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 his own town to register.
— Luke 2:1–3
On the Dateline NBC’s “The Birth of Jesus” episode, Dr. John Dominic Crossan, co-founder of the wildly popular Jesus Seminar, called into question the historical veracity of Holy Scripture. Said Crossan: “Luke tells us the story that at the time Jesus was born Augustus had decreed a census of the whole earth. Now, every scholar will tell you there was no such census ever.”
Is Crossan correct? Is the Canon corrupt? Did Dr. Luke make a colossal historical blunder that effectively discredits sacred Scripture? In an age in which the historical reliability of the Bible is being questioned, it is crucial that Christians are equipped to demonstrate that Scripture is the infallible repository of redemptive revelation. So how do we respond to critics like Crossan? Is his pontification on NBC a defensible argument or merely a dogmatic assertion?
First, while Crossan made his pontification with typical bravado, it turns out to be patently false. Caesar Augustus was famous for census taking. So famous, in fact, that this issue is no longer even debated among credible historians. The Jewish historian Josephus refers to a Roman taxation in AD 6, and considering the scope of the taxation, it is logical to assume that it took a long time to complete. Undoubtedly it began with Caesar Augustus around 5 BC and was likely completed a decade later.
Furthermore, Luke—ever the meticulous historian—notes that the census took place when Quirinius served as governor of Syria. As Paul Maier, an esteemed professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, noted on the Bible Answer Man broadcast, the Romans took forty years to get a census done in Gaul, so for a province fifteen hundred miles away from Rome to take a decade is eminently reasonable. Moreover, since the census came in under the administration of Quirinius, it would correctly be labeled as such. Not only so, but given Luke’s impeccable credentials as a historian, it would have been far more circumspect for Crossan to temper his dogmatism.
Finally, one need only remember the experience of the brilliant archaeologist Sir William Ramsay, who, like Crossan, was bent on undermining Luke’s historical reliability. Through his painstaking Mediterranean archaeological adventures, he discovered that, one after the other, the historical allusions that Luke provides are accurate. If, as Ramsay points out, Luke does not err in referencing a plethora of countries, cities, islands, and all the details surrounding them, then there’s no reason to doubt him concerning the census.
On Day 7 of your historic journey to the birthplace of Jesus, why not make a commitment to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15)? And remember, even if you don’t have the answer at your fingertips, you can always research and return.
May God use your well-reasoned answers this Christmas season as an opportunity to share the grace and truth and light that only the Christ of Christmas can bring to the human heart.