Did Luke Get It Wrong?

Regarding the time when Jesus was born, did Luke get it wrong?

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole empire [the whole world] should be registered. This first registration took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. [Or This registration was the first while, or This registration was before] So everyone went to be registered, each to his own town. Luke 2:1-3 CSB

The Census of Quirinius

The Census of Quirinius was a census of Judea taken by Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, Roman governor of Syria (according to Josephus: after Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, was removed from office and Judea was annexed to Syria.) This happened at least 8 years after Jesus’s birth.⁠1 

The Gospel of Luke … establishes the birth of Jesus during Quirinius’s governorship (Luke 2, Luke 2:1–5), but the Gospel of Matthew places the birth within the reign of Herod the Great, who died 9 years earlier. “No satisfactory explanation,” the wikipedia maintains, “of the contradiction seems possible, and most scholars think that the Gospel of Luke was in error.⁠2 Josephus3 however references a certain Judas the Galilean⁠4 that supports the Lukan account. And the conflict between the gospels is only alleged if we revisit the Lukan text with a truer historical reference in view.

Unsatisfactory explanations

Unsatisfactory explanations proliferated:

  • Luke got it wrong.
  • Quirinius instituted this census years earlier as a legate of Caesar and around the birth of the Savior. Quirinius was then the head of an imperial commission to gather the census. [Problem here is Luke gave him the title “governor,”⁠5 Luke 2:2]
  • Translate the word first in Luke 2:2⁠6 as before. “..this taxing was before… Quirinius was governor…” Problem is the word before⁠7 is a different word and the text is not in question using the Greek word first.⁠8
  • The word translated taxation⁠9 could also mean registration.⁠10 The registration took place, some say, at the time of the Savior’s birth but the actual taxing 11 years later during Quirinius’s governorship. This interpretation is unnecessarily forced.
  • The taxation was only a tax levied against the priests and Luke must have confused this with a more general Roman census. [Entirely arbitrary as theories go.]

A Greek Lesson

The word this in Luke 2:2, “thistook place while Quirinius was governing….” transliterates: haútâ but the accent marks are not inspired. What if the word Luke used was autá instead which is the same word with different accents and without the aspirant (the ‘h’). This is the word the in a reflexive sense, ie itself. Luke could have meant, the tax itself was made for the first time when Quirinius was governor of Syria. [A perfectly acceptable translation].

We could herein distinguish the decree or command to institute an enrollment from the actual enrollment itself. We believe this was what Luke said! Lange explains,

“Nothing prevents us from supposing that the [enrollment] was really ordered and begun at the Birth of Christ, but was interrupted in Judea for a time by the death of Herod, and the political changes consequent on that event, and subsequently resumed and carried out with greater energy under Cyrenius [Quirinius], so it might righty be said that to have been made, or completed, when [while] he was governor.”⁠11

The difficulty might be one of translation. Should we read verse 3 with the CSB “So everyone went to be registered” or the KJV “And all went to be taxed”? And since they were enrolled or registered for tax purposes this might be a distinction without a difference. It is acceptable to say then that what was started around Herod’s death and Jesus’s birth was finished during Quirinius’s governorship.

Another Possibility

Quirinius might have been twice governor of Syria, once for 3 years around the birth of the Savior (A.U. 750-753) and once about 6-11 years later (A.U. 760).⁠12A double legation … has recently been made almost certain..,” Lange informs us.⁠13 Perhaps Luke wrote, “This enrollment was when he first became governor.” [Implying more than one term—though the word first is more naturally interpreted as already given.] A second census was conducted during his second governorship in Syria. The second census would have been for Palestine (mentioned by Luke in Acts 5:37) after it became a Roman province during Quirinius’s second term ( A. U. 759).

Summary

It is certain,” Lange assures us, “that Augustus held at least three⁠14 census …of the empire.” The United States Census Bureau …conducts the U.S. Census every ten years, “which allocates the seats of the U.S. House of Representatives to the states based on their population. … The information provided by the census informs decisions on where to build and maintain schools, hospitals, transportation infrastructure, and police and fire departments,” according to Wikipedia.⁠15

What makes us conclude that Caesar would not be diligent to order a periodic census since he calculated the size of his army on this information as well as raised the revenue to maintain it!

To those who reject the message of Scripture on the chance it might show conflicting or errand historical records, I can only say, your soul’s eternal state depends on the message of this book and you have rejected it on the flimsiest of reasons.


1 J. P. Lange. The Gospel according to Luke, vol. VIII. page 31.
2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Census_of_Quirinius
3 Yet was there one Judas, …who taking with him Saddouk, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said, that the taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty…. J. P. Lange. The Gospel according to Luke, vol. VIII. page 31.
4 Acts 5:37 [CSB] “After this man, Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and attracted a following. He also perished, and all his followers were scattered.
5 The text uses a present participle showing concurrent action (ἡγεμονεύοντος) which says while he was governor…
6 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
7 πρότερον
8 Luke 2:2 uses πρώτη
9 ἡ ἀπογραφὴ
10 Thayer defines this in his dictionary, page 60, “an enrollment in the public records of persons together with their property and income, …that it might appear how much tax should be levied upon each.” Sound familiar?
11 J.P. Lange, page 32.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid. pages 33
15 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Census_Bureau
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