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.

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“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!

“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.

Summaries and expanded discussions of Bible Secrets Revealed Episodes 1-4 available at Bible History Daily

Bible History Daily
I have provided episode summaries of History‘s documentary series “Bible Secrets Revealed” episodes 1-4 at the Bible History Daily website. I’ve also included expanded discussions of many specific issues, as well as answers to many questions posed by Biblical Archaeology Society readers.

The discussions range from the origin of Jesus’ title “Son of Man”, to the origin of the virgin conception of Jesus, to how translators of the Bible fixed the problem of who really killed Goliath.

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

The summaries are here:

Episode 1: Lost in Translation

Episode 2: The Promised Land

Episode 3: Forbidden Scriptures

Episode 4: The Real Jesus

I shall be providing a summary for Episode 5: Mysterious Prophecies soon, and will do the same for Episode 6: Sex and the Scriptures once it airs.

I may also pull some excerpts from those discussions and repost them here on occasion in order to highlight certain points and promote discussion.

Enjoy!

Credits for “Bible Secrets Revealed” – Wednesdays at 10/9c on History

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

Below is the credit sequence for “Bible Secrets Revealed” on History.

I am pleased to serve as Consulting Producer on the show, but am equally proud of the work done by one of my students (and 2x Azekah archaeological excavation alum), Sanna Miller, a phenomenal artist who possesses an inexplicably keen eye for all things fascinating, as well as the contributions made by my colleagues in Israel at the Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University, and my good friend Dr. Oded Lipschits.

And of course, Executive Producer Frankie Glass is simply a tremendous professional, with whom I am always pleased to work.

Don’t miss the next episode of Bible Secrets Revealed, “The Promised Land“, which debuts on History on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 at 10pm/9c.

Share your comments on Twitter with the hashtag #BibleSecretsRevealed. And feel free to submit questions to Bible History Daily, where I’ll be answering some of your questions throughout the remainder of the series.

Credits for "Bible Secrets Revealed" on HistoryCredits for "Bible Secrets Revealed" on HistoryCredits for "Bible Secrets Revealed" on HistoryCredits for "Bible Secrets Revealed" on HistoryCredits for "Bible Secrets Revealed" on HistoryCredits for "Bible Secrets Revealed" on HistoryCredits for "Bible Secrets Revealed" on HistoryCredits for "Bible Secrets Revealed" on HistoryCredits for "Bible Secrets Revealed" on HistoryCredits for "Bible Secrets Revealed" on HistoryCredits for "Bible Secrets Revealed" on HistoryCredits for "Bible Secrets Revealed" on HistoryCredits for "Bible Secrets Revealed" on HistoryCredits for "Bible Secrets Revealed" on HistoryCredits for "Bible Secrets Revealed" on HistoryCredits for "Bible Secrets Revealed" on History

Robert Cargill on Iowa Public Radio’s “River to River” with Ben Kieffer tomorrow

Iowa Public Radio mugTomorrow (Nov. 12, 2013) at noon central, I’ll be the guest on Iowa Public Radio’s “River to River” program with Ben Kieffer discussing the forthcoming “Bible Secrets Revealed” documentary on History, and Iowa’s new Study Abroad summer archaeology program in Tel Azekah, Israel.

Be sure to tune in. You can stream it online from their website.

And since I just got my new IPR mug in the mail (my free gift for contributing to the fall IPR member drive), I may need to look around and find another one to make a matching pair.

And tune in to “Bible Secrets Revealed” on History Nov 13, 2013 at 10/9c. The series airs every Wednesday for the next six weeks.

Live tweet your comments and feedback with the hashtag #BibleSecretsRevealed.

Iowa City Press-Citizen reports on the making of “Bible Secrets Revealed” for History

University of Iowa assistant professor Robert Cargill is pictured in his office this week. Cargill, an archaeologist and biblical scholar, is a consulting producer and appears on a six-part History Channel series that debuts next week. / Josh O'Leary / Iowa City Press-Citizen

University of Iowa assistant professor Robert Cargill is pictured in his office this week. Cargill, an archaeologist and biblical scholar, is a consulting producer and appears on a six-part History Channel series that debuts next week. / Josh O’Leary / Iowa City Press-Citizen

The Iowa City Press-Citizen has a front page story today on my role in the History channel’s newest six-part documentary series, “Bible Secrets Revealed,” which begins airing Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 10/9c.

Josh O’Leary, a reporter for the Press-Citizen, authored a story which touched on many rather personal aspects of my life, including my childhood, my time in Los Angeles, and my work in television and archaeology. Many thanks to him for the interview and article.

The story also includes a video clip where I (and my Movember beard, which raises awareness for prostate cancer and other men’s health issues) share a few comments about the making of the documentary series.

For more about the documentary, read here and here and here and here and here.

And don’t miss episode one of “Bible Secrets Revealed: Lost in Translation,” which begins airing Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 10/9c.

And tweet your comments live with the hashtag #BibleSecretsRevealed.

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