Each Christmas, I hear the story of Jesus’ birth read publicly from the Gospel of Luke. And it often seems like the timing of Jesus’ birth and the census under some guy named Quirinius gets read pretty quickly, almost like it’s an unnecessary interjection no one really cares about. For most people, it probably is.
But here’s why I started to care about the Quirinius part: Skeptics often say that Luke must have messed up on the timing of the Christmas story. In what follows, I’ll explain one of the most common challenges to the historicity of the Bible. I’ll also share the other side of the story — the one skeptical friends may not have considered.
But first, let’s go to the primary source. Luke 2:1–6 is ground zero for this conversation:
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.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born.
So why do skeptics insist that Luke’s account makes a historical error? It’s all wrapped up in when this census actually happened.
A Jewish historian by the name of Josephus wrote that Quirinius ruled in A.D. 6. But here’s the thing: That’s nine whole years after King Herod died in 4 B.C. Since Matthew says Jesus was born about two years before King Herod died, Luke’s report seems to have a timing problem.
But the skeptic’s challenge is that this census really happened way too late to be the reason for why Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem. And so, they might claim, we’ve got a glaring example of a clear historical error in the Bible.
Of course, it’s also possible that it was actually Josephus who was wrong. Still, let’s focus on Luke’s report. Does this automatically mean that Luke made a mistake in talking about the census and the timing of Jesus’ birth? Not by a long shot.
Don’t forget that this whole thing was a government project! No disrespect to my friends who work in public service, but it’s no secret that governments around the world tend to take forever to get stuff done — even in the 21st century!
We know the Roman government was tallying up everyone who lived in the empire and that Caesar Augustus actually did three of these censuses around this time. So imagine this ancient Roman census as a massive project that took years from start to finish, from the time they got started until the government could actually use the data in the whole process of taxing people.
In an interview on Quirinius’ census, scholar Darrell Bock explains it like this:
“Augustus didn’t institute an empire-wide census, but he instituted a variety of censuses in specific locations moving from place to place as he gradually took the census of the empire. ... This census took place somewhere between 6 and 4 B.C. — at least the beginning mechanizations of it — but it wasn’t actually executed until we got to Quirinius. ... He’s the one who got the data, put it together, presented it for Rome and Rome actually began to make use of it for taxation under Quirinius. So this is a long process.”
He suggests thinking about this whole endeavor like a modern freeway project:
“Sometimes, it takes a while between the planning of the freeway and the actual building of the freeway and the completion of the freeway. ... This census became associated with Quirinius because he’s the one who completed it, but wasn’t the one who was responsible for starting it.”
He also says that “classical historians respect Luke as a historian [in that] they use him” as a contemporary source and that “a careful look at the details of Acts show that, where we can check him, Luke is a credible historian.” This is “the rest of the story” which skeptics don’t seem to engage with when they bring up this issue and challenge Luke’s credibility.
Rather than automatically throw out Luke’s report as historically inaccurate, it seems best to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. By setting Jesus’ birth in the context of world history, Luke shows that he’s concerned about writing down what really happened. His mention of Quirinius’ census in the Christmas story doesn’t automatically mean that he made a mistake. Maybe Luke knew something we don’t.
In all this, what’s most important is the core of the Christmas story. And that’s the angelic message the shepherds heard that first Christmas: “Good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11).