Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Brief Study of Luke 2:1-2

I enjoy reading opinions, especially theological opinions and insight. I especially like to hear what atheists say about why they disbelieve the Bible. It fascinates me to see a logical progression of ideas or problems which can be analyzed and debated in a peaceful and satisfying manner. I haven’t found the time to do the debating myself, having two small children, but I like reading debate between others and I have in mind a couple of “dream debates” between individuals that I would love to one day attend in person.

One argument I have heard recently against the Bible, and specifically the life and divinity of Christ, has to do with the seeming disparity between the Nativity story depicted in Matthew 1-2 and that described in Luke 2. Matthew makes it very clear that the birth of Jesus occurred around the last couple of years of Herod the Great’s life, where a warning in a dream of Herod’s actions to be taken against young children in the vicinity of Bethlehem (another controversial topic) dramatically influences where Jesus’ parents take their newborn son soon after He is born. Herod the Great is known to have died in 4 B.C., so that, to me, sets the timeline for when we’re looking at Jesus’ birth.

When we look at Luke 2, Luke tells us that Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census be taken of the entire Roman world; and, according to the NIV translation of the Bible, this was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. So first we look at historical records and find out that (according to Wikipedia), censuses of the Roman world that were taken by Caesar Augustus occurred in 28 B.C., 8 B.C. and 14 A.D. Additionally, there is evidence that other local censuses that occurred during his reign in Egypt and Sicily. But Luke is clear in 2:1 that this was a census of the entire Roman world, so the census of 8 B.C. is the most plausible one for the Nativity. So far so good… except that when you get to Luke’s almost parenthetical phrase, “this was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” The Legate (or official governor) of Syria was Gnaeus Sentius Saturninus from 9-6 B.C., and he was then replaced by Publius Quinctilius Varus (the same Varus who lost his life when ambushed by Germans in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest). So Quirinius was not legate of Syria at the time of the 8 B.C. census. So when was Quirinius legate of Syria? Well, again according to Wikipedia, Quirinius became legate of Syria around 6 A.D. – and there was a documented census taken at that time which involved Syria and Iudaed (or Judea, where the Jews lived). This would have been a well-known census, for it incited riots and rebellion among the Jews, specifically by Judas of Galilee who founded the Zealots who were revolutionaries at the time of Christ (aside: imagine that – a revolution based on anger over taxation – who would have ever thought that would happen?).

So we have a seeming delimma: we have a census in 8 B.C. that fits well with Matthew’s timeline as well as Luke’s description of a census that inclued the entire Roman world, but then we have a census in 6 A.D. that fits the description of the first census that occurred while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Naturally, over the centuries countless authors have tried to explain how this apparent inconsistency could occur. Fergus Millar (according to Wikipedia) actually goes so far as to suggest that Luke’s story was wholly made up just so that Jesus could be connected with the house of David. And Richard Dawkins, in one of his vitriolic tirades against anything remotely religious, says in The God Delusion (which I recently commented on) on page 119, “Moreover, Luke screws up his dating by tactlessly mentioning events that historians are capable of independently checking. There was indeed a census under Governor Quirinius – a local census, not one decreed by Caesar Augustus for the Empire as a whole – but it happened too late: in AD 6, long after Herod’s death. Lane Fox concludes that ‘Luke’s story is historically impossible and internally incoherent’…”

Tactlessly? Screws up? Frankly, it irritates me to hear words like that used to describe Luke’s narrative. First of all, Luke was a physician, and I happen to be one also. While most physicians probably wouldn’t be included among the great scientists (such as Dawson) we do have a bent towards science and the scientific method. We use data (tests), interviews, and personal examination and evaluation to reach conclusions and we don’t often take things simply at face value. So when we document something, we like to know what we’re talking about and we won’t simply put something on paper that doesn’t make sense without more discission and analysis. So to state blatantly that a physician “tactlessly” “screw[ed] up” his description of when the cenusus took place simply to try to show that Jesus was from the House of David and fulfilled a prophecy I think is disingeneous at best and, at worst, morally reprehensible.

So if we are to believe Luke, a physician, writing about the time of the census, we now need to examine the various explanations for how the apparent discrepancy can be explained. First, we need to look at the political climate in Iudaea (Judea) at the time. According to The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. IX, around 8 B.C., Herod the Great had marched an army into Arabia to get revenge for some wrongs against him. Deeds of the king were commonly misrepresented to the Emperor by various Roman political underlings living in the region, and so someone sent a message informing Caesar Augustus that Herod had misstepped his authority and sent an invading army (even though Herod had gotten permission to do so by Gnaeus Sentius Saturninus, the Syrian legate at the time). This angered Augustus, which caused him to punish Herod my making him and the entire Jewish nation take an oath of allegience to Rome. This order, of course, angered the Jews, and these events delayed the census of 8 B.C. in the Iudaean province as emissaries sent from Herod and Rome took some time coming and going. Because of the political turmoil taking place in Iudaea at that time, Augustus could have easily ordered Quirinius (a highly-trusted official) to oversee the census-taking in the region even if he wasn’t actually the legate. In fact, the term Luke uses to describe “governor” is a broad term, “hegemon,” which is any type of ruling official or procurator, as opposed to the more specific term for governor (“legatus”, or legate).

To me, this is a helpful set of ideas but it’s not entirely satisfying. Many historians and scholars dismiss this and are not convinced by it. I believe a better explantion is the interpretation of the verse itself. I’m not a Greek scholar by any means, but one possible way of interpreting Luke 2:2 is, instead of translating it as (as in the NIV) “This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria,” it should actually say “This was the first registration, before the one when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” There are several examples throughout the New Testament where the Greek words are used in a similar fashion, and I will leave it to others to reveal them.

If this is how Luke means the verse to be translated, then why would he even mention Quirinius at all? Well, earlier I mentioned that the Census of 6 A.D., where many Jews revolted and Judas of Galilee started the Zealots. In essence, what Luke is saying here is “The census I just mentioned is not the census everybody knows about; I’m referring to a census that occurred earlier.” He’s clarifying what he means to a group of readers who might jump to an erroneous conclusion about which census he’s talking about.

I admit that the above explanations might not be close to the truth about this verse. However, outright dismissal of a statement written by a physician who examines evidence and wants to know the truth as a made-up falsehood is inexcusable. And it’s at times like these where I have to remind myself that in some cases it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” Once again, as I mentioned earlier, a relationship with the Lord is what is important to Him, and to us… not knowing every detail of His birth on earth, or knowing and quantifying every detail about Him. That shouldn’t stop me, or anyone else, from pursuing and thinking through those details, but it also should keep us mindful of our ongiong dependence upon Him.

I welcome constructive emails -- feel free to send me one at Thanks.

Joe Scott