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What Luke Actually Wrote
by Melinda Penner
A caller to the radio program asked about answering a historical challenge to Luke 2 that Bart Ehrman has raised. I have to confess, I wasn't aware of this apparent problem, and researching it has actually been quite fascinating. Ehrman mentions it in this week's Newsweek magazine. Part of the key to the answer is what the Greek text of Luke 2 actually says, as opposed to what we've come to think it says. Greg has observed that answering many of the problems about the Bible that callers raise on the radio program can be resolved simply by reading the text. That's part of the answer here, plus a little historical context.
The gist of the problem is that Luke claims that the first tax when Quirinius was governor of Syria was at the time of Jesus' birth – around 4-2 B.C. The Jewish historian Josephus, however, records that the first tax under Quirinius' administration was in 6 A.D., after Jesus' birth. There's no reconciling these reports, unless we actually look back at what Luke wrote and at some historical data.
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First let me make the point Greg made to the caller. Luke itself is a historical account that we should take just as seriously as Josephus. The posture that the Bible is the questionable source behind other historical sources is just plain prejudice before examining the accounts. The Gospels, just like Josephus, claim to be ancient historical records, and they should be taken as such until proven to be untrustworthy. So far, they have not been dismissed based on the facts, only by assumption. Josephus' accuracy can be questioned in light of Luke's account just as much as the other way around.
As it turns out, the two historical sources are easily reconciled. And a quick note on answering apparent contradictions in the Bible: 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 That's true for any historical document, not just the Bible…