Luke 2:2 and Historical Accuracy in the Gospels

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.

Saint Luke

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:

  1. The Greek here is best read to mean that this was the census preceding Quirinius;
  2. The Greek here is best read to mean that this was the census that became important while Quirinius was governor;
  3. 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.
There’s a fourth option, of course: that we’re still missing important historical pieces.  But all of these options suggest that we’re not talking about the 6 A.D. census, but an earlier one.  Any of these alternatives strike me as more plausible than the idea that Luke got the huge details wrong, while getting all of the same details correct.


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.


  1. I’ve been studying a lot of ancient Greek history this semester. There are a lot of discrepancies between the ancient writings, but no historian worth his salt would say “well, since these texts clearly don’t match other things we know, we should just toss them out.”

    No. Historians attempt to understand the mindset of the authors, the source of their information, and deduce the most likely possibility where the facts provided don’t match up. Why should Christians do any less, or be held to a different standard? Or is all that secularist talk about understanding the “historical Jesus” just that, talk?

  2. Most translations seem to suggest that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem because of the census/enrollment/taxing while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

    Strong’s Concordance says: “foremost (in time, place, order or importance):–before, beginning, best, chief
    (-est), first (of all), former.”

    So perhaps it could read “This enrollment took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

  3. Mr. Heschmeyer,

    While I do admire your passion as a defender of the faith, I would have preferred you not use genetic fallacies in that defense. That is a non-sequitur in any rational discussion with Atheist.

  4. Mr. Patton,

    What are you referring to? Nick raised Luke 2:2 as what he thought was a strong argument against Christianity, and I responded to hos claims about Luke 2:2. Where’s the genetic fallacy?

    (PS — sorry for multiple posts earlier; typing on my phone).

  5. Mr. Heschmeyer,

    I am referring to your second and final point’s premises which are genetic fallacies. I am sure Nick can explain why those two points are fallacious in nature.

    No need to apologize. I have enjoyed your work from the New Advent for several years now.

  6. Mr Patton,

    In which sense are you suggesting points 2 and 3 that Joe made are genetic fallacies?
    There are 2 ways in which an argument can commit a genetic fallacy.
    1) Arguing that someone/something is valid/invalid solely on the basis of it’s origins.
    2) Arguing a particular word must only mean what it meant in a historical period alien to the period it is being used in, thus failing to account for other possible meanings.

    Joe’s second argument could fall into category 1 above. However, it must be kept in mind Nick originally argued Luke was “either an incredibly unreliable historian, or is outright making up details.” As Nick calls into question Luke’s historical credentials, it is fair to argue (as Joe does) that Luke in fact displays great knowledge of the place/period. Once Nick made the argument about whether Luke was a good historian, it is NOT a genetic fallacy to argue that Luke was.

    Joe’s third argument, points out that the Greek word in question has several possible meanings, unlike the word “first” used by NIV. That is an important point and has no relation to the second example of the genetic fallacy, which would occur only if we were forcing a meaning on the Greek word alien to it in time and place. In fact, Nick’s argument (insisting on the only valid translation being the one used by NIV) commits the genetic fallacy.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I see both arguments as valid and on point.

  7. This isn’t only an atheist argument. Many Christians also endorse the position that Luke got his facts wrong on the census. I’m not sure this is as big of a discrepancy as you make it out to be. If it were so detrimental to the gospel’s integrity, why is it that most Catholic Bible scholars accept it and take measures to point it out in footnotes and commentaries approved by the bishops?

    Of course, another possibility is that Luke is telescoping events to bring out a certain meaning, which was perfectly acceptable history writing back then. See, for instance, the end of his gospel and the beginning of Acts. In the first, Jesus’ ascension takes place on the same day as his resurrection; in the second, it’s forty days later. The method of temporal summarizing we find in the gospel was quite common, and it’s not unlikely that Luke projected the census back in time to draw out parallels between Christ, the true king, and Caesar.

  8. Pomeranian Catholic,

    I wasn’t meaning to suggest that only atheists make this argument: but it is an argument against the historical reliability of Scripture. Certainly, one answer is that this is okay, because it’s a narrative technique.

    And the NAB is full of scandalous footnotes. I pointed to one example here and Jimmy Akin pointed out an even more egregious example here.  As a translation, the NAB is decent.  As a Scriptural commentary, it’s crippled by bad theology, and is frequently at odds with things that the Holy Father had said. It’d be a mistake to imagine that the bishops (then or now) intended their approval of the NAB to be an endorsement of every footnote.

    It’d also be a mistake to imagine that episcopal approval of a Bible created infallible footnotes: even the Vulgate (approved by the pope), with footnotes written by St. Jerome, had footnotes we reject as erroneous – for example, the ones in which he attacks the canonicity of the Deuterocanon.

    And no, the Ascension isn’t on Easter in Luke’s Gospel. Verses 50-52 occur later, “when He had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany.” We aren’t told how much later, but it’s unfounded to claim it’s the same day.

    God bless,


  9. @Joe: Another thing to remember about the NABRE and the so-called “clunker” footnotes is that they were composed before the Catechism was issued. At the time, such views were acceptable in mainstream Catholic theology and did have arguments to recommend them. Certainly, the struggle in Gethsemane takes on deeper meaning if Jesus really didn’t know the script from the start, so to speak. And it’s an entirely possible literary technique for a Gospel writer to summarize events which in retrospect hinted at Jesus’ sacrifice by saying, “and Jesus said he would be delivered up and killed,” even if no one saw the full meaning until after the fact.

    I used to have a highly negative opinion of the NABRE footnotes and commentaries as well. They almost destroyed my faith. But that’s because I misunderstood them and regrettably, they’re incomprehensible to anybody who hasn’t had at least some formal schooling, at the college level, in theology and Biblical scholarship. I still have no idea why they’re in a Bible for the common faithful. However, they’re beneficial to those in the know.

  10. Hi Joe,

    One of your main points seems to be that Luke wouldn’t have made Herod’s reign concurrent with Quirnius’ governorship.

    Yet during the period of King Herod’s reign, there WAS a governor of Syria. If I’m not mistaken, Saturninus would have been around ~5BC.

    How then is the concurrency of the two relevant one way or another? Luke isn’t saying that Qurinius was the client King of Judea, but just that he’s “governing” Syria. It seems obvious that the two offices do not overlap.

  11. Matt,

    The argument about concurrency is because when Qurinius was governor of Syria, he was also in charge of Judea. Herod Archelaus was deposed, and Qurinius ran things in his absence. The Jews bristled at this direct Roman control, and about the census and taxation generally: it’s claimed that his census (the later one, in 6 A.D.) is what birthed the Zealot movement.

    That was why I made the analogy to John Adams and King George III. True, John Adams governed America, while George governed the British Empire, but George III is remembered here precisely because as British monarch, he was in charge of America for a while.

    So I think it’s a misreading to think that Luke is referring to some unrelated random head of state (as if he’d say that Cunobeline was the King of the Britains at this time); rather, he’s contextualizing within Jewish history itself. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to read it as saying that the Jews were under both King Herod and Governor Qurinius. Nor, for that matter, does it make sense to read it as saying that the 6 A.D. census was the “first” of those under Qurinius.

    These would be enormous historical mistakes for a first-century Jewish historian to make, and Luke knows the politics and history way too well to be making mistakes that rudimentary.



  12. Thanks for the quick reply, Joe.

    I think I understand what you’re getting at. Quirinius’ name is too “high profile” to appear as “merely” another governor of Syria, and the implication of his reign are much more pronounced than “just another guy” within the context of Jewish history at the time.

    The gentleman here:

    seems to take a similar argument along the linguistic lines as you.

    I’m personally not really sure how this really plays out. It seems that the one of the most frustrating aspects is that the sentence is somewhat awkward with any proposed reading. I do not know the original Greek at all, so I can only go by what people that know far more than me say. There doesn’t seem to be any clear consensus one way or another.

    I know that a great many skeptical authors certainly WANT there to be a difficulty in this passage, so they certainly would prefer the “traditional” reading of the text if not for that reason alone.

    I agree that it’s a very tall order to assume that the author who got so many meticulous details right would have a gap like this.

  13. Matt,

    Agreed — from virtually any perspective, the sentence is something of a head-scratcher. It may well be that there’s just historical information that we moderns are missing. For example, if it could be definitively proven that during the reign of King Herod, a census was conducted, and that Qurinius was instrumental in implementing it, that’d explain everything (the chronology, the grammar/syntax, etc.). But we don’t have any record of that sort. So we’re left guessing what he might be referring to. I think the evidence pretty clearly points away from the 6 A.D. census, and pretty clearly points to some earlier census, but absolutely, there’s just a gap in our knowledge here.



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