Did Paul Create His Own Version of Christianity?

This is another in a series of questions on the Bible.

 Question: In Acts 21, Paul is described as partaking in Jewish rituals to show the Jerusalem Church that he has not strayed from the Law of Moses. Gerd Luedemann takes this as evidence that the early Church was essentially Jewish in nature and thus that there was a division between early Jewish Christianity and Pauline Christianity. It would seem then that we are given Paul’s version of Christianity which differed from other versions of Christianity. 

 In reply, there are several points:

 First, it is true that in Acts 21 Paul goes to Jerusalem, encounters the church there, and begins a purification ritual. The part of the question that says he did it “to show the Jerusalem Church that he has not strayed from the Law of Moses” is an opinion that is read into the text. The passage simply says that Paul began the ritual; it does not say why he did it. Unfortunately for this question, Paul is arrested before he can finish the ritual, meet with the church, and address the issue…..or at least Luke does not record for us anything else Paul said on the matter before he was arrested.

 Second, in the passage, v.21 and v.25 tell us much of what the church leaders were thinking and discussing. It is clear from these two verses that the church leaders in Jerusalem were making a distinction between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. The accusation against Paul was that he was telling the Jewish Christians that it was not necessary to circumcise children nor “walk according to our customs.” In v.25, the Jerusalem church leaders repeat the response given at the church council in Acts 15:21, speaking to Gentile Christians.

 Therefore it is clear that the early Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were from a thoroughly Jewish culture. That their church would reflect such a culture is no surprise. That they had to be corrected by Paul is also no surprise, as shown in Galatians (see below). This only shows that the Jerusalem church, made of primarily Jews and the starting point of the early church, is Jewish. Even today, many Jewish Christian churches still hold to their Jewishness…….they call themselves Jewish, meet on Saturdays, keep Jewish traditions, and have church services which have a distinct Jewish flavor. This is not a division in the church.

 Third, Acts 15 – 16 give us a clue as to Paul’s thinking. In Acts 15, there is a discussion about circumcision as it relates to salvation, v.1. That it relates to salvation is the key, for Romans 14 tells us that there are some issues we should not divide fellowship over. Salvation, however, is an issue to divide over if a view is heretical. So most of Acts 15 have the story of this council, saying it is not necessary for Gentiles to be circumcised. Yet immediately after, in 16.3, Paul circumcises Timothy “because of the Jews who were in those parts.” They had just had a council that said people like Timothy did not have to be circumcised, yet Paul immediately circumcises him. Why? It was so that unimportant things like circumcision did not get in the way of the more important message of salvation in Jesus. Paul says in 1 Cor. 9:20 “To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law.” Therefore it is clear that Paul was trying to not make minor issues a stumbling block, and was allowing people to keep cultural things in their church practices, as long as they did not affect important things like salvation, the resurrection, the true God, and the nature of Jesus. Paul says clearly and plainly that he is not under the law. Therefore he would not teach other Jews that they were.

 Fourth, the book of Galatians addresses this exact issue and does so with force and vigor. In it, Paul confronts the apostle Peter in front of the church and corrects him about his practices that would lead both Jews and Gentiles to think they were obligated to keep the law of Moses or any legalistic requirement. Over and over in Galatians, Paul makes it clear that no one, Jew or Gentile, is obligated to be circumcised or keep the law. That neither Jew nor Gentile is required to keep these practices is enforced over and over again in most of this book, including most of chapters five and six. We cannot take one passage in Acts 21 and have it override the rest of the New Testament, including Galatians.

 Now, I grant that in Galatians it mentions that even Barnabas was taken in by the hypocrisy, as we see in 2:13. Many people hold that here Paul was indeed by himself in the view he teaches, and the other Jews were incorrect. But Galatians and Acts 15-16 are in the holy scriptures, as are the passages where Peter tells us Paul’s writings are inspired scriptures (2 Peter 3:16). It is no surprise to say that Paul had disagreements with the Jewish leaders about the requirements of the law, for the Bible tells us they did. But the Bible also tells us that the Jewish leaders ultimately all agreed with Paul that circumcision and the keeping of the law are not required for salvation. Jewish Christians apparently still kept some of the practices, as did Paul in Acts 16:3, but this was to keep from making minor issues a stumbling block.

 In Galatians 1:18 to 2:10, Paul describes how he went to the apostles at Jerusalem on two occasions and checked with them whether his teachings were correct. They all agreed, including Peter, James, and John.

 So we can conclude that the only first century church that was Jewish was the ones filled with Jews, which is the same as today. There were disagreements about what was required, but in the end, after much debate, all the church leaders agreed that for salvation, no Jewish law or customs were required. In Acts 21, the Jewish leaders of a primarily Jewish church had issues with Paul about circumcision and customs, not about salvation issues. Paul responded by doing what he always did, “to the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews.” Paul had no issue with confrontation with church leaders over this same issue, as he did without hesitation in Galatians 2:14. Here he did not, since it was not an issue over salvation. Over time he would have educated them about how to teach practices and requirements, but was arrested before he could do so.

Posted in Bible, Bible Questions, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Can We Be Free in Heaven and Not Sin? (Part 3)

A question arises that goes something like this:

If evil and sin are the result of mankind’s free will, then why is it that people in heaven will have free will, but not sin? If we truly have free will in heaven, we would eventually sin. But heaven is described as a place where there is no sin. If God can create a place where there is no sin, why did He not do so in the first place? If humans can be in a state where they do not sin, and God did not create us this way in the first place, then God is reprehensible, and not all good or all love. Either God cannot create a place where there is no sin or could create such a place but did not. In either case, God is not as described in the Bible.

We have answered parts of this objection before. First, we gave a list of all possible combinations of worlds and found that the current world is the best way to get to the best world. You can find that discussion here. In short, a world where no one chooses to do the best good is a world devoid of such things as compassion, bravery, and sacrifice for others. Such a world would not be the best of all possible worlds. Second, we gave a response from theologian Norman Geisler who dealt with free will and the ultimate good. You can find that here.

In the current post we explore an answer from author Brian Shanley in Beyond Libertarianism and Compatibilism: Thomas Aquinas on Created Freedom, found in Freedom and the Human Person (2007). Shanley gives his take on Aquinas’ view of human freedom. Shanley explains that humans naturally, by necessity, will what is the perceived good.

Intellectual beings therefore have an unrestricted appetite for their own good as known. This inclination to the good belongs necessarily to human beings as rational natures prior to any choice. . . Whenever goodness is perceived, the will can become engaged with it as an object of desire precisely as known to be good (even if mistakenly so). . . This natural ordination or inclination of the will to objects as good is prior to and explanatory of the will’s explicit acts; we do not have any choice about our ordination to the good–it belongs to the will by natural necessity. . . Every being has a desire for its own proper perfection. . . It too is not a matter of choice but nature:  human beings naturally will what they do for the sake of happiness. (p.73-74)

Therefore humans choose what we do because we think it will fulfill us. Even when we choose things that are ultimately evil or self-destructive, we do so because at the time we believe it will make us happy. No one chooses what they feel is the wrong choice. Even those who commit suicide do so because they feel it is the way to eliminate pain and suffering. Those who torture others do so because they get some twisted sense of joy from it.

Our flawed human nature — indeed, our spiritually dead human nature — is incapable of fully realizing God’s full and true good. Therefore we selfishly choose to sin. But we will not remain in this state forever, as Shanley explains:

All human striving for the perfective good is an implicit yearning for God. If we were actually to see God in all his perfect goodness, we would will him necessarily and naturally and not as an object of free choice. Once a person enters into the beatific vision, the will’s nature has come to rest in its proper object. Precisely because its nature is made to find completion in the infinite good that is God, the will is not necessitated with respect to any other object. This side of the beatific vision, no object can compel and quiet the will’s orientation to the good.

Because of the curse of sin and the resulting spiritual pollution, we are separated from a holy God. The flawed human condition results in questions such as the current one. Our sinful natures do not fully understand the infinite holiness and beauty of God. Once we see Him face to face in the beatific vision, the object of our desire will have been found. We then will want no cheap substitute. Just as when a child plays with a toy, but later grows to adulthood and realizes the real thing, he is no longer able to go back and choose the child’s toy.  When we see God, He will be the focus of our desire and we will choose no sin. As Geisler says, in heaven our freedom will be perfected.

Could this be considered a loss of free will, since the will is necessitated toward God? Only in the sense that the human will is always necessitated in the same way, toward what it perceives as good. In salvation, God changes us and informs our mind and soul with His spirit, thus giving us a taste of what heaven will be like. We then choose to love Him, for we cannot help but do so.

Inevitably, someone will ask “why would God do it this way and not some other way?” The answer is in the first post we linked above, for a world with greater good is better than a world without greater good, and greater good requires situations precipitated by evil. A world with love is greater than a world without love, and true love requires the ability to walk away.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

What is the Mess We Are in, and How Did We Get Here?

Liberal churches have accepted aberrant theologies, or even heresies, while conservative churches have disconnected faith from reason and disconnected the church from the culture. Here we explore the causes of this condition and give some examples of the problems.

Influential Philosophers & Thinkers

  • Rene Descartes (d.1650): Introduced a thought exercise using methodical doubt. The exercise doubted all human sense data and experience. This was the beginning of the disconnect between thoughts and reality. Concluded with “I think, therefore I am.”
  • David Hume (d.1776): The greatest skeptic. Gave a great skeptical argument against miracles and against the validity of New Testament eyewitnesses. (for responses to Hume, see here, and here.
  • Immanuel Kant (d.1805): Influenced by Hume, Kant gave a very rigorous argument that claimed we cannot know reality in itself, but can only know what we perceive. Kant held that we cannot know whether God really exists, but we must live as if God exists. Thus Kant placed all knowledge, including religion, in the area of mental speculation. He also taught a non-religious source for morals that is purely in logic and reason.
  • Soren Kierkegaard (d.1855): Argued that the church should abandon a dead orthodoxy for a living experience of faith. He agreed with key Christian doctrines, but said they are irrelevant. What is important is religious experience. Religious truth is found in a personal encounter, and logical truth is not important. Kierkegaard influenced a series of liberal theologians, including Karl Barth and Rudolph Bultmann.
  • Charles Darwin (d.1882) Darwin’s theory of evolution was very influential. It explained the human condition without needing a religious source.


Attack on the Bible

The Graf-Welhausen Theory

  • A theory named after Karl Graf (d.1869) and Julius Wellhausen (d.1918), was also called the documentary hypothesis. It took the evolutionary theory of biology and applied it to the old testament documents. It taught:
    • Bible books evolve from simple sources to the current complex state.
    • Different parts of the Pentateuch uses different words and writing styles. Therefore there are four sources for the Pentateuch:
      • J – the writer who uses Jehovah for God.
      • E – the writer who uses Elohim for God.
      • P – the writer who speaks of the priestly duties.
      • D – the writer of Deuteronomy.
  • The Graf-Wellhaused documentary hypothesis became very popular in influential German universities and began to take hold in Britain and America.
  • The Bible was edited at a late date. The editor compiled earlier sources and created the current version of the Bible.


Higher Criticism

Graf-Wellhausen theory led to a number of university professors who used similar techniques on the rest of the Bible. By the time they were done, even the New Testament books needed earlier sources. Eventually, they taught Matthew did not write Matthew, Luke did not write Luke, John was compiled late, and the Bible books were no longer what they seemed.


Major Separation

  • By the late 1800’s, even mainline Christian seminaries began to accept some of the theories of higher criticism.
  • Seminaries did not want to be left behind academically, so they began to accept the higher critical theories.
  • In response to the increasing number of young pastors who were taught higher criticism, some conservatives published a series of essays called “The Fundamentals.” These books defended the Bible from what we would today call a conservative viewpoint. From 1910-15, The Fundamentals were sent free of charge to pastors, teachers, and missionaries.
  • Thus a major separation began:
    • Liberals: those seminaries who accepted Graf-Wellhausen and higher criticism.
    • Fundamentalists: those who held tightly to a very conservative view of scripture.


One Side:  Theological Liberals

Around 1900, mainline denominational seminaries began to teach higher criticism in earnest. They also were influenced by Kierkegaard, and began to teach that personal experience was more important than doctrine. Some influential liberals were:

  • Rudolf Bultmann (b.1884) taught that the Bible was full of myth, and needed to be de-mythologized. Instead of mythological stories of miracles, Bible teaching should be shaped by what modern science tells us.
  • Harry Emerson Fosdick (b.1878): a very influential pastor and writer in New York, Fosdick denied Biblical miracles. He taught that God did not care about sin, denied God’s wrath, denied Jesus’ deity and the resurrection. Yet his sermons were about Bible stories and how we can apply them to our lives.

Bultmann and Fosdick are examples of what was taught across mainline Christian denominations in the first half of the 1900’s.


One Side: The Conservatives & Fundamentalists

  • Rejected liberalism and wanted to separate from it
  • Focused on righteous living (separation from worldly behavior)
  • Did not answer the liberals and attacks by philosophers and scientists

Retreated into their churches and taught that Christians should just have simple faith in the Bible and avoid worldly things. As a result, mainstream conservatives tend to:

  • Wanted to separate from excesses of liberalism
  • Wanted to separate from intellectual attacks by science and philosophy
  • Avoided engaging the culture
  • Avoided speaking against public moral issues because they “don’t want to be political.”
  • Closed their ears to science and philosophy.

In their attempt to avoid the academic attacks from scientists and philosophers, conservative churches developed an anti-intellectualism.


Modern Results: The Mess We Are In

  • Liberal churches have accepted the moral excesses of the culture
  • Conservative churches have disengaged from the culture
  • The secular culture is left to degrade
  • Attacks by science and philosophy get no response from the church


 Over a hundred years of this liberal conservative split has resulted in:

  • Katherine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop over the Episcopal Church:
    • Openly and publicly denied that Jesus is the only way to salvation
    • Said that Muslims do not need converting to Christ
    • “Other Abrahamic faiths have access to God the Father without consciously going through Jesus.”
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
    • The bible is a human book written by men about God.
    • It has errors and wrong cultural traditions from long ago
    • It is up to us to separate the truth from the error
  • John Spong, Episcopal Bishop
    • Denies that God is a being
    • Denies Jesus is God
    • Denies the virgin birth
    • Denies the bodily resurrection of Jesus
    • Denies that Jesus founded a church
    • Denies that humans are born in sin or need salvation
    • (Spong, A New Christianity for a New World, p.3-5)
  • Regarding Graf-Welhausen, it is falling of its own weight. Not satisfied with a simple four authors (JEPD), once they start looking for patterns, the problem is endless. Before the documentary critics were through, they had split poor J into J1, J2, J3, L, K, S, and N. Not being satisfied with these, authors subdivided E into E1 and E2, except for the authors who wanted to eliminate E completely. P was divided into Pa and Pb, and one author wanted to make a case for seven different authors in P. To this they added a series of redactors over several centuries, identifying alleged changes down to quarter verses and smaller units. (Soggin, Introduction to the Old Testament, p.87-88).
  • An Anglican church in London invited singer Greg Lake to sing his hit song called I Believe in Father Christmas. The lyrics to the song refer to Christianity being a fairy story comparable to Father Christmas (Santa Claus). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6-PAKOt7sM
  • Conservative churches hardly need examples. They have retreated inside their churches and routinely teach, either explicitly or implicitly, that faith is separate from reason and that we should stay within the walls of the church and not engage the culture.


How Do We Respond?

The general sequence of the problem went like this:

  • Early 1800’s: poor philosophy
  • Late 1800’s: Seminaries accepted poor Bible scholarship and began to graduate pastors who were taught the Bible was untrustworthy
  • Early 1900’s: Liberalism becomes entrenched in the pulpit. Conservatives begin to separate and close themselves inside the church.
  • Mid 1900’s: Denominations have a series of conservative / liberal splits.
  • Late 1900’s: The second and third generations of liberal church leaders fall into heresy.

From the beginnings of the problem to the bitter fruit took 80 to 100 years. Correcting the problem will take just as long, and must follow the same pattern:

  • Seminaries begin to embrace intellectual activities around philosophy, theology, and apologetics
  • Seminaries begin to graduate pastors who are able to use philosophy, theology, and apologetics to engage the culture
  • The second and third generations of intellectual church leaders win back a seat at the cultural table.

The movement of the seminaries to again embrace apologetics and philosophy began in the early 1990’s. Slowly, conservative seminaries are again connecting faith and reason. Meanwhile, those of us in the apologetics movement are doing triage and damage control, hoping to save some, and praying that the culture can last until the solution filters down to the churches.

Posted in Apologetics, Bible, Church History, Culture, Evolution, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Funds Needed for Brain Surgery

A friend is in need of brain surgery to help cure severe epilepsy. The details are at the link below. Will you consider supporting this cause? Can you please pass this along?



Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

On the Atheists’ Demand for Evidence

When asked why they do not believe in God, a common atheist answer is that there is insufficient evidence, or more commonly, there is no evidence at all. In one online conversation I saw recently, one atheist said of God “There is no evidence he exists, and until he is proven I must reject the god hypothesis.” Another replied “I can’t accept the unsubstantiated existence of any gods,  same as the existence of magic or ghosts.”  Such answers are common.

Modern atheists imply that if there were enough evidence that God existed, they would believe. They never seem to have a problem with the evidence for black holes and null sets, but they always seem to tell us that the evidence for God is insufficient or nonexistent. I have even had atheists tell me that they have found sufficient reason to deny that effects must have a cause, but not enough evidence that God exists.

David Berlinski, in his pointed response to modern atheists, The Devil’s Delusion, pokes a logical pin into the atheist balloon. He starts quickly:

It is wrong, the nineteenth-century British mathematician W. K. Clifford affirmed, “always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” I am guessing that Clifford believed what he wrote, but what evidence he had for his belief, he did not say.

With one swipe of the broadsword, Berlinski shows that atheist logic seems to run much stronger one way than the other.

It would seem quite reasonable to only believe in things where there is sufficient evidence. No one in the academic conversation would ask that anyone do so, certainly not Christian apologists. The way the conversations typically go with most atheists, however, there never seems to be enough evidence for God. Rational beings, they claim, never believe in anything without sure, solid, hard evidence. They claim they never believe in anything without it, even to the point of denying belief entirely, only accepting demonstrations of evidence. As the Clifford quote states, atheists always everywhere  demand sufficient evidence. But Berlinski’s logic pin is close by, ready to pop another inflated claim.

The problem, Berlinski says, is that “the concept of sufficient evidence is infinitely elastic.” It would seem that a reasonable person would apply the same requirement on all situations, demanding the same level of evidence for all things. But in almost all other situations, no one does. Berlinski explains:

What a physicist counts as evidence is not what a mathematician generally accepts. Evidence in engineering has little to do with evidence in art, and while everyone can agree that it is wrong to go off half-baked, half-cocked, or half-right, what counts as being baked, cocked, or right is simply too variable to suggest a plausible general principle.

Two of the atheists’ fundamental problems seems to be a demand for evidence that goes beyond the field of study, and a demand that the object itself be the sole basis for conclusions. As Berlinski points out, objects or facts by themselves cannot be the basis for any conclusions or belief. As an example, he uses the question of whether we should believe that neutrinos have mass:

A neutrino by itself cannot function as a reason for my belief. It is a subatomic particle, for heaven’s sake. What I believe is a proposition, and so an abstract entity–that neutrinos have mass. How could a subatomic particle enter into a relationship with the object of my belief? But neither can a neutrino be the cause of my belief. I have, after all, never seen a neutrino: not one of them has ever gotten me to believe in it. The neutrino, together with almost everything else, lies at the end of an immense inferential trail, a complicated set of judgements.

Believing as I do that neutrinos have mass–it is one of my oldest and most deeply held convictions–I believe what I do on the basis of the fundamental laws of physics and a congeries of computational schemes, algorithms, specialized programming languages, techniques for numerical integration, huge canned programs, computer graphics, interpolation methods, nifty shortcuts, and the best effort by mathematicians and physicists to convert the data of various experiments into coherent patterns, artfully revealing symmetries and continuous narratives, The neutrino has nothing to do with it.

Within mathematical physics, the theory determines the evidence, not the other way around.

When considering neutrinos, somewhere in the long inferential chain is a series of inferential steps. Each of these steps requires a certain degree of trust and confidence that the method being used is valid. I strongly suspect that if the question about the mass of a neutrino had implications about the moral life of the person running the experiment, the outcome would be not be pure logic, but fraught with emotion. If neutrinos having mass had implications for our sex lives or whether we should be more honest on our taxes, there would be a much higher degree of evidence being demanded for the conclusion. There would be a large number of otherwise logical people telling us that we have no basis for believing that neutrinos have mass, and that reasonable people ought to demand more evidence.

At the very least, we must agree that most conclusions rarely  add up like a math formula, and almost always require some logical inference.

But what of the claim that the evidence for God is on par with the evidence for magic, ghosts, and the like? I would simply ask: Really? Are you actually saying there is none at all?  Are you truly demanding the same degree of proof for all your other beliefs? Like the mathematician Clifford, what evidence do you have for holding the conclusion you do about the level of proof required?

My atheist friend, I submit that you are not as rigorous of a skeptic as David Hume, who went to great lengths to do exactly what you are trying to do. He once said this: “When we leave our closet, and engage in the common affairs of life, its conclusions seem to vanish, like the phantoms of the night on the appearance of the morning; and it is difficult for us to retain even that conviction, which we had attained with difficulty.” In other words, we ultimately have to put our little game back in the closet and return to normal, where we know we cannot doubt everyday things as severely as we doubt God, or we would not get through an hour of our life.

The atheist is therefore proven to apply his demand for evidence unequally. While worshipping at the alter of logic and reason, he falls upon it.



Posted in Apologetics, Atheism, Skepticism | 6 Comments

Another Atheist Converts to Christianity

Another atheist has converted to Christianity. My atheists friends will no doubt be quick to tell me that we do not add up conversions to get to the truth, and they are correct. Surely there are also people who were raised non-atheist who become atheists. Nevertheless, you can read the story of this former-atheist-now-Christian here.

The interesting fact of this particular person, Leah Libresco, is that she was raised atheist from birth, her parents were both atheist, and religion was not in her upbringing. “I grew up on Long Island, where most of the people I knew were non-religious Jews. So, religion was so far from most of our minds…”  And as she explains, “There wasn’t really a time when I wasn’t an atheist. My parents are both atheists, so that’s how I was raised.

Further, she was educated, having graduated from Yale university with a degree in political science, a subject that often has a clash of ideas. More surprisingly, Libresco was a writer for the liberal Huffington Post and a rather popular atheist blogger.

What was the main idea that got through to her? The moral argument for the existence of God. You can find out more about the moral argument here and here.

Popular atheists today tell us that people like Libresco are not supposed to happen. Atheists like to think that all people of faith check their brains at the door. Yet if we just look around, we find many thinking people becoming believers in Jesus. You can find more atheists who have converted here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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)

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments