Did Luke get his nativity history wrong?

OXYGEN ChristmasA couple of years ago I watched the film Gravity. The effects were spectacular, the photography breathtaking, the characterisations engaging, and the story held one’s attention throughout. It even raised some profound (religious?) questions about life, death and purpose. And yet, when I left the cinema, I could not decide whether I had enjoyed the film or not. For some reason, I felt detached and rather distracted from it, but I wasn’t sure why. Then I read the comments of some astronauts on how realistic a portrayal it was of life in space—and I realised what was distracting me. As great a story as it was, was it credible? There were a number of things about it which kept nagging at me as implausible, and this distracted from engaging with the story. (If you want to know, they were to do with whether different satellites were in synchronous orbit, whether you can see something clearly from a hundred miles away, and whether you could get there just by pointing and shooting.) The following year I went to see Interstellar and was not bothered in the same way—the film has been commended for getting the science right.

I think this is how a lot of people feel about the Christmas stories. They might be profound, they might be of great cultural significance, they might even point to religious truth—but are they really plausible?

Perhaps the greatest culprit in raising this question is Luke’s comment about the timing of Jesus’ birth. He appears to claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Joseph had to travel there to take part in the census, which was taken during the time when Quirinius was governor of the Roman province of Syria, since this was his ancestral home.

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.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. (Luke 2.1–5)

There are a considerable number of significant objections to this account; in scholarship there has been a long debate about this, and Howard Marshall (in his NIGTC commentary on Luke, p 99) decides that it is ‘inconclusive’. The objections are as follows:

1. When Augustus issued this degree, Judea was not part of the Roman province, but was a client kingdom ruled by Herod the Great. It would therefore not have been part of any Roman census.

2. Quirinius was governor of Syria from 6 to 12 AD, and not during the reign of Herod, who died in 4 BC, where both Luke and Matthew date the birth. The governor of Syria then was either C. Sentius Saturninus (9–6 BC) or possibly Quinctilius Varus (6–4 BC).

3. There is no record of Romans requiring people to return to their ancestral home; people were registered where they lived, not where their ancestors came from.

4. There would have been no need to take Mary with him; registration was by the male head of the house only.

This has led some sceptical commentators to conclude that Luke is flatly contradicting Matthew, and demonstrates that neither record is historically reliable.

There is no way to rescue the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from contradicting each other on this one point of historical fact. The contradiction is plain and irrefutable, and stands as proof of the fallibility of the Bible, as well as the falsehood of at least one of the two New Testament accounts of the birth of Jesus.

But there are some things to say immediately in response to this. First, Luke is not contradicting Matthew; they both agree that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. In fact, considering that they tell very different stories, presumably drawing from very different sources (Matthew’s account focusses on the men, Luke’s on the women), the number of points of factual agreement are quite remarkable.

Jesus was born in BethlehemMatt 2:1Luke 2:2
In time of Herod (d. 4 BC)Matt 2:1Luke 1:5
Mother: MaryMatt 1:18Luke 1:26
Father: Joseph (named the child)Matt 1:18Luke 1:26
But not the biological fatherMatt 1:16, 20, 22Luke 1:34; 3:23
Brought up in Nazareth in GalileeMatt 2:22-23Luke 2:39
From the line of DavidMatt 1:1Luke 1:32

Secondly, as Marshall p 102 points out, women were quite often involved in taking of the census. He also comments that ‘it must be presumed that Joseph had some property in Bethlehem.’ In fact, Stephen Carlson has argued that Bethlehem was Joseph’s family home, not simply his ancestral home, and that he had come to Nazareth to be betrothed to Mary, and was bringing her back to the (initial) marital home in Bethlehem. Interestingly, this idea concurs exactly with Matthew’s account, which only mentions Bethlehem, and makes no mention of the journey to and from Nazareth.

Thirdly, it is perfectly possible that Herod ordered a local census to be taken, or that the Romans decided to intervene directly into matters of taxation. It has been argued that if this were the case, Josephus would surely have mentioned it, but this is an argument from silence. We simply do not have a complete historical record for the period.

But the significant problem remaining is that of the date of the census and the apparent impossibility of reconciling Herod’s reign and the period that Quirinius was governor of Syria. Josephus tells us (in Antiquities 17.355 & 18.1–2) that Quirinius took a census of Syria and Judea in 6/7 AD, in part as a way of consolidating Roman rule over Judea after Herod the Great’s son Archelaus was deposed and exiled. (Josephus argues that this led to the formation of the Zealot party, and was the incipient cause of the Jewish War 60 years later; taxation is a way of confirming the subjugation of a nation to its imperial rulers, hence the power of the question in Matt 22.17.) Luke appears to refer to this as ‘the’ census in Acts 5.37.

There are two main traditional arguments deployed in defence of Luke’s accuracy.

duumvir1a. There are three inscriptions which are often cited as suggesting that Quirinius was governor of Syria for two distinct periods: the Lapis Tiburtinus; the Lapis Venetus; and the Antioch Stones. You can read a transcript of all three here. William Ramsay was the first to put this interpretation on them in 1912, and you will find them cited often on apologetics websites. But I agree with the sceptical commentator who has collated them: they don’t really demonstrate any such thing. We know who the governors of Syria were at the time, and there is no known mechanism under Roman government by which Quirinius could really be described in these terms at the right time.

b. Could Luke 2.2 be translated as ‘this was the census before Quirinius was governor…’? As Steve Walton helpfully highlights in the previous discussion of this issue, this is the position taken by Tom Wright in Who was Jesus? (pp 98-99):

In the Greek of the time, as the standard major Greek lexicons point out, the word protos came sometimes to be used to mean ‘before’, when followed (as this is) by the genitive case. A good example is in John 1.15, where John the Baptist says of Jesus “he was before me”, with the Greek being again protos followed by the genitive of “me”.[18] I suggest, therefore, that actually the most natural reading of the verse is: “This census took place before the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”…

My guess is that Luke knew a tradition in which Jesus was born during some sort of census, and that Luke knew as well as we do that it couldn’t have been the one conducted under Quirinius, because by then Jesus was about ten years old. That is why he wrote that the census was the one before that conducted by Quirinius.

(In the comments on that post there is also a fascinating discussion about the reliability of Luke compared with Josephus.)

Other commentators argue that the grammar does not really allow for this, and it would suggest that Luke assumed his readers knew about another census, for which we have no other historical evidence—which Wright concedes.

But the debate does not stop there. We need to remember that the registration for a census, in the context of the first century, was a complex and protracted thing. Around the same time as Jesus’ birth in 6 BC, a census commenced in Gaul that took 40 years to complete. We know from Augustus himself (Res Gestae 2.8) that a census took place around the Empire somewhere around 10–9 BC, and that it was intended to repeat this every 14 years.

It is also worth noting that in comparing Luke with Josephus, we are not comparing a ‘religious’ text with a ‘historical’ one. On the one hand, Josephus had a clear motivation in writing his works, an apologetic for the antiquity and reasonableness of his native Jewish people. On the other, Luke appears to have been careful to observe the conventions of historiography of his day. (One of the oddest things about the atheist/sceptical arguments is the way that Josephus is taken as infallible.) In biblical scholarship over the last 200 years, Luke has often been criticised for being unhistorical—only for subsequent archaeology to confirm the accuracy of his record, in particular in relation to the names and titles of Roman officials.

• It was thought Luke was in error in mentioning ‘Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene’ (Luke 3.1) as there was no record of such a person—until an inscription was found near Damascus which speaks of “Freedman of Lysanias the tetrarch” dated to the right period.

• In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas go to ‘Iconium in Phrygia’, for which there was no archaeological evidence—until a monument was found in 1910 by Ramsay which confirmed this was the case.

P1020213• In Acts 17, the leaders of Thessalonica are called ‘politarchs’. It was thought that Luke had made this term up, until it was confirmed in inscription—19 in all, one of which can be seen in the museum in the modern city (my photo of it at left; you can see the word POLITARXOU across the middle).

• Luke’s references to ‘proconsul Sergius Paulus’ in Acts 13.7 and ‘Gallio was proconsul of Achaia’ in Acts 18.12 were both thought to be mistaken until confirmed by inscriptional evidence which agreed with Luke’s use of titles. And the dating of the year in which Gallio was proconsul, 51/52, in fact now forms a major fixed point in confirming the chronology of Paul’s life and writings.

(This is not to say that there are no issues about the historicity of Luke-Acts. But it is perhaps worth noting that all the above arguments against Luke’s accuracy have been arguments from silence, and that not a single of the discoveries has actually proved Luke to be mistaken.)

On the other hand, we know from his two major works that Josephus was capable of changing his data to support his arguments. John Rhoads notes, in a recent article:

When reporting Archelaus’s symbolic dream, he reported that Archelaus saw 9 ears of corn representing 9 years of rule in J.W. 2.112–13 but 10 ears of corn representing 10 years of rule in Ant. 17.345–47. So, in one of these accounts, he changed the number of ears of corn and the number of years of rule from how they appeared in his source in order to match his reconstruction of events. So, indeed, it is quite possible that Josephus similarly changed the date for the census to match his reasonably reconstructed chronology of events.

As a result of this, and other analysis of Josephus’ account, Rhoads argues that of the two historical accounts, Luke’s is the more accurate, and Josephus is mistaken. He suggests that Quirinius did initiate the census during the reign of Herod; the possibility then arises that it was only completed when he had become governor (Legate) of Syria some years later.

Intriguingly, this ties in well with a quite separate argument about Luke’s language here. Marshall notes that ‘the form of the sentence is in any case odd’ (p 104); why say something was ‘first’ when there is nothing to compare it with? Stephen Carlson has looked even more closely, and also noted that the verb egeneto also seems strange; why suggest the census ‘became’ something, rather than that it simply ‘was’? Carlson suggests that prote, rather than ‘first’ numerically, should be read as ‘of most importance’—much as we might say ‘so-and-so is Arsenal’s Number One player.’ This would then give the translation as:

This registration became most prominent when Quirinius was governing Syria.


This [decree to get registered] became the/a most important registration when Quirinius was governing Syria.

In the end, the mystery of the conflict between Luke and Josephus remains unsolved and (as Marshall puts it) ‘can hardly be solved without the discovery of fresh evidence.’ But these arguments at least offer a plausible explanation—and when considering questions of history, proof is rarely possible, but plausibility is an important measure. It certainly offers no grounds to write off Luke’s account, think it unhistorical or a fabrication, or see it as in conflict with Matthew.

So, unlike my experience of watching Gravity, as we read the nativity accounts we can put our anxieties to rest—and can enjoy and engage in the narrative as we have it in Luke. And what is the point of mentioning Augustus, Quirinius and Herod—or for that matter Lysanias, Iconium, politarchs, Sergius Paulus, Gallio and all the others? Luke is making a very specific point, as we can see in the contrast between Luke 1.5 which locates the story in the local region and Luke 2.1, which locates it within the Roman world—that this is not just a story about the Jews for the Jews, but in fact will touch and shake the whole world, including its rulers. And because of that, you and I are reading the story today.

(This is an annual repost. For some very interesting and more detailed discussion, see the comments on the 2015 posting, the 2014 posting and the 2013 posting.)

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78 thoughts on “Did Luke get his nativity history wrong?”

  1. Thanks for this Ian. Its an area that interests me and its fun to revisit.

    Re people needing to travel to their home. We have a census edict from Egypt in 104CE that says “The census by household having begun, it is essential that all those who are away from their nomes [district] be summoned to return to their own hearths so that they may perform the customary business of registration and apply themselves to the cultivation which concerns them.” http://www.kchanson.com/PTJ/census.html. So there is some extra evidence that on occassion people did have to travel to their ancestral home. There are also other examples showing the type of information taken which included family home.

    Re Herod being invovled in a Census. I’ve seen a translation of a letter from Augustus to Herod written about 6BC(?) that scolds Herod for not getting on with a census. (I can’t find that source now. Apologies. Anyone know of it?). But that showed a delay in the 8BC census, that Herod knew it might cause problems and therefore may have been more likely to do a Jewish style census of travelling to home area in order to make it more palatable to Jewish sensitivities.

    • “So there is some extra evidence that on occasion people did have to travel to their ancestral home. ”

      Returning “to their own hearths” says to me returning to where they live to me ,not some ancestral home, or is there something in the Greek text in the link that suggests otherwise.

      • Paul lived in Ephesus for quite some months. If he was to “return to his own hearth” would that mean go to his place of abode in Ephesus? Or to Tarsus? If it meant “go to place of abode in Ephesus” what’s the point of the phrase? Its essentially meaningless if it means go to where your current kitchen is, because it serves no purpose.

        My experience is South Asia. There the family home is the place of origin. It may be 20 years since you left, and 200 miles away, but its still you, and your kids “home” (even though they never lived there). Its really only the West and heavily urbanised society that doesn’t have this concept to the fore. I therefore suggest it has the meaning of ancestral home, as that is the most likely in that setting.

      • Nick, you beat me to that comment!
        Luke 2.4-5 specifically has the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem “to be registered”, and contains “because [Joseph] belonged to the house and line of David”. Luke 2:39 has the family returning “to their own town of Nazareth.” I presume that this gives the impression that their home was Nazareth, they have to travel to Bethlehem for the registration being this notional ‘ancestral home’, and then they travel back. Thus we have the standard Christmas narrative.

        However, against that is that Luke 2:3 has that everyone had to go to “their own town” for the registration, which means that Bethlehem is Joseph’s own town. Luke then gives the reason that it is: because Joseph is of David’s line, so that is where his land is.

        Carlson, in the article Ian linked to in the ‘stable’ post, discusses 2:39. He points out that the earlier and superior manuscripts lack an article, which could mean the phrase can be translated “to a town of their own”.

        Luke lacks the flight to Egypt and the subsequent return. Perhaps this brief note is simply his quick means to get them to the town where Jesus actually grew up. Matthew explicitly gives a reason for Joseph not to return to Bethlehem. For him to go to the town where his wife has family seems an obvious thing to do.

        If Nazareth were Joseph’s home, but for some reason needed to travel to Bethlehem for the registration, it seems unlikely that social conventions would permit him to do that with this betrothed. However, if this journey was the completion of the marriage when the grrom takes his bride home, that is entirely in order.

  2. This is fascinating stuff. I remember during my research 20 years ago both Brook Pearson and Jack Finegan were suggesting a different date for Herod’s death – 2-1 BC if memory serves.

    There are so many sub-areas of this topic where real progress can still be made.

    FF Bruce came down in favour of ‘census before Quirinius’ which is not an unintelligent way of expressing things. However, beware of citing John 1.15,30 as a parallel for such a genitive construction. It is not proven that John’s protos mou means ‘before me’, even before we take account of his propensity for mischievous double-meanings. It may mean ‘My Protos’ – or (more likely) it is a self-concocted construction that is specially designed to be the best construction to convey the intended double-meaning: both My Protos and ‘before me’. Even LSJ dictionary cites John here, suggesting that examples of such a genitive are few and far between, and that we need to be sure what John’s meaning actually is.

  3. “I remember during my research 20 years ago both Brook Pearson and Jack Finegan were suggesting a different date for Herod’s death – 2-1 BC if memory serves.”

    Yes I have read about this. The gist of the argument seems to be that the dating of the death of Herod is based on the description of the events surrounding his death by Josephus. This places the death between a lunar eclipse and Passover. There are several possible lunar eclipses and historians have tended to take the one in March 4 BC, rather than one in January 1 BC. It is argued that there was insufficient time between March and Passover in 4 BC for the events that Josephus described to have taken place and therefore 1 BC is more likely.

    I have seen a number of sources describe this but I am not sure how reliable they are as they do not cite peer reviewed research.

      • The Pearson is CBQ 1999 but I misremembered what it was about – it was, I think, about the idea that Luke used Quirinius’s governorship as a way of placing the census in broadly the right time-period (several decades down the line, a ten-year gap may be trivial).

    • Nick,
      A fairly detailed peer-reviewed study that claims Herod dies in 1 BCE is found here:

      Steinmann, Andrew L. “When Did Herod the Great Reign?” Novum Testamentum 51, no. 1 (2009): 1-29.

      • James,

        Thank you so much. I have now skim read it and will give it more detailed review later. Seems to cover the arguments quite well.

      • Also discussed recently by James Bejon, ‘A chronology of Herod’s reign.’ He arrives at the same date for Herod’s death, 1 BC.

      • Luke made another variation to another Gospel writer’s account of the man who as lowered through a roof to be healed. The difference was in the roof construction.

        It has been said that Luke was aware of the audience to whom he was writing to and in order to prevent distraction of the main point of the account, decided to put the description in the terms that they knew.

        We have 21st century ISO-driven thought precision that he was obviously free from, and Quirinius as Governor became more of a major thing worth remembering by the time the story was committed to parchment ( or clay ). If he was writing to a roman-world context the two earlier dudes were has-beens and may not have been worth mentioning.

  4. Interesting in an esoteric kind of way. Personally I think it’s neither here nor there whether Jesus was born in one year or another. There are other statements in the Bible which clash with actual history, and it’s possible that the history has got a bit blurred in Luke’s account. Who really knows? But does it really matter? What is most important is that Jesus was born. That God came down to dwell alongside us.

    The factual accuracy of Luke’s nativity account does not impact in the least on the love God has for us, or our capacity to respond and love God back.

    Nor do factual inaccuracies render the Bible in any way diminished. Rather, they enlarge our understanding of the Bible, which is a huge collection of writings, all written in various cultural and social and historical contexts – and reflecting the limits, the fallibilities, the realities of people trying to write narratives and accounts of encounters with God.

    I’m not arguing against you, because I found your article interesting, and I’m sure you’d agree that the whole issue is marginal to the deep heart of the nativity events: that God does not just reign in a high and holy place, but has a heart of compassion, and sees the sufferings and struggles of those God has called into being. And is not so high and mighty, but is humble-hearted and willing to come down and live in the confines of our little existence, taking on the form and character of a servant.

    And this tiny little baby, this unique precious child, so physically vulnerable and dependent, contained nonetheless the divinity of the God who called into being our universe, our world, our lives, our being. And it all came about through the Love of God. A God who is with us, Emmanuel, whether in the reign of Herod or today. Because God loved the world that much.

    This dear child, Jesus, grew up so sweet, so wise beyond his years, so hopeful, so gracious, so kind. And here, in the season of his nativity and arrival in human history… in the obscurities of history, and marginal as anything… we may gaze and reflect in wonder… as much at what we do not know as at what we do.

    We do not need every single fact pinned down. More importantly, we need to trust. We need the arrival of this Christ in our hearts, each morning, in the here and now. Or rather – since God always dwells inside our hearts, at the very centre of our being, we need to be reminded again and again, to turn to God, to wait on God, to be ready to receive God’s coming, to open our hearts to God’s grace and God’s dear presence and love.

    God’s Spirit speaks through the Bible, not through precise factual accuracy, but through the echoes and resonance arising through the writers’ own profound encounters… which they record, and struggle to understand, in their own snippets of fallible experience… and yet, in the opening of their own hearts to God, and the way God resonates through those openings up… they create wavelengths and openings that we can pick up and receive, as we too reflect on God and turn towards God, and open up to God, to God’s love, to God’s echoing and mysterious love, so hard to pin down, but at the same time so tangible and real when it impacts our lives.

    So, personally, I quite like the anomalies in the scriptures, and the little inaccuracies or contradictions, because that signals authenticity. And also, because God cannot be precisely pinned down, but is numinous, beyond our ability to fully define or capture. I like that Jesus was born in this obscurity. I like the blur, and the mystery around his birth, and the scope for wonder… and the letting go of our tense mental control and precision.

    This is NOT me ‘having a go’, Ian. I am just offering a slightly different focus on what I regard as the acceptable and enlarging ‘glitches’ in the Bible. I think such anomalies – reflecting author limitations – actually enhance our understanding of the Bible, and its integrity and credibility. It is not a ‘fax’ from God. It is the wrestlings and the struggles and the responses and the yearnings of fallible human beings who, like ourselves, have encountered the living God and been touched and opened in those encounters.

    Read this way, with perhaps a bit less certainty, a bit more letting go, the Bible becomes a conduit… requiring us not to control and define every single statement… but a conduit of wonder, for gaze, for relationship, for love.

    The Word of God is alive and active, and the Spirit of God works through it, through the conduit, and through the frequencies of previous ‘openings up’. The flow of the Spirit is not something that depends on precise factual inerrancy of the supporting structure, but depends on the response to the resonating love of God, and the opening of our hearts, and above all the compassion and initiatives of God.

    The narratives of the nativity resonate hugely. They connect, not so much at the factual level, but at the deep, subconscious level, to touch our hearts, in those places of our consciousness where myth and mystery and wonder operate. The accounts of the nativity are stunning like that. The birth of Christ is like a portal between worlds. And the accounts are like conduits to portals in our own lives, portals through which the Spirit comes to us and incites our own openings, enterings, and adoration.

    Meanwhile old Quirinius has long since passed to dust, and become part of the transience and the obscurity – which is probably where he is best left.

    with good wishes in this season of nativity,


    • Hi Susannah – the reason people like chronology is that it forms a framework that impacts on all other areas of study. Some people are especially logically minded, and their particular contribution is precious. It certainly is far from being the main consideration in the nativity story! But it may often (by means of a preliminary contribution, at a lower level of ultimate importance) help us to understand that story more accurately. Your own post is full of assertions that seem to be held with conviction, but it is only through detailed and precise study that we can be the more confident about what we assert. Blessings.

      • Thank you – thought provoking response, especially with the reminder that people have diverse neurological approaches. Everyone may have a contribution to make. I agree that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with looking closely at details, and potentially plenty to be gained. Thanks Christopher.

        • Thanks. It is my humble view that things like dates are, though difficult at times to ascertain, intrinsically easier to ascertain than things like ‘God came down to dwell among us’ which is such a magnificent claim. I am intrigued by the school of thought that traditionally (for I have heard it time and time again) that the big truths are easier to ascertain. Is it not just that they are being treated as nonnegotiable assumptions? But then they lose their magnificence, which can only be a byproduct of their being true and does not come into play if they are untrue. So I believe almost credally in historical investigation. As NT Wright says – history is one of the true sons.

    • Hi Susannah,
      I think I see what you are getting at. For my part, seeing the Gospels as relating eye-witness accounts, with the inevitable variations that such accounts have, makes them more compelling than a view of the four as some perfect inerrant text which floated down from heaven.
      However, history is not unimportant. Christianity has this peculiar property of being particular. Its truth is in events rather than (generalised) ethics. It concerns a particular man who was born, lived, died, and it is claimed was raised to life and then ascended to the right hand of God. This all at a particular time and particular place. If the Word did not become flesh and tabernacle among us, if Jesus was not crucfied under Pontius Pilate, if Christ was not raised, however nice the story might seem, we are of all people most to be pitied. If God did not actually send his only begotten Son, then what evidence do we have for the extent of God’s love? If Christ did not actually die for me, then how can I, a sinner, see God’s love demonstrated?
      Christmas just as a cosy story lacks the cutting edge that Jesus (Joshua, “God saves”) came to accomplish something, namely salvation, rescue, redemption.

  5. So many points here Ian. I’ll comment on a few.

    1. You say that Luke and Matthew agreeing is “quite remarkable” in the circumstances yet, should you be one of those who doesn’t accept the Q theory of gospel relationships, you fall back on the notion that Matthew knew Luke or Luke knew Matthew. It wouldn’t be so remarkable then, would it? It would be collusion about the details without external or complimentary verification, in fact.

    2. Rumours of a local census unrecorded by secular history are exactly that: rumours. What strikes some gospel readers, more to the point, is exactly how little of the gospels actually has secular verification at all. One is reduced to believing a story because someone wrote it down and that may be a lot of things but historical doesn’t appear to be one of them. No history without verification should be the motto of any genuine historian. All else should be clearly labelled “speculation”.

    3. These days it is common academic practice to regard Acts, which is Luke’s Gospel, part 2, as “light fiction”. Indeed, one of my own teachers, Loveday Alexander, the classicist and Canon-Theologian of Chester cathedral, taught me this in a class 20 years ago. That being a true picture of Acts, why shouldn’t it apply to Luke as well, outside of what many might see as an extraneous and extra-biblical desire to be able to say things about “Scripture’s truth” in a way that would seem more about dogma than history?

    4. I must honestly say it seems bizarre to me that the default for some readers of Luke’s account would be that it must somehow be true. Does it not strike you as odd that Luke claims historical knowledge for Jesus’ AND for John the Baptist’s births? Who could possibly have been the source for the latter? More to the point, what reason would Luke have for ascertaining this knowledge except that it was already a theological theme he intended to pursue? God sending honoured pairings out to do his bidding is hardly unbiblical and without precedent. Moses and Aaron, Elijah and Elisha, are two obvious examples and the latter is far from irrelevant to a discussion of Luke as I’m sure you will be aware. Are we to believe that the Magnificat, which Mary spontaneously uttered, was then somehow remembered for around 80 years in oral memory? Fortunate, if so, that someone realised Luke might need it later. Ditto, of course, for the Nunc Dimittis which is nothing but pure rhetorical theology delivered in biblical sounding prose.

    In short, I would hope that in these days of academic education we might read such texts with a bit more credulity and with a bit more literary sensitivity. Unfortunately, it seems that there are still many who read the Bible to make it to accord with their unbiblical dogmas about it rather than having ears to hear what it is saying, as someone quite famous once recommended.

    • Your final paragraph gets to the heart of why it’s futile to debate the underlying facts: whatever the truth of the matter, the doctrine of biblical authority makes the outcome a forgone conclusion. Luke has to be right because the Bible has to be right.

      I’ve a simple test that saves everyone’s time: I ask the other party if they can give me a single example of the Gospels being historically inaccurate. If not, the lodestar’s doctrine, not a search for historical truth, and we’d be at cross-purposes.

      • I will certainly agree with you James that if the starting position of biblical hermeneutics is that “the Bible has to be right” then all that results thereafter is a scramble to support truths you have already decided apart from proper historical verification or even a historical process.

        The proper name for what is happening there is “apologetics”.

        • Whatever the proper name for it is, it certainly gives apologetics a bad name. It is utterly unscientific, dishonest and prejudiced advocacy.

        • Luke makes it clear at the start of his Gospel that his purpose in writing it was to ensure his audience could be sure of the things they had been taught. So as far as Luke is concerned he is writing history, albeit within accepted ancient historical parameters. And it seems his writing is primarily based on eyewitness testimony, either directly or as it has been passed down through the community.

          It’s hardly a coincidence that when the cynics have raised objections down through the years to the historicity of Luke’s writings, both in his Gospel and in Acts, lo and behold an archaeological discovery has shown the truthfulness of his records. One wonders how many times that needs to happen before the doubters stop talking?

          It is only someone with a mindset of ‘the Gospels cant be true’ who continues to close their eyes and ears to the evidence.

          • Peter, which “archaeological discovery” has demonstrated that Jesus and John the Baptist were related, that Mary uttered the Magnificat and Zechariah the Benedictus? What “archaeological discovery” has shown us that Luke got his dates right or has shown that his preface, though well meaning, is actually followed through on in the book he then writes? I put it to you that such questions are not a matter of “cynicism” but of entirely valid historical questioning. Of course, if you simply want to believe anyway that’s fine. But its NOT history.

      • Hi James,

        You must admit that part of the point of Ian’s post is precisely to probe the apparent historical issues with Luke’s account, especially in relation to Matthew’s. If Quirinius was not governor of Syria when Herod the Great was alive, we have an issue. The post explores some of the options in resolving the difficulty.

        I also wonder if by “biblical authority” you are actually meaning “biblical inerrancy”, which is not quite the same thing. On the former, have you read Tom Wright’s lecture, “How Can the Bible be Authoritative?” http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/how-can-the-bible-be-authoritative/ . It is an interesting question as to how can a narrative text be authoritative.

        • David, by “biblical authority” do you mean what Luke meant when, in Luke 24, he twice relates how the risen Jesus explained to people after his resurrection how it had all happened according to the (Jewish) Scriptures? One thing that has always fascinated me about the more conservative forms of Christian biblical interpretation, not to say Western Christian biblical interpretation in the round, is how so like night and day it is when compared to JEWISH biblical interpretation which is exactly the kind the gospels engage in. This is just one reason why, in my own searching the Scriptures, I’ve been far more interested in how Jews read their Bible than in how modern Christians by and large do.

          Read Luke 1-3 with a Jewish biblical consciousness engaged and the historical anxiety that blogs like this one demonstrate becomes somewhat less relevant. Yet it seems that, for Christians, its always about if things happened exactly as the text said or not. A very peculiar and one-eyed concern, if I may say so.

          • I don’t understand why you think it has to be either/or. That doesn’t seem very logical. There will always *be* an historical dimension to everything – if people avoid it, so much the worse for their scholarship. And there will always likewise *be* all the other dimensions too (if we fail to acknowledge them, so much the worse for us.). The best type of scholarship is the maximally comprehensive multi-angled type.

          • Christopher, if you read my comment to which you replied you will see that it was I who was complaining about “one-eyed” concerns. It is not me who is saying there should be an either/or. I was, however, making a plea for books to be read AS BOOKS and, as such, with literary and narrative concerns CONSTITUTIVE of their creation and meaning.

          • Andrew,

            I was asking James what he means by “biblical authority”, and referenced Tom Wright who shows that this is not a well-defined thing.

            Your point about how Jews interpret their scriptures is a good one. However, in Luke/Acts we have something by a gentile author and it would seem addressed to a gentile audience. The reference to “careful investigation” does suggest an approach that claims a degree of accuracy in reporting events.

          • I don’t think ‘as books’ means anything. It entirely depends on correct identification of both genre and (relatedly) overall intent.

        • Ah, N.T. “Tom” Wright, a man so po-mo he has two names (depending on the readership). 😉

          Read it, alongside several of his doorstops and draft-excluders. He’s a master of the art, applying his “critical realism” and discovering *drumroll please* that Jesus of Nazareth just happened to be impeccably post-Nicene orthodox in all he said and did. Phew, that’s a relief for the 21st century’s own Prince Bishop.

          Toning down the snark, yes, Ian probes the historical issues in good faith, and it’s interesting on its own terms; but if the outcome’s predetermined by the doctrine of biblical authority, then disputing any of the substance is a road to nowhere. Like my bud Tom, it’s high-end apologetics, which is fine so far as it goes, but is different in kind to historical inquiry.

          • “Ah, N.T. “Tom” Wright, a man so po-mo he has two names (depending on the readership).”
            So good they named him twice!

          • I found ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’ (the ‘doorstop’ that most accurately fits your caricature) to be the best one of his epic COQG series actually, in that it was certainly the one that made me think and challenged me the most, and also the one that deals with Jesus from the perspective of 1st century Jewish expectation most effectively; which is what Andrew Lloyd suggest we could all stand to do better.

            That said, I entirely agree with your sarcasm when it comes to his ‘climax’ books on Paul, and the often-repeated claim of Wright to be doing ‘real history’ which always nagged me as frustratingly dismissive of the historians Wright pays much lip service to, but rarely engages with.

            The books are good, but at times feel more like an incredibly lengthy debate transcript with E.P.Sanders than an essay arguing for a particular point.

            Quite understandably, he prefers theologians as sparring partners.

        • To field biblical authority separately (and, I promise, concisely): if it allows for no historical error in the Gospels, it’s a distinction without a difference.

    • Hi Andrew,

      Does it not strike you as odd that Luke claims historical knowledge for Jesus’ AND for John the Baptist’s births? Who could possibly have been the source for the latter?

      There is a pretty obvious candidate for the source of both narratives: Mary herself. As a cousin of Elizabeth, would she not have learnt about the circumstances of John’s birth particularly as Luke records her visiting Elizabeth in the latter’s six month. In addition, Luke 2.19 is an interesting insertion in the narrative. Why is that present unless the author saw the result of that pondering in the source of his information?

      I’m not sure that “Mary said” necessarily implies spontaneity. She spent three months with Elizabeth, perhaps some initial expression was refined over time. Although likely young, she was not necessarily a poor, ignorant country yokel. Perhaps Zechariah’s silent time was also a period of reflection and composition. As for remembering, in our very literate society we have probably lost much of our ability to commit to memory. Other societies have much better retention ability. Even in our society, many older people can remember poems learnt at school, although they forget what they need to buy in the shop.

      (BTW did you mean the Nunc Dimittis? I presume you actually meant the the Benedictus, i.e. the song of Zechariah, hence my comment).

      • My mistake David. I did indeed mean the Benedictus.

        As to the rest, reading Luke as if it is naively true is not what I would call history. Demonstration is what makes something history. Suggestion only makes something conjecture. Arguments from silence are in need of better arguments.

        As someone who has been taught to read the Bible as literature, I see nothing here that not is not a theologically-inspired story, perhaps sprinkled with enough historical verisimilitude so as to make it lively and vibrant for those in whom it is intended to inspire belief. You could pretty much make sense of all of it from the Hebrew Bible even if none of it had actually happened.

        • Whoa – name scholars who take that extreme view? I have not come across any in the British New Testament Society. The naive (or hopeful?) idea that the more sceptical something is, the more scholarly it is, is easily debunked by any real scholar. Scholarship involves independence of thought, not being tied to a single Tendenz like scepticism or credulity or whatever else.

          So why do you think Paul’s associates’ geographical movements in (e.g.) 1 Thessalonians but also elsewhere correspond so well in sequence to the Acts sequence? A point made in an article on chronology by (I think??) Loveday Alexander in the Dictionary Of Paul And His Letters.

          • Christopher. my argument is not that Luke contains no historical truth, it is that as story it is not historical truth. Thus, in the case of Acts, movements may align yet the whole may still have a fictional intent. So, as Douglas Templeton once wrote as the title of a book, who is to say that the New Testament cannot be “true fiction”?

            As to Professor Alexander, her “Acts in Its Ancient Literary Context” is excellent. The chapters “Fiction, Fact and The Genre of Acts” and “The Acts of the Apostles as An Apologetic Text” are particularly relevant to the point I am trying to make here. Perhaps it may be that she holds that some things can be true in a light fiction but that that doesn’t change the genre of the whole? Or perhaps it is that a book is a book and a book has a literary purpose as well as a historical one?

          • Andrew,

            I am no historian, and only aspire to biblical scholarship. So, I’m not sure what you mean by:
            my argument is not that Luke contains no historical truth, it is that as story it is not historical truth. Thus, in the case of Acts, movements may align yet the whole may still have a fictional intent.
            Are you saying that Luke placed deliberate falsehoods into the narrative? What is your evidence for that?
            Why does the same not apply to other texts from the same period? I would think that Josephus had as much of an agenda as Luke, perhaps more so, and less constrained by Christian ethical concerns. (Also, as a text, our copies of Luke are much more reliable than those of other ancient texts)
            Ancient literature is not modern, and one cannot apply the same rules as one might to modern historical scholarship, for example. I remember hearing Richard Burridge talking about his work in comparing the Gospels to the contemporary ‘bios’, and finding significant points of similarity (and the differences are also illuminating). But a ‘bios’ is not a modern biography.

          • David,

            By “my argument is not that Luke contains no historical truth, it is that as story it is not historical truth. Thus, in the case of Acts, movements may align yet the whole may still have a fictional intent” I am ultimately asking the literary question “What is the genre of Luke?” Except, since Luke and Acts are two halves of one whole, the only reason they are in two is because they wouldn’t both fit on one scroll which is how ancient books at this time were written, I am actually asking “What is the literary genre of Luke-Acts?”

            As I have intimated in some of my other comments, there are certainly scholars, some British, others not, who would argue that this might be described as “light fiction”. This is an argument based in knowledge of Greco-Roman literature which, I concede, not everybody may be aware of. When compared to literature of this type it is argued by these same people, my own teacher Loveday Alexander was one, that it compares very favourable to this classification.

            So here talking about “deliberate falsehoods” is to misunderstand the issue. The issue is not the microscopic historical detail of the text, much of which, by the way, is and will always be lost to us, but what is Luke-Acts as a whole about and for?

            My suggestion there would be that if you think the answer is “to be historically accurate news journalism” then you have failed in the attempt to understand Like-Acts as a book and as literature at all.

          • Andrew,

            If I understand you correctly, you are saying that some people say that the literary form of Luke and Acts is the same as works written at about the same period which have a fictional intent. I have not come across this idea. It goes against what Richard Burridge claims, with evidence, that the Gospels in particular are similar in literary form to the contemprary ‘bios’ which were not intended to be regarded by its reader (or listeners, Burridge stated that these were often written to be read out at dinner!)

            As a work of fiction, Acts seems particularly strange. Its narrative structure has no clearly defined resolution to finish. Rather, it ends as if the author has reached his own present (c.f. the subtle switch to ‘we’ in Ch. 20). Is there anything parallel to that in ancient fictional literature?

          • How can the whole multi-genre NT be ‘true fiction’? Even if true fiction meant anything.

            L Alexander’s chronology article cited above puts Luke in the same category as his near-contemporary historians Suetonius and Josephus. All try to be as accurate in chronology as they can, but all have times when their chronology is able only to be somewhat vaguer or more thematic.

            In Luke’s case, unsurprisingly, the chronology is more precise in the latter half of Acts (where Luke is a participant in events, and the events themselves are more recent) than in the earlier half whose events stretch back to 45-50 years before the time of writing.

            L Alexander is an acknowledged expert on classical and NT literary genre. There are plenty of angles that can inform our understanding of Acts’s genre. There is a thread of humour (a good storytelling ploy) which invites comparison with contemporary comic novels – but that does not make Acts’s main genre either comedy or novel.

          • David, I suggest you read Loveday Alexander’s “Acts in Its Ancient Literary Context”. I can surely not explain it any better than this distinguished British academic!

            Christopher, I suggest you ask Douglas Templeton who wrote the book “The New Testament as True Fiction”. I particularly enjoyed the line “Truth is plastic to fiction’s touch” from this book!

          • One will customarily pass from beginning to end of mainstream national NT conferences without such ideas ever emerging. I don’t think Templeton has a following – not that that proves anything about his ideas.

          • However, the ‘who is to say?’ fallacy was exposed by JAT Robinson and others long ago. The phrase is sheer advocacy. All it does is assert that something is ‘possible’ – which (a) sets the bar much too low, and also (b) moves the goalposts, since the name of the game is not to discover the X million things that are ‘possible’ but to discover the relative likelihoods.

          • Andrew,

            Thank you for the Alexander reference. I’m not sure I have the time to seek it out at a library, and at £55 on Amazon it seems expensive to buy. It might well be beyond my pay-grade, as well! It has interesting reviews on Amazon. A favourable one from the Church of England Newspaper suggests that it would not offend my evangelical sensibilities. This review comment is pertinent to the present discussion:
            ‘Although Alexander’s work is not primarily intended to tackle the question of historical reliability, it may help us in making progress in this important area.’ Bulletin for Biblical Research 20.2

            Amazon also suggested an earlier work: The Book of Acts in Its Ancient Literary Setting: 1 (The Book of Acts in its first-century setting) Eds. Bruce Winter and Andrew Clarke. I suspect that this might be a better starting point for me as a non-expert, as it might give a broader view of the subject.

            I might also suggest that the literary genre of Acts is less relevant than the literary genre of Luke. In that regard, are you familiar with the work of Richard Burridge on the Gospels as ‘bioi’? If not, perhaps this review of the 2nd edition of his book will give you pointers:
            The opening sentence of the review gives a sense of the significance of this work:
            Few PhD theses can boast a paradigm shift within a field, but Burridge’s ‘What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco?Roman Biography’ could be numbered among the exceptions.

            Therefore, for the infancy narratives in Luke, we should really consider how the comparison with ‘bioi’ informs our view of the historical accuracy, rather than the comparison of ‘Acts’ with other literary genres.

          • David, I am indeed familiar with Burridge’s work comparing the gospel to the bios. However, why the genre of Acts is relevant is because of its literary relationship to Luke, the book and the writer. Luke and Acts, as you will find a number of scholars saying, is actually better conceived of as “Luke-Acts”. It is not two books separated by John, as the New Testament would have it, but one book in two parts. Thus, views on Acts are very relevant, on this view, to views on Luke, the book.

            Christopher, it seems to me that you pay far to much attention to “mainstream national NT conferences”. Try going to the SBL conference or a meeting of the Modern Language Association and let me know what views you come back with then. To say that British professional biblical studies is hardly the place to find innovation or enlightenment I would regard as a huge understatement. Tom Wright is perhaps the British scholar most entitled to regard himself as trying to infuse British scholarship on the gospels and Jesus with new life in the past 30 years and yet, in the end, even his scholarship is about rhetorically supporting traditional truths in contemporarily interesting ways. Much of the rest, in my view, is just fuddy duddies earning a pay check in support of what they have received “as of first importance”. Good old British conservatism on full display. In truth, the cutting edge of biblical scholarship moved to the USA some decades ago now and even Wright himself has admitted that in print as well as by his numerous Transatlantic trips to play to their more interested audiences. If you want what people used to think go to British conferences. If you want what they might think in future, go to other ones.

          • David, I am indeed familiar with Burridge’s work comparing the gospel to the bios. However, why the genre of Acts is relevant is because of its literary relationship to Luke, the book and the writer. Luke and Acts, as you will find a number of scholars saying, is actually better conceived of as “Luke-Acts”. It is not two books separated by John, as the New Testament would have it, but one book in two parts. Thus, views on Acts are very relevant, on this view, to views on Luke, the book.

            The association cuts both ways, of course. The genre of Luke informs us how to see Acts. After all, Mark precedes Luke in composition and Luke precedes Acts.

          • Lol. I could fork out a fortune to attend SBL only to find exactly the same people I had just seen at BNTC.

    • To say that Acts is commonly regarded in toto (!) by a significant proportion of academics as light fiction is both sweeping and inaccurate.

      • Christopher, I must admit that I do not frequent Evangelical seminaries and neither do I comb Evangelical commentaries for sober historical judgments. But then I’m not sure I necessarily regard their primary commitment as being to academic history, properly understood, either. Hence, I judge myself as lucky to have been taught about Acts by an Oxford trained classicist with knowledge of the broad sweep of Roman literature in the round with which to compare Acts.

        • Andrew, I don’t understand your answer.

          1. You suddenly imported the word ‘evangelical’ out of nowhere.

          2. I am also an Oxford-trained classicist.

          3. Loveday Alexander whom I know is a fine scholar with all the nuance that implies. We were both at the recent memorial for Roman historian Miriam Griffin at Somerville, Oxford.

    • Also I do think that it is highly unlikely that john’s and Jesus’s births would have been 2 separate things in the telling – Mary’s visit to Elizabeth makes the 2 a single narrative. As David W pointed out.

    • “which Mary spontaneously uttered, was then somehow remembered for around 80 years in oral memory?”

      So do you think Mary forgot what she said immediately after the event and, until the day she died, never told anyone else? That rather reduces the gap you rely on. Was it never celebrated by being repeated? I don’t have an exact equivalent but at nearly 69 my memory things learned at school haven’t *quite* disappeared. 😉 ?

      I think you underestimate oral remembering in the modern world never mind the ancient world.

      • Ian, I might take this point seriously if either of us genuinely believed that either of us could say anything remotely historical about “Mary” with any degree of certainty. But since neither of us would be genuinely prepared to put our necks on the line for that I’ll take it that you are merely being optimistic for reasons I won’t bother to enquire about.

        PS For the record, I don’t think Mary forgot. I think she never uttered a single word Luke says she did.

        • Evidence?

          ‘Forgot’ what? If significant events happened to her, you know that only through her having shared them. Therefore by your use of ‘forgot’ you admit she did share them.

        • “PS For the record, I don’t think Mary forgot. I think she never uttered a single word Luke says she did.” “For the record” seems ironic in this context!

          Fiction, however erudite we weave it, can only assert truth or reveal it IF that truth is/exists. But it’s truth which validates story telling , however helpful, not vice versa.

  6. Susannah Clark’s comments above are important in reminding us not to get TOO hooked on esoteric questions about dating etc. However, if we can hold on to our faith in Immanuel AND vindicate Luke’s chronology, that would be even better! I have long been fascinated by “the Quirinius problem”, and tackle it in my book Confident Faith chapter 15 – many apologies for plugging my own book; please feel under no obligation to buy it! My argument runs as follows: “The mention of Quirinius (Luke 2.2) is thought to be a mistake. We know that he was governor of Syria in 6 AD and that there was a census then; but this is far too late for the birth of Jesus in the reign of King Herod, who murdered the babies in the Bethlehem area and then died in 4 BC. (So Jesus must have been born by 4 BC, and the 6th century monk who worked back to calculate the year of his birth got the BC/AD divide wrong by several years.) But people have not looked at the Greek text with sufficient care. The word “first” strongly suggests that there were two censuses and that Quirinius was in command in Syria twice, the first time being when he was conducting a war against a local tribe around 6 BC. At present historians cannot reach 100% certainty on these points, but I believe that Luke, with his fine record of accuracy elsewhere, deserves our trust here too.” F F Bruce in “The New Testament Documents” is quite positive towards the idea of two censuses and two times when Quirinius was governor of Syria (p86). But the verb hegemoneuontos doesn’t NECESSARILY mean “was governor of”: it could mean “was leading in war/was ruling/was commanding” (see Liddell & Scott’s Greek Lexicon, where “was governor of” is only the third meaning given). He might have been in overall command in the area of Syria, an important frontier province where Rome had 4 of its 28 legions stationed: only the German frontier had more.

  7. Andrew, by all accounts Mark and Luke were close associates. Mary had lived in Mark’s house. (Luke was a close friend of Paul, who was at least as old as Jesus himself.)

    • Heracles chopped heads of a hydra, by all accounts. Odysseus blinded Polyphemus. How do you suggest I ascertain the truth of these matters?

      • If you want to believe these things then I suggest you interview some eye witnesses and report back to us ?. I won’t be down – marking you for theming the material but will take a dim view of mere invention to support, supposedly, your account.

        Happy Christmas… ?

      • My comment was about the Mark-Luke link and the Mark-Mary link, not about the Luke 1-2 narrative, which as you say is unique.

        Mark and Luke:
        Acts 12.12
        Acts 12.25, 15.37-9
        Col. 4.10-14
        Phm 24 – within a single verse
        (Perhaps retrospectively: 2 Tim 4.11 – also within a single verse)

        Acts 12.12 simply shows that Mark’s mum’s house in Jerusalem was a/the meeting place of choice for the Jerusalem church, which at all times included surviving members of Jesus’s family. This makes Mark’s family and Jesus’s family potentially the 2 main families of the early Jerusalem church (host family and honoured family). The point is that any position too distant from that would be hard to maintain. There is no fictional or apologetic motive for Luke to mention such a random family in Ac 12.12. And the circle of Christian leadership in Jerusalem was small, as evidenced by the same names cropping up again and again.

  8. If you want to believe these things then I suggest you interview some eye witnesses and report back to us ?. I won’t be down – marking you for theming the material but will take a dim view of mere invention to support, supposedly, your account.

    Happy Christmas… ?

  9. Very interesting post. Would it be possible to repair the now defunct links to coldcasechristianity? (Also the image is to be found on the right, not left!)

    The census of AD 6 would be some ten years later than the events described. While the problem presented by Luke 2.2 remains unsolved, it seems a good deal more problematic to suppose that Luke could have been referring to a census that he must have known took place a decade later. It is because AD 6 is so far out (e.g. from the reign of Herod) that it seems reasonable to look for some harmonising resolution.

    • I recall a number of people have argued that the Census was in fact an oath of allegiance to Augustus carried out in 3BC that facilitate a present from the Empire to mark his Jubilee, his 60th birthday and the 750th anniversary of the founding of Rome (all in 2BC – the logistics was that it would have taken a long time to get it in place beforehand).

      Josephus mentions such an oath – which was modified so that it also included King Herod and a copy of the oath has survived in a dataed inscription at Paphlagonia in Asia Minor. Unlike the tax census of Quirinius that fit Luke’s description that it was across the whole Empire.

      Cannot recall references – but others here should be able to help.

  10. “I don’t bother to enquire about”

    Clearly you’re not a “Luke” ? but content to base whatever you believe on a determination to have nothing to actually believe in.

    I’ve got plenty of unresolved things in my understanding but I’ve taken my stand on that which I believe is trustworthy enough in fact. I did bother to enquire for my need and still do.

    “Trustworthy and true”… rings bells for me intellectually and emotionally.

  11. The linguistic argument is not a runner, I’m afraid. Most readers will have small Latin and less Greek, but those who did Latin at school may remember the use of the ablative absolute. The equivalent in Greek is the genitive absolute, and that is what we have in Luke 2.2, with protos (= first) being used in an ordinary way. I can’t reproduce the Greek alphabet in this comment, but in literal English the words are: ‘This registration first [prote, case agreeing with the noun, but the word order shows that the adjective is used adverbially, as in John 1.42] took place [normal sense of egeneto, also in 2.1 and separating prote from the next phrase] Cyrenius being governor [hegemoneuontos] of Syria’. This last phrase is the genitive absolute. The same construction appears in 3.1. So: ‘This registration first took place when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.’

    To me this suggests that Luke is indeed referring to the census in AD 6 (as in Acts 5.37). As I understand it, there was no Roman governor of Judaea at the time of the birth because Judaea was governed by Rome’s client king, Herod, who is specifically mentioned in 1.5. Luke therefore seems to be saying that Augustus declared some sort of census while Herod was on the throne, but implying that it was suspended and not resumed/completed until Cyrenius/Quirinius. In this regard, I think Nick’s comment is well worth following up.

    The grammatical points are discussed more fully at:
    While I don’t agree with everything written there, I do feel that it would be helpful to rework the article here before it is brought out again next year.

  12. Ian,

    Have you seen the work of David Armitage, at Tyndale House, with regard to a completely different solution to the problem of the timing of the Quirinian census?


    Armitage contends that it is possible that the census of Quirinius, for Luke, happened somewhere around 10 years AFTER Jesus’ birth, with Joseph and Mary returning to Bethlehem, as Joseph might have had property interest there (a good reason for returning to your home town, for a census count). The solution requires rethinking how Luke handles chronology, rearranging the order of his material to suit other purposes. Specifically Luke 2:1-5 is a chronological digression, inserted into the main story line.

    Michael Licona makes the argument that Luke might have made use of such literary techniques, that were quite common among other Greco-Roman historians, such as Plutarch. I think a similar literary device might be employed here.

    Andrew Wilson discusses this on the Think blog:

    • Thanks, yes I have and need to think about it more. I am not sure that his argument has yet persuaded many; it was not obvious to my eyes even from his own translation.

  13. Some minor comments, Herod the Great was an ally of Mark Antony & Cleopatra. But when Octavian ( Renamed to Caesar Augustus ) defeated him, he saw the expediency in switching allegiances. In other words he’s a turncoat. A sycophant. So while there may not have been a requirement in Judea for a census, he’d be doing everything he can to appease the higher echelons.

    Also Josephus himself, once a Jew, then a Roman was also known for “running with the pack”. While he had to be as perfectly accurate as possible, otherwise word would get around pretty quickly that ” ..it was not as he wrote.. “, he wouldn’t consider it dishonest to amplify one truth at the expense of its counterpart if his neck was on the line. In his own recording of his lineage, he seems to make unusual reminder that he is on the margins of Herod’s family by marriage. There are a few unplaced Josephs and Matthews in his parentage before it meets Herod The Great’s wife, Mariamne.

    Interestingly there is evidence that the Maccabean line of which Mariamne belonged could be traced down to Mattathias the Maccabee, son of Simeon Josephon Thassi, son of King Jannaeus Alexander and so on. These were the same people but named differently In Mary’s genealogy, probably having “gone to ground” for expediency.

    If that were the case then Jesus really was “the King of the Jews” in a ruler sense than the inscription placed on the tree. If there is in this in the form of a question/reply, I’ll Dif it up and post a link it in a further reply.

  14. One thing that jumped out was the argument about when Quirinius was governor. BUT, the text doesn’t say he was (officially the named, appointed) governor. It says he was GOVERING… doing the action but possibly w/o the official title. It would be helpful to find times when there was an interim person acting as governor and then narrow down when Quirinius could have been that person. It’s highly likely that a former interim person would later be named the actual governor, so a late date for Quirinius doens’t discount an earlier setting for this story…


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