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« Preparing for Christmas through Advent | Main | Why Shouldn't We Trust the Non-Canonical Gospels Attributed to Bartholomew? »

December 06, 2013


Reason requires we show a possible resolution, not that we have proof that it's the actual resolution. If there's a way to understand the text in harmony with other historical data, then we've answered the challenge. That's true for any historical document, not just the Bible.

There's a difference between showing a possible resolution and adopting it. You can show a resolution for any reason or no reason. To adopt it you need a reason(s) - unless you are satisfied with the standard: If it's logically possible, no matter how unlikely, I believe it.

" in harmony with other historical data " is the qualifier there.... which this text has quite easily.... Other texts from various secular writers, geology, stones and bones and all that.... I think the Bible is, has been, so overly scrutinized that it now has more data in its support than most of that age. I mean, like, instead of the cow jumped over the moon.....


Why would you not think that the weight of evidence being in favor of historical accuracy is a reason to adopt it?

"in harmony with other historical data" isn't enough if all it means is 'logically consistent with other historical data'.

THE qualifier is probability. So, "in harmony with other historical data" would have to mean, at a minimum, "most likely given other historical data".

I say "at a minimum" because while a probability of 51% is 'most probable' and 51% enough to act if you must, still 51% doesn't exactly inspire confidence and 51% is not what you want when you intend to involve others.

There are a bunch of spelling mistakes and some grammatical mistakes in your article. You might want to correct that.

True Ron, if the Bible is indeed fiction or blatantly inconsistent, this historical text would have been irrelevant a long time ago. The opposite is true, we have reason to trust the Biblical historical accounts over any other historical text, if we use the general rules of interpretation and authenticity that the Bible's critics use.


I sent my last before seeing yours.

I'm not exactly sure what your question means.

For example: "historical accuracy" of what?


Spellcheck and proofread, please! Still enjoyed the article though.

Luke himself is a historical account that we should take just as seriously as Josephus.

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression that Josephus wasn't really a trustworthy source of historical fact...In other words, there have been proven falsehoods in Josephus' writings that have been determined to be due to his inflating and twisting of the facts of the time to suit his particular angle.

I may be wrong, it's been a very, very long time since I even studied or thought about this, but it seems to ring a bell...

The implication being that if Josephus wrote about something that is also referenced in the Bible, we have to verify from a third source that Josephus was correct. So, it may not be always work out to support the Bible "just because Josephus said so".

In other words (and I think the article brings this out), Luke has been demonstrated to be a much more reliable and trustworthy historical document than has Josephus.


"still 51% doesn't exactly inspire confidence and 51% is not what you want when you intend to involve others."

Leaving aside qualitative assertions ("not what you want") for the moment, given a dichotomous choice (true or not true), what reason would you give for instead selecting the 49% option?

"Instilling confidence" is indeed an important matter, but deviates from the thesis of this thread.

Given the need to select the most veracious claim from among 2 options, one would logically select that which is most probable.

Talking about how that decision makes us feel -- that is a different matter. And here I hadn't tagged you as the "touchy-feely" type, RonH. ;)

Thanks for the article. But I would encourage a spell-check.

Would it be possible to have the source for the following affirmation you make:

In fact, Josephus reports an oath of loyalty took place at the time of King Herod. It fits perfectly with what Luke actually wrote.

Thanks ahead!

Stephane, I think this is what you're looking for:

“There was moreover a certain sect of Jews who valued themselves highly for their exact knowledge of the law; and talking much of their contact with God, were greatly in favor with the women of Herod’s court. They are called Pharisees. They are men who had it in their power to control kings; extremely subtle, and ready to attempt any thing against those whom they did not like. When therefore the whole Jewish nation took an OATH to be faithful to Caesar, and [to] the interests of the king, these men, to the number of above six thousand, refused to swear. The king having laid a fine upon them, Pheroras’ wife [Herod’s sister-in-law] paid the money for them. They, in requital for her kindness (for they were supposed, by their great intimacy with God, to have attained to the gift of prophecy), prophesied that God having decreed to put an end to the government of Herod and his race, the kingdom would be transferred to her and Pheroras and their children." Josephus, Antiquities XVII.41–45

I don't have Josephus in front of me right now, so I had to find that in a search. Hopefully it's an accurate transcription.

Son of Adam,

With 51%, I'd bet a dollar again and again as long as you'd let me.

Or, if a choice between two alternatives is forced, I'd take 51%.

But I wouldn't willingly take a 49% chance of losing my (our) life savings or getting killed even once.

In decision making, costs and benefits matter as much as the odds because they are equally important in determining payoffs.

If you don't like me talking about wanting confidence, then you may substitute considering expected payoff. It is all the same to me.


You cannot consider finding a logically possible resolution of a Bible contradiction a success.

If there are numerous cases in the Bible where the best you can do is say It's logically possible this is not a contradiction?, then what are the odds that the Bible is inerrant?


"I sent my last before seeing yours.

I'm not exactly sure what your question means.

For example: "historical accuracy" of what?"

You responded, that's enough. My point was that if you have a harmony among different historians and they record the harmonious accounts for posterity, why would one not count that harmonious convergence between different sources of historical accounts that do not mirror, but do corroborate each other, which adds weight to that corroborated evidence being historically sound, as not being a good enough reason to seriously consider adopting it?

I'm a bit flummoxed by your evaluation of 51% in favor in your later post. Considering the standing of the evidence in the writing of Luke as compared to other writings of antiquity, I would think that it should be a lot higher number than that.

Hi Louis,

I didn't mean to assign 51% to anything in particular - certainly nothing in Luke. None of what I said was particularly about the Luke aspect of the OP.


I am wrestling with how to think about the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew. I appreciate you trying to tackle this issue. Unfortunately this blog post does not answer Ehrman's arguments.

For example, the only registration recorded in Judea under Quirinius was in 6 CE. It could be there was one earlier, but then Quirinius was not governor of Syria. More on that in a bit.
Is there any evidence that a registration took place for loyalty to Caesar in Judea? Not that I am aware of. Furthermore, is it likely that God-fearing Jews would register when such a registration meant swearing loyalty to Caesar? Maybe the Sadducees would, but I question whether the average pious Jew would.
I would like to know the Tertullian reference to a census in Judea during Jesus' birth. Tertullian was writing from the late 2nd century, so even if he did indicate that, I would want to know where he is getting his information.

Ehrman mentions that there is no evidence of an empire-wide Roman census. If there was such a census, why would we have no evidence of it considering how extensive our records are for that historical time period? Luke specifically says the census was empire wide ("the whole world").
Furthermore, Ehrman argues that the evidence indicates that a Roman census occurred where one lived, not where one's ancestors lived. Is there any evidence that censuses were ever conducted in the way portrayed in Luke? As Ehrman says, the logistics are a nightmare. Also, how would you even know where your ancestors lived a 1000 years before?

I find it fascinating that Melinda admits to not knowing Greek and then comments on what the Greek word can mean. Egeneto in Luke 2:2 is consistently translated as "when" or "while". Thus, the author of Luke is identifying the time of the census, "when/while Quirinius was governor of Syria." "before" doesn't really fit with the context. The word used for governor is a participle which means "governing" or "ruling." Either way it indicates that Quirinius was ruling in an official capacity (aka Governor) and not merely as an assistant to Augustus. If the author of Luke did not think Quirinius was governor during the time of this census, then why does the text not say this? A straightforward and close reading of the text argues that Quirinius was governor during the census. And we have not even gotten into the issue of correlating the birth narrative in Matthew where Jesus is born during the reign of Herod the Great (who died in 4 BCE).

I'm not saying these problems don't have solutions, but it does appear that the solutions offered fly in the face of the plain reading of the text itself. One can always offer a possible solution to these problems, but such elaborate historical and exegetical gymnastics sends a strong signal of straw-grasping.

You cannot consider finding a logically possible resolution of a Bible contradiction a success.

Given the proposed resolution, would you continue using the mis-appropriated term 'contradiction'?

Such discontinuation, my friend, I would call a success.

If you opt to continue using the term, can you kindly define what you mean by it?

Caleb G. wrote "Luke specifically says the census was empire wide ("the whole world")."

I would think that Luke was taking a big chance to make that statement if it was not true. If it was not true he would have easily been proved wrong at that time. So for him to make a statement that can easily be disproved adds weight to its veracity. Would not early detractors have brought this up as soon as Luke came out if it were not fact?

There are good reasons to think Luke's account of the census is correct. For example, we have good evidence for the reliability of scripture in general and for Luke's general reliability as a historian. Both general considerations have positive implications for Luke's passage on the census. Furthermore, the earliest Christian and non-Christian sources who commented on Luke's account seem to have considered it historically reliable. Though the early critics of Christianity disputed other elements of the infancy narratives, such as the virgin birth and the Slaughter of the Innocents, the census account doesn't seem to have been disputed significantly enough to leave any trace of the dispute in the historical record. Keep in mind that the alleged contradictions of the census account found in sources like Josephus are of an indirect nature. It's not as though sources like Josephus and Tacitus were commenting directly on Luke. Rather, modern critics think that some passages in those extra-Biblical sources indirectly conflict with Luke's comments. But when we turn to the early sources who were directly commenting on Luke, they all treat his account as an accurate one.

Given the brevity and ambiguity of some of Luke's comments, modern critics are often expecting too much from Luke or reading things into the text that aren't there. I'll give a couple of examples.

If Augustus implemented a series of censuses that occurred in phases over many years, with an overarching intention of registering people across the empire, then Luke's description is an accurate summation of what the emperor was trying to accomplish. Luke may have had something else in mind, such as one order from the emperor that resulted in one registration across the empire at one point in time, but the language is ambiguous enough to reasonably allow for other scenarios as well.

And nothing is said about a requirement that people go to their place of ancestry. The comment about ancestry is made with regard to Joseph in particular, not every census participant. When all participants are mentioned in Luke 2:3, what's cited is a requirement that each participant go to "his own city". Most likely, the reason why ancestry is mentioned with regard to Joseph is to explain why he in particular registered where he did. Whatever significance Joseph's ancestral ties to Bethlehem had for him (he owned property there, he wanted to be associated with that city more than Nazareth, etc.), the comment about ancestry in Luke 2:4 seems to be about Joseph in particular, not census participants in general.

The issues I've discussed above, as well as many others, have been addressed in more depth in other places. I've written a series of articles about the earliest responses to Luke's account, in both Christian and non-Christian sources. You can find a summary article I wrote, with links to other articles, by searching for the title "Is Luke's Census Historical?" at Triablogue. The article is dated August 19, 2010. My articles cites other resources on the subject. Some New Testament scholars, such as Darrell Bock and Stanley Porter, have written some helpful material on the subject. There's a lot of good material online as well. Go to the CADRE Comments blog and search under "census", for example. (See, especially, Chris Price's material there. He posts under the screen name Layman.) Run a search for "census" at the Hypotyposeis blog (Stephen Carlson's blog). For example, Carlson has some articles there arguing that Luke 2:2 should be translated "this became a very important registration when Quirinius was governing Syria". If Carlson's suggested translation is correct, it seems to resolve multiple disputes about Luke's passage. It would explain why Quirinius is mentioned, even though his undisputed census didn't occur until several years after Jesus' birth. It would also support the conclusion that Luke 2:1 is referring to a multi-stage census, not a census that occurred at one point in time across the empire. Anybody who's interested can read more about subjects like these by going to my blog, Chris Price's blog, or Stephen Carlson's. And you can find other good resources on the web. I'm just giving a few examples.

Caleb G,

You said that you're "wrestling with how to think about the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew". Since you're interested in Christmas issues in general, not just Luke's census, you may want to consult our archive of Christmas articles at Triablogue. We cover a large variety of topics there and recommend a lot of other resources. We've posted more material since then as well. For example, I've written a lot about the Bethlehem birthplace in recent weeks. Search for my December 5 post titled "Evidence For The Bethlehem Birthplace". (The reason why I'm describing so many of these posts without linking to them is that I don't know how many links I can include in my posts at this blog without forcing the posts into moderation. I'm trying to avoid delaying the publication of my posts by including too many links. From what I remember, I've been able to post links here in the past, but sometimes the posts don't get published or get delayed if there's a particular number of links in them.)

Caleb G has asked about Tertullian's discussion of the census and what sources he relied on. Here's an article that cites some of Tertullian's comments along with the comments of other ancient sources. There are several references in ancient Christian literature to a government record of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and his involvement in a census.

But even when ancient Christian authors don't cite a source, such as a census record, their testimony in support of the census still has some significance. Critics of the census account often cite Josephus and other ancient sources against Luke, even when those sources don't tell us where they got their information or are vague about where they got it.

Caleb objects to Tertullian's testimony on the basis of his lateness. Yes, Tertullian's lateness is a significant problem. But critics of Luke cite sources who were writing several decades after the time of Jesus' birth. It's not as though men like Josephus, Tacitus, and Dio Cassius were eyewitnesses of the events surrounding Jesus' birth or even contemporaries. Both sides of this census dispute are citing sources who were significantly removed from the events in question.

The events of Matthew's narrative take place during the reign of Herod...who died in 4 B.C.

These events do not describe the birth of Jesus, but the events leading to his flight to Egypt (when he was about one or two). That means Jesus birth occurred no later than 5-6 B.C.

What's more, assuming Jesus' family didn't go to Egypt and then just turn around and come back. That must have taken at least a year or two (or more). Jesus birth gets pushed back to at least 6-8 B.C. Though it is worth noting it could be even earlier.

There are Roman census figures for 8 B.C. An empire wide census must have been taken sometime before that. If any census caused Joseph and Mary to return to Bethlehem, it seems most likely that it was that one. Certainly not the census of Quirinius.

Just to gild the lily, there was an astrologically significant triple alignment of Jupiter and Saturn that occurred in 7 B.C. If this was the Bethlehem Star, it would get the wise men into Judea by 6 B.C. (and Jesus out shortly thereafter).

In any case, I think a very good guess for the time of the first Christmas is sometime in the Spring of 8 B.C. At least at a time that the sheep would be out of the stable and abiding in the fields with the shepherds.

The census of Quirinius took place in AD 6. And it was infamous. It happened as Quirinius' first official act, and resulted in a Jewish insurrection. Everyone knew THAT census. Thankfully, it was the only census that Quirinius took. And no one was probably more thankful than Quirinius.

Now John's ministry, according to Luke started about 23 years after that. And Jesus' ministry wasn't far behind. This is because Luke says that John was baptizing in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius...AD 29.

So if Jesus was born at about the time of the census of Quirinius, Luke would be claiming, in effect, that Jesus was in his early twenties when He was turning the world over.

In contrast, Matthew places Him in His late thirties, possibly even His early forties (depending on how long he was in Egypt).

According to the NASB, Luke said that the census he is talking about was the first census while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

OK. When was the second?

Wait...there was no second.

To repeat, the infamous census of Quirinius, his first official act, was the only one that occurred while he was governor.

And one more point. The infamous census of Quirinius was a provincial census. It was not a census of the entire Roman empire.

So here is what Luke is mistakenly claiming given that he is referring to the infamous census of Quirinius:

1. Jesus was implausibly young during His ministry.

2. Jesus age differed from the age that the earlier gospel of Matthew implies by at least a decade and a half.

3. Quirinius conducted more than one census. The one that preceded Jesus' birth is the first of these.

4. The census of Quirinius was empire wide.

Notice that every one of these mistakes would have been obvious to anyone at the time.

Maybe it's just me, but it seems that, rather than cherishing the idea that Luke was mistakenly referring to the census of Quirinius (which leads you into all sorts of other, rather noticeable mistakes Luke could have been charged with by his contemporaries), it's time to start thinking that maybe we are getting something wrong in the passage.

I'm now going to rip off Iver Larson, a mid-level scholar who is working on this very issue. He hasn't officially published anything yet, but he has his working notes online.

It turns out that there are clear manuscript renditions of Luke 2:2 that differ from the less clear renditions favored by the Nestlé-Aland edition of the Greek NT that most translators use.

The difference amounts to a matter of emphasis, but emphasis might be all you need to sort out the tangle. Well, that and noting the fact that, while "protos" can mean "first", it can also mean "ahead of in status, position or time". That is, the word translated as "first" could mean "before". (Larsen also details some niceties involving the case of NT Greek that preference his interpretation of "protos").

The bottom line of Larsen's argument is that Luke was probably saying something like "THIS census (not THAT infamous census of Qurinius) was BEFORE Quirinius was governor of Syria".

If one chooses to be pedant one might even say that Luke 2:1 only refers to act of giving the decree about census to which Joseph and Mary react in Luke 2:3 starting their journey towards Bethlehem in preparation to the actual carrying out of the census that took place later during the time of Quirinius as clarified in Luke 2:2. So 2:2 is kind of clarifying insertion in the narrative. See how Luke treats the story about the famine relief to Judea in time of Claudius in Acts 11:27-30. First comes the prophetic word about famine, then Luke inserts explanatory note, sort of leap out of the storyline to the "future" (from the point of narrative storyline) to show what famine the prophetic utterance pertained to, then Luke returns to the chronology of the storyline to describe how church prepared itself as a reaction to the prophetic word in order to provide relief in the famine that was to come few years later and which Luke knows was the famine in the time of Claudius.

My point being that Luke does not necessarily claim that Jesus was born while Quirinius was overseeing census as a governor of Syria. Luke only tels what prompted Joseph and Mary to start their journey to Bethlehem. It was the issuing of the decree by Augustus of which we have historical record in Luke. That decree was completed much later in the time of Quirinius as Luke clarifies "in parenthesses" in 2:2 just like in Acts 11:28 he identifyes the famine spoken by prophets in the church. Interestingly in both cases we are dealing annissuing of a word about something that touched the "whole world" with a specific mention to Roman emperor.

The census that Augustus decreed for the whole (Roman) world was not the census of Quirinius. The census of Quirinius was limited to the province of Syria (which included Judea), and it took place in A.D. 6.

The census of Augustus took place in 8 B.C., and that is obviously the one that Luke is referring to, because that's the one that...

a) ...was decreed by Augustus, and
b) ...went out to the whole (Roman) world.

(See how that works?)

Even in Roman times, it did not take 14 years to complete a census. So apart from the issue of who decreed the census and how broad its scope was, there is really no possibility of the census of 8 B.C. and the census of Quirinius being the same census.

There's a translation problem that makes it look like Luke is referring to the census of Quirinius. In its simplest terms, where we translate the word "protos" as "first" we should use "before" instead. The census of Augustus took place before Quirinius was Governor of Syria.

The reason Luke is keen on mentioning Quirinius at all is to distinguish the census he is talking about from the census of Quirinius (which was infamous).

Here is an analogy.

Nowadays, if I talk about an attack on the WTC, everyone will think instinctively of the 9/11 attack. Now, if I want to talk about the 1993 bombings by the Blind Sheikh, I might say that "This attack on the WTC took place before W. was President." Now you know that I am not talking about the 9/11 attacks, but about an earlier might even be old enough, as I am, to remember the attack by the Blind Sheikh and say "Oh yeah..."

What the translators have done to Luke 2:2 is make it read like this sentence: "This attack on the WTC was the first that occurred while W. was President.".

These comments seem to have been made before the OP.

Someone here claims that Josephus is not a trustworthy source. There is no reason to believe that. Josephus, however, is biased. This is why ancient historians are so much better than historians often are from the 20th century. They realize there is no such thing as "objective" history (most modern historians now have dropped this illusion and are writing better history because of it). Luke and Josephus are definitely un-objective histories, and they make this plain in their texts. That doesn't make their histories any less real or the events they are talking about not true. Of course I disagree with Josephus that Vaspasian is the Messiah, and agree with Luke that Jesus is the Messiah.

Ah…Christmas. Time to dredge out the annual re-hashing of Luke’s infamous sentence. Again demonstrating the parties’ failure to communicate regarding inerrancy.

Please understand this—and if you do not, you are forever doomed to frustration when discussing the topic. Skeptics and inerrantists utilize differing methods to determine whether biblical stories contradict. Do you get that? Because if you don’t, these conversations (like thousands before and millions after) will get absolutely positively nowhere. Not an inch.

The skeptic utilizes the method: if it is more likely than not (preponderance of the evidence) to a neutral party the stories contradict—then they contradict. The inerrantist utilizes the method: any logically possible resolution nullifies the contradiction—the stories do not contradict. Therefore when the skeptic argues over and over and over regarding a “reasonable” explanation, they are getting nowhere because the inerrantists’ method only cares about a possible logical explanation. And why the Christian inerrantist is puzzled their logically possible explanation is insufficient to the skeptic.

These differing methods are illustrated by the (inerrantist) statement in the blog entry, “Reason requires we show a possible resolution, not that we have proof that it's the actual resolution.” And the (skeptical) statement by RonH, "most likely given other historical data.”

Now these discussions can be fun and educational as we banter back and forth, but if one is hoping to be persuasive, the varying methodologies must be understand. Inerrantist—don’t bother giving skeptics “a possible resolution”—that is not the standard we use. Likewise, skeptics arguing what is “more likely” will not be convincing to inerrantists—that is not the standard they use.

The Matthean birth narrative places Jesus’ birth roughly 8 – 4 BCE, with Jesus’ family originally from Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt, and eventually hiding in Galilee to avoid Herod Archeleus. The Lukan birth narrative places Jesus birth at 6 – 7 CE, with Jesus’ family originally from Galilee, but visiting Bethlehem for the birth. There are a number of differences between the accounts (angels talk to Joseph vs. Mary, fear vs. unconcerned, majestic visitors vs. humble observers, family home) but the most talked about seems to be this dating thing.

Until we reach an agreement on methodology (and we most likely will not—I have only had one inerrantist agree to utilize the “more likely than not to a neutral party” and he eventually recanted back to “any logical possibility”) this is a fun discussion, but leading to nothing.

If it is any help, I fully agree under the “any logically possible resolution” the two birth narratives can be resolved—they do not contradict. It is possible Augustus performed a census every year—only a few were recorded. It is possible Quirinius was the Governor of Syria twice, three times or 50 times. It is possible people registered every year. However…again…this doesn’t move my position a millimeter. What I am looking for is “more likely.” And in reviewing the history, the Roman culture, government and census system, the governments in Judea, Galilee and Palestine, and other histories, (as well as other genres, especially bios), it seems more likely the two stories do not align—and were never intended to align.

Much the same way Suetonius records Julius Caesar crying because he had not excelled like Alexander the Great when in 69-68 BCE whereas Plutarch records the same event occurring in 60-61 BCE. Under the inerrant methodology there is no conflict—it is possible Julius Caesar did this every year, and Suetonius recorded one year, whereas Plutarch recorded another. Under the skeptical method it is more likely Suetonius got it correct, whereas Plutarch modified the story to conform to his intended motive.


Skeptics and inerrantists utilize differing methods to determine whether biblical stories contradict. Do you get that?

I get it! Nice.

And I have something to add.

The inerrantists deploy their biblical method for the Bible.

Many will use it just for the Bible. They are skeptics with one big exception. Others have more than the one exception.

The skeptics, on the other hand, tend not to be skeptical about the Bible only. Skepticism treats Biblical claims as it treats other claims. Skeptically.

Believers of all kinds (not just Christians) tend to think skeptics are unfair to them.

But skepticism singles out neither Christianity nor ESP nor Stanislaw Burzynski.


It is possible Augustus performed a census every year—only a few were recorded. It is possible Quirinius was the Governor of Syria twice, three times or 50 times. It is possible people registered every year.
Nice straw man.

No one claims Qurinius was Governor of Syria twice. But then, the Luke passage does not say a word about Quirinius being the Governor of Syria even once. Luke does say that he was governing Syria. Word-by-word, Luke says: This census protos had been taken of the governing of Syria of Quirinius. As you can see, the passage never gives Quirinius the tile of Governor. It does commit to him having, at some point, governed Syria.

It also says the census had been taken protos that governing. Since protos could mean "before" here, it is entirely possible that Luke is saying that the census was before the governing of Syria of Quirinius. And, in context, that is what Luke is saying, since that's the reading that does not assume Luke is a blithering idiot.

Be that as it may, one can govern a region without having the title of Governor. And (not that it matters, since, as already noted, the passage sets the census before the time that Quirinius governed Syria as its titular Governor) in fact there is some historical reason to think that that actually happened.

Saturninus would have held the title of Governor of Syria at the time of Jesus' birth, Quirinius was his deputy. But Saturninus had already been Consul of Rome. This is about like a U.S. President being given an ambassadorship. The title is a courtesy appointment for an elder statesman in his retirement years. In either case, I'd be inclined to think that the elder statesman is writing his memoirs while the real work is being done by the deputy.

Also no one claims that there was more than one census of Augustus during the time window in which Jesus was born. There was a census decreed in 8 BC, and that's the one Luke is talking about. It may, of course, have taken a few years to finish the census. But no one thinks it took 14 years.

it seems more likely the two stories do not align—and were never intended to align
What two stories are those?

The one in verse 1 where Luke clearly identifies the empire-wide census decreed by Augustus in 8 BC, and the one in verse 2 where you think he must, must, must be talking about the regional census of AD 6 decreed by Quirinius?

Are those the two stories that don't align? That were never intended to align?

Please explain what those two stories in successive verses written by the same author, that 'any neutral third-party' would identify as contradictory, were intended to do then.


You've given us no reason to think that inerrantists in general take the approach you've attributed to them. I'm an inerrantist, and I don't take the approach you've described. Inerrantists who refer to possible explanations may be doing so in a larger context that you aren't addressing. An inerrantist can consider an interpretation possible in one context while considering it probable in another. Often, people are taking larger considerations into account, such as evidence for the Divine inspiration of scripture or Luke's general reliability as a historical source, even if they don't mention those larger considerations every time they appeal to possible explanations of a passage. Your suggestion that inerrantists are just interested in possible explanations, without any further qualification, is misleading.

And your suggestion that Luke dates Jesus' birth to 6-7 A.D. is dubious. I'll briefly outline some of the issues involved.

The reference to Herod in Luke 1:5 is most naturally taken as a reference to Herod the Great. A reference to a Herod who's a king, without further qualification, is more likely to refer to Herod the Great than his son, Archelaus. The father was officially given the title of king by the Romans. The son wasn't. Note how Luke distinguishes "tetrarch" from "king" in 3:1, 3:19, and 9:7. While it would be possible for Luke to apply the term "king" to Archelaus, even though it more naturally describes Archelaus' father, an application to the father is more likely because of its naturalness and its consistency with Luke's precision elsewhere in his gospel. And the use of "king Herod" to refer to Herod the Great in Matthew 2 corroborates my reading of Luke. Matthew was a fellow Christian writing around the same time as Luke and writing on similar subject matter, so it makes sense for the two authors to use the terminology the same way. They might have used the terminology differently, but the burden of proof rests with anybody who wants to argue for different usages.

Furthermore, the time markers in Luke 3:1-2 and 3:23 fit better with a birth of Jesus under Herod the Great than a birth around a decade later. There's no suggestion in Luke's gospel of a large gap of time between the adult ministry of John the Baptist and the adult ministry of Jesus. Placing a large gap between Luke 3:1-2 and 3:23, in order to reconcile Luke 3 with a birth of Jesus in 6-7 A.D., is a less natural interpretation. We don't normally conclude that there's been a large passing of time without evidence suggesting it.

The earliest patristic sources know nothing of the inconsistency between Matthew and Luke that you refer to, but instead treat the two accounts as harmonious and date Jesus' birth to the closing years of the B.C. era. I'm not aware of any ancient source who dates Jesus' birth to 6 or 7 A.D. The early extrabiblical sources also agree that Mary and Elizabeth were pregnant at the same time, meaning that no gap of several years can be placed between the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. The early extrabiblical sources also place the adult ministries of John and Jesus close together, meaning that no significant gap can be placed between Luke 3:1-2 and 3:23.

The idea that Luke places Jesus' birth at 6-7 A.D. is highly unlikely, problematic at multiple levels, and rejected by most scholars. And that includes many scholars who aren't conservative. Andrew Lincoln's recent book against the virgin birth, for example, refers to the Herod of Luke 1:5 as Herod the Great (Born Of A Virgin? [London, England: SPCK, 2013], 139). For those who are interested, I addressed issues like these in a series of posts on Luke's census that I wrote in 2007.

@Wisdom Lover

"Nice straw man. No one claims Qurinius was Governor of Syria twice."


Quirinius’s name has been discovered on a coin from this period of time (as cited by John McRay in Archaeology and the New Testament), and on the base of a statue erected in Pisidian Antioch (as cited by Sir William Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament). Quirinius may actually have ruled Syria during two separate periods and have taken two separate censuses.

-- J. Warner Wallace

Incidentally, the "coins" that Apologist A (Wallace) mentions from Apologist B (McRay) are the infamous "micrographic writing" forgeries of Apologist C (Jerry Vardaman).


Quirinius may actually have ruled Syria during two separate periods and have taken two separate censuses.
Where in this quote does JWW say that Quirinius was Governor of Syria twice? It says that he may have ruled twice. These are different claims (as I was a pains to point out above).

Sorry. Fail. Try again.

And, btw, the double governance of Quirinius is a side-show, since the Luke passage actually says that the census was the 8 BC census of Augustus (as already pointed out).

Jason Engwer,

I have observed and participated in countless discussions surrounding alleged contradictions in the Bible—my statements regarding differing methodologies are based upon those observations. I gave two examples in my comment; the very next comment by WisdomLover provided yet another excellent example. Notice the wording, “Since protos could mean “before” here, it is entirely possible that Luke is saying that the census was before the governing of Syria of Quirinius.” [emphasis added and in original]

Skeptics do not use methodology of “could mean” and “entirely possible” when discussing inerrancy. We would review Thayer’s and see protos is most likely to mean “first” of a succession of censuses, not “before” an event. This is further bolstered by our knowledge regarding the Roman taxation system, the subsequent rebellion surrounding the census, and the historical significance of this particular census. Additionally, the vast majority of translations use “first”—not “before.” (I couldn’t find a single translation using “before.”) Under our method of “most likely,” protos would be translated “first.” Under a method of “possible” I guess it could be translated “before.” I am not picking on WisdomLover for this point—just providing another example of the difference.

What method do you use to determine whether two (or more) accounts contradict?


Thank you for your comment, but I doubt I will respond. There are two reasons for this:

1) I am far more concerned with discussing the methodological differences and (although with little hope) even coming up with an agreement on methodology prior to discussing the particulars. If I begin responding with countering facts and arguments, we will descend into the very insanity I pointed out in my first comment—with our differing methods we will talk past each other.

2) My observation (and this is my opinion) is you are looking for a fight; not a discussion. I can do that anywhere; I have done it in the past. It now bores me. My basis for this belief is your accusation of “strawman,” and subsequent rationalization, as well as watching you interact with others.

The blog entry links an article by Dr. McGrew where he references…wait for it…the possibility Quirinius was Governor of Syria twice. Apparently actually reading a linked article and being cognizant of its claims constitutes “strawman.”

Sorry, but McGrew does not claim that Quirinius twice held the title of Governor of Syria. Instead he said "Quirinius may have had two periods as a governor of some sort in Syria." Not two times bearing the title of Governor, two times as a governor of some sort. That is, two times governing. McGrew goes on to clarify that Quirinius held some title other than governor, but which, nevertheless, involved governing.

In your mischaracterization of the argument given by McGrew and others, however, you said "It is possible Quirinius was the Governor of Syria twice, three times or 50 times." Something, again, that no one claims.

So nice second effort on the straw man.

"My observation (and this is my opinion) is you are looking for a fight; not a discussion. I can do that anywhere; I have done it in the past. It now bores me."

And yet here you are, obviously looking for a fight. (Not that there's anything wrong with that...fights are far more likely to get to the truth than discussions.)

WisdomLover provided yet another excellent example. Notice the wording, “Since protos could mean “before” here, it is entirely possible that Luke is saying that the census was before the governing of Syria of Quirinius.”
Nice selective quotation. It would be especially effective if the full quote weren't available for everyone to see just a few lines up. Unfortunately, it is:
Since protos could mean "before" here, it is entirely possible that Luke is saying that the census was before the governing of Syria of Quirinius. And, in context, that is what Luke is saying, since that's the reading that does not assume Luke is a blithering idiot.
So my 'inerrantist' principle of interpretation is this: "If a word has two possible meanings, and interpreting a passage with one of those meanings renders the author a blithering idiot, then that is not the meaning...use the other".


As WisdomLover has noted, you took his comment out of context. Again, people who are defending a Biblical passage can refer to a possibility in one context while considering their conclusion a probability in another context. You keep ignoring the fact that we evaluate sources at multiple levels. What we do is look for the best explanation of the totality of the evidence. Thus, a grammatical conclusion, for example, might only be a possibility when considered by itself, but will be taken as a probability in the larger context of Luke's general reliability as a historian, what the earliest sources commenting on Luke's passage tell us, evidence for the Divine inspiration of scripture, etc. All of us take a similar approach when interpreting other sources. If an author refers to a sunrise, for example, and we're trying to determine whether the person erroneously thought that the sun actually rises, it's helpful to know whether the comment was made by an astronomer or a three-year-old. We'd give the astronomer more of a benefit of the doubt than the three-year-old.

I can give you examples of critics of Christianity appealing to possibilities rather than probabilities in some contexts. It happens frequently when discussing evolution, for instance. Or when skeptics are trying to come up with an alternative explanation for a purported miracle. See Robert Price's appeals to possibility in his chapter in John Loftus, ed., The Christian Delusion (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2010), 279, 282, 287.

Jason Engwer,

Thank you for providing a methodology, which (to confirm I understand it) is, “the best explanation of the totality of the evidence.” Of course the immediate follow up question I have, “Best explanation”…to whom? This is why I inherently include a neutral party determinative in my own methodology. You have been involved in numerous inerrancy/contradiction discussions. As have I. As is this blog entry. I am sure you have observed what is “the best explanation” to an inerrantist is often not accepted as “the best explanation” to a skeptic. And vice versa.

How do we get over this difficulty? This is the reason I introduce the neutral party determinative.

Obviously we take into account various sources at “multiple levels.” We take into account (as much as we can) bias, ability to observe, genre, memory, significance, etc. I am not ignoring it—indeed it is factored into my methodology—it is simply not necessary to continually repeat this.

Notice we utilize my method all the time. Looking at news reports from various agencies (such as the difference between FOX and MSNBC), claims from friends about what happened at a party, trying to determine who broke the lamp…in fact we do this without even thinking. In my practice we use this method to determine the facts surrounding a contract, or what events happened at the crime scene, or what happened in a car crash, etc. The source types and factors are always part and parcel within the method.

In this present matter, are you aware of any non-inerrantist historian who claims there was a census or registration during Herod the Great’s reign? We all (at least we non-mythers *grin*) agree Jesus was born. And, placing his death under Pontius Pilate, it was sometime around 1 CE, +/- 10 years. It makes no difference to me whatsoever when it occurred. I agree there are plenty of coinciding claims within Matthew and Luke about Jesus. Why would I care whether Luke aligned or did not regarding a particular year of Jesus’ birth? It seems such a minor point as to be almost meaningless.

It is not critical within the bios genre, and (as I pointed out with the Plutarch Julius Caesar example) was commonplace to mold the story around the author’s intent. If Luke desired to place Jesus’ birth at the time of the census…so what? I am not aware of any historian going to the lengths apologists go to in order to align accounts…rather…as neutral parties…they understand the author’s intent to make a point. Not to be precisely historical.

Or if you want a more precise demonstration, every single translation I have reviewed, translates protos in Luke 2:2 as “first.” I do not know Greek—but the sources I can study all agree--based upon the grammar, the wording and (presumably) the surrounding context--the word should be translated “first.” This additionally aligns (taking into consideration your method’s “totality of the evidence”) with the lack of historical record on another census prior to this in Palestine. This aligns with Quirinius’ governorship, our understanding of the Roman taxation system, and Archelaus’ removal from power in Judea. Further, it aligns with the Hebrew reaction surrounding this particular census. (I confess, it strikes me as peculiar this claim there was a census of ALL of Palestine, including Galilee in 8 BCE with a reaction of, “Meh…” but the census of 6 CE generates such a volatile reaction it eventually culminates in Jewish rebellion and war. Why didn’t the 8 BCE census generate such a reaction? Why was it so quiet no contemporary historian bothered to record it at all?)

Are you agreeing with WisdomLover the “best explanation of the totality of the evidence” is that every single translator of Luke 2:2 has gotten it wrong and protos should be translated “before”—not “first”?

Looking at Luke 2:2 as a simple sentence in Greek, you could translate it with protos meaning "first" or "before".

"First" would actually be the more typical meaning. So the simplest translation is exactly what we get in the translations.

"Before" makes sense only when there is an implied contrast. In this case, there is an implied contrast. On the one hand we have the infamous regional census decreed by Quirinius (which sparked a riot and, over the long term, any number of dissident groups). On the other hand, we have the census that Luke describes as decreed by Augustus, not Quirinius, for the whole empire, not just Syria. The census Luke is talking about is the first of these two. That is, it happened before the census of Quirinius.

The best translation would have been one that would have perfectly preserved the ambiguity and let the reader decide. That was probably not so easy to pull off here. So the translators chose the simpler translation.

But the debate about inerrancy is not a debate about translations. It's a debate about the original manuscripts in the original language.

I agree with DaggodS that it is tempting to suppose that the explanation that an inerrantist would call a best explanation might differ from the explanation that an atheist would call a best explanation.

DagoodS solution to this conundrum is not to determine by fighting about it which explanation really is the best explanation, but to appeal to the explanation selected as best by a neutral third party.

Personally, I think a better approach would be to determine which explanation is selected as best by Puff the Magic Dragon. That way you really bring out the fact that you are appealing to a mythical beast that never has existed in this world. (Indeed, I consider the probability of the existence of Puff to be many orders of magnitude greater than the probability of the existence of a neutral third party.)

Either way, of course, the mythical 'decider' is merely a projection of the person presenting their argument from that 'decider's' point-of-view.

This [the translation of protos as "first"] additionally aligns (taking into consideration your method’s “totality of the evidence”) with the lack of historical record on another census prior to this in Palestine.
There is no such lack, so there can be no alignment with it. We know that Augustus decreed an empire wide census in 8 BC (and in 28 BC and AD 14) Since Palestine was part of the empire, it would be included in that census.
This [the translation of protos as "first"] aligns withwith Quirinius’ governorship

If we don't translate protos as "first" we're somehow denying the governorship of Quirinius? This makes no sense.

This [the translation of protos as "first"] aligns with...our understanding of the Roman taxation system
Really? Supposing that there was a census before the census of Quirinius somehow goes against what we know about the Roman taxation system? Since we know for a fact that there were many Roman censi prior to the census of Quirinius (and even, believe it or not, prior to the 8 BC census of Augustus) this is impossible.
This [the translation of protos as "first"] aligns with...Archelaus’ removal from power in Judea
Luke says nothing about Archelaus. So I'm not sure how the translation of protos in Luke 2:2 has any bearing on Archelaus removal from power. Matthew mentions Archelaus taking power after his father in 4 BC when the Holy family is returning from Egypt. This of course aligns quite well with the 8 BC census of Augustus that Luke mentions.
Further, it [the translation of protos as "first"] aligns with the Hebrew reaction surrounding this particular census. (I confess, it strikes me as peculiar this claim there was a census of ALL of Palestine, including Galilee in 8 BCE with a reaction of, “Meh…” but the census of 6 CE generates such a volatile reaction it eventually culminates in Jewish rebellion and war. Why didn’t the 8 BCE census generate such a reaction? Why was it so quiet no contemporary historian bothered to record it at all?)
Well, whatever the reason, that appears to be what happened. People got angry about the census of Quirinius, but not as much about the census of Augustus. This is somehow supposed to count against the idea that the census Luke is referring to is the one that occurred before the census of Quirinius?

You can make a case that the simplest translation of "protos" in Luke 2:2 that uses the most typical meaning of protos is the one that reads protos as "first". Of course, if we always choose the simplest translation we're going to make wreckage of all literature. You have to assume that speakers are not, generally speaking, idiots.

But when we start examining what that simple translation 'aligns' with, the answer seems to be "a whole lot of nothing".

It seems to me that the only thing the translation of protos as "first" actually aligns with is the atheist's fever-dream that Luke was such a moron that he confused the census of Quirinius with the census of Augustus. And this, of course, plays to the grand atheist dogma that the Bible is riddled with contradictions, so it is to be accepted without question.

Personally, I wouldn't bet against Luke. Most of his references have been verified as correct. In reading through some very prominent commentaries and also reading through Luke in Greek with an extremely prominent new Testament scholar in class, we found that there aren't too many quibbles over Luke's information about geography and events. But, let's say there was a mistake or two there? So what? What difference does that really make to the central point of the story? He got some little detail wrong, what is the big deal? It's possible that that could have happened, just as even modern historians who even saw events as they happened might get some detail wrong. This hardly means that the whole story should be chunked out the window. Let's say he did get this little detail wrong. I'm not really sure what difference that makes, even for an inerrantist. The question is if Luke's central point is true, that Jesus is the Messiah and that he resurrected from the dead, not when Jesus was born. I give Luke the benefit of the doubt that he likely knew what he was talking about based off of the other information in the gospel itself. But, if everyone here wants to go on and on about this, do you really think it solves or even touches the main question?


Were we talking about a simple history book, you'd have the beginnings of a point. It isn't that important if Luke got the date of Jesus birth wrong.

It becomes a much bigger problem when you start saying that Luke is the inspired Word of God.

But even granting that Luke is a simple history, the mistake he made is not so simple. It's not just a matter of getting Jesus birth wrong. If Luke really were talking about the AD 6 census of Quirinius in 2:2, then he made these mistakes:

1. Jesus was implausibly young, 23 to start, during His ministry...I'm sure that Jesus was up to preaching and doing miracles at 23. I doubt very much that the people of the region were up to listening to a 23 year old kid, let alone fearing Him so much as to put him to death.

2. Jesus age differed from the age that the earlier gospel of Matthew implies by at least a decade and a half...People who read both would see the discrepancy and reject Luke.

3. Quirinius decreed more than one census. The one that preceded Jesus' birth is the first of these...Quirinius decreed only one census in AD 6. The census of 8 BC was decreed by Augustus Caesar.

4. The first census of Quirinius was empire wide...The one and only census of Quirinius was regional.

These are some pretty big historical blunders for someone to make who is claiming to write history. Luke is more-or-less a numbskull if he makes them.

Now, I assume that Luke is not a numbskull. So I assume that he is not talking about the AD 6 census of Quirinius in Luke 2:2.


Appealing to a "neutral party" won't get you far. If an inerrantist thinks there's objective reason to accept inerrancy, then he can maintain that a neutral party ought to adopt inerrancy. Your appeal makes sense when approaching somebody who accepts inerrancy on unverifiable grounds, but not if you're interacting with somebody who thinks he has a verifiable argument for inerrancy.

You asked for a "non-inerrantist historian who claims there was a census or registration during Herod the Great's reign". That's a problematic way of framing the issue. As I argue in my series on the census linked earlier in this thread, Luke's account seems to have been accepted by early non-Christian sources. That sort of corroboration is significant, even if those ancient non-Christian sources weren't modern non-inerrantist historians. And why only ask for historians? Why not New Testament scholars, patristic scholars, or other scholars with relevant credentials as well? Why do they have to affirm the census? If they're undecided or think the evidence only leans a little against Luke's account, meaning that they consider the event's historicity a high possibility, isn't that significant? It would be less significant than accepting Luke's account, but still noteworthy. And why set aside scholars who believe in inerrancy? If the evidence supports inerrancy, then the scholars who accept it are acting more appropriately than the ones who reject it. Even if somebody would have to believe in inerrancy in order to accept the census account or some portion of it (I deny that a person would have to accept inerrancy in order to do so), it could be that inerrancy is correct and that the evidence for it renders Luke's account probable (much as in my sunrise example I mentioned earlier, in which knowing that a statement came from an astronomer significantly affects our view of the statement's accuracy).

I rarely see historians, or even Biblical scholars in particular, state what their position is on inerrancy. The vast majority of sources I've read on the census haven't mentioned their position on inerrancy in the process of discussing the passage. Sometimes I can discern their position on inerrancy by some other means, but often I can't. I don't know whether N.T. Wright and Paul Maier are inerrantists, for example, but they have good scholarly credentials, and their arguments I've seen in support of Luke's account haven't depended on inerrancy. Ethelbert Stauffer rejected inerrancy (e.g., Jesus And His Story [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960], 7, 142), but he accepted a registration under Herod the Great (ibid., 21-32). Stanley Porter concludes that "there is growing evidence from what we know of ancient census-taking practices to believe that in fact Luke got far more right in his account than he got wrong." (in Alf Christophersen, et al., edd., Paul, Luke And The Graeco-Roman World [London and New York: T&T Clark, 2003], 188) I don't know much about Porter's view of scripture, but he seems to allow for error in Luke's account, yet he thinks that "the indications are that Herod the Great did take censuses" (ibid.). Richard Bauckham recently gave a lecture on Luke's infancy account. He comments, "The census in fact continues to be vigorously debated, with new evidence and new theories being advanced. The case against a historical basis for the connexion Luke makes between a census and the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem has certainly not yet proved conclusive." He recommends Porter's treatment of the census passage. I don't think Bauckham is an inerrantist.

You asked about how the passage should be translated. I don't know much about Greek. From what little I know, I think the "before" rendering of Luke 2:2 is unlikely. The most promising alternative to the mainstream translation that I'm aware of is Stephen Carlson's. He renders the passage "this became a very important registration when Quirinius was governing Syria". Some other scholars have said they consider Carlson's translation a reasonable one. For example, Mark Goodacre, a New Testament scholar, has commended Carlson's translation as one that makes sense of both the grammar and the history of the passage. (Goodacre isn't an inerrantist, by the way. I don't know about Carlson.) You refer to how "the sources [you] can study all agree" about how to translate the passage. But the "before" translation and Carlson's have been accepted or have been commended as reasonable by a significant minority of scholars, including non-inerrantists.

I want to note, though, that the mainstream translation of the passage allows for a wider range of reasonable interpretations than is often suggested. See, for example, Darrell Bock's discussion in Luke, Volume 1, 1:1-9:50 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), pp. 199-206, 903-909. Most inerrantists accept the mainstream translation.

Thank you, Jason Engwer, for your reasoned response. More importantly, I appreciated (more than you can possibly know) the direct references and citations. Alas, I agree appealing to a neutral party does not get us very far…however I DO think it has necessary value, and creates a more objective stance in creating a methodology. Two points toward explanation:

1) Within the American Judicial system we use a neutral party—the jury—the make determinations. We exclude jurors who would gain monetary benefit from the verdict, who have a strong emotional appeal regarding the outcome, who have outside information or vested interest in the outcome. Essentially we want people who can decide for the Plaintiff or the Defendant without it affecting the juror’s life. Who can decide to award $1 or $1,000,000.00 without gaining or losing a penny from the juror.

On a personal note, this means trial lawyers tend to evaluate cases not on what the client claims, or what the opposing side claims, but review the material in light of what a neutral party—the jury—will find most believable. I get that my client thinks his story is persuasive, coherent, believable and airtight. I get his friends and family equally agrees his story is the best they ever heard, and everyone…EVERYONE…would readily agree to his veracity.

Except the other side. See, the opposing party equally has a story to tell. Which (equally) their friends and family think is believable, persuasive, coherent, etc. Which unsurprisingly, varies greatly from the story my client tells. This means I (and opposing counsel) learn to step back…review the case from all sides, both our own and others…and attempt to determine what a jury—a neutral party—would believe. Despite what one sees on television, we become pretty good at it. So good, in fact, most cases settle even against our client’s initial wishes because we understand what a jury is likely to do. We can spend more time explaining to the client why they won’t fully prevail in light of ALL the evidence, then trying to convince the other side why we will prevail to some extent.

This almost continual review by divorcing oneself of your own client’s predispositions has taught me the value of reviewing what a neutral party would do. We see younger lawyers sometimes make the mistake of becoming too enamored with their own client’s story and not understand when it goes horribly awry at the time of trial. (And if anyone thinks inerrantists are good at creating “any logical possibility,” try hanging around courthouses some time!)

2) I see certain words tossed out (I do it myself) in these discussions all the time—“plausible,” “probable,” “best explanation.” Sometimes with qualifiers, “more plausible,” “less likely,” “very probable.” And I cannot help thinking (as I mentioned earlier), “plausible…to whom?” “Very likely…to whom?” What I find “probable” another person may find “very probable” and another find “very implausible.” As a non-myther, what I think regarding certain Jesus claims may be “very plausible” whereas a myther thinks them “very implausible” and a literalist may think them “extremely probable.”

For this reason, I ask the question: “best explanation”…to whom? I wish people could walk a few miles in my shoes to understand the difference of providing a “best explanation” to people who believe exactly as I do, compared to “best explanation” to people who oppose me, compared to “best explanation” to a neutral party.

I wish people could see the level of objectivity this introduces.

Now at this point in the discussion, I usually get the reply, “There are no neutrals. This doctrine of inerrancy is so important, no one can be neutral on the matter.” (I actually disagree, but I have found no gain to discuss it.)

It is this reason I asked you regarding historians not wedded to inerrancy who agree there was a census or registration during the Herod the Great in Palestine. It is about the closest to a “neutral” I could find—a person who has nothing to gain by forcing Luke to agree with Matthew (and the Lukan statement, “when Herod was king of Judea”) at all costs on the timing of Jesus’ birth, and knowledgeable enough on the topic to understand the historical background involved. A person who says, “Hey, Luke agrees with Matthew on some things, disagrees with Matthew on others, so I don’t care whether Jesus’ birth date is tossed on the pile of ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ since there are items in both already. Some things Luke was right about; some he was wrong. Which is this one?”

I hope I have blathered on enough about neutral party to give some clarity on the subject.

I cannot access “Jesus and his story.” I did preview (thank you, google books!) “Paul, Luke And The Graeco-Roman World.” Interesting the conclusion Palme and Rosen (the historians Porter relied upon) agreed Luke’s census was the 6 CE Census, and Porter is arguing it was a Census by Herod the Great—not Augustus—while conceding there is no historical document demonstrating Herod ever took a census.

I would additionally note A.N. Sherwin-White equally agreed Luke 2:2 was the 6 CE census, and argued against the notion Quirinius governed Syria twice, or that there was a census in Palestine prior to 6 CE.

In reviewing the histories surrounding censuses (again, I thank you for the Porter citation), the history of the region, the changing of Judea from a tributary tax to a direct tax system in 6 CE, the administrative offices of Syrian governors, Lukan propensity for correct titles, the specific reference to the (correct for 6 CE) Augustine reign and Quirinius Governorship in Luke 2:2, the volatile reaction to the 6 CE census, the bios genre, Luke’s overall differences with the Matthean account, the lack of reason for Augustus to have a census in Palestine prior to 6 CE, the Greek words and grammar, and the utter lack of specific historical record of any census taking place prior to 6 CE by Augustus or Herod the Great in Palestine…I am persuaded a neutral party would find Luke 2:2 is more likely than not referring to the 6 CE census.

The countering arguments appear insufficient to overcome this likelihood. They come across as…stretched…at best. I strongly suspect if we only had a Lukan birth narrative, the exact opposite argument would be made—that Jesus was born during the 6 CE census and Luke 1:5 was referring to Archelaus. We would be arguing whether Luke was correct in titling Archelaus as “king” and discussions would surround Augustus’ promise to give him the title, whether it was possible Archelaus had it at the end of his reign, etc. Obviously Matthew throws a wrench in the works, causing the inerrantist to mold Luke 2:2 to a Herodian period, rather than mold Luke 1:5 to a Quirinius Governorship.

Nice talking with you. I think we have reached a good ending point. Please respond if you think there is something to highlight, of course, but this is a good place for me to stop.

I don't know how 'neutral' he is, but here are the words of Augustus

When I was consul the fifth time (29 BC), I increased the number of patricians by order of the people and senate. I read the roll of the senate three times, and in my sixth consulate (28 BC) I made a census of the people with Marcus Agrippa as my colleague. I conducted a lustrum, after a forty-one year gap, in which lustrum were counted 4,063,000 heads of Roman citizens. Then again, with consular imperium I conducted a lustrum alone when Gaius Censorinus and Gaius Asinius were consuls (8 BC), in which lustrum were counted 4,233,000 heads of Roman citizens. And the third time, with consular imperium, I conducted a lustrum with my son Tiberius Caesar as colleague, when Sextus Pompeius and Sextus Appuleius were consuls (AD 14), in which lustrum were counted 4,937,000 of the heads of Roman citizens. By new laws passed with my sponsorship, I restored many traditions of the ancestors, which were falling into disuse in our age, and myself I handed on precedents of many things to be imitated in later generations.
We know that all Roman citizens were counted, and there were about 4.2 million Roman citizens in the second census (of 8 BC). (It is, of course, possible that non-citizens were also counted, but their tally was not mentioned by Augustus.)

Were there Roman citizens in Palestine in 8 BC? (That's a rhetorical question...of course there were). I think that Augustus, at least, believes that they were counted.

Notice that these three censi are not historical obscurities. These are listed in The Deeds of the Divine Augustus a list of the 35 most important things Augustus believes he accomplished. (The censi are number 8 on the list.) They appear on bronze columns in Rome.

I don't know what this 'aligns' with. But it's simply nonsense to say that there was no census during the reign of Herod.

Now Augustus obviously has nothing to say about whether Joseph was a Roman citizen. While it's possible that he had to register anyway, I think the most reasonable assumption, from what Luke says, is that Joseph was a citizen of Rome who lived in or near Bethlehem prior to his marriage. That he went to Nazareth to collect his bride. That he returned with her to his own city in compliance with the decree from Augustus. And that they decided subsequently to live in Nazareth.

BTW - I am making no claims about the accuracy or methodology of the Roman Census of 8 BC. All I'm saying is that there clearly was one, and its intention was, at least, to count all Roman citizens.


Questioning our beliefs and trying to view the evidence from other people's perspectives are helpful practices. There's merit to your jury analogy. I think most people in a context like the Stand To Reason blog would agree with most of what you're saying about the approach we should take. There would be disagreement over some of the details. As I said before, inerrancy is one of the issues your neutral observer would have to approach with neutrality. Even if he were to conclude that Luke's census seems unlikely independent of inerrancy, he would also have to consider the case for inerrancy. Since Christians cite a large system of miracles in support of their view of Biblical inspiration - including miracles with the sort of scientific, eyewitness, and other evidence reflected in, for example, the Shroud of Turin and Craig Keener's recent book on miracles - inerrancy isn't something that can easily be dismissed. Those who want to dismiss it would have to produce a forceful and complicated argument to do so. I think inerrancy is correct, but even if I'm mistaken, that mistake isn't something that can easily be demonstrated.

You've misrepresented Stanley Porter's position on the census, maybe because you only read part of his chapter, but I didn't cite him in order to argue for his position or discuss it in depth. I'll let those who are interested read Porter for themselves and reach their own conclusions.

You write:

"I strongly suspect if we only had a Lukan birth narrative, the exact opposite argument would be made—that Jesus was born during the 6 CE census and Luke 1:5 was referring to Archelaus."

You're ignoring a large amount of evidence I cited in support of a census under Herod the Great, in my series on the census linked earlier and in my previous posts in this thread. Again, the dating under Herod the Great doesn't just come from Matthew's gospel and Luke 1. It also comes from Luke 3, John 8:57, the early extrabiblical sources who comment on the subject, and early non-Christian sources who seem to accept the Christian explanation of when Jesus was born and when the census occurred (while disputing other aspects of the infancy narratives). Given that nobody in the ancient world dates Jesus' birth to 6 or 7 A.D., the ancient opponents of Christianity seem unaware of a dating discrepancy of a decade between Matthew and Luke, the two gospels seem to have been viewed by Christians as harmonious on this issue as far back as we can trace, the ancient Christians cited multiple non-Christian sources who supposedly corroborated the census, even most non-inerrantist scholars think Luke dates Jesus' birth to the time of Herod the Great, etc., your position has a series of significant problems to overcome. You haven't even acknowledged that most of those problems exist. Part of what's wrong with so many discussions of Luke 2 is that critics of a traditional view of the passage tend to radically underestimate the difficulties involved in their own position.

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