For many Christians, Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is a familiar and well-loved passage rather than a point of contention regarding the veracity of Scripture. Yet some skeptics challenge the accuracy of this account, asserting that Luke is mistaken about an empire-wide census being taken during the time that a governor named Quirinius was ruling over Syria.
In his gospel, Luke writes:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born (2:1-6 NIV).
According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Quirinius ruled in A.D. 6—nine years after King Herod died in 4 B.C. Since Scripture indicates Jesus was born about two years before Herod died, this passage seems to present a chronological inconsistency.
Recognizing this, skeptics sometimes say this census was too late to be the explanation for Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem, and therefore Luke’s account must contain an error. Did Luke wrongly report the timing of the Christmas story?
We know that Augustus actually instituted three censuses during this time, as Rome was actively documenting residents of the empire---regardless of citizenship.
Some suggest one cause for the apparent inconsistency is that the Greek word, “prote” in Luke 2:1 is best translated “earlier” rather than “first.” This is why the NIV text includes a footnote suggesting an alternate translation: “This census took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” However, this would be an unusual, though not impossible, way for Luke to use the word “prote.” It might be a solution, and some find it compelling, but is there another way to understand this passage?
In an interview for the Ehrman Project, Dr. Darrell Bock responds to this very question, as raised in Dr. Bart Ehrman’s skeptical work, Misquoting Jesus. Dr. Bock suggests that the census Luke mentioned could be understood as a massive project which saw a number of years from its beginning until the data was finally put to use by the Roman government:
“Augustus didn’t institute an empire wide census, but he instituted a variety of censuses in specific locations moving from place to place as he gradually took the census of the empire….
This census took place somewhere between 6 and 4 BC—at least the beginning mechanizations of it—but it wasn’t actually executed until we got to Quirinius.
In other words, he’s the one who got the data, put it together, presented it for Rome and Rome actually began to make use of it for taxation under Quirinius. So this is a long process.”
Dr. Bock illustrates this idea by likening the ancient census to a modern construction project, such as a major city freeway:
“Sometimes, it takes awhile between the planning of the freeway and the actual building of the freeway and the completion of the freeway…My own take is that this census became associated with Quirinius because he’s the one who completed it, but wasn’t the one who was responsible for starting it.”
These two options are suggested possibilities that demonstrate the apparent chronological problem does not automatically mean that Luke made a mistake in reporting the timing of the Christmas story.
Watch Dr. Bock respond to this issue in an interview with the Ehrman Project:
For answering other such questions about Scripture, see the Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible: The Gospels and Acts (Broadman & Holman). Dr. Bock contributed to that volume for Luke and Acts.
 Darrell Bock, Luke, BECNT, ed. Moises Silva., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 904.
 Michael Wilkins, Craig Evans, Darrell Bock, Adreas Kostenberger, The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible: The Gospels and Acts, ed Jeremy Royal Howard, (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2013), 352.