Before Christmas 2013 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.
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.
a. 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”. 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.
• 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. 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—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.
The day before posting this, I learnt that Howard Marshall had died following a very short battle with pancreatic cancer. You can read here a tribute to this fine scholar and Christian disciple.
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