Last week we began a probe into Bible chronology and its relationship to events in the early life of Jesus of Nazareth. In this week’s installment, we continue this look into an important aspect of biblical study – how much can we trust that the biblical writings are historically accurate.
Luke, as Historian
In Richard Cassidy’s introductory material to his work, Jesus, Politics and Society: A Study of Luke’s Gospel, he surveys a number of common criticisms leveled against Luke’s accuracy as a historian. Cassidy goes on record with his own studied conclusion of Luke’s reliability as a historian: “We believe that Luke is reliable when touching upon matters pertaining to ‘empire history’”. In fact, he makes a compelling case that the burden of proof falls upon Luke’s critics to find a genuine historical inaccuracy.
We may also add the following. The accuracy of Acts is such that no human could have been so accurate, except for the guidance of the Holy Spirit; observe:
This companion of Paul was a careful and meticulous historian. For instance, in Acts he mentions thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine Mediterranean islands. He also mentions ninety-five persons in Acts, sixty-two of which are not named elsewhere in the New Testament. He is thoroughly familiar with the geographical and political conditions of his day. And this is really amazing since the political/territorial situation was in a constant state of flux and flow in Luke’s time.
Accessibility to libraries was minimal due to how few or exclusive they were, and even if they had reference works, “the events Luke was trying to chronicle had taken place – at least at the beginning – in what the people of that day would have said were remote areas of the world.”
The Luke 3.1-2 Timestamp
What we see chronologically is a timeframe of 45 years provided by the reference to Caesar Augustus (Luke 2.1) is quickly whittled down to a period of seven years by the period of Quirinius’ governorship (Luke 2.2). The birth of Jesus nicely fits within this window of time. Furthermore, his presentation at the temple as a child should be marked around this time (Luke 2.21), and his famous temple excursion at the age of 12 at about AD 5-8 (Luke 2.41-51). There is some flexibility, but this is excellent dating for a document nearly two thousand years old.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
(Luke 3:1-2 ESV)
(3) Caesar Tiberius succeeded Augustus as Emperor of Rome (Luke 3.1), and reigned from AD 14 to AD 37 (23 years). Luke 3.1 is an impressive list of seven political leaders designed to timestamp two important moments in biblical history: (a) the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 3.2), and (b) the beginning of the ministry of Jesus (Luke 3.23). When did these ministries begin?
There are two things to consider. First, Luke 3.1 at its widest point covers a period of time from 4 BC with the beginning of the tetrarchies Herod Antipas and Philip, and ends as late as about AD 39 when Herod Antipas died (Acts 12.23). Other close end-dates are the finals years of Caiaphas (AD 36), of Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea (AD 26-36), and the death of Tiberius in AD 37.
Second, the historical ministry of John and Jesus is set by the narrowest of margins, the tetrarchy of Lysanias (AD 28-29), and the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar (AD 28/30). In Luke 3.23, the Gospel reads that Jesus was “about” thirty years of age. Frederick Danker notes this age as significant, because there are a number of biblical characters who likewise begin their ministry at this general age (Num. 4.3; Gen. 41.46; 2 Sam. 5.4; Ezek. 1.1).
A final note on the political figures of Luke 3.1-2 should be made regarding the inclusion of Annas. According to The Jewish Encyclopedia, Annas “was appointed to the office [of High Priest] by Quirinius, governor of Syria” until he was about thirty-seven years old, when he was deposed in AD 15 by Valerius Gratus, and eventually Caiaphas was appointed to office (AD 18-36).
Despite the public loss of his office, Annas and his family held a politically powerful influence in first century Judea (John 18.13; Acts 4.6). Moreover, this is an honorific use of “priesthood” for Annas; much like, “Mr. President” for those who are no longer in office. Yet, despite this honorific use, it is noteworthy to observe that during this time priestly appointments were made by Rome; hence, Annas and Caiaphas were both Roman appointees to the priesthood.
These facts lead to a couple of conclusions. (a) Jesus was “about” thirty when he began his ministry in about AD 29/30, which means he could have been up to the age of thirty-five. If we grant the maximum age of thirty-five, Jesus would have been born between 6 to 5 BC; and this completely agrees with the statements in Matthew and Luke that Jesus was born within a year or two before Herod (I) the Great’s death in 4 BC.
However, we must always acknowledge some difficulty with some dates, partly due to the influence of Dionysius’ chronological blunders.
(b) Despite the popular notion that the Bible employs a sloppy chronology, the evidence does not bear this claim out. In fact, quite to the contrary; when placed under the proverbial microscope, the integrity of the historical value of the Bible is found to be rock solid. But, we must always be mindful of the ancient methods used to “clock” historical events.
- Richard J. Cassidy, 1983, Jesus, Politics, and Society: A Study of Luke’s Gospel (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis), 11.
- Wayne Jackson, 1982, Biblical Studies in the Light of Archaeology (Montgomery, Ala.: Apologetics Press), 46.
- James M. Boice, 1997, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker), 14.
- Frederick W. Danker, 1972, Jesus and the New Age According to St. Luke: A Commentary on the Third Gospel (St. Louis, Mo.: Clayton), 52-53.
- H. G. Enelow, 1901-1906, “Annas,” The Jewish Encyclopedia, edited by Isidore Singer, 1:610-11. Accessed: 12 Dec. 2010.
- H. G. Enelow, “Annas,” The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1:610.
- Frederick W. Danker, Jesus and the New Age According to St. Luke, 42.
- Richard J. Cassidy, Jesus, Politics, and Society, 115-16.