Did Luke “Mess Up”?


The use of historical reference points in Luke’s gospel when it comes to dating the birth of Jesus

Skeptics love to attack the historicity of the Bible. Two of their favorite targets are the Exodus and the dating of the census in the gospel of Luke. Now, while I have an entire post (as well as this) dealing with biblical historicity in which I touch on the Exodus, I don’t think that I have ever touched on the census mentioned in Luke. 

J. Warner Wallace has a great post on the question over at his blog, where he goes through the evidences for the reliability of Luke’s account, but I want to address two key points, one in regards to inspiration, and its correspondence to infallibility, and overall historicity. 

As I have spelled out in my particular take on inspiration (and here), namely that Scripture is the means by which God speaks to his people, I can make allowances for the ignorance—scientific or otherwise—of the authors of Scripture. I recognize the time in which they are writing and I recognize what information that they might or might not have had access to. I can’t fault their ignorance of various matters because I don’t see the act of inspiration (spiritually speaking) as a kind of cosmic data dump, though there are lots of believers and unbelievers who do. Such a view means that there can be no reconciliation between Scripture and experience, and the places where that leads…well, are ultimately nonsensical. As such, I can allow for the writers of Scriptures to be human and make mistakes or adhere to common literary conventions, or even use a reference book without it effecting me hearing God speak from the text. One of the problems with skeptics bringing up this objection is that, most of the time, they take what might be an error and use that as ammunition. 

My talk on the nature of inspiration

Let’s say that Moses, or some later writer, exaggerated the events surrounding the Exodus. Okay. We can find instances where other cultures engaged in similar exaggeration. Paul Copan, has an entire chapter (chapter 16) in his book Is God a Moral Monster?, documenting the consistency with which such exaggeration occurs cross-culturally in the immediate ANE context. In other words, Moses (or some other writer) using normal practices of exaggeration could have blown numbers or even events out of proportion, and that still would not mean that the Exodus didn’t occur. But what about Luke’s dating of Jesus’ birth to a census, what does that mean? Well, first, it means that we have to get certain assumptions out of the way, such as movie depictions of events. 

Two of my favorite movies that have been produced to dramatize the life of Christ are The Greatest Story Ever Told and the epic mini-series Jesus of Nazareth, and no matter how many times I have watched them, I still stop and watch them if I catch them on TV somewhere. And while they are both beautiful productions, I recognize that they’re just movies, not accurate, historical retellings. I also recognize that both Matthew and Luke, the only gospels that talk of Christ’s birth, are doing so in a compressed manner, both just trying to establish some basic facts. Both place Jesus being born in a time when Herod the Great was alive, with Luke throwing out a teasing tidbit for extra effort, dating the birth of Jesus to a period around which a census was ordered to be taken. Luke writes, 

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to 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, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7, ESV) 

Luke seems to be staking his reputation on the line here, after all, he begins his gospel claiming that he has, “…followed all things closely…” and he is presenting “…an orderly account…” for his reader(s), so one expects him to have his facts checked. So what are the facts in question?

  1. a decree from Caesar Augustus for the purpose of taxation 
  2. that the census involved “the whole world”
  3. that it occurred under a governor of Syria named “Quirinius”
  4. that everyone went to his hometown to register 

The obvious, first question to be answered would be whether or not the individuals named existed, and we get positive answers that both Augustus and Quirinius existed. The second would be whether or not Augustus issued such an order, Dr John Elder, as noted in this article, has written that,

…Augustus records that he set about early in his reign to organize the empire, the first census may have been either 23-22 BC or in 9-8 BC; the latter would be the census to which the Gospel of Luke refers. 

So, we do know that Augustus ordered a census, we just don’t know when it was ordered for certain. Then again, we also cannot say that we may not know when it was completed either. But then there’s the curious phrase about “…each…returning to his own town…” for the census, which seems to fly in the face of common Roman practice of registration, unless we consider this census decree from the early second century as evidence that such a requirement would be possible at an earlier time. Ultimately though, most objections to it come as people trying to cause problems by putting the gospel authors at odds with one another, such as Raymond E. Brown does here. Largely, it seems as if people simply cannot put themselves in the position of the people being written about. Also, most of the problems imposed on the text come from simply not reasoning through the context. 

Herod the Great ruled Judea as a client king, and as such he had a measure of autonomy in his ability to rule his territory. Further, Judea had its own laws of inheritance that would affect how taxes were levied and collected due to Jewish law (See the study on Deuteronomy). It’s reasonable to assume that Herod, given his responsibility as a client king and Jewish law, he could have added the requirement of householders returning to their hometowns for registration, which is a hypothesis presented in this article. This could have been perceived by Joseph as a blessing in disguise given the fact that his fiancée was pregnant with a child that was not his, and so packed them up to move from Nazareth to his hometown, as a member of the line of David, of Bethlehem. This would place them in closer access to the temple, given the ceremonial requirements of the Jewish religion, and would give them a place to make a fresh start. 

Notice that this explanation moves the relocation requirement down a notch, and harmonizes both Matthew and Luke historically and grammatically. Further, there’s simply the question of coordinating the dating the birth of Jesus with the death of Herod, something Dr. Michael Heiser unpacks here. 

But let’s say that Luke does have the correlation of the registration with the birth of Jesus wrong. Does that somehow invalidate everything that he wrote? No. It just means that he got one fact wrong. 

Something that we often forget, and largely take for granted is calendars and dating, which . we simply put too much emphasis on having the dates precise when ancient audiences weren’t necessarily concerned about such. Another is an assumption stated in the paper that I mentioned above: the assumption that Josephus is somehow obligated to affirm every fact that the other gospel writers state—something critics simply assert but never justify. This kind of argumentation makes Josephus the standard, when the simple fact of the matter is that they throw Josephus under the bus at other points. The inconsistency is stuttering. Understanding the expectations of the original audience and the fact that every writer is not obliged to confirm every claim helps to unload some of the burden people often place on the texts unjustly. Just don’t expect skeptics to be fair or to think logically when it comes to these matters. 

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