The birth narrative in the Gospel of Luke typically faces many challenges and criticisms that are facially unrelated to its miraculous nature. Most of these arise from the first five verses in Luke’s second chapter.
Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.
Questions about Quirinius and the timing of the census are challenging and legitimate, though not without sound responses. Other issues which are typically raised in conjunction, however, are overblown. Indeed, once the relevant verses are properly understood, these other issues become non issues, raising no historical challenges to Luke’s account. The first is commonly framed as whether Luke is wrong about August decreeing that the entire Roman Empire be subject to a census. The second is commonly framed as whether Luke is wrong that the census requiring registrants to return to the city of their ancestors. This post addresses the first question. I will address the latter question in Part 2.
The first challenge is that there is no evidence that August ever decreed that the entire Roman world be subject to a census. True enough. The challenge fails however not because this assessment is wrong or I can point to new evidence, but because it rests on a misreading of the Gospel of Luke. Luke does not mean to suggest that Augustus issued one decree requiring that the entire Roman empire be registered in one empire-wide census. Rather, he is engaging in a bit of literary hyperbole. Professor Smith makes this point well:
Here the confusion is based upon a forced interpretation of Luke’s statement that Augustus issued a decree that the “whole world be registered.’ Luke’s statement is a simple case of hyperbole, akin to Matthew’s statement that ‘all Judaea was going out’ to be baptized by John (Matt 3:5). No sensible ancient reader would be bothered or surprised by such a statement. Perhaps Luke means to refer to the census of Judaea as part of a larger census-taking strategy on the part of Augustus. There is no way of being sure, however, and it would not have mattered to Luke or to his audience. Anyone living at that time would know that emperors at various times commissioned censuses and might well do so in provinces other than their own. They would read nothing more into Luke’s hyperbole. Rather, the description of the census in this way sets a tone of global proportions: the events surrounding the birth of Jesus were of more than merely local significance.
Mark D. Smith, “Of Jesus and Quirinius,” CBQ, 62 (2000), page 288.
There is nothing "cute" about this response to the challenge. Notably, Professor Smith is no apologist. He elevates Luke's birth narrative at the expense of Matthew's in terms of historicity. More to the point, many of Luke's readers likely knew as well as he did whether there was one empire wide census resulting from one decree and Luke elsewhere shows himself well informed on issues related to Roman administration.
Furthermore, as Prof. Smith suggests, Luke was likely referencing August's "census-taking strategy." The relevant background information is that while there does not appear to have been any one decree covering the entire empire, Augustus did have a policy of stepped up administrative procedures such as the taking of censuses.
Historian A.N. Sherwin-White reminds us, "A census or taxation-assessment of the whole provincial empire ... was certainly accomplished for the first time in history under Augustus." Luke then would be referring in a general way to this unprecedented event.
New Testament History, page 65.
It is for this reason that Francois Bovon, who thinks that the statement is “mistaken in literal terms,” admits that Luke “correctly capture the history of the time, and of the emperor, in narrative and popular terms.” Francois Bovon, Luke, Hermeneia, page 83. But Luke is only "mistaken in literal terms" if he meant for his audience to understand him in strict literal terms here. He very likely did not.
Ironically, most scholars and readers -- even those critical of Luke’s historicity regarding the decree -- admit that Luke engages in literary hyperbole in this passage. The conceded but unremarkable hyperbole is Luke's reference to the census being taken of “all the inhabited earth.” Obviously, August was not conducting a census every place on earth. Roman subjects knew full well that the Roman Empire did not cover the entire earth. They understand that by referring to "all the inhabited earth" Luke was referring to the Roman Empire. Such hyperbole was expected from a Roman subject writing about the Roman Empire to an audience of Roman subjects.
This global emphasis permeates the first two chapters of Luke, where "‘[e]ntire’ or ‘all’ are used twenty-three times.” Robert H. Stein, Luke, NAC, page 105. Examples of literary hyperbole include but are not limited to: Luke has investigated “everything” carefully. 1:3. Zacharias and Elizabeth were blameless in “all” the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 1.6. The “whole multitude of the people” were in prayer. 1:10. Regarding the birth of John, “[f]ear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea.” 1:65. After Jesus' birth Mary treasured “all these things” in her heart.” 2:19. Anna the prophetess spoke of Jesus to “all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” 2:38. These uses of "everything" or "all" are not meant to be taken in absolute terms. This does not Luke's use of them misleading or the Gospel of Luke unreliable. It simply means he used a common literary device to stress certain points. This would have mislead no one in Luke's audience, though some more modern (supposedly more discerning) readers may miss the point.
The only way to claim that Luke was wrong in his reference to the scope of August's decree is to take him to mean something he did not mean and his audience would not have understood him to mean. August initiated and completed a policy of conducting censuses throughout the Roman Empire. That is enough to justify Luke's bit of literary hyperbole, rendering this a non issue when it comes to evaluating the historicity of Luke's birth narrative. Indeed, properly understood Luke accurately reflects Augustan policy of the time and an awareness of the broader historical context.
I suspect that the reason some commentators seize on the decree's scope -- setting aside the grasping skeptics who will seize on anything handy -- is because it leads up to a virgin birth account. Obviously, there is nothing miraculous or supernatural about Augustus' decree. But perhaps the attitude is, "Oh, I see where this is going so I'm going to kick in the suspicion early on." On the other hand, it could be that there are more legitimate questions about the census and its timing (though I think sometimes even these questions are sharper than they would be without the upcoming virgin birth account). Perhaps it is a mixture. Whatever the reason, a more dispassionate reading of Luke resolves the issue.
In Part 2 I will address the issue of whether Luke described the census as requiring all registrants to return to the home of their ancestors.