Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Defending Luke (or, "Quirinius, we still love you!")

I am undoubtedly among the worst of our merry band to enter a discussion on historical issues. So, I will merely offer a few timely observations as we approach the Christmas season. (Anti-Blog, this is mostly for you.)

The Problem:
Luke 2:1-2 states that Quirinius was the Roman governor of Syria when Jesus was born. This statement occasionally puzzles historians because Quirinius was appointed governor of Syria in 6AD, and Luke dates the birth of Jesus to the reign of Herod the Great (1:5), who, according to Josephus (Ant. 17.7.1 191), Strabo, and Tacitus, died in 4 BC. This appears to render Luke's account historically irreconciliable.

Possible Solutions:
That Augustus issued a census decree is both reasonable and plausible. Augustus' propensity to count and tax is well known. According to the Acts of Augustus (see #8 therein), Augustus ordered three censuses (censi?) during his reign (27BC-14AD). Interestingly, an Antioch manuscript exists with an inscription describing a soldier who was 'legate of Syria' twice during this time frame. There are two common interpretations: one is that it refers to Q. Varus, and the other that it refers to Quirinius himself. The New Bible Dictionary (IVP:1996) says this (s.v. "Quirinius"):
The possibility that Quirinius may have been governor of Syria on an earlier occasion... has found confirmation in the eyes of a number of scholars (especially W. M. Ramsay) from the testimony of the Lapis Tiburtinus (CIL, 14. 3613). This inscription, recording the career of a distinguished Roman officer, is unfortunately mutilated, so that the officer’s name is missing, but from the details that survive he could very well be Quirinius. It contains a statement that when he became imperial legate of Syria he entered upon that office ‘for the second time’ (Lat. iterum). The question is: did he become imperial legate of Syria for the second time, or did he simply receive an imperial legateship for the second time, having governed another province in that capacity on the earlier occasion?...The wording is ambiguous. Ramsay held that he was appointed an additional legate of Syria between 10 and 7 bc, for the purpose of conducting the Homanadensian war, while the civil administration of the province was in the hands of other governors, including Sentius Saturninus (8-6 bc), under whom, according to Tertullian (Adv. Marc. 4. 19), the census of Lk. 2:1ff. was held.
Perhaps Luke 2:2, "This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria" is saying that there was second census that Quirinius oversaw. Josephus documents a census taken early in Quirinius' term of office (Antiquities 18.1.1 1). In fact, Luke also mentions a second census himself in Acts 5:37.

E.M. Blaiklock, writing for Zondervan's Biblical Encyclopedia believes that Quirinius was in Syria for an earlier tour of duty, not as governor but in some other leadership capacity (s.v. "Quirinius"). It is notable that term Luke uses for Quirinius' is the general term hegemon, which in Greek can apply to prefects, provincial governors, and even Caesar himself. Even in the Testament it applies to procurators--pilate, festus, felix--and to general 'rulers' (Mt 2.6). The New Intl. Dict. of New Test. Theology gives 'leader, commander, chief' (vol 1.270) as among the possible range of meanings. Of course, this term would have applied to Quirinius at several points in his career. In the proper sense, there might also be several individuals so addressed at the same time. Justin Martyr specifically refers to Quirinius as 'procurator' in Apology 1:34.

However, even if Quirinius is not the referred legate, Grammatical Insights into the New Testament (pgs 23-24) implies that Luke 2:2 "prote" can (should?) be translated 'before the census of Quirinius' instead of the usual 'first census of Quirinius.' This potentially solves the problem without requiring two terms of office for Quirinius at all.

Either way, if we admit the weakness of the historical record (Joesphus himself is often confused about dates and numbers), it appears that Luke's case, as articulated in chapter 2, has serious potential to be correct as it was originally written.

This post is the result of a few days of simple research and not a lifetime of careful analysis. Obviously, there is much more than can be said. I'm not even going to attempt to go beyond the simple issue of Quirinius here. That would just take too long. But, I hope this proves that these are still live issues worthy of examination and discussion, and that a more 'traditional' read is not outside the realm of intellectual honesty.

Grace & Peace