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St Luke and Jesus' birth

Published:Sunday | December 30, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Clinton Chisholm, Contributor

IF YOU ARE uncertain or ignorant about your facts as a writer of material purporting to be history then you hedge your bets by using vague terms, skillfully avoiding anything that anyone could double-check and blow your cover. For this reason fairy tales usually begin in an uncertain time and in an unspecified location. No sensible writer of pure fiction bares his flanks by writing what Luke wrote in his Gospel at chapter 1:5 and 2:1-3. Many Bible-believing Christians, clergy included, scarcely realise how vulnerable Luke made himself and his Gospel in these three terse verses.

Understandably then, for centuries and still today in some quarters, Luke has been regarded with disdain and dismissed with contempt as a bungler of historical details or as an inventor of pure fiction. Yet, some of the most learned scholars in history have praised Luke's uncanny accuracy exactly at the points where others attack his Achilles heels.

Chapter 2:1-3 is specific, not vague and touches on the history of Roman emperors, the history of provincial affairs and public administration under Emperor Augustus and beyond. Lk 1:5 is the same. Ponder the texts from the New King James Version and see how, seemingly needlessly, Luke makes himself vulnerable at several points.

Chapter 1:5: There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.

Chapter 2:1: And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. Chapter 2:2: This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. Chapter 2:3: So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

broad time band

In Chapter 1:5 Luke suggests that the births of John the Baptist and Jesus took place while Herod was king of Judea. So Luke locates the birth of Jesus within a certain specified historical timeframe and in a specific location and he alleges that Joseph and Mary, by imperial edict, were required to leave their residence in Nazareth (in Galilee) and return to their home area in Bethlehem (in Judea). Now Caesar Augustus was on the imperial throne 31 BC-AD 14, a broad time band but narrowed a bit by the mention of the census in question being the first and which took place while Quirinius (aka Cyrenius in some texts) was governing Syria and while Herod was king of Judea (40/37-4BC). The Greek word for Governor was a broad word covering many leadership roles in government.

This mention of Quirinius as governing Syria is a particular sore point because Quirinius was only known to have conducted a census in AD 6 when Judea (Palestine) was organised as a province of the Roman Empire. But that was the reality up to the late 19th century of this era and it was understandable then that scholars of all stripes, attacked Luke's gospel, mercilessly, some of them.

Any such attack or even doubt about Luke's accuracy today is not just curious but stands as an indictment of the critic's education and an embarrassing testimony to the critic's ignorance of research made public since the early twentieth century by that respected British geographer and classical scholar Sir William Ramsay. The preface to the fourth edition of Ramsay's The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthinesss of the New Testament was written on Christmas Eve, 1914.

limited information

Ramsay advises that even in the late 19th century, with the limited information then available, some of the most respected scholars of the time - specialists in Roman history and related disciplines - were more guarded in their approach to Luke's text than were the theologians. Ramsay says of his contemporary, that venerable German historian of Rome, Theodor Mommsen, "[he] regarded all the other statements of Luke in II.1-3 about the manner and origin of the census as probably right; but he felt no doubt that Luke was wrong about Quirinius and the date, on the double ground that Quirinius did not govern Syria until after the death of Herod [4 BC], and that he made no census of Judea before A.D. 6." (p. 276). Mommsen in 1883, revised some of his earlier judgments, conceding then that Quirinius governed Syria twice, the second occasion being in AD 6-7.

Based on inscriptions discovered in Asia Minor after Mommsen's revised comments in 1883, Ramsay informs "... it is now proved that the Homonadensian war [to avenge the killing of Amyntas, king of Galatia, on the Emperor's behalf] during which Quirinius held the government of Syria, must have occurred much earlier [than Mommsen's projected 3-2 BC] and it may be confidently said that the consulship of Quirinius in 12 BC was intended to qualify him for commanding the armies of Syria, and to organise the preparation for that war." (p. 281)

Ramsay also says that discoveries of enrolment papers in Egypt reveal a census-system extending from AD 90-258. He informs that it struck him that this was the system which Luke mentions as put into effect for the first time under Herod " ... and the periods when reckoned back gave a system originating from the Imperial authority of Augustus on 29 June, 23 BC, and falling due for the first time in 9 B.C." (p. 255)

He informs that the actual enrolment was almost always made in the year following "hence the actual census-taking was in 8 B.C., A.D. 7, A.D. 21, and so on" (256), a fourteen-year cycle. Interestingly, the discovered census document from Egypt "was issued by the governor of Egypt that every man must return to his own home (idia) for the census, exactly as Luke relates in respect to Judea." (p. 259)

Ramsay is unequivocal in his view of Luke. He beams: "Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy; he is possessed of the true historic sense. In short, this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians." (p. 222)

Clinton Chisholm is a minister of religion, broadcaster and lecturer at the Jamaica Theological Seminary. Email feedback to