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.