Luke vs. Josephus: Who Gets the Benefit of the Doubt?

Helped by this? Tell a Friend! ---->

Maybe someone can shed some light on this for me. I have been studying the birth of Jesus and have been looking into Luke’s account, particularly how Luke set the birth of Jesus into the historical circumstances of the day. Particularly,

  1. Herod was King of Judea (Luke 1:5)
  2. Caesar Augustas was Emperor (Luke 2:1)
  3. Quirinius was governor of Syria and was commissioned to take a census

The problem one runs into here is that Herod died around March of 4 BC and Quirinius was not governor of Syria until 6 or 7 AD. So you can’t have Herod alive and Quirinius governor of Syria.

Now, there may be a translation issue here as some have pointed out that one might translate it as “before Quirinius was governor of Syria” instead of “while Quirinius was governor of Syria” but that doesn’t get to my question. My question is why does Josephus get the benefit of the doubt instead of Luke? We don’t know when Luke was born but we know Josephus wasn’t born until 37 AD. It seems to me that Luke was closer in proximity to these events than Josephus and yet we base the dates of these events off of Josephus rather than Luke (unless there is more evidence out there that confirms Josephus over Luke that I am just missing). What is more, Josephus didn’t write until 75 and stopped writing near his death in 100. That puts him writing history after the Gospels have been circulating for some time.

To me, all of that gives more credibility to Luke than to Josephus. I don’t want to disparage Josephus or accuse him of anything improper but wouldn’t it stand to reason that if you are the second guy in line to write the history of something that you might be inclined to offer up something distinct and what you believe more accurate than your predecessors. On one hand you may have more resources at your disposal than the first historian (Luke) but on the other hand you are further from the events and (we have no knowledge of this being the case) you might have in your hand what the other guy wrote and have an opportunity to render the other account inaccurate based on what information you have at your disposal. Again, we have no evidence that there was any foul play here…I just think the preponderance of the evidence here goes to Luke over Josephus.

I have searched high and low…if anyone out there knows of historical sources that confirm Josephus over Luke on Quirinius (or in Josephus Cyrenius) I would love to know about it.

Last, this brings up the issue of how one decides who they believe gets the benefit of the doubt. Some have hypothesized that Luke knew Josephus or even wrote after Josephus and borrowed some of his material from Josephus (Judas the Galilean  in Acts 5:37; Jewish Wars 2, Jewish Ant. 18, Theudas  in Acts 5:36; Jewish Ant. 20, and “The Egyptian”  in Acts 21:38; Jewish Wars 2, Jewish Antiquities 20). That is extremely far fetched but it does illustrate the desire to find a path to the historian you already favor. I obviously have more to gain siding with Luke over Josephus. At the end of the day we only have what we have and have to deal with it as it is. That is why even after all the information comes in it still boils down to faith.

7 Responses

  1. Hi Matt, I think you need to go back to the translation from Greek for Luke 2: 2. My NKJV says “while Quirinius was governing Syria”, not “while Quirinius was governor of Syria” as the NIV puts it. Both the Apostolic Greek NT and Green’s Interlinear Greek NT support the first form. It may be a moot point, but there is a difference between the act of governing, and being officially a governor. It’s often the case in the military, especially in active service, that subordinate officers can be temporarily command a body of men until an official commander is appointed, or while he is away on other duties. As far as my sources indicate, at the currently accepted time of the Nativity (c. 5 BC), Quirinius was the Emperor’s legate in Syria, i.e. the Roman Army’s man on the ground at that time. Syria, being a frontier province bordering the Parthian Empire – a state with which the Roman Empire had a Cold (sometimes hot) War with for half a millennium -was likely to have been heavily militarized by that time (probably also to remind Herod where his support came from). Although not officially the governor, everybody reported to Quirinius – he ran the place for the official governor by the Emperor’s commission. Later, in 6 AD, he officially moved into the governor’s post. It’s possible, when eventually Luke researched these matters and asked who ran Syria at that time, he was told Quirinius. I think that government anywhere is normally both official and semi-official in its way of working, and that historians (and similar ilk) like to put everything into nice ‘closed’ boxes. Life doesn’t often give you closure – only God can guarantee this – but we educate our kids so they grow up thinking closure is a feasible real ending to every scenario.

  2. Very interesting Jim. It is a present active participle…which would literally be “governing” not “governor.” It makes me wonder, though, why the NIV wouldn’t just go that route. The closest things we know of Quirinius that fits with that is that he was in Syria as an adviser of Gaius Casear just before 4AD. One piece of archaeology has been purported to lend support to Quirinius having some official role in Syria prior to 6AD and that is the Lapis Tiburtinus and a discovery by Ramsay that has Quirinius that seems to identify Quirinius as chief magistrate of Syria before 6BC…so that may be it.

    The best compilation of the evidence on this is in Brown’s “Birth of the Messiah”, 547-556

    Thank you for pointing that out.

  3. I vote for Luke:
    (1) He lived closer to the time of Jesus.
    (2) He investigated witnesses..
    (3) He was a physician and used to careful documentation.
    (4) He was divinely inspired.
    (5) .He traveled with Paul.

    Thanks, Gary

  4. Hi Matt,

    From what I know of the evidence, I think reconciling Luke with Josephus is a better option than dismissing Josephus as unreliable. But if you want to argue that Luke is more reliable, you may be interested in an article I wrote arguing that Luke’s gospel probably was written no later than the early to mid 60s:

    You may also want to look into the translation of Luke 2:2 proposed by Stephen Carlson several years ago. He proposes rendering the passage as “this became a very important registration when Quirinius was governing Syria”. In other words, the process of registering Israel began late in the B.C. era, around the time when Jesus was born, and continued into the years of the census reported by Josephus early in the A.D. era. So, what Luke would be saying is that the registration process in question became prominent when Quirinius was governor. Luke isn’t saying that Quirinius was governor when Jesus was born. Some scholars specializing in relevant fields have either endorsed Carlson’s translation or have said that it’s a reasonable possibility. I don’t know much about Greek, but judging by the responses to Carlson so far, his translation seems to be the most promising alternative to the way the passage is usually rendered.

    The best explanation of the passage that doesn’t dispute the mainstream translation of it is an explanation that’s already been discussed in this thread. Luke is referring to a lesser governing role that Quirinius held in the late B.C. era, when Jesus was born. Quirinius’ later governing role, mentioned by Josephus, involved a different office.

    An important line of evidence to consider is how the earliest Christian and non-Christian sources interpreted Luke’s account. Judging by the extant sources, it seems that Luke’s census passage was interpreted as belonging to a historical genre and was viewed as historically accurate. Both the ancient Christian and the ancient non-Christian sources don’t seem to have thought that the passage was as problematic as critics often claim it is today. If you’re interested, I wrote a series of posts on the reception of Luke’s account in early Christian and non-Christian sources:

    And here’s a summarizing post I wrote a few years later:

    I’ve also written some other posts on the census, such as the following recent one, which argues that Luke doesn’t actually say that the census had an ancestry requirement, contrary to a common misreading of Luke 2:4:

    You may also want to read a lecture by Richard Bauckham, which he delivered in October of 2013:–Cf64BU5fjVQ&bvm=bv.56343320,d.dmg

    In the lecture, he briefly discusses the census and some recent works that have been supportive of its historicity.

    You mentioned Raymond Brown’s material on the census. I interact with Brown to some extent in my material on the census linked above, and Bauckham interacts with him on some other issues. In my posts, I give some examples of sources that are more recent and more reliable on the census than Brown was. You may also be interested in reading my review of Brown’s book at Amazon.

    I also suggest consulting Chris Price’s work on the census. Search under terms like “census” and “Quirinius” at the CADRE Comments blog, and look for posts by a writer with the screen name Layman:

    You may also want to consult Glenn Miller’s ongoing series on the census. I don’t agree with him on every point, but he has a large amount of material and cites a lot of sources. So far, he’s posted the first two segments in his series:

    If you’re interested, here’s an index to my material on Christmas issues in general:

  5. A tombstone found near Venice, Italy contains an inscription of a Roman officer who served under Quirinius in Syria. It mentions the census. Coins carry the inscription of Quirinius as ruling in the 36th year of Ceasar (corresponds to 5/6 C.E. counting from the battle of Actium). Not proof beyond doubt that Quirinius wasn’t ruling earlier or in a lesser role, but nobody believes he was, except maybe those looking to explain away an apparent Biblical inconsistency.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe To Weekly Newsletter!

Get updates and learn from the best

Read this Next!

Want to Plant Churches or make disciples?

I would love to hear from You!

%d bloggers like this: