December 23, 2009

Did Luke err on Quirinius? Does it matter?

Mark Goodacre has an excellent podcast today on the year Jesus was born. Naturally, he gravitates towards Quirinius as he builds to a conclusion. His conclusion is that Luke probably just made a mistake, and "we should commend him for doing a pretty good job".

Mary Smallwood once made a similar comment* and said it well:
Is not the simplest explanation that quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus? ['the great Homer sometimes nods'] Knowing that the Nativity coincided with a census taken in Judaea on instructions from Rome, Luke erroneously attached the name of the Roman official responsible for the later, much more notorious, census, to the earlier one, with which Quirinius had had no connection; and having thus created two censuses conducted under the same man's auspices, he distinguished the earlier, obviously, as [prwth]. Tertullian then confirmed his date, while tacitly correcting the name.
Now let me be very clear: I agree with Mark and Mary about one thing, at least. The simplest explanation actually is to conclude that Luke just goofed. (It may not be the right explanation, but it is the simplest.) It could be as Smallwood says, or it could be what Mark says. Should we really expect Luke to get it all perfectly?

Regular readers know where I stand. If Luke' 2:2 is somehow accurate, we have to admit it doesn't mean what it seems to mean. So what does it mean? That's one question. My usual concern is to point out that I'd rather focus on a different question: When was Jesus born? And that's what I appreciate about Goodacre's podcast.

Smallwood had more to say about Tertullian and Saturninus, which I greatly appreciate, putting Jesus' birth in the later portion of his Governorship, which was 9-6 BC. Oddly, Goodacre gives no reason for his estimation of Jesus' birth year "to roundabout 4 BC, perhaps a little earlier, 5, 6 at the most. Something like that." To be fair, of course, it was just a podcast. ;-)

So, did Luke just make a mistake about Quirinius? As believers, we'll keep hoping he didn't. However, as I keep pointing out, that only matters if we're trying to defend scripture. Everything has a time and a place, and when we're trying to reconstruct events, Quirinius just doesn't matter. Every viable apologetic on Luke 2:2 still puts Jesus' birth before Herod's death. That makes Quirinius moot.

*The Jews under Roman Rule, Appendix E (1976)

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