When was the Census?
The Authority of the New Testament
In my book, 500 Year Journey, I take the stance that the New Testament is a reliable history of the life of Christ and the early church. The reason I believe this is simple: the witnesses are credible. Matthew and John knew Christ personally and Luke walked with Paul and interviewed those he writes about. I deal with this in the first chapter of my book. Furthermore, they are credible because they each died for their testimony. This is an extraordinary thing. Some people might die for an idea that they believe is true, but the disciples died defending a historical event that they had witnessed: the resurrection. They believed a man had risen from the dead, and they were willing to die for that claim. And they were committed to recording what they knew about him so that future generations (us) would also know. There are amazing resources available for those who are interested in examining the evidence for the resurrection more thoroughly, and I highly recommend Josh McDowell’s “Evidence that Demands a Verdict.”
I have wrestled deeply with these issues personally, and I have come to believe that the New Testament is an authentic record of the life and times of Jesus Christ. It is indeed the authoritative defense of who he is: the son of the living God, the savior and redeemer of mankind, the promised messiah.
The Census Decreed by Augustus
Even though I believe the scriptures, that does not mean I haven’t doubted them. Sometimes the writers say something that doesn’t seem to match up with the historical record and for some skeptics this justifies discarding everything scripture says. Usually these apparent flaws can easily be resolved and shown to be merely easy fodder for enemies of the faith, but usually an honest, forthright investigation will reveal that the biblical writers had it right all along. A case in point is the census decreed by Augustus.
One of the accusations against the authenticity of Luke’s account about the birth of Christ, is that there is no record of a census decreed by Augustus that happened in Israel at the time of Christ’s birth. Luke says that it was a worldwide census (Luke 2:1), and it sounds like Luke mentions that a man named Quirinius ran the census in Israel. However, the only census run by Quirinius in Judea wasn’t until 6 or 7 AD, which would be much too late to be considered the census Luke refers to.
There are several approaches to solve this problem.
1) Luke must have been referring to an earlier census which had also been run by Quirinius. The problem with this is that no one can find any record of Quirinius having done so. There is an inscription that puts a man who might be Quirinius (he isn’t specifically named) near Israel at the proper time, but it isn’t definitive.
2) Luke got it wrong. Since the assumption is that Luke is a liar (or whoever wrote the book is), and this “mistake” of his reveals that he got sloppy in his efforts to try and make up stories about a fictional messiah. It exposes him as a fraud.
3) Luke is referring to a census that was decreed by Augustus BEFORE Quirinius governed Judea, as opposed to WHILE Quirinius governed Judea.
The third option seems the most plausible because in Acts 5 Luke refers to the events surrounding the census that had been managed by Quirinius in 6 or 7 AD, and it was a disaster! There was a revolt and an insurrection and it was a very famous and culture altering event. In other words, skeptics claim that Luke mistakenly put the birth of Christ at this census, but that would be odd considering Luke refers to that census in the book of Acts. In short, it’s a specious claim to think Luke got confused. It is more likely that he must have been referring to a census that had been more peacefully run at an earlier time before the violent one which happened during the governorship of Quirinius. Luke and his audience would have known exactly when he was talking about.