Errors in the New Testament: Making Sense of Luke’s Census
Posted by Clark Bates
January 19, 2017
“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.”
Luke 2:1-2 (ESV)
This week’s article on proposed New Testament errors involves less of an internal disagreement than a possibly spurious historical attestation. Having just recently passed through the Christmas season, the story of Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem should be fresh in many minds. Everyone familiar with the account in Luke are aware that the reason given for the couple’s return to Bethlehem is to be counted for a census instated by the Syrian governor, Quirinius. The difficulty with this is that there is no recorded census of this type, at the time of the accepted birth of Christ. In fact, the only census in recorded Jewish history even close to this timeframe is found in the writings of Josephus at a period approximately ten years too late. So, what are we to do with information like this? Are we to believe the account of Josephus or the account of Luke? Of course, the ardent faithful among us will quickly affirm Luke’s account over any other, but is there any way to ratify this discrepancy in such a way that need not rely on a form of blind faith? Let’s examine the difficulty.
The entire objection to the Quirinian census can be summed up with two points:
- The kind of census Luke describes is neither recorded nor possible; and
- Quirinius was not governor of Syria at the time of Christ’s birth.
Much of the objections to this moment in Luke’s gospel come from an account given by the Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 AD). In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus describes Quirinius as being governor of Syria from AD 6 – AD 12. This has been acknowledged by scholars, both critical and conservative, as being roughly a decade too late to align with the account in the Gospel. For some, this discrepancy confirms an error in the gospel record and no hope exists for ratification. As per Conzelmann,
“. . . all attempts to rescue Luke from the charge of error are hopelessly contrived.”
“. . . although Luke likes to set his Christian drama in the context of well-known events from antiquity, sometimes he does so inaccurately.”
For a time, there was some hope that archaeological evidence would reveal the possibility of a joint rule between Quirinius and another co-regent, and while this hope still tends to surface in various internet defenses of Luke, the reality is that no evidence in support of this hope has materialized.
The first point, that the census described in Luke is not possible, can actually be rejected fairly quickly. Although we have no official records of all the census activities, we do know that Caesar Augustus ordered three censuses and periodic cycles of censuses did occur. There are records of census cycles in Syria, Gaul, and Spain occurring at, or near, the birth of Christ. The reference to Caesar’s edict may simply reflect the ongoing census activity of the empire in which every jurisdiction participated. If a census of the size that seems to be proposed by Luke did take place, it would take years to complete. Not unlike modern government, proposals of government action often require great planning and extend for several years while being implemented. It would be anachronistic to argue that it must move more quickly thousands of years ago than it does in our day. In short, to assert unequivocally that a census like the one described in Luke would be impossible, when censuses of its kind are recorded as having occurred in the same century speaks more to one’s bias than factual data.
Even with Josephus’ attestation, the Roman records of that era are sparse and fractured. It’s because of this, that each interpreter comes to varying levels of disagreement regarding the timeline of events. Given the accuracy of Luke observed both in his gospel and the accompanying Acts of the Apostles, it would again be a form of bias to immediately reject the attestation of the gospels in favor of Josephus, who is known for errors in reporting as well. So, what do we know?
Regarding the man, Quirinius, there are two basic literary sources, apart from Luke, where he appears. The Roman historian Tacitus records some accounts of his life in Annals, and there are three inscriptions recorded at Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae, #2683, #9502, and #9503, that bear his name. The combined information from these records show a man that rose through the ranks of government as a soldier and, later, a politician. Archaeologist William Ramsay has recorded tertiary evidence suggesting that Quirinius held a high office in the province of Syria, and minor inscriptional evidence shows him active in Asia Minor and conducting a census in Syria. Even with this information, the records indicate that Quirinius’ governorship occurred from AD 6-12, even though his entire time of service in Syria would have begun around 12 B.C., meaning he was not the governor of Syria at the time of Christ’s birth. Who actually was governor during Christ’s birth is formally unknown.
So, was Luke wrong in his account? Not necessarily. There are presently three possible resolutions that are worth mentioning. First, upon careful examination of the accounts in both Luke and Josephus it can be seen that nowhere is Quirinius said to be “governor” of Syria. Of course, your immediate response will be to quote Luke 2:2 in which the English reads,
“This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (ESV emphasis added)
However, the Greek word translated “governor” in most English translations is ηγεμονευοντος (hegemoneuontos), which can be translated as “govern” but quite directly means “leading” and does not demand imperial office. Luke uses this same word in Luke 22:26 in reference to the greatest of the disciples, in Acts 7:10 in reference to Joseph in Pharaoh’s court, and in Acts 14:12 to refer to Paul as the “chief speaker.” If this interpretation were intended by the author, Luke 2:2 might read “when Quirinius held Syrian hegemony.” Given the evidence that Quirinius was functional in Syrian government prior to his governorship in 6 A.D., and involved in taxation, it would not be incorrect to attach his name to the census during the birth of Christ.
Secondly, and possibly the more impactful possibility, is the use of the adjective “first” (Gr: πρωτη; prote). Again, Luke 2:2 in English translations reads,
“This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (ESV, emphasis added)
A careful reading of the most natural rendering above would suggest that if this was the first census there would be a series of registrations. That being the case, the census of 6 A.D. would likely be the second census. This census, as recorded in Josephus, caused rioting throughout the region and would have been the more notable of the two censuses. If this is the case, the second census would serve as the reference point for Luke’s account rather than the prior census (in which Joseph and Mary partook) that would have gone relatively unnoticed.
One other slight variance in this possibility worth noting is that it is within the semantic range of πρωτη to render “first” as “before.” While this would be an other-than-normal use of the word and the only time Luke uses it in this way in all of his writing, the passage would actually read, “This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” In either case, both approaches to the text acknowledge the important role the second census undertaken when Quirinius was, in fact, governor would play in marking time for all registrations before and after it.
Third, and lastly, in an article published by the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, J.H. Rhoads asserted that Josephus had made an error in his reporting. According to Rhoads, Josephus misread the sources he was using and confused similar events. He asserts that the accounts of the census and the following revolt of Judas the Galilean are actually duplicates of earlier accounts. The mistake in this circumstance would be that Josephus incorrectly placed the census at the end of the reign of Archelaus when it actually occurred much earlier, thereby vindicating the lukan account in the Gospel. Josephus is known to make mistakes in his reporting elsewhere, so this proposal is not without foundation.
It would be dishonest on my part to approach a topic such as New Testament discrepancies with the flippant attitude that each one has a clear-cut answer. In spite of our best efforts, there are still limitations to what can ultimately be known regarding the events of ancient history. These limitations do not require us to immediately err on the side of a mistake in the gospel records, however. Certainly, those who approach the study of Scripture from the historical-critical method discussed earlier in this series will seek to find fault more quickly than those who approach the New Testament from a belief in Inerrancy, but as there are several plausible scenarios in which this “discrepancy” can be ratified, it cannot be said to constitute an “error” in Luke, in any objective sense.
 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, 1.
 Kostenberger, The Cradle, The Cross, and the Crown; Carson et al., An Introduction to the New Testament; Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament; Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, Conzelmann, History of Primitive Christianity.
 H. Conzelmann, History of Primitive of Christianity, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1973), 30.
 R. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 233.
 Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 60. You can find a large listing of scholarly options to this resolution in Darrell L. Bock’s Baker Academic Commentary: Luke 1:1-9:50.
 In Tacitus, we read that Quirinius was awarded with a consulship for a military victory against the Homonadesians in Cilicia. He died without an heir in Rome and was given a public funeral. Tacitus, Annals, 3.48.
 W.M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, 2nd ed. (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1915), 280; the inscription is known as the Lapis Venetus (#2683 above) is the funeral stone of a man who served under Quirinius.
 BDAG, 343.
 Luke also records this event in Acts 5:37.
 BDAG, 721.
 This translation is preferred by Craig L. Blomberg in his Historical Reliability of the New Testament, 60.
 J.H. Rhoads, “Josephus Misdated the Census of Quirinius,” JETS, 54 (2011).
 Josephus has been noted to mistakenly record names of the Sicarii and the order of events surrounding them, as well as biblical events. He has incorrectly recorded the placement of public buildings and even the relationship between Germanicus and Tiberius.