As it is Christmas season we often think about the story of the birth of Christ. It having more importance then either the birth of Frosty or Rudolph the red nosed reindeer even during the Christmas season...at least for now. Most of us have realized by now that the two birth accounts of Jesus, those of the book of Matthew and the book of Luke are not really reconcilable (see the article Matthew Chapter 2 Immanuel Context and Substance). Most of us also simply ignore this and conflate the two stories together but that really does not work if one thinks critically.
John Ankerberg presents some of his answers to the problem of the census in the book of Luke in his article “Was Luke Wrong About the Census under Quirinius?” He does well in laying out the problems when he writes:
So, Luke tells us Augustus took a census before Jesus was born and this was the reason Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem. However, critics say there are five reasons why Luke’s account is historically incorrect.
- 1. There is no known evidence of an Empire-wide census in the reign of Augustus. If it occurred, wouldn’t it be mentioned by one or another of the ancient historians who recorded this period?
2. Josephus records a lot about Herod but does not mention a Roman census in Palestine
3. Quirinius was not appointed governor of Syria and Judea until A.D. 6, many years after Jesus was born.
4. In a Roman census, Joseph would not have been required to travel to Bethlehem and he would not have been required to take Mary with him.
5. A Roman census could not have been carried out in Herod’s kingdom while Herod was still alive.
- No evidence but it could have happened.
- Quirinius might have ordered a census before that of A.D. 6
- There is a reference to “A.D. 104, Vivius Maximus issued an edict that states, "It is essential for all people to return to their homes for the census."
I am going to deal mainly with this last statement about Vivius Maximus. Because I can agree that something in the ancient world was not recorded or the record lost so there could have been a census, after all ancient history is not all that complete. Thus it is also possible that Quirinius also may have ordered a prior rather then first census a couple of years after Jesus' birth. I think that strains the meaning of the word within it's context which is apparently the consensus view of most Bible translators, but I can see the possibility. What I don't see is any logic to the idea of a having a census where someone returns to the home of their ancestors. It would be a logistical nightmare and why would the Romans even care about the ancestral homes of anyone in the Roman territory?
You can read the proclamation of Vivius Maximus and see that it says nothing about returning to ancestral homes. The English translation is: The census by household having begun, it is essential that all those who are away from their nomes be summoned to return to their own hearths so that they may perform the customary business of registration and apply themselves to the cultivation which concerns them. (the footnote is that "nome" was an Egyptian administrative district Vivius Maximus being the Governor of Egypt.) In the case of Joseph that would have been Nazareth (Luke 1:26). There are not too many ways to stretch that Vivius Maximus quote to encompass a return to ancestral homes. Certainly even harder once you read the exceptions for the people living in the countryside who were needed in the city.
When all the evidence is put together however it is difficult to accept the historical truth of various aspects of the book of Matthew and the book of Luke's accounts. The book of Matthew clearly had an agenda the writer was trying to get across, he took Old Testament texts out of context and applied them to Jesus to attempt to have Jesus recapitulate the history of Israel. As you read Micah chapter 5-6 you see two of those examples in one section. Matthew uses them in Matthew 2:6 using Micah 5:2 and Matthew 2:15 using Micah 6:4.
I don't want you to think that just because a Bible writer misuses facts or takes things out of context that such things are intentional lies. Usually they are methods of the writer to try and get across something of more spiritual importance. Just as I frequently hear in pastor's sermons. They frequently misuse facts and take things out of context to try and build a case. I don't think they are being purposefully deceptive but they are intent upon creating a particular spiritual point. Many Bible writers introduced that technique and it was once probably more useful in an age when knowledge was rather difficult to come by and facts often depended upon who you listened to. But I think we must be a little wiser than that today. A story may be a story and may contribute to a worthy application to ones life without the story being true, literally or historically. But we do ourselves a disservice if we try and pretend that things that very likely did not happen must have happened and happened in a specific way.
It is scary to think that we have to rethink things, but it really is the nature of life. Manipulation of information is no longer acceptable. There are a lot of things in the Bible that are cultural and no longer anything we would want to associate with. But we are not stuck in their times we can progress and we must; even if it is scary to some.