Luke 2:1—Did Luke make a mistake when he mentioned a worldwide census under Caesar Augustus?

Problem: Luke refers to a worldwide census under Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. However, according to the annals of ancient history, no such census took place.

Solution: Until recently, it has been widely held by critics that Luke made an error in his assertion about a registration under Caesar Augustus, and that the census actually took place in a.d. 6 or 7, (that is mentioned by Luke in Gamaliel’s speech recorded in Acts 5:37). The lack of any extra-biblical support has led some to claim this is an error. However, recent scholarship has reversed this trend, and it is now widely admitted that there was in fact an earlier registration as Luke records. This has been asserted on the basis of several factors.

First of all, since the people of a subjugated land were compelled to take an oath of allegiance to the emperor, it was not unusual for the emperor to require an imperial census as an expression of this allegiance and as a means of enlisting men for military service, or, as was probably true in this case, in preparation to levy taxes. Because of the strained relations between Herod and Augustus in the later years of Herod’s reign, as the Jewish historian Josephus reports, it is understandable that Augustus would begin to treat Herod’s domain as a subject land, and consequently would impose such a census to maintain control of Herod and the people.

Second, periodic registrations of this sort took place on a regular basis every 14 years. According to the very papers that recorded the censuses, (see W.M. Ramsay, Was Christ Born in Bethlehem? 1898), there was in fact a census taken in about 8 or 7 b.c. Because of this regular pattern of census taking, any such action would naturally be regarded as a result of the general policy of Augustus, even though a local census may have been instigated by a local governor. Therefore, Luke recognizes the census as stemming from the decree of Augustus.

Third, a census was a massive project which probably took several years to complete. Such a census for the purpose of taxation was begun in Gaul between 10–9 b.c. that took a period of 40 years to complete. It is quite likely that the decree to begin the census, in about 8 or 7 b.c., may not have actually begun in Palestine until some time later. Problems of organization and preparation may have delayed the actual census until 5 b.c. or even later.

Fourth, it was not an unusual requirement that people return to the place of their origin, or to the place where they owned property. A decree of C. Vibius Mazimus in a.d. 104 required all those who were away from their home towns to return there for the purpose of the census. For the Jews, such travel would not have been unusual at all since they were quite used to the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There is simply no reason to suspect Luke’s statement regarding the census at the time of Jesus’ birth. Luke’s account fits the regular pattern of census taking, and its date would not be an unreasonable one. Also, this may have been simply a local census that was taken as a result of the general policy of Augustus. Luke simply provides us with a reliable historical record of an event not otherwise recorded. Since Dr. Luke has proven himself to be a reliable historian in other matters (see Sir William Ramsey, St. Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen, 1896), there is no reason to doubt him here (see also comments on Luke 2:2).

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.