Is Luke's claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem at the time of the census during Quirinius' governorship historically accurate?
Certain scholars believe the Gospel of Luke is inaccurate based on his detail that Quirinius and Herod were in power at the same time and his mention of a census, which is difficult to identify in other historical records. Publius Sulpicius Quirinius is known from history as the governor of Syria beginning in AD 6, long after Herod's death in 4 BC. Is it true that Luke made a historical mistake in his writing?
While this is the position taken by some scholars, other options need to be considered. One possibility is that Luke's word "first" in the phrase "the first census" (Luke 2:2) can be translated as "before." In that case, Luke refers to a census before Quirinius was the governor of Syria. However, many Greek scholars see this as unlikely due to grammatical reasons.
Another, much more probable option is based on the historical likelihood that Quirinius was ruler of Syria on two separate occasions. This first census may have taken place during his first time as governor. Further, the Greek word translated "governor" is a general word that could apply to another governing role held by Quirinius during the time Herod was alive (c. 6—4 BC). There is a stone fragment, known as the Tivoli inscription, discovered in 1764 near Rome that bears this out, mentioning a Roman official who ruled Syria and Phoenicia twice under Augustus. Many scholars believe Quirinius is the official in the inscription. If so, the narrative in Luke 2 is set in Quirinius's first term as governor, while Herod the Great was still alive.
While skeptics claim that Luke 2:2 is "proof" of a biblical inaccuracy, the extra-biblical historical evidence is inconclusive on this matter. The Bible itself provides historical information beyond what is available in other sources of written history.
Luke's purpose for writing his Gospel was to provide "an orderly account" of the events surrounding Jesus's life, and he did so by "carefully investigat[ing] everything from the beginning" (Luke 1:3 NIV). Archaeology has proved Luke to be a first-rate historian. Sir William M. Ramsey, a noted archaeologist, studied Luke's New Testament writings and proclaimed them to be "unsurpassed in trustworthiness." The idea that Luke, a meticulous writer whose facts are substantiated by modern archaeology, could have made such an egregious mistake in the timing of Quirinius's rule is implausible in the extreme.
For the person who acknowledges the accuracy and inspiration of Scripture, Luke's mention of Quinirius presents no problem. It is important to acknowledge the uncertainty involved, yet it is just as important not to jump to the conclusion that the Bible is inaccurate simply because the full historical background of the matter is unknown.
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