What About the Census in Luke 2?

Luke Chapter 2 includes a statement about the birth of Jesus. In Luke 2, it says “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town.”

As usual, skeptics are not far behind, and they question the validity of Luke’s account. One recent skeptic I encountered gives a typical series of objections:

  1. Only two of the books of the Bible mention Jesus’ birth. None of the others mention it, not even once.
  2. Luke was writing nearly 80 years after the events, and didn’t know he would be fact-checked on the events.
  3. There is no record of Augustus Caesar sending a decree for everyone to be taxed.
  4. Sending illiterate people back to their ancestral home would have been impossible.
  5. Quirinius did a census, but it was in 6 to 7 AD. It was just a local Judean census, not an empire-wide one.
  6. Matthew says this all happened in the days of Herod. (2;1). Herod died in 4 BC, 11 years before the census was conducted.


This is a tired old objection, and has been answered many times, yet the objection never seems to get old. Therefore it deserves an answer.

First, the previous post described the overall historical accuracy of Luke’s writings. (see here)  Luke has been shown true in a large number of dates, places, people, and geography, therefore we should, at a minimum, consider Luke to be as valid of a source as any in ancient history. We have no a priori grounds to hold any other single ancient source above Luke. (for more on the historical accuracy of Luke, see here, and here, and here.)

Second, Luke 2:2 gives us a key, when he says it was “the first registration when Quirinius was governing Syria.” Logically, if there is a first, there was at least two, or the sentence makes no sense. Modern skeptics seem to not deal with the brute fact that the language here specifically mentions the census happening prior to another. To be valid, the skeptic must give a rational explanation for Luke’s language in this sentence.

Third, the Greek here allows for the phrase to read, “before Quirinius was governing Syria.” In this translation, the main criticism of the skeptics becomes moot. Again, to be considered valid, the skeptics must have an explanation that deals with the language in the sentence and removes such an easy explanations as this.

Fourth, note the language in this verse does not say Quirinius was governor of Syria at the time of the census, but was governing Syria. Perhaps a fine distinction, but important nevertheless, for Luke was quite careful to list the exact titles of about a dozen officials, as the list in the previous post above demonstrates. The general description here of “governing Syria” and not “governor of Syria” is striking by its difference. So the typical translation of “This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria” is specific language that would indicate that Quirinius was acting as a governor, but did not have the title of governor. This interpretation aligns with what we know from secular history, which is that the previous governor, Varus, had caused some degree of unrest in the region, and may have been viewed by Rome as needing help. Meanwhile, Quirinius was indeed in the region having military successes. Much of the critics’ energy is spent on a misguided attempt to refute something that the Bible does not say, namely that Quirinius was governor twice.

Fifth, the British Museum has among its documents a Papyrus 904 which describes a census taken in 104 AD. The document reads:

“From the Prefect of Egypt, Gaius Vibius Maximus. Being that the time has come for the house to house census, it is mandatory that all men who are living outside of their districts return to their own homelands, that the census may be carried out  . . . ” (1)

Note the document here commands all men who are currently “living outside of their districts” to travel back “to their own homeland.” Note that the command does not tell people to return to their homes, but to leave where they are currently living and return to their homelands. We could speculate to the extent of how far this may be, but the brute fact remains that here we have a corroborating source that commands people to travel away from where they are living now back to where they were originally from.

Modern skeptics find this idea to be so disruptive that it would put the entirety of the Roman Empire in turmoil. I submit that such a view is reading modern immigration into ancient times. People of that era did not relocate as much as we do in modern times. For the relatively few people who had moved, returning to the place of their ancestral homeland would not disrupt the entire empire.

Sixth, some of the skeptics’ criticisms can be dismissed outright, since they are closer to a “poisoning the well” fallacy than an argument. In one argument, a skeptic claimed that Jesus’ birth was only mentioned in two books, hinting that there was therefore reason to doubt. How many times would a fact have to be mentioned for it to be true? A single instance is sufficient. Further, other places do speak of Jesus’ birth: Phil. 2:7 speaks specifically of Jesus birth, and John 8:41 alludes to it. These are in addition to the many places that speak of Jesus having come in the flesh and being son of man. This criticism is an excuse, not a logical argument based on evidence.

Another attempt to poison the well is the date of Luke’s writings. The date of the writing is not as important as the date of the sources. Luke tells us that he investigated everything carefully (1:3, NASB), interviewed primary sources (1:1,2) and wrote down what they said (1:2,3). Luke tells us that he got some information directly from Mary (2:19). Anyone who was an educated Greek physician who knew he was writing history would have access to the temple records and the eyewitnesses. Luke tells us that the many sources he quotes had already documented them and handed them to him at the time of his writing (1:3). We are hard pressed to believe that any mother would forget the details of her first and most miraculous child’s birth.

Seventh, regarding whether or not Augustus Ceasar would issue such a decree, or whether a record of such a decree exists. As we have shown, Luke is as credible a source as any in ancient history, even more so than most. So we do have a record, in Luke. Next, registrations were done periodically, and when they were, it was not necessary that it be signed directly by Augustus himself. If any level of the Roman government decreed it, it could be said that Caesar decreed it. Such is done routinely today. When anyone in the executive branch of the US government does something, it is said to have been done “by the White House.” When the President’s press secretary speaks, the reports say that “the President said.” Still further, this is at best an argument from silence. It is not logical to say that because we have no independent corroboration from multiple sources, something did not happen.

Eighth, a Latin inscription was discovered that may indicate that Quirinius was Governor of Syria twice. A fragment of a stone was unearthed near Rome in 1764 that some notable scholars hold to be speaking of Quirinius being Governor twice (Sanclemente, Mommsen, and Ramsay). The inscription is not entirely clear as to its meaning, since part of it is missing. However, part of the inscription is missing and the evidence for it being Quirinius is debated.

However, in support of this, Geisler claims the following:

 William Ramsay discovered several inscriptions that indicated that Quirinius was governor of Syria on two occasions, the first time several years prior to A.D. 6. According to the very papers that recorded the censuses, (see Ramsay, Was Christ Born in Bethlehem?) there was in fact a census between 10 and 5 B.C. Periodic registrations took place every fourteen years. Because of this regular pattern of census taking, any such action was regarded as the general policy of Augustus, even though a local census may have been instigated by a local governor. There­fore, Luke recognizes the census as stemming from the decree of Augustus. (2)

Lastly, even if Luke were incorrect about this point, it does not prove what the skeptics seem to claim. If Luke were wrong, the most that would be lost would be the Bible’s inerrancy on this one point. While inerrancy is important, and I hold to inerrancy, this argument leaves the larger questions untouched. There are many liberal Christians who deny inerrancy, but still believe that God exists and the Bible teaches spiritual truth. The skeptics seem to think that if they find a few faults in the Bible, then they have somehow disproven the whole of theism in general and Christianity in particular. In reality, there are no errors in the Bible, but even if there were, the logic of the skeptics does not follow. We cannot dismiss all of Luke nor all of the Bible, let alone the existence of God, with a few missed facts, especially not just one.


In summary, we can safely conclude the following:

  1. Luke is proven in other passages to be a careful and accurate historian. Luke had access to written records and eyewitnesses who could have informed him of the facts. We should accept his writings about the census to be accurate until proven otherwise, and should hold Luke’s writings equal to, if not superior to, all other ancient writings.
  2. Luke never claims that Quirinius was Governor twice. He says the Quirinius was governing Syria. He could have done so without the official title.
  3. The language of Luke 2:2 allows for the census to be before Quirinius was governing Syria.
  4. People moving back to their homeland to be registered was done, is not as disruptive as critics claim, and could have been done here.
  5. The critics must account for the language that Luke uses when he specifically tells us that this was a first census during the time of Quirinius, which means there had to be at least two.

In the end, the Bible is again proven true and we can trust what it tells us.



(1)(from http://www.biblehistory.net/newsletter/quirinius.htm, accessed 12/23/16; for full translation see http://www.kchanson.com/ANCDOCS/greek/census.html#2, accessed 12/23/16.)

(2)(https://www.jashow.org/articles/bible/reliability-of-the-bible/alleged-errors-in-the-bible/alleged-errors-in-luke/, accessed 12/25/16)


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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3 Responses to What About the Census in Luke 2?

  1. koosvannermerwe says:

    Good summary!

  2. These last 2 posts are excellent.

    A couple of further ideas to consider. Luke says that it was a registration. While this is often translated census, registration could potentially be more broad. It need not be a census.

    It seems that Nazareth was Mary’s home town, but could Bethlehem have been Joseph’s home town? I have yet to go through the nativity stories again but there is a lot of tradition that is attached that may or may not be correct? Why does Joseph return to Judea from Egypt and then go to Nazareth if the latter was his town? Could Narareth have become their hometown but previously been Mary’s?

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