As I write this article, Christmas is just a few days away. So, it’s only fitting that we study a part of the Christmas story that critics love to attack: The census. According to Luke’s gospel, Joseph and a very pregnant Mary travelled from Nazareth to Joseph’s home town of Bethlehem to be “registered” as part of a census decreed by Caesar Augustus. Here is the relevant passage, Luke 2:1-3 (ESV):
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town.
According to some, this passage is either full of errors or is an outright fabrication. Either way, anti-Christian authors assert that Luke really screwed this one up, and that the passage only demonstrates why no one should consider him to be a reliable historian. Well, over the centuries, Luke has been accused of being a poor historian by a lot of people for a lot of reasons. However, upon closer inspection, Luke usually comes out on top. Is the census story the same? Or do the critics finally have Luke right where they want him? Let’s take a look.
The Critics’ Problems with the Census
Let’s quickly review the alleged issues with the census. Then, we’ll address them one at a time. Some critics assert that:
- There is no record of Caesar Augustus ordering an Empire-wide census, especially at the time period relevant to our story.
- Even if there had been a census, people would not have been required to travel back to their home towns to be registered, and there’s no evidence of the practice. This detail must have been concocted as a device to have Jesus born in Bethlehem, so that his birth there could be claimed as a fulfillment of prophecy.
- Luke’s chronology is all wrong. He states that the census took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. It’s known that Quirinius did not become “governor” of Syria until 6 A.D., 12 years after Luke’s alleged census supposedly took place! Quirinius did conduct a census in Judea (for taxation purposes), but not until 6 A.D. Clearly, Luke is mistaken. Either he made up the earlier census—or he’s gotten his chronology wrong—and falsely associated the census of Quirinius with the birth of Jesus.
On the surface, these challenges seem pretty sound, and it looks like a slam dunk for those who think Luke is unreliable. As is often the case with these things however, the situation changes when one digs beneath the surface. As we do, we’ll see that:
- There’s no record of Caesar Augustus ordering an Empire-wide census because he didn’t, and Luke didn’t actually claim that he did. The census was most likely limited to Judea and conducted for a very specific reason.
- There actually is evidence to indicate that people were sometimes required to go to their home towns to register for census purposes.
- Luke’s chronology could very well be correct, and there are several explanations that could clear up his apparent error regarding Quirinius.
Let’s start digging.
To address this objection, we need to learn some Greek and study a little history. What this exercise will tell us is that the census in question was not an empire-wide census, and that Luke never told us it was. It will also give us a good indication of what Luke’s census was about and why it happened.
“All the World Should Be Registered” or Not?
The text of the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible (and other translations) says that Augustus decreed that “all the world” should be registered. In the original Greek, the word that Luke used for “world” is οἰκουμένη, which in the English alphabet is rendered as “ecumene.” This ancient term had a number of related meanings, most of which could be articulated as the known world, the inhabited world, the civilized world, or the Greco-Roman world.
This is the meaning that is assumed in most Bible translations. The ESV simply translates it as “all the world.” The New International Version (NIV), which is an interpretive translation, tries to refine things a bit and adds a word. It translates οἰκουμένη as the “entire Roman world.”
The term can also mean “land”, as in “all across the land.” In that rather generic usage, οἰκουμένη could refer to any area that the author intends, and does not necessarily have to mean the entire known world, Roman or otherwise.1
In fact, Luke himself uses the term οἰκουμένη in this more generic manner when describing a Judean famine in Acts 11:25-30.2 We know that the famine was basically confined to Judea, and did not envelop the entire Roman world. How do we know this? Because the passage says the disciples decided to send aid from points in the not-starving portions of the empire to the starving brothers living in Judea.
Given Luke’s use of the term elsewhere in his writings, οἰκουμένη does not mean “all the world” or even “the entire Roman world” in his census account. Instead, Luke most likely intends to communicate that the census was limited to Judea.
Why a Census and For What?
Now for a bit of history: Herod the Great was the king of Judea from about 37 B.C. until his death in about 4 B.C. He was a client king of Rome, and was ultimately accountable to the Roman emperor. For most of his reign, he was a client king in good standing with Rome, and was allowed a certain degree of autonomy, including the ability to levy taxes himself. Therefore, Augustus would never have decreed a census in Judea, as a census was normally done for taxation purposes.3
However, near the end of his reign, in about 7 B.C., Herod fell out of favor with Caesar Augustus due to a dispute. He was no longer a client king in good standing and would have lost his right to tax on his own.
Regarding this dispute, the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us in his Antiquities of the Jews that Caesar was very angry with Herod, demoted the status of Herod’s kingdom, and wouldn’t even listen to his ambassadors:
Caesar, without staying to hear for what reason he did it, and how it was done, grew very angry, and wrote to Herod sharply. The sum of his epistle was this, that whereas of old he had used him as his friend, he should now use him as his subject.4
Now Herod was forced to bear all this, that confidence of his being quite gone with which Caesar’s favor used to inspire him; for Caesar would not admit so much as an embassage from him to make an apology for him; and when they came again, he sent them away without success.5
Also in Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus tells us that following all this, the Romans required all citizens in Herod’s domain to swear an oath of allegiance to Caesar Augustus and to Herod jointly, most likely in 7 or 6 B.C. He adds that some of the Jewish Pharisees refused to take this oath and were fined as a result:
These are those that are called the sect of the Pharisees, who were in a capacity of greatly opposing kings. A cunning sect they were, and soon elevated to a pitch of open fighting and doing mischief. Accordingly, when all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good-will to Caesar, and to the king’s government, these very men did not swear, being above six thousand; and when the king imposed a fine upon them, Pheroras’s wife paid their fine for them.6
At any rate, Rome’s mandate that Herod secure those oaths of allegiance would have been a key step in officially demoting the status of Herod’s domain. To secure those oaths of allegiance—and to likely pave the way for a future Roman taxation—Herod would have needed to conduct a census or registration. He would have done this on Caesar’s orders.
Josephus tells us that after a year or so, Herod was able to regain Caesar Augustus’s favor. At that point, the registration may have been completed, but the taxation phase would probably have been aborted.7
As scholar Tim McGrew sums up,
- The registration was probably only in Herod’s dominion, not empire-wide.
- It may have been ordered when Herod fell out of favor with Augustus around 7 BC.
- This explanation covers the oath of loyalty to Caesar that Josephus mentions, which is otherwise unexplained.8
Only a portion of Roman records survive to the present day, and virtually none of the Jewish records survived the war with Rome in 70 A.D. It’s not surprising that no Roman records have survived for a small, regionally-focused census in Judea that was aborted before it was used as a tool for taxation. However, by piecing together information from Luke, Josephus, and other sources (as we’ll see), Luke’s account becomes more and more plausible.
Registering in Home Towns?
When looking into this objection, there actually is evidence to support the idea that, for some censuses, people were required to go to their home towns to register.
Let’s start with a bit of background. Many people assume the passage in Luke means that each person was required to register in his ancestral home town, as opposed to his permanent place of domicile. The definition of one’s “own town” is not clearly articulated. It’s likely that the requirement, if it existed, related to one’s location of domicile, as we’ll see later.
In Joseph’s case, it seems that Bethlehem was simultaneously his ancestral home and his intended place of domicile. Most people assume that Joseph and Mary had moved permanently to Nazareth, and then had to travel back to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem simply for the census registration. However, it may be that they had been in Nazareth temporarily, and were planning to move to Bethlehem permanently. This would explain why they made the trip, and why they stayed there after Jesus’ birth. It sounds speculative, but it’s not as speculative as one might think.
As mentioned above, Joseph and Mary ended up staying in Bethlehem for some time after Jesus’ birth—about a year or two—until being warned to flee to Egypt. When they returned from Egypt (after the death of Herod), it seems likely that they had intended to go back to Bethlehem. According to Matthew, during their return, they detoured to Nazareth only due to a “last minute” change of plans. This is described in Matthew 2:19-23:
19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Now, with all this as background, we must ask if there is any evidence supporting the idea that people were sometimes required to return to their home towns to register. Yes, we do have evidence from the same general region, and from a reasonably proximate time period. Scholar John McRay shares two examples:
Two census orders that have been found show an interesting correlation with the wording of the birth narrative of Jesus. One, British Museum papyrus 904, is from the year A.D. 104:
Gaius Vibius Maximus, prefect of Egypt [says]: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments.
The second, Oxyrhynchus papyrus 255, is a census return from the year A.D. 48, the ninth year of Claudius:
I, the above mentioned Thermoutharion along with my guardian the said Apollonius, swear by Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Emperor that assuredly the preceding document makes a sound and true return of those living with me, and that there is no one else living with me, neither a stranger, nor an Alexandrian citizen, nor a freedman, nor a Roman citizen, nor an Egyptian in addition to the aforesaid. If I am swearing truly, may it be well with me, but if falsely the reverse. In the ninth year of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Emperor.9
So, the idea that people had to return to their home towns to register for a census is not so ridiculous after all, and there’s credible evidence to support it. Too often, critics take the norms and practices associated with our modern, technological world and attempt to superimpose them on a vastly different culture and time. That’s a closed-minded thing to do.
Mistaken Chronology with Quirinius?
Even if the first two objections can be dispensed with, many critics point to the line about Quirinius (Luke 2:2) as a critical mistake:
This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Just to refresh your memory, here’s the problem: Luke’s alleged census had to have taken place around 6 B.C. Yet, Quirinius was not governor of Syria until 6 A.D. Therefore, Luke’s alleged census could not have taken place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. His timeline seems to be off by a dozen years!
Some critics suggest that Luke—with his poor knowledge of history—confused his alleged census with a documented taxation / census that Quirinius actually did order in the Judean region in 6 A.D.
First, let’s dispense with the suggestion that Luke simply confused his census with the documented census of Quirinius. Luke definitely knew about the census in 6 A.D. because he mentions it in Acts 5:37:
After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered.
Quirinus’ census / taxation would have been fairly well-known to people in the region during the first century. It sparked riots (note Luke’s reference to Judas the Galilean, not to be confused with the more famous Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus). The census of Quirinius caused such unrest that it spurred creation of the Jewish Zealot party, according to Josephus.10 To be clear: Luke knew all about the census of Quirinius, and he knew exactly when it happened.
So, if Luke wasn’t confused, then what can explain his unlikely claim that his alleged census took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria? There are several potential explanations, and we’ll start with the simplest first.
In the original Greek, the line, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria,” is awkwardly worded, making a direct literal translation difficult. Therefore, the correct translation is in dispute.
A number of scholars, including N.T. Wright, F.F. Bruce, Harold Hoehner, and others, have suggested that the proper translation should be “This enrollment (census) was before that made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (Bruce) or “This census was before that [census] when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Hoehner).11
In fact, most Bibles will contain a footnote on the line in question, and offer an alternate translation. The ESV renders the alternate translation as “This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria…”
If the alternate translation is correct, then Luke’s alleged chronological error simply goes away. In which case, Luke may have mentioned Quirinius to help his readers differentiate between the two census events. It would be like saying to his audience, “The census that I’m talking about is not that crazy one everyone remembers under Quirinius, when all the rioting took place. The one I’m talking about happened before Quirinius was governor.”
It could very well be that Luke is guilty of nothing more than some awkward Greek writing, rather than a gross historical error. There’s a lot of scholarly support for the idea. But what if the standard translation is basically correct? What if Luke did mean to imply that his alleged census is in some way connected to Quirinius? There are two potential answers to that question.
Quirinius Served Twice?
Some have suggested that Quirinius served in an official capacity in Syria twice, once during the period encompassing 6 B.C., and again from 6 A.D. If true, that would mean that Quirinius could have overseen Luke’s census in 6 B.C. and the more well-known census in 6 A.D.
Some have suggested this because of a stone fragment that was discovered in 1764. Known as the Tivoli inscription, this fragment mentions a Roman official who ruled Syria and Phoenicia twice under Augustus. Some scholars believe Quirinius to be the official referred to in the inscription. If so, this would be another potential solution to Luke’s chronology issue.
There are, however, some issues with this solution. First, the inscription does not specifically name the official to which it refers. Second, the level of official mentioned was an imperial legate, which would have been one level beneath that of governor.
The Tivoli inscription is interesting, but is ultimately not very effective as a defense of Luke. Overall, it seems just a bit too “sketchy.”
Once Census, Two Phases?
Earlier, we mentioned two things that are key to this potential solution:
- The original Greek in Luke’s passage about Quirinius is awkwardly worded, making a direct literal translation difficult.
- Luke’s alleged census in 7 or 6 B.C. was likely aborted after the registration phase, before taxation took place.
Keeping those points in mind, consider the following. Tim McGrew, citing the work of other scholars (Ebrard, Godet) tells us that an admissible translation of Luke 2:2 indicates that Luke’s census (of 6 B.C.) finally “came to pass” (or came to fruition) when Quirinius was governor of Syria.12
McGrew states that it could be that “Luke intends to convey that although the census was aborted in 6 BC, it was picked up and carried through to its logical completion—the taxation itself—under Quirinius.”13 Therefore, the two census events could actually be related.
The story of the census is covered in just a few lines of text. Over the years, however, scholars of all types have expended gallons of ink slicing and dicing, analyzing and critiquing those few lines. When one looks closely at this story and the relevant historical evidence surrounding it, one thing becomes clear: Critics who dismiss it as a fabrication—or who accuse Luke of writing bad history—are being much too quick to judge.
The arguments surrounding the census story can be confusing. On balance, though, the story is actually quite plausible and even well-supported. Luke remains a trustworthy historian who has “written an orderly account” for us, so that we “may know the certainty of the things” we’ve been taught.14
- McGrew, Timothy (Professor and Director of Graduate Teaching, Western Michigan University),Alleged Historical Errors in the Gospels: Luke and John, Presentation to St. Michael Lutheran Church, MI, 11 June 2012, slide 10, accessed 20 Dec 2015: http://www.apologetics315.com/2012/06/alleged-historical-errors-in-gospels.html
- Ibid, slide 11.
- Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 16.9.3
- Ibid, 16.9.4
- Ibid, 17.2.4
- McGrew, slide 13
- Ibid, slide 14
- John McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament, Baker Academic, 6th Printing, 2005, p. 155
- Ben-Sasson, H.H., A History of the Jewish People, Harvard University Press, 1976, 274
- Hoehner, Harold, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, Zondervan, 1978, p.21
- McGrew, slide 20
- McGrew, slide 22
- Quotes taken from the introduction to The Gospel According to Luke, Chapter 1, verses 3-4