This entry is part 47 of 89 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
Luke 2:1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes. 2:2 This was the first registration, taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
We have here a well-known case of apparent problem in harmonising Luke’s data with that of external and other internal sources. The objections may be summarised as follows:-
- At the time that Augustus issued this degree, Judea was not under direct Roman control, but was a client kingdom ruled by Herod the Great. It is claimed that it would not therefore have been included in any Roman census. But it is possible that Herod ordered a local census, or that the Roman authorities intervened in this matter.
- The available evidence suggests that people were not required to return to their ancestral homes at the time of a census; rather, people registered where they lived. But it has been plausibly argued that Bethlehem was, in fact, Joseph’s own home, and that he went to Nazareth in order to be betrothed to Mary. This would explain why Matthew makes no mention of Nazareth.
- Joseph would not have been required to take Mary with him; only the male head of the family was required to register. This difficulty is resolved if the suggested resolution to point 2 above is correct.
- Josephus says that Quirinius took a census in AD 6/7 AD. Quirinius was governor of Syria from 6 to 12 AD, whereas Jesus is known to have been born before the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC (cf. Lk 1:5; Mt 2:1,15f). The governor of Syria at that time was C. Sentius Saturninus (9–6 BC) or Quinctilius Varus (6–4 BC).
Various explanations have been proposed:-
1. Some think that Luke was simply mistaken. Luke Timothy Johnson: ‘Luke’s attempt at synchronism is not entirely successful, as endless technical discussions have made clear. Herod died in 4 B.C.E., and Augustus was emperor from 27 B.C.E. to 14 C.E. So far, so good. But Quirinius was governor in Syria from 6–7 C.E., and the gap can’t be filled. Luke simply has the facts wrong.’ But it is ‘unlikely…that Luke mistakenly connected Jesus’ birth to the AD 6 census, since in Acts 5:36 he refers to this census in its proper context.’ (Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels)
2. Others think that if ancient, rather than modern, standards of historiography are applied, we can accept that two key events – Herod’s death in 4 BC and Rome’s annexation of Judea in AD 6 (leading to the census of Quirinius) – were remembered with sufficient vagueness to allow for them to be conflated within the narratives. This is the preferred view of S. Young in DJG 2nd ed. (art. ‘Birth of Jesus’). Helen Bond thinks that Luke is mistaken when he says that the census was taken of the ‘entire Roman world’, stating that it was taken only in Judea, Samaria, and Idumea (not Galilee).
3. Still others think that the ‘Herod’ referred to in Lk 1:5 is not Herod the Great but Archelaus, who was also known as Herod the Ethnarch, who reigned in AD 5-6.
4. Another school of thought proposes that Luke is referring to an earlier census that took place under Quirinius. Three inscriptions are often cited as providing supporting evidence for this. But most commentators (believing as well as sceptical) find this theory unconvincing. It is not intrinsically improbably ‘that Quirinius was involved with a census during the last years of Nero. Toward the end of his reign Herod fell out of favor with Rome (c. 8/7 B.C.). This was followed by his sons engaging in an intense struggle for the throne at a time when Herod was extremely ill. All of these factors would allow for the Roman government to take a census in his land in order to assess the situation before his death. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact year of the census, it was probably sometime between 6 and 4 B.C.’ (DJG, 1st ed.)
5. As a variation on the above, it has been suggested that Quirinius did indeed instigate the census during the time of King Herod, but was only able to complete it when he became governor of Syria some years later. (It is known that censuses could take years to complete – a census that was begun in Gaul around 6 BC took around 40 years to complete. Luke’s Greek may support this view: ‘This census became important/prominent when Quirinius was governor of Syria’.
6. The 19th-century commentator Albert Barnes refers to another possible solution, according to which, ‘the passage here means, “This was the first census of Cyrenius, governor of Syria.” It is called the first to distinguish it from one afterward taken by Cyrenius, Acts 5:37. It is said to be the census taken by Cyrenius, governor of Syria; not that he was then governor, but that it was taken by him who was afterward familiarly known as governor. Cyrenius, governor of Syria, was the name by which the man was known when Luke wrote his gospel, and it was not improper to say that the taxing was made by Cyrenius, the governor of Syria, though he might not have been actually governor for many years afterward. Thus Herodian says that “to Marcus the emperor were born several daughters and two sons,” though several of those children were born to him before he was emperor. Thus it is not improper to say that General Washington saved Braddock’s army, or was engaged in the old French war, though he was not actually made general till many years afterward. According to this Augustus sent Cyrenius, an active, enterprising man, to take the census. At that time he was a Roman senator. Afterward he was made governor of the same country, and received the title which Luke gives him.’
7. Others think that the word prōtē in Lk 2:2 should be translated ‘before’, rather than ‘first’. F.F. Bruce states that ‘the Greek of Luke 2:2 can be translated: “This enrollment (census) was before that made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Because of the construction of the sentence (why say that this was the first census, when there was no other to compare it with?), this is not an unlikely reading. In this case there is no problem, since that census of A.D. 6 is well known to historians.’ Wright (various publications) agrees. Garland thinks that the census that drove Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was instigated by Herod. Luke mentioned the later census of Quirinius as a notable historical marker. (We might add that, from the vantage point of Luke’s date of writing, the time difference between the earlier census and the later, better-known census would not be particularly significant in a culture without general use of calendars).
This is also the view of Bomberg (The Historical Reliability of the New Testament), who writes:
For a while it appeared that new archeological evidence would support a joint rule of some kind between Quirinius and another Roman appointee at an earlier date, but this has not materialized. I am now more inclined to suggest a straightforward alternative translation: “This census took place before Quirinius was governing Syria” (NIV mg). Although prōtos elsewhere in Luke always means “first,” the second most common meaning of the word is “before,” and the entire Greek clause is notoriously ambiguous because Luke did not use any articles to help make his meaning more precise. The most literal translation that is still intelligible in English is, “This census was first/ before Quirinius governing Syria” (hautē apographē prōtē egeneto hēgemoneuontos tēs Surias Kurēniou). The text certainly can mean, “This census was the first while Quirinius was governing Syria,” but one would normally expect an article before apographē and again before prōtē if that were Luke’s intention. But we could translate, “This census was before [one] when Quirinius was governor.” The census in AD 6 under Quirinius was particularly infamous because it provoked the failed rebellion by Judas the Galilean. So it would be natural for a biographer or historian to refer to an earlier census with reference to the later, much better-remembered one.
Nolland states: ‘the governorship of Quirinius was an important turning point in Judean history, marking as it did the annexation of Judea, which was made profoundly visible by the census registration with which Quirinius governorship began. That registration was the registration, (cf. Ac 5:37) and it is natural that Luke should distinguish from it a preliminary registration in the time of Herod the Great…This seems better than forcing an earlier governorship on Quirinius and more likely than the contradiction in the Lukan infancy narratives created by an identification of the census here as that of A.D. 6.’ (WBC)
This last interpretation seems best to accord with the available evidence.
In conclusion, it may be stated that:-
The accounts of Jesus’ birth offered by Matthew and Luke have much in common:-
We have good grounds for regarding Luke as a reliable historian. His demonstrable accuracy in the Acts of the Apostles led archaeologist Sir William Ramsay from scepticism to respect in this regard. It is clear enough that ‘Luke was not confusing this with the one held in A.D. 6 because that was just after the deposition of Herod’s son Archelaus, whereas the context of the birth narrative of Jesus was in the days of Herod the Great.’ (DJG)