Discrepancies in the Bible: Did Caesar Augustus order a Census?

This is the fourth in a series of posts on the “discrepancies” in the Bible, as alleged by agnostic, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman in his book Jesus Interrupted.  I will present Mr. Ehrman’s allegation and views, in which he uses the Historical-Critical Method of biblical interpretation, and will then present at least one orthodox Christian view on the same topic.

These discrepancies have been known by Bible scholars, liberal and orthodox/conservative, for hundreds if not thousands of years.  So remember, these “discrepancies” may come as a shock to you as a layperson, but none of these alleged discrepancies are recent discoveries.  Let’s examine them for the purpose of strengthening our faith and enabling us to better engage non-believers on the divinity of Jesus Christ and the inerrancy of his Word.

Dear Reader:  if you have an online article, you-tube video, or podcast that contains an orthodox/traditional Christian statement or rebuttal regarding the “contradiction” in question in this post, please post it in the comment section below.

Discrepancy #4:  Did Caesar Augustus really order a Census?

Bart Ehrman:  The historical problems with Luke are even more pronounced.  For one thing, we have relatively good records for the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there is no mention anywhere in any of them of an empire-wide census for which everyone had to register by returning to their ancestral home.  And how could such a thing even be imagined?  Joseph returns to Bethlehem because his ancestor David was born there.  But David lived a thousand years before Joseph.  Are we to imagine that everyone in the Roman Empire were required to return to the homes of their ancestors from a thousand years earlier?  If we had a new world-wide census today and each of us had to return to the towns of our ancestors a thousand years back—where would you go?

Can you imagine the total disruption of human life that this kind of universal exodus would require?  And can you imagine that such a project would never be mentioned in any of the newspapers?  There is not a single reference to any such census in any ancient source, apart from Luke.

Traditional/orthodox Christian Rebuttal:

Copied from:  “About the Bible” blog

Caesars Census

Likewise, Ehrman complains about the lack of external attestation for the census by Augustus Caesar that Luke records. Our historical sources for Caesar are quite a bit better than the ones we have for Herod. Still, we may return to the principle that events found in only a single source cannot be dismissed prima facie on this criterion alone. And while a number of interpreters used to side with Ehrman in making this point about the census, several scholars now widely accept that there was in fact an earlier registration, as Luke records. Ehrman knows this—or at least he should, given his background. Several factors have led to this shift in consensus, which Ehrman fails to acknowledge.

To begin with, when the people of a subordinate land were asked to take an oath of allegiance to the emperor, it was not unusual to require an imperial census as an expression of this allegiance and as a means of enlisting men for military service; or, as was probably true in this case, in preparation to levy taxes. Due to the tensions between Herod and Augustus, which we know about from Josephus, it does not seem at all far-fetched that Augustus would begin to treat Herod’s domain as a subject land, which would require him to order a census so that he could continue to control Herod and his people.

Additionally, a census was a sizable project that likely took several years to complete. In Gaul, for example, a census for the purpose of taxation was begun in 10 or 9 BC and took 40 years to complete. It seems probable that the decree to begin the census in the Judean region was issued in 8 or 7 BC, and thus may not have actually begun until sometime later. Difficulties with organizing and preparing the census may have also led to delaying the execution of the census till 5 BC or even later.

Another consideration is the fact that there were periodic registrations of this sort every 14 years. Some of the documents that report such censuses indicate that one was in fact taken around 8 or 7 BC. Because of this regular pattern of census-taking, any such action would naturally be regarded as a result of the general policy of Augustus, even though a local census might have been initiated by a local governor. This is likely why Luke recognizes the census as stemming from the decree of Augustus.

Finally, we must remember that it was a common practice for a census to require people to return to the place of their origin, or to the place where they owned land. For example, one of Caius Vibius Maximus’s decrees (AD 104) ordered all who resided in lands outside of their hometowns to return to their hometowns so an accurate census could be undertaken. Moreover, given the Jews’ annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, it would in no way be uncommon for them to be involved in this kind of travel. These considerations have left little room for skepticism regarding the census at the time of Jesus birth in much modern scholarship.

Ehrman knows that things are a lot more complex than the picture he portrays and so his assertions on this score can be misleading at best. Luke’s account fits nicely with the regular pattern of census-taking in the ancient world, and its date is hardly unreasonable as Ehrman contends. The possibility that this may have simply been a local census, taken as a result of the general policy of Augustus, cannot be excluded. So when Ehrman mocks the very logistics of such an event—Luke’s report of travelers returning to their hometown—he reveals even more his own lack of awareness regarding practices in the first century AD. The census could have and did happen. Luke simply provides us with a reliable historical record of an event that was, although not uncommon, not otherwise recorded. So while this event does not find external corroboration outside of the New Testament, methodologically, this in itself does not militate against the authenticity and historical reliability of the Gospels.


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