IS LUKE WRONG ABOUT THE DATE OF JESUS’ BIRTH? A Case Study in How to Do Serious Evangelical Apologetics (Part 1)

©2015, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

PART 1 OF 3

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife,who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. (Luke 2:1-6)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him…. Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men…. (Matthew 2:1-3,16)

INTRODUCTION

One of the most intractable challenges to the historical reliability of the Gospel books is said to be the contradiction between Matthew and Luke regarding the time at which Jesus was born. According to Luke, Jesus was born in Bethlehem while His parents were there to be registered in response to a decree issued by Caesar Augustus, and this “first took place while Qurinius was governing Syria” (Luke 2:2). However, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus was born before the death of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1-3,16). This is said to be a contradiction because

Matthew’s narrative requires Jesus to have been born in or before 4 BC, i.e., before the death of Herod the Great. However, Luke’s gospel puts the birth during the Roman census which was conducted when Quirinius, governor of Syria, took over responsibility for governing Judea (Luke 2:2). This census occurred in 6 AD, so there is at least a ten year discrepancy between Matthew and Luke as to the year in which Jesus was born.[1]

[W]hile there was one historical census when Quirinius was governor of Syria it happened ten years after the death of King Herod. But according to both Matthew and Luke, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the great (Matthew 2;1, Luke 1:5) … The dates for the death of Herod (4 BCE) and the census under Quirinius (6 CE) are historically unassailable.[2]

Nor is the date of Jesus’ birth the only problematic issue. The following charges are also levied against Luke’s birth narrative:

  • -“No taxation census ever required individuals to register, not where they themselves live but rather where their remote ancestors once lived! What, after all, is the point of a census in any century? The government wants to know how much in taxes they can expect to collect and at what address. Imagine asking people to register where their forbears lived a thousand years previously! That is what Luke bids us imagine, but we cannot ”[3]
  • -“[T]he census Luke posits (2:1), levied at the command of Caesar Augustus, is unknown to any historian of the period. This is exceedingly strange, given the meticulous documentation of the era.”[4] “[T]here is no historical documentation of a census under Roman auspices earlier than 6 CE in Judea.”[5]
  • -“Before [AD 6] Judea was a ‘client kingdom’, i.e. under Roman domination but not under direct Roman rule. No Roman census in a client kingdom had ever been recorded. At any rate, Herod the Great was a very obedient subject of Rome who paid his dues properly. There was no need for Rome to intervene directly with any kind of census in Judea.”[6] “At this time Palestine was not yet officially a Roman province, so it could not have been included in any taxation of the empire proper.”[7]

Evangelical scholars certainly concede that there is a serious problem here.[8] Bock, for example, asserts that “We know Quirinius was ruler in 6 AD, but this is too late to represent Jesus’ birth and be the explanation for why Mary and Joseph have come south from Nazareth down into Judaea into Bethlehem. This is certainly correct. Josephus does not give us any indication of an earlier census or anything similar. We do have a historical anomaly here at this point.”[9]

Daniel Wallace, meanwhile, is even blunter:

This text [Luke 2:2] casts serious doubts on Luke’s accuracy for two reasons: (1) The earliest known Roman census in Palestine was taken in 6-7 CE, and (2) there is little, if any, evidence that Quirinius was governor of Syria before Herod’s death in 4 BCE. In light of this, many scholars believe that Luke was thinking about the census in 6-7 CE, when Quirinius was governor of Syria … In conclusion, facile solutions do not come naturally to Luke 2:2.[10]

While Bock will attempt to provide a “facile” solution that fails, Wallace doesn’t even try; he certainly seems willing to concede tacitly that there an error here, while insisting that “This does not mean, of course, that Luke erred.”[11]

Is it any wonder, then, that arch-skeptic Paul Tobin, by his own testimony a “believing Christian [turned] into a convinced atheist[12] asks, with scorn reeking of triumphalism, “So how do the fundamentalist apologists try to wriggle their way out of this?”[13]

THE EVANGELICAL RESPONSE

The putative difficulty surrounding the date of Jesus’ birth and the attendant circumstances has not come to our attention only recently, and evangelicals have proposed various solutions some time ago that skeptics are only too happy to discredit. Let us consider these proposed solutions and why they do not solve the problems. First, the following are not even consistent with the Biblical testimony:

  • -PROPOSED SOLUTION: The census may have been conducted by an earlier governor, perhaps Saturninus, while Herod was still alive
  • -WHY IT DOES NOT WORK: Luke specifies that the registration was done while Quirinius was governing Syria, so this would be admitting that Luke made a mistake.
  • -PROPOSED SOLUTION: Perhaps the decree and the census were two distinct events, the decree first and the census ten years later.
  • -WHY IT DOES NOT WORK: The text clearly has Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem for the census when Jesus was born; the census was therefore not ten years later.
  • -PROPOSED SOLUTION: Perhaps there were two distinct events, the census and then ten years later the levying of taxes based on the census.
  • -WHY IT DOES NOT WORK: The text says nothing about taxes. It says the census, during which Jesus was born, was done when Quirinius was governing Syria, not that some later taxation was done by Quirinius, so the date of census, AD 6, cannot be moved prior to the time of Quirinius so that it could have taken place before Herod’s death in 4 BC.

There have been other proposals that are consistent with the Biblical testimony, but have other weaknesses that disallow them. For example, it has been suggested that perhaps Quirinius conducted two censuses, the first during the time of Jesus’ birth and the second in AD 6; during the first he may have been “governing” Syria, as Luke 2:2 says, without having the official title of “Governor.”[14] This suggestion goes back to the 19th-century archaeologist Sir William Ramsay, who “argued that Quirinius served as governor of Syria from 11/10 BC to 8/7 BC, as well as in the later and firmly documented period that began in AD 6. Ramsay further argued that prior to the close of his first governorship Quirinius set in motion the census that Luke placed in Palestine in 6 BC.”[15] This claim “was partly based on the Latin Tiburtine Inscription, discovered in 1746, which referred to someone ruling Syria twice, and Ramsay argued that Quirinius fitted that description.”[16]

Liberal skeptics are only too ready to debunk this suggestion. Erick Franklin points out that “a suggestion that Qurinius served an earlier term as an official in our area and that he was then involved in the census lacks real evidence.”[17] Bock forthrightly says,

The basis of Ramsay’s argument for two governorships is his contention that an inscription known as the “Lapis Tiburtinus” refers to Quirinius. There is a noteworthy weakness to this approach: the Lapis Tiburtinus inscription is fragmentary and mentions no names … Based as it is on the anonymity of the inscription, Ramsay’s theory is impossible to establish as fact.[18]

In fact, the Tiburtine inscription reads as follows:

… … … … … … … … …
…KING BROUGHT INTO THE POWER OF…
AUGUSTUS AND THE ROMAN PEOPLE AND SENATE…
FOR THIS HONORED WITH TWO VICTORY CELEBRATIONS…
FOR THE SAME THING THE TRIUMPHAL DECORATION…
OBTAINED THE PROCONSULATE OF THE PROVINCE OF ASIA…
AGAIN OF THE DEIFIED AUGUSTUS SYRIA AND PH[OENICIA]…
… … … … … … … … …[19]

Furthermore, as Tobin points out, we have ancient records of the governors of Syria from 23 BC to AD 7, and there is no room in the relevant time period to insert a second (prior) governorship for Quirinius:[20]

TIMD IS LUKE

It has also been postulated that “Quirinius was a legate a Roman general or governor or his deputy] between Publius Quinctilius Varus and Gaius Caesar from 4 BC to 1 BC … [as] this time frame coincides with the only governorship gap we have in the historical records.”[21] This however, “denied that a census was undertaken in the period of Herod the Great (ended 4 BC)” and simply trades one error for another.[22]

And as if that weren’t enough, we are reminded that Judea was “a client kingdom during the reign of Herod, and therefore it was impossible for a census to be held within his domain.”[23]

Options become fewer. Bock offers this one:

My own solution is that Augustus got organized to take this census and the mechanizations of it took place somewhere between 6 BC and 4 BC. But the census was not actually executed until Quirinius In other words, the census was taken under Augustus; then Quirinius took the data, put it together, and presented it to Rome. So Rome actually began to make use of it for taxation under Quirinius.[24]

Bock’s explanation is fanciful – and futile. The Greek text reads

ἐγενετο δε ἐν ταις ἡμεραις ἐκειναις ἐξηλθεν δογμα παρα καισαρος αὐγουστου

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus

ἀπογραφεσθαι πασαν την οἰκουμενην. αὑτηἀπογραφη πρωτη ἐγενετο ἡγεμονευοντος

that should be registered all the world. This registration first took place while governing

της συριας κυρηνιουκαι ἐπορευοντο παντες ἀπογραφεσθαι ἑκαστος εἰς την ἰδιαν πολιν

Syria was Quirinius. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

It is clearly beyond dispute that the ἀπογραφη (“registration”) decreed by Caesar was the “αὐτη ἡ ἀπογραφη (“this registration”) done “while Quirinius was governing Syria,” the ἀπογραφη for which Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem. It is impossible to wedge ten years into the midst of this, as Bock proposes to do.

There is one more explanation advanced by evangelicals to solve the discrepancy, and that is to argue that αὑτη ἡ ἀπογραφη πρωτη ἐγενετο ἡγεμονευοντος της συριας κυρηνιου (“This registration first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria”) can be translated in a different way. Creation Ministries International (CMI)’s golden child Lita Cosner avers that

[T]he word translated ‘first’ can also mean ‘before’, and it fits the Greek grammar very well to have it read something like, “This census took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” This, if Luke is talking about 10 years before Quirinius, makes perfect sense. It is only fair that if there are possible ways to take the Greek, but one of them leads to an inconsistency, while the other fits with the other facts, we assume that the author meant the one that fits with the other facts.[25]

This seems to be CMI’s favourite approach regarding this problem.[26] CMI’s Chief Scientist Dr. Jonathan Sarfati avows that “The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright argues that πρῶτος (prōtos) not only means ‘first’, but when followed by the genitive can mean ‘before’ (cf. John 1:15, 15:18). Wright’s view also has quite a lot of scholarly support, although not universal.”[27] In fact, CMI writers appeal to this solution repeatedly.[28]

Despite CMI’s confident assertions, this solution is unworkable. According to Daniel Wallace, who is repeatedly referenced by CMI writers as their preferred expert on textual criticism,[29]

Πρώτη is sometimes regarded as adverbial: “this census took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” The advantage of this approach is that it eludes the historical problem of Quirinius’ governorship overlapping the reign of Herod. However…it erroneously presupposes that αὕτη modifies ἀπογραφὴ….But since the construction is anarthrous, such a view is almost impossible (because when a demonstrative functions attributively to a noun, the noun is almost always articular).[30],[31]

The Greek grammar, therefore, does not allow this phrase to be translated “This census took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria.”[32]

Associates for Biblical Research also points out that such an attempted retranslation is not viable.[33] It is not surprising, then, that they conclude that there is no clear answer: “I. Howard Marshall is probably right when he suggests that Luke’s full vindication lies buried somewhere, waiting to be unearthed.”[34]

Daniel Wallace is more blunt, concluding that “facile solutions do not come naturally to Luke 2:2.”[35] It sounds rather empty, then, when he insists that “This does not, of course, mean that Luke erred.”[36] As did the Associates for Biblical Research, Wallace expresses hope that some new discovery in the future will solve the problem: “In agreement with Schürmann, Marshall ‘warns against too easy acceptance of the conclusion that Luke has gone astray here; only the discovery of new historical evidence can lead to a solution of the problem.’”[37]

There is a palpable desperation about all this, as it certainly seems to be saying, “Yes, there is a definite error here and we have no solution, but let’s not conclude that there’s an error, because maybe someday will find some evidence that will show it’s not an error after all.” Nevertheless, Wallace tells us, “This is where we must leave the matter.”[38]

He is wrong. There is still one option left. We can try looking at the evidence more carefully. We should never blindly trust assertions; we need always to verify the facts. Let us see what happens when we apply that principle to this issue.

END OF PART 1. CONTINUE TO PART 2 OF 3.

Please click here for part 2


[1] Davis, Mike. The Atheist’s Bible Companion to the New Testament: A Comprehensive Guide to Christian Bible Contradictions. Denver, CO: Outskirts Press, Inc., 2009, p.3

[2] Tobin, Paul. The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible and the Historical Jesus. Bedfordshire, England: Authors OnLine Ltd, 2009, pp.336,345 (Bolding added)

[3] Price, Robert M. The Case Against The Case for Christ. Cranford, NJ: American Atheist Press, 2010, pp.126-127 (Bolding added)

[4]ibid., p.127 (Bolding added)

[5] Tobin, op.cit., p.345

[6]ibid., pp.345-346 (Bolding added)

[7] Price, op.cit., pp.127-128 (Bolding added)

[8]Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996, p.304; Bock, Dr. Darrell. “EhrmanProject.com: On Quirinius’ Census.” At http://ehrmanproject.com/transcripts/Darrell%20Bock%20-%20On%20Quirinius’%20Census.pdf

[9] Bock, “On Quirinius’ Census,” op.cit., p.1 (Bolding added.)

[10] Wallace, op.cit., pp.304-305 (Bolding added)

[11]ibid., p.305

[12] Stated by him at http://www.rejectionofpascalswager.net/

[13]Tobin, op.cit., p.345.

[14]Sarfati, Jonathan. “The Census of Quirinius: Did Luke get it wrong?” Posted on December 29, 2011, at http://creation.com/quirinius-census-luke. (Later published in Creation 36:1 (2014), pp.42-44)

[15] Bock, Darrell. “Apologetics Commentary on the Gospel of Luke” in Howard, Jeremy Royal. Gen. ed. The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible: The Gospel and Acts. Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2013, p.351.

[16]Sarfati, “Census,” op.cit.

[17] Franklin, Eric. “Luke” in Barton, John and John Muddiman. Eds. The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, p.929

[18] Bock, Apologetics Commentary, op.cit., p.351. (Bolding added). Tobin (op.cit., p.347) carelessly assumes that Quirinius is actually mentioned in the Tiburtine inscription, writing, “The inscription simply mentioned that Quirinius was honored for his role in achieving a military victory.”

[19]From Carrier, Richard.“The Date of the Nativity in Luke” (6th ed., 2011) at http://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/quirinius.html. According to Carrier, two other ancient inscriptions, the Lapis Venetus and the Antioch stones, mention Quirinius, but neither of these is datable and so cannot shed light on the matter.

[20] Tobin, op.cit., p. 348. (Bolding added). The following chart is taken from this source. Tobin, in turn, adapted it from Brown, Raymond. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives. New York: Doubleday, 1993, p.550.

[21] Bock, Apologetics Commentary, op.cit., p.351. In ancient Rome, a legate was a governor or the deputy of a governor or a general.

[22]ibid.

[23]Marshall, I. Howard.NIGTC Commentary on Luke. Exeter: The Paternoster Press/Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978, p.101. (A client kingdom was one that had its own ruler and so was not directly controlled by Rome, but whose king served at Roman pleasure, and which was dominated by Rome. It was similar to the situation in Hungary, Poland, Romania, and other East Bloc countries when they were under the domination of the Soviet Union but not ruled directly by it.) Franklin (op.cit.) is more circumspect about this charge, maintaining that the likelihood of such a thing happening is “remote,” rather than impossible.

[24]Bock, “On Quirinius’ Census,” op.cit.

[25]Cosner, Lita. “What part of Genesis should we believe? All of it! There are no contradictions in Scripture.” Posted on March 15, 2012, at http://creation.com/bolt-response

[26]Sarfati, “Census,” op.cit. Sarfati also suggests that “This was not the main census of Quirinius, but a first census, which implies at least one more.” The problem with this suggestion is three-fold. First, as has been discussed, as liberal sceptics point out, there is no evidence for another, earlier census by Quirinius. Second, the text tells us that this census “first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria,” and while this does “impl[y] at least one more” registration, it certainly does not imply one more done by Quirinius.  Third, the use of “first” may only imply that Luke believed more could be done in the future, rather than that another had already been done.

[27]ibid. Sarfati cites F.F Bruce and Harold Hoehner in support of this sort of translation.

[28]Bott, Michael and Jonathan Sarfati. “What’s Wrong With Bishop Spong? Laymen Rethink the Scholarship of John Shelby Spong.” Apologia 4:1 (1995), pp.3-27, reprinted and modified in 1998, last updated February 7, 2007, and posted at http://creation.com/whats-wrong-with-bishop-spong#6; Anderson, Daniel. “The Nativity: Fact or Fiction?” posted December 23, 2006, at http://creation.com/the-nativity-fact-or-fiction#_edn12; Sarfati, Jonathan. “The Virginal Conception of Christ.”Apologia 3:2 (1994), pp.4-11, last updated December 24, 2014 and posted at http://creation.com/the-virginal-conception-of-christ#f35; Grigg, Russell. “Christmas-Why?” posted December 25, 2015, at http://creation.com/christmas-why. (Some of them appeal to Sarfati’s other suggestion, explicated in f.n. 26, above.)

[29] See Tors, John. “Creation Ministries and the Three-Headed Monster: Why the Monster Wins (Part 2)” at http://www.truthinmydays.com/creation-ministries-international-and-the-three-headed-monster-why-the-monster-wins-part-2/

[30] Wallace, op.cit., pp.305, 304. The quote is combined from Wallace’s explanation as to why the passage cannot be translated as “this census was before the census which Quirinius, governor of Syria, made” or as “this census took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

[31] In fact, the construction is not anarthrous; the article ἡ is present between αὑτη and ἀπογραφη in 99.4% of the Greek manuscripts, including Codex Sinaiticus, (which makes the translation possible, though still next to impossible due to the separation between πρωτη and κυρηνιου). In fact, ἡ is absent in only 0.6% of the manuscripts, but those who uncritically accept the Griesbachian/Westcott-Hort approach to textual criticism must consider the construction anarthrous. See http://www.truthinmydays.com/a-primer-on-new-testament-textual-criticism-in-manageable-bite-sized-chunks/

[32] It is difficult to understand Miss Cosner’s assertion that “[T]he word translated ‘first’ can also mean ‘before’, and it fits the Greek grammar very well to have it read something like, “This census took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (Cosner, Lita. “What part of Genesis should we believe? All.” Posted on March 15, 2012, at http://creation.com/bolt-response.) That is simply not the case.

[33] Compton, Jared. “Once More: Quirinius’s Census.” Detroit Baptist Theological Journal (Fall 2009), pp. 45–54, posted at http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2009/11/01/once-more-quiriniuss-census.aspx#Article

[34]ibid. (Bolding added)

[35] Wallace, op.cit., pp.305 (Bolding and underlining added)

[36]ibid.

[37]ibid. Wallace here cites Marshall, I.H. Luke:Historian and Theologian. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1971, p.69 f.n.5 (Bolding and underlining added)

[38] Wallace, op.cit., pp.305 (Bolding added)

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