This week’s study passage is one of the most famous in scripture. When I was a child, this was the only part of the Bible my siblings and I ever heard in our family. Every year, on Christmas eve after we had decorated the tree, hung up our stockings, and ensured Santa’s milk and cookies were in their proper place, my mother would bring our family Bible down from the shelf, and hand it to my father who would read this passage. Afterward, he would read Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” The last line of the poem “…and to all a good night.” was our cue to exchange kisses and hugs and go to bed. Otherwise Santa surely wouldn’t come, and after all the bountiful harvest anticipated under the tree and in the stockings on Christmas morning was for us “the reason for the season.” Thanks to Charles Schulz’ character Linus, this passage of scripture has been memorized by many Americans along with Genesis 1:1 and maybe John 3:16, but sadly that’s about the extent of the American majority’s Biblical knowledge.
1And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.
The account of Jesus’ birth is only found in Luke’s gospel. We have no way of knowing how Luke came to hear the story. Perhaps Jesus recounted it to His disciples who repeated it to Luke. Perhaps Luke and the apostles heard the story from Mary or Jesus’ (half) brother, James. Before we begin looking at this passage, let me remind you that when we started our study of Luke, I noted that we would not be spending a great deal of time trying to pin down exact dates for the events of Jesus’ birth, ministry and crucifixion. We will keep our focus strictly on what God’s Word has to say about them, not spending undue effort on reconciling the dates recorded in the Bible with secular history or astronomical events. The web has more than enough written about such things to occupy an entire lifetime of research for those who are so inclined.
That said, since Luke makes several statements in his gospel tying the Gospel events he records with the worldly events of his day, we need to at least acknowledge them. Unfortunately, for the most part, Luke’s time references raise more questions than they provide answers.
The early Roman calendar was like other ancient calendars which tracked the lunar cycle of 28 days, and occasionally added in extra days, and even months to re-align the lunar year with the solar year. In 45 BC Julius Caesar introduced a standardized calendar which very closely followed the true solar year. Later, this Julian calendar was slightly refined into the Gregorian calendar which has been in widespread use since 1582 AD. Consequently, the dates of the reigns of the Roman emperors and other significant dates in the history of the Roman empire are reasonably well known.
Hopefully, you still have the timeline handout from a few weeks ago. If so, let’s take a quick look at it. As you can see, Augustus Caesar reigned from 27 BC until 14 AD. Obviously, the census decreed by Augustus must have taken place during his reign. Luke narrows the period down by saying here that this census “first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.” While this might seem to be a boon to our Biblical scholarship, it has been the source of much confusion over the years, because Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6 AD as you can see from your timeline. Furthermore, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus also confirms that a census took place in 6 AD. But this date would be too late for Jesus to have been born during the reign of Herod the Great – King of Judea, who died in 4 BC. This seeming discrepancy has been cited by Bible skeptics as an error in the Bible.
A number of explanations are possible…
1. As was mentioned during our study of Luke 1:5, Luke never says that John the Baptist and Jesus were born during the reign of Herod the Great, just that there was a priest named Zacharias (John the Baptist’s father) during the time of Herod – King of Judea.
2. Although Herod the Great’s sons were called tetrarchs (rulers of fourths) rather than kings of Judea, it is nevertheless possible that Luke was referring to one of them rather than to their father in Luke 1:5.
3. The word ἡγεμονεύω hēgemoneuō translated as “was governor” in Luke 2:2 means “to be leader” and “to rule or command.” It must be noted that Quirinius led a military campaign in the provinces of Judea and Syria during the reign of Herod the Great. It is possible that there was an earlier census during this military campaign which is not mentioned in any of the secular histories.
But unfortunately, despite Luke’s faithfulness in passing on the facts as he heard them from the eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1), the factual markers we find here in Luke 2:2 do little to shed any light on the date of Jesus’ birth. We’ll touch again on this subject when we come to the next time anchor we find in Luke’s gospel in chapter 3.
4Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.
Here we see the fulfillment of another key Messianic prophecy…
2“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Though you are little among the thousands of Judah,
Yet out of you shall come forth to Me
The One to be Ruler in Israel,
Whose goings forth are from of old,
3Therefore He shall give them up,
Until the time that she who is in labor has given birth;
Then the remnant of His brethren
Shall return to the children of Israel.
4And He shall stand and feed His flock
In the strength of the LORD,
In the majesty of the name of the LORD His God;
And they shall abide,
For now He shall be great
To the ends of the earth;
5And this One shall be peace.
While delving into this verse, I got fairly confused for a couple of reasons. First there is some confusion about “the city of David.” This phrase refers to two different places a few miles apart. Recall that after the death of Saul, David was made king over his own tribe of Judah, but a civil war ensued between those who followed David and the descendants of Saul. David reigned in Hebron 7 years until this war was over, then was chosen to rule over all Israel with his throne in Jerusalem.
2 Samuel 5:6-10
6And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who spoke to David, saying, “You shall not come in here; but the blind and the lame will repel you,” thinking, “David cannot come in here.” 7Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion (that is, the City of David).
8Now David said on that day, “Whoever climbs up by way of the water shaft and defeats the Jebusites (the lame and the blind, who are hated by David’s soul), he shall be chief and captain.” Therefore they say, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”
9Then David dwelt in the stronghold, and called it the City of David. And David built all around from the Millo and inward. 10So David went on and became great, and the LORD God of hosts was with him.
Originally, Jerusalem was built on two hills with the valley of the Kidron Brook on the east, and the central valley leading up from the pool of Siloam to site of the modern Western Wall Plaza on the west. The northern-most and highest of these two hills – Mt. Moriah. This mountain is the same one upon which God directed Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:2). It is also the site of the threshing floor of Araunah, where David built an altar following the plague sent by God as punishment for David’s sin of numbering the people (2 Samuel 24). Later, Solomon constructed the first temple on Mount Moriah (2 Chronicles 3:1). Today, Mount Moriah forms the foundation for the man-made platform known as the Temple Mount. There are only two places on the Temple Mount where the bedrock of Mount Moriah’s summit is exposed. One of these lies under the Muslim shrine – The Dome of the Rock. The other is out in the open, but sheltered by a canopy called The Dome of the Spirits several hundred feet north of the Dome of the Rock. Either of these two locations might have been the site of Araunah’s threshing floor.
To the south, the crest of the somewhat lower hill – Zion – contained the lower fortress of the Jebusite city of Jerusalem. In the time of the Jebusites, these two hills were connected by a sharp ridge called עֹפֶל `Ophel (2 Chronicles 27:3, 33:14, Nehemiah 3:26-27, 11:21). Solomon later widened and fortified Ophel with a huge earthmoving project called the Millo (מִלּוֹא millow’) which means mound or rampart. When David took the city, he initially conquered only the lower fortress, renaming it “The City of David,” and it is still known by that name today.
Much later on, after the Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, King Hezekiah ordered that a tunnel be dug from the Gihon spring located along the city’s eastern wall underneath the City of David to the Pool of Siloam, and that the walls of the city be extended to encompass the pool. The spring was then concealed, and the true source of the water in the Pool of Siloam was later forgotten until European archaeologists unearthed the tunnel in the 19th century. Visitors to Jerusalem today can walk through Hezekiah’s tunnel which still carries water from the spring to the lower pool.
But I digress…
The City of David that Luke refers to here in Luke 2:4 is Bethlehem which is located about 5 miles south of Jerusalem. Even though Micah says the town is small, it is certainly not insignificant in Old Testament history. Jacob’s wife, Rachel, was buried not far from there after she died giving birth to Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin (Genesis 35). You may also recall that Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi was from there, as was her husband, Boaz, the great-grandfather of King David (see Ruth 4:13-22).
The name of Bethlehem is also somewhat confusing. For starters, it is also called Ephrathah as we saw in the prophecy from Micah 5. To muddy the water even further, Ephrathah is sometimes spelled Ephrath, the name of one of Caleb’s wives. The genealogy of the house of Israel (Jacob) may be found in 1 Chronicles 2. This chapter makes for some very confusing reading, and we won’t delve deeply into it here, but there are a couple of highlights in it that pertain to Bethlehem/Ephrathah and to King David.
We can trace in this chapter the descendants of Jacob’s son Judah through his son Perez and grandson Hezron down two very interesting separate paths…
One of Hezron’s sons, Chelubai was also called Caleb, who was one of the twelve spies sent by Moses to check out the promised land after the exodus from Egypt. You may recall (Numbers 14) that only Joshua and Caleb returned with a good report, encouraging the people to trust in the Lord by immediately taking possession of the land, but the people disobeyed the Lord‘s command and would not go up to take the land for fear of the Canaanites who the other ten spies said were too strong for them. Therefore, God punished the Israelites’ unbelief, and of the entire nation of Israel which departed the captivity in Egypt under the hand of Moses, only Caleb and Joshua survived the forty-year wandering in the wilderness of Sinai to enter into the promised land of Canaan.
After the conquest of the land, Caleb was given Hebron (known previously as Kirjath Arba) as an inheritance by Joshua. When, Caleb’s first wife died, he took Ephrath (Ephrathah) as his second wife. From this line, one of Caleb’s great-grandsons was Bethlehem. By the way, one of the other descendants of Caleb was Hebron for whom Caleb’s home town of Kirjath Arba was renamed.
Another of Hezron’s sons, Ram, was the forefather of Boaz, the husband of Ruth and great-grandfather of King David (Ruth 4). Boaz and his descendants dwelt in Bethlehem. Recall that Samuel was sent by the Lord to Bethlehem to anoint David as God’s chosen successor to Saul…
1 Samuel 16:1
Now the LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go; I am sending you to Jesse the Bethlehemite. For I have provided Myself a king among his sons.”
Before we move on, we need to take note that Biblical skeptics also point to Luke 2:4-5 (and the entire chapter) as a total fabrication on Luke’s part in conspiracy with the apostles, because they knew of Micah’s prophecy, and had to justify Joseph traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order that Jesus might fulfill it. The claim is that Luke first purposely skewed his timeline to align Jesus’ birth with the well known census, and then simply made up the story of the trip to Bethlehem. They further claim that it was not standard practice for people to travel to their ancestral home to take part in a census, but that the people were simply counted in place.
We have already given plausible explanations for the confusion surrounding the date of the census. Furthermore, while the Roman authorities might not have been concerned with lineage when performing a census for tax purposes, the Jews themselves were deeply concerned with heritage, and even obsessed with it. So it is certainly possible that the Jews took it upon themselves to travel to their ancestral homes to take part in the census, even if this was not required by the Roman authorities.
But this all begs the question, “Why would Luke and the other New Testament writers make the whole story up?” They had nothing to gain by it, and much to lose. According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, by the time the gospel of Luke was written sometime around 60 AD, Stephen, James (son of Zebedee), Matthew, and Phillip had already been killed for their faith. Peter, John, and Paul had been beaten and imprisoned for preaching in the Name of Jesus. Why would these guys all face that sort of persecution willingly, by conspiring together to promulgate a lie? Even if we assume one or even two of these guys was completely off his rocker, the fact is that all of them except John were killed for maintaining their confession of faith in Jesus. It just doesn’t make sense that they were all suicidally deranged. Paul’s childhood teacher, Gamaliel, put the argument convincingly in his testimony before the Sanhedrin at the trial of Peter and John…
38And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; 39but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.