HISTORY AFFIRMS A KEY EVENT IN THE CHRISTMAS STORY

Luke’s Gospel is a great source of historical information. In his opening words, he states:

Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us… it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you might know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed. (Luke 1:1;3-4)

Luke’s main concern is ORDER and ACCURACY so that the recipient of the document (Theophilus), “might know the certainty of those things in which he was instructed (v. 3).”

Not only is Luke’s account orderly, it is an accurate record of what truly happened two thousand years ago.

Classical archaeologist, Sir William Ramsay once stated that Luke was a “first rate historian…” He also said that Luke’s works are,

“…historical works of the highest order, in which a writer commands excellent means of knowledge, either through personal acquaintance or through access to original authorities, and brings to the treatment of his subject genius, literary skill, and sympathetic historical insight into human character and the movement of events. Such an author seizes the critical events, concentrates the reader’s attention on them by giving them fuller treatment…” [1].

One such event to which Luke draws attention is a census which took place during the reign of Augustus, before Christ was born. This event is a pivotal event in the Christmas story and is often looked at with skepticism by many liberal scholars and New Testament critics.

THE ROMAN CENSUS IN LUKE 2

At the very beginning of Luke’s narrative in Luke 2:1-5 we are told that a census took place in the entire Roman world. The words are very familiar during Christmas as they are read aloud in many sermons, plays, musicals and Christmas celebrations.

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered, to Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.

For many years, historians and scholars have pointed to the passage above mentioning the decree by Qurinius, as problematic, if not historically inaccurate. Did a census really take place in the entire Roman world during that time, and did Mary & Joseph actually go up to Bethlehem to be registered as Luke account states?

New Testament scholar Dr. Harold W. Hoehner spent many years analyzing historical and chronological aspects of Christ’s life and ministry. In his excellent book, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, professor Hoehner summarized some of the top challenges faced by those who hold to the historical accuracy of Luke’s account. Here he summarizes five objections made by the Jewish scholar Emil Schurer. Many of Schurer’s objections have carried on into the present day.

Schurer states that Luke cannot be historically accurate because: (1) Nothing is known in history of a general census during the time of Augustus; (2) In a Roman census Joseph would have not had to travel to Bethlehem, but would have registered in the principle town of his residence, and Mary would have had to register at all; (3) No Roman census would have been made in Palestine during Herod’s reign; (4) Josephus records nothing of a Roman census in Palestine in the time of Herod – rather the census of A.D. 6-7 was something new among the Jews; and (5) A census held under Qurinius could not have occurred during Herod’s reign for Quirinius was not governor until after Herod’s death. [2].

At first glance, these objections to a Roman census during the reign of emperor [imperator] Caesar Augustus (Octavius) and governor [legatus] Quirinus may seem  difficult to answer, but a careful appraisal of the historical and archaeological evidence suggests that they are not.

Because space does not allow, this article will respond to two of the objections mentioned above:

(1) The claim that nothing is known in history of a general census during the time of Augustus

(2) That in a Roman census Mary & Joseph would not have had to travel to Bethlehem to register.

OBJECTION 1 – WAS THERE A CENSUS DURING THE TIME OF AUGUSTUS BEFORE CHRIST WAS BORN?

The simple answer is, yes.

It is a commonly held assumption that the decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world [i.e. the Roman world] was to be taxed, was a single census [a single event] in the entire Roman empire. The question is – is this how Luke understood it, or intended it to be understood?

According to Hoehner, “What is meant is that censuses were taken at different times in different provinces – Augustus being the first one in history to order a census or tax assessment of the whole provincial empire. This is further substantiated by the fact that Luke uses the present tense indicating that Augustus ordered censuses to be taken regularly, rather than only one time.” [3]

Furthermore, New Testament historian Jack Finegan says,

As to the taking of such an enrollment in general, it is known from discoveries among the Egyptian papyri that a Roman census was taken in Egypt, and therefore perhaps also throughout the empire regularly, every fourteen years. Many actual census returns have been found, and they use the very same word (ἀπογράφω) which Luke 2:2 uses for the “enrollment.” The specific census which Luke mentions (Lk. 2:2), is that it “first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.” [4]

Apart from Luke we have two other historical sources concerning Quirinius – the Roman historian, Tacitus (Annals 3.48) and the Jewish/Roman historian, Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 18.1-2). According to Tacitus (Annals 3.48), we learn that P. Sulpicius Quirinius died in A.D. 21.

Josephus’s reference to Quirinius in Antiquities of the Jews (18,I,1.) poses somewhat of a problem, because he informs us that the “taxings conducted by Quirinius while governing Syria were made in the thirty-seventh year of Caesar’s victory over [Marc] Anthony at Actium in 31 B.C.. This would place the census in about A.D. 6/7, a date which is too late to be brought into alignment with the birth of Christ which was likely in the winter 3 or 2 B.C. [5].

In Luke’s account in Luke 2:2, he speaks of a census which “first” took place “when Quirinius was governing Syria.” So it is not out of the question that the census to which Josephus is referring was the second one, while Luke mentions the “first” one [i.e the earlier one].

Old Testament scholar, Gleason Archer adds that Luke, “was therefore well aware of the second census, taken by Quirinius in A.D. 7, which Josephus alludes to… We know this because Luke (who lived much closer to the time that Josephus did) also quotes Gamaliel as alluding to the insurrection of Judas of Galilee “in the days of census taking” (Acts 5:37). [6]

Additional evidence also seems to suggest that Quirinius served as governor twice which would then put him in an official position over Syria to enact the census of Luke 2:2.

In 1784, a Latin inscription was discovered near Tivoli, located about twenty miles east of Rome. It is known as the Lapis Tiburtinus inscription, and according to Jack Finegan it, “…contains the statement of a high Roman official that when he became governor of Syria he entered the office for the second time (Latin, iterum). It has even been thought that this personage might have been Quirinius…” [7]

Whatever the identity is of the Roman official mentioned in the inscription, at minimum shows that it was not uncommon for Roman procurators to have served twice, and it may reveal that the governor [Imperator] was Quirinius himself, through further research.

OBJECTION 2 – IS IT PLAUSIBLE THAT MARY & JOSEPH TRAVELED TO BETHLEHEM FOR THE CENSUS? 

Luke 2:4-5 states:
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

Objection 2 listed above states, that in a Roman census Joseph would have not had to travel to Bethlehem, but would have registered in the principal town of his residence, and Mary would not have had to register at all.

It was generally understood that Roman law instructed property owners to register for taxation in the district where they owned land. However, “…a papyrus dated to A.D. 104, records an Egyptian prefect who ordered Egyptians to return to their home so that a census could be taken. In first century Rome, since the Jews’ property was linked to their fathers (i.e. patriarchal), the Romans would allow them the custom of laying claim to their family estate for taxation.” [8]

Roman denarii

Since every person needed to appear in his ancestral homeland and since Mary was betrothed to Joseph, and pregnant with child, the two would have traveled to Bethlehem together to register with the Roman authorities.

Surely Mary & Joseph would have understood the Scriptures, and the prophecies concerning Israel’s Messiah – that He must be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). It must have been truly amazing from their perspective to see promises of Israel’s Messiah fall in place – especially if part of those promises utilized official decrees of the Roman empire!

BETHLEHEM: THE BIRTHPLACE OF CHRIST 

Before the Census of Augustus, the Old Testament prophet Micah lived in the 8th Century B.C. (seven centuries before Christ) and predicted exactly where Israel’s Messiah would be born:

But you, Bethlehem Ephratah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be the ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from old, from eternity. Therefore He shall give them up, Until the time that she who is in labor has given birth; Then shall the remnant of His brethren shall return to the children of Israel. And He shall stand and feed His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God; And they shall abide, For now He shall be great To the ends of the earth; and this One shall be peace (Micah 5:2-5)

Bethlehem (meaning, “house of bread”) was a small village located about six miles south of Jerusalem near the road which leads to Hebron and the Negev. Nearly a thousand years before Christ was born a remarkable scene unfolded there. God sent the prophet Samuel to see “Jesse the Bethlehemite. For I have provided Myself a king among his sons” (1 Sam. 16:1). In Bethlehem God chose David, a shepherd boy, to be the King of Israel and there, Samuel anointed him (1 Sam. 16:11-13). David was also later anointed in Hebron (2 Samuel 2:1-11).

Later in his life, God made a covenant with David (2 Samuel 7:12-17) to establish a royal bloodline in his name which would ultimately be fulfilled by a King who would reign eternally over not only Israel, but all nations (Psalm 2). The fact that Christ would be born in Bethlehem puts a bright beam of light on these and many other Messianic prophecies and predictions concerning who He was and [Christos – Greek “anointed One” or Messiah], lending authenticity to His rightful claim as Israel’s promised King descended from David’s lineage.

Apart from the Bible, Bethlehem is also mentioned in the 13th Century B.C. Amarna Letters as Bit-Lahmi which had “gone over to the Apiru.”

In 1969 the Bethlehem was explored by the Israel Archaeological Survey by S. Gutman and A. Berman. In their study of the tell Gutman and Berman discovered pottery from the Iron Age as well as Roman and Byzantine objects located primarily in the area of the tell of Bethlehem SW of the Church of the Nativity [9].

The Christian teacher, Justin Martyr was born soon after AD 100 in Neapolis. Shortly after the middle of the century in his Dialogue with the Jew Trypho he wrote the following:

But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find lodging in the village, he took up his quarters in a cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found him.

Additionally, the Protoevanglium of James (2nd Century) speaks of the cave which Joseph found which was the place of his birth.

The Christian teacher Origen, who was in Palestine frequently from AD 215 onward, composed his work Against Celsus in circa AD 248. In Against Celsus Origin repeats the report also given by Justin Martyr of the location of Christ’s birth in a cave located near Bethlehem. Origin states:

In accordance with the narrative in the Gospel regarding his birth, there is pointed out at Bethlehem the cave where he was born, and the manger in the cave where he was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And this sight is greatly talked about in surrounding places, even among the enemies of the faith, it being said that in this cave was born that Jesus who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians (Against Celsus, I 51).

In the 4th Century, in AD 325, the emperor Constantine erected a basilica, undoubtedly over this very cave. In his work The Life of Constantine, the Christian historian Eusebius records that Constantine commissioned four churches to be built in Palestine at historical locations sacred to the memory of Christ – His life and ministry. Constantine chose the place of Christ’s birth at Bethlehem; of His crucifixion and resurrection in Jerusalem; and of His ascension on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. For help in locating the sites in both Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Constantine and Helena (his mother) relied upon the help of Marcarius bishop of Jerusalem (AD 314-333). Macarius was present at the Council of Nicea (AD 325). After the meeting of the council Constantine wrote him a lengthy letter about the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The original basilica of Constantine erected over the cave where Christ was born was destroyed by a fire in the 6th Century by the Samaritan revolts, where it was rebuilt by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the same century. The current building is essentially the one built by Justinian.

The church was investigated archaeologically in 1932 & 1934 by William Harvey for the Department of Antiquities of Palestine, and in 1949-50 by Bellarmo Bagatti for the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

According to their excavations and studies they discovered that remnants of the original Constantinian structure remained (see figure below)

In this plan drawing according to the excavations of 1932-34 and 49-50, the remains of the Constantinian walls are black – the white dotted lines are mosaics – Plain white lines outline the Justinian structure of the sixth century (Jack Finegan, The Archaeology of the New Testament, 1992), pg. 32

Both tradition, historical and archaeological evidence, all support Luke’s account that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea – Mary & Joseph driven there by a census given by the Roman government.

Worshippers in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem (1833) – by Vorobiev (Wikipedia)

When Christ was born in Bethlehem just a few kilometers away from the village was the elaborate and massive fortress of Herodium – a man-made hillock equipped with four guard towers on each cardinal point of the compass – North, South, East and West. Herodium was build by Herod who sought to eliminate Jesus when he had received word that a new king had been born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2). In our previous article on Herod, we outline the historical and archaeological evidence for Herod’s grandiose buildings and tyrannical rule.

Herodium (or Herodion) was a massive fortress built by Herod I – it was visible from Bethlehem when Christ was born. Ironically, it is also where Herod was buried.

Once again, when Scripture is placed under the scrutiny of historical and archaeological research, it always stands the test in amazing ways.

This is one small example of where archaeology and history once again silences critics of the Bible and corroborates the Scripture to the finest detail.

Luke’s gospel is just the first part of a two-volume set in which the book of Acts is the second. Colin Hemer’s massive study, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History details at least 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts that have been confirmed by either historical or archeological research.

Truly, Luke was a remarkable historian.

Jesus Came In the Fullness of Time

In Galatians 4:4 the Apostle Paul wrote,

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.

When Jesus the Messiah arrived, His timing was perfect!  But, not only was it perfect historically, it was right in line with God’s divine, providential time frame.

The majesty and mystery of Christmas is that the eternal God entered time and became flesh and blood so that He could die on a cross for our sins.

If Christ’s first coming is any indication of what the Second coming will be like – we can rest assured that His return to earth will be at just the right time once again.

[FOOTNOTES]

[1] William Ramsay, Saint Paul: The Traveler and Roman Citizen (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2001 reprint), 16.

[2] Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977), 14.

[3] Ibid., 15

[4] Jack Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past: The Archaeological Background of the Hebrew-Christian Religion, Volume II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 258.

[5] Jack See Finegan, Ibid., 259, See also Hoehner’s work on this date which goes into much more detail in the original sources; Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), especially Chapter 1, ‘The Date of Christ’s Birth,’ pp. 29-44.

[6] Gleason L. Archer, Jr., New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982)

[7] See, Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology: Principles of Time Reckoning in the Ancient World and Problems of Chronology in the Bible, Revised Edition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), p. 304. A view also held by William Ramsay, Bearing of Recent Discoveries on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, 4th Ed., London, 1920, pp. 275-300.

[8] See, Hoehner, p.15

[9] see Jack Finegan, The Archaeology of the New Testament: The Life of Jesus and the Beginnings of the Early Church, Revised Edition (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 22-42.