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When Did the Luke 2 Census Occur? Resolving Bible Difficulties, Part 3
by Daryl E. Witmer
EDITOR’S NOTE: This month’s issue of the Proclamation features the third in a three-part series of articles on reasonable solutions to difficult Bible texts. There are many alleged discrepancies in Scripture but, given the right resources, we are convinced that there are sensible ways to unravel every one of them. This series has cited three such challenges, the respective solutions, a few key principles for tackling Bible difficulties in general, and a number of helpful resources.
Today there are a number of reasons for giving Dr. Luke the benefit of the doubt. Over and over (in references to 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 islands) he has proven himself to be a reliable historian, as demonstrated by famed scholar and archaeologist, Sir William Ramsey.
To date, the only documented census (enrollment prior to taxation) under Quirinius is the one referred to by the historian Josephus (Antiq. XVIII, 26 [ii. 1]), which he says took place in 6 A.D.
But notice that Luke 2:2 says that the census taken around the time Joseph and Mary went down to Bethlehem was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. This implies that there was a later census – most likely the one referred to by Josephus – which Dr. Luke would have also certainly known about.
There is good reason to believe that Quirinius was actually twice in a position of command (the Greek expression hegemoneuo in Luke 2:2 which is often translated “governor” really just means “to be leading” or “in charge of”) over the province of Syria, which included Judea as a political subdivision. The first time would have been when he was leading military action against the Homonadensians during the period between 12 and 2 B.C. His title may even have been “military governor.”
A Latin inscription discovered in 1764 adds weight to the idea that Quirinius was in a position of authority in Syria on two separate occasions. There was definitely a taxing during this time and therefore, quite possibly, an associated census, the details of which may have been common knowledge in Luke’s time but are now lost to us.
Scholars have advanced a number of other altogether viable explanations which would allow Luke’s record (and therefore the Bible) to continue to be regarded as 100% trustworthy.
RELEVANT PRINCIPLES FOR DEALING WITH BIBLE DIFFICULTIES
One factor behind a number of Bible texts that may seem confusing is the matter of copyist errors. When evangelical Christians claim that the Bible is inerrant, the claim is always that it is inerrant in the original writings, not that the scribes who tediously copied the long manuscripts in conditions that were often less than ideal always did their work error-free.
In the Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Dr. Gleason Archer catalogs a number of common errors that occurred
• Haplography – writing once what should have been written twice.
• Dittography – writing twice what should have been written once.
• Metathesis – an inadvertent exchange in the proper order of certain letters or words.
• Fusion – combining the last letter of a word with the first letter of the following word, or combining two words into one.
• Fission – the improper separation of one word into two words.
• Homophony – confusing two words that sound alike.
There are five other such type errors but fortunately, by careful study and comparison with other manuscripts, scholars like Dr. Archer have been able to unravel every difficult text in a manner which leaves the doctrine of Bible inerrancy fully intact.
HERE ARE TWO MORE HELPFUL RESOURCES
• The Quest Study Bible, editor Marshall Shelley, ©1994 Zondervan
• The Defender’s Study Bible, editor H. Morris, ©1995 World Publishing