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When did the Luke 2 census occur?



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Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem.

Alleged Biblical Problem

How can the Bible be correct (in The Gospel According to Luke, chapter 2, verse 2) when claiming that the great census decreed by Rome’s Caesar Augustus about the time of Jesus' birth circa 4-5 B.C. occurred “when Quirinius was governor” if Quirinius (or Cyrenius) didn't even become governor until the year 6 A.D.?! Isn't this a clear case of the Bible being in error on matters of history?

Sensible Solution

No so fast. Critics used this text for many years to make their case for a Bible that is unreliable. But no more. Today, there are a number of reasons for giving Luke the benefit of the doubt. Over and over (in references to 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 islands) the doctor has proven himself to be a reliable historian, as demonstrated by famed scholar and archaeologist, Sir William Ramsey.

See ChristianAnswers' Web Bible Encyclopedia: What is a census?

To date, the only census documented outside the Bible near this time under Quirinius is the one referred to by the historian Josephus (Antiquities XVIII, 26 [ii.1], which he says took place in 6 A.D.

But notice that Luke 2:2 says that the census taken around the time Joseph and Mary went down to Bethlehem was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. This implies that there was a later census--most likely the one referred to by Josephus--which Dr. Luke would have also certainly known about.

There is good reason to believe that Quirinius was actually twice in a position of command (the Greek expression hegemoneuo in Luke 2:2 which is often translated "governor" really just means “to be leading” or “in charge of”) over the province of Syria, which included Judea as a political subdivision. The first time would have been when he was leading military action against the Homonadensians during the period between 12 and 2 B.C. His title may even have been “military governor.”

A Latin inscription discovered in 1764 adds weight to the idea that Quirinius was in a position of authority in Syria on two separate occasions. There was definitely a taxing during this time and therefore, quite possible, an associated census, the details of which may have been common knowledge in Luke's time, but are now lost to us.

Scholars have advanced a number of other altogether viable explanations which would allow Luke's record (and therefore the Bible) to continue to be regarded as 100% trustworthy.

Helpful Resources

  • Bible “Contradictions” & Puzzles (ChristianAnswers.Net)

  • The Quest Study Bible, Marshall Shelley, editor (Zondervan Press, 1994).

  • The Defender's Study Bible, Henry M. Morris, editor (World Publishing, 1995).

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Author: Daryl E. Witmer of AIIA Institute.

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