In their quest to discount the validity of the Bible, some agnostics and atheists have claimed that Luke was mistaken about the census he referenced in his gospel, which some have attributed to a census taken under Quirinius in 6 A.D. that the ancient Jewish historian Josephus referenced. The 6 A.D. census was a local census of Judea, yet Luke referenced a census of the “entire Roman world.” Could there have been an earlier, larger census? The short answer is YES. Below is the longer answer.
“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.” (Luke 2:1-3).
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. and that the Jews were required to register for the Pater Patriae. Its purpose was a little different. Everyone in the Roman Empire was required to register as a sign of goodwill and obedience to Augustus as the Pater Patriae. “An inscription from Paphlagonia, clearly dated to 3 B.C., records an oath of obedience taken by Romans living in the area, but in addition ‘the same oath was sworn also by all the people in the land of the altars of Augustus in the temples of Augustus in the various districts.’” (Thorley, 1981; Syme, 1974). People who failed to take the oath and register were fined, as demonstrated by Josephus:
“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, chapter 2, section 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. was 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 (Steinmann, 2009). Researchers have also estimated that Jesus was born between 3 and 2 B.C. (e.g., Thorley, 1981), 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, Luke’s census does not give us any reason to doubt his gospel’s validity and historical value.
Related video with further explanations on Jesus’ birth narratives:
Josephus. F. Antiquities of the Jews. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-17.html
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.
Steinmann, A.E. (2009). When Did Herod the Great Reign? Novum Testamentum 51 (2009) 1-29.
Syme, R. (1974). The Crisis of 2 B.C. München : Bayerischen Akad.
Thorley, J. (1981). When Was Jesus Born? Greece & Rome, 28(1), 81-89.
Thorpe, S. (2012). The Forum of Augustus. www.creatinghistory.com