Excerpt from N.T. Wright, "Who Was Jesus?", pages 88-89. I could have explained this with a few sentences, but he makes several more comments that are worth to be quoted to see how critics can be answered in general. The whole book es well worth reading.

A Great Census?

When historical sceptics like Wilson and Spong do run into a serious issue of historicity on which scholars can and do disagree, it is worth pointing out there are perfectly good options other than the ones they suggest. Wilson returns frequently to Luke's reference to the census which supposedly took place 'while Quirinius was governor of Syria' (Luke 2.2). The point is then (Wilson, p. 75; Spong, p. 142) that Quirinius, as we know from elsewhere, didn't become governor of Syria until about AD 6, getting on for ten years after the most likely date for Jesus' birth. Moral: Luke doesn't know what he is talking about. But is it really that simple?

A cautionary note before we address the topic itself. There is nothing to be gained from an attempt to make the truth of Christianity depend on the literal truth of every word of the Bible. Such a view shifts the balance in Christianity decisively in the wrong direction. For Christians, Jesus, not the New Testament, is the central truth. But one should not, for that reason, imagine that historical issues can simply go by the board. Just because we are not fundamentalists, that need not mean that we allow shoddy historical arguments to pass without comment.

The question of Quirinius and his census is an old chestnut, requiring a good knowledge of Greek. It depends on the meaning of the word protos, which usually means 'first'. Thus most translations of Luke 2.2 read 'this was the first [protos] census, when Quirinius was governor of Syria', or something like that. But in the Greek of the time, as the standard major Greek lexicons point out, the word protos came sometimes to be used to mean 'before', when followed (as this is) by the genitive case. A good example is in John 1.15, where John the Baptist says of Jesus 'he was before me', with the Greek being again protos followed by the genitive of 'me'.[18] I suggest, therefore, that actually the most natural reading of the verse is: 'This census took place before the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria.'

This solves an otherwise odd problem: why should Luke say that Quirinius' census was the first? Which later ones was he thinking of? This reading, of course, does not resolve all the difficulties. We don't know, from other sources, of a census earlier than Quirinius'. But there are a great many things that we don't know in ancient history. There are huge gaps in our records all over the place. Only those who imagine that one can study history by looking up back copies of the London Times or the Washington Post in a convenient library can make the mistake of arguing from silence in matters relating to the first century.

My guess is that Luke knew a tradition in which Jesus was born during some sort of census, and that Luke knew as well as we do that it couldn't have been the one conducted under Quirinius, because by then Jesus was about ten years old. That is why he wrote that the census was the one before that conducted by Quirinius. Whatever we conclude, there is on this matter, and on a good many others, much more to be said than Wilson and Spong allow for.

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