Luke 2:1-2 In the News

By Olen Holderby

Many readers of the GOT will recognize that this passage has often been attacked by critics of Bible accuracy. Just recently such a critic, attacking one of my articles in the local newspaper, said, “There was never a worldwide census under Augustus Caesar”; and, he further argues that Cyrenius (Quirinus) was not governor at the time Jesus was born.

If the critics are correct, Luke would be in error. How-ever the critics, in their haste to condemn the Bible record, often become careless in presenting the facts. In view of this, I would like to share some observations and information, in defense of Luke 2:1-2.

It seems wise to this writer to permit both subjects  the census and the rule of Cyrenius, to blend together in our comments. In this case, at least, they appear to be interdependent. Let us begin.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE, Eerdman’s, 1988) has a lengthy article of Cyrenius. That article closes by saying, “Several plausible possibilities exist for explaining the evidence without the assumption that Luke erred.” Indeed, so, but what are those “plausible possibilities”?

First, let us remember that the Bible claims to be from God. “All Scripture is given by the inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16). If this be true, Luke 2, cannot be in error. If the Holy Spirit gave the words of this book (1 Cor. 2:13), who is man (any man) to say that these things did not occur?

Do we not remember how the critics argued that the Hittites of the Genesis record never existed? The critics had a “hey-day” here until the “evidence of the spade” verified the Bible record. Just because a particular event has not been noted by secular historians offers no intelligent argument that it did not occur. Why should anyone judge the Bible on the basis of what has not yet been found by modern man? The desire to destroy the influence of the Bible appears to be the father of such ideas.

Next we notice the meaning of the Greek word hegemon(euo). This word, according to W.E. Vine, is used of “rulers generally”; and can refer to several types of administrative command: governor, princes, proconsul, procurators, etc. This is true even though some such words are, originally, derived from another Greek word.

Keeping this last fact in mind, let us go back to the ISBE article, “More plausibly, Quirinus may have held some type of `extraordinary command’ during the term of Saturninus.” This would place Quirinus (Cyrenius) in some position of “administrative command”; thus, the use of the word “governor” in referring to him. This is one of those “plausible possibilities.”

Another “plausible possibility” as given in that same article, says, “The Lapis Tihurtinus (CIL. XIV, 3613) speaks of the person (unspecified, due to the fragmentary nature of the inscription) who had earlier been proconsul of Cyrene (in North Africa) and Crete, and who had later effectively put down the Homonadensians, finally to be rewarded by receiving `again’ (Lat. iterum) the legateship of Syria and Phoenicia.” Please notice that word “again.” Whomever is under consideration had it once; and, now gets it “again.” In his commentary on Luke, J.S. Lamar says, “It is now ascertained that Cyrenius was twice governor of Syria; first, three years before and down to the birth of Christ. . . The proof of this is quite satisfactory, though too long to be introduced here. The curious reader may consult Dr. Schaff’s note in Van Oosterzee.” This commentator thinks the evidence is so strong, in favor of Cyrenius having ruled Syria twice, that he does not think it necessary to quote it.

Perhaps the taxing (census or enrollment) needs some attention at this point. Going back, once again, to the ISBE article, we read, “The Lapis Venetus (CIL. III, 6687) describes a census ordered by Quirinius of the Syrian city of Apamea. Some evidence suggests a date of 1056 B.C. for this inscription, although many take it to refer to the A.D. 6 census.” One more quote from this article, “The only full treatment of this period is provided by Josephus, who focused primarily on events dealing with the Herodian family. That Josephus would fail to mention a census less directly related to the Herods than the one of A.D. 6 is not at all implausible. And since Luke’s historical integrity has been repeatedly vindicated in numerous places, it is fairer to give Luke the benefit of the doubt here.”

Commenting on Luke 2, Jamieson, Faussett, and Brown (Zondervan, 1967) offer this thought, “That there was a taxing, however, of the whole Roman Empire under Augustus, is now admitted by all; and candid critics, even of skeptical tendency, are ready to allow that there is not likely to be any real inaccuracy in the statement of our Evangelist.” These same authors observe the possibility of there having been a taxing ordered about the time of our Lord’s birth; but, not carried out until the rule of Quirinus (at a later time)  another of those “plausible possibilities.”

B.W. Johnson supports this last mentioned solution when he offers one way of removing this apparent difficulty. “Augustus Caesar, incensed at Herod, ordered an enrollment for taxation of the Jews the year of the birth of Jesus. It was carried out in all probability by Cyrenius. The intercession of Herod’s minister, Nicolas, averted the displeasure of Augustus, and the taxation did not take place until Cyrenius was governor of Syria, after Archelaus, son of Herod, was deposed. These facts we learn from Josephus, and they removed the apparent discrepancy” (The People’s New Testament, Gospel Advocate Co., 1987).

However, B.W. Johnson offers support for the “two-term” idea when he says, “A. W. Zumpt, of Berlin, following by Alford and Schaff, make it highly probable that Cyrenius was governor of Syria twice, the first time from B.C. 4 to B.C. 1. I have not space for the argument which seems conclusive. But in B.C. 4 Jesus was born. Ancient writers, Christian as well as pagan opposers, state that Jesus was born while Cyrenius was governor of Syria.”

Christianity obviously had some enemies during its earlier years. Does it not seem strange that not one early opponent of Christianity, such as Celsus and Porphyry, is known to have called in question the accuracy of Luke’s statement? From all indications Luke wrote for men of education. How can any thinking person assert that Luke would expose himself to the risk of detection by asserting something as fact that could easily be shown to be untrue? “Justin Martyr confidently appeals to Roman registers as confirming Luke’s statement that our Lord was born under Quirinus.”

Albert Barnes, the noted Bible commentator, quotes a Dr. Lardner as saying, “This was the first census of Cyrenius, governor of Syria.” It is pointed out that this census was taken by him, but not necessarily when he was governor. Mr. Barnes used an illustration, “General Washington saved Braddock’s army.” Washington did not save Braddock’s army while he was a general, but before he was a general. To speak of this event after he became a General, it would appear to be proper to say, “General Washington saved Braddock’s army.” As we might say, “To President Clinton was born a daughter.” This does not suggest that this daughter was born to him while he was president. Why, then, is it so difficult for the critics to understand the taking of the census by Governor Cyrenius? Mr. Barnes’ point is well taken!

With the availability of all these “plausible possibilities” modern critics have to stick their combined needs in the sand to continue to question the accuracy of Luke 2:1-2.

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 21, p. 7-8
November 3, 1994