RPM, Volume 17, Number 42, October 11 to October 17, 2015

Jesus' Historical Birth

Luke 2:1-4

By D. Marion Clark


I suppose that what makes Christmas the most beloved of all holidays is the good feelings that the birth story of Jesus generates. It is a good story about the Son of God becoming man to show the world God's love. You can't help but get sentimental reading about Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem while she is pregnant and having to find an animal stall to give birth to baby Jesus. The angels, shepherds, and wise men add just the right touch for a nativity scene. Too bad it didn't really happen. Or at least, so we are told by scholars. The birth of Jesus as recorded by Matthew and Luke makes for good story telling, but is not real history.

The typical response of Christians to such a comment is to point to this very text and note how Jesus' birth is located in an historical context. Caesar Augustus was emperor of Rome, a man named Quirinius was governor of Syria, and a census was taking place. Jesus' parents are named and even towns are listed. This is not the way that a typical myth would be written, especially allowing itself to be verified or disproved. But that is the trouble; biblical scholars and historians do claim to disprove the story as presented in both Luke and Matthew. Indeed, this particular text is considered the primary evidence that the birth story is fiction.

I will tell you now that I do not expect you to remember everything I say or to read the scholarly debates being carried on. But I do want you to know that, contrary to what you may see on TV specials or pick up on in news articles or are told by skeptical friends, there actually are many conservative Christian scholars trained even in the most liberal institutions who are engaged in these academic debates and research. Indeed, typically the more conservative scholars are leaders in archaeology, textual studies, and biblical history precisely because of their faith which leads them to the highest level of study. Let no one say to you that the debate over the credibility of the Bible is between scholars and the others who just have a "Sunday School" education.

Why do some scholars think Luke's story is fiction? Let me read the objections raised by the biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan.

(T)here are several problems with that story. First, there never was a worldwide census under the Emperor Augustus. Second, though there was indeed a local census when Quirinius was governor of Syria, it came about ten years after (italics his) the death of Herod the Great – who was supposedly still ruling when Jesus was born. Third, we know from taxation decrees in the Roman world that people were usually registered where they were living and working. They did not go back to their ancestral homes for registration and then return to their present homes for work. That would have been then, as today, a bureaucratic nightmare. It is a little sad to say this, because the story of the trip to Bethlehem and the birth in a manger is so beautiful and has inspired such a flowering of Western art, music,, and devotion. But the reality is that the journey for census and tax registration is sacred fiction, a creation of Luke's imagination in order to get Jesus' parents to Bethlehem for his birth. 1

Note, first of all, that our scholar does not dispute that Jesus was born in this time period. There used to be scholars accepted by mainstream liberal schools who argued either that Jesus did not exist at all or that if he did, we could not know when he lived. No credible scholar, liberal or conservative, disputes whether he lived, and most agree that he probably was born during the reign of Herod the Great, most likely between 10 and 4 B.C. Wait a minute; if B.C. means before Christ, how could that be? Is the Bible wrong? It has nothing to do with the Bible. It has to do with the mistake a monk made in the sixth century in developing the Christian calendar.

Both liberal and conservatives agree that Luke is correct in saying that Jesus was born to the reign of Augustus as Roman emperor and Herod the Great as king over Israel. Quirinius and the census are disputed. Consider again the objections: there was no worldwide census, Quirinius was not governor of Syria at the time, and people were not required to return to their hometowns to take a census. Luke struck out.

Or did he? Caesar Augustus is the emperor who succeeded Julius Caesar. He reigned for 41 years from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. Augustus was noted for restructuring the way the empire was managed. He instituted a system in the eastern provinces, which would have included Palestine, the created the position of governors. He resettled the Roman empire from being concentrated in Italy to being dispersed throughout the empire. One encyclopedia article notes that he instituted several general censuses. In the "Acts (or Achievements) of Augustus," the emperor lists his censuses of Roman citizens as among those achievements (see #8). Other censuses in the empire are documented. It seems quite credible that Luke is referring to a series of censuses conducted in the empire.

The real problem is not the question of whether a census was being conducted, but when it took place. There is documented a census that covered Palestine while Quirinius was indeed governor of Syria. The problem is that it is documented as taking place in 6 A.D., approximately a decade after Jesus' birth. In other words, it seems that Luke cannot say that Jesus was born while Herod was king and the Quirinius was governor in Syria at the same time. Several solutions are offered. One is that the Greek term for "first" ought to be translated "prior." Thus the text should read "the census before Quirinius was governor." Another is that the census of 6 A.D. was begun years earlier but completed during Quirinius' reign. That census is probably documented, by the way, because of a rebellion that broke out under Quirinius, which would also explain Luke connecting the census with his name. His contemporary readers would more easily be able to identify the census. Another idea: it is known that Quirinius was a military leader in the area during Herod's reign; it may well be that he was given responsibility for an earlier census. It may be that he was governor at an earlier period. For that matter, there may have been another governor named Quirinius. It is not improbable that there were earlier censuses. In Egypt, a census was being conducted every 14 years, which may well have been the case for Palestine. Thus, an earlier census that would have been in process at Jesus' birth is quite possible.

Then there is the matter of requiring people to return to their hometowns. This would be an unusual method of taking a census, and, indeed, it is not widely documented. But it is documented nevertheless. Such a census is documented in Egypt. Claude Nicolet in a 1991 study of the Roman empire, explains that Rome imposed on the provinces a census exactly on the place where each subject had his domus and then that the return to one's home became a regular procedure in all the Roman world.

All of these ideas, pro and con, are based on academic studies in language, ancient texts, and archaeology. What is critical in researching the issues is noting the dates when each author is writing. Why? Is the newer idea better? Not necessarily, but what sheds new light is research. Not all the relevant information may be collected. This is why it is critical for scholars, not only to be honest, but to be humble as well. In reading a series of communications among historians on this subject of census taking, they used words like "it seems," "unlikely," "perhaps." They are not so bold as our scholar to say "the reality is." I remember on my trip to the Holy Land visiting Jericho. The tour guide showed one site that had led to one interpretation regarding the wall of Jericho, and then noted how another archeologist's findings had led to another conclusion. He then warned us Christians of being too quick to turn to archaeology to prove the Bible because the conclusions of historical research can easily change depending upon new findings. That was good advice, but the principle also applies to critics who quickly dismiss biblical accountings based upon the latest research. Many biblical scholars have written whole books discrediting biblical records only to have their own works discredited by new archaeological findings. It was once contended that King David never existed, since there were no extrabiblical records of him. That idea has been laid to rest with the finding of a tablet bearing the name of King David. I saw it in Jerusalem's museum.

What would discredit Luke's account would be historical evidence that contradicts his reports. At the best, scholars can only say, it is not likely that he is correct. Now, I have not proved that Luke was correct; all I have done is demonstrate that he is credible, that historians have not convicted him beyond the shadow of a doubt. For skeptics, that may not be enough to convince them to believe Luke was correct. Perhaps in time more information will be discovered to make a convincing case; perhaps not. But it is enough for us to stand our ground. Christians are accused of being biased in our belief that Scripture does not err. That is true; we are biased. The Holy Spirit makes us that way. But the skeptics must also admit their own bias. When anyone says, "I have no reason to be biased," then immediately they ought to be suspect. Those who do not believe in the authority of the Bible have as strong a reason to dismiss the claims of Scripture as we do in affirming them, if only for the reason they do not want to be regarded as fools by the world.

Was Luke biased? Some claim that the reason Luke tosses in this story of Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem is to justify the prophecy that the Messiah would be born there. Jesus wasn't known as Jesus of Bethlehem. He was Jesus of Nazareth. So, he devises this story to get Jesus born in Bethlehem and then back to Nazareth. But if Luke really were trying to create a solution, he didn't need to come up with the census story, especially if it would have been improbable. Matthew doesn't bother mentioning it. Of course, Matthew is another case. He comes up with the fictional story of the Magi and the escape to Egypt to get the family over to Nazareth. That may be a creative idea, but it certainly is a complex scheme that is necessary. Simply say that the family moved. What seems more likely is that both men had records that they could not easily dismiss.

One point that liberal scholars make is that we are missing the message Luke is trying to teach. They claim that Luke is not concerned with getting Jesus' birth date pinned down, but with conveying a theological message. They are right to a degree. Luke has reasons beyond recording a background profile of Jesus, but it is obvious from his opening statement that being accurate matters to him: "since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught."

One writer says that if we could ask Luke about these events, he would reply that they were not true, but that we missed the point of what he wanted to make. I think Luke would reply, "Wait a minute. Don't dismiss my account so quickly. Here is what you do not know." Then he might go on to present why he did take time to tell the story of Jesus' birth.

Caesar Augustus was one of the great emperors of Rome. It was under him that the empire achieved stability and the Pax Romana began, i.e. the age of peace within the Roman empire. Consider this tribute written on a temple dedicated to him:

Whereas Providence…has…adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus…and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us one who has made war to cease and who shall put everything in order…with the result that the birthday of our God signaled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him…

Luke is saying that the one of whom he writes is the true God who signals the real Good News of peace with God and deliverance from sin. And the significance of locating Jesus' birth in history is to show how history led up to him and now springs from him.

In The Lord of the Rings, one character is facing terrible evil, and suddenly he looks at a star in the sky. "Like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now for a moment his own fate…ceased to trouble him…putting away all fear…"

The Shadow, as great and terrible as it was, was but a small chapter or perhaps a footnote in the book of time. But the birth and subsequent life of Jesus was just the opposite. His coming to earth dwarfed all events that had and would take place, not merely because it a "big" event, but it was the Event that fulfilled everything previous and gives meaning to everything else to come.

God the Son did come down to earth. He did enter human history. However insignificant it may have seemed at the time, it means everything now. And no apologies. No reserving a spot for his birth with faeries and mythological characters.

And if we take seriously the truth of Christ's birth, then we must take seriously the purpose of that birth. He did not become incarnate so that we might have occasion to feel sentimental once a year. The Christmas story is more than a story; it is the record of God intervening in human affairs to change the way humans live; it is the record of God reconciling men and women back to himself. It is the record of God intervening in our lives to change us. And this understanding is what unnerves even the best of scholars. It is unsettling to have the object of your research examining you. It takes courage to let one's findings lead you into giving up your life to become a devoted follower. It is fine to study history knowing that at it will do is influence ideas that you may have about life; it is another to realize that what you learn may make demands on you to give your life over to a higher power. The real truth behind the Christmas story is that it is a dangerous story to any who take it seriously. For it promises not warm sentimental feelings, but a call to deny oneself, take up a cross, and follow the Christ to wherever he leads.


  1. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus?, (New York: Harper, 1996), p. 23.
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