I did a talk today on "Has History Disproved Christmas?" The answer, of course, was "No!" But here are a few of my notes about the census problem.
1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
Luke 2:1-5, NIV 2010
Bock identifies five problems people cite when it comes to this passage.
- There was no known empire-wide census under Augustus
- No Roman census would have required Joseph to go to Bethlehem to register
- Israel under Herod wasn't officially part of the Roman Empire until Herod died in 4BC
- Josephus wrote that the first Roman census was under Quirinius in AD6, and that caused a revolt
- Quirinius wasn't governor of Syria until 10 years after Herod died. Herod died in 4BC, Quirinius became governor of Syria in AD6.
Here are some answers to those problems, adapted from Bock...
1) The Romans liked doing censuses because they liked taxing people. We know there was ongoing census activity across the Roman Empire at the time of Herod.
3) We also know that vassal kings (like Herod) did censuses too when Rome told them to. There's even evidence that Jews under Herod were paying Roman taxes (and hence had been censused).
If there was a census for Roman taxation and at Roman command under Herod, it makes sense that...
2 & 4) If Herod did a census (before 4BC), he might have done it Jewish-style rather than Roman-style. A Jewish-style census could well involve going to ancestral towns, especially if Joseph owned land in Bethlehem as he might well do if descended from David. A Jewish-style census wouldn't have caused riots like the Roman-style one in AD6 and so is less likely to be mentioned by Josephus, who is the only non-Biblical historian describing Palestine in that period.
It's also clear that the census Luke is talking about isn't the one in AD6. For example, a census after 4BC wouldn't have required Joseph to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem - after 4BC they were in different provinces. Luke also knows about the AD6 census - he mentions it and the rebellion in Acts 5:37.
So what about Quirinius? Luke 2:2 reads "This was the first census that took place whilea Quirinius was governor of Syria." But the 2010 NIV has a footnote saying “Or this census took place before...”
The word in question is πρωτος - dictionaries define it as “first, before, greatest”. So it could be talking about the census BEFORE the one where Quirinius was governor of Syria (the one in AD6 which caused all the trouble). We've got the same issue in English with the word "prototype", which is from πρωτος. Is the prototype of a new car before that car, or the first one?
Literally, the verse reads “this was the first census of Quirinius, governor of Syria.” Qurinius may well have been asked to administer the census by Herod, even though he wasn't governor of Syria yet. In the same way, we might say "President George W Bush was a notorious drunkard as a young man", even though he wasn't president when he was a young man.
In conclusion, these verses don't seem to provide good reason to doubt the historicity of Luke's account.