The atheist argument in a nutshell is this: the Census of Quirinius wasn't until 6 A.D., about a decade after the death of King Herod, and about a decade after every other event that Matthew and Luke describe in their Infancy Narratives. Therefore, Luke's either an incredibly unreliable historian, or is outright making up details. Either way is a body blow to the credibility of his Gospel. That's a strong-sounding argument, on the surface. But if you dig down a little bit, you'll discover that as a critique, it suffers from some pretty glaring flaws.
There are three reasons that I don’t think Luke could possibly be saying what atheists (and most modern Bibles, including the NIV) depict him as saying:
|The Division of Herod's Kingdom|
Now, Luke has just said that King Herod is still alive (Luke 1:5 – and yes, this means that the traditional dating of Christ’s birth is probably off by a couple years). He can’t be saying that Judea is both under the control of King Herod and under the control of Quirinius. Not only would the chronology be off, but that doesn’t make any sense. It’d be like saying that King George III was in charge of the American colonies, and then that John Adams was president. Not only is there a decade in between those two events, and a major political shift, but they just can’t both be in charge. And Luke is writing propably in the 60s, much nearer the event than we are to the American Revolution.
So that’d be like making the John Adams mistake above, while knowing the name of Betsy Smith, John Adam’s sister-in-law. It’s just unlikely he couldn’t have known about the chronology following King Herod’s death.
In fact, Luke 3:1 makes it clear he knows all about that division, and when it happens. The chapter begins, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene...” So he’s pretty clearly well-informed about the division of Israel after the death of King Herod.
|Mosaic of Mary and Joseph's enrollment for taxation before Quirinius|
(Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, Constantinople)
- The Greek here is best read to mean that this was the census preceding Quirinius;
- The Greek here is best read to mean that this was the census that became important while Quirinius was governor;
- This Greek here is best read to mean that this was the first census taken by Governor Quirinius -- but that Luke is referring to a census taken before he became governor.
There's a fourth option, of course: that we're still missing important historical pieces. But all of these options suggest that we're not talking about the 6 A.D. census, but an earlier one. Any of these alternatives strike me as more plausible than the idea that Luke got the huge details wrong, while getting all of the same details correct.
After all, for Luke to be describing the census of 6 A.D., he’d have to not only (1) get the date wrong by a decade or more, he’d also have to (2) think that Quirinius and King Herod were in charge at the same time, and (3) that Quirinius conducted more than one census during his stint as governor. All of this is resolved quite easily if we read Luke 2:2 as describing the census as the one that preceded the more famous census of 6 A.D. Which, of course, corresponds perfectly well with the rest of the Biblical evidence for the dating of the birth of Christ.