Did a Census Really Bring Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem?

Did a Census Really Bring Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem?

[Editor's note: Beyond Sunday is a Monday Bible study to start off your week.] 

Focus Bible Passage

"1In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child."

Luke 2:1

Defending the faith means clearing Christ and the Bible of false charges when they arise. When others cast doubt on the historical accuracy of Bible events, such as the census mentioned in the passage above, be prepared with a gracious response. Here is one adapted from W. P. Armstrong's well-documented article "Chronology of the New Testament" in the international standard bible encyclopedia.

Classic Commentary

The census or enrollment, which, according to Luke 2:1, was the occasion of the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem where Jesus was born, is connected with a decree of Augustus embracing the Greek-Roman world. This decree must have been carried out in Palestine by Herod and probably in accordance with the Jewish method--each going to his own city--rather than the Roman. 

While Josephus does not mention the Herodian census, Luke carefully distinguishes the census at the time of Jesus' birth as "first," (i.e. first in a series of enrollments connected either with Quirinius or with the imperial policy inaugurated by the decree of Augustus).

The geographical work of [Herod] Agrippa, together with the interest of the emperor in the organization and finances of the empire and the attention which he gave to the provinces are indirectly corroborative of Luke's statement. Augustus himself conducted a census in Italy in and in Gaul in 727/27* [see roman dating system, ‘auc'] and had a census taken in other provinces. For Egypt there is evidence of a regular periodic census every 14 years extending back to 773/20 and it is not improbable that this procedure was introduced by Augustus. 

The time of the decree is stated only in general terms by Luke, and it may have been as early as 727/27 or later in 746-8, its execution in different provinces and subject kingdoms being carried out at different times. Luke dates the census in the kingdom of Herod specifically by connecting it with the administrative functions of Quirinius in Syria. But as P. Quintilius Varus was the legate of Syria just before and after the death of Herod from 748/6-750/4 and his predecessor was C. Sentius Saturninus from 745/9-748/6 there seems to be no place for Quirinius during the closing years of Herod's reign.

Tertullian indeed speaks of Saturninus as legate at the time of Jesus' birth. It is possible that the connection of the census with Quirinius may be due to his having brought to completion what was begun by one of his predecessors; or Quirinius may have been commissioned especially by the emperor to conduct a census in Syria. 

A Thought to Keep

Christian author francis schaeffer wrote, "The best reason to believe Christianity is that it's true." God calls us to true belief, not blind faith.

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