It seems that whenever one of the gospel accounts disagrees with that of a non-Christian historian, skeptical scholars assume it’s the gospel-writer who got it wrong. That’s a dangerous thing to assume.
Luke 3:1 is a passage that many critics have used to “prove” Luke’s incompetence as an historian. Here’s the passage (ESV):
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene,…
According to some critics over the years, this passage totally runs off the rails when it claims that Lysanias was the tetrarch of Abilene (also known by the names of Abila and Chalcis) in the fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign (about 28 A.D.).
The critic will then explain that Luke’s timing is all wrong. Why?…Because the first century historian, Josephus tells us that Lysanius was tetrarch of Abilene from about 40-36 B.C., 60-plus years earlier than Luke claims!
For reference, here is one of the passages from Josephus:
Now two years afterward, when Barzapharnes, a governor among the Parthians, and Paeorus, the king’s son, had possessed themselves of Syria, and when Lysanias had already succeeded upon the death of his father Ptolemy, the son of Menneus, in the government [of Chalcis]…1
Lysanias’ father, Ptolemy bar Menneus, is known to have died in around 40 B.C. That’s when Lysanius would have assumed the role of tetrarch. Yet Luke claims Lysanias was tetrarch during the time of John the Baptist, more than 60 years later.
How can this be? Is Luke Wrong? Well, as scholars John McClintock and James Strong say, those who would use this example as “an opportunity for accusing the evangelist of confusion and error” and of making a “gross chronological error” are resting their accusation on a groundless assumption.2
That groundless assumption is that Luke and Jospehus are referring to the same person. An interesting archeological discovery has shown that there appears to have been a Lysanias serving as tetrarch of Abilene during the time Luke says.
The discovery was a temple inscription—sort of like a stone marker—known as the Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum 4521. It was found at the site of ancient Abilene. Here is what the inscription says:
For the salvation of the August lords and of all their household, Nymphaeus, freedman of Eagle Lysanias tetrarch, established this street and other things.
The inscription can be dated to between 14 and 29 A.D. because it uses the term, “August lords.” This was a term used only to refer to the Roman emperor, Tiberius and his mother Livia, who was also the widow of Tiberius’ predecessor, Augustus.3 Tiberius became emperor in 14 A.D., and Livia died in 29. Therefore, the inscription had to have been made between those dates.
All of this means that Luke was correct (and so was Josephus, for that matter). There were two tetrarchs of Abilene named Lysanias, each serving some 60 years apart. As FF Bruce writes, “On the strength of this and other evidence, we may well be satisfied with the verdict of the historian Eduard Meyer, that Luke’s reference to Lysanias is ‘entirely correct.’”4
- Josephus, The Jewish War, 1.13.1
- McClintock, John and Strong, James, Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Volume 5, Harper, 1894, p. 589
- Bruce, FF, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 5th, 1959, Stellar Books, Kindle Edition, 2013, Location 1151