There are some who question the assertion that the Bible despite its religious or theological nature is in fact a book accurately grounded in history. The Bible is not a mythic history, in need to be stripped of its ancient notions of the supernatural and redressed for its modern readers.
Consider, for example, the case of the Gospel of Luke. Luke affirms that his two volume work Luke-Acts is of the highest caliber on order with the histories of great repute in the ancient world. Luke 1.1-4 makes this point clear in transparent language. In this piece, we will consider events in the life of Jesus in light of the historical chronology depicted in Luke 1-3.
The Herodian Setting
Herod (I) the Great ruled over Judea (Luke 1.5) between 37 BC and 4 BC (33 years). As in Matthew (2.1), the birth of Jesus is situated at some point before his death. A perceived chronological problem arises when one understands that Jesus was born before Herod died, and his death occurred in 4 BC. Was Jesus really born Before Christ? Yes; and, of course not!
For a person separated from the Ancient world by two millennia, it may be a shock to know that time was not always regulated by the birth of Christ. It was typical for events to be dated by the year upon which they fell in the life or ruling years of a king. For example, Jerusalem was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar “in the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah” (Dan. 1.1). This method was quite common until the 6th century AD.
A monk by the name of Dionysius Exiguus (c. AD 525 to AD 544) devised a new calendar system (the Easter cycle) marking every event which occurs “this side” of the birth of Jesus as occurring “in the year of our Lord”. In the Latin of the church, this is anno Domini (AD). Jesus’ birth was made, therefore, the centerpiece of the modern calendar with BC and AD used to mark the eras before and after his birth respectively.
Despite Dionysius’ “humble” efforts, his computations were off by a few years and the effect was to push the birth of Jesus back earlier on the calendar into the first decade BC, creating the perceived oddity of Jesus being born Before Christ. Dionysius’ alternative name is Dennis, and here we can say with tongue and cheek, “thanks Dennis the Menace”. Nevertheless, the Scriptures have always affirmed that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod (Matt. 2.1, Luke 1.5). Consequently, what may appear as a chronological oddity turns out to be snuggly fit together.
Furthermore, the infamous account of Herod’s infanticide campaign demonstrates that Jesus was quite young when Herod died in 4 BC. Matthew writes that Herod mounts an assault upon all boys “two years and younger” in Bethlehem and its vicinity in hopes of ridding himself of a threat to his throne (Matt. 2.16-18). Joseph and family, however, had fled to Egypt until the death of Herod and the ascension of Archelaus in 4 BC (Matt. 2.13-15, 19-23). Archelaus was eventually deposed and exiled ten years later in AD 6.
Using Herod’s calculations of two plus years (which may have been an over precaution on Herod’s part), one might reasonably provide a smudgy timeframe of anywhere as early as 7/6 BC to as late as 5/4 BC for the birth of Jesus (South 16). Do these calculations fit with other historical markers in the Gospel Accounts? They do very much.
Caesar Augustus was Emperor of Rome (Luke 2.1) from 31 BC to AD 14 (45 years), and he declared for an imperial registration of its citizens (Luke 2.1). And consistent with known Roman policy, citizens “residing out of their provinces” were “to return to their own homes”. Hence, being of the household of King David, Joseph and a betrothed pregnant Mary traveled to Bethlehem, the city of David, to be registered (Luke 2.4).
In addition, consider this registration’s association with Quirinius “governor of Syria” (Luke 2.2). Recently, archaeologist Jerry Vardaman found small letters on an ancient coin regarding Quirinius:
While, inscriptional evidence reveals that there was more than one ruler with this name, a Quirinius within the time frame of Jesus’ birth has been found on a coin placing him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC until after 4 BC.
This is extraordinary new evidence, dispelling long held skeptical comments that Luke’s census account “should be discounted” as part of a spiritual fiction.
- Lawrence Feehan, 1974, “Dionysius Exiguus”, New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by J.D. Douglas (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan), 300.
- Tommy South, 2008, What Can We Know About Jesus? A Historical Perspective (Searcy, Ark.: Truth for Today), 16.
- John McRay, 1991, Archaeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker), 155.
- Randall Price, 1997, The Stones Cry Out (Eugene, Ore.: Harvest House), 299; Jackson, Wayne. 1997-2011. “Luke’s Accuracy – Some ‘Unfinished Business’.” ChristianCourier.com. Accessed: 6 Oct. 2011.
- Michael Grant, 1977, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (New York, N.Y.: Scribner’s Sons), 216.
- Jackson, Jason. 1997-2011. “Luke, the Beloved Historian.” ChristianCourier.com. Accessed: 16 March 2011.
- Jackson, Wayne. 1997-2011. “Luke’s Accuracy – Some ‘Unfinished Business’.” ChristianCourier.com. Accessed: 6 Oct. 2011.
- McCord, Hugo. “Was Luke Deceitful?” ChristianArticles.org. Accessed: 16 March 2011.