Is Luke true to historical facts?

by Ibn Anwar

First and foremost, it is necessary to point out that the Gospel of(or rather according to) Luke is an anonymous piece of literature. More information on this is given here. Many Christians that I have met consider the Gospel of Luke along with the other books of the New Testament as accurate historical texts with no errors. They are in other words truly inspired and inerrant. One can understand the sentiments involved. Christianity revolves around the Bible(s) and as such it is regarded as a revelation from God. It is regarded as ?the Word of God'. Being the ?Word of God' it has to meet certain standards. One of which is of course accuracy of facts and information. There can be no error in the Bible text according to the Christian fundamentalist, for an error in it is tentamount to saying that God is in error.

In this article I shall expose the fallacy of this belief by showing a clear error in the text. The question then is how can inspired writers get things wrong and are not corrected by the One inspiring them? This then brings us to the topic proper, Is Luke true to historical facts? Several weeks ago my Australian Paltalk friend 28abc invited me to a room on Paltalk called Kick Back Cafe Christians Answer Back Loud(or something to that effect) in the Christian section to have a dialogue with a ?pastor' there. I wasn't doing anything much so I agreed. Upon arrival I raised my hand to take the microphone. I think I had to wait for close to half an hour before I actually reached it because the Christian admins were droning and complaining on and on about Muslims and Islam. Anyway, the moment I got the microphone(knowing I might get knocked off by an admin) I posed the question quickly to the room and specifically to the Pastor who had a blue nick name. As is often the case before I could finish my point one of the admins dotted me. People in the room complained including the non-Muslims. The pastor raised his hand and waited in line. One of the admins didn't give the mic to him immediately after me, but instead grabbed it and started dissing Islam and saying that the room isn't about Islam(and I didn't even mention the word Islam). She then started talking about the crucifixion and how Jesus had died for our sins and we should accept that.

It was only after close to half an hour of going off the tangent and diatribing that the microphone was finally given to the pastor. We strongly suspected that the question was a bit too difficult for him(the pastor) so the admin had to intervene and start pulling wool over people's eyes so as to allow the good pastor to do some spur of the moment searches(maybe google?). But, whatever it was the pastor came on and tried to answer. What came from him was expected disappointment. Instead of actually explaining the discrepency he started talking about some guy who lived more than a hundred years ago who was once a skeptic and became a believer after studying the gospel of Luke meticulously and found that what contained therein are accurate to history. The person that he appealed to is a certain British archeologist whose name is Sir William Ramsay(not to be confused with the chemist who lived about the same time). The argument is that this archeologist took the gospel to task in trying to disprove it, but instead discovered that it matched with historical and archeological findings.

In this article I will postulate the same point that I did in the room which the pastor tried to answer which I think was hardly satisfactory. I did not discover this problem on my own. It is not something new. This problem has troubled many a conservative scholar who has studied the gospel according to Luke as pointed out in People's New Testament. In fact, this problem was recognised and spotted by the author of Izhar al-Haq over 100 years ago. I heartily recommend the book to anyone interested in Christian-Muslim dialogues. It is one of the early scholarly writings in the field by a Muslim hand.

The problem

In Luke 2, verse 1 and 2 the following is stated,

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)"

Jamieson-Fausset-Brown admits that there is a rather difficult problem involved in the verses which I have discussed here. Jamieson-Fausset-Brown admits,

"2. first . when Cyrenius, &c.-a very perplexing verse, inasmuch as Cyrenius, or Quirinus, appears not to have been governor of Syria for about ten years after the birth of Christ, and the "taxing" under his administration was what led to the insurrection mentioned in Ac 5:37."

No doubt, there is a problem here, but, that was not the only point of contention that I raised in the Paltalk Christian room. My other contention was on the fact that the verses claim that there was a worldwide(of the Roman empire) census decreed by Augustus. Jamiesson-Fausset-Brown makes the bold claim that,

"That there was a taxing, however, of the whole Roman Empire under Augustus, is now admitted by all; and candid critics, even of skeptical tendency, are ready to allow that there is not likely to be any real inaccuracy in the statement of our Evangelist."

Is such a bold claim true to what we find in real history? Firstly, what one needs to know is that Jamieson-Fausset-Brown was written around 130 years ago just like Sir William Ramsay lived more than a hundred years ago. Current studies have yielded strong results that oppose both Jamieson-Fausset-Brown and Ramsay. Today we know that it is historically untenable that there was a worldwide census that covered the whole Roman empire at one time under Augustus. It is equally untenable to suggest that a global census took place as ordered by Augustus during Quirinius' governorship and the reign of Herod.  This is observed by Rev. Geoffrey W.H. Lampe(M.C., D.D.) who's Ely Professor of Divinity in Cambridge University in his commentary on Luke.

"In making this point Lk. seems to have made use of historical data with which he was imperfectly acquainted. A census was helf about A.D. 6, when Quirinius was legate of Syria and Coponius procurator of Judaea (Jos. A.t XV!!, xiii, 5 ; XVIII, i, I). This is referred to in Ac. 5:37, and Lk. was probably uncertain of its date and ignored its inconsistency involved here in associating it with the reign of Herod. A census ordered by Augustus could scarcely have taken place in Herod's dominions without provoking disturbances, and would be unlikely to be unnoticed by Josephus. Lk.'s allusion to this as the ? first enrollment ? suggests that he is thinking of the census which, as the first to be held under the Roman administration of Judaea, caused the revolt of Judas of Galilee. There is evidence for the taking of a census every fourteen years in Egypt, the series possibly going back to A.D. 6; but there is no sure evidence for the extension of this system to other parts of the Empire at so early a date, and no mention is made by josephus of regular enrolments. On the evidence of Strabo, combined with two inscriptions, the lapis Venetus and the very fragmentary lapis Tiburinus, it has been argued that Quirinius was in Syria with an extraordinary legatine commission for military operations in Cilicia between 10 and 7 B.C., or possibly as holding a first governorship of the province from 3 to 2 B.C. If the former possibility were established, the historical problem would still not be completely solved; if the latter, the inconsistency with a dating in Herod's reign still stands. Tertullian (adv. Marc. iv, 19) dates the birth of Jesus in the governorship over Syria of Saturninus (9 to 6 B.C.), which may well be correct." [1] (emphasis added)

More recently the late Prof. Raymond E. Brown who had been described as one of the ?preeminent biblical scholars' notes,

"In the case of Luke's census by Caesar Augustus of the whole world when Quirinius was governor of Syria(2:1-2), a census that presumably was made when Herod the Great was King of Judea(1:5), we have a similar problem. In the same Birth of the Messiah, I examined all the historical records about the governorship of Quirinius in Syria and census by Augustus. There never was a single census that covered the whole world under Augustus, and the census (of Judea, not involving Nazareth!) that took place under Quirinius occured about ten years after the death of Herod the Great, and presumably, therefore, after the birth of Jesus. One is hard-pressed, then, to think that either evangelist is accurate on public events. Probably postfactum(after the resurrection) the birth of Jesus was associated with loose memories of phenomena that occured in a period of ten years before or after his birth." [2] (emphasis added)

What is the result of this little excercise? The result does not look good for the fundamental Christian. In verse 3 of Luke 1, the author with much boldness makes the claim for his writing that,

"It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you in order, most excellent Theophilus"

Apparently, it wasn't that perfect or carefully investigated after all! The fact that he got things wrong at the early stages of his writings points to the falsity of his claim that he had investigated carefully or perfect understanding as the KJV and ASV renders it. How then can anyone attribute this to inerrant divine inspiration?


[1] Matthew Black, Geoffrey W.H. Lampe. Peake's Commentary on the Bible, Luke(1962). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. p. 825

[2] Raymond E. Brown. Response to 101 Questions on the Bible(1990). Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Pres s. p. 79