A thought on Luke and the date of Jesus’ birth

Luke’s mention of a census (ἀπογραφὴ) around the time of Jesus’ birth has often been a problem when trying to date the birth of Jesus, so much that it has become a commonplace of popular as well as academic discussions of Jesus’ birth. Both Luke (1:5) and Matthew (2:1) put Jesus’ birth in the context of Herod’s reign, i.e. in or before 4 BCE, when Herod died. The problem then is that the only census we know about from extrabiblical sources that occurred under Quirinius happened in 6 CE (Josephus Ant. 17:342-44, 354; 18:1-10) – a full ten years later. So there’s a disparity here.

Some scholars suggest that the census was begun under another governor, and completed under Quirinius; that Qurinius was governor before 6 CE – possibly in 7/6 BCE – supported by the fact that we know from an inscription that an (unnamed) Roman citizen was a legate on two separate occasions, in Syria at least the second time. Or others have suggested that Luke 2:2 be translated “This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria” rather than “This was the first registration…”. The Greek could mean this, but it is a bit forced. Or, as many scholars have found themselves having to do, we might say Luke has made a mistake here – even A.N. Sherwin-White, who reckoned Luke among the greatest ancient historians, thought he had erred with the date of the census (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, 1963, pp.162-171).

So has Luke made a mistake? Robert Stein (in Jesus the Messiah, 1996, p.55) suggests that we give Luke the benefit of the doubt, because he seems to be a very reliable historian on other matters. This is fair enough, although being right about a lot of other things doesn’t always mean one is right about a different issue (take pretty much every theologian who ever lived as an example!). But I think there is something else which I’ve not found mentioned in discussions of Luke’s dating of Jesus’ birth that suggests Luke does not think Jesus was born in 6 CE – his comment on the age of Jesus when he begins his ministry.

In Luke 3:23, Luke says that Jesus was “about thirty years old” (ὡσεὶ ἐτῶν τριάκοντα) when he began his ministry, which was during the ministry of John the Baptist – dated to between 25/26 and 29 CE by Luke 3:1-2, and about 28 CE by John 2:20 (see Stein, p.57; Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus, 2002, pp.71-75). If Luke had meant to imply Jesus was born in 6 CE at the time of Qurinius’ census (of which he is aware – Acts 5:37) then he would only be 22/23 at the oldest when he began his ministry, which is a bit too young to be described as “about thirty” (I’m 22 in 6 months!). If, on the other hand, Jesus was born in 7/6 BCE, he would be 33-35 when Luke and John say he began his ministry, which is close enough to thirty for Luke 3:23 to be a good description. So given that:

  • Luke thinks Jesus was “about thirty” when he began his ministry, which is likely to be ~28 CE
  • Luke also associates Jesus’ birth with the time of Herod (1:5) – before 4 BCE
  • Luke knows about the 6 CE census (Acts 5:37)
  • 22/23 is too young to be “about thirty”

… it is unlikely that Luke wants us to understand from his reference to the census that Jesus was born in 6 CE, assuming he can count. This might not get us much further, but I think it rules out that Luke has got it completely wrong. It certainly should rule out the common claim that “according to Luke’s gospel, Jesus was born in or around 6 CE” – Luke really can’t mean for us to understand this from his account.

As for the wider problem of the census… my hunch is that there may have been a different census, earlier, during Herod’s reign – although I have to admit we don’t have access to any records of this.

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