The Facts, Nothing but the Facts
Before we move to the angelic announcement to the shepherds, we need to address what is considered by some critical scholars as the biggest historical blunder in Luke’s Gospel. Luke claims Jesus was born before the death of Herod the Great, and that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem in response to an Empire wide decree by Caesar Augustus. To totally destroy historical reliability, Luke links this decree with the governorship of Quirinius and Roman history says he initiated a census in A.D. 6.
If a young student is taking an Introduction to the New Testament class in his or her first year of University, a religion professor may begin to try and “correct’ naïve Sunday school beliefs about the reliability of the Bible. The argument can be summarized like this:
- Nothing is known from other sources of a general-empire wide census in the time of Augustus.
- A Roman census would not have required Joseph to go to Bethlehem, but would have taxed him based on his residency.
- Josephus knows of a Quirinian census in A.D. 6 but nothing before. (Anitquities 17.13. 2 &&342-44; 17..13.5&355; 18.1;1 && 1-10)
- The Roman records are complete for this period near the end of Herod’s death and in 4.5 BC and there is no record that Quirinius was governor in Syria or that he carried out a registration. (Tacitus, Annals 3.48; Josephus, Antiquities, 17.13.5 &355)
Therefore Luke and the Bible get the history wrong.
Before the student throws away Dr. Luke’s historical accuracy and his or her childhood faith they should consider:
We do know that Augustus initiated three other registrations in Syria, Gaul, and Spain in Luke’s time frame; therefore, it is probable that he could have initiated one for Palestine. Romans could be sensitive to local customs explaining why the Jewish pattern of family land ownership, not residency, was followed for the registration ( Antiquities 14.10. 6 %% 202-10).
Our Roman records of what happened in 4/5 BC and Quirinius’ governorship are not complete. We do know that he was recognized by Augustus as a powerful general. Quirinius won great victories in Galatia in the final years of Herod, and Augustus could have viewed his general in the East as the more powerful authority in the area.
In his introduction Luke stressed that he would be accurate. Why do scholars accept so readily what Tacitus or Josephus write and then so quickly reject the accuracy of the biblical writer? It’s wiser to give an author the benefit of the doubt. Do we a know more about this history than Luke who told us he was interacting with eyewitnesses of these events (Luke 1:1-4)?
I want to encourage students to raise their hand and in humility and respect ask, “I thought that we needed to be open to the views of others and respect them. Why are we so quick to think Luke is not telling us the truth in this case when he made truth-telling one of his major purposes? Are the sources we are using to contradict him as accurate as he is? How do we know?” Try it! You might find out that your World Religion prof is a believer and will relish the opportunity that you opened up for them to discuss reasons for their own faith in the text and in Jesus.
LORD, thanks that we can do careful research and know that when all the facts are in, truth will be on the side of Your revealed Word. Use this devotional to protect students who might be in danger of losing confidence in the Bible. Help them to not just accept what is the accepted line but instead to do fair, honest scholarship, and most importantly to read Your Word carefully themselves. I pray that Your Spirit will grab their hearts.
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