Is The Bible Wrong About The “Christmas” Census?

A Roman census brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus

QUESTION: Luke 2 says that a census happened when “Quirinius was governor of Syria”, but we know that Quirinius was appointed as governor of Syria only at 6 AD. Matthew 2 says “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king” but we know Herod the Great died 1BC or 4BC. Then how can Jesus be born before 1BC, but also after 6 AD at the same time?

An additional concern about Luke’s accuracy comes from the details of the census itself.  There’s no evidence a Roman census was ever universal or ever required people to travel from their own homes to those of distant ancestors. Also, Joseph had other ancestors beside David, why he must register with David, why not another ancestor? Also, how could they know their ancestor of 1000 years before? I don’t know my ancestor of 1000 years before. Do you know yours?

RESPONSE:  Thanks, you’ve run into a problem with the dating of Quirinius that’s been asked often over many years and I think it has compelling solutions.  What are our options for Luke dating Jesus’ birth in Quirinius’s reign when we know he could not have been born that late?

EVALUATING LUKE’S TRACK RECORD

  1. For starters, let’s admit it could be that Luke made a historical error regarding Quirinius’ census.  And lacking an obvious solution why not just conclude this?  The reason to pause before we assume error, is that we know Luke wrote both Luke and Acts, and scholars now are forced to affirm how remarkably careful he is about the dates and names of rulers during the Travels of Paul and even with other figures during the life of Christ.

When we say remarkably careful, I should illustrate.  It’s very a long list of names that are confirmed by extra biblical sources.  Such as?

  • Luke spoke of Philippi as a “part” or “district” of Macedonia. It was believed he erred because the Greek word “meris” did not mean “district.” Archaeological evidence unearthed showed, however, that “district” was the exact meaning of the Greek word meris that Luke had used.
  • Luke referred to Lysanias the Tetrarch of Abilene in his Gospel. Because the only known Lysanias to historians was killed in 36 B.C., Luke was thought to be in error. Then an inscription was found bearing the name of Lysanias the Tetrarch and dated between 14 and 29 A.D., just at the right time period. Turns out there were two Lysanias’.
  • Luke referred to the Philippian officials as praetors, when some scholars thought the titles should be duumvirs, but archaeological finds showed that in fact praetors was the right title for the Roman magistrates of the colony.
  • Luke used the title politarchs for the Thessalonian officials, but since this title was not found in the classical literature Luke was again assumed to be wrong. Then several inscriptions were found that used the title politarchs, and five of them referred to Thessalonica. 

So, a knee jerk assumption that Luke blunders on Quirinius while nailing all these other details doesn’t make sense.  Thus, looking to other solutions is warranted:

WHAT DOES “PROTOS” MEAN?

2. The Greek word for “first” in Luke 2:2 (“this happened first when Quirinius was governor of Syria”) is a form of the word protos and can be translated “before.” Thus Luke 2:2 could actually be translated, “This was the census taken before Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

TWO REIGNS, ONE QUIRINIUS

3. The most common solution and I think the most likely to be true is this:  Quirinius actually ruled Syria on two separate occasions, and there were actually two censuses taken. The “first census” mentioned in Luke 2:2 occurred during Quirinius’ first term as governor, and another during his second term. The second census is mentioned in Acts 5:37 and probably took place between AD 6 and 7 (Josephus links this census to an uprising led by Judas of Galilee).

  • This solution assumes Luke knows about the census Josephus refers to.  His word, “first” may then refer to another one, the “first” one, IE not the second one.
  • Also, Quirinius may not have been governor of Syria in 4 BC – that occurred as you note in 6 AD – but he could have been in charge of Syria’s foreign affairs, therefore in charge of the census that was taken. Therefore, even if he wasn’t technically the governor, he was acting in a governing capacity with respect to Syria’s foreign relations.
  • An archaeologist named Jerry Vardaman found a coin with the name of Quirinius on it in very small writing.  The coin places him as proconsul of Syria and Solicia from 11 BC until after the death of Herod.  That would be exactly the time that Luke says that Quirinius had supervised this census and would be, in fact, the proconsul of Syria. Some suggest this is either a different Proconsul term for the same man, or a different Quirinius.

Is Vardaman correct? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. But it illustrates how possible it is that this is not an error on Luke’s part – especially given his notable accuracy elsewhere.  And all this (including the formerly ASSUMED errors above) underlines how little we know about the Ancient Near East.  It shows how unearthing one coin could change our whole understanding. 

THE STREETLIGHT EFFECT

Our knowledge is super sketchy, coming down on bits of parchment (and surviving coins).  Factual contradictions may simply mean things might have not come to light yet.  Therefore, it is not at all impossible that this problem gets solved like the other ones did, simply because archaeology is a young science and, you know, they didn’t have the internet.  What we do know, puts a reasonable bias of trust in Luke.

We should remember that sometimes when we say “there’s no evidence” it could be the streetlight effect:  looking for lost keys under a streetlight at night.  You look there because it’s easy to see stuff there but they’re not there so you assume ‘there’s no evidence of my keys’.  But you didn’t lose the keys by the streetlight, you lost them in the park.  You haven’t looked there yet.  To overcome the streetlight effect we have to ask, what if there’s data where we haven’t looked or in what we haven’t seen yet?

WAS LUKE’S CENSUS PLAUSIBLE?

Regarding the plausibility or inaccuracies about the census overall, I’m not sure what your basis is for saying they had no universal censuses, or none that required travel.  The early church fathers, much closer to the time, acknowledged that Romans required universal census every 5 years or so.  And we have an Egyptian papyrus from 104 AD that records an Egyptian prefect who ordered Egyptians to return to their ancestral homes so that a census could be taken.  So we do have hard evidence of both universal censuses under Rome and the requirement of travel.

HOMETOWN AN ISSUE?

The other questions about Joseph and David seem to be quibbles.  Jews (and most ancients) had a far, far great understanding of their own genealogy.  In oral cultures these records were often memorized, and tribal connection was a point of enormous pride and so knowledge of ancestors was common and ubiquitous.  It still is in other parts of the world today. 

As to why go to David’s city and not another, I don’t know exactly. But a reasonable guess can be made.  Most likely, during registration, the Roman empire relied upon the fact that most people did not travel or live far from where they were born.  After centuries of this, your town/district was your family name.  And it would trace to the most prolific in your genealogy.  It is now known that common ancestors are very common indeed. If you are of European ancestry genealogists assume you have an 80% chance of being related to Charlemagne, for example!  So the richest in your lineage, who had many wives and enormous offspring, (like David) would be common to a great swath of descendants.

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