One of the more problematic issues with the Christmas story is the question of the Census of Quirinius in Luke 2:2. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, there was indeed a Quirinius who served as governor in Syria starting in 6 A.D., and in that year there was a Roman census during the time of Jesus’ birth by Luke’s testimony. However, then compare this to the infancy narrative in Matthew and try to line it up with the record of Josephus concerning Herod’s death around 4 B.C., which Matthew says is after Jesus’ birth. This gives you about a ten year discrepancy regarding the actual date of the birth of Jesus. Was Jesus born around 6 A.D. according to Luke or before 4 B.C. according to Matthew? What are we to make of this?
We already know that the Christian calendar, which has no year “0” in it, was orginally meant to be started in agreement with Jesus’ birth prior to the death of Herod, but that appears to be off by a few years. We can thank “Dennis the Dwarf”, a 6th century monk, for getting us sidetracked with that one (look here for more nerdy details about the story of the Anno Domini system). But most Bible scholars agree that Luke’s apparent birthdate for Jesus in 6 A.D. is far too late to be correct. What then do you do with the census of Quirinius?
The consensus in critical scholarship has concluded simply that Luke somehow got this wrong. Skeptics run with this and conclude that the Gospels are unreliable as historical documents. UNC Chapel Hill scholar and former evangelical Bart Ehrman, for example, argues that Luke is using the whole census idea as a theological device of fiction to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of the heir to the Davidic throne, namely Jesus. The virgin birth then is starting to sound, well,…. uh… rather contrived. Mmmm… Does this mean that I got all of those ding-dang Christmas decorations down out of the attic for nuthin’? Bummer.
But what if a closer look at all of the evidence suggests an alternative way of looking at the Quirinius Question?
Luke’s Census and Its Critics
To Ehrman’s credit, he does point out that there is nothing new with his thesis. Furthermore, most Christians at a minimum have never bothered to read the Biblical text itself to compare Luke’s account with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. At best, most folks just tend to go with what Linus says to Charlie Brown and pretty much leave it at that, or else they just try to mash both accounts together into a jumbled mess (something we have covered before here on Veracity). This is unfortunate, and thoughtful believers can do much better. With respect to the “Quirinius Question”, it is important to consider that evangelical scholars have thought about the “Quirinius Question” quite a bit, too, and what they have to say is worth pondering.
Several solutions have been offered to resolve this issue from a more orthodox perspective. Unfortunately, no one single proposal has found universal acceptance. For example, some have argued that while Quirinius was surely governor in Syria by 6 A.D, that he may have served in some less formal yet still governing capacity prior to that year, perhaps early enough to coincide with Herod’s lifetime. Others have suggested that the Greek grammar in Luke allows for the idea that the census surrounding Jesus’ birth happened before Quirinius took over as governor in 6 A.D.
Consider what Darrell Bock, a New Testament scholar at Dallas Theological Seminary, has to say in response to Ehrman’s critique as he surveys the possible alternatives:
But What If The Problem is With Josephus, and Not Luke?
Another, more recent solution has been proposed. What if the dating issue is not with Luke but instead with Josephus? Josephus is the preeminent non-Christian historian of the period, but we do know that scholars have questioned Josephus on other issues regarding his recording of historical events. Might there be some problems with the date used by Josephus to establish the census of Quirinius?
If you hold to most approaches to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, it is difficult to accept the possibility that Luke might be wrong here. Many skeptics complain that the belief in inerrancy is forcing evangelicals to accept conclusions that are only vaguely warranted by the evidence. But even if you were to concede that Luke might be wrong, would it be enough to undermine the credibility of the doctrine of Jesus’ virgin birth? According to apologist Randall Rauser, the answer would be NO! The fact that we have divergent accounts of Jesus’ birth that differs in some details actually enhances the credibility of the infancy narratives. Using the long established principle of multiple attestation, the variances between Matthew and Luke demonstrate that the Gospel writers were appealing to multiple witnesses. Since we have multiple witnesses, we should not be surprised that some differences in relatively small details would exist. If we had but only one witnessed account, it would be far easier to cast a skeptical eye on the story of Jesus’ birth.
In my view, efforts to try to harmonize the sources regarding Quirinius can indeed be very helpful, even if a certain conclusion is not currently obtainable. I am OK with saying that the virgin birth can not be proven, but I think that it is still reasonable enough to believe. Some proposed solutions are better than others, but none of the major solutions being proposed are flatly out of left field. To say that we do not have a definitive answer on Quirinius here does not mean that we should completely reject the Virgin Birth wholesale. Nor does it mean that we should categorically dismiss Luke as an historian because of this particular issue. There are too many other agreeable historical observations, with only minor variations between the Gospel witnesses, that demonstrate the very plausible reality that indeed the New Testament is historically reliable in the broadest sense possible.
A Miraculous Conception?
I can appreciate why critical scholarship comes down so hard on the virgin birth narratives in the New Testament, and so Christians should not dismiss these criticisms in a cavalier fashion. On the other hand, I also know of other Christians who struggle with the story of the virgin birth so much that they would rather ignore these portions of Matthew and Luke altogether. But when it comes right down to it, the Gospels themselves with the infancy narratives intact still remain the best historical records we have with respect to the story of Jesus. All in all, however we handle the Quirinius Question, it takes more than the available counter-evidence to knock down the New Testament claim about the virgin birth. The virgin birth of Jesus is not just some bizarre idea out of nowhere, though it probably did bother folks in the early Christian community as being really odd, just as much as it bothers skeptics today. But when you put things in their proper context, the virgin birth stories fit in remarkably well with the rest of the testimony of all four Gospels. The infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew show that Jesus stands apart from any other human being and draws the focus into the New Testament story of the Christ, the one anointed by God to uniquely reveal God Himself to us.
Who is this Jesus? The Gospels make the audacious claim that this little child is to be worshipped. This takes the focus off of ourselves and onto the God who enters our world in the most vulnerable and oddly human way. The skeptical mind might resist, but more than anything, it is our human hearts that need to be humbled the most.
This is a Christmas truth that challenges us. But it is also a truth worth celebrating. After all of those trips to the attic, I think I will add another ornament to the tree. Do you believe in this Jesus?
Merry Christmas from your Friends at Veracity!