I want my children to learn to be critical thinkers. I want them to be able to look at literature, including the Bible, through an analytical eye. Some read the Christmas story and see nothing more than a fairy tale, but we know that God has used these events (as crazy as they might sound) to bring about His good work. You might be surprised to learn that some of these things can even be verified by historical data!
Below excerpt from a Christmas family devotional written by Scott and Sarah Nichols, More Than a Holiday. This section is designed for parents to gain a deeper understanding of the theological and historical significance of the events surrounding the nativity story. It’s so important that we as parents know and understand the implications surrounding the birth of Jesus so we can teach and train our children in these truths.
Is the Christmas Story Real?
In those days Caesar Augustus 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
These verses contain the start to the traditional Christmas story. They also contain one of the hardest parts of the birth narrative for some to accept. The controversy surrounds the dating of the census decree and when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Can the census be verified through historical data?
Most scholars believe that Jesus was born sometime between 6 and 4 B.C. Quirinius didn’t become governor of Syria until sometime around A.D. 6. Josephus records a census taking place in Syria in A.D. 6-7. This is where the confusion arises; the dates, on the surface, don’t match up. However, the differences can be reconciled.
Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (also called by his Greek name, Cyrenius) was a Roman Senator who was campaigning against a group of people called the Homonadensians in the area of Syria from about 12-2 B.C. So while he was later proclaimed as the governor of the new Roman province, he was in the area when Jesus was born.
This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. – Luke 2:2
The Greek word used by Luke for governor in Luke 2:2 can also help shed some light on his role in this area. The word is hegemoneuo, which can be translated “governor” but has a more general meaning of “to be leading or in charge of.” So while he might not have the official title of governor from Rome, he was very much in charge of the area acting as the military governor.
The construction of verse 2 helps to provide a few clues. While it does say that this is the first census while Quirinius was governor, it could probably be better translated that this was the census before the census of Quirinius. Scholars N.T. Wright and Harold Hoehner have done some interesting research in this textual translation. N.T. Wright argues that the word prōtos not only means “first” but also can mean “before” (cf. John 1:15; 15:18). Harold Hoehner suggested that the passage should read, “This census was before that [census] when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Luke makes reference to the census of Quirinius because it was so well known; it was the census. However, he was differentiating the census mentioned in verse 1 and the census that sent Joseph and Mary back to Bethlehem
Did people really have to travel to their ancestral homeland?
Others find it hard to believe that the Romans would order so many people to return to their ancestral homelands to register for the census (Luke 2:3-5). Luke tells us that when the census was declared, Joseph left and took Mary with him to register in Bethlehem, the ancestral homeland of his forefather David.
A papyrus was found in Egypt that records a very similar situation. An edict was issued by the Roman Governor of Egypt, G. Vibius Maximus. In the record, the author states, “since the enrollment by households is approaching, it is necessary to command all who for any reason are out of their own district to return to their own home, in order to perform the usual business of taxation…” The same record also records that a man took his family to register with him.
This edict contains the exact situation that Joseph and Mary found themselves in. They obeyed the authorities and went south. God used the census to bring the couple south in fulfillment of prophecy (Micah 5:2). While it may seem that Luke messed up his chronology of the birth narrative by referring to this census as the first census while Quirinius was governor, there are explanations to explain the perceived discrepancies. Luke’s history can be trusted.
Teach Your Children the Meaning of Christmas with More Than a Holiday
Scott and Sarah Nichols have written a brilliant 25-day family devotional to draw your family closer to Christ this Christmas. It will teach you and your children about each of the characters, events, and myths surrounding the nativity. From the dreaded genealogies to prophesies and from Herod to our beloved savior Jesus—this family study will truly give you and your family a deeper understanding of Christmas.
We highly recommend Christian families to use this as their family Christmas devotional this year. You can read more about the study here.
- The Census of Quirinius: Did Luke get it wrong?
- Antiquities of the Jews – Books XVII and XVIII
- When did the Luke 2 census occur?
- A Brief Comment on the Census in Luke 2
- Hoenher, Harold., Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, p. 21, Zondervan, 1978