Is Luke Wrong About the Time of Jesus' Birth?
I wonder if you could clarify something that has me puzzled. According to the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. But Luke also wrote that Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem for a census by Quirinius while she was still pregnant, and this event has been dated at 6 A.D., or ten years after Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. There have been no historical records to indicate that any Roman census was held prior to 6 A.D.
I've done some research into this apparent discrepancy and have wondered if, perhaps, it was not actually Herod the Great, but one of his heirs apparent that was King at the time of Jesus' birth. But another thing that I discovered in my research is that the well-known historian, Josephus, never documented the slaughter of the innocents, even though he had written quite extensively about Herod the Great. It would seem that Josephus would write something about the mass slaughter of children.
I must be missing some important issue and am sure hoping you can clear this up for me.
Thanks so much for writing. This apparent mistake in Luke's timeline has been raised many times over the years as proof of the fallibility of the Biblical accounts. I think upon closer examination, you will find that it really doesn't hold up. It is important to go over all the historic facts we have first so one can understand what is known, what is stated and what is assumed.
Listing the Facts
Let's look at the Biblical passage in question and then we'll take it apart to see what specific historical claims are made.
"Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."(NASB)
In the Biblical account, we know these facts are presented:
- Caesar Augustus ordered a census
- Quirinius was governing Syria (hegemoneuontos tes Syrias Kyreniou)
- Each family must register at their familial city of origin
Further, Matthew chapter 2 reports that Herod the Great ordered the slaughter "all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under"(Matt 2:16). We know that Herod died 4-2 B.C., so Jesus birth had to have been before his death - most likely by two or more years. Given these facts, scholars generally date Jesus' birth anywhere between 6 B.C. to 4 B.C.
Now, let's turn our attention to the Josephus passage. In 17.13.5 of The Antiquity of the Jews, Josephus writes:
"So Archelaus' country was laid to the province of Syria; and Cyrenius, one that had been consul, was sent by Caesar to take account of people's effects in Syria, and to sell the house of Archelaus."1
From the Josephus account we derive the following facts:
- Caesar ordered a census
- Cyrenius (Quirinius) was sent to account for Syria and sell the house of Archelaus
- Cyrenius (Quirinius) "had been consul"
We also know from other historical records that Herod Archelaus was deposed in 6 A.D., so this census must be about 6 or 7 A.D. So, the question goes, if Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. and Josephus tells us Quirinius' census wasn't until 6 A.D., then isn't this a contradiction?
More than One Census
Although on its face we seem to have a difficulty here, there are several pieces that we must consider before jumping to the conclusion that Luke and Josephus were speaking about the same event. Indeed, it seems that Caesar Augustus was the type of leader who ordered many censuses in his day. Records exist to show that Roman-controlled Egypt had begun a census as early as 10 B.C. and it was repeated every 14 years. And Augustus himself notes in his Res Gestae (The Deeds of Augustus) that he ordered three wide-spread censuses of Roman citizens, one in 28B.C., one in 8 B.C. and one in 14 A.D.2 In between there are several other censuses that happened locally across Rome. Luke's account corroborates the idea of multiple censuses for Judea when he writes "This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria." Certainly, the word "first" implies that more than one census happened.
On another occasion, an enrollment of all the people of the empire happened to swear an oath of allegiance to Caesar. In Chapter 34 of Res Gestae Augustus also notes, "When I administered my thirteenth consulate (2 B.C.E.), the senate and Equestrian order and Roman people all called me father of the country, and voted that the same be inscribed in the vestibule of my temple".3 Josephus also mentions a time "When all good people gave assurance of their good will to Caesar".4 These types of tributes would also require an enrollment of individuals from across the empire. Orosius, a fifth century Christian, links this registration with the birth of Jesus saying that "all of the peoples of the great nations were to take an oath".5
Taking all of this together, we have at least three censuses in the area of Judea - one in 8 B.C., one starting around 2 B.C. and one in 6 A.D. The only point that is really in question, then, is whether Luke was mistaken in ascribing this census to the time when Quirinius was in the role of Syrian Governor. Since Quirinius wasn't governor of the Syrian province until after Archelaus was deposed, critics claim Luke misidentified the census as the smaller one, which happened some 8-10 years after Herod died. Either Luke is wrong on his dating of Jesus' birth or Matthew made up the story of Herod the Great and the killing of the infants. Is this an accurate objection?
The Governorship of Quirinius
In studying this problem, there are two main solutions that Christian scholars offer, and each has some good merit. The first point is the terminology Luke uses when writing about Quirinius' governorship over Syria. In stating that Quirinius controlled the Syrian area, Luke doesn't use the official political title of "Governor" ("legatus"), but the broader term "hegemon" which is a ruling officer or procurator. This means that Quirinius may not have been the official governor of Judea, but he was in charge of the census because he was a more capable and trusted servant of Rome than the more inept Saturninus.
Justin Martyr's Apology supports this view, writing that Quirinius was a "procurator", not a governor of the area of Judea.6 As Gleason Archer writes, "In order to secure efficiency and dispatch, it may well have been that Augustus put Quirinius in charge of the census-enrollment in Syria between the close of Saturninus's administration and the beginning of Varus's term of service in 7 B.C. It was doubtless because of his competent handling of the 7 B.C. census that Augustus later put him in charge of the 7 A.D. census."7 Archer also says that Roman history records Quirinius leading the effort to quell rebels in that area at exactly that time, so such a political arrangement is not a stretch.
If Quirinius did hold such a position, then we have no contradiction. The first census was taken during the time of Jesus birth, but Josephus' census would have come later. This option seems to me to be entirely reasonable.
Herod's Slaughter of the Babies
Your second question is quite different in its format. You ask why, if Herod committed such an atrocity as killing all the male babies "two years old and under" as Matthew recounts, how could historians such as Josephus completely ignore it? Well, let's think about this for a moment. Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth was a very small city with no more than a few thousand people. The total number of infants who would have been murdered under Herod's edict could be pretty low. As James Patrick Holding writes "How many boys aged two and under could there have been in and around the tiny city of Bethlehem? Five? Ten? Matthew does not give a number. Josephus says that Herod murdered a vast number of people, and was so cruel to those he didn't kill that the living considered the dead to be fortunate. Thus, indirectly, Josephus tells us that there were many atrocities that Herod committed that he does not mention in his histories - and it is probable that authorizing the killing of the presumably few male infants in the vicinity of Bethlehem was a minuscule blot of the blackness that was the reign of Herod. Being that the events of the reign of Herod involved practically one atrocity after another - it is observed by one writer, with a minimum of hyperbole, that hardly a day in his 36-year reign passed when someone wasn't sentenced to death - why should any one event in particular have touched off a rebellion, when others in particular, including those recorded by Josephus, did not?"8
I hope these discussions have helped you further your understanding of the difficulties historians face when trying to piece together events from the limited records of the past. There is certainly no slam-dunk evidence that the Biblical accounts are wrong here. In fact, one must also remember that the Biblical accounts are themselves historic documentation and therefore have historic merit in themselves. The fact that we have outside corroboration of the possibility of multiple censuses strengthens Luke's report of the events as he has written them. To say that this is an error would be premature. God bless you as you seek Him.
4. Josephus, op cit p. 453
6. Justin Martyr "The First Apology Of Justin" Chapter 34 (accessed online at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-firstapology.html)
7. Archer, Gleason L. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties
Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI 1982 p.366