Unbelievable? Is Luke’s Description of Quirinius Historically Inaccurate?
by J Warner Wallace
In an interview on Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley, I had the opportunity to speak with a skeptic who cited Luke’s description of Quirinius (Luke 2:1–3) as a historical contradiction. Luke wrote that Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem for a census and “this was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” The Jewish historian, Josephus, confirmed the existence of this governor, but placed Quirinius’ ruling term from AD 5 to AD 6. This period of time is too late, however, as Matthew wrote that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (who according to Josephus, died nine years prior to the governorship of Quirinius). The authority of Josephus seems to be at odds with the accuracy of the Gospel writers, and like the account related to the execution of John the Baptist, we are left to decide which account is accurate (and which is not). Once again, it’s time to apply the overarching principles of witness reliability:
Principle One: Make Sure the Witnesses Were Present in the First Place
Both Luke and Josephus are historians relying on the observations and testimony of others (See Luke’s introduction in Luke 1:1-4), but Luke (writing in the late 50’s AD) has access to witnesses and sources far closer to the event than does Josephus (writing in the late 70’s AD and in the early 90’s AD). There is good reason to believe Luke is relying heavily on the testimony of Mark and Peter, and Mark’s Gospel is the earliest narrative of these events (written within 20 years of John’s execution); the case for the early dating of Luke’s text is cumulative and compelling. Luke’s account was, therefore, available to the early Christian and non-Christian observers of the life of Jesus…
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