In the next post, we will consider the census described in Luke chapter 2. Before we do so, we need to give some space to the overall accuracy of the author’s writings as a whole.
Before we can rightly consider a single question in one verse, we must consider Luke’s writings as a whole. Throughout the Gospel of Luke and his other book, Acts of the Apostles, Luke sprinkles a great number of details. The vast majority of these details are minute and have no bearing on the overall spiritual point to the story. For example, do the following really matter to the overall message of the Bible?
- When Peter knocks on a door, the name of the girl who answered the door was Rhoda (Acts 12:13)
- Paul was joined in one of his journeys by Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Timothy, Tychicus, and Trophimus (Acts 20:4).
- Paul and Luke waited three months, then sailed on a ship named “Twin Brothers” (Acts 28:11)
Further, Luke gives a very large number of details that can be historically corroborated by external sources. A few of these details include:
- Correctly named ports (Acts 13:4-5).
- The correct family name of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:7).
- The proper port, Perga, for a ship crossing from Cyprus (Acts 13:13).
- Correct identification of the two gods associated with Lystra, Zeus and Hermes (Acts 14:12).
- Correct titles of the colony magistrates (16:20+).
- Proper title of “politarch” for the city rulers (17:6).
- Correct title for a member of the court (Aereopogite) (17:34)
- Correct identification of Gallio as proconsul (18:12).
Colin Hemer’s book The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History lists over 80 details like these, all of which are facts that can be independently corroborated by geography and secular history. The list includes distances, wind directions, nautical terms, local geography, and the like. (for more of the list, see here.) In the gospel, Luke 3:1-3 mentions details purposely designed to place the reader into a specific date and location:
- Fifteenth year of Tiberius Ceasar
- Pontius Pilate governor of Judea
- Herod tetrarch of Galilee
- Herod’s brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis
- Lysanias tetrarch of Abiline
- Annias and Caiphas high priests
- The region around the Jordan
If one were writing a story with a purely spiritual point about getting closer to God, these details not only have no purpose, but seem to get in the way. These details seem to have nothing to do with a spiritual relationship to God, building of a church organization, or giving pastoral advice to a congregation. Their only purpose would be to accurately record history.
The large amount of historical and geographical detail mentioned in Luke and Acts is significant. The rest of the book is accurate enough that when we encounter a question, we should give the author the benefit of the doubt, or at least begin with a premise that when we encounter a fact in Luke’s writings, we should give the author equal footing with other historians. Skeptics, because of the personal moral implications of the Bible being true, often hold the Bible to a different standard than other historical claims.
When we encounter the registration in Luke 2, we should at least begin with holding Luke on neutral footing with other historical documents, and be very cautious before we dismiss his details.
The next post will look in detail at the census in Luke 2.