A Brief Comment on the Census in Luke 2

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Excerpt The issue of the Luke 2 census has been debated for decades, but there are solutions to the apparent Bible problem... Continue reading

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Recently, a seemingly dejected Christian wrote to ABR:

I recently came across your website and I love it. Could you possibly help me? At the college I work, a professor has stated that the Bible is not inerrant. Two examples he gives are; the calling of Belshazzar Nebuchadnezzer's son (instead of grand son), and the faulty date of Jesus birth at the time of the census in Luke. Can you give me any help with this?

Sadly and ironically, this college professor teaches at a school named after a historic figure in the history of the Church, who would be aghast at such assertions if he were alive today. The issue of the Luke 2 census has been debated for decades, but there are solutions to the apparent Bible problem.

First, we suggest picking up a copy of the NIV Archaeological Study Bible. This is a great resource for the church laymen, loaded with accurate and helpful archaeological data that enhances our understanding of the Scriptures. A quick perusal indicates that both of these issues are dealt with in the inserts. But that should just be a start. We advise all believers to take a deep breath and realize that what some professor says about the Bible is:

1. Most likely a faulty argument that has been handled and answered by Christian scholars.

2. If the issue remains unresolved, the skeptical argument is usually based on fallacious reasoning or incomplete and/or mis-interpreted extra-Biblical data.

3. Ultimately rooted in unbelief in God's sovereign ability to keep His revelation from being corrupted by errors or the person has a presupposition that rejects Inerrancy from the start, viewing all evidence through a prism of skepticism (Romans 1:17ff).

Steve Caesar adds these brief quotations from scholars who have researched this important subject:

Luke 2:1 “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”

Dr. John Elder notes that:

...archeological discoveries prove beyond doubt that regular enrollment of taxpayers was a feature of Ro­man rule and have shown that a census was taken every fourteen years. A large Egyptian papyrus, telling of an enrollment AD 174-175, refers to two previous enroll­ments, one in 160-161 and an­other in 146-147, at intervals of fourteen years. A much earlier papyrus, dated in the reign of Tiber­ius [14-37 AD] reports a man’s wife and dependents for enrollment and apparently has a reference to a tax roll compiled AD 20-21. Another shows an en­rollment under Nero AD 62-63; another lists those exempt from the poll tax in the forty-first year of Augustus, who began his reign in 27 BC. Since Augustus records that he set about early in his reign to organize the empire, the first census may have been either 23-22 BC or in 9-8 BC; the latter would be the census to which the Gospel of Luke refers. (Elder, J. 1960. Prophets, Idols, and Diggers. Indianapolis/New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., pp. 159-60).

Dr. Jack Finegan, professor of New Testament history and archaeology and director of the Palestine Institute of Archaeology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA, writes:

The question has been raised whether the Romans would have instituted census and taxation procedures in Palestine while Herod the Great was ruling as king of the Jews. That they would not have hesitated to do so is suggested by comparison with Apamea on the Orontes in Syria. The autonomy of this city-state is shown by the fact that it minted its own coins, yet Quirinius himself had a census taken there. A gravestone found in Venice carries the inscription of a Roman officer named Q. Aemilius Secundus. He states that by order of P. Sulpicius Quirinius, whom he calls legatus Caesaris Syriae, he himself conducted a census of Apamea, a city-state of 117,000 citizens. As for Herod, Josephus reports that in the time when Saturninus and Volumnius were the presidents of Syria, Caesar Augustus demoted him from ‘friend’ (φίλος= amicus) to ‘subject.’ Saturninus was listed above as governor of Syria in 9-6 BC, and Volumnius was evidently associated with him. By comparison with Apamea and specially from the time of Herod’s demotion by Augustus, Palestine would scarcely be exempt from any census and taxation procedures the Romans wished to institute. (Finegan, J. 1964. Handbook of Biblical Chronology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 237).

Luke 2:2 “(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)”

Archaeologist Dr. Clifford Wilson  writes:

[Critics] challenged the Bible’s claim that Quirinius [the Latin spelling of Cyrenius] was governor of Syria at the time. He was governor at the time of the census fourteen years later, in AD 6, but, it turns out that he was also a high official in central Asia Minor in 8 BC, actually being in charge of the Army in Syria. It appears that he was able to repulse a local uprising that proba­bly delayed the implementation of the poll tax in Syria for some time” (Wilson, C. 1980. Rocks, Relics and Biblical Reliability. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, p. 116).

Luke 2:3-5 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

Early in the twentieth century, a papyrus was discovered which contained an edict by G. Vibius Maximus, the Roman governor of Egypt, stating:

Since the enrollment by households is approaching, it is necessary to command all who for any reason are out of their own district to return to their own home, in order to perform the usual business of the taxation… (Cobern, C.M. 1929. The New Archeological Discoveries and their Bearing upon the New Testament. New York and London: Funk & Wagnalls, p. 47; Unger, M.F. 1962. Archaeology and the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, p. 64).

The same papyrus also confirms Luke’s assertion that a man had to bring his family with him when he traveled to his place of ancestry in order to be properly counted by the Roman authorities (Lk. 2:5). The document reads:

I register Pakebkis, the son born to me and my wife, Taas­ies and Taopis in the 10th year of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Imperator [Emperor], and request that the name of my aforesaid son Pakeb[k]is be entered on the list” (Boyd, R.T. 1991. World’s Bible Handbook. Grand Rapids, MI: World Publishing, p. 415).

This sheds light on why Joseph had to bring his highly pregnant wife along with him when he went to Bethle­hem. Such discoveries caused the late George A. Barton, Ph.D., Professor of Biblical Literature and Semitic Languages at Bryn Mawr and former Director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, to comment:

Luke’s statement, that Joseph went up from Nazareth to Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to enroll himself with Mary (Luke 2:4, 5), turns out to be in exact accord with the governmental regulations as we now know them from the papyri. (Barton, G.A. 1917. Archaeology and the Bible. Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, p. 435).

An additional point is the fact that the word “enrollment” in the edict of G. Vibius Maximus is apographe in Greek (the universal language of the eastern half of the Roman Empire). This is exactly the word used in Lk. 2:2, translated “taxing,” not in the sense of taxation but in the sense of enrolling or registering for taxation (Unger 1962: 64, n. 17).

I hope this helps---Steve Caesar

An article written for laymen that outlines some basic information surrounding the Luke 2 census can be found here:

Christian Answers.net: When Did the Luke 2 Census Occur?

And a more in-depth discussion can be found here: Once More: Quirinius' Census

2. Regarding Nebuchadnezzar, the answer is quite simple:

Daniel 5:2: “Belshazzar, while he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; that the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, might drink therein.”

Prof. R. K. Harrison of the University of Toronto notes:

The statement that Nebuchadnezzar was ‘father’ of Belshazzar reflects the common Semitic custom of employing the terms ‘son’ and ‘grandson’ interchangeably in family relationships. In this same connection it should be noted that Nitocris, mother of Belshazzar, was actually the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar. (Harrison, R.K. 1963. The Archaeology of the Old Testament. New York: Harper and Row, pp. 88-9).

Recommended Resources for Further Study
     

Archaeology and
the New Testament
 

50 Proofs for the NT

NIV Archaeological
Study Bible
 

  

 

Comments Comment RSS

10/27/2008 6:27 PM #

Nicely done.

David Hansen - 10/27/2008 6:27:43 PM

4/30/2009 11:31 AM #

Two things -
One, are there any secular sources that confirm each of these assertions for Luke 2:2, or any papyrus available online. While, I appreciate your throught answer most of your sources come from very Christian sources. Discussing with people who aren't Christians it helps to have less "Bias" (their words) resources.
Two, I have heard that the papyrus that told people to go home was only for Merchants not peasants.

Nate Hardee - 4/30/2009 11:31:41 AM

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