Once More: Quirinius’s Census -- By: Jared M. Compton
DBSJ 14 (2009) p. 45
Once More: Quirinius’s Census
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) (Luke 2:1-2, niv)
Luke’s brief attempt to situate Jesus’ birth chronologically continues to be problematic, not least for those of us with a high view of Scripture.2 Some critics, in fact, say that “Luke has thoroughly confused the facts,”3 others that “there is in fact no alternative but to recognize that the evangelist based his statement on uncertain historical information,”4 and still others (more recently) that “attempts to reconcile [this text] with the facts of ancient history are hopelessly contrived.”5 The catalogue could easily be extended. In what follows we will see whether these conclusions are warranted, paying particular attention to the most significant problems raised and to the various solutions proposed—most notably, to two quite popular alternative translations suggested. In the end, some problems will remain, but the postscript will not be nearly as pessimistic as these aforementioned would have us believe, though the way forward will be seen to lie most likely with archeology and not grammar.
The difficulties this text raises can be initially summarized and
DBSJ 14 (2009) p. 46
then discussed along the following two lines:6 (1) There is no record nor apparent possibility of a census of the kind Luke describes; (2) There is no record that Quirinius was governor of Syria at the time Luke describes.
Luke’s description of the census is difficult for three reasons. First, there is no record of a singular, empire-wide census instituted by Augustus.7 Second, a Roman census would have required Joseph to register not at his ancestral home in Bethlehem but in the principal city of his “taxation district,”8 presumably somewhere in Galilee. (Not to mention, Mary would not have been obliged to go with him.9) Third, Roman censuses were not administered in client kingdoms, such as Herod’s was.10
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