I listened to a debate between Bart Ehrman and Mike Licona where Ehrman cited what he considered to be Bible contradictions and in several cases, Licona seemed to agree with him. Both questioned the dating of Quirinius’ census, which is reported in Luke’s gospel. Licona did say that scholars have offered some solutions, yet he didn’t elaborate in that debate. Both also seemed to agree that the birth narratives of Jesus were in conflict. Ehrman specifically questioned Luke’s report that Mary and Joseph followed Jewish law and sacrificed doves in the Temple 32 days after Jesus’ birth if the family had fled to Egypt prior to that time. Ehrman further suggested that Joseph would not have known his genealogy through King David’s line since King David lived 1000 years prior.
Access the debate here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qP7RrCfDkO4
Access my response in a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkmTXOe9ui0&t=629s
I have published parts of this blog in four prior blogs and it’s a chapter in a book I’m working on, so if you’ve read them (or a draft of my book), I thank you. I do have a few new points here, which you maybe haven’t considered.
To some, the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke contain what seem like contradictory accounts of Jesus’ birth. But like all so-called Biblical contradictions, the accounts are easily reconciled. In fact, it is an undesigned coincidence that the two accounts so perfectly marry. I have placed the Bible passages in a likely chronological order.
“In those days Caesar Augustus [who reigned between 27 B.C. and 14 A.D.] 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, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.”
“When the time came for the purification rights required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord (Exodus 13:2,12), “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons.’
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.’
The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother. ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child for all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
When Mary and Joseph had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.”
Matthew 2: 1-23
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’
When King Herod heard this, he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem, in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ (Micah 5:2, 4)
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me so that I too may go and worship him.’
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet. ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.’
So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.”
As is demonstrated in the two accounts by Luke and Matthew, each has highlighted different parts of Jesus’ young life. The accounts fit together like a glove. Matthew reported the earliest time in Jesus’ infancy, while Luke reported when he was between infancy and two years old. This assertion is supported when one considers that Herod called for the deaths of all children under 2 years old. Further, Herod sent the Magi to Bethlehem to find Jesus, yet the Magi found their way to Jesus by following a star. Jesus could have been in Bethlehem or outside of Bethlehem when they found him. The location of the “house” Jesus was in was not specified when the Magi visited Him.
How did the Magi know the Messiah would be born then?
How did the Magi know the Messiah would be born in that time period? Consider the prevailing Jewish beliefs at that time as recorded in the Talmud:
“The world will exist six thousand years. Two thousand years of desolation [meaning from Adam to Abraham]; two thousand years of Torah [meaning from Abraham to somewhere around the beginning of the Common Era] and two thousand years of the Messianic era [roughly the last two thousand years]; but because our iniquities were many, all this has been lost [i.e., the Messiah did not come at the expected time]” (b. Sanhedrin 97a-b; Brown, 2000, p. 70).
“That is the course that history was to take, but due to our sins that time frame increased. The Messiah did not come after four thousand years passed, and furthermore, the years that elapsed since then, which were to have been the messianic era, have elapsed.” (Sanhedrin 97b).
And everyone went to his home town to register
In a debate with a Christian historian called Mike Licona, Bart Ehrman, an agnostic, questioned whether Joseph would even know his lineage through David, which required him to go to Bethlehem to register. He questioned whether Jews would have such extensive genealogies. The answer is in the Bible, which records extensive genealogies. In 1 Chronicles, dozens of genealogies are recorded over twenty generations. In Ezra 2: 59-63, the importance of maintaining accurate family records of descent from Israel was highlighted in the rejection of those who hadn’t kept their proper records. In the New Testament, Matthew recorded Jesus’ genealogies back to Abraham who lived between 2200 and 2300 years prior. Luke recorded Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam, which is even further back. Outside of the Bible, Josephus traced Jewish history back to the beginning when God formed the earth in Antiquities of the Jews. He traced history back to Adam, making mention of all key figures up until his time. So Ehrman’s claim that it is unlikely that ancient Hebrews would record their genealogies is easily refuted.
Dating of Herod’s death
Some have argued that Luke’s census must have been taken in 6 A.D., because Quirinius was the governor at that time when a census was taken. Yet researchers have also determined that other censuses were taken in the Roman Empire in 8 B.C. and 2 B.C. (Nollett, 2012). Nollett (2012) makes a powerful argument noting that Quirinius was likely the governor in 2 B.C. and that Herod didn’t die in 4 B.C., as some have posited. He stated that Herod’s death wasn’t likely the very weak partial lunar eclipse that occurred in 4 B.C., but a much stronger eclipse of 1 B.C. Hoehner (1977) pointed out that it is unknown who was the governor of Syria between Varus and Gaius Caesar (4 B.C. to 1 B.C), opening the possibility for Quirinius. According to Tacitus (Annals 3:48), Quirinius had numerous roles, so the suggestion that he had enough status in 2 B.C. to collect census data is not a stretch.
Josephus reported that Herod’s death was after a lunar eclipse and before the Passover. There were no eclipses in 3 or 2 B.C., but there were eclipses in 4 B.C. and 1 B.C. The 4 B.C. lunar eclipse took place on March 13. As Steinmann (2009) noted, the minimum number of days to complete all of the events Josephus mentioned that Herod completed between the lunar eclipse and the Passover is at least 41 (which is a very conservative number given other scholars have suggested more), while there were only 29 days between March 13th and the Passover in 4 B.C. There were 92 days between the lunar eclipse of January 10th of 1 B.C. and the Passover.
Arguments against this dating of Herod’s death also make mention of his successors, stating evidence Archelaus reigned from 4 B.C. to 6 A.D., so Herod’s death must have preceded his reign. Herod had several sons – and the first one to whom he had willed would be his successor was Antipater. Antipater was convicted of murder in Rome, so Herod changed his will so Archelaus would be his successor. In Josephus’ accounts of speeches from Herod and Antipater in his book “The Jewish War” (1, 32, 2-3), Herod had “yielded” up authority to his son Antipater before he died:
“I confess too to thee, O Varus, the great folly I was guilty of; for I provoked those sons of mine to act against me, and cut off their just expectations for the sake of Antipater; and indeed what kindness did I do to them, that could equal what I have done to Antipater? to whom I have, in a manner, yielded up my royal while I am alive, and whom I have openly named for the successor to my dominions in my testament, and given him a yearly revenue of his own of fifty talents, and supplied him with money to an extravagant degree out of my own revenue; and when he was lately about to sail to Rome, I gave him three talents, and recommended him, and him alone of all my children, to Cæsar, as his father’s deliverer. Now what crimes were those other sons of mine guilty of like these of Antipater? and what evidence was there brought against them so strong as there is to demonstrate this son to have plotted against me?”
Antipater’s response to Herod in the next passage notes that he was a king already.
“And indeed what was there that could possibly provoke me against thee? Could the hope of being king do it? I was a king already.”
In other words, and consistent with what Steinmann has noted (2009), Herod’s son Antipater was a co-regent with Herod. It is therefore likely when Herod changed his will that Archelaus became a co-regent as well.
Steinmann (2009) stated: “The consensus about the reign of Herod that is built around Schürer’s interpretation of Josephus is fraught with difficulties. It fails to fit any of the verifiable chronological data external to Josephus and must resort to unlikely readings of Josephus’ chronological data and dismissal of other data as mistaken. A reexamination of the data demonstrates that Herod actually reigned from 39 BCE to his death in early 1 BCE. The only readjustment required by this revised chronology is that Josephus made mistakes in Antiquities 14.389, 487 when reporting the consular and Olympian dating of the beginning of Herod’s reign. (In the case of Antiquities 14.384, even the defenders of the Schürer consensus concede that there is a mistake in at least the Olympian date given by Josephus.) Apparently, Josephus calculated these dates one year too early and then assigned them to the wrong consular years. Since these two events were clearly three years apart, the mistake in the first passage (Ant. 14.389) lead to the parallel mistake in the second (Ant. 13.487). Once the correct dates for Herod’s reign are understood, all of the data external to Josephus as well as all the other data given by Josephus are in perfect harmony, and one can construct the chronology of his reign” (pp. 28-29).
Back to Quirinius
Quirinius was well-esteemed, with a long history of administration, as evidenced in this passage from Tacitus:
“About the same time he requested the Senate to let the death of Sulpicius Quirinus [in 21 A.D.] be celebrated with a public funeral. With the old patrician family of the Sulpicii this Quirinus, who was born in the town of Lanuvium, was quite unconnected. An indefatigable soldier, he had by his zealous services won the consulship under the Divine Augustus, and subsequently the honours of a triumph for having stormed some fortresses of the Homonadenses in Cilicia [prior to 6 B.C.]. He was also appointed adviser to Caius Cæsar in the government of Armenia, and had likewise paid court to Tiberius, who was then at Rhodes. The emperor now made all this known to the Senate, and extolled the good offices of Quirinus to himself, while he censured Marcus Lollius, whom he charged with encouraging Caius Cæsar in his perverse and quarrelsome behaviour. But people generally had no pleasure in the memory of Quirinus, because of the perils he had brought, as I have related, on Lepida, and the meanness and dangerous power of his last years.” – (Tacitus Annals book 3, chapter 48)
He further held an honorary municipal office as a duumvir in Pisidian Antioch (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae 9502 and 2683). Quirinius’ name has been discovered on a coin (McRay, 2008) and on the base of a statue erected in Pisidian Antioch (Ramsay, 1914; Wallace, 2017).
In the 25th year of Augustus’ reign in 2 B.C., the Roman Senate recognized him as a “Pater Patriae,” which means father of the Fatherland. The “Silver Jubilee” marked the date in 2 B.C., which was also Rome’s 750th anniversary. Augustus sent out a decree the year before to all in the Roman Empire, including Jews, which required them to register their approval of this honor (Lewin, 1865). According to Josephus, Augustus was sixty when he accepted the title and celebrated the dedication of the Augustan Forum. The Augustan Forum was a massive building of about 125 meters long and 90 meters wide, which housed a temple of Mars Ultor and numerous marble and bronze statues (Thorpe, 2012).
One purpose for a census is to count the population for taxation. Some have argued that the Romans would not have taxed the Israelites or conducted a census in Israel before it became a province in 6 A.D., but Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, 10:2-7) records Roman taxation of Jews from as early as 44 B.C. The following passage provides an example.
“For there was a certain sect of men that were Jews, who valued themselves highly upon the exact skill they had in the law of their fathers, and made men believe they were highly favored by God, by whom this set of women were inveigled. These are those that are called the sect of the Pharisees, who were in a capacity of greatly opposing kings. A cunning sect they were, and soon elevated to a pitch of open fighting and doing mischief. Accordingly, when all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good-will to Caesar, and to the king’s government, these very men did not swear, being above six thousand; and when the king imposed a fine upon them, Pheroras’s wife paid their fine for them. In order to requite which kindness of hers, since they were believed to have the foreknowledge of things to come by Divine inspiration, they foretold how God had decreed that Herod’s government should cease, and his posterity should be deprived of it; but that the kingdom should come to her and Pheroras, and to their children.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 17:4).
“The Pater Patriae registration of all inhabitants of the Roman Empire initiated in 2 BC (and not the popularly believed census of Palestine taken in AD 6) is the census which Luke reported as having occurred when Quirinius was governor of Syria; he was governor in 2 BC and again in AD 6. It should also be noted that Luke did not say that Quirinius was governor when Herod died; only that he was governor at the time the Pater Patriae registration was ordered (and Herod presumably was still alive). Furthermore, when Luke reported that the census was of the entire (Roman) world, we now see that he did not exaggerate, if we regard the Pater Patriae census of 2 BC and not Quirinius’s local census of AD 6 as the census he was talking about. The streams of evidence resolve: Jesus was probably born sometime in 2 BC.” (Nollett, 2012, p. 218).
In summary, it is likely the census Luke described was the first census taken by Quirinius in 2 B.C. The second census he took in 6 A.D. as recorded by Josephus and in Acts 5:37. Furthermore, it is more likely that Herod the Great died in 1 B.C., not 4 B.C. as others have argued. Researchers have also estimated that Jesus was born between 3 and 1 B.C., which would put Him in His early thirties when He began His ministry. This dating is consistent with the age Luke gave Him in his “orderly account.” In conclusion, we have no conflicts in the birth narratives. Sorry Bart. Nothing can stop the Word of God from being shared with the world. Gamaliel made that clear centuries ago in the book of Acts.
Brown, M.L. (2000). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus.
Hoehner, H.W. (1977). Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Corporation.
Josephus, Flavius. War of the Jews. Accessed September 18, 2019 at: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/war-1.html
Lewin, T. (1865). Fasti Sacri: A Key Chronology of the New Testament. London: Longmann Green and Company.
McRay, J. (2008) Archaeology and the New Testament. Baker Academic.
Nollett, J.A. (2012). Astronomical and historical evidence for dating the nativity in 2 B.C. Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 64(4): 211-219.
Ramsay, W.M. (1914). The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament. Hodder and Stoughton.
Ramsay, W.M. (unknown). Luke’s Narrative of the Birth of Christ. Accessed December 15, 2018 at https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/expositor/series8/04-385.pdf
Steinmann, A.E. (2009). When Did Herod the Great Reign? Novum Testamentum 51 (2009) 1-29
Thorpe, S. (2012). The Forum of Augustus. Accessed September 15, 2019 at creatinghistory.com
Wallace, J.W. (2017). Unbelievable? Is Luke’s Description of Quirinius Historically Inaccurate. Cold Case Christianity. Accessed December 15, 2018 at http://coldcasechristianity.com/2017/unbelievable-is-lukes-description-of-quirinius-historically-inaccurate/