The Problems with the Census in Luke’s Gospel

Jesus his life Poster-Art-768x1152In the episode of Joseph in the series Jesus: His Life, which airs Monday, March 25, 2019 on History, I make a reference to the problematic census in the Gospel of Luke that biblical scholars have wrestled with for at least a century.

Luke 2:1-3 reads:

(1) In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. (2) This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. (3) All went to their own towns to be registered.

There are a couple of problems with the census.

First, Quirinius and Herod the Great did not rule at the same time. Herod the Great died in 4 BCE. (If that fact alone causes you some hesitation—the fact that Jesus would have been born 4 to 7 years before Christ (BC)— please read my 2009 article, Why Christians Should Adopt the BCE/CE Dating System, which explains why this is the case.) Anyway, Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, and yet Publius Sulpicius Quirinius wasn’t appointed as the governor of Syria until 6 CE, that is, after Herod the Great’s son, Archelaus, was banished as ruler of Judea.

What does this mean? It means that Quirinius didn’t rule until until 10 years after Herod the Great had died! This means there is no way that Quirinius could have called a census while Herod the Great was king–Herod had been dead for a decade! And this means that Jesus couldn’t have been born during the reign of Herod the Great and in Bethlehem because of the census of Quirinius! The chronology is off by a decade.

There is a second problem with the census in Luke 2. Simply put, Romans did not require subjects to return to their ancestral homes to be counted, rather their made them return to their present homes. To explain this, I’ll refer you to what I wrote on pg. 230 of my 2016 book, The Cities That Built the Bible:

First, censuses were taken for the purpose of taxation. Although there are certainly literary records of censuses taking place throughout the Roman Empire at this time, [12] there is no evidence that those who were being counted were required to travel to their ancestral hometowns in order to be counted. Indeed, an Egyptian census edict of Gaius Vibius Maximus, the Roman prefect of Egypt from 103 to 107, did require that “all persons who for any reason whatsoever are absent from their home districts be alerted to return to their own hearths, so that they may complete the customary formalities of registration and apply themselves to the farming for which they are responsible.”[13]

Although this edict of Gaius Vibius Maximus does mention a return home for the purposes of taxation, residents were not required to return to their ancestral homes, but to their present homes, so that both people and assets could be assessed for purposes of taxation. Essentially you couldn’t be “out of town” when the government came to take the census and collect taxes. Indeed, traveling to one’s ancestral home would not allow pilgrims to “apply themselves to the farming for which they are responsible.” Rather, residents under Roman rule were to go to their present homes so that they and their possessions could be counted and taxed. Luke further strains credulity by arguing that the nine-months-pregnant Mary would have made the arduous three-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Thus, any registration would have required Joseph and his family to return to their present homes to be counted, and Jesus’s present home was in Nazareth, not Bethlehem.

[12] Josephus, Antiquities 17.13.5 (17:354); 18.1.1 (18:1–2).

[13] Lewis, Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule, 156. The census edict of Gaius Vibius Maximus of 104 CE from Alexandria is written on papyrus and cataloged as P.London 904 in the British Museum. See also Hunt and Edgar, Select Papyri.

Essentially, we don’t have evidence that subjects of ancient Rome were required to return to their ancestral homes for counting and taxation purposes. Returning to an ancestral home actually defeated the purpose—all a subject’s property would still be back in their present home. The Romans wanted to see who was in each present household and what they owned so they could tax it.

Rather, Luke used this chronologically-challenged census as a literary device to bring Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem temporarily so that Jesus could be born there, as Luke depicts Joseph and Mary as living in Nazareth both before and after his birth.

Remember, this is different from the birth narrative in the Gospel of Matthew, which depicts Joseph and Mary as already living in Bethlehem, and Jesus simply being born at home. Note, there is no mention of Nazareth (or a census for that matter) prior to Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew’s Gospel, the star appears, and the magi begin their trek from the east to Bethlehem. They stop to speak to Herod the Great on the way. This all takes some time, and is not congruent with a short, temporary stay in a guesthouse.

These are two problems with the census in Luke 2. Quirinius and Herod the Great didn’t rule at the same time so Jesus couldn’t have been born during both of their rules, and Romans didn’t require their subjects to return to their ancestral homes to be counted.

“Jesus: His Life” to premiere on History Mon. March 25, 2019, 8/7c

Jesus his life

Jesus: His Life is an epic eight-episode series following Jesus’ life from before birth to after his resurrection. Each episode tells the extraordinary story of Jesus through the eyes of those closest to him. These various first-person points of view allow viewers of the program to discover Jesus as both his disciples and detractors discovered him, and to witness these individuals as they wrestled with whether or not to believe this teacher from Nazareth’s message and who he was claiming to be.

The show premieres Monday, March 25 at 8/7c on History. History will air two episodes of Jesus: His Life back-to-back on each of the following nights:

Monday, March 25 @ 8/7c — Joseph: The Nativity and John the Baptist: The Mission
Monday, April 1 @ 8/7c
Monday, April 8 @ 8/7c
Monday, April 15 @ 8/7c

You can watch trailers and a sneak peek of the first episode at History.com.

You can also follow the show on social media at the following locations:

Facebook: Facebook.com/HISTORY
Twitter: #JesusHisLife
Instagram: @History

Please tune in!

Let’s Talk about Roseanne and Respecting the National Anthem

OK, let’s talk about respecting the National Anthem and our flag. Let’s do so in the context of what happened to Roseanne Barr yesterday, who was fired from her eponymous ABC television show for a racist tweet mocking the appearance of former Obama administration official Valerie Jarrett, an African-American woman.

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Here’s my question: Have any of these kneeling NFL football players ever desecrated the National Anthem mockingly like Roseanne Barr, then grabbed their crotches and then spit? Watch the video below.

Until Trump supporters condemn Roseanne–which conservative Christians did en masse back in 1990 when the show was considered to vulgar and un-Christian to watch, unlike many of today’s Trump-endorsing conservative Christians, who see only politics–until they condemn Roseanne for her desecration of the National Anthem, they should shut up about NFL player protesting, silently and peacefully, the unequal treatment of African-Americans in this country at the hands of certain law enforcement officials.

Don’t Miss “Surviving Exodus” on all Discovery networks, Thurs, Dec 4, 2014 at 8/7c

Surviving Exodus on Discovery ChannelIf we were to set aside the fact that there is no archaeological evidence of the Exodus (early or late), and that there are internal chronological discrepancies within the biblical accounts of the Exodus, we can still ask the question: what would it be like to experience the literary account of the Ten Plagues?

The answer to this question will be explored on the new documentary special, “Surviving Exodus“, which will air Thursday, December 4, 2014 at 8pm eastern / 7pm central on all Discovery network channels simultaneously. That’s right, Discovery Channel, Science, The Learning Channel, Animal Planet, American Heroes Channel, and Investigation Discovery will all be airing the documentary simultaneously at 8/7c.

Discovery’s description reads as follows:

“Exodus is one of the greatest stories of all time, and Ridley Scott turned it into an epic movie. Now Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) and a team of experts and scientists are going to experience the Ten Plagues and the parting of the Red Sea first hand.”

Others appearing in the show include Terry Schappert, Dave Salmoni, Hakeem Oluseyi, and yours truly.

In fact, Science will be airing episodes of a previous documentary series I worked with, “Biblical Mysteries Explained”, before and after “Surviving Exodus”.

7:00 PM – Biblical Mysteries Explained: Exodus
Biblical Mysteries Explained examines the Exodus. Is there any truth to this tale of plagues, parting of the Red Sea, and a man named Moses? New scientific theories will be examined that support the extraordinary tale of Exodus.

8:00 PM – Surviving Exodus

9:00 PM – Biblical Mysteries Explained: Lost Gospels
Biblical Mysteries Explained examines the lost books of the Bible. We’ll travel from the desert of Egypt to the labs of the Smithsonian Institution to uncover the secrets of the banned gospels of Mary Magdalene, Peter the Apostle, and Judas Iscariot.

10:00 PM – Biblical Mysteries Explained: Sodom and Gomorrah
Biblical Mysteries Explained examines the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah. Could their destruction be linked to evidence of an ancient asteroid strike?

So if you were thinking to yourself, “Man, I could go for 4 hours of Cargill on TV tonight,” you’re in luck. ;-)

It’s a fun concept. Tune in and watch.

“Bible Secrets Revealed” Marathon to Re-Air on Friday, April 18, 2014

"Bible Secrets Revealed" Title Image (Courtesy Prometheus Entertainment)

Bible Secrets Revealed will be re-airing in marathon format on Friday, April 18, 2014 on History.

Here are the titles and times from the schedule:

The Forbidden Scriptures – 08:00-09:00 AM ET
Lost in Translation – 09:00-10:00 AM ET
The Promised Land – 10:00-11:00 AM ET
Mysterious Prophecies – 11:00-12:00 PM ET
Sex and the Scriptures – 12:00-01:00 PM ET
The Real Jesus – 01:00-02:00 PM ET

For the names of the scholars appearing in each of the episodes, and for more information about the program in general, visit the Bible Secrets Revealed IMDB page.

And visit Bible History Daily to read further in-depth discussion about the topics raised in each episode.

No, no, you DIDN’T find the Holy Grail

I was interviewed as part of a story this morning on Good Morning America (Twitter) about recent sensational claims about the “discovery” of the Holy Grail in Spain. Yes…that Holy Grail.

ABC’s Paula Faris highlighted the claim made by two Spanish historians. Video is here.

Two historians, Margarita Torres and Jose Manuel Ortega del Rio, authors of the book, “Kings of the Grail,” claim a jewel-encrusted goblet, which has been inside the San Isidoro Basilica, in Leon, Spain, for the last 1,000 years, is the Holy Grail. And just in time for Easter (and I’m guessing a planned renovation of the church in which the cup was ‘discovered’).

Because Jesus was all about golden, jewel encrusted bling. Right?

Of course, claiming to find the Holy Grail is as silly as other pseudoarchaeological claims, like purporting to find the nails of the cross, pieces of the true cross, the Ark of the Covenant, Noah’s Ark, the route of the Exodus, Atlantis, and Jesus’ family tomb. These are fools errands and the realm of the sensationalized absurd.

I’ll be appearing tonight on a segment with Megan Alexander (Twitter | Web ) for Inside Edition (Twitter) on this supposed discovery of the Holy Grail. The segment should air tonight. Thanx Megan and Tyler for the smooth setup and interview!

[UPDATE: Here is Megan Alexander’s interview with me on the “discovery” of the supposed Holy Grail. And, Inside Edition was good enough to post a 3 min. extended clip from our interview on their website. Thanx to Megan!]

And if you’re interested in doing REAL archaeology, join us at Tel Azekah, where you can dig (and smash) to your heart’s content.

 

 

 

Episode Six of Bible Secrets Revealed – “Sex and the Scriptures” – airs today at noon/11 central

Don’t miss episode 6 of the six-part series “Bible Secrets Revealed” on History.

The final installment, entitled “Sex and the Scriptures“, debuts today, January 23, 2014 at noon/11 c. (And fair warning: it pulled a TV14 S-D rating.)

The episode explores:

“Millions of people around the world look to the Bible for moral guidance about marriage, faith and family. But could the Bible contain contradictions, or hidden meanings, that challenge our beliefs about what is right–and what is wrong–when it comes to human sexuality?”

If you missed the first five episodes, you can watch them for free online at History‘s “Bible Secrets Revealed” website.

Remember to tweet your feedback with the hashtag #BibleSecretsRevealed.

And send your questions to Bible History Daily, where I’ll be answering some of them and providing more in depth explanations of the material covered in the show.

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