A classic skeptical challenge to the biblical stories of the birth of Jesus goes something like this. “You cannot trust Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus because he gets key dates wrong. He says that Jesus was born “while Caesar Augustus was Emperor of Rome and Quirinius was Governor of Syria” (Luke 2:1-2). He also says that Jesus was born “in the days of Herod, King of Judea” (Luke 1:5).
Here is the big problem. Herod died in 4 BC. Quirinius was a Governor of Syria and did do a registration, but it was in AD 6/7. So, as you can see, Luke is mixed up on some simple facts, therefore, no one should trust his accounts as accurate and trustworthy.”
So, what have Christians said in response to this challenge? Very briefly, here four points in response.
First, don’t worry that the birth of Jesus did not occur at the intersection of 1BC and 1AD.
Many centuries after the birth of Jesus, Christians began a dating system based on the birth of Jesus rather than on some other system. It began to be used by King Charlemagne in the 8th century but only became “standard” in the 15th century. The person responsible for creating BC and AD made a mistake in his calculations. This has been known for a long time, so do not be troubled that the actual birth date of Jesus was probably about 5BC.
Second, Luke consistently claims that what he wrote was historically true.
He never uses “once upon a time” language. He does not use the timeless and “placeless” language of myth. Instead, his story intersects with historical people and places. He provides “markers” to connect his story to events in world history (e.g. Luke 3:1-2). In Luke 2:1-2, he provides an admirable mixture of the concrete with the general. He writes, “In those days…”. This is the language used for historical events when the precise date is not needed, but you still want people to know the reference is historical. He then goes on to refer to a specific Emperor and governor – historically general and concrete at the same time.
Third, the skeptics’ argument against Luke is a form of the argument from silence.
In this case, the argument from silence is a fallacy, in other words, it sounds impressive, but does not work. It is not the case that we know all the dates for all the Governors of Syria. We do not know all the events of Quirinius’s life. We do not know all of the “registrations”. We do not independently know who the Governor of Syria was in 5BC. We do not independently know that Quirinius was somewhere else in 5BC. There are historical gaps. Luke’s account fits into one of these gaps. Other historical records are silent. This silence does not disprove Luke’s account. In this form, the argument from silence is a fallacy.
Fourth, there are several valid translation options that would make Luke’s account be historically accurate.
There are different senses of the words “first” and “governor” in Luke 2:2 that allow for different defenses of the historical accuracy of Luke’s work.
Luke makes a momentous claim at the beginning of his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4). He claims that he has researched what happened and is providing an “orderly account” of who Jesus is, what He said, what He did, and what happened to Him. Luke claims that his book is a true account, written so that you and I can know for certain the truth about Jesus. If this is true – well then, Jesus did die on a cross (as He predicted). He did rise from the dead (as He predicted). The grave was occupied on Friday and empty on Sunday (as He predicted). He really is the Saviour and Lord you desperately need.