Luke, Quirinius, and the Census
The precision with which Luke reported historical detail has been documented over and over again through the centuries by archaeologists and biblical scholars. In every instance, where sufficient archaeological evidence has surfaced, Luke has been vindicated as an accurate and meticulously precise writer. Skeptics and critics have been unable to verify even one anachronism or discrepancy with which to discredit the biblical writers’ claim of being governed by an overriding divine influence.
However, observe the above stated criterion that serves as the key to a fair and proper assessment of Luke’s accuracy: where sufficient archaeological evidence has surfaced. Skeptics frequently level charges against Luke and the other Bible writers on the basis of arguments from silence. They fail to distinguish between a genuine contradiction on the one hand and insufficient evidence from which to draw a firm conclusion on the other. A contradiction exists when two statements or facts cannot both be true. Skeptics frequently make the mistake of issuing the charge of contradiction against the Bible writers when two statements or facts simply differ with each other. McGarvey articulated this principle clearly in 1891: “Two statements are contradictory not when they differ, but when they cannot both be true” (3:31). A charge of contradiction or inaccuracy within the Bible is illegitimate, and therefore unsustained, in those areas where evidence of historical corroboration is scant.
In light of these principles, consider the following words of Luke: “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria” (Luke 2:1-2). Some have charged Luke with committing an error on the basis of the fact that history records that Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was governor of Syria beginning in A.D. 6—several years after the birth of Christ. It is true that thus far no historical record has surfaced to verify either the governorship or the census of Quirinius as represented by Luke at the time of Jesus’ birth prior to the death of Herod in 4 B.C. As distinguished biblical archaeologist G. Ernest Wright of Harvard Divinity School conceded: “This chronological problem has not been solved” (1960, p. 158).
This void in extant information that would provide definitive archaeological confirmation notwithstanding, sufficient evidence does exist to postulate a plausible explanation for Luke’s allusions, thereby rendering the charge of discrepancy ineffectual. Being the meticulous historian that he was, Luke demonstrated his awareness of a separate provincial census during Quirinius’ governorship beginning in A.D. 6 (Acts 5:37). In view of this familiarity, he surely would not have confused this census with one taken ten or more years earlier. Hence Luke claimed that a prior census was, indeed, taken at the command of Caesar Augustus sometime prior to 4 B.C. He flagged this earlier census by using the expression prote egeneto (“first took place”)—which assumes a later one (cf. Nicoll, n.d., 1:471). To question the authenticity of this claim, simply because no explicit reference has yet been found, is unwarranted and prejudicial. No one questions the historicity of the second census taken by Quirinius about A.D. 6/7, despite the fact that the sole authority for it is a single inscription found in Venice. Sir William Ramsay, world-renowned and widely acclaimed authority on such matters, wrote over one hundred years ago: “[W]hen we consider how purely accidental is the evidence for the second census, the want of evidence for the first seems to constitute no argument against the trustworthiness of Luke’s statement” (1897, p. 386).
In addition, historical sources indicate that Quirinius was favored by Augustus, and was in active service of the emperor in the vicinity of Syria previous to and during the time period that Jesus was born. It is reasonable to conclude that Quirinius could have been appointed by Caesar to instigate a census-enrollment during that time frame, and his competent execution of such could have earned for him a repeat appointment for the A.D. 6/7 census (see Archer, 1982, p. 366). Notice also that Luke did not use the term legatus—the normal title for a Roman governor. He used the participial form of hegemon that was used for a Propraetor (senatorial governor), or Procurator (like Pontius Pilate), or Quaestor (imperial commissioner) [McGarvey and Pendleton, n.d., p. 28]. After providing a thorough summary of the historical and archaeological data pertaining to this question, Finnegan concluded: “Thus the situation presupposed in Luke 2:3 seems entirely plausible” (1959, 2:261).
Archer, Gleason L. Jr. (1982), Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Finegan, Jack (1959), Light From the Ancient Past (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
McGarvey, J.W. (1891), Evidences of Christianity (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1974 reprint).
McGarvey, J.W. and Philip Y. Pendleton (no date), The Fourfold Gospel (Cincinnati, OH: The Standard Publishing Foundation).
Nicoll, W. Robertson (no date), The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Ramsay, William M. (1897), St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1962 reprint).
Wright, G. Ernest (1960), Biblical Archaeology (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster).