Luke and the Census
This article, Luke and ‘the’ Census, discusses Luke’s mentioning of a census, and the Roman governor Quirinius, in the context of the birth of Jesus. The matter is of significance because it is commonly cited as an example of an error in the Holy Bible, though this assertion is based on misinterpretations and historical misunderstandings.
The Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, records the birth of Jesus. The common translation is given below, with the disputed sentence italicized:
- In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7, English Standard Version)
The English Standard Version gives an alternative reading of the italicized passage: “This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria”. The primary issue is of Quirinius’s governorship, and whether Jesus was born during or before the census conducted by him. However, at this point it will suffice to observe that Luke is often taken to be saying that Joseph went to Bethlehem because of the census conducted by Quirinius.
The date of the census conducted by Quirinius is established by reference to the writing of Josephus Flavius, a Romano-Jewish historian who wrote a history of the Jewish people, known as the Antiquities, at the end of the first century (A.D.). Quirinius, a Roman senator, became governor of Syria in A.D. 6, following the exile of Herod Archelaus. Upon acquiring his post, Quirinius conducted a census for Augustus, Emperor of Rome, which stirred revolutionary opposition from nationalistic Jews and ultimately a revolt, led by Judas the Galilean.
The difficulty raised by this fact is that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, which ended in 4 B.C., and thus he could not have been born during the census of Quirinius in A.D. 6, as Luke is often understood to be claiming.
Both the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew record that Our Lord was born during the reign of Herod the Great. Matthew is explicit in this regard, and he also gives the added detail that Herod ordered all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger executed, since he learned of a prophecy from the magi that a new King of the Jews had been born in the village (Matthew 2:16). This implies a terminal date for the birth of Jesus of 6 – 4 B. C. Luke’s chronology is in harmony with Matthew’s. He recorded that Elizabeth, Mary’s relative, became pregnant with her child John the Baptist during the reign of Herod the Great (Luke 1:5), and then described Mary’s pregnancy with her child Jesus as occurring six months later. Luke also stated that Jesus was “around thirty” when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23), which began after the ministry of John the Baptist. Luke dated John the Baptist’s ministry to “the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar” (Luke 3:23), or A. D. 27. This also would place Jesus’ birth around 4 B.C.
The solution to the apparent chronological problem was proposed in 1938 by historian F. M. Heichelheim, in his work on the history of Roman Syria. Examining the Greek grammatical structure of Luke 2:2, he argued that the original meaning was properly rendered as: “This census was the first before (=πρώτη) that under the prefectureship of Quirinius in Syria.” He observed that the Greek word “protos”, usually translated as “first”, may also mean “before” or “former” when followed by the genitive case. Thus, St. Luke was saying that the census which prompted the Holy Family to go to Bethlehem was before the census conducted by Quirinius. The more famous census of Quirinius in A.D. 6 was simply serving as a marker for the reader of Luke’s Gospel, allowing Luke to point to a census that had occurred previously. Luke intended to place the events around the birth of Jesus before Quirinius's governorship and census in A.D. 6. Heichelheim rightly observed that this translation would resolve “all difficulties”. This proposal has found acceptance as a legitimate resolution to the problem from several other scholars, including Nigel Turner, F. F. Bruce, Brook W. R. Pearson, Ben Witherington III, H. W. Hoehner,  and many more.
Criticism of Saint Luke
Many Biblical scholars hold, instead, that Luke intended to place the governing of Quirinius and the kingship of Herod the Great as contemporaneous. Often, these scholars then go on to argue that on this matter Luke made a factual blunder. Most of these scholars have spent their careers developing a body of work that depends upon a rejection of Biblical inerrancy. The list includes ex-priests such as Geza Vermes and John Dominic Crossan, liberal theologians such as R. E. Brown, and, of course, the psuedo-scholars of the Jesus seminar. However, the widespread nature of this position cannot be denied, and it includes historians such as Fergus Millar, Peter Richardson, and even A. N. Sherwin-White, who otherwise vindicated the accuracy of Luke on all manner of points. Indeed, a kind of secular orthodoxy has developed, where dissenting voices are more likely to be dismissed without consideration, aptly evidenced by the statement of J. P. Meier, who curtly characterized the “attempts to reconcile Luke 2:1 with the facts of ancient history” as “hopelessly contrived”.
Many of those who contend that Luke blundered accuse their critics (i.e. those who believe Luke did not make a mistake in this regard) of poor scholarship resulting from bias stemming from their belief in inerrancy. But perhaps the most frustrating element of this dismissive attitude is the unwillingness to acknowledge the historical difficulties in assuming that Luke erred on this matter. Here the points of Mark D. Smith will be observed. Smith himself did not accept the historical accuracy of the Gospel of Matthew, and so he can be accused of no such bias. Of course, in referencing his points no intention is made to give a concession to the blatantly anti-Christian position that believers in inerrancy cannot be scholars. But dismantling the absurdity of this view is not something that can be undertaken here, and, given the arguments of Smith, it is not immediately necessary.
Smith pointed out that it would be impossible to accept that Luke would have included such a mistaken account at the beginning of his Gospel. The events concerning the census of Quirinius in A.D. 6, and the ensuing Jewish rebellion of Judas the Galilean, were well-known ‘cataclysmic events’. Luke himself, as shown by historian R. P. C. Hanson, was “remarkably well informed about the geographic distribution and governmental structures and officials of Roman provinces.” Information about the date of Quirinius’s census would have been readily available to Luke, and thus a chronological error of no less than a decade by the evangelist is difficult to accept. Smith wrote, “…for first-century Jews to confuse those two events would be akin to twentieth century Americans confusing World War II and the Koran War. And Luke did know of the revolt of Judas the Galilean and its relationship with a census, mentioning it in Acts 5:37.
Neither can carelessness concerning this matter be accepted on the part of Luke. Luke stood to lose everything if he included such an error in the second chapter of his work. He had opened his history by stating that he had written an account based on his diligent investigation of all the facts; thus, to risk so blatant an error about so obvious a matter – a matter which would have been known to his audience – at the beginning of his work was something that Luke simply would not have done (even without considering the matter of inspiration).
This fact also stands against the claim that Luke fabricated the account. It has been alleged that Luke made up this record to make it seem as if the prophecy, that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), had been fulfilled. Against this several points should be made. First, it goes without saying that, if Luke was inspired by God, then he would have made no fabrication, since God does not lie. Second, setting this belief aside, the fact that Luke was a historian, who no where else can be accused of fabrication, stands against this view. Even if one points to (supposed) errors elsewhere on Luke’s part, that would still be far different from an accusation of fabrication. Third the aforementioned point that Luke could not afford to make up an account that would be known to be false to his audience (immediately after stating a case for his own creditability) shows this accusation to be ridiculous. And the fourth and final point is the simple fact that Luke, as Smith pointed out, had “no good reason” to fabricate the account. Luke did not even mention the prophecy in his account, and, whatever the case, Matthew managed to place the Holy Family in Bethlehem without mentioning the census (and Matthew did mention the prophecy).
Objections to the Solution
Counterarguments specific to the revised translation, proposed by Heichelheim, have been few. Most objectors have simply take the position, expressed by A. N. Sherwin-White, that the proposed translation was implausible and could not be accepted without another such usage elsewhere in Luke's writings. But all would agree that, grammatically, the proposed translation is a possibility, and the grammatical construction proposed was common in the context of the Hellenistic Greek in which Luke wrote. B. W. R. Pearson observed this high degree of attestation, even pointing to two examples in the New Testament (John 5:36, 1 Corinthians 1:25). Given the relatively limited sample of writings from Luke (his Gospel and the Book of Acts), it is overly ambitious to expect to establish a regular linguistic usage that would exclude the possibility of a grammatical construction well known to his literary context.
More general objections include the argument that no such census prior to that taken by Quirinius occurred. This criticism does not itself reject the alternate translation, but instead argues that, even accepting it, the account in Luke’s Gospel presents a historical impossibility. Of course it is certain that Herod taxed his own subjects, in part to gather sums for the required tribute payment to Rome, and that this process that required the collection of census data. But the criticism is made that a Roman census, which would be different than simply one conducted by Herod, could not, and did not, occur before that conducted by Quirinius. Cited in support is the fact that the Roman census of Quirinius in A.D. 6 inspired a revolt, and it is argued that any previous one would have likewise done so, and thus would be attested in the writing of Josephus (since, after all, he paid special attention to the A.D. 6 revolt).
To begin with, the highly speculative nature of this line of argumentation should be noted. It depends on assuming certain knowledge what various people, from the Jewish peasantry to Josephus, would or would not do. And it also neglects the differences between the rule of Herod and the state of dominion a decade later. But more specific problems present themselves. One must ask, in what sense does Luke’s account present us with a “Roman” census? Once the reference to Quirinius’s governing has been properly understood as not applying to a census under the reign of Herod and during Jesus’ birth, then the only implication of the census being “Roman” is the connection with a decree from Emperor Augustus.
Without a doubt, the Roman government, and Augustus himself, exerted considerable influence over Herod. Rome had conquered Palestine in 48 B.C., enforced tribute payment, and subjected the area to repeated military campaigns. Herod, like other “client kings”, was a ruler who was dependant upon Roman support; indeed, he has been called a "model of what those dependent rulers ought to be." He owed his very establishment as king to Marc Anthony and the Roman Senate. In the words of Pearson, Herod was “totally dependant on Rome for his power, influence, kingdom, and freedom…”. Moreover, his client kingdom (as with all client kingdoms) was a temporary construct. As historian E. T. Salmon observed, Herod’s whole purpose was to Romanize his (and, by extension, Augustus’s) territory – once this interim process was complete, the client kingdom would become a proper Roman province (as occurred in A. D. 6). Indeed, it was the visible change in status that provided the new historical context resulting in the revolt, a context not present during the reign of Herod the Great.
But as for the earlier census, once the historical context of Herod's reign is properly identified, it becomes clear that a census employing Roman administrative techniques makes sense. Herod was installed by Rome to do its bidding, which included not only tribute payment, but also enforced Romanization. Indeed, there is evidence that points to such a census under Herod in the works of Josephus. A parallel example was observed by historian L. R. Taylor, who noted that Archelaos, King of the Clitae in Cilicia Tracheia, is known to have attempted a Roman-style census in service of his own taxation.
Historicity of Luke’s details
A final set of objections has nothing to do with the date of the census, or the translation of the passage in question, but instead aims to launch a flurry of speculative attacks at the details provided by Luke. Perhaps the most common is the objection that a census would not have required travel. Adding to the difficulty is a misunderstanding of Luke’s text, whereby it is believed that Saint Luke is describing a decree that required the taxed to return to their ancestral townships. This formed the backbone of the set of criticisms leveled by E. P. Sanders, who stated that it would have been the practice for the census-takers, not the taxed, to travel. Moreover, he added that such a decree would require people to keep track of millions of ancestors; tens of thousands of descendants of David would all be arriving at Bethlehem, his birthplace, at the same time; and Herod, whose dynasty was unrelated to the Davidic line, would hardly have wished to call attention to royal ancestry that had a greater claim to legitimacy.
The simple fact is that Luke does not, in any place, state that the census required people to travel to the home of their ancestors. Instead, Luke says simply that “all went to their own towns”. When Luke mentions return to one’s ancestral town, he is speaking only of Joseph. In other words, people were required to travel to their township, but only this. Joseph chose to journey to his ancestral town, and to be registered there, rather than to his town of residence.
Mark D. Smith gave two reasons why Joseph would have made such a choice. As historian S. L. Wallace and others observed, some censuses gave up to a 50% tax reduction if one registered in a metropolis. Because Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home, was close to Jerusalem, he could qualify for the reduction. This incidentally answers another objection; namely, why Joseph would have brought the very pregnant Mary along - he could have been motivated to register his firstborn son so that Jesus would qualify for the reduction when he came of age. Census records from Egypt record an unusual number of houses listed as having no resident, and this may be evidence for the practice of registering in a metropolis (if one could make such a claim) rather than a town of residence.
The second reason given by Smith is that Joseph may have owned property in his ancestral home, Bethlehem, and thus would need to register there. This property could have been as simple as farmland or a threshing floor, and need not imply any sort of wealth on Joseph’s part. Against this, it has been argued that Joseph and Mary would not have needed to stay in an “inn”, as Luke records, if they had property in Bethlehem. The obvious weakness of this argument is that the property need not have constituted a suitable dwelling place, or a structure at all.
Whatever the case, once it is observed that Luke in no way describes the sort of decree that Sanders takes him to be doing, the only remaining objection is the matter of travel itself. But it is known for a fact that censuses could require the taxed to return to their townships. This is evidenced in part by a decree of Gaius Vibius Maximus that explicitly required "all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes" for a "house to house census". This interpretation not only makes sense out of Luke, but it allows us to avoid the absurd proposition that Luke fabricated an account of a census containing claims that his audience, well acquainted with Roman taxation, would have known to be absurdities.
Many of the other objections to Luke’s account follow this pattern, being highly speculative in nature and depending upon reading into Luke’s account things which the evangelist does not say. Only a few can be addressed here, and then only briefly. One objection is the claim that Bethlehem would have been too small to support a roadside inn. Besides the fact that this requires a detailed kind of knowledge about early first century Bethlehem beyond what can be established from the evidence, it should be observed, as I. H. Marshall pointed out, that the Greek word used by Luke for “inn” also means” guestroom”, and this reading would have Joseph attempting to stay with relatives or friends. Others have objected to Luke’s statement that Augustus decreed the “whole world” to be taxed. Of course, the phrase translated as “whole world” was an expression in antiquity used to indicate the Roman Empire. And Luke’s wording does not necessarily mean that the whole empire was enrolled at once. Moreover, Augustus’ extension and enforcement of taxation throughout his empire is without doubt. In sum, it would be impossible to here catalogue every objection imaginable objection to Luke’s account – and the critics, if anything, may not be accused of a limited imagination – but it will have to suffice simply to state that these notions are all taken far beyond the evidence allows.
Though it is not the position advocated here, it would be remiss not to point out other solutions to the matter at hand. In particular, some scholars would accept the reading of Luke that has the evangelist placing Jesus’ birth during a census conducted by Quirinius, and during the reign of Herod the Great, but would then argue that Quirinius served as governing authority twice, once when he conducted the census of A. D. 6, but once earlier when he conducted a previous census, while Herod was King.
The arguments for and against this position cannot here be detailed . Certainly, some of the greatest Christian minds of the past hundred years have dedicated themselves to exploring this possibility, and the reader would do well to consult their works. Perhaps the most famous is that of the esteemed historian Sir William Mitchell Ramsay, "Was Christ born in Bethlehem?" (1891). The argument has been thoroughly examined by all sides, and, in brief conclusion, it may simply be said that it opens up a possibility, but one that ultimately requires a rather large set of inferences, and unique historical circumstances, unattested to by direct evidence. That said, the reader need not be reminded that unique events are by no means unknown to history.
Lastly, some scholars have simply stated that the problem is at present irresolvable; in the words of H. Hendrickx: "The available evidence is insufficient to form any firm solution." I. H. Marshall (reflecting the view of other scholars) has said, “No solution is free from difficulty, and the problem can hardly be solved without the discovery of fresh evidence”. In many ways, the humility of this position is its greatest asset, and the historical reserve of these scholars is, frankly, a quality lacking in the critics of Saint Luke. If the reader finds certain difficulties with the aforementioned solution argued by this article, then this final position, rather than the claim of an error on Luke’s part, is the natural conclusion to hold.
- The date of Herod’s death is established from information in Josephus, and from the regnal dates of his successors. Though generally accepted, it is not without its challengers, e.g. W. E. Filmer, Journal of Theological Studies 17 (1966), pp. 283-98; O. Edwards, ‘Herodian Chronology’, in Palestine Exposition Quarterly 114 (1982), pp. 29-42; E. L. Martin, The Birth of Christ Recalculated (Pasadena and Newcastle upon Tyne, 1978); J. Thorley, ‘When was Jesus Born’, Greece & Rome (1981).
- F.M. Heichelheim, ‘Roman Syria’, in An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome, ed. T. Frank (Baltimore, 1938), pp. 161.
- F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) p. 192
- Nigel Turner, Grammatical Insights into the New Testament, pp. 23-24.
- F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), p. 192.
- Brook W. R. Pearson, ‘The Lukan Census, Revisited’, in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 2 (April 1999).
- Ben Witherington III, What Have They Done With Jesus? (Aan Francisco: Harper, 2006), p. 101.
- H. W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), p. 21.
- The list is too long to mention in totality, some other examples include L. H. Feldman in W. Brindle, "The Census and Quirinius: Luke 2:2" in JETS 27 (1984), pp. 48-49; P. W. Barnett, ‘Apographē and apographesthai in Luke 2:1-5’, Expository Times 85 (1973-1974), 337-380;; Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask (Wheaton, Ill.: Vicor, 1992), p. 185.
- Geza Vermes, The Nativity, Penguin 2006, p.96; Richard G. Watts and John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus?: Answers to Your Questions about the Historical Jesus (Westminster John Knox Press 1999), p. 18.
- R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. London: G. Chapman, 1977, p. 554.
- Fergus Miller, ‘Reflections on the trials of Jesus’, in A Tribute to Geza Vermes: Essays on Jewish and Christian Literature and History, ed. P. R. Davies and R. T. White (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990), pp. 355-81.
- Peter Richardson, Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans, (University of South Carolina Press, 1966), p. 31.
- A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 166-167.
- John P. Meier, "A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus" (Doubleday, 1991), v. 1, p. 213.
- Mark D. Smith ‘Of Jesus and Quirinius’, in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 2 (April 2000).
- R. P. C. Hanson, The Acts in the Revised Standard Version (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), pp. 2-3; Mark D. Smith ‘Of Jesus and Quirinius’, in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 2 (April 2000), pp. 283.
- Mark D. Smith ‘Of Jesus and Quirinius’, in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 2 (April 2000), pp. 282-283.
- Mark D. Smith ‘Of Jesus and Quirinius’, in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 2 (April 2000), pp. 278-293.
- A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 171, n. 1.
- Brook W. R. Pearson, "The Lucan censuses, revisited" in Catholic Biblical Quarterly (April 1999).
- Michael Grant, Herod the Great (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1971) p. 171; cf. Josephus, Jewish War 1.14.14
- Michael Grant, Herod the Great (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1971) p. 11, cf. p. 14, 50-52, 225-226
- Brook W. R. Pearson, "The Lucan censuses, revisited" in Catholic Biblical Quarterly (April 1999), p. 267.
- E. T. Salmon, A History of the Roman World from 30 B.C. to A.D. 138 (Methuen’s History of the Greek & Roman World 6’ 6th ed.; London: Methuen, 1986), p. 104-105.
- F. M. Heichelheim, ‘Roman Syria’, in An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome (6 vols; ed. T. Frank; Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1933-1940), vol. 4, pp. 160-162; cf. Brook W. R. Pearson, "The Lucan censuses, revisited" in Catholic Biblical Quarterly (April 1999), p. 266, 272.
- Lily Ross Taylor, "Quirinius and the Census of Judaea", in American Journal of Philology 54 (1933), 120-133, p. 131; cf. Tacitus, Annales 6.41
- E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, Penguin, 1993, p86; see also Bart Ehrman, A Brief Introduction to the New Testament, p103.
- Mark D. Smith ‘Of Jesus and Quirinius’, in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 2 (April 2000), p. 289.
- S. L. Wallace, Taxation in Egypt from Augustus to Diocletian (Princeton University Studies in Papyrology 2; Princeton University Press, 1938); cf. N. Lewis, Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983), p. 170; Derrett, Further Light on the Nativity of the Nativity p. 90-94.
- Mark D. Smith ‘Of Jesus and Quirinius’, in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 2 (April 2000), pp. 297.
- Mark D. Smith ‘Of Jesus and Quirinius’, in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 2 (April 2000), pp. 297.
- Brook W. R. Pearson, ‘The Lukan Census, Revisited’, in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 2 (April 1999), p. 276.
- Mark D. Smith ‘Of Jesus and Quirinius’, in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 2 (April 2000), pp. 289-90.
- John McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Backer, 1991), p. 155; cf. P. Lond. 904, Decree of C. Vibius Maximus; cf. Mark D. Smith ‘Of Jesus and Quirinius’, in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 2 (April 2000), p. 289.
- The point made by R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday), p. 549.
- I. H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 101.
- Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, etc., A Greek-English Lexicon revised by Henry Stuart Jones, and Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940).
- Ben, III Witherington, New Testament History: A Narrative Account p. 65
- Herman Hendrickx, Study in the Synoptic Gospels: the infancy narratives (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1984). See also G. Ogg's article in the Expository Times 79 (1968), where he surveys the problem and reaches the same conclusion as Hendrickx.
- I. H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 104; cf. J. Nolland, Luke (3 vols.; Word Biblical Commentary 35a-s; Dallas, TX: Word, 1989-1993), vol 1., p. 102; cf. Brook W. R. Pearson, ‘The Lukan Census, Revisited’, in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 2 (April 1999), p. 264 — Pearson considered his research to have provided the fresh evidence required to attain a solution, concluding in favor of the ‘alternative translation’ hypothesis.