Thursday, February 17, 2011

Interpretive Gymnastics: A look at the problem of Quirinius ' census

Those familiar with the story of Jesus' birth are also familiar with the opening lines in Luke 2:1-2"In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all world should be registered. This was the first census and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria." Luke's statement about the census is intended to explain why Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

The problem, as many New Testament scholars know, is that Luke's dating of the census is off by about ten years. We know from Josephus that Quirinius and Herod the Great are not contemporaries in Judea. Quirinius became governor of Syria and Judea in 6 0r 7 AD in order to facilitate the banishment of Herod the Great's son, Archelaus, who had been ruling since his father's death in 4 BC (Ant. 18). Quirinius was responsible for the transition from local, client king rule to direct Roman rule, of which Pilate is a representative. Thus it seems Luke has confused his facts. And many New Testament scholars acknowledge this. Some use it as "proof" that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, but I am not sure that we can or should dismiss that identification out of hand.

Nonetheless, some New Testament scholars try to explain away what is a clear confusion of the facts. For instance, I ran across a video clip (below) of Darrell Bock on the Ehrman Project, where he attempts to reconcile the incongruities between Luke and history.

Bock admits that the date is a problem. He also acknowledges that Augustus did not institute a worldwide census, thus the picture Luke contrives of the whole Roman world moving around to be counted is not an accurate reflection of what really happened.

Instead, Bock suggests that the census began to get organized in 4 BCE, but was not actually executed until the time of Quirinius in 6 AD. Bock suggests that it was a long ten year process and that although Quirinius did not start the process he became associated with it since he completed and presented it to Rome in 6 AD. In Bock's defense, he does then concede that it is possible that Luke got it wrong.

I have a lot of respect for Darrell Bock and his work, especially in the area of the historical Jesus. But I am not sure that his solution is all that helpful. His answer may be plausible, and I would not dismiss it out of hand, except that Luke confuses his historical facts elsewhere. Luke refers to real, verifiable persons and events, but then seems to mix up the chronology.

The best example of this comes from Luke's second volume, Acts. In Acts 5:35-37 Gamaliel gives a speech in which he refers to two historical figures, Theudas and Judas the Galilean. Here is what Luke has Gamaliel say:

Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. (NIV)

The problem, once again, is that although Luke has his names correct, his dates are wrong. The problem is twofold. First of all, we know from Josephus that Theudas did lead a rebellion and was executed, but that happened in 44 AD, about ten years after the time of the Gamaliel speech (Ant. 20.97-98). A similar problem is connected with Judas. Luke is correct in that Judas did lead a rebellion against the census, the one instituted by Quirinius in fact. But that was in 6 AD. This means that Judas' rebellion was 30 to 40 years before Theudas not after as Luke has Gamaliel claim. Luke has his people right, but his dates wrong.

It is, of course, possible that Josephus is also wrong and that our sources are not sufficient enough to make any firm conclusions. I suppose the reason why I stick with Josephus in this case is because his program in the Jewish War and Antiquities is all about detailing the actions of people like Judas and Theudas. Luke, on the other hand, grabs onto those events as a way to anchor his story about Jesus and the church in history. So while both Luke and Josephus are questionable sources at times, I am thinking about the author's motive for recounting the events they choose to include. Luke’s purpose is not to tell us about Theudas and Judas but Jesus and the church.

The best way to handle these problems, in my opinion, is to recognize that Luke is not a historian, at least not in a 21st century sense, and to stop trying to make his historical facts work when they don't. Luke's works do contain a lot of history, but he uses it to support his overall theological agenda. Luke does use sources and at times he does so in creative ways. His purpose does not seem to a writing of history in the way that we understand history. Rather, Luke wants to convey the significance of Jesus and the early church within the context of history. Thus we need not approach Luke like a history textbook, but as a book that explains the theological significance of Jesus and the church within a particular historical setting.

Again, I have a lot of respect for Darrell Bock, but I don't think this kind of exegesis is helpful since it perpetuates a misguided approach to interpretation. I am not a minimalist and put more trust in the NT authors than some may think. But I think by standing on our heads to make Luke's "history" work fails to appreciate his larger theological program.

Here is the video clip. Let me know what you think.


  1. We have good evidence that Luke was a resident of Antioch. If Luke's intended audience was also in Syria, then the reference to Quirinius being Governor of Syria might well have served to tie the narrated events into historical events known particularly to the Syrian audience. In that case the time interval between the census in Judea and the census in Syria would matter less.

    John, I do not share your assumptions about a dichotomy between history and theology. The argument that says that Luke is interested in theology therefore his work is not history - has never persuaded me.

    I agree that the Quirinius problem and the Theudas problem are the strongest arguments against the historcity of Acts. However, we should not build too much on these two cases, since there are numerous cases where it can be shown that Luke IS being historical.

    In his Act commentary Bock suggests that there may have been two Theudas's. Here we must reckon with the possibility that the later Theudas took the name of the earlier Theudas. Also, since the name probably meant "gift of God", it would be an appropriate name for these prophets to take. These points change the odds.

    John, you seem to imply that Luke makes two mistakes in Acts 4:36. Surely it is only Theudas that needs to be explained, no?

  2. Another possibility, though rarely acknowledged, is that Josephus may have gotten certain details wrong.

  3. Richard,

    Thanks for the comments. I am not trying to suggest a dichotomy between theology and history, although I see why it would seem that way. I do think Luke was a "historian," but not in the 21st century sense. In addition to what I have listed above I would include the speeches in Acts (almost 1/3 of the book)and the three similar yet at times contradictory presentations of Paul's conversion.

    What that means, then, is that he can use his sources creatively at times in order to do theology. I would say, however, that he is a theologian first.

    True, it is possible that there were two Theudas. As always in history, we can only deal with the evidence we have.

    As far as Luke making two error in Acts, yes I think he did if we agree that the Judas and Theudas in Acts5:36-37 are the same ones mentioned by Josephus. Luke has Gamaliel say "after Theudas" Judas arose. But we know that Judas predates Theudas by some forty years.

    I do think that Luke contains much historical information that is confirmed by Josephus and other sources. But I also think that he 'bends' history in order to present it through his theological prism.

  4. I probably should have added in my previous remarks that I am aware of no historiographical reasons why Josephus should be given preference over Luke. Both authors wrote in about the same period of time (and unless you hold a 2nd C date for Acts, then Acts likely was written first). Both authors have had their historical veracity questioned. It is also typically acknowledged that both authors are driven to some degree by ideological concerns. I recall doing research several years ago that took me to one of Louis Feldman's volumes on Josephus where he discusses disagreements between Josephus and Philo. Interestingly, Feldman does not automatically assume that Josephus is right. So I am puzzled at times why Josephus is automatically assumed to be right in relation to Luke.

  5. Charles,

    You raise some important questions that I admit I have also asked. I suppose the reason why I stick with Josephus in this case is because his program is about detailing the actions of people like Judas and Theudas where as Luke grabs onto those events as a way to anchor his story about Jesus and the church in history. So while both Luke and Josephus are questionable sources at times, I am thinking about the author's motive for recounting the events they choose to include.

  6. Perhaps the caution is to avoid the practice of depending upon the Modern Historian to interpret Christianity. We make the mistake of depending upon physics, history and pop psychology to confirm the validity of the bible when it is useful, but then are anxious when they challenge the accuracy of the bible.

  7. John,

    I see your point, but two additional comments might be in order. First, a more balanced post might contain the caveat that Josephus might be wrong. Second, I think your argument could cut both ways. If Luke is really interested in placing the story of Jesus and the church in history, then he might actually be more interested and motivated to get it right. If I am seeking to place a person or movement into history, it would surely undermine that purpose if someone could easily come along and show that my historical placement is incorrect.

  8. Charles,

    I am not sure that I agree. I am not sure Luke's use of history matters to him in a way that he needs to get it right. As we all know, ancient historiographers, Josephus included, can be very creative with their sources. Their agenda is more important than being objective. Objectivity is a modern notion.

    As far as a balancing the post, point taken. I agree that Josephus might be wrong too. I can only work with my sources. My point, at least in response to Bock's suggestion, is that if he is going to agree that Luke's date for the census is a problem, it seems more plausible to look at the way Luke handles the recounting of historical events elsewhere rather than positing a theory of a long census. If I am right about Luke's use of history I do not think it damages any of the theological claims that he makes about Jesus.

    Having said that, I will try to add something to the post that indicates my acknowledgement that Josephus could also be wrong.

  9. Richard Fellows wrote, "We have good evidence that Luke was a resident of Antioch".

    What evidence?

  10. Since Luke says, "In the days of Herod, king of Judea" in 1:5, I've sometimes wondered if Luke is using that as a general reference to the time period of the Herods (both daddy as king and Archelaus as ethnarch) to an audience that was only vaguely familiar with Jewish politics nearly a century earlier. And that the real chronological issue is Matthew's who describes Herod the Great killing infants in Bethlehem.

  11. Anonymous,

    You bring up a good point. If Luke is taking about "Herods" in general and Archelaus specifically this could work. But as you say, this would then mean that Matthew's chronology is incorrect by having Herod the Great slaughter the infants. Hmmm.

    Are you aware of any instance when someone refers to the Herods in this way I can't think off the top of my head if Josephus does.

  12. Great post and conversation. For starters, John, let me say I don't think much of Bock's "ten year warm up" theory. I _do_ happen to like Carlson's theory here. But that's by the by.

    What I'd rather discuss here is Mssr Theudas. Or should that be Mssrs Theudas?

    The revolutionary nutbag Josephus refers to led a group of fools to the Jordan river, expecting some divine miracle, between AD 44 and 46. Josephus himself was about 8 years old at this time, but at least he was in Judea, and would have grown up with the story. Luke, by traditional reckoning, would have been 300+ miles away. So IFF Acts refers to Josephus' Theudas, I'd definitely say Josephus has the better odds on giving accurate information.

    However, the biggest problem here [with the conversation as currently framed] is an assumption that Luke's Gamaliel is referring to Fadus' Theudas. I suppose this must partly reflect a late-late dating of Acts, and the assumption that Luke had a copy of Josephus.

    But imagine instead that if Luke began writing in Caesarea during Paul's imprisonment, then Fadus' Theudas was only ten years in the past. So how likely is it that *this* Luke would put Paul's conversion in the late 40's or early 50's? Unless Luke was throwing in details willy nilly, which wouldn't seem to suit his purpose in writing, I just don't think he could have been that far off.

    My own (admittedly apologetic) suggestion is that the historic Gamaliel was more likely to reference the Judas, son of Ezekias, whose *Galilean* revolt in 4 BC was both well known, pre-Jesus, and *Galilean* (like the other two revolts Gamaliel refers to, and perhaps unlike the Jordan River Revolter.

    In other words, if Luke got anything wrong, it's probably the name - not the chronology.

    But the least we should say is that we're wrong to assume there was only one Galilean revolter Gamaliel could possibly have named (or referred to as) "Theudas".

  13. Good discussion, everyone.

    John, you seem to be saying that Luke made two errors: 1) he placed the death of Theudas before Judas the Galilean rose up 2) he placed the death of Theudas before Gamaliel's speach. But these are the SAME error (if an error there be): Luke placed the death of Theudas too early. If I say that 1) "Tertullian lived before Moses" and 2) "Tertullian lived before Paul", I make one error, not two, for the second statement is required by the first. Please explain why you insist that there were two errors.

    You say that Luke "'bends' history in order to present it through his theological prism". This is an oft repeated assumption, but I have never seen it substantiated. You would need to firstly show that Luke (frequently) gets things wrong and then show that these hypothesized discrepancies fit with a theological tendency that can be established from other data. So often commentators hypothesis a theological tendency solely from a hypothesized distortion of history and then point to that theological tendency to explain the origin of the supposed discrepancy. The arguments tend to be circular.

    John Poirier asked for evidence that Luke was from Antioch. See my blog post here.

  14. Bill,

    It is possible that Luke is talking about another Theduas. Josephus, after all, mentions numerous Simeons and even at least two Judas'. But do we know of anyone else named Theudas? On the one hand, we all acknowledge that we are hostage to our sources. On the other, we can only work with what we have and theorizing beyond or evidence seems to introduce more problems. I will check out your suggestions and see how it may move us forward. Thanks.

  15. Richard,

    I guess I still see it as two mistakes. First he places Theduas before Gamaliel (mistake one). Then, he also places him before Judas. Had he only done the first it would be a mistake of ten years, but by also doing the second he makes another mistake by 45 years. I suppose it is all perspective. If Luke had not place Theudas before Judas, but after, I would see it as one mistake.

    As far as "bending" history, I think this is an example in itself if, as I maintain, Luke got it wrong. But I am not sure that I would be looking for a "tendency". I am not sure that there Luke has a method. I think here of the 3 versions of Paul's conversion in Acts there is enough difference to acknowledge that as careful as Luke is, he sometimes appears sloppy with the facts. I am not sure that he is "bending" history to support a particular theology. Merely that he uses it. I am not sure if I am being clear here. So I will try to think some more and come back. Let me know your thoughts.

  16. Thanks, John, I agree and that's exactly my point.

    Unless we have evidence that Luke drew from Josephus indiscriminately, the move to identify these two Theudas references is far and away "theorizing beyond our sources".

  17. Bill,

    Perhaps I should clarify. I don't think Luke used Josephus at all. In fact, I think that Luke wrote a good 10-15 years before Josephus (Antiquities). Sorry if I gave the impression that I thought Luke was using Josephus as a source. I am unaware of any NT scholars who suggest this idea.

  18. I'm with John on Luke's weaknesses as a historian. As John pointed out, the speeches Luke attributes to various individuals are good evidence (in addition to the two errors discussed in the thread) illustrating that Luke's account of history can't be relied upon.

    But I disagree with the other example John utilizes. On Paul's conversion, I rather like James Dunn's treatment of that topic in Jesus Remembered. Dunn uses the three versions of Paul's conversion to illustrate how oral tradition is typically recounted: fidelity to a core body of facts, but variation at the level of surrounding details. We moderns might consider that a poor way to record history, but it would fit within the norms of a culture which relied on oral tradition and knew not to press the details.

    Regarding Luke's account of Jesus' birth, the problem is more fundamental than anyone has mentioned here. Luke and Matthew tell utterly different stories.

    The core contradiction is that Luke assumes Joseph and Mary begin in Nazareth, they travel to Bethlehem (ostensibly because of the historically-suspect census), then they return to Nazareth.

    Matthew, on the other hand, assumes Joseph and Mary are residents of Bethlehem, where they have a house. Jesus is born in Bethlehem because that's where Joseph and Mary live. (There is no mention of Nazareth in Matthew's account until after Jesus' birth. There is, on the other hand, that reference to their house in Bethlehem.) They move to Nazareth after their excursion to Egypt, because Joseph is warned by an angel not to return to Bethlehem. In other words, Joseph initially intended to return to Bethlehem: once again, Matthew assumes that's where he and Mary lived.

    The apologetic approach that tries to save Luke's historical accuracy by attributing all errors to Josephus misses the point. There are places where Luke contradicts Matthew — another clear instance is the two unreconcilable accounts of Judas's death. So the problem can't be reduced to Luke v. Josephus; there are also instances of Luke v. Matthew.

  19. Strictly speaking, Acts has only one account of the conversion of Paul. The other two passages are accounts of Paul's description of his conversion, given as part of his defense. The distinction is important because it explains some of the differences. Ananias is described as a disciple in Acts 9:10. However, when in front of a zealous Jewish "mob" in Acts 22:12 Paul casts Ananias as a devout Jew to emphasize that his own calling stemmed from devout Jewish roots. In front of Festus and Agrippa, on the other hand, Paul makes no mention of Ananias, perhaps to avoid getting Ananias into trouble. In each case the telling of the story is consistent with the context.

    Perhaps, John, you are thinking of the contradiction over whether Paul's companions heard a voice. This, along with the Theudas problem and the Quirinius problem do not provide evidence for Luke's bending of history to his 'theological agenda'. If these three contradictions are discrepancies at all, they are surely mere slips by Luke or his sources. No theological agenda presents itself as an obvious explanation for these apparent mistakes, but creative minds can, no doubt, find theological agendas in just about anything.

    There is a tendency among commentators to see theological agendas behind every anomaly. For example, Luke's silence about Paul's ~3 years in Arabia is often supposed to have been motivated by a desire to connect Paul more closely with Jerusalem. However, I have argued elsewhere that Luke draws a veil over Paul's illegal preaching in Arabia and Aretas's attempt to capture him because he wanted to avoid giving away information that could be used by persecutors.

    The idea that Luke's theology has shaped his understanding of history does not explain how he acquired his theology in the first place. Isn't it more likely that his theology was shaped by his knowledge of the history?

    "ntcommentaries", don't assume that the historicity of Acts is defended only by those with an "apologetic approach". It is not. Indeed, the historicity of Acts can be defended more forcefully by those of us who reject the historicity of other NT documents, such as the PE.

  20. There is no problem with Luke, Augustus ordered an enrollment in 8 BC, "in my sixth consulate (28 B.C.E.) I made a census of the people with Marcus Agrippa as my colleague. I conducted a lustrum, after a forty-one year gap, in which lustrum were counted 4,063,000 heads of Roman citizens. Then again, with consular imperium I conducted a lustrum alone when Gaius Censorinus and Gaius Asinius were consuls (8 B.C.E.), in which lustrum were counted 4,233,000 heads of Roman citizens."
    (Res Gestae 8 - The Deeds of Augustus by Augustus)

    And another enrollment just before Herod died, the loyalty oath recorded by Josephus carried out in Judea:

    “There was moreover a certain sect of Jews who valued themselves highly for their exact knowledge of the law; and talking much of their contact with God, were greatly in favor with the women of Herod’s court. They are called Pharisees. They are men who had it in their power to control kings; extremely subtle, and ready to attempt any thing against those whom they did not like. When therefore the whole Jewish nation took an OATH to be faithful to Caesar, and [to] the interests of the king, these men, to the number of above six thousand, refused to swear. The king having laid a fine upon them, Pheroras’ wife [Herod’s sister-in-law] paid the money for them. They, in requital for her kindness (for they were supposed, by their great intimacy with God, to have attained to the gift of prophecy), prophesied that God having decreed to put an end to the government of Herod and his race, the kingdom would be transferred to her and Pheroras and their children."
    Josephus, Antiquities XVII.41–45

    ""there is a reference to such a registration of all the Roman people not long before 5 February 2 B.C. written by Caesar Augustus himself: "While I was administering my thirteenth consulship [2 B.C.] the senate and the equestrian order and the entire Roman people gave me the title Father of my Country" (Res Gestae 35, italics added).

    And finally, there really is no debate on this, Tertullian who had access to the records in Rome documents Jesus' name on the census by Augustus:

    ""And yet how could He have been admitted into the synagogue—one so abruptly, so unknown; one, of whom no one had as yet been apprised of His tribe, His nation, His family, and lastly, His enrollment in the census of Augustus—that most faithful witness of the Lord’s nativity, kept in the archives of Rome?”
    (Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book 4, 7)

    And finally the fact that Luke is known by archaeologists and historians to be one of the finest of ancient historians makes this kind of allegation improbable and the evidence ends up confirming Luke was correct.

  21. John, it seems to me in your discussion you rely at crucial points on what we 'know from Josephus.'

    Do you know the work of Shaye Cohen, who argues (fairly persuasively) that Josephus spins a fine yarn, but is demonstrably unreliable when it comes to historical fact?

    Here's a good example: