When you read Luke's gospel you realize right away this guy isn't fooling around. He is mentioning real historical people whose history can be verified. He is either a bald faced liar who doesn't give a rip or a detailed historian who is presenting you with a story you can trust.
When he begins the story of Jesus' birth in Luke 2, he starts by mentioning the adopted son of Julius Caesar, Gaius Octavius otherwise known as Augustus Caesar. He mentions a decree Augustus made. "And it happened in those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus for all the habitable world to be registered." (Luke 2:1 LITV)
In those days means the time Jesus was born. Luke is specifically dating this event, and it is important you read this in the literal translation. The decree was to be a systematic registration of people in the Roman Empire. It was a census, perhaps a reoccurring one, something Jews were not to do in their own government. There is evidence that the Pharisees were not cooperative with Roman censuses. But is there evidence for a decree dating to the time of Jesus?
There is. The Acts of Augustus Inscription is a type of autobiography where Augustus talks about his accomplishments. Here he lists a few censuses he ordered, one dating to 8BC and another, a registration in 2BC, the one in which the Pharisees would not participate. Which census scholars favor depends on their date for King Herod's death. Matthew says that Jesus was born "in the days of Herod the King." (Matthew 2:1) Herod had a central role in the Christmas story, so of course he couldn't be dead when it took place!
In Acts 5:37, Luke mentions another census taken in 6AD. The census in Luke 2 is not that census. He makes this clear in Luke 2:2. "This registration first occurred under the governing of Syria by Cyrenius." He is further cementing a date known to his contemporaries. But isn't it exciting that we have a figure not estimated in centuries but within a few years? Between 8BC and 2BC.
Cyrenius is also known as Quirinius. He is popular among early historians as he is mentioned by several and even a few leaders. He is known as a war hero and a rich dignitary with a miserable home life.
Quirinius ruled in Syria, occupying different offices and serving in different capacities as required by the Roman path to leadership. It is important to note Luke is not calling him the governor, but says he is governing Syria. In what role is not clear. In fact, not much is known about him during his early career. We do know he was governor of Syria by 6AD which Luke refers to in Acts 5:37.
Sir William M. Ramsay points out that Roman officers helped with censuses, and Quirinius could have even been sent in some authoritarian role to help with the census.
Scholars debate the details Luke gives about Quirinius, but what should we do with them? Luke wrote with the intention of giving a factual account. It was one that could have been easily refuted if he was lying. Fake news doesn't stand long as we are learning (or hoping) today.
But Luke's gospel has proven trustworthy on other matters of historical details he gave. That means we can trust the other parts of his contribution to the good news as well. The parts that say Jesus healed them all; I tell you the truth; trust in Me, and so on. Many think Christianity is for the weak, but it is not for the weak to face who they really are, where they are headed and be humble enough to ask for help to change and then follow through.
Luke was one man who did. He was so changed that he risked his life to share his testimony and to write the account of Jesus' life even modern skeptics respect.
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