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Is Luke Wrong About the Date of Jesus’ Birth? A Study in How to Do Evangelical Apologetics Pt. 3

Updated: Mar 30


An Analysis of the Issue

Peripheral Issues

As we have seen before, a number of charges are made against the credibility of Luke’s birth narrative of Jesus, to wit:

The only significant charge, however, was the accusation that Luke’s statement that the census took place while Quirinius was governing Syria (Luke 2:2) contradicts Matthew’s statement that Herod was still alive at the time of Jesus’ birth. This is the only charge that involves an actual contradiction in the New Testament accounts, and we have destroyed that charge. These other charges, however, are all arguments from silence and so do not carry much weight.

Skeptic Robert M. Price does try to elevate the significance of this silence, urging us to believe that “This is exceedingly strange, given the meticulous documentation of the era,” but the fact is that there is no such “meticulous documentation. On the contrary,

by a quirk of fate, the years around the date of the nativity are very poorly recorded by Roman historians; Syme has called the years 6 B.C. To A.D. 4 ‘this obscure decade.’

So, contra Price and his fellow travellers, the lack of historical evidence for any event in the time period around the birth of Jesus is not unexpected and proves nothing.

Nevertheless, there is more than enough to debunk these various objections. First, the charge that “[T]here is no historical documentation of a census under Roman auspices earlier than 6 CE in Judea,” in addition to being an argument from silence, may not even be true; there are strong reasons to believe that there was, in fact, an Empire-wide registration done at the time period indicated by Luke.

We know that when Augustus became emperor in 27 BC, he had a nationwide oath of allegiance taken to him, as he recorded in Res Gestae Divi Augusti 25.2:

The whole of Italy voluntarily swore allegiance to me and demanded me as the leader after the war in which I was victorious at Actium.

The year 2 BC was the silver jubilee of Augustus’ reign and in honour of this the Roman Senate conferred upon Augustus the title Pater Patriae (“Father of the Country”), and Augustus himself wrote,

“While I was administering my thirteenth consulship [i.e. 2 BC], the senate and the equestrian order and the entire Roman people gave me the title Father of my Country” (Res Gestae Divi Augusti 35).

To have this approved by “the entire Roman people,” as Augustus evidently wanted it, would have required an empire-wide oath of allegiance in the previous year, 3 BC. The 5th-century AD historian Orosius confirmed from Roman records available in his day that such a registration was indeed done in 3 BC, writing,

[Augustus] ordered that a census be taken of each province everywhere and that all men be enrolled … This is the earliest and most famous public acknowledgment which marked Caesar as the first of all men and the Romans as lords of the world, a published list of all men entered individually … This first and greatest census was taken, since in this one name of Caesar all the peoples of the great nations took oath, and at the same time, through the participation in the census, were made a part of one society. (Orosius 6.22, 7.2) (Bolding added)

As further corroboration, an ancient inscription dating to 3 BC that was found at Paphlagonia in north-central Asia Minor mentioned an oath of obedience was “taken by the inhabitants of Paphlagonia and the Roman businessmen dwelling among them … The same oath was sworn also by all the people in the land [Romans and non-citizens] at the altars of Augustus in the temples of Augustus in the various districts.

This is corroborated still further by the 5th-century AD Armenian historian Moses of Khorene, who mentioned such a registration taking place in the second year of Abgar king of Armenia, which is 3 BC. And, finally, we have Josephus’ testimony that the Jews took part in this registration:

“[T]he whole Jewish nation took an oath to be faithful to Caesar, and [to] the interests of the king” (Josephus, Antiquities 17.3.1).

In light of this evidence, then, how nonsensical are the objections that:

[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. [T]here is no historical documentation of a census under Roman auspices earlier than 6 CE in Judea.

Such charges can only be based on a lack of familiarity with the relevant evidence. Next, the objection that “No taxation census ever required individuals to register, not where they themselves live but rather where their remote ancestors once lived!” can be readily dismissed, despite the best efforts of the liberal skeptics. Price, for example, crows that.

The absurdity of this is obvious. 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.

It seems that Price’s imagination is rather stunted. Even if all were as he says, all that would be needed for Joseph to be required to go to Bethlehem for a taxation census is that he own some land there.

But all is not as Price says. He and other liberal skeptics act as if Joseph and his ancestors had not lived in Bethlehem for a thousand years and so it makes no sense to require Joseph to go there to be registered. That, however, is an assumption and is unwarranted. While Nazareth seems to be Mary’s home town (Luke 1:26), there is no indication that it was Joseph’s home town.

We are told in Luke 2:4 that “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,” but that only means he was in Nazareth with his pregnant wife, not that it was his usual place of residence. In fact, Matthew 2:22-23 indicates that Joseph and his family did not intend to live in Nazareth but somewhere in Judea, and that Nazareth was chosen only because of the potential threat posed by Archelaus.

It seems likely, then, that Joseph’s home town and place of residence was, in fact, Bethlehem, and he was only sojourning in Nazareth at the time the registration was called. So obviously he would have to return to Bethlehem.

Finally, it should be noted that, as we have seen, there is no difficulty even if this ἀπογραφή were a “taxation census,” but it wasn’t; it was a registration to declare an oath of loyalty to Caesar Augustus. We do not know whether the rules would have been the same.

Next, the cavil that Mary would not have had to go to Bethlehem even if Joseph did have to go is hardly worth mentioning. Doherty objects that:

[N]o notice is taken of the fact that ‘the city of David’ was not the city of Mary, and that there seems to have been no necessity for her to have made such a journey on the eve of her confinement. It is all outside the plane of reality.

This objection is careless. It is reasonable to think that Joseph was not willing to leave his wife, known to have become pregnant before marrying him, alone “on the eve of her confinement. But even if he had, within forty days after she had given birth she would have had to make the trek to Jerusalem to present the baby at the temple and offer sacrifices (Luke 2:22-24). In light of the fact that Nazareth is sixty-three miles from Jerusalem while Bethlehem is only six miles away, Joseph may well have preferred to have the pregnant Mary make the long journey with him than to have Mary with a newborn make the journey without him. Either way, the idea that it is historically impossible for Joseph to have taken Mary with him to Bethlehem when he went for the registration is utterly ridiculous. It is surprising that liberal skeptics can make this charge with a straight face.

The final objection raised was that:

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. 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.

This fails at every point.

First, the fact that “No Roman census in a client kingdom had ever been recorded” is irrelevant, considering this registration was an Empire-wide one for an oath of loyalty, something that was only done once, so of course no other would be recorded.

Second, the claim that “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” is incorrect. Herod did have a good relationship with Rome for most of his reign, but in 4 BC, after Herod sent soldiers into Arabia in pursuit of robbers, Augustus became angry with him and reduced his status from “friend of Caesar” to “subject of Caesar (Josephus, Antiquities 16.9.3). With Herod reduced to a subject, Rome certainly could have chosen to involve themselves in a census in his territory.

Finally, even if it were true that “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,” that is irrelevant, since this registration was for an oath of loyalty to Caesar Augustus, not for “taxation.

Thus endeth the challenges to the birth narrative of Luke. No challenge remains standing.


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. It is said that Matthew’s narrative, in which Herod the Great is alive at the birth of Jesus, and Luke’s narrative, in which Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem for a registration when Quirinius was governing Syria, are irreconcilable, inasmuch as Herod died in 4 BC while Quirinius did not begin to govern Syria until AD 6.

Yet the challenge is not intractable at all. All that is required is to ask questions instead of accepting claims on blind faith. How do you know that Herod died in 4 BC? What is your evidence? How do you know that Quirinius began to govern Syria in AD 6? What is your evidence? They are simple questions, but once they are asked, the whole accusation against Matthew and Luke collapses.

As we have seen, the evidence, both regnal and astronomical, clearly indicates that Herod died in 1 BC, not 4 BC. That in turn means that Jesus was born in 3-2 BC, a period during which the identity of the governor of Syria is unknown from any source other than Luke; we may therefore accept his testimony to this effect.

We should also note that Luke writes that “αὕτη ἡ ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου = “while Quirinius was governing Syria”; this makes it possible that Quirinius was governing Syria without the official title of Governor.

Regarding the factoid that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until AD 6, it is possible that he governed Syria a second time beginning in AD 6, perhaps with the official title of Governor if, indeed, he had not had that title before. However, the only testimony we have that Quirinius began to govern Syria in AD 6 comes from Josephus, who is often unreliable. If the matter comes down to a choice of who to believe on this matter, Josephus or Luke, the only reasonable choice is to believe Luke, who has demonstrated himself to be the far superior historian, and who was closer in time to the events than was Josephus.

As to the other challenges levied against Luke’s birth narrative, they are insignificant, inasmuch as they rely on arguments from silence about an era with a paucity of historical records. Nevertheless, we have seen that Luke’s claim is plausible, especially in light of the fact that several lines of evidence indicate that Caesar Augustus did indeed call an empire-wide registration in 3 BC.

Thus, this “most intractable problem” has been solved to the satisfaction of any reasonable, fair-minded person; indeed, it has been shown not to be a problem at all. Yet a problem does remain: the response of evangelical scholars to this matter. No doubt they are acting in good faith, but almost to a man they accept the 4 BC date for the death of Herod and the AD 6 date for the beginning of Quirinius’ governorship without any apparent critical thought whatsoever. How do you know Herod died in 4 BC? How do you know Quirinius did not become governor of Syria in AD 6? These are simple, obvious, necessary questions, but it does not occur to any of our evangelical brain trust to ask them.

It is ironic; while they profess to believe in Biblical inerrancy, it seems that de facto it is the inerrancy of the pronouncements of secular scholars that is accepted, and the Bible that is always in the dock. Look again at Daniel Wallace’s statement:

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.

Notice whose “accuracy” has “serious doubts” cast on it: Luke. Notice whose pronouncements are accepted without any question: secular scholars; there is nary a whisper that perhaps the 6 “CE” and 4 “BCE” dates may be wrong. In this case, what they are doing de facto, and certainly unaware of it, is treating Josephus as if he were inerrant at the expense of the accuracy of Luke. But they do not even realize they are doing this, because they do not think to ask the simple questions that must be asked of every secular claim: How do you know? What is your evidence? Is it valid?

Appendix: Luke as Historian

The reliability of Luke as a historian has long been assailed by liberal scholars, and the list of charges brought against his writings is a long one. The following lists some statements by Luke in the book of Acts, followed by the charges brought by the liberals:

  • “Gallio was proconsul of Achaia” (Acts 18:12): Gallio never governed Achaia, since he is not mentioned in any Roman lists, and the title “proconsul of Achaia” is impossible.

  • “Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene” (Luke 3:1): This is an error, since Lysanias died in 36 BC.

  • “the politarchs” (Acts 17:6): This is an error; such a title was never used for city authorities

  • “temple guardians” (neōkoros) in Ephesus (Acts 19:35): This title is impossible.

  • “proconsul” in Cyprus (Acts 13:7,8,12): This title is impossible.

  • “first man of the island” in Malta (Acts 28:7): This title is impossible.

Yet subsequent archaeological discoveries eventually proved that Luke had been correct in every case, despite the confident assertions by the liberal scholars that what Luke had claimed was “impossible.

For example, as we have seen, liberal skeptics long insisted that Gallio never governed Achaia, since he is not listed in any Roman lists, and they further confidently maintained that the title “proconsul of Achaia” was impossible. Ergo, Luke is clearly not a reliable historian, they crowed – until an inscription was discovered at Delphi in 1908 that dated to AD 51 and identified “Gallio” as “proconsul.” (Gallio’s tenure was short-lived, beginning in AD 51 and ending in AD 52, which may explain why he was not mentioned in Roman lists.)

Liberal skeptics had also long claimed that Luke identifying Lysanias as tetrarch of Abilene in AD 29 was an error, since Lysanias died in 36 BC – until an inscription was found at Abila that dated between AD 14 and AD 29 and mentioned “Lysanias the tetrarch.

Liberal skeptics had also long insisted insisted that the term “politarchs” was never used as a title for city authorities, a title that Luke had used for the city rulers in Thessalonica (Acts 17:6) – until an inscription dated between AD 69 and AD 79 was found in 1835 in Thessalonica that listed the “politarchs” of the city! In fact, nineteen inscriptions have been discovered thus far that include the title “politarch,” of which five were found in Thessalonica. Indeed, Luke’s track record is unparalleled:

All in all, Luke names thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands without making a single error.

No other Greco-Roman historian even comes close in terms of accuracy.

The great archaeologist Sir William Ramsay, who spent years in the field studying the actual sites at which the events of Acts took place, began as a skeptic based on the teachings of the epicentre of liberal scholarship, Tübingen University in Germany. As he began his on-site studies, he tells us,

I began with a mind unfavourable to [the historical reliability of the New Testament] … but more recently I found myself often brought in contact with the book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvellous truth. In fact, beginning with the fixed idea that the work was essentially a second-century composition, and never relying on its evidence as trustworthy for first-century conditions, I gradually came to find it a useful ally in some obscure and difficult investigations.”

As he continued his on-site studies, he eventually concluded,

Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect to its trustworthinessLuke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements trustworthy … this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians … Acts “could bear the most minute scrutiny as an authority for the facts of the Aegean world, and that it was written with such judgment, skill, art and perception of truth as to be a model of historical statement … You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian’s and they stand the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment.


1. Price, op. cit., p. 126. (Bolding added.)

2. ibid., p. 127. (Bolding added.)

3. Tobin, op. cit., p. 345

4. ibid., pp. 345-346. (Bolding added.)

5. Price, op. cit., pp. 127-128

6. As William Baird points out, “some recent research into Roman practices has indicated that … the enrollment did require that a man appear for census in the area where he owned land, and on some occasions his wife came along. It may be that Caesar maintained control of taxation within Herod’s kingdom … an enrollment could have been held in Palestine during the reign of Herod the Great …” (Baird, William. “The Gospel According to Luke” in Laymon, Charles M. ed. The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1971, p. 676)

7. ibid., p. 127

8. Thorley, John. “When was Jesus Born?” Greece and Rome (Second Series) 28:1 (April 1981), p. 85. (Bolding added.) “Syme” is Sir Ronald Syme, the top historian of ancient Rome of the entire century.

9. Tobin, op. cit., p. 345

10. The meaning of ἀπογραφή (apographē) in Luke 2:2 is “registration.” It could be done for taxation purposes, but this is not inherent in the meaning.

11. Martin, Ernest L. “The Nativity and Herod’s Death” in Vardaman, Jerry and Edwin M. Yamauchi. eds. Chronos Kairos Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1989, p. 89

12. ibid.

13. Lewis, N. and M. Reinhold, Roman Civilization. New York: Columbia University, 1955, 2:34–35. (Bolding added.)

14. R.W. Thomson, Moses of Khorene’s History of the Armenians, II.26

15. ibid., p. 127

16. Tobin, op. cit., p. 345

17. Price, op. cit., p. 126

18. ibid., pp. 126-127. (Bolding added.)

19. “But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’” (Matthew 2:22-23)

20. Guignebert, Charles. (S.H. Hooke. transl.) Jesus. New York: University Books, 1956, p. 99, quoted in Doherty, Earl. Challenging the Verdict: A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ.” Ottawa: Age of Reason Publications, 2001, p. 73. (Bolding added.)

21. Joseph could not have been certain that he would have finished his registration duties in time to return to Nazareth before she had to make the journey to Jerusalem.

22. ibid., pp. 345-346. (Bolding added.)

23. Price, op. cit., pp. 127-128

24. As noted previously, the registration for an oath of loyalty in 27 BC had applied only to Italy proper.

25. Price, op. cit., pp. 127-128

26. AD 1 may also be possible.

27. A very few do challenge the 4 BC date for Herod’s death, arguing, as we have done, for 1 BC or even AD 1. Even fewer challenge the AD 6 date for the start of Quirinius’ governorship. I have not found one who challenges both, and as long as one or the other stands, the “intractable problem” remains.

28. And it is by no means only on this issue. See Tors, John. “The Three-Headed Monster and the Evangelical Betrayal of the Bible: Exposing the Major Weapons Levied against the Trustworthiness of the Bible” at

29. Wallace, op. cit., pp. 304-305

30. Compiled from Geisler, Norman and Ron Brooks. When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1990, pp. 200-201 (the final quote is from p. 201); Holden, Joseph M. and Norman Geisler. The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible: Discoveries That Confirm the Reliability of Scripture. Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2013, pp. 353-357; Archaeological Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010, p. 1569

31. From Geisler and Brooks, op. cit., p. 201

32. McDowell, Josh. Evidence for Christianity: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith. Nashville: Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2006, p. 95

33. Holden and Geisler, op. cit., pp. 355-356

34. Geisler and Brooks, op. cit., p. 201

35. Ramsay, W.M. St. Paul The Traveler and the Roman Citizen.New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons and London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1896, p. 8. (Bolding added.)

36. Ramsay, W.M. St. Paul The Traveler, op. cit., p. 81; Ramsay, Sir W. M. The Bearing of Recent Discoveries on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament. London and New York and Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915, pp. 222, 85-89. (Bolding and underlining added.)

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