excerpted from God, Reason, and the Evangelicals
(Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1987), pp. 145-49
Copyright held by N. F. Gier


          Much has been said about Luke's excellence as an historian.  Luke did indeed emulate the models of historical narrative which were current in his day.  But to claim that Luke is a consummate historian by modern standards--as many evangelicals do--is a position which cannot be maintained.  In a letter to me, F. F. Bruce concedes that conservative apologists have been too eager to declare Luke's inerrancy.  So eager was W. M. Ramsey to prove Luke correct about the enrollment in Bethlehem that he, according to Bruce, "unwisely damaged his well-founded reputation as a very considerable scholar."  In his Anchor Bible commentary Catholic scholar J. A. Fitzmyer lists other historical mistakes in Luke's writing and offers the most definitive argument against Ramsey's claims about the famous Christmas census.


          There is no record of Caesar Augustus' decree that "all the world should be enrolled" (Lk. 2:1).  The Romans kept extremely detailed records of such events.  Not only is Luke's census not in these records, it goes against all that we know of Roman economic history.  Roman documents show that taxation was done by the various governors at the provincial level.  As we shall see later, the property tax was collected on site by travelling assessors, thus making unnecessary Joseph's journey away from what little property he must have owned.  Gleason Archer quotes a census expert who claims, without documentation, that "every five years the Romans enumerated citizens and their property to determine their liabilities.  This practice was extended to include the entire Roman Empire in 5 B.C.E."1  This goes against the fourteen-year cycle which Archer himself uses to argue that Quirinius was pulled from his busy duties in Asia Minor to do a Syrian census in 7 B.C.E., fourteen years earlier than the one recorded in Josephus and Acts 5:37.


          Many have joined Archer in the hypothesis that Quirinius had an unrecorded term as Syria's governor during the time of Jesus' birth.  Some misuse the "Tivoli" inscription which they say proves that some Roman official served twice in Syria and Phoenicia.  First, the name is missing, so this is no proof that Quirinius is involved.  Second, the inscription has been mistranslated.  It should read:  "legate of Augustus for a second time" not a second legate in Syria as the harmonizers insist.  Archer does not refer to the Tivoli inscription directly; but still argues that since Luke knew of the census of 6 C.E., he correctly called this one Quirinius' "first" (prote).  But Fitzmyer shows conclusively that the grammar clearly indicates that this was the first census in Judea, not Quirinius' first enrollment.2


          It has long been known that Tertullian held that S. Sentius Saturninus, not Quirinius, was governor at the time of Jesus' birth.  Saturninus ruled from 9-6 B.C.E., the period most likely to be Jesus' birth time.  P. Quintilius Varus was governor during the next most likely period of 6-4 B.C.E.  M. Titius was in Syria ca. 10 B.C.E.  Quirinius himself was very much occupied during this time, having been assigned to the campaign in Cilicia in Asia Minor from ca. 11-3 B.C.E.  Archer's theory is that Quirinius was given a special assignment to do the census in the interval between Saturninus' and Varus' terms.  There is of course no extant evidence for this, but this does not seem to be necessary for the harmonizing that takes place in evangelical "historical" theology.  In fact, there is much to say against it.  Fitzmyer paraphrases one authority:  "...It was unheard of that a proconsul would become a legate...twice in the same province."3


          F. M. Heichelheim speculated that Herod himself took the census to which Luke refers.4  Realizing the problematic nature of his solution, Heichelheim takes great pains to qualify his pro-Luke interpretation.  He describes Luke 2:1-5 as "an extremely difficult passage," and then proceeds to give it an interpretation that has no basis in the text.  Heichelheim uses the 4th Century church historian Eusebius to support Joseph's presence in Bethlehem at the census.  Eusebius speculated that Joseph's family "most probably had a small holding near Bethlehem up to the reign of Domitian."  Heichelheim interprets the idios in "each to his own (idios) city" as meaning the private possessions of the Jewish royal family, who would collect the poll and land taxes and send them to Rome.  This rendering of idios is supportable, but it is not compatible with Jesus' own use of the word.  In each of the places where we find the famous saying "a prophet has no honor in his own country (en ten idia patridi)" (Jn. 4:44; Matt. 13:57; Mk.  6:4), the adjective idios is used in a way quite different from Heichelheim's proposal.  And from the context it is also clear that Jesus claimed the country of his father to be Galilee and the town to be Nazareth.


          Heichelheim's thesis is highly speculative and open to the following general objections.  (1) Given the conflicting genealogies of Matthew and Luke (which cannot be gratuitously solved by giving one to Mary), the descent of Joseph from David is highly problematic.  (2) The idea of Joseph owning property in Bethlehem stands in stark contrast to his destitute status and Jesus' birth in a strange stable. (The property would at least had a few shacks on it.) Matthew does have Mary and Joseph living in a house in Bethlehem (2:11), and only after the flight to Egypt do they settle in Nazareth.  (3) It would not have been necessary for Mary, nine-months pregnant, to make the arduous three-day journey.  (4) Not all descendants of David would have owned property in Bethlehem, and yet Luke would still require them to return from distances far greater than from Galilee.  (5) E. W. Barnes states that "any such census under Herod is highly improbable, inasmuch as it would be made for purposes of taxation; and Herod managed, and showed great skill in managing, his own finances."5  Finally (6), even if there had been a Herodian census, Luke would still have been wrong about Augustus' universal census and wrong about Quirinius administering it.


          In Josephus' account of the census in 6 C.E., he explicitly states that those people taxed were assessed of their possessions, including lands and livestock.  In other words, the census takers were also the tax assessors.  In Egypt these tax assessors went from house to house in order to perform their duties.  With this in mind, let us look at a crucial error in Luke's account.  Luke has Joseph and Mary making a three-day journey away from their home in Nazareth to register in their alleged ancestral home Bethlehem.  But an Egyptian papyrus recording a census in 104 C.E. explicitly states that "since registration by household is imminent, it is necessary to notify all who for any reason are absent from their districts to return to their own homes that they may carry out the ordinary business of registration...."6  Unlike Matthew, who does not mention a census nor Nazareth as Mary and Joseph's home, Luke describes Nazareth as "their own city" (Lk. 2:39).  If the rules of this Egyptian census applied to Palestine, then Joseph and Mary should have stayed in Nazareth to be enrolled.


          Imagine a system of taxation based on people returning to their ancestral homes, going back a thousand years in the case of Joseph.  By this time the Jews were spread out all over the known world.  Can we seriously believe that the Romans would have required them to come back to Palestine, carrying everything they owned?  How would the tax officials have assessed their land?  In The Rise of Christianity the former Bishop E. W. Barnes remarks:  "The Romans were a practical race, skilled in the art of government.  It is incredible that they should have taken a census according to such a fantastic system.  If any such census had been taken, the dislocation to which it would have led would have been world-wide.  Roman historians would not have failed to record it."7


          In his famous book entitled Jesus, Charles Guignebert states:  "It is all outside the plane of reality....It is incredible that such an unusual and disturbing proceeding, as the census spoken of by Luke must necessarily have been, should have escaped all notice in Josephus...."  Guignebert continues:


                            "We will not unduly stress the peculiarity of the mode of census taking implied in our text, but it is to be noted that it is a very strange proceeding.  The moving about of men and families which this reckless decree must have caused throughout the whole of the Empire is almost beyond imagination, and one cannot help wondering what advantage there could be for the Roman state in this return, for a single day, of so many scattered individuals, not to the places of their birth, but to the original homes of their ancestors.  For it is to be remembered that those of royal descent were not the only ones affected by this fantastic ordinance, and many a poor man must have been hard put to it to discover the cradle of his race.  The suspicion, or rather, the conviction, is borne in upon us at first sight that the editor of Luke has simply been looking for some means of bringing Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, in order to have Jesus born there.  A hagiographer of his type never bothers much about common sense in inventing the circumstances he requires"8


          We can now understand why Jesus never mentions his birth in Bethlehem; and that, except for the birth stories, Jesus is always connected with Nazareth.  The writer of John apparently does not know of Jesus' alleged birth in Bethlehem.  Nathanael does not know it (7:46) and no one answers the challenge of the crowd when they say "Is the Christ to come from Galilee?  Has not the scriptures said that the Christ...comes from Bethlehem?..." (7:42).  In Evidence That Demands a Verdict evangelical Josh McDowell challenges skeptics to assess the evidence for the Christian faith.  McDowell uses the mistranslated Vatican inscription and ascribes it to Quirinius without good scholarly reasons.  He even cites the Egyptian papyrus above, but astonishingly enough implies that it required people to return to their ancestral homes.9  Concerning the birth stories of Jesus, the evidence demands this verdict:  most of the details are legendary and Jesus was in all probability born in the Galilean town of Nazareth.


Note: Simply for the sake of balance I offer a defense of Luke's census by Ronald Marchant.  To his credit Marchant summarizes the objections to historicity mentioned about, but nonetheless offers a quite convoluted defense.  Click here for his article, linked to the fundamentalist Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute.  I find at least three major problems: 1) Marchant assumes the Joseph owned land in Bethlehem; 2) that Quirinius somehow had authority in Judea when two other governors ruled during the most likely times of Jesus' birth; and 3) that the Egyptian census of 104 CE supports the idea of returning to ancestral homes.




1.              Gleason Archer, An Encyclopedia of Biblical Differences (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), p. 366. Such an empire-wide census, if it did indeed happen, would still have been too late for Archer's 7 B.C.E. date.


2.              Joseph A. Fitzmyer The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke. Two Volumes. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1981, 1985), p. 401..


3.             Ibid., p. 403.  Fitzmyer also counters Archer's attempt to demote Quirinius to something less than an official legate.  Fitzmyer shows that the use of hegemon as real legate is found also in Josephus (p. 402).


4.          Tenney Frank, , ed., An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1938), vol. 4, pp. 160-62.


5.          E.W. Barnes, The Rise of Christianity (London: Longmans, Green, 1947), p. 75.


6.          Quoted in Fitzmyer, p. 405.  Check this link for a copy of an Egyptian census declaration. Look under K. C. Hanson's Collection of Ancient Documents (Greek).


7.          Barnes, p. 75.


8.          Charles Guignebert, Jesus (London: Kegan Paul, 1935), pp. 99, 101.


9.           Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (San Bernadino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972), vol. 1, p. 73.