Wednesday, 4 January 2017
Reconciling the Contradiction in Jesus' (a.s.) Birth in the Gospel according to Luke
بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ
This is how the 2nd chapter of the Gospel according to Luke begins:
1 It happened that a decree went out at this time from the emperor Augustus, enjoining that the whole world should be registered; 2 this register was the first one made during the time when Cyrinus was governor of Syria.
This is problematic. We now refer to this passage from the previous chapter:
5 In the days when Herod was king of Judaea, there was a priest called Zachary, of Abia’s turn of office, who had married a wife of Aaron’s family, by name Elizabeth; 6 they were both well approved in God’s Sight, following all the Commandments and Observances of the Lord without reproach.
It is impossible for the birth of Jesus (a.s.) to have occurred during the reign of Herod the Great, and the governorship of Cyrinus simultaneously. Cyrinus did not become governor of Syria until years afterwards. It is pertinent to point out that we do not know precisely when Herod’s reign ended. The most common view, according to the Church Fathers as well, is that it ended at around 1 BC. However, Dr. Emil Schürer, a Protestant theologian, and author of “A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ”, put forward the idea that Herod died in 4 BC. This became the prevailing view for much of the 20th century. This was later contested by new evidence that seems to support the traditional date of 1 BC. We do know that after Herod’s death, his kingdom was divided, and his son Herod Archelaus came to rule Judaea:
22 But, when he heard that Archelaus was king in Judaea in the place of his father Herod, he was afraid to return there; and so, receiving a warning in a dream, he withdrew into the region of Galilee; 23 where he came to live in a town called Nazareth, in fulfilment of what was said by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
Herod Archelaus was a cruel and terrible ruler; in 6 CE, he was removed from office by the Romans and banished to Gaul. The Roman province of Iudaea was created and a Roman prefect was appointed to govern the province. This is the reason Pontius Pilate was in charge of Judaea at the time of Jesus’ adulthood, instead of the Herodian dynasty. In the “Antiquities” of Josephus, Cyrinus was sent to govern Syria after the banishment of Archelaus. As the new ruler, he took a tax census of Judaea at this time and made an accounting of Archelaus’ finances.
The reconciliation argument is taken from “Who Was Jesus?” by Dr. Nicholas T Wright, the retired Anglican bishop. We must reconsider the meaning of the Greek word “protos”, which usually means “first”. And that is why the beginning of the 2nd chapter of Luke often talks about the first census. That is how it is translated by most authorities. However, in the Greek of the time, the word “protoscame” was sometimes used to mean “before”, when followed by the genitive case. The genitive case is a grammatical feature in Greek often used to indicate possession, as in “Jesus’ disciples”; or origin, as in “Jesus of Nazareth”. But there is also a special use of the genitive case when it follows the word “protos” such that “protos” ends up meaning “before.” Consider this:
15 We have John’s witness to him; “I told you,” cried John, “there was one coming after me who takes rank before me; he was when I was not.”
Here, John the Baptist (a.s.) said Jesus (a.s.), “takes rank before me”, with the Greek being again “protos” followed by the genitive of “me”. And this pattern is repeated elsewhere in the Gospels:
30 “It is of him that I said, ‘One is coming after me who takes rank before me; he was when I was not.’”
18 “If the world hates you, be sure that it hated me before it learned to hate you.”
Dr. Wright wrote, “I suggest, therefore, that actually the most natural reading of the verse is, ‘This census took place before the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria.’” He continued, “This solves an otherwise odd problem: why should Luke say that Quirinius’ census was the first? Which later ones was he thinking of?” “Quirinius” is another form of “Cyrinus”.
In summary, if we understand the passage this way, then the chronology of events and the dates add up. The author of the Gospel according to Luke mentioned this specific census because it was a famous event of the time, and gave early Christians a sense of when the birth of Jesus (a.s.) occurred relative to their contemporary events.