Some Interesting Lukan Scholarship, including the Census Revisted, Again

I finally got around to ordering a book that was on my Amazon Wish List. It was one of those that I could not remember exactly why it ended up on my list but I am glad it did: Paul, Luke and the Graeco-Roman World. It is a part of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament Series; Volume 217 to be exact. It is one of those topically oriented compilation of articles in honor of a leading New Testament Scholar. This one honors Sandy Wedderburn.

The book contains many interesting articles but I have only had time to fully read two of them. The first is a critique of Loveday Alexander’s conclusion that the Gospel of Luke is akin to ancient scientific treatises, by David Aune: "Luke 1.1-4: Historical or Scientific Proomiion." Aune is well-positioned to write such a critique given his past work in the study of New Testament genre. He raises some excellent points, but the article is relatively short and is more of a launching pad for areas of further investigation.

The second article is by Stanley E. Porter, another leading New Testament scholar who has done excellent work in Lucan studies, such as his book, Paul in Acts. His article in Paul, Luke and the Graeco-Roman World focuses on the issue of the Lukan census: "The Reasons for the Lucan Census." He surveys and evaluates various theories put forward on the reason for Luke’s inclusion of the census as well as its related historical issues. He rejects the position that the issue is unimportant, but acknowledges the limitations of our ability to conclusively resolve it. Porter than examines some of the leading theories explaining the census in Luke’s gospel:

1. Luke refers to a census that took place while Quirinius was legate of Syria but not to the well-known census of 6 AD. This theory postulates that Quirinius was legate of Syria twice, and conducted census in both tenures. Although this position garnered some support, problems with the chronology and the lack of firm evidence of Quirinius serving two times as legate, “mean that virtually all scholars today doubt that Quirnius was twice legate of Syria, and hence he could not have been responsible for a census in 6 bce.” Page 173.

2. Luke does not refer to the census as "the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria" but -- properly translated -- refers to "the census that took place before the one of Quirinius." This is strictly a matter of the meaning of the Greek text. Porter evaluates the arguments for and against this translation of the passage and concludes that the door remains open to this alternative. “Ancient Greek grammar must be evaluated in terms of the linguistic evidence available and it appears that there is still warrant for the view that Lk. 2.2 could be rendered: ‘this was the census before Quirinius governed Syria.’ The case is not necessarily strong, but cannot be excluded.” Page 176. I have advocated this translation, and should note that Stephen Carlson has discussed other possible translations at his blog (here and here).

3. Luke meant to refer to the known census by Quirinius in 6 AD. This puts Luke into conflict with the Gospel of Matthew, who definitely places Jesus’ birth earlier, in the reign of Herod the Great. But as Porter shows, it also creates internal tension in Luke, who clearly identifies the reign of Herod the Great as also being the time of Jesus’ birth. I have also discussed, in another context, the problems with concluding that Luke dates Jesus' birth to 6 AD.

4. Luke consolidates different information points about Jesus’ birth into one account that uses a “property return” -- described in an ancient Arabic text that has similar features to the Lukan account -- as the Quirinius census. This position garners much attention from Porter as he discusses evidence about census in the Roman empire, including client kingdoms, during ancient times. He notes that there is substantial, though indirect, evidence of Herodian census during the reign of King Herod. He further discusses the Arab property return documents recently found which include points of comparison with the account in Luke. Porter notes that the match is not exact unless the features of the property tax registration noted in Arab sources was integrated into a census as noted in Luke, but believes this is a field in need of future study.

In conclusion, Porter recaps his discussion and especially notes that the plausibility and evidence in support of Nos. 2 and 4 mean that “there is growing evidence from what we know of ancient census-taking practices to believe that in fact Luke got far more right in his account than he got wrong.” Page 188.


Doesn't Luke state that it was a census of the whole [Roman] world? Mere hyperbole, referring only to Syria?

Doesn't Luke also state that everyone had to return to their home town or ancestral town for this census? How much sense does that make? It certainly was not possible for "the whole [Roman] world" to do so.
Layman said…
This is the problem with skeptic trolls who only pop in to regurgitate the usual talking points.

Doesn't Luke state that it was a census of the whole [Roman] world? Mere hyperbole, referring only to Syria?

Luke starts broadly and then, clearly, narrows the focus to Syria. Do you really think that the author was so careless that he unintentionally wrote in one sentence about an Empire-wide policy and then in the next sentence shifts to Syria? And are biblical authors not allowed to use common-place literary hyperbole, even when it would have been understood as such by the audience?

As I conclude my blog post ( on this issue:

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.

Doesn't Luke also state that everyone had to return to their home town or ancestral town for this census? How much sense does that make? It certainly was not possible for "the whole [Roman] world" to do so.

Luke does not state that everyone had to return to their "ancestral town" for the census. Rather, he writes that people returned to their "own city" to register. This is not at all inconsistent with the practice at the time.

I discuss this non issue in more detail, here:

From the conclusion:

Those who assume that Luke describes a census that requires everyone to travel to the home town of their distant ancestors is paying insufficient attention to the text. Luke deliberately moves from the general to the specific. He describes a census requiring people to be registered. He then notes that in general people were returning to their "own city" to register. He then notes that Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to register. It seems the general rule is that people be registered in their own town and that is what they did. For Joseph, because he was of the House of David, he chose to register in Bethlehem. Whether this is because he had grown up there, had an interest in property in or near there, or wanted to maintain his status in good standing as a descendant of King David, Luke does not specify. This is hardly surprising as the connection itself is of no consequence. What is important to Luke and his readers is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and that his legal father, Joseph, was a descendant of King David.

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