Josephus tells us that Annas (Ananus) was deposed as high priest by the Roman governor and Caiaphas later appointed to replace him, but the Jews still recognized Annas as high priest)
After his resurrection, Jesus appears on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13; Luke tells us that Emmaus was 60 stadia (7 miles) from Jerusalem, a figure confirmed by Josephus)
The death of King Herod Agrippa I, the last King of the Jews, 44 AD (Acts 12:19-23; Luke tells us that the people of Caesarea Maritime proclaimed him a god, which he did not deny, and so God struck him down and he died, “eaten by worms”. Josephus confirms this story, adding that Agrippa died 5 days after a “severe pain arose in his belly”)
The title of the city officials in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5-9; in Greek the term for a “city official” is Anglicized as politarch, but this title does not appear anywhere else in ancient sources. It was suggested by critics that Luke made the term up, but its accuracy was confirmed with the discovery of an inscription in Thessalonica in the 19th century)
An impressive list (abbreviated here for space) of persons, titles, dates and places that aligns uncannily with the external historical, archeological and geographical sources.
So how is it, as critics allege, that Luke gets the year of Jesus’ birth wrong? If one enters “mistakes in gospel of Luke” into any internet search engine, the return will show millions of articles and references listing purported contradictions and errors in Luke and Acts. Many of these sources will reference that Luke places the birth of Jesus and a census by Quirinius at the same time (see Luke 2:1-2), which is problematic.
Matthew (2:1) tells us that Jesus was born before the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, while Josephus tells us that the census by Quirinius, the Roman governor of Syria, was made between 6-7 AD. Did Luke really get the birth of Jesus wrong by ten or more years?
An analysis of the context of Luke’s claim in Luke 2:1-2 and a background to this supposed discrepancy will show that Luke was correct, but other motives are behind this controversy.
The Birth of Jesus in Luke and in Matthew
To provide the necessary context for Luke’s chronology, one has to start first with the timing for Jesus birth. In Luke 2:4-7, Jesus is born in Bethlehem after his parents have gone there to register for the census decreed by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1). Jesus birth occurs about six months after the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57) according to the visit of his mother Mary to her relative Elizabeth, John’s mother, in Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy. In turn, the start of Elizabeth’s pregnancy occurs after her husband Zechariah has a vision in the temple telling him that he will have a son that he will name John (Luke 1:11-13). John has this vision in “the time of Herod king of Judea” (Luke 1:5).
From this chronology it can be concluded that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (37 BC – 4 BC), which coincides with the timing given in Matthew 2:1. Josephus tells us that Herod died shortly after a lunar eclipse but before Passover, which astronomers calculate to have occurred in March, 4 BC.
The birth of Jesus can be bracketed by this date and the date of the “census… of the entire Roman world” (Luke 2:1) as ordered by Augustus. From the text of Res Gestae Divi Augusti (The Deeds of the Divine Augustus), inscribed on a monument in Ankara, Turkey to provide a written legacy of Augustus’ deeds, we learn of these imperial censuses. In Part II, Section 8, Augustus writes that he “made a census of the people” during “the consulship of Gaius Censorinus and Gaius Asinius”, a time which is known from other records to be 8 BC. Given that some time would elapse between the order of the census and the registration of all the people around the Roman Empire, it can be estimated that Jesus was born between these two dates in about 6 BC.
This is all well, but what makes Luke 2:1-2 controversial is Luke’s juxtaposition of the census ordered by Augustus and another that happened while Quirinius was governor of Syria:
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.)
The sentence in Luke 2:2 is set in parentheses in some English translations, such as the New International Version and the King James Bible, indicating Luke 2:2 is added to distinguish the lustrum of Augustus with a census by Quirinius. Some translations are footnoted that the phrase “the first census of Quirinius” can also be translated as “before the census of Quirinius”, which may provide more clarity distinguishing these two censuses.
As a note, the punctuation and variant wordings that appear in modern language translations do not appear in the original koine Greek of the New Testament. These should all be approached with caution.
In any case, Luke adds verse 2:2 to distinguish between the census of Augustus and another census by Quirinius. We can speculate that this was done because a census by Quirinius happened years after that ordered by Augustus and would have been better known to Luke’s reader, Theophilus and his contemporaries. The reason it might be better known requires some historical context.
The Census of Quirinius and the Rise of Jewish Nationalism
Quirinius, as gleaned from ancient sources like Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, and others, was born Publius Sulpicius Quirinius near Rome around 41 BC and like Gallio was another Roman leader with a spectacular rise in politics. He held a progression of roles from senator, duumvir and consul, but his fame was established by a series of military commands including being appointed legate (military governor) of Syria in 4 AD.
This appointment occurred shortly after the banishment of Herod Archelaus, the Ethnarch (ruler of the people) of Judea and son of Herod the Great, because of mismanagement of his territory of Judea, Samaria and Idumea. While this area would be consolidated later as the Province of Judea under a Roman procurator, it first was overseen by Quirinius who instituted a census to establish a new tax basis for the province during 6-7 AD.
At first, the Jewish leaders opposed this census, recognizing that they would have a non-Jewish ruler (no matter how non-Jewish Archelaus may have behaved) who would appoint the high priest and oversee the Temple and its environs. With persuasion the Jewish leaders submitted, but then began a series of revolts by a number of messianic figures to throw off the pagan rulers and establish an independent Jewish kingdom, much like the earlier Hasmoneans had done against the Seleucids. This was the beginning of the Zealots, who fought for Jewish liberty, and the Sicarii (“The Daggermen”), who assassinated Jews they considered apostate.
One of the first of these “messiahs” was Judas the Galilean, or Judas of Gamala, who in 6 AD led a terrorist group that discouraged registration for Quirinius’ census and punished those Jews who did register. Josephus tells us that Judas’ sons, James and Simon, were executed by the Roman governor Tiberius Julius Alexander in 46 AD for their insurrectionist activities.
Judas’ grandson, Menahem ben Judah, was one of the leaders of the insurrection in 66 AD that became the Jewish War. He captured the Roman fortress of Masada and slaughtered the garrison of 700 legionaries. He and his cousin Eleazar ben Ya'ir attacked the Antonia fortress in Jerusalem (where Paul was held after his arrest on the Temple grounds (Acts 21:27-36)). This unleashed the fury of the Roman army, who besieged Jerusalem, massacred the Jews, and destroyed the Temple in 70 AD. After Menahem’s death, Eleazar returned to Masada and fought to the last with his men against a vengeful Roman army. Even today the siege of Masada is commemorated whenever a soldier takes the oath to join the Israeli Defense Force.
In the 100 years before Eleazar there were many messianic figures who gathered followers, proclaimed independence and were subsequently killed. Which is why Luke makes a distinction between the census of Augustus and that of Quirinius. The collective national trauma of violence brought on by various “messiahs” even colored the public response to Jesus, who also was a Galilean and claimed to be the King of the Jews, and promised spiritual freedom to his followers.
That the census of Quirinius was so prominent in the minds of the Jews is shown in Acts 5. The apostles have escaped prison and return to preaching, causing the Sanhedrin to consider death sentences for them. The famous rabbi Gamaliel cautions the Jewish leaders to be patient, as the followers of previous “messiahs” ultimately abandoned their chosen ones after they were killed:
But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
Gamaliel’s statement “Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census” demonstrates that the census of Quirinius was so important in the history of the Jewish nation that it needed no qualification. The older census of Augustus was perhaps not even within the memories of Gamaliel’s hearers, as he likely gave his advice before 40 AD, perhaps only 30 years after the census of Quirinius.
Gamaliel, in the event, was proven right; the Jesus Movement flourished in spite of persecution. The damage of Jewish terrorism also continued in the psyches of Jews and Romans. When Paul is attacked by the Jews on the temple grounds and then arrested by the Romans, about 57 AD, he asks to speak to the Roman commander:
As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, “May I say something to you?”
“Do you speak Greek?” he replied. “Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the wilderness some time ago?”
The commander’s association of the unrest in the temple with a previous terrorist incident gives us a hint at how persistent the fear of terrorism remained. Josephus tells us that this Egyptian promised his followers that he would cause the walls of Jerusalem to fall, such that they could seize the city, but the forces of the procurator Felix attacked them and killed many. The Egyptian escaped with some of his followers, and the rest dispersed.
The Quirinius Controversy and the Rise of Biblical Higher Criticism
What we might call the “Quirinius Controversy” is well-known today, but it was not always so. The writers of the early church did not touch on the subject; it was only in the 19th century AD, with the rise of the field called higher criticism that the controversy was first raised.
Higher criticism began with the application of historical critical techniques in an attempt to establish the historical background of the Bible, offering to allow one to understand the document as its original recipients might have understood it in their time and culture. Higher criticism (now typically called historical criticism) was premised on the supposition that a traditional understanding of the Bible is inherently flawed by the worldview of believers, and a true understanding of the Bible can only be made by stripping away the ideological biases of those same believers.
As one might expect, rejecting a traditional view of the Bible as being agenda-driven, then substituting another equally agenda-driven approach, creates an atmosphere where scholars’ opinions are cast as objective truth. From seminaries to schools of theology, historical criticism (along with its companion, textual criticism, which attempts to find patterns of language and structure in the source material – more on this in a subsequent paper) became the standard model for Bible scholars, as well as their main reason for employment.
The first to raise the Quirinius Controversy in substantial detail was Emil Schürer (1844-1910). In 1873 he became Professor Extraordinarius of Theology at Universität Leipzig in Saxony, Germany, and a decade later produced his great work which was translated into English as A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. Schürer’s work provided a thorough Jewish background to the early Jesus movement.
In an excursus to the main work Schürer examines the timing of Quirinius’ appointment as legate of Syria, the conduct and execution of Roman enumerations and registrations, and the distinction between a census by Augustus and a census by Quirinius. While Schürer concludes that Luke clearly indicates that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, he questions whether Luke got the date of Quirinius’ census wrong. Schürer then delineates five objections to Luke’s narrative:
There’s no historical record of a general imperial census in the time of Augustus
Under a Roman census, Joseph would not have been obliged to travel to Bethlehem, and Mary would not have been required to accompany him
A Roman census could not have been made in Judea during the time of King Herod
Josephus makes no mention of a Roman census in Palestine in the time of Herod
A census held under Quirinius could not have occurred in the time of Herod, for Quirinius was never governor of Syria during Herod’s the lifetime
A quick glance at these objections shows each one has its basis in a logical or rhetorical fallacy stemming from a presumption that we know everything there is to know about the history or practices of ancient times. Objections 1 and 4 are arguments from silence, which may be illustrative, but of course can be disproven by subsequent discoveries (as in the case of the Gallio Inscription). Objections 2, 3 and 5 suffer from the allness fallacy; that is, that presumption that we know precisely how they did things in the ancient world, and we know that the ancients never deviated from those practices. Again, the example of Gallio and his extraordinarily rapid political promotion show us that what may have normally been the ancient practice was not always the ancient practice.
Schürer backs up his objections with a large number of references to scholarly works by other historical critics, and in several places discounts the testimony of Christian writers for the sole reason that they were Christians. To provide a point-by-point refutation of his objections, look at Objections 1 and 4 together, then Objections 2 and 3 together. Objection 5 is moot because it is not suggested here that Luke is claiming that Quirinius made two censuses. Luke is clearly referring to an earlier census by Augustus.
In Objection 1, Schürer claims that the censuses described by Augustus were only for counting the number of Roman citizens, not for any purposes of taxation or conscription. This assertion is without proof and illogical, as every census has in its purpose some intention of taxation, apportionment of representation and revenues (as the U.S. Census does), or conscription. Augustus mentions three censuses that he made (in 28 BC, 8 BC and 14 AD), and that he restarted these global censuses “after a forty-one year gap”, from 69 BC (during the Roman Republic), to 28 BC (when Augustus was Emperor). Augustus clearly meant that his census was a restoration of the regular census that existed in Republican times. During the Republic these censuses had occurred every five years, and part of that census-taking involved registering for taxation purposes.
The fact that Josephus doesn’t mention these censuses, but only that of Quirinius in 6 AD, also reveals a logical error by Schürer. Josephus mentions Quirinius’ census only because of the civil unrest it initiated. Apparently other censuses were taken in stride by the Jews, as they knew they would be taxed in any case, and so any other censuses deserved no comment from Josephus. If anything, Josephus’ silence about Augustus’ census supports the idea that census of Quirinius was only noteworthy because of the terrorism it unleashed.
Regarding Objection 2, Schürer makes this claim because the Romans did not require anyone to register at their place of birth, but only where they dwelt. Almost immediately, he undermines his argument by stating “In a Roman census the landed property had to be registered for taxation in the commune in whose territory it lay”. If, as Luke tells us, Joseph travelled to Bethlehem because he was of the house of David, it is not only possible but even probable that Joseph had property in Bethlehem, perhaps a field, which would require him to travel there.
Note also that Luke never says that Mary had to travel with Joseph, only that she did. The reason why is not hard to ascertain: it would have been apparent that Mary was close to birth, so Joseph may have taken her to Bethlehem to avoid being separated when she gave birth. When a Jewish woman would give birth to a son (see Leviticus 12), she had to wait seven days to be ceremonially clean in order for the boy to be circumcised on the eighth day. She then had to wait thirty-three days before bringing the child to be dedicated before the Lord, which would be done at the Temple as Luke describes (Luke 2:22). During this time she would not move from where she gave birth, in order not to make ceremonially impure anything with which she came into contact. It makes sense that Joseph would want this to happen in his hometown where he perhaps owned property, and only after this would they return to Galilee (Luke 2:39).
Regarding Objection 3, Schürer claims that no Roman census could have been made during the reign of Herod the Great, because Herod was king of “an independent kingdom”. Such an assertion defies common sense, and immediately after this statement, Schürer again undermines his own argument by describing how Pompey, Mark Antony and Caesar had all imposed a tribute on Herod. Some of this tribute was to pay for large Roman armies to defend Judea from the insurrections that occurred during Herod’s reign, and some was likely a cut of the substantial revenues used for Herod’s extensive building program, particularly for the Temple and its environs.
Herod’s enlargement of the Second Temple (built by Zerubbabel in 515 BC) began in about 19 BC and continued for forty-six years (John 2:20). It was the largest public works project in the ancient world, with nearly 20,000 craftsmen employed to build the retaining walls of the Temple Mount and the gates and porticos that rested above them. Every stone in Zerubbabel’s Temple was replaced and the entire edifice was raised to match the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple. When complete, the Temple environs covered thirty-five (35) acres, larger than the combination of the Acropolis in Athens and the Capitoline Hill in Rome, the two most sacred sites in pagan religion. It would attract crowds of 300-400,000 people from all over the world on the holy days.
Herod claimed that he paid for all these improvements himself, but of course all his funds came from taxation, so it would not be surprising if he employed Roman tax methods (and endured Roman scrutiny) to pay for his projects. The fact that we don’t know how he did it should not cause us to conclude that it did not involve the Roman census.
The objections of Schürer to the census of Augustus appear on the surface to be learned, authoritative and logical, but a brief examination reveals the opinionated and fallacious thinking on which much of historical criticism is built.
The census of Quirinius has long been a controversial topic used by Bible critics to challenge the historicity of Luke’s gospel. By intentional confusion of the census by Augustus with that of Quirinius, and opinions about the conduct of Roman censuses that are delivered to readers as established facts, these critics pursue their agenda to cast doubt on the truthfulness of the Bible. That which Peter said about the critics of Paul’s writings holds true:
… His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
2 Peter 3:16
The Works of Flavius Josephus, translated by William Whiston, Baker Book House, 1974.
The Deeds of the Divine Augustus, Introduction, Grammatical Notes, Historical Commentary, Facing Vocabulary. Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2000.
A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Emil Schürer, trans. John MacPherson, Sophia Taylor & Peter Christie, Capella Press, London, 2017.
All Bible references from the New International Version (NIV)