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The Census of Quirinius

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Did Luke get it wrong?

During the traditional Christmas season, millions of Christians read the nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke. Luke, great historian as he was, provides information of the timing and circumstances around Jesus’ birth. This connects with the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament, including the timing (Daniel 9) and place (Micah 5:2). Luke 2:1–7 reads:

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (NKJV)

This passage has been the target for skeptics on several grounds, including the reality and timing of the census, and the need for a journey to Bethlehem. Yet as we have often pointed out, a good rule of thumb is, “the biblioskeptic is always wrong.” So let’s follow the biblical commands of 1 Peter 3:15 and 2 Corinthians 10:5—give reasons for our faith, and demolish opposing arguments.

‘All the world’

Some mock Luke’s phrasing in Luke 2:1: “All the world? Surely Aborigines weren’t included!” This, even in the English translation, is a ridiculously wooden way of reading the text. But the word “world” in this Luke passage is non-universal. As I wrote in Refuting Compromise:

The Greek in this verse is πᾶσαν τὴν οἰκουμένην (pasan tēn oikoumenēn), and it’s the Greek that counts. The basic word translated ‘world’ is οἰκουμένη (oikoumenē), from which we derive the word ‘ecumenical’. Greek scholars recognize that in the New Testament as well as secular Greek literature at the time, oikoumenē was often used to refer to the ‘Roman empire’ only.1 So Caesar Augustus really did initiate a census of all the oikoumenē, i.e., all the Roman Empire (p. 249).

A well regarded commentator on Luke, I. Howard Marshall (1934– ), Professor Emeritus of New Testament Exegesis at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland explains:

ὀικουμένη is ‘the inhabited (world)’, from ὀικέω, ‘to dwell’. It was used of the Roman Empire which was exaggeratedly regarded as equal to the whole world. 2,3

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