Yesterday I mentioned the possibility that Luke 2.2 contains an erroneous statement about Quirinius being the governing one of Syria at the same time that Herod the Great was ruling and Jesus was born. Since about a decade separates the death of Herod and the known governorship of Quirinius this has been dubbed a historical inaccuracy. Both Bill Heroman and James McGrath provided me with articles on the subject which I read yesterday. This first article was by Jared M. Compton and it can be accessed here. The second was by James himself and it can be accessed here.
Since these two articles would provide plenty of reading for those interested in the subject all I want to do here is provide a short list of reasons for why Luke may have been wrong or may have been right in what he said in 2.2. At the end of the day I personally came away agnostic about it. There are serious issues that I think cannot be glazed over apologetically. Likewise, there are large gaps in our knowledge that I think prevent a total indictment of Luke. Here are my thoughts:
(1) I don’t think the criticisms that Caesar would have never taken a census on non-Roman citizens in a vassal kingdom are (a) to be taken lightly nor (b) solid evidence against Luke’s assumptions. For one it does seem problematic that such a census would be taken but Compton argues that it was not beyond possible. What is odd about it is that Luke assumes his reader will have no qualms with his statement. He writes as if this event is a given. So while we should be cautious about vindicating Luke because it is possible that such an event occurred we should not ignore how rare and odd it would have been. Likewise, prior to writing Luke off as mistaken we must realize that if he was so dead wrong he sure was totally oblivious to it since he writes as if his reader will know exactly what he is addressing.
(2) If Luke wrote ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη in reference to a “first census” taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria beginning in 6 CE he is wrong. I don’t think there is any way to get around it. But there is a large blank spot in our history of Quirinius around the time that Herod was ruling so we do not know for sure that Quirinius didn’t serve in some official capacity in Syria at that time. He would not have been the governor since this position was accounted for but he may have had another official title since ἡγεμονεύοντος does not necessarily refer to the governor but could very well be a reference to another civil office. If Luke knew of an office that Quirinius had held in Syria a decade earlier that gave him authority to take some sort of census that Luke may be vindicated. Either way we have an argument from silence that does favor those skeptical of Luke.
(3) While both articles note the problem with translating ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη as “the census before…” it is not altogether impossible that this is what he meant though it is unlikely. Personally, I would like to browse through Luke-Acts to see how the author uses various forms of πρῶτος. This could be a key to determining whether or not Luke would have used this word to refer to an event “before…Quirinius” was governing Syria. Again, I am agnostic about it.
In the end there are major difficulties with Luke’s statement. If you don’t think this is so I recommend reading James McGrath’s article that I linked above. Likewise, there is too much missing to seal the case which I think Jared M. Compton’s article displays. In the end I echo Bill Heroman who wrote the following last December (see full post here):
“So, did Luke just make a mistake about Quirinius? As believers, we’ll keep hoping he didn’t. However, as I keep pointing out, that only matters if we’re trying to defend scripture. Everything has a time and a place, and when we’re trying to reconstruct events, Quirinius just doesn’t matter. Every viable apologetic on Luke 2:2 still puts Jesus’ birth before Herod’s death. That makes Quirinius moot.”
If you have your own thoughts to share please feel free to leave a comment.