Does Luke Have The Date Of The Nativity Wrong?

by Jonathan McLatchie 

In reading — as one does — the popular atheist material on the Internet with regards New Testament scholarship, I recently came across a very old argument which is often trotted out by people who don’t know any better with regards the dating which the gospels assign to the the nativity and Roman census. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod. Luke recounts the story, with which we are all familiar, of Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem to register as part of the census which was taken. The skeptic typically objects upon reading those accounts and complains that these two things are actually a decade removed from each other. According to Luke, Jesus was born at the time of the census when Quirinius was governor of Syria — a census which was recorded by the Romans as occurring in 6 A.D. But Herod’s death — whom Matthew asserts was alive at the time of Jesus’ birth — occurred in 4 B.C.

According to Luke 2:1-3,

1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

But just how sound is this objection?

The first thing to take notice of is Luke’s remarkable accuracy as an historian in other areas. He gets many titles of rulers correct (in one case he got the title of an Asian leader right which Cicero gets wrong), has cities in the right place, in addition to various other incidental historical details. In light of this, it would be unwise to immediately jump to the conclusion that Luke is historically in error at this point. Before we reach that conclusion, we should first look to see whether there are any plausible alternatives which are not strained or ad hoc

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