Nick, the atheist I’ve been talking with about the historical accuracy of the Gospels, wants to know how Jesus’ Nativity could have happened during the time of the first Census of Quirinius (Luke 2:1-2). The NIV translates it as: “This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria,” and most other translations have something similar. That’s a problem, as critics of Christianity are quick to note.
The atheist argument in a nutshell is this: the Census of Quirinius wasn’t until 6 A.D., about a decade after the death of King Herod, and about a decade after every other event that Matthew and Luke describe in their Infancy Narratives. Therefore, Luke’s either an incredibly unreliable historian, or is outright making up details. Either way is a body blow to the credibility of his Gospel. That’s a strong-sounding argument, on the surface. But if you dig down a little bit, you’ll discover that as a critique, it suffers from some pretty glaring flaws.
There are three reasons that I don’t think Luke could possibly be saying what atheists (and most modern Bibles, including the NIV) depict him as saying:
|The Division of Herod’s Kingdom|
First, Luke just said King Herod was in charge, not Quirinius. A bit of background here. Upon the death of King Herod (“Herod the Great”) in about 4 B.C., his kingdom was divided up between his sons. Judea and Samaria went to Herod Archelaus (light green in the map on the right), while Galilee went to Herod Antipas (“Herod” or “Herod the tetrarch” in the New Testament — magenta) and Herod Phillip III got Iturea and Traconitis (orange). Ten years later, in 6 A.D., Herod Archelaus was banished, and the tetrarchy of Judea was placed under direct Roman control: specifically, under the control of Quirinius, governor of Syria (dark green).
Now, Luke has just said that King Herod is still alive (Luke 1:5 – and yes, this means that the traditional dating of Christ’s birth is probably off by a couple years). He can’t be saying that Judea is both under the control of King Herod and under the control of Quirinius. Not only would the chronology be off, but that doesn’t make any sense. It’d be like saying that King George III was in charge of the American colonies, and then that John Adams was president. Not only is there a decade in between those two events, and a major political shift, but they just can’t both be in charge. And Luke is writing propably in the 60s, much nearer the event than we are to the American Revolution.
Second, Luke knows his history much too well to make that mistake. Regardless of your views on the inspiration of his writings, Luke just isn’t dumb enough to have made that mistake. He knows much too much about regional history and politics. Besides the thorough genealogy we discussed before, Luke knows of even the minor players in Herodian politics: for example, in Luke 3:19, he mentions the sister-in-law of Herod Antipas. And in Luke 8:3, he mentions “Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household.”
So that’d be like making the John Adams mistake above, while knowing the name of Betsy Smith, John Adam’s sister-in-law. It’s just unlikely he couldn’t have known about the chronology following King Herod’s death.
In fact, Luke 3:1 makes it clear he knows all about that division, and when it happens. The chapter begins, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene…” So he’s pretty clearly well-informed about the division of Israel after the death of King Herod.
|Mosaic of Mary and Joseph’s enrollment for taxation before Quirinius
(Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, Constantinople)
Finally, it doesn’t make sense to call the 6 A.D. Census the “first” census under Quirinius. The traditional translation (and the atheist interpretation of what Luke’s saying) doesn’t make apparent sense, since there was only one census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Christians have proposed three credible alternatives, all of which better account for the facts above:
- The Greek here is best read to mean that this was the census preceding Quirinius;
- The Greek here is best read to mean that this was the census that became important while Quirinius was governor;
- This Greek here is best read to mean that this was the first census taken by Governor Quirinius — but that Luke is referring to a census taken before he became governor.
So we all agree that Luke is clearly making a connection to Quirinius. Apparently, the Greek is ambiguous enough that it can also mean that this was the census preceding Quirinius, or the census that became important while Quirinius was governor. It’s also possible that it’s a census taken by Quirinius before he became governor. But what seems incredibly unlikely is that Luke is describing the 6 A.D. census, as atheists (and many modern Bibles) claim.
After all, for Luke to be describing the census of 6 A.D., he’d have to not only (1) get the date wrong by a decade or more, he’d also have to (2) think that Quirinius and King Herod were in charge at the same time, and (3) that Quirinius conducted more than one census during his stint as governor. All of this is resolved quite easily if we read Luke 2:2 as describing the census as the one that preceded the more famous census of 6 A.D. Which, of course, corresponds perfectly well with the rest of the Biblical evidence for the dating of the birth of Christ.