WAS LUKE HISTORICALLY INCORRECT?

Luke was a meticulous historian. Archaeologist Sir William Ramsay (1851-1939) spent a lifetime researching the historical trustworthiness of Luke’s writings (Luke and Acts) and came to the conclusion, “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy… [he] should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”[1] However, a common argument among critics of the New Testament is that Luke appears to commit a historical error regarding the census connected with a Roman official named Quirinius (“Cyrenius” is the Greek form of Quirinius). If Luke was incorrect in his information, then that casts a disparaging light upon the reliability and inspiration of Scripture.

Was Luke historically incorrect?

Luke in telling the timeless story of Jesus’ birth begins, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city” (Luke 2:1-3).

Of Luke 2:2 skeptics contend Dr. Luke’s citing of Quirinius is a historical contradiction. Luke writes that Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem for a census and “this was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” The Jewish historian, Josephus, confirmed the existence of his governorship and census, but placed Quirinius from AD 6 to AD 12. [2] This time is too late to line up with the birth of Jesus, as Matthew wrote that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, who according to Josephus, died nine years prior to the Syrian governorship of Quirinius. The authority of Josephus seems to be at odds with the accuracy of the Gospel writers.  Critics question Luke’s historical reliability and argue that Luke is wrong in his dating of the census under Quirinius.  

Is there an answer to this seeming contradiction?

It is known from ancient Judean and Egyptian papyri that the Romans had a regular enrollment of taxpayers and that they held censuses every fourteen years (begun by Augustus Caesar) which lasted for several centuries. Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165), a second century Christian apologist and philosopher, affirms and asserts three times in his writings that Christ was born under Quirinius and refers to the census that was taken. Martyr wrote, “Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judea” [3] In other words, Martyr insists that if you want proof that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, just go look at the census records (which still existed at that time he wrote).   A mistake on the part of so careful an investigator doesn’t seem likely. If Quirinius had not been governor of Syria at that time, there were many persons living who could and would have pointed out the mistake. However, that hasn’t kept skeptics from attacking Luke on the grounds that Quirinius appears to have been only governor of Syria once and that was from 6 AD, past the time of Herod’s death and the birth of Jesus.

From history, Herod died in the year 4 BC. So we might conclude that Jesus must have been born about one or two years before the date of Herod’s death.  Archaeologist Sir William Ramsay (1851-1939) has proven by discovered inscriptions that Quirinius was twice governor of Syria, the first time about the date usually assigned to the birth of Christ.[4] An old monumental inscription speaks of a second governorship of Quirinius and this is confirmed by a passage in Tacitus (c. AD 56 – c. 120), a Roman historian and politician.[5] A series of inscriptions in Asia Minor show that Quirinius was governor of Syria in 10-7 BC, and again from AD 6-AD 12. [6] The latest inscriptional evidence shows that Quirinius was a legate in Syria for census purposes in 8-6 BC. Ramsay shows that the enrollment in Syria took place in 8-6 BC and due to delays of getting the word out and the geography of travel involved, this would bring time to 6-5 BC before all could register which would be the accepted time of the birth of Jesus. [7]  

Also, there has been discovered the name of Quirinius on a coin in micrographic letters, placing him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC until after the death of Herod. [8]   In fact, Luke’s terminology of referring to the “first” census under Quirinius can be taken to imply that there was a second, the one Josephus refers, too. Quirinius returned to Syria in 6 AD as the resident Imperial Legate, oversaw a second census, this time just for the region, which is mentioned in Acts 5:37, and governed the province for six years before retiring to Rome in 12 AD at 63 years of age. This is why Luke 2:2 specifies the census as the “first” one “taken while Quirinius was governing Syria.” If Luke thought that there was just one census (in AD 6), then he wouldn’t have called it the first census, he would’ve called it the census. This being so, there would be no conflict between Luke and Josephus. Both would be right.

Yes, archeological discoveries have shown Luke to be wholly correct in his statement that Quirinius was twice governor, and that the first census took place during the first period. Everywhere we can check the Bible’s history, it proves reliable. Archaeological discoveries always VERIFY that the Bible is true!!

Blessings,

Dr. Dan

Footnotes

[1] William Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915), 222.

[2] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 1.

[3] Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 34.

[4] William Ramsay, Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem, (London: Hodder & Stroughton, 1898), 227ff.

[5] Tacitus, Annals, Book iii, Chapter 48.

[6] A. T. Robertson, A Harmony of the Gospels, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1922), 266.

[7] William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, (Edinburgh Scotland: Saint Andrew Press, 1953), 15; Herschel H. Hobbs, Luke, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1966), 49.

[8] John McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 154.

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