Monday, July 09, 2012

Responding to challenges to the historicity of Luke 2

Image:  A drawing taken from the Lapis Tiburtinus, which may well affirm the historicity of Luke 2:2's disputed reference to Cyrenius [Quirinius] as governor of Syria at the time of Jesus' birth.

Note:  I preached Sunday on The birth of Jesus from Luke 2:1-7.  In part of the message I addressed several challenges to the historical reliability [inerrancy] of Luke’s account, particularly in vv. 1-3.  Here are three excerpts from my notes from:  the introduction, the exposition of vv. 1-3, and the application:

The thing that is most striking about these verses is how Luke grounds the birth of Jesus in history.  The birth of Jesus is a historical fact.  It is not a myth.  It is not a fairy tale.  It does not require some “leap of faith.”  You may deny the claims Christ made of himself and you may deny the claims that his followers make of him, but you cannot deny that this man was born in Bethlehem and that he really lived and walked upon this earth.

Because the Bible as God’s divine revelation of himself has come under attack, the historical details of Luke’s account have likewise come under attack.  We will speak some of that today—perhaps more than we ordinarily do on such matters—because it is such a peculiarly important point specific to this passage.  I think in the end we will be able to conclude as the great Biblical historian A. T. Robertson did, after studying the challenges offered to our text, that, in the end, “Luke is shown to be the careful and accurate historian that he professed to be” (Luke the Historian, p. 129).

The final note in Luke 2:1 is that Caesar Augustus decreed “that all the world [this would mean the entire Roman world] should be taxed [the verb is apographo, to be registered or enrolled]. ”  This is the first fact of the story that some non-believing scholars have challenged.  The challenge is this, they say, we have no extra-biblical account of such a decree being issued by Caesar Augustus at this time.

The first thing we need to understand here are the limits of our knowledge of ancient history.  Records were not kept in the way that modern records are kept, and many of the records that were kept have been lost forever.  We know of many ancient books by various ancient authors, for example, only by their titles, the works themselves being completely lost.  We have many gaps in our understanding of Roman history.  I just started reading a book by the historian Adrian Goldsworthy on the fall of Rome (How Rome Fell [Yale University Press, 2009]).  In one of the opening chapters, Goldsworthy notes:  “There is a good deal that we simply cannot know about the history of the Roman Empire in the third and later centuries [the time period his book is focused upon].  To a greater or lesser extent this is true of most periods of ancient history” (p. 25). 

We might add that though we might not have extra-biblical references to this specific “census”, we do, however, have accounts of Roman Emperors conducting registrations like the one mentioned.  The Romans typically did this for one of two purposes:  (1) to have a list of men who could be drafted into military service; and (2) to have a list of people to tax.  Given that the Jews were exempt from military service in the Roman army, the purpose of this registration was most likely, as our translation indicates, for the purpose of taxing.

Finally, we might add that we do, in fact, have a reliable record of this registration that proves it did happen.  That is the record of the Gospel of Luke.

In v. 2 there is another very specific historical tag mentioned by Luke:  “(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius [alternate spelling:  Quirinius] was governor of Syria.)”  Now most of us believers read this verse, and we just accept it as truth, because it is in the Gospel.  But this is a verse that the skeptics of the Scriptures love, because they claim that it provides an example of what they see as a historical error.  From sources outside the Bible, like Josephus, we know that there was a Roman leader named Publius Sulpicus Quirinius who served as the Roman governor or Syria from 6-9 A. D. and that a census was performed under his administration in 6 A. D.  Here is the perceived problem:  The birth of Jesus is presented as occurring in Luke at least ten years before this time.  Why do I say that?  Because according to Luke 1:5 the birth of John and the birth of Jesus took place during the rule of “Herod, the king of Judea.”  This would be Herod the Great, who Matthew also tells us massacred the innocents, in his mad attempt to snuff out the life of Jesus (see Matt 2).  Here is the historical rub.  We know from extra-biblical sources that Herod died in 4 B. C.  This means that Jesus was most likely born c. 6 B. C.  BTW, the Bible nowhere tells us precisely the date of Christ’s birth.

How do we reconcile this seeming inconsistency (Jesus born c. 6 B. C., Quirinius governor of Syria c. 6 A. D.)?  Here we need to remember that any inconsistency we think we see in Scripture is only an apparent inconsistency.  Our inability to understand or reconcile facts is due to our limitations and not the Scriptures.  Faithful men have, in fact, found various solutions to this problem.  I think the most likely of these is the possibility that Quirinius served two terms in leadership in the Roman province of Syria.  The second was from 6-9 AD, but the first of these was earlier at the time of the birth of Jesus.  Some historians, in fact, argue that Quirinius shared the governing duties of Syria with a man named Vallus at the time of Christ’s birth.  Here’s the really interesting thing:  In the year 1764 they uncovered a marble slab in a place called Tibur (it is referred to as the Lapis Tiburtinus, or “stone of Tibur”) in which there is an inscription mentioning a Roman who served twice (Latin iterum) as legate in Syria.  Various Christian scholars have convincingly argued that this reference is to Quirinius, thereby verifying the historical accuracy of Luke 2:2.

Let’s move on to v. 3 where Luke adds, “And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.”  This is yet another place in Luke’s account where some scholars have cried foul.  They point out that we have no evidence that the Romans ever required this kind of registration in one’s ancestral home.  I have even read modern scholars, like Bart Ehrman, who claim that it is illogical to think that people would be able to trace their ancestral homeland after gaps of hundreds if not thousands of years.  That might be true of modern people, but we must remember that first century Hebrews were not modern people.  Paul, for example, was proud of the fact that he was from the tribe of Benjamin (see Phil 3). And we can rest assured that both Joseph and, I believe, Mary also, knew they were from the house of David.  As with our last example, here is another place where historical discovery has served to support the reliability of Scripture.  In the year 1910 the respected scholar Adolph Deissmann published an edict he uncovered in Egypt that came from Maximus, the Roman governor of Egypt, in the year 104 A D in which he required an enrollment of the population at the ancestral homes, just the type that Luke records.

Here is how A. T. Robertson sums things up:

Every statement made by Luke in 2:1-7 was once challenged.  Every one is now shown to be correct (Harmony of the Gospels, p. 265).

For all these years the record in Luke 2:1-7 has stood all by itself, the butt of ridicule by historians and theologians.  Now the rubbish heaps of Egypt and the stones of Asia Minor cry aloud in support of the narrative.  The enemies of Luke are put to rout (Luke the Historian, p. 129).


In the end I might take us back to some of the things we worked though in the beginning of the message, namely, the trustworthiness of the historical record in Luke.  I hope we are reminded today that we can trust God’s word.  Well has it been said that the Scriptures are an anvil that has broken many a hammer.  I hope we are reminded today that when we meet any challenge to God’s word or when any apparent discrepancy is raised that we will trust the power of God’s word.  Given enough time and enough knowledge we will find no conflicts of any significance.

The Scriptures are like a life line.  If you were drowning and I were to throw you a line would you want one made of a strong, sturdy rope or metal cable or would you want a line thrown to you made of tissue paper?  In the recent storm I heard of trees falling and even snapping strong cables and power lines.  But nothing can break the power of God’s word.  Read it.  Hear it.  Trust it. Grasp it.  And by laying hold of it, you will find that you are laying hold of Christ.


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