Did Luke Mess Up on the Timing of the Christmas Story?

Qurinius’ Census

Each Christmas, I hear the story of Jesus’ birth read publicly from the Gospel of Luke. And it often seems like the timing of Jesus’ birth and the census under some guy named Quirinius gets read pretty quickly, almost like it’s an unnecessary interjection no one really cares about. For most people, it probably is.

But here’s why I started to care about the Quirinius part: Skeptics often say that Luke must have messed up on the timing of the Christmas story. In this post, I’ll explain one of the most common challenges to the historicity of the Bible. I’ll also share the other side of the story—the one skeptical friends may not have considered.

But first, let’s go to the primary source. Luke 2:1-6 is ground zero for this conversation:

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. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born [1].

So why do skeptics insist that Luke’s account makes a historical error? It’s all wrapped up in when this census actually happened.

A Timing Problem?

quirinius-census-luke2A Jewish historian by the name of Josephus wrote that Quirinius ruled in A.D. 6. But here’s the thing: That’s 9 whole years after King Herod died in 4 B.C. Since Matthew says Jesus was born about two years before King Herod died, Luke’s report seems to have a timing problem.

But the skeptic’s challenge is that this census really happened way too late to be the reason for why Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem. And so, they might claim, we’ve got a glaring example of a clear historical error in the Bible.

Of course, it’s also possible that it was actually Josephus who was wrong [2]. Still, let’s focus on Luke’s report. Does this automatically mean that Luke made a mistake in talking about the census and the timing of Jesus’ birth? Not by a long shot.

A Government Project

Don’t forget that this whole thing was a government project! No disrespect to my friends who work in public service, but it’s no secret that governments around the world tend to take forever to get stuff done—even in the 21st century!

quirinius-census-govtWe know the Roman government was tallying up everyone who lived in the empire and that Caesar Augustus actually did three of these censuses around this time [3].

So imagine this ancient Roman census as a massive project that took years from start to finish, from the time they got started until the government could actually use the data in the whole process of taxing people.

In an interview on Quirinius’ Census Darrell Bock explains it like this [5]:

“Augustus didn’t institute an empire wide census, but he instituted a variety of censuses in specific locations moving from place to place as he gradually took the census of the empire….

This census took place somewhere between 6 and 4 BC—at least the beginning mechanizations of it—but it wasn’t actually executed until we got to Quirinius…he’s the one who got the data, put it together, presented it for Rome and Rome actually began to make use of it for taxation under Quirinius. So this is a long process.”

He suggests thinking about this whole endeavor like a modern freeway project:

“Sometimes, it takes awhile between the planning of the freeway and the actual building of the freeway and the completion of the freeway…this census became associated with Quirinius because he’s the one who completed it, but wasn’t the one who was responsible for starting it.”

quirinius-census-freewayHe also says that “classical historians respect Luke as a historian [in that] they use him” as a contemporary source and that “a careful look at the details of Acts show that, where we can check him, Luke is a credible historian” [5]. This is “the rest of the story” which skeptics don’t seem to engage with when they bring up this issue and challenge Luke’s credibility.

Interestingly, Tim McGrew suggests that Herod’s falling out of favor with Augustus is a possible reason why such a census of his domains would have been initiated at this time [6].

Rather than automatically throw out Luke’s report as historically inaccurate, it seems best to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.

No Automatic Fail

So it’s not true that Luke must have messed up on the timing of Jesus’ birth. By setting Jesus’ birth in the context of world history, Luke shows that he’s concerned about writing down what really happened. His mention of Quirinius’ census in the Christmas story doesn’t automatically mean that he made a mistake. Maybe Luke knew something we don’t.

In all this, what’s most important the core of the Christmas story. And that’s the angelic message the shepherds heard that first Christmas: “Good news of great joy that will be that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).

Merry Christmas!

apologetics-gospels-actsRecommended: The Gospels and Acts 

Want to dig deeper into the census of Luke 2? Check out this awesome new apologetics commentary from Holman Reference. It’s the most comprehensive volume ever produced in defense of the Gospels and Acts and it’s one of the resources I used to write this post. I love how it goes through every challenge to the text and helps you find good answers to the hard questions.

Look inside this book on Amazon.com

 

Full disclosure: The book was given to me by one of the authors, Darrell Bock. I was not required to post a positive review or recommend it. I only recommend stuff I really like and find useful. Purchasing resources on this page supports my graduate studies and apologetics ministry. 
[1] The NIV has a footnote with an alternate reading: “This census took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  But this reading is almost impossible. If you’re into Greek grammar, check out Daniel Wallace, The Problem of Luke 2:2 “This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria”.
[2] For a scholarly article on this, see John H. Rhodes, “Josephus Misdated the Census of Quirinius” in JETS (March, 2011), 65-87.  
[3] Darrell Bock, Luke, BECNT, ed. Moises Silva., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 904.
[4] For more on this view, see Michael Wilkins, Craig Evans, Darrell Bock, Adreas Kostenberger, The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible: The Gospels and Acts, ed Jeremy Royal Howard, (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2013), 352.
[5] Darrel Bock, Acts, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 6.
[6] Personal communication via Facebook, 12/21/2013.
Leaders: Get my FREE 6-part course on How to Run an Accessible Apologetics Conference. Sign-up now.

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11 Responses to “Did Luke Mess Up on the Timing of the Christmas Story?”

  1. David Austin December 21, 2013 6:02 PM
    #

    Hi,

    I am afraid your explanation has a fatal flaw.

    The census could not have started before 6CE because before that time Herod Archelaus was still ruling in parts of Palestine. The Romans would not have initiated a census whilst one of their “puppet” rulers was on the throne. It was only after Herod Archelaus was deposed and Roman rule took over would the census have been organised.

    It also seems ridiculous that preparation for a census would take 10 years (4BCE to 6CE).

    Richard Carrier covers this subject thoroughly in this link

    infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/quirinius.html

    It also seem crazy to have descendants of long-ago tribes travel back to the ancestral homes for a census. This has never been recorded in Roman history.

    I believe the two nativity accounts can never be reconciled.
    Regards
    David Austin
    Perth Western Australia

    • Apologetics Guy December 22, 2013 5:30 AM
      #

      Hey David,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment on this, but I don’t think it’s that simple. As for the “fatal flaw” of this possibility, you said “The census could not have started before 6CE…The Romans would not have initiated a census whilst one of their “puppet” rulers was on the throne.”

      Why not? By this time, Herod had fallen out of favor with Rome and Palestine was reduced to a Roman province. The people were required to swear allegiance to Herod and Caesar and had to submit to a census by imperial edict.

      Septimus Buss wrote in Roman Law and History in the New Testament (p 30-31).

      “But it has been alleged that Herod the Great occupied the position of a rex socius, or ally, and in that independent position would have been free from liability to submit to such an interference with his subjects as would be involved in the taking of a census by imperial edict.

      This, however, does not appear to have been the case, any independence on the part of sovereigns of realms formally included in the Roman Empire being only by sufferance of the superior power and at the will of the Emperor himself. At the very time of this “taxing,” viz. in B.C. 4, in the thirty-third year of Herod’s reign, Herod was out of favour at Rome. The chief indignity was the reduction of Palestine to the condition of a Roman province, and the requiring an oath of fidelity to Caesar and to Herod conjointly from all the subjects of Herod.”

      But hey, I get how crazy making people travel like that sounds. It’s tough to imagine a world so different from ours. But why dismiss Luke’s report? He actually wrote much earlier than Josephus. It’s an interesting historical issue for sure. Thanks again for the interaction, David.

      -Mikel

      • David Austin December 22, 2013 5:41 AM
        #

        Hi Mike,
        Thanks for your prompt & informative reply.

        I do not claim to be an expert on 1st century history, which I why I directed your attention to the very comprehensive analysis of this whole issue by Richard Carrier.

        Dr. Carrier has a PHd in ancient history, and writes extensively on issues relating to biblical history. He has studied this matter of the conflict between Matthew & Luke’s nativity descriptions and shown most “harmonisations” to be fallacious.

        I recommend you read his scholarly investigations into this matter.

        infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/quirinius.html

        Regards & have a safe & happy Christmas
        David Austin
        Perth, Western Australia

      • David Austin December 22, 2013 5:53 AM
        #

        Hi Mike,

        I forgot to respond to your remark that :-

        “But why dismiss Luke’s report? He actually wrote much earlier than Josephus.”.

        It seems likely, from articles I have read, that Luke actually used Josephus for some of his historical information. If this is the case, then Luke would have to have written his gospel AFTER Josephus, not EARLIER. I know the matter is by no means “clear cut”, but I think it is more likely that both Luke & Josephus would have been writing around 90CE.

        Luke makes it pretty clear he is not writing as an eye-witness to anything in his Gospel and he uses a variety of sources including Mark’s gospel.

        BTW, irrespective of the time “error” between Matthew & Luke’s nativity narrative there are many other differences which are hard to “harmonise” (eg. Joseph’s father – Heli or Jacob, No mention of flight into Egypt by Luke etc. No trip to Bethlehem in Matthew etc etc).

        Regards
        David Austin

        • Apologetics Guy December 22, 2013 11:38 AM
          #

          Hey David,

          Thanks again for taking the time to interact on this. I guess it depends on when you think Luke was written, but even critics like John A. T. Robinson hold to an earlier dating of Luke (60). I’d say the evidence is good that both Luke’s gospel and Acts were written by 70. Josephus wrote Antiquities in the 90s.

          I’ll check out the link. The other topics you mentioned could show up in a future post. Thanks for the ideas!

          I wish you very a Merry Christmas as well.

          -Mikel

          P.S. I was reminded about you at church this morning when our pastor read the verse I used to close my blog post: “Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.” :-)

          • David Austin December 22, 2013 5:53 PM
            #

            Hi Mike,

            Thanks for your response.

            Most biblical scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel written. Since Mark mentions the destruction of the Temple in Jerualem, it would seem logical to date the Mark Gospel to after 70CE (Date of the destruction of the Temple). It is clear it was written after Paul’s epistles which are normally dated arounf 55-60CE, since Paul does not seem to have any knowledge of Mark’s Gospel.

            It is also pretty obvious that both Matthew & Luke independently use Mark as their “starting point” for their Gospels which must date them to some time after 70CE. This is usually reckoned to be around 90CE. Josephus is also supposed to have written around 90CE, and, as I mentioned, some scholars reckon Luke used Josephus for some historical references.

            Of course, no one can be certain of these dates, especially as we do not have originals of any of the Gospels, but this is the “educated” guess of many scholars.

            Best wishes from a sunny & hot Perth, Western Australia,

            David Austin

          • Apologetics Guy December 22, 2013 7:45 PM
            #

            Hey David,

            I agree that the dating of Luke’s gospel isn’t an entirely clear-cut thing. But most scholars actually date Mark to the mid to late-60s, including Darrell Bock, whom I quote in my post. Also, the radical critic I mentioned earlier, Robinson (who is known for his role in launching the “Death of God” movement) actually argues for 45-60 in his work, Redating the New Testament.

            Also, the fact that Luke doesn’t mention Jesus’ fulfilled prophecy about the destruction of the temple in 70 suggests an early date, because he wrote 2 volumes which highlighted fulfillment. Bock has a very accessible summary of the dating issues on page 19 of Luke (The Ivp New Testament Commentary Series).

            I think some who insist on 80s do so because of a presumption of naturalism, i.e. that Jesus could not have predicted the destruction of the temple.

            Consider engaging with “the other half of the story” by at least looking at the written contributions of Dr. Bock when it comes to studying Luke.

            -Mikel

          • David Austin December 22, 2013 8:00 PM
            #

            Hi Mike,

            Thanks for the comments.

            I will check out further sources, and see what I can find on the subject.

            I would doubt a date earlier than 60CE since Paul seems unaware of any Gospels.

            The problem with Mark’s Gospel is that it was probably written by a gentile, and living outside Palestine, since the writer makes many geographical mistakes (later corrected by Matthew), and various mistakes relating to Jewish laws & traditions. It is also probably originally written in Greek, rather than Aramaic or Hebrew (dominant languages in Palestine at that time), and in quite a good literary style. This would mitigate it being written by an actual disciple/apostle of Jesus since they would be unlikely to be fluent in Greek.

            All in all, it is very difficult to accurately date it, but, from my naturalistic point of view, it seems more likely it was written after the destruction of the Temple in 70CE. I can understand why apologists “barrack” for an earlier date, but I am not sure if the evidence supports this view. It is very much an open question, and unless more documents are found, it seems unlikely to be definitively answered.

            Regards
            David Austin

          • Apologetics Guy December 22, 2013 8:13 PM
            #

            David,

            I don’t want to get too far off topic here, so perhaps we can talk more about Paul or Mark another time. I definitely appreciate the tone of our conversation and your honesty in looking at the data that we do have. One thing I do appreciate about reasonable and respectful naturalists is our shared belief in objective truth and interest in evaluating even truth claims made in the context of religion. Good night! :-)

            -Mikel

          • David Austin December 22, 2013 8:25 PM
            #

            Hi Mike,

            Talk to you again another time.

            Have a good Christmas.
            Regards,
            David Austin

  2. Paul Holmes December 22, 2013 7:12 PM
    #

    There were contemporary examples in Egypt of requiring people to return to their ancestral homeland for tax purposes I believe. I can’t find the darn book now, but it was F.F. Bruce.